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Valentine’s Blues and Other Colors

Ken Nesmith

To be alone or not to be alone, that is the question. Usually, it’s more a question of status than of choice -- “Are you alone?” rather than “Would you prefer to be?” I had mixed feelings about my single status this Valentine’s day.

For wintry February, this last Saturday was an unseasonably warm one, peaking at nearly 50 °F. The next day plunged the region back into an icy cold, but those hours of warmth set between bleak, frozen bookends were a welcome homage to warmth and love. The holiday itself is bound with the celebration of warmth, life, and color out of place; most striking to me was its profusion of red set against the dullest palettes a post-Christmas Boston winter can muster. This city is downright dreary these days. Christmas is long past, and summer is far away. Against the cold marble of the frozen Charles, blackened trees on backdrops of weather-worn stone gray buildings and desolate skies, and lawns that are pale, muddied skeletons of their former green selves, an incarnadine deluge present physically in roses, boxes of chocolates, and cards pours itself onto a mental landscape. Blood reds, pinks, and pastels appear, for a day, to flow with more strength than they perhaps normally do on this drained, gray, urban scene

I find the few days leading to Valentine’s to be immensely pleasant, having tired of hearing lamentations about this being the loneliest, most depressing day of the year, and so forth. This year, I live vicariously for the holiday, sharing others’ enjoyment as they prepare for it. Arthur makes chocolate-dipped strawberries, to be sneaked off to a restaurant and presented to his girlfriend by the waiter for a nice after-dinner surprise. I try one; absolutely delicious. Carlos likewise flexes his culinary skills, preparing an impressive feast of chicken, potatoes, vegetables, and dessert for his valentine. Marjan waits with anticipation to see what her boyfriend has prepared for this special day; she’s handily lain the groundwork by having a friend discuss “ideas” with him beforehand. On campus, smiling students in the alternate collegiate uniforms of black wool coats or synthetic weatherproof jackets carry roses and flowers, both to be given and just received. Our rowing team summons Logarhythms serenades for our coxswains Ashley and Lulu, making for a friendly spectacle with harmless romantic overtones and good spirits. Other serenades echo down the halls throughout the day; I sympathize for a moment for the guy using these as a genuine vehicle of communication, to reveal his feelings for a crush; he must await the song nervously throughout the day, and simply wonder how she’ll react.

The day itself is a pleasure, beginning to end. After an invigorating morning crew practice, I venture out to watch couples walking on Newbury, lining up for restaurants, relaxing on the commons, and otherwise enjoying the day. At moments, it’s hard not to give in to the temptation to reminisce painfully and dwell on relationships past, especially those with strong ties to these places themselves. It takes sincere effort to make them glad, relaxing memories rather than haunting, living ghosts, but good spirits win the day. I lend a hand with the Class of 2004 Blind Date setup. Having matched up couples the previous week, the class council arms the guys with flowers, the name of a restaurant, cab fare, and $50 dinner tickets before introducing them, one by one, to their blind dates. (Well, mostly blind. A few knew each other and were slightly surprised to be heading out to dinner together. Sorry about that.) As the day continues, a dimmed but clear, spring-like blue hangs longer in the sky as the evenings continue to lengthen and the winter darkness recedes.

The holiday offers its own intimacies to the lonely beyond innocent, vicarious escapades. Museums, bookstores, music shops, and other repositories of artwork offer a certain intimacy that few relationships achieve. Relationships evolve slowly into communion with shared thoughts and spirit, finding an ethereal unity built on years of close contact and love. In silent museum halls, hours of idle chat, mundane exchanges, and trivial communication are bypassed, leaving the artist to quietly reveal his or her mind with barely so much as a whisper. Looking at these paintings and sculptures evokes a sense of closeness and shared numen, imagining what sights, landscapes, and emotions the artist must have seen and felt to have been so inspired. With older paintings, it makes history as real as it can be. The feeling of mutual ken is uplifting and soothing.

It lacks, though, the sexual tension and thrill of relationships, and the physical artifacts and expressions of affection and love. Lest you think me too strange, let me add that I went to a few Valentine’s parties and talked to real live girls, too. I even crafted my first online dating profile for the MIT Matchup, and exchanged a few e-mails. My fraternity threw a nice Valentine’s Day party; I came downstairs to enjoy that. I’m not throwing in the towel on relationships of my own just yet.

Nonetheless, I fear that solitude and isolation receive more scorn than they deserve. We build perceptions of solitude as a weakness and a flaw, making loneliness a handicap and love its crutch. Frenchman Antoine de Saint Exupery said, “Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.” I was always impressed with that idea as a guide to crafting a relationship free of unhealthy dependence, where love is not a crutch, but I think it’s even otherwise useful. Gazing at each other is hard when you’re alone, but am I really so much worse off for the more important part of love, for looking outward at a painting, a book, a beautiful day, absent only a partner standing next to me?

Frankly, I’m not sure. But it was a nice Valentine’s day.