I am not a traditional romantic. Though I probably would have ended up this way no matter what, I can justifiably blame my mother, the social worker who always said that Romeo and Juliet were not an example of true love, but rather co-depedency.
She also influenced my views on marriage: I was always told that relationships of any kind require work, though not all the time. There are no perfect partners because there are no perfect people. And definitely no fairy tale endings, because people will always make mistakes from time to time.
As you can probably imagine, I have never liked Valentine’s Day all that much, even when I’ve had a valentine. The burst of sentiment on the world’s second most celebrated holiday often feels contrived—the cynical part of me sighs at the commercialism. For example, Necco, the maker of conversation hearts, produces 100,000 pounds of hearts PER DAY from late February until the following January. The hearts sell out in about six weeks.
I much prefer more personal and spontaneous expressions, but I also recognize that our culture rarely encourages emotional expression. So although Valentine’s Day can make me cynical, it is a fortunate exception to the prevailing cultural standard. I always appreciate hearing about genuine and creative gestures on that day.
But I also want to make a case for the unexpected and unsual being just as meaningful, if not more so, than flowers, candy, teddy bears, etc in February. Though I can appreciate those sorts of gifts, I am a much bigger fan of the opposite: creative, unlikely expressions at unexpected times.
My favorite example is from the summer after my first year of college. I did marine biology research in the Turks and Caicos Islands for the last month of summer. Several weeks after I returned to college, I received a letter that had been forwarded from the TCI. I was completely suprirsed, since I had told my friends not to bother writing while I was away. The postal service there was very slow, and I was there a relatively short time.
The business-sized envelope clearly contained nothing business-related—my name was written in crazy, grafitti-esque letters in permanent marker. The sender was from my neighborhood in Atlanta, but I didn’t recognize the return address. One of the staff in the TCI managed to find a tiny blank spot to write my college PO box address in ballpoint pen.
Inside the decorated envelope was a single sheet of thin, slick paper, with a letter written in the same thick permanent marker. Upon reading the first teasing line, asking me to bring back some malaria samples, I immediately knew the sender’s identity: a guy from high school, who I’d met in 8th grade.
Nothing particularly remarkable in the letter—the timing shocked me more than anything else, since we hadn’t communicated at all for the past year. I was awed that he must have called my parents’ house, gotten my address in the TCI, and taken the time to mail a real letter.
While reading, I vaguely noticed the text underneath the letter—he’d written it on a page torn from a book. Hence the use of permanent marker. Then I noticed “I HATE MATH!!” written in the margin in a different marker. I looked at the text more carefully: a coordinate grid, references to quadratic equations and imaginary numbers.
Suddenly, I realized the page was torn from our 10th grade math book. At the beginning of that school year, our teacher explained that the school system wasn’t keeping the books, so we could write whatever we wanted in them. I didn’t care, but he was an artist and decorated his pages with gusto. We sat next to each other in that class, and all year he drew in the book. Sometimes silly pictures to make me laugh, other times complex pieces that I admired. At the end of the school year, he kept the textbook that had become a sketchbook.
So not only did he take the time to mail a letter, he chose to write on a page from the math book. For my cynical, unappreciative-of-Romeo-and-Juliet brain, his gesture is still one of the most romantic things ever done for me—an unexpected, completely unique letter that miraculously traveled to the tropics and back before arriving at the post office in a tiny town in North Carolina.
All that said, I recognize that some people really appreciate red roses and a heart-shaped box of chocolates. So, love on, y’all—however you wish, whenever you wish. Express yourself accordingly.
∞ Special thanks to Liz, who on no particular day sent a picture of a butterfly inside an avocado.
SK © 2013