Valentine’s Day is coming up, and unless you’ve been under a figurative rock gnawing on stale lovelessness your entire life, you know that you need to get your rear in gear. “Show her you care!”: every billboard and commercial on primetime warns reminds men that their love is on the line here. If you’re a Real Man, you will show her you care by purchasing one of the following: diamonds, chocolates, and/or roses[i]. The list of acceptable gifts is short and sweet—or rather, long-stemmed and caloric. The point of this holiday seems to be “put your money where your mouth is.” As Eliza Doolittle puts it, “don’t talk of stars, burning above: if you’re in love, SHOW ME.”
And actions talk louder than words, right? Yes, we have been tutored by a hundred hundred industries which are in the business of standardizing the language of love. To be fair, this is nothing new: Victorian England had an entire codified language in florinography, or the arrangement of flowers. Lovers sent flowers to convey their secret longings or hopes, and floral dictionaries helped decipher the intended meaning. Things got complicated: depending on your edition of dictionary, a yellow rose meant either friendship or extreme betrayal (maybe you could combine it with orange lilies—hatred—and columbines—faithlessness—to be clear?). A daffodil is nice (hesitating, uncertain display of affection) but what if it was in a bouquet along with marigolds (pain, sickness), azaleas (take care) and asphodel (my regrets follow you to the grave)? Suddenly your nice daffodils say, “Sweetheart, do you love me? If not I will slip arsenic into your Earl Grey.” What if some poor colorblind lover mixed up his red carnations (“My passion for you is forever”) with green (“I am a secret follower of Oscar Wilde”)? And a dandelion meant coquetry? More like, “I forgot to get you flowers but here’s a weed I found on your lawn.” Oh stop, you sly old dandelion.
The (not so) Secret Language of Money
Now, the price tag has simplified our codified significances significantly[ii]: $5= I care about as much for you as I do for a burger, $10= shall I compare thee to a cheap pair of earbuds, $25= my love for you, darling, is the typical and acceptable amount, $50= how do I love thee? Let me count the dollars, and $100+= let me not to the expressing of true love admit a price limit[iii].
OK, but really, am I saying we shouldn’t buy each other rings and roses and overpriced shiny boxes? I can’t, I’d be such a hypocrite: seeing my wedding ring makes me feel beautiful and cared for, one of my favorite memories is my husband getting me a single flower while walking past the Floral Shop on campus and thinking of me in our early days of marital bliss, and chocolate is just really important to any relationship’s success[iv]. Gifts can be an indication of deeper, good, beautiful things[v]: sacrifice, devotion, self-effacement in the dedication to the other[vi], the choice to continue committing to and courting the affection of one special person. (David discusses the choice to recommit here and Rachel expounds on learning to relate to a partner “in a way that is not natural to our self-centric species” here.) But let’s be honest: sometimes gifts are last minute, ill-conceived, disappointing, or even posturing and pretentious. Have you been guilty of wandering down the “seasonal aisle” at your local grocery store staring at dead-eyed, smiling Cupids and flimsy plastic hearts, wondering what gift would look least like you forgot the holiday until the last minute? Do we really want our expressions of love calculated into the credit and debit accounts of all the Valentine-y industries profiting from our panicked purchases? I don’t know about you but the image of hundreds of tons of wilting, mouldering bouquets filling the dumpsters of February 21st or so doesn’t really do much romantically for me.
Hey, but maybe our Valentine love could learn something from the rose… or at least the rose bush. I don’t know if you’ve spent much time with a rose bush, but I had one in my backyard when I was six so I’m pretty much an expert. It’s lovely, beautiful, even miraculous, but with seasons of growth and seasons of pruning. Thorny in places. Takes time, takes space, takes water, takes light. A bloom separated from its roots will wither on your countertop, but a bush will provide many years of joy (and work!).
What You Should Do
My challenge for this post sounds easy, but may be harder than you’d expect. Have an honest conversation with your loved one about gifts: expectations, likes and dislikes, secret hopes[vii]. Decide together what Valentine’s gifts—and for that matter, Christmas and birthdays and the rest—will look like for you, and then leave a comment below about how you worked it out. The Valentine industry would hold you hostage to unsaid expectations and complex codes of affection that may not actually be true of your relationship. If you talk about it and she/he really wants several dozen roses, a bottle of wine and fine chocolate, then go for it—but if a poem or a book or even just some time doing dishes together would mean more, then stick it to the man. Keep in mind, “Oh, my Luve’s like the red red rose that’s $2 a stem” and save your relationship from the Valen-tyranny of the season.
[i] chocolate roses are often acceptable, but diamond chocolates are not yet a thing. I think.
[ii] no dictionary needed!
[iii] other finalists included: “i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my wallet),” “pay for ye rosebuds while ye may” and “methought I saw my late, overdrawn check”
[iv] or any individual’s success. Basically anything good. Chocolate guys.
[v] as in the story, the Gift of the Magi
[vi] as in, someone OTHER than you eating all that chocolate. Now that’s Love.
[vii] talking honestly about shared gifts has many overlaps with talking honestly about shared intimacy, but that’s another post entirely
PC: red rose, Josee Holland Eclipse.