Love is a peculiar thing. It fills us with joy, betrays us, rises us up and spits us on our knees. It is messy, defiant, magnificent, and timeless. From Shakespeare’s love sonnets to Haddaway’s 1993 electronic pop song What is love? we’ve been endlessly fascinated by giving shape to the experience that makes poets of us all. No matter how varied people’s experiences with it are, love is universal and it is a crucial part in propelling the very nature of our world.
In the animal kingdom birds are the masters of romance. For his desired mate, a male albatross will preen the female’s feathers and conduct an elaborate dance for her to display his desire. Male bowerbirds are a little more ingenious. For their partner they build their own version of a nuptial bower. Twisting together twigs and branches the birds create almost sculptural displays for their mates. In their cozy grottoes they gift the female a beautiful display of exclusively blue objects. Bowerbirds’ blue fetish is not limited to natural items like feathers or stones but oftentimes pieces of plastic and glass make up a better part of their decorations.
If you think that is weird consider this: every February 14 we ostentatiously shower our loved ones in roses, decadent chocolates, expensive jewelry, and large, overly stuffed teddy bears to express our undying devotion to our sweeties. Sound familiar? Ever since Saint Valentine’s Day became a sanctioned festival in 496 by Pope Gelasius I humans have developed the most peculiar displays of love and courtship that would put our current shows of affection (and our feathered friends) to shame:
An Apple a Day Sends the Courtier this Way:
In Austria’s rural 19th century communities eligible women would keep an apple slice wedged up in their armpits whenever there was a dance to attend. At the end of the night if there was a young man she fancied the girl would present the smelly apple slice to that suitor. If the gentleman accepted he would eat the apple slice in her company. Not much different from eating an apple with stinky cheese, right?
Spooning… Wooden Spoons that is:
Spooning has a different meaning for 17th century Welsh. Though the tradition has since been abandoned Welsh gentleman would spend their time carving intricately embellished wooden spoons for a woman of their longing. Once presented with a spoon the woman must accept it to confirm her mutual feelings.
(9 Strange Courtship Rituals From Around the World, MentalFloss.com)
They Say Love is Bitter Sweet at Times:
If you think the anonymity of Twitter for sending nasty words is novel Victorian age Valentines had you beat. Between 1850-1950 Vinegar Valentines were the most popular means of insulting your loved one (and anyone else you knew) in a socially acceptable way. Vinegar Valentines, witty insults paired with equally derisive illustrations, were often sent without a signature and gave the sender a chance to say what they thought without the risk of being discovered. In the middle of the 1800’s Vinegar Valentines made up half the sales of all Valentines in the U.S. that year. For examples: Vinegar Valentines
Eye Love You:
Wish you could stare into your lover’s eyes all day long? Well, for couples of the 1700’s they could with a painted miniature of just that, their sweetheart’s eye. When the prince of Wales, later to be known as King George IV, had met Maria Fitzherbert he was smitten with love for her. A widow twice over, Maria was reluctant to return George’s affection and had dismissed his countless attempts at courting her. On one occasion George threatened suicide in response to Maria’s decline of his marriage proposal. Whether it was in earnest or merely a ploy, it worked, if even for a moment. Maria agreed to marry him but within 24 hours changed her mind and broke the engagement. She left shortly after for continental Europe. Enable to bear the separation the prince wrote Fitzherbert on Nov. 3, 1785 with a second proposal. Instead of sending a customary proposal ring he sent a miniature portrait of his eye painted by the widely acclaimed miniaturist, Richard Cosway. With it he included a note that read “P.S. I send you a parcel, and I send you at the same time an eye. If you have not totally forgotten the whole countenance, I think the likeness will strike you.” It seemed that was the ticket or else Maria decided it was best to give in. After returning to Europe she agreed to marry the prince. On Dec. 15, 1785 they celebrated a quite wedding ceremony.
It is not certain the origin of the practice can be attributed to this famous love affair but it is said the popularity of eye miniatures took off after that and lasted well into the 1830’s. Why an eye? Only the family or close acquaintances would be able to identify the owner of the eye making it easier for the portrait to be worn publicly instead of kept hidden in a locket.
Those are only but a few of the number of crazy things we have done in the name of love. But what’s it all about? As Saint Valentine’s Day draws nearer I wanted to celebrate what it means to truly love as well as piece together love’s true face through the unique responses of friends, family, and strangers off the street.
If you’ve ever had the good fortune of falling in love at least once in your life then you are probably already versed in the tumultuous head-over-heels sense of love. In it you were content if not happily playing the fool in love – apt to blunder, misjudge, exaggerate, and altogether lose yourself in giddy admiration. But, you can’t entirely be held liable. If fingers are to be pointed, your brain is to blame. For the Eros side of love (passion and romance), its a science game – purely a play of chemicals which partition our path to love in three simple stages: 1. Lust (Estrogen and Testosterone are the key culprits for that love-at-first-sight feeling) 2. Attraction (The new feelings of excitement and anxiety that come with falling in love are dictated by Dopamine and Serotonin) 3. Attachment (the bonding phase is comprised of Oxytocin and Vasopressin which is released after sex and are responsible for partner preferences and being able to read subtleties in one another’s behavior).
