catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 4 :: 2003.02.14 — 2003.02.27


Redeeming Cupid

I had a teacher I really looked up to in junior high. Besides teaching art and English, two of my favorites, she had a great sense of style and a great sense of humor that appealed to my already budding dry wit.

However, she did something I didn't understand every Valentine's Day she wore black. And she publicized her protest to us, junior high students whose only thoughts at that point were of which Valentines we would actually write the word "love" on. I still don't know to this day if her aversion to the holiday was due to its perceived commercial qualities or to its perceived uselessness to a single, overweight woman in her late twenties. And I'm still not sure what "lesson" she was trying to teach us, but this was perhaps the first time I sensed what it meant to be countercultural.

I use the term "countercultural" with some negative feelings, because I don't know if it's productive or entirely possible to be against culture. The notion that a radical rejection of pop culture is countercultural has several dangerous implications. First, it equates culture with the status quo. Second, it assumes that those who go against the status quo have no culture and exist only in negative terms. In general, it promotes an "us and them" attitude that distorts the complicated redemption of culture into a black and white battle of rites and rituals. Being countercultural indicates a desire for change and raises awareness of important issues, but I can't see how it inspires lasting change.

The Valentine's Day protest of my teacher left me with a bittersweet impression. On one hand, I was encouraged to question the schmaltzy mid-winter holiday, with its overconsumption of sweets and stuffed animals and its encouragement of silly male-female game-playing. One the other hand, I felt uncomfortable with her bold expression of alienation. I felt like maybe she was letting us see too much of her heart without helping us understand it at all.

So what could she have done to make the experience more productive? She could have used it as an opportunity to explain what it means to be content with ourselves even as we were in the beginning stages of learning that "wholeness" means having a boyfriend or girlfriend. She could have used it as a basis for explaining that we can and should ask questions about the rituals in which we are expected to participate. She could have helped us redeem the culture of Valentine's Day by making handmade jewelry for women in a homeless shelter.

And that's what I would challenge us as a community to do with this holiday, find a way to redeem it. I've never been able to own Valentine's Day, and I never really reconciled those feelings. My husband and I, since high school, have honored the day with a high-five. It has been a kind of symbol for us that we can celebrate our love, but not when the marquis at Walgreen's tells us to. And while this acknowledges our questions about the day, it doesn't give us any answers. What can we do that will redeem this holiday in a productive way?

We went to a church meeting last night where a woman explained her family's Valentine's Day weekend traditions. For over twenty years, she and her husband and later their children have met with the same group of like-minded people for a long weekend in some part of the country just to renew old friendships, catch up on each other's lives, and experience the refreshment of community. I think that's a good place to start thinking about new ways to approach February 14 using a redemptive, rather than countercultural, approach.

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