My 5-year-old loves Valentine’s Day. What’s not to like? Hearts, cards and coloring, plenty of gluestick and stickers, pink and red, cupcakes, and candy. Pretty much all of her favorite things. Much like Target and Walmart, she has been preparing for this since, oh, the day after Halloween.
It’s too bad her mom is something of a Valentine’s Day scrooge.
In my defense, I think it’s a lot of pressure to put on one day. I love my husband, but planning and getting dressed up for A Romantic Date is just a recipe for disappointment for us. Not because he isn’t romantic, or because we hate flowers and chocolate. I am a huge fan of flowers, chocolate, and said husband. And for the record, at this point in what feels like a decades-long pandemic, we’d love the chance to have a kid-free conversation somewhere clean while wearing unstained clothes. In terms of my marriage, it’s the prescriptive nature of the Valentine’s Day formula that gets to me, because what makes us feel connected as a couple, what leads to feelings of happiness and “being in love” fluctuates so much from day to day and year to year.
I’ve long felt this way about February 14, but I’ve felt it especially keenly this year, when the news has been rife with escalating hate and hostility. Early on in the pandemic, our church began calling the practice of wearing a mask and staying six feet apart compassionate distancing, emphasizing how these seemingly-small habits are about protecting others as much as they’re about protecting ourselves. For me, it’s this shift in terminology that encapsulates the heart-change our country desperately needs.
It’s the narrowness of the Valentine ideal of love that feels woefully inadequate. I need– and maybe as a country, we need– to honor so much more than just romantic love. And I need to honor it for more than the space of a day. So this February, I am going to try to intentionally spend time each day reflecting on and practicing the kind of selfless, active love Jesus came to teach, the love that shows up in the bible as agape: “the love of God for humankind and of humankind for God.” And to keep from taking myself too seriously, I’m inviting my kids to join me, and I’m inviting you, too.
I recently finished reading Bishop Michael Curry’s book Love is the Way, after getting hooked on his “Way of Love” podcast this fall. The Way of Love is a set of practices the Episcopal church developed under Bishop Curry’s guidance, meant to help modern Christians follow Jesus in today’s world. The practices have been incredibly helpful to me, as an Episcopalian who feels like I’m always just starting out, just barely beginning to know Jesus. In this season of sleep deprivation and young children, where it feels like we’re always hovering just on the brink of chaos, I’ve been clinging to a shorthand from Bishop Curry, via Martin Buber.
How can I practice following Jesus– how can I practice agape love– in such a way as to move “from me to we”? How do I move toward I-Thou in an I-It world?
To put this into a framework my 5-year-old and 3-year-old can understand, this month we’ve been talking as a family about “big Love” at the dinner table. Lest you think we’re getting deep over here, let me assure you these are quick conversations. My son eats a few bites of dinner, I get a few words in edge-wise, and then he’s off on his usual, exasperating mid-dinner mad dash around the living room, naked. Sigh. This is why kids are the best spiritual teachers for moms like me who tend to let Pinterest get the best of them.
Nevertheless, here’s what we’ve come up with. Paraphrasing the Great Commandment in Matthew, we’ve talked about how Jesus says the most important thing we can do is to love God with everything we’ve got. And the next most important thing is to love ourselves and other people, plants, and animals as best we can. This includes even people, plants, and animals we don’t like very much. (Jesus doesn’t mention plants and animals but to me the spirit of the verse is there.) Then we asked our kids what kinds of things they’d like to do next month to celebrate that kind of love.
We’ve talked a lot about Mama Earth as a family, to cut the whining about things like using both sides of the paper and walking instead of driving to the library. So my daughter immediately suggested that we pick up trash and make some art out of things in the recycling bin. “And mama, you don’t have to wait for one special day to take care of the earth,” she exclaimed earnestly. “We can do it tomorrow!” (Be still my over-achieving heart, something I said sunk in!) I wrote her ideas on the list, and added a litter-picker to my Amazon cart (something I’ve been meaning to do for a while anyway.)
Here are some of the other ideas we have. A fellow writer recently introduced me to the idea of “floor and ceiling goals,” so I’m dividing this into bare minimum practices and more aspirational ones. (We’ve got three kids under five, I am barely sleeping, and my word for the year is grace. I will be happy if we manage even one of these. ) Please add your own ideas in the comments, and let me know if you decide to practice a whole month of Love, too.
Give thanks to God before dinner
Practice using our “reset” buttons when we hurt or yell at each other
Try out a self-compassion meditation for kids with Headspace
Make and mail cards to people we love
Paint rocks with hearts, prayers, and encouraging messages; hide them around the neighborhood.
Share some of our saved sunflower seeds with our neighbors
Read about a plant or animal that scares us and see if we can appreciate something about them
Take a walk at the pond near our house and pick up trash
Learn about a new non-profit and make a donation
Bring food to All Saints for our neighbors who are hungry
Read books, sing songs or learn poems about loving ourselves
Practice one new habit to take better care of our bodies.
Write in our prayer journals together (Sky has this one; I have the “forgiveness” version of this one)
Practice praying for our enemies/ sending them lovingkindness (personally I want to spend some time praying for and learning about folks on the other side of the political divide)
Try to do something kind for someone in our family each day
Leave a chalk message of love on a sidewalk near our house
Set up and fill our Little Free Library with books (we have a kit ready to go, but this feels waaaay ambitious, and I’d be delighted if it happened this month)
Choose and give away some possessions in our Buy Nothing group
With kids in our pandemic pod, make and mail a big thank-you card to Governor Kate Brown
Learn about animals, plants, or people who are struggling and make a list of ways we could help
Send some flowers to friends we know who are sick or sad
Make a map of the garden we want to plant this spring
Practice one new habit to take better care of Mama Earth
Find ways to thank the people who help us– doctors, people who deliver groceries and packages, our priest