Seems pretty simple, right? Well, if that was all there is to it why don’t we just draw a line, dust off our hands, pack up our bags, and call it day? Its for the very nature of love that we can’t. Anyone who has truly loved knows that the butterflies in the stomach and blushing cheeks is just the romance, a temporal gut reaction you have at the start of meeting someone new. Feelings are fleeting and just as soon as they come they can go as well. You wouldn’t bet your bottom dollar on a horse that’s unbroken so why would you stake the success of a relationship on something as unreliable as feelings? If we want to get the full picture of love we need to search for the side of love that lies beyond the emotional state. It is the love that doesn’t fade with beauty – the love that has nothing to do with romance – the love that connects us as individuals. So how do we define that side of love?
I decided to put the question to friends, family, and an occasional passerby (some married for years, others about to be, and those still in the dating stage) to see how their different experiences have helped to shape their notion of love. What I got in return was a range of responses that shows just how wide and beautiful the spectrum of love can be:
- Love is finding someone who makes you happy even when you don’t want to be.
- Love is the desire to put someone else first. Whereas love between a man and woman often begins with deeps feelings, involving multiple emotions and excitement, sustaining life-long love involves a commitment of the will because, as we all experience, emotions and feelings are fickle; they come and go. It is my belief that true love is a threesome: you, your beloved, and God who supports and strengthens you for the times when feelings are less than reliable.
- Love is family.
- Most of love is a compromise. You can’t keep it all. You give what you can and don’t expect anything in return. It is not always easy to do.
- It is being loyal to who or what inspires you.
- Love is caring for something even if it has no exact benefit besides for the benefits that you as an individual sees it having.
- Love is knowing that no matter what insecurities or vulnerabilities you might have, that person accepts you and you are safe in (his or her) arms. While I have found this in my spouse to be, I also think that this is a perfect example of God’s love that I am learning more and more about.
- You must love yourself first to know what love really is.
- I can’t tell you what love is but I know it makes you want to get up in the morning and continue to live in this world.
However you see it, in whatever mindset, religion, or culture its clear that love boils down to one thing: a choice. It’s the putting away of ego and self to fully recognize that we are all in this collective human experience together. And in that, you might find that to love deeply and truly you must let someone’s sorrow become your own.
Love is not limited to friends and family or even those you fancy, in fact, loving strangers lies at the very origin of the holiday we’ve designated solely for couples. By celebrating the life of Saint Valentine, a Roman priest from the early years of the church, we are celebrating a man who aided many persecuted Christians at the expense of imprisonment, torture, and death. Saint Valentine was later sanctified as the patron of lovers due to his work in helping marry young couples in the face of an edict enacted by Emperor Claudius that prohibited marriage at such an age. The Emperor believed that if a man was unmarried he would fight better as a soldier than one who had a wife. In compassion and love Saint Valentine sacrificed what little he had for the sake of strangers even to his last living moments. Before his execution it is said that Valentine befriended the jailer’s blind daughter at her father’s request and was a source of wisdom and encouragement for her. One time during their usual moments of prayer the girl, so enraptured by faith in God, was healed of her blindness. The last words Saint Valentine would ever write were for her saying “From your Valentine.” (Heard that before?)
Can one day a year of roses and chocolates really come close to expressing that sort of love for one another? Of course not, but it is in little tokens of appreciation we remind one another – friends, partners, spouses, and strangers alike – that their presence in this world is valuable and important. It is not to say that physical gifts of affection are required to show you care. Saint Valentine’s life proved to us that this is not the case. We show love in holding back our exasperated sighs, in truly listening to one’s worries, in comforting the lonely, in caring for the sick, in celebrating someone’s success.
Whether you are in a relationship or not it is quite clear that this world of ours is in sorry need of more love. It is easy to get discouraged when you turn on the news or scroll through Facebook and see bitter comments devouring hope or sides pitted against sides. Very cultures and religions are belittled or even victimized at the sake of justifying hateful actions. How can love survive in the wake of so much anger and destruction? In so much fear and hurt? It survives by your choice in how you treat and respect others and by how much you decide to let your compassion for others envelop your day-to-day life. Love is a choice and it begins with you.
So, in the true spirit of Saint Valentine’s Day lets make this month more than sparkly red hearts and chubby cupid cheeks. I invite and encourage you to join me on a little challenge this month to celebrate Valentine’s Day in an unconventional way this year. Below is a list of activities to complete for the month of February to inspire love in the hearts of others and within your own.
- Donate prepaid phone cards to a local women’s shelter.
- Compliment someone’s smile.
- Buy a homeless man or woman a nice meal.
- Leave a kind letter for a stranger to find -in a book, at a coffee shop, on a bench.
- Donate toys and games to your local children’s hospital or shelter.
- Write a heartfelt letter to your parents or other family members thanking them for what they’ve done in your life.
- Bake some sweets for your neighbor.
- Allow someone to cut in line ahead of you without feelings of anger or impatience.
- If it rains, carry an extra umbrella and give it to someone in need of one.
Whether you complete one, all of them, or create your own list you can be certain the little acts of love you give this world will find their way back to you. And so I will leave you with a little cheer and some wise words from Bugsy Malone to help you get through the day. (can you spot baby Jodie Foster??)
But first, an Etsy update: As always, check out mozoocritters.etsy.com to adopt a unique stuffed animal and for every MozooCritter sold this month I will make and donate one to Joy Junction, Albuquerque’s homeless shelter for women and children. Happy February!