Monday, February 18, 2008

Hallmark Holidays: A Single Cell

I was going to post something about retreats this month, but then Valentine’s Day rolled around, and I decided someone who writes about issues from a single perspective couldn’t pass up this opportunity to address the holiday I like to call “Singles Awareness Day.” I think if you show any disdain for V-Day and you’re single, people assume it’s bitterness shining through. I used to get excited about getting flowers on February 14th when I was dating someone, and I still delight in the cards I receive from friends and family now when there is not a significant other. I even sent out my own custom-made cards this year to the special people in my life, and took the extra step of sending them through Loveland, CO to have them hand-cancelled by volunteers with the annual city of love stamp.

Even given all of that, I still think Valentine’s Day, like Christmas and Easter, has become more about commercialism than the real reason for each of those venerated celebrations. As someone who has signed onto the idea of the Compact, and bought very little new since last June, I have been appalled at just how consumer-driven our culture has become. Many others have as well, as evidenced by the popularity of the San Francisco-based Compact and the recent growth in popularity of FreeCycle. We are beginning to recognize that blatant consumerism is damaging our environment and our culture. More and more of us are waking up to a different way of living – realizing that we don’t have to have the very latest electronic gadget to be happy, and that we can probably borrow or buy used, much of the “stuff” that we really need.

It is so easy to let the marketplace with its expensive advertising, tell us what we need to be happy. It takes much more intentionality and thought to choose to live differently. The array of things that will supposedly make our lives better is endless, and the amount of time we are spending at work in order to buy them continues to grow. Personally, I would rather have more free time and control over my work schedule than all of the shiny new stuff that clutters up my living space. Really, how special do you feel to get a dozen roses or a piece of jewelry or a nice dinner out because some holiday prescribes it necessary? Isn’t it far better to have love shown by family, friends and romantic partners on an ordinary day through simple gestures – a card or note, a great massage or even a thoughtful email?

My family started some new Christmas traditions a few years ago that I am proud of, and which have turned out to be so much more fulfilling than any store-bought gift we could give. We started by deciding not to buy gifts at all, but donate the money we would have spent to worthy charities instead. On Christmas morning, we would share stories about where our donations went to, and how we chose them. Next, we decided to reinstate gifts, but rather than buying for everyone, we would draw a name and make our gift.

The gifts over the past five years of this tradition have been more meaningful and special than anything available in a store for any price! I have a talented family, so some of the gifts are still quite extravagant – soft quilts, beautiful cross-stitch, paintings, candles and gorgeously crafted furniture. Others have been simpler, but even more meaningful: scrapbooks, memory books, and CDs and DVDs with special songs or precious memories. This new tradition nourishes our creativity and invites us to express our feelings through our gift. The best part is that there are no returns, and everyone always loves what they get.

Colleen Anderson started a great tradition in Denver that is still going strong. She received chemo after her diagnosis, like me, with ovarian cancer. In 2002, she started Project Valentine, to deliver goody bags to men, women and children getting chemo on Valentine’s Day. Even though Colleen passed away this year from her cancer, her legacy lives on in the non-profit she started. Her friends and family, with the help of many volunteers, have kept the project going. If you think it’s bad being single on Valentine’s Day, imagine having to sit through hours of chemotherapy, and then deal with the associated side-effects for the next week! Doesn’t put you in a very romantic mood.

The project started in November with a meeting and the divvying of duties. Volunteers signed up to solicit donations of bags, books, DVDs, bracelets, lotion, candy, hats, scarves and other items. Others got cash donations to buy needed items, stored donations in their garages and rallied volunteers to decorate hundreds of valentines. There was a Saturday devoted to sorting and counting and filling candy bags, and another to assembling the bags. On the 14th, despite three inches of snow covering a quarter inch of ice on everything in Denver, drivers fanned out across the city to deliver the bags to infusion centers. Some of us were lucky enough to be able to distribute bags to patients directly, and chat with them for a few minutes. The smiles and gratitude from the recipients made the months of hard work and the braving of bad roads all worth it.

I admit I used to call Valentine’s Day Black Thursday, and my single friends and I would dress in all black in mock-protest of the “lovers holiday.” Now I realize how great it is to celebrate love in any form. This year I celebrated my love for me by having an evening all to myself. I lit a fire in the fireplace, cooked a great meal and curled up with a good book. I even got out the guitar I have been promising to learn for the past eight months and taught myself how to tune it – a great start! I went to bed with such a huge smile on my face and deep love in my heart for myself and for life. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate that?