You love or hate today, really, I imagine. Single, dating, married, or divorced, Cupid’s arrow strikes humanity indiscriminately once a year, ushering in a day’s reign of sentimental gestures. Nine years ago today, my ex-husband proposed. Four years ago today, I packed a bag; I didn’t know that I would end up leaving him for good. Tonight, I’m alone. Alone on Valentine’s Day.
Oh, I celebrated with Charming this weekend. I’d created a charming adventure, perfect for a mid-sixties Saturday afternoon. I’d made cards with pictures of locations around my town, and on the reverse of each were questions that we had to answer en route to the next stop. We were just carefree kids on a quest in the beginning. I brought my selfie stick from the White Elephant gift exchange back at Christmas, and we snapped a shot at each card’s location.
I’d separated the cards into categories. The game began with emotionally neutral topics, like career, saving more sensitive topics, like future, for the end. My favorite question was about childhood: What advice would you give your childhood self? While I’d typed up the cards, I’d been careful not to think about my answers in advance. So when I was tasked to consider this, a silent movie began to play.
I saw myself in third grade writing a poem Valentine for the pastor’s son while the other girls were playing after Sunday School. I saw myself in sixth grade assuring myself that I was not, in fact, dropping band because I would get to be in study hall with a cute red head instead. I saw myself in tenth grade, head buried in the choir room’s baby grand composing my heartbreak in a song called “Forever Chained” exactly eighteen years ago today.
I didn’t need a day on the calendar to remind me of love in my childhood; I was obsessed with it. My dad was right to fear I was boy crazy, though I still cringe at the blow the attribution wielded by the force of negative connotation. If I didn’t have a boyfriend on Valentine’s Day, there was one I was pursuing. Today, I watched streams of teens file in and out of my classroom, some laden with flowers and chocolate, others hanging their heads in a little more angst than usual.
There are not just two sides to Valentine’s Day – it’s more like a tetrahedron, where your feelings about the holiday are determined by the point at which your circumstances intersect. I’ve experienced today as an unhappily single teen pining after an unrequited love. Most years, I had a boyfriend, but I was only happy in some. Several years, I was married, and likewise only happy in some. For a few years, I’ve been divorced and dating.
My conclusion? Loving or hating today has little to do with your Facebook relationship status. If I had a Polaroid from this day every year since I hit puberty (Dad might argue earlier), you’d need an index to keep track of all the boys, some of them men, that fill the album. The only constant in those pictures, the only variable that remains fixed, is me.
If I could tell my childhood self one thing, it would be to forget about boys until her late twenties. I would tell her that loving love and longing for love and living for love would not guarantee her the kind of love she desperately sought after. I would say, “Laura Joy, you’re going to be Valedictorian.” Pawn it off as arrogance, but I had the academic potential. Shoot for the moon and end up Magna Cum Laude at least. I can’t say that my relational efforts were all a waste as that would decree two thirds of my life an unrecoverable void. It’s just that the efforts could have been redirected, could have been more effectively distributed toward academic growth or fostering a friendship with that elusive best girl friend for life.
I would tell my childhood self what I told the girls in my third block class who were bemoaning their singleness today, saying they didn’t feel loved. I gave each a jaw breaker and said, “You are loved. You don’t need flowers and candy to be loved. This is just a symbol of love you already have. Now, does everybody feel loved?”
That’s all they wanted. A symbol of love. It’s all I wanted, too, for as far back as I can see. Over the decades, the desired symbol has changed. A title. A Facebook status. A promise ring. An engagement ring. A wedding band. A divorce decree.
I’ve wanted love and I’ve had it, in different ways and different times with different guys. And though I’m officially with Charming, it seems most fitting that I’m alone this year on Valentine’s Day. I feel more single, perhaps, than I ever have since my divorce. Because I am alone, I get to sit on my white wicker perch, sifting through the void of Valentine’s Days pasts to make sense of that Polaroid photo album.
Alone, I see the constant in the picture. I see me.
I have loved, for thirty-four years, with unabashed joy and faith. I have loved my family and friends and students in active service. Once a year, Cupid reminds me to love more intentionally, but my kids don’t need candy to be reminded. They appreciate the symbol. We all appreciate the symbols.
Wading through the void, the recoverable truth emerges – the advice I didn’t know to give until well into my one hundred and second night writing here on this front porch in Virginia. If I could give one piece of advice to my childhood self, it would be this: Laura Joy, you must love yourself. No exclusions or restrictions. Not love yourself before someone will love you. Not love yourself because someone loves you. Love yourself because you will be the only constant in every Valentine’s Day.
Love yourself. Because when you’re alone on your front porch in your thirties or fifties or seventies, you’ll be the star of all your memories. Were you really smiling? Roll the Valentine’s tetrahedron like gambling with dice, and no matter where you land in the relationship plane, I think you love today if you love yourself, independent of how many symbols of love you received.
I’ve never had a problem loving others; loving myself doesn’t come naturally. Ever the perfectionist, my flaws are mentally highlighted in yellow until I can eliminate them. I’m in my head all the time. There are days I’ve actually wished I were someone else so I wouldn’t have to be alone with myself. Ridiculous, right? That internal narrative is deep seeded, decades old, fostered and nurtured by a lifetime of defining happiness by a romantic position.
I see it in my young students, consumed by the equal desire to find happily ever after. If I could sit down with that childhood version of me and her Babysitter’s Club book of the week, if I could have a conversation with her on that frilly pink comforter, I would tell her to write her happily ever after dependent only on herself. I would tell her not to pin her hopes and dreams on always and forever with a knight in shining armor. I’d tell her to love, value, cherish, and honor herself in equal measure to those around her, that she would be her best friend and lifelong companion inside a revolving door of transitory love, inevitable with changes in life circumstances.
If I’d loved myself then, it would surely come naturally to do so now. And I would love today… if I loved me. Charming’s roses on the table inside are a beautiful symbol of his love for me. If I could give myself a symbol of my love, it would be those buds on the magnolia tree. Just beginning, but with a promise of growth and beauty.
After I’d answered the childhood question for Charming on our quest this weekend, he turned it around on me. “Would you give yourself the same advice now?” That wasn’t on my game cards, but looking back tonight, it seems to me the most important question of the holiday, however rhetorical.