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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Brown Bag Holiday

My history with this particular holiday is turbulent to say the least. While in 2014 I expect it to be vastly different from any other of its predecessors and am actually looking forward to it, I still am experiencing pre-performance anxiety regarding the holiday.

I went to a Catholic school so the fact that the holiday was established as patronage to a martyr who ministered to Christian soldiers during pre-Constantine conversion was not lost on us. The life and death of many persons named Valentinus who could have be The One on whom all prose, poetry and profits rests was oft quickly glossed over to get to the good stuff..... that brown paper bag "mail box" we spent 2 art periods decorating.

The Brown Bag, a ubiquitous and functional fixture in every home, carried sack lunches 354 days of the year with little fanfare and absolutely no banner waving. But on that 365th day it was both a conveyance of unimaginative edibles and sentiments of varying degrees of sincerity. We used whatever means at our disposal to decorate the bags with hearts in every shade of red imaginable. And when we were done with the bags the teacher lined them up under the chalk tray of the blackboard (green in our case) in alphabetical order. This was to make distribution easier. As we were bent over our textbooks, they called for our attention. Luring us down a day dreamy path of expectations.

Art critiques and the planning of how to celebrate friendship with our closest friends & imagining the brilliant smiles when our cards were discovered by our friends interrupted the normal business of education. We hoped for acknowledgement from some and dreaded it from others. We spent valuable educable brain cells running through ideas of design, sentiment, format, color and signature style alongside the normal work required in a school day. I did at any rate. I do not imagine that I was alone in that past time.

In varying degrees we all had planned and schemed from out first experience with this tradition how to improve our fortunes for the following year. The hierarchy of affection determined the quality and size of individual Valentines that we gave. The hierarchy of class caste systems determined the quantity received. Invariably there were one or two poor souls who had on the teacher's contribution in the bottom of their sack, a crushing statement from the peerage of your value and esteem. Then there were those of us who did not have many friends, but friends of great consideration who's efforts to provide a splendid presentation of personal worth, a kind of a claims stake and affirmation of belonging.

For a good many years, 3 in my case, the possession of the frilly overdone exuberance of my closest friends was enough for me. I may have only had 9 cards in my bag, my bag may have been suspiciously devoid of candies and assorted edible treats to accompany the saccharine sayings, but I knew who the 9 people were in my class that I belonged to in some way. It was those poor souls who could not make friends or could not understand the demands of this "holiday" and were left holding an empty sack that prompted a change of policy from the school. It also prompted a change in my anticipation of the day.

It was decided, when too many feelings were hurt with the lack of class support that all students MUST have something in that sack. And any student who failed to deliver a proper Valentine's Day post to another students paper mail box must forfeit the days gains.

In. A. Public. Display.... of humiliation in which you bore the label "antisocial"

And thus my 4th grade year became the seat of a deeply rooted anxiety. Rather than root joyously through the bins of boxed Valentine cards for the perfectly colored, perfectly worded and socially acceptable pop culture icons, it was a sweaty and soul-less search for anything that would not incur the wrath of any number of classmates I had unsuccessfully avoided offending. Scooby Doo may have been cool one year, but the following he was sure to be seen as "baby-ish". Nothing could be too sentimental for the bullies lest they think that I have some design on them. It was a nightmare of fear and loathing that could not be abated for a full week.

Having procured a set of cards with the most innocuous and neutral prose in the bin, I approached that year and every other one with the thought that I could not get into any trouble for my choice. I was wrong that year and every year there after. The cards were chose the first Saturday shopping excursion available. And the box sat and taunted me while I made the cards for my best friends until their distribution. On the Monday before the dreaded holiday the threats began. The child who most attacked me assured me that in no way did he want a Valentine from me. That if his box contained a card with my signature I would find myself eyeball deep in trouble. He reminded me everyday. I told the first teacher that I could not comply with the rules and why.

