I can’t very well write about sex and love for a month and skip Valentine’s Day. I was tempted to write something like “I’ll be frank, it’s been a long time since the holiday has meant anything to me romantically, if it ever did. I’ve spent the last four Valentine’s Day celebrating ‘Galentine’s Day’ with my female friends, and that’s how I’ll happily spend this one—wine in one hand, chocolate in the other.” That is not an untrue statement—it has been so long since I had a romantic Valentine’s Day that I don’t actually remember when the last one was. It is also true that I genuinely enjoy celebrating it with my girlfriends. My average female friend is far better at figuring out the trappings of a romantic evening than 90% of the men I know. If Valentine’s Day is about sentimentality, Galentine’s celebrations will always win hands down. But as I began to write my post that way, I recognized a cynicism there that I don’t want any more. I may not be particularly excited to spend yet another Valentine’s Day without a man, but I don’t want to protect myself from that by letting go of faith in love’s potency and endurance. Yes, I will spend the holiday platonically, but I don’t want it to be an “F—- men” activity that that throws up walls around my heart. I want it to be a way to celebrate love with my friends because I believe the love I share with them isn’t an alternative to the romantic love, but complements and grows it. Because love always compounds, always multiplies.
I’ve had Wendy Shalit in my head all week. She wrote A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, a book originally published in 1999 that I’ve been revisiting as I write my divorce memoir. Shalit responded to some of the worst horrors of hookup culture by advocating radical modesty in dress and behavior. To her credit, she was a bellwether of some of the problems that we now identify as “rape culture”. For her part, her horror with hookup culture at its worst led her to transition from her reform Jewish upbringing to Orthodox judaism, at least in part because she valued the protection afforded her by the modesty rules of Orthodox judaism. Rules like wearing long skirts and keeping your collarbone covered. Rules like not having any physical contact with a man who is not your husband—not even a handshake.
Two things about her have stood out in my memory nearly twenty years since reading her book. First, I remember meeting her at a book signing, a little in awe of a woman who valued herself so highly that she could insist she did not have to shake hands with anyone but other women. She was a powerful presence in any room she entered. The other thing I remember is a passage in her book where she complains about her friends who insist that friendship after a breakup was healthy, that post hook-up and post-break-up checkins are a “thing”. She hated the casualness of it all: “Did I really need this checkup? No thank you. A checkup would not have made me feel any better. It would have just been another opportunity to humiliate myself. I’m grateful to my ex-boyfriend who didn’t check up on me. At least if you feel sadness, disgust, anything on a sliding scale to mutual floating, at least then you know you’re human. All those bad feelings we are too enlightened to feel nowadays—such as resentment, jealous, betrayal—also signify the capacity to lose yourself in the first place, to fall in love with someone other than yourself. They presuppose that there is a soul to protect, that there are hopes to be shattered, a lost love to guard, even if now only mentally and futilely? No hard feelings? I’m advocating a return to precisely that: hard feelings. At least then you know you’re a person, that you have a heart.”
That resonated for me then, and it still does now. Casualness requires either dumbing down desire or separating it from action, and neither are very palatable. For me, the lack of heart was the worst part of hooking up. The splitting off of the heart from an activity where it is meant to be the most engaged eventually made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. If death is separation of the spirit from the body, that’s it’s precursor. Shalit calls herself an “Evangelist for romantic hope and the possibility of innocence.” In the passage that was so memorable to me, that hope and longing shine through with a passion that she rarely rises to again in the rest of her book. She also stands out as a woman who knows and sticks by her own value in the face of bullying and detractors (read the introduction in her book). But to maintain that hope, and to preserve her sense of self-worth, she has to create a space for herself with walls around it so thick that it’s a wonder anyone gets in: “To me the biggest virtue of modesty is the way it enables us to be our best selves in private.” She sees a scary world where she cannot be her best self, so she carves out a safe place in private where she can. It seems like she doesn’t shake hands with men because it helps her feel safe to be human, where the bogeyman of rampant sexuality can’t get in.
I’ve had a few conversations with friends in the last week about setting good relationship boundaries to avoid sexual pitfalls. A few times, married friends have mentioned avoiding relationships with people you could possibly be attracted to because they’re too dangerous. Don’t spend time one-on-one with people of the gender you’re attracted to because it’s too risky—that kind of thing. And it occurred to me—how often do we guard our hearts from hurt by eliminating relationship? I might be attracted inappropriately to some men, so I avoid all of them. I’ve been hurt in love, so I build a wall around myself narrows the scope of acceptable love dramatically. I’m afraid of being treated casually like an object, so I set myself apart from the world with long-lost rules of modesty. I may keep some good things out, but it’s worth it to keep out the bad. It’s safe.
We put up relationship walls between us and other people to keep the demons of sexual assault and dehumanization out. We put up relationships walls between ourselves and other people to keep the demons of lust in. Having faced all of those demons personally—having stared them in their beady red eyes—I will tell you that it is isolation that is more dangerous than relationship. Of course it’s dangerous to have lunch with a sexy man who’s not my husband if I’m starving for love. Of course it’s dangerous to bare some skin in public if I’m not surrounded by people who care for me. And—dare I say it?—of course a man who feels incredibly isolated and alone is more likely to victimize someone sexually. These situations require MORE LOVE, not less. MORE RELATIONSHIP, not more walls.
So, I will celebrate Galentine’s Day, not because I’m cynical about love but because I believe in it. Because love isn’t something I have to put up walls to protect (or to protect myself from). Because love isn’t a priceless perfume we keep bottled and dole out to each other drop by precious drop. Platonic love isn’t a consolation prize for not having a significant other. Love is a deep pool at my feet, always accessible, always waiting for me to find a jug or a bucket or a pail to scoop some up. This Valentine’s Day, I’m scooping it up with the teacup of platonic friendship. I’ll take big gulps form the jug that is my relationship with God. Next year, maybe I’ll drink love from wine glass of romantic love. Because I’ve realized that love doesn’t fail—the only way for me to not have it is to not pick it up.