In a church I once served, we held a Sunday evening service that looked nothing like a regular church service and during it we also did little that looked like regular church. Which is probably why we always seemed to draw curious people. And each year around Valentine’s Day I gave the group prompts from poems to help them acknowledge the worth of those they knew in some tangential, but meaningful way.
I know it seems corny, but Valentine’s Day can be an opportunity to appreciate that for whom or for which we feel some kind of garden variety and tangential affection.
I credit my mother for teaching me that timeless truth of Valentine’s Day. My mom impressed on her daughters that Valentine’s Day was not a popularity contest—as it was in her day when all the kids would open their decorated boxes to see who had sent them cards. Every year the pretty, popular girls would get lots while the plain girls got few or none. Every year there were hurt feelings and hidden tears
In our family, everybody was each other’s Valentine. And I raised my daughters that way, too. It wasn’t about romance but about genuine affection which embraces both people and creation. So when Valentine’s Day rolls around, I tend to pull out these favorite old poems that are, I guess, my own personal box of valentines.
I think of Christopher Smart writing to his cat, Jeoffry, that he “purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he is a good Cat” and that “he is an instrument for children to learn benevolence upon.” (An accurate description of my gentle giant dog, Jack!)
And I can’t help but post on my fridge the luminous tribute to the quotidian that is Richard Wilbur’s valentine, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” in which he turns clean and blowing laundry on a line into a dancing blessing.
The Polish poet, Anna Swir, in her simple poem, “I Talk to My Body,” makes the case that our own incarnate selves are among the best companionship to be found. She asserts with confidence, “My body, you are an animal/for whom/ambition is right.”
The Sufi poets, Rumi, writing in the thirteenth-century, and Hazrat Inyat Khan, writing in the nineteenth, offer more cosmological valentines. Rumi asserts “Love has taken away my practices/and filled me with poetry,” while Khan’s bold request is that the Divine “Fill my heart with Love/That my every teardrop may become a star.”
If you’re looking for a valentine for your child leaving home, look no farther than Ursula Le Guin whose poem, “Please Bring Strange Things,” will never not bring me joy nor make me cry. And John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us is a compendium of poems that comprise, each by each, a primer of blessings.
I’m not saying, of course, that romance doesn’t have its place and if you are in the wooing mode, I’d be remiss if I didn’t advise you to dig out some of ee cummings’ and Pablo Neruda’s and, of course, Shakespeare’s poetry. (But use care! When Romeo says of Juliet, “She doth teach the torches to burn bright,” he’s not thinking of the sorry outcome that’s just down the road for the star-crossed lovers…..)
And last but not least--don’t forget yourself this Valentine’s Day. Trust me, you are worth more than a cheap box of sugar hearts (which is a good thing, actually, since apparently they are not making those encoded candies this year).
So sit yourself down with Mary Oliver’s poem “When Death Comes.” Her own recent death reminds us of the truth of these words: “When it’s over, I want to say all my life/I was a bride married to amazement./I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
And so—to all and sundry, to life and mystery, with paired corniness and sincerity: Happy, happy Valentine’s Day!