I’ve loved Valentine’s Day ever since I can remember and consider myself both a hopeless romantic and hopeless at remaining just a romantic on 14 February.
Every comic book superhero has their origin story. A young Bruce Wayne falling down a well of bats eventually gave rise to Batman. A young Kal-El launched from Krypton to Earth eventually gave rise to Superman. A young Amazon who left paradise to fight fascism with feminism eventually gave rise to Wonder Woman. And a young girl who secretly made sure everyone she knew got an anonymous Valentine card eventually gave rise to Mettamorphsis.
Have you ever heard a child described as one that “colours outside the lines”? It’s my hope for this February that sharing one of my favourite origin stories from long before I formally understood what metta was will inspire fellow would-be metta scientists to experiment loving outside the lines.
This particular tale has two beginnings.
The first occurred some 30 years ago, when a visiting group of Tibetan monks chose the concourse of a busy city underground train station to ritually create and destroy a sand mandala. For weeks I would pass them on my way to and from school, first gently drawing the measurements and then quietly applying coloured sand granules from the centre outwards using various mysterious instruments. Having been raised a Catholic, I knew next to nothing about Buddhism. But the energy and the colours drew me day after day, as well as observing public reactions to this strange happening that was growing daily to interrupt their daily commute: some were fascinated, some ignored it, and some were plain annoyed.
The monks carried on regardless until the day of its ritualistic destruction ceremony.
The underground concourse went back to “normal” after that, but I was changed.
Fast forward another decade, a couple of hours past midnight into Valentine’s Day. I cycled to where my boyfriend-at-the-time lived on the edge of London’s red-light district with a big box of coloured chalk. The idea was to secretly draw him a gigantic and playful declaration of love on the pavement outside his front door as a surprise for the morning.
I started sketching out what I hoped would eventually turn into an eight-by-eight-foot octopus, playfully shaping two of its tentacles into a heart over its head. Lost in a world of my own trying to get the measurements right under the street lighting, two women sat on a bench behind me. They quietly watched me bring the different colours together and, after a while, asked me wryly: “Who’s that for? Sure hope they’re worth it!”
I turned around in surprise, and—from their outfits—realised they were probably prostitutes waiting for their next appointment. I grinned and answered, “I like to think he is” They rolled their eyes at each other, and countered, “Is any man?”
Given the context, I didn’t argue the point and instead just listened to their troubles while I kept drawing. Out poured hilarious and horrendous street-worker stories. When business picked up again, I wished them well, and carried on regardless.
A short while later, a deep male voice startled me, “How come no woman ever does something like that for me?” Again, I turned around to see a man twice my size (in every direction) sitting on the same bench and guessed he was probably the prostitutes’ pimp. After all the stories I had just listened to, I—rightly or wrongly—blurted out the first thing that sprang to mind: “Maybe because you profit from women’s sexuality?”
Awkward silence is an understatement for what followed as we both stared at each other.
Eventually, he nodded and cracked a slow smile. I smiled back, and added, “For what it’s worth, I believe everyone deserves someone do this for them.”
We parted on friendly terms, and I finished up just before the commuter rush hour.
That afternoon, my boyfriend rang to thank me. He confessed it had taken him so long to get in touch because he’d unexpectedly lost the day people-watching passersby from the first floor window discovering his Valentine octopus. Apparently, there are three kinds of Londoners when it comes to romance: the diehard romantics who reverently walked around it, the daydreamers who walked straight over it, and the cynics who purposefully scuffed their feet through it!
It rained later that evening so, by 15 February, the Valentine mandala my drawing had unexpectedly blossomed into had already completely dissolved and run off into Soho’s pavement cracks. And the romantic relationship dissolved a year later too.
However, I like to think the metta their creation generated that night couldn’t be contained to a particular person, place, or date . . . and that its tentacles went on to spread love outside the lines.
Or, to metta-morphose the famous My Funny Valentine lyrics of Rodgers & Hart:
My metta valentine . . .
Sweet, comic valentine . . .
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable, unphotographable
Yet you’re my favourite work of art