Beach with Happy Valentine's Day written in the sand
Writing in the Sand at Santa Cruz

I’m not Blaming Valentine’s Day for All my Neuroses, BUT…

For me, Valentine’s Day has always seemed a little bit mean. Dare I say exclusionary? It’s the high school cheerleader of holidays, the one that makes you feel like you didn’t get asked to the prom.

When I was in grade school back in the seventies, Valentine’s Day meant making construction-paper envelopes, carefully wielding blunted, kid-sized scissors, smelling jars of paste, and writing our names on our creations. Our parents would buy us boxes of little heart-covered cards to distribute to our classmates. The girls giggled over the cards they got from the boys, and the cool kids got more cards. Even back then, I was not cool.

By high school, we’d moved on to sending our crushes carnations attached to little notes which were handed out during class. That way everyone could see who got the most flowers, and try to guess the senders. These little missives cost a dollar or two and were ostensibly used to fund student activities. Once again, popularity ruled. I had subterranean status in the high school pecking order and hence did not get to flounce down the hallways carrying a bouquet of carnations in varying shades of pink.

These activities remind me of the old pedagogical practice where P.E. teachers designated two, usually athletically gifted, students as team captains and allowed them to choose their own teams. Which meant they picked their friends, and the other popular kids, and the other athletes, and finally, those last few kids left behind.

I was one of those leftovers. (I was also probably the only freshman who made the honor roll, but almost got kicked out of high school for cutting P.E.)

We were taught that romantic love was quantifiable. Who wants to be the girl with no carnations who gets picked last for dodgeball?

I’m not sure Valentine’s Day is any kinder to adults.

As a baby boomer, I was taught by the media that being single was supposed to be an interim state that ended in our twenties. The goal was to wind up married, like the bridal magazines of the times which promised you “Your Best Day Ever.” (My best day was graduating from law school so I could litigate against the kind of practices that warped my childhood).

Once again, love was equated with being chosen.

I was chosen in my senior year of high school by the son of some family friends I’d known since I was seven. A college senior majoring in engineering, he became my prom date, and later my husband. Valentine’s Day was just fine, even though I kept telling him he didn’t have to buy me roses on the day itself because the prices were always inflated. But he did anyway because he was a romantic and a traditionalist. I was the girl at the office who got the big bouquet of red roses as her office-mates smiled at her good fortune.

Then my husband died.

By then, many people, especially younger folk, had stopped drinking the media Kool-Aid that happiness depended on being partnered. A relationship might be a possibility, but it wasn’t a prerequisite for a good life. Fewer people seemed to be buying into those bridal magazine layouts which, after all, are designed to sell you a bunch of stuff you’ll only use once.

But old conditioning dies hard. I’m embarrassed to admit that upon being single again I worried that I was unwantable, long past my romantic expiration date. I stressed over spending traditionally partner-centric holidays, like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, alone because that meant, in my insecurity-addled mind, that I would die unloved. Dating at fifty felt like high school all over again, except with even less dignity, if that’s possible.

Worst of all, I was lonely.

With few friends, no kids, and a family consisting of my elderly dad and step-mom, I’d sit at home at night and wonder who would notice if I suddenly vanished. “I’m alone because my husband died” twisted itself into “I’m alone because no one likes me.” I was back to being a high school nerd spending my weekend nights with Dr. Demento and an un-opened geometry book.

My loneliness equaled shameMy loneliness equaled shame, of being unwanted, of failing to have a complete life. The shame of not being chosen. Especially in a milieu where being overwhelmingly, colossally busy came with its own kind of currency - it meant you were in demand. Being a lonely, unpartnered middle-aged widow meant you were not.

I started dating so I wouldn’t be alone, ultimately winding up in an emotionally abusive relationship. My then-boyfriend was around for Valentine’s Day - along with some flowers he picked up at a freeway off-ramp - but I would have done far better to have stayed on my own.

I wanted to be able to tell people, “I’m lonely.” And “I spend too much time by myself.” And “This sucks.” But who wants to appear pathetic?

Now the world feels apocalyptic. So many people are grieving. So many of us are lonely.

This is the time for re-defining traditional expectations.

We could re-name Valentine’s day “National Self-Esteem Day” to remember it’s better to be alone than compromise ourselves by being with the wrong person. This most narrow of holidays would become a reminder of our own self-worth, which we all should have, instead of a paean to romantic love, which is far more limited and comes with its own kind of perils.

On a lighter note, we could rename it “National Onanism Day” in honor of staying safe during these times and overthrowing the kind of expectations with which I was raised. We choose ourselves. We could celebrate by taking really long showers with wonderful liquid soaps like lavender and jasmine, or CBD and peppermint. It would be far easier to celebrate when we’re all stuck at home, anyway.

Best yet might be to call it “Loneliness Awareness Day.” Maybe these isolating times will obviate the shame that comes from being lonely, and even worse, from admitting how we feel because of what others might think of us.

“How are you?”

“I feel isolated. I’m sad and lonely.” (There. Doesn’t it feel better to admit the truth?)

A wealthy, successful man I barely know recently contacted me on Facebook to say that he felt ” so damn lonely.” Apparently, he didn’t think he could confess his real feelings to his own circle. He’s an older man, and I worry for him. Maybe we could re-frame Valentine’s Day to be less about being chosen and more about removing the shame of being alone.

Really the name doesn’t matter so long as we try to help someone who feels lonely.

But first, they have to feel like it’s okay to tell us.

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