Because I’m fairly clueless about these things, someone explained to me that sometimes, these days, college students use their Facebook pages as a place to announce their break-ups. I guess it goes like this: one day, your honey has you listed as the person with whom he is “in relationship,” and the next day, when he’s now established as “single,” you know the relationship is over, and that you can go back to eating lunch with your dorm mates or breakfast by yourself, with a book propped before you so that you don’t look like a completely loser. The Facebook break-up seems so much easier than having to actually talk to someone, letting that person know that the way she raises her hand every other minute in biology class is a tad bit annoying. (A friend in college admitted to me that she had to squench her eye shut when sitting next to her boyfriend during meals. She couldn’t stand to look at him. Thank god that relationship didn’t last—I can’t imagine having to eat meals with one eye shut the rest of your life.)
But this isn’t about break-up texts, so much as it is about the ways we have romanticized Valentine’s Day (hah!) to the point that almost every way we try to publicize our love—or even admiration—for another person can be problematic.
Because back in the days before Twitter and Facebook, before Craigslist and texts, back in the days when I was a college student, there weren’t nearly so many ways to communicate to others—and to yourself, I suppose—that you were in a loving, committed relationship, one that stretched for weeks or months or even, if God truly blessed you, all the way back to Freshman Orientation.
We did have the school newspaper, however, which came out about once every three or four weeks. It’s the same newspaper, The Crescent, for which I now serve as faculty advisor, which seems somewhat circle-of-life to me, especially since this post is about romantic love, and I was on The Crescent staff as a student mostly because I had a crush on another staffer, who ended up marrying and then divorcing The Crescent editor at the time.
Every year, right around Valentine’s Day, The Crescent published romantic classifieds—the perfect opportunity for one student to express to another exactly how deep and true love was, for only a few cents a word. And lots of people bought in to this opportunity; in a small-sized publication of eight pages, the inside spread was consumed with these romantic declarations. The school newspaper probably funded its end-of-semester pizza party on the money they made. So many ads. So many declarations of life-long fidelity.
No one ever wrote me an ad. In fact, the only time in college I was even half-way connected romantically with someone over Valentine’s Day, he showed up for our date with a vase of flowers, thrust them at me, and said “Here, I got these on sale.” I wasn’t sure how to respond: should I embrace my Mennonite roots, and be delighted that he purchased something at discount? Should I be appalled that he not only bought flowers at discount, but then announced to me that, essentially, I wasn’t worth paying full price? (A few years later, we went out for dessert as friends. When I finished my dessert, he said “Wow. I didn’t think you’d eat the whole thing.” The dessert wasn’t that big. Really.)
About the ads, though: no one ever wrote me one. So I had to live vicariously through other people—through the ads they purchased, and the ads they received. For whatever reason, it seemed that more women than men were sending the ads, but that might have just been my perception, because the other thing is this: many of the ads were anonymous, little sweet somethings between a woman and her dating-for-a-few-months-at-least man. That was part of the fun, reading over the ads to see if we could decipher who had written what, if we could decode the private jokes that passed between two lovers. My friends and I hunched over the newspaper in our Valentine’s Day single wretchedness, reading The Crescent classifieds and trying to peg people (it was a small college; we knew almost everyone). We only swooned once in awhile.
After all these years, I still remember clearly one of the ads, how romantic it was, how clearly the couple was in love and would remain so, forever and ever and ever. That’s what I remember thinking: wow, that couple must really love each other. I figured out who had written the ad—there were a few key clues that let me know. The author was a fellow English major. (Maybe that’s why the classified was so well written; for whatever our lack of marketable skills, we English majors have at least something going for us.) We had yet to become friends, though would in time. So I had watched her dating relationship from afar, was sure this couple was Meant To Be, had assumed they would get married someday soon. The classified ad only confirmed it for me.
I’m not going to get the rhyme exactly right, so won’t even try. (And she’s not on Facebook, so I can’t even ask if she remembers what she wrote.) But the little ditty she wrote ended with the lines that went something like “I asked God for a mate, and He gave me something Moore.” See, because the guy’s last name was Moore, and so it was so totally clever that she could ask God for a partner, and God could give her this specific person, who was clearly the one. It was a beautiful sentiment, all for only a buck or so.
Now, when I read this particular classified, I was a few weeks away from what began a monumental slide into college cynicism and doubt—a slide that was, actually, one of the best things to happen during my Christian liberal arts education. But at the time, when I saw that someone asked God for a mate, and received The One, I thought what a beautiful thing this was, that God had responded to my peer’s earnest request for a mate by giving her something Moore.
There was also this niggling sense of unfairness in it all, because I’d also been praying for a partner—or at least a date that would buy me more than on-sale flowers—and God hadn’t given me anything at all. In fact, I’d been praying for quite a while, and here it was my junior year of college, graduation on the horizon, and God hadn’t delivered. I was beginning to think God didn’t care much for me, or that I’d done something to make God mad, or I was an abject failure, mostly because that’s the subliminal (and not-so-subliminal) message I’d been fed by the evangelicals around me: that women who find their mates are truly blessed, and truly loved, and truly successful. The rest of us single folk might ask for a mate, but God isn’t giving us (Moore) than we ask for, and with good reason.
That Valentine’s Day, my junior year in college, I didn’t do much to celebrate the vaunted holiday of romance. I think I went to an indoor track meet, because I remember reading the Crescent classifieds on the way to Eugene, shivering in a coach’s canopy-covered pickup truck. (Yes, we rode in style back then.) But the next year, my last semester of college, was even worse: everyone around me had a boyfriend, it seemed, and I was even lonelier than before, even more a failure. God had clearly given me less than everyone else, not Moore. I spent my Valentine’s Day studying in the library, making a one-minute appearance at a party so I could eat some free food. Even my best friend, hanging on the arm of her boyfriend, couldn’t convince me to stay longer. In the space between my junior and senior year, I’d become close friends with the woman who had asked God for a mate—and received Moore—but she was also off celebrating romance. Not with that Moore fellow. They’d broken up a month or two after the vaunted classified ad had appeared, a wrenching separation that probably occurred when my friend discovered that Moore really was less than she’d hoped for.
Still (still!) she’d already found another boyfriend, a man she would marry a year later. God had not only given her even more than Moore, but also two times more than what I received. After all, she’d had two serious boyfriends in the same time when I had none. Clearly there was something wrong with me. And would be, for at least ten more Valentine’s Days, at least in the eyes of my evangelical community—and so in my own self-understanding as well.
Now. I suppose I could feel blessed that God has given me something more, that God answered my prayers (finally!) for a spouse. But these claims ring hollow for me, much as I love my husband and am grateful for the family we’ve created. Because what does this kind of language say to those who aren’t married, but want to be? For those who have prayed earnestly for a partner, but remain alone? All our Christian clichés about blessings and about the “special place” reserved for those who are single ring hollow for me—and, I think perpetuate a number of myths about what it takes to be happy and whole; about what God wants us to be, both women and men; about what it means to receive something more than what we can imagine.
That’s why I always enter the Valentine’s season with a gnawing in my gut (and not just because I’ve been flitching my kids’ Valentine candy). I hate the messages this season gives to people. I hate the vibe of failure I sense from young women and men who spend Valentine’s Day without the Facebook status that says they are loved. Fundamentally, I hate the belief that those who have something to anticipate on Valentine’s Day—even on-sale flowers—are somehow more blessed than everyone else, that somehow, God has given them more.
Because, no matter what my 20-year-old self believed, that’s just not true.