She was sympathetic but assured me she would take my Valentines away if he did not receive one from me. He didn't. And she did. I complied with his request to forgo a deposit in his bag and still found myself eyeball deep in trouble. By trouble I mean snow. I got my first white wash. The following year the process went much the same. Except I complied with the rules and gave him one.... without, as per request, my signature on it. And I was white washed again. When I pulled myself out of the snow bank to go home, I was escorted by a barrage of ice filled snowballs. And every day, all day, whenever he could, he would sidle up to me and whisper his psychological mantras on the theme of my worth along with his threats of bodily harm. He made good on every threat, sometimes with the help of his recruits.

The following year the pattern became ingrained with a twist. I put off writing the cards out until the very last night before the "Big Party." My pen slipped as I sweat to the old threats repeated in my head. I shook the closer I got to his name on the list. And when it was over I threw up whatever was in my stomach. It wasn't much as I was always too distressed to eat much of anything that entire week. And when I was done throwing up I cried.

Yes I explained all of this to my parents. Dad didn't know what to do and Mom told me boys do that when they like you. My brother heard that. He told his friend, the brother of the boy in question. And when the bags were opened, cards were read, treats devoured and the sugar buzz was in high gear, he slithered up behind me and stuck a thumbtack in my back. When I turned around he told me that my mother was an idiot. Boys don't do this to girls they like. They tease girls they like. But they don't beat girls they like. And just to prove how much he didn't like me, he promised me the beating of my life if I went home the normal way. He ended his monologue with something that I thought for a long time must be true.

No one likes you, no one will ever like you. You're stupid, fat, and weird. And the people who tell you that you are sweet lie. Sweet doesn't mean anything except they are too polite to tell you the truth... the whole class hates you.

Even though I went home a different way I still was caught, and beaten.

I went through this ritual each year we were required. And when it was no longer compulsory the only people who got anything from me on Valentines were my best friends. Handmade, heartfelt and exchanged in our homes not at school. And never to boys.

When I was married there were no Valentines. That was a problem for him. When I divorced and got back into the dating scene 8.5 years later that was a problem for him too. And years after that when I made my third attempt to stick my toes into a relationship, in 2010, I took a chance. I gave a boy a Valentine and the result was the Massacre of 2010. While an apology was made the effect was rather still a devastating one. The very next relationship I gave a Valentine. It was not compulsory. We did not talk about the day or make plans except to say that it was not a thing that either of us was comfortable with. And that Valentine took me right back to that horrible day when I was told everyone hated me.

To the credit of the men I have dated, I haven't been beaten up physically as I was when I was a kid. But the emotional scars are there nonetheless. And the behaviors are there as well. I am not an overly affectionate person in a relationship. It takes me a while to settle into the thing to know where the boundaries are and what is and is not safe to do. I am not demonstrative. I am not cold. I just am wary. And most of the time the men don't know what is going on. And there is a reason for that. They don't care to know.

So since I am dating again this year and we are two days away from it, I feel the anxiety go up. About 3 weeks ago we decided how to handle it. Neither of us wants a big shin dig. Neither of us feels that the commercial dictates of a marketing scheme centuries in the making is a realistic evaluation of a relationship. While that may seem like a cleverly logical dodge, it isn't. It is honest. Since he never met a woman who doesn't want to turn every Valentines day into a mini wedding he had questions.

And for the first time in my life I felt like answering. Honest answers. So he knows. And he doesn't think it weird or anything. In fact, the supportive hug was tremendous. There is no pressure for the day. I feel it. But it isn't coming from him. It is me.... all on the inside. It will work its way out eventually. And it will be fine. We have plans but nothing that will put a bit of undue stress on either of us.

I have done a digital card to email him. I am contemplating a homemade one. And I've been cruising Pintrest for some holiday ideas. But I think that I will actually wait on those as a special occasion thing for those "just because" days. I do want to do something small.... maybe something on a Brown Bag theme.

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