Monday, March 29, 2010

Sorting through the wedding hoopla - what was the point again?

What do you want to remember most vividly about your wedding day - the ice sculpture, or the ceremony?

WARNING (1): I'm going to engage in some shameless self-promotion. WARNING (2): It will probably take a while to get around to that part.

Think about a wedding ceremony. What part does it play (or did it play) in the experience of your wedding day? The ceremony represents a small fraction of the entire time spent preparing for and celebrating your marriage, and a smaller fraction of the overall cost of the wedding - but it's what MAKES you married. Without the ceremony, you're just throwing a big, expensive party. This is the moment you get to say that your love is special, and why. This is the moment you get to claim that you have what it takes to make your relationship work for a lifetime. This is the moment you get to thank the people who helped make you the person you are: an adult who is able and willing to commit to loving another adult, what Rilke calls "perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation." Wow. Perhaps this is a bigger deal than we sometimes acknowledge.

So do you want that ceremony to be boilerplate text that says nothing meaningful or memorable to you or your guests, nothing significant about you or your spouse-to-be? Do you want the person conducting the ceremony to waltz in as a complete stranger and mumble the same old same old in a sleep-inducing monotone? Do you want to feel as if your ceremony came out of a vending machine that dispenses countless copies of the same thing to anyone who has the right change?

I didn't think so.

I know that weddings aren't inexpensive, and that lots of individuals are struggling with their budgets in these gloomy economic times. Couples planning their weddings are being far more careful about how they spend their money, trimming back on all the extras and being pretty tight-fisted about the "gotta haves" as well. The wedding industry, of which I am arguably a (small) part, is feeling the pinch, too. My little secret, for which I probably need to apologize in advance to every wedding vendor within 500 miles, is that I'm not all that sorry for the pullback by couples planning a wedding or commitment ceremony. I think it's healthy for couples, healthy for the industry and healthy for our culture as a whole to stop pushing weddings as lavish as Broadway productions. Oh, and don't forget the cost of the honeymoon, the bridal shower, the bachelor and bachelorette parties, the spa visit,  the rehearsal dinner, and so it goes, ka-ching, ka-ching. Ouch! - did I say that? Afraid I did.

Well, look - in practical terms, drowning in debt and financial troubles, even when the party was great, is no way to start a marriage. Believe it or not (and I do), more marriages break up over financial conflict than over sex or just about anything else. Why would you want to start your married life trying to scale a mountain of bills from your wedding? Even if someone else, say, Mom and/or Dad, is paying the tab - ESPECIALLY if someone else is paying the tab - being a grownup means not taking advantage of the generosity of those who love you. And if you're paying for the festivities yourself, you know there are always a thousand other financial priorities clamoring for your attention. There's no time like the present to learn the discipline of staying within a workable budget.

Beyond the financial aspect, larger-than-life weddings can take a subtle spiritual and psychological toll on the participants and guests alike. The glitz-and-glam trappings tend to distract from the underlying meaning of the event. They're designed to impress people but not necessarily to reach them where they live. When those fun and pretty extras are marketed to us as necessities, yet we know we can't afford them, we tend to start thinking of ourselves as deprived. The next step is to start thinking of ourselves as entitled. That's when we're vulnerable to whipping out the credit card so we can have the same things "everybody else" has. Including crushing debt.

Don't get me wrong: if your heart's desire is a big, pull-out-all-the-stops, glamorous wedding and you can afford it; if it's meaningful to you and will bring you joyful memories throughout your married life, by all means, go for it. Just don't let wedding industry marketing make you feel as if you aren't having a "real" wedding if you don't pay for ice sculptures, a chocolate fountain, a caterer who puts four-star restaurants to shame, and a tightrope walker teetering overhead at the reception dinner, playing the violin above the guests' Chicken Kiev. The steadfastness of your marital relationship is not measured by the dollars spent on special effects.

With all these warnings to be cautious, thrifty and mature about the scope of weddings, where did my warning about "shameless self-promotion" go? I guess, now that I get to it, I don't want to self-promote as much as I want to promote the ceremony - to a somewhat higher rung on the planning ladder than where it's traditionally been. When you plan a wedding, think carefully about what will create the most joy on the day of your marriage and the most lasting memories for the future. The ice sculpture or the photos? The catering or the flowers? The shoes you'll wear once or the smile you'll wear for weeks as you remember the vows you wrote yourself and exchanged with your dearest and only one?

I hope you'll consider that the ceremony is the beating heart of the whole day. The words you say matter. The words the officiant says matter, and the WAY they are said matters, too. Years after your wedding, you may remember nothing about the food, little about the decorations, and your memory of the shoes may involve only how much they hurt your feet. But you will remember the ceremony - the solemn, holy feeling of that moment suspended in time; the joy of sharing it with your family and friends; the sense that the words said belonged to you and your partner alone.

As for my attempt at self-promotion? Pfffft. Let it go - I never was any good at that stuff. Of course I'd love to have you come talk to me about your wedding; I know what I'm able to do for you and I'm more than pleased to do it. But many other officiants can do wonderful things, too. I'm asking only that you give the choice of your officiant, and planning your ceremony, equal time with planning for flowers and photos and food (and equal consideration in your budget). Make the effort to find the right officiant, one you trust and whose approach serves your needs. Your officiant is the one who escorts you to that doorway which only the two of you can pass through: the land not just of generic marriage, but of YOUR marriage. That's too important a role to entrust to someone who doesn't appreciate the uniqueness of your relationship and the sacredness of the path you've chosen to walk together.

Many blessings and much joy to you! - Diane

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Daughter of Quiet

In my last post I talked about a specific kind of quiet: an internally-generated moment of repose which can be triggered in myriad ways. But I didn't cover WHY that kind of quiet is important and what's born out of it. First, a bit of background:

Being a highly social species, most of us homo sapiens want to feel we belong to one or more communities, and the communities we participate in to get that sense of belonging are usually composed of other people - biological or extended family, neighborhoods, churches, political groups, schools and so forth. These interconnections with one or more other humans are satisfying and rich - also (sometimes) difficult, frustrating, puzzling and occasionally just plain tiring. The effort they take isn't a bad thing: it can be compared to the effort of working your muscles hard at the gym, after which your body needs to restore itself to complete the process of getting better at doing what you ask of it. Similarly, we work hard at forging the necessary bonds in human relationships, creating a lot of internal noise in the process - What does he think of me? Why did she just say that? Did I hurt his feelings? I like her but I can't stand him... Our chattering minds and unsettled hearts need an occasional rest, to get better at doing what we ask of them.

The self-generated quiet I wrote of earlier takes us to a place where we can rest mind and heart for a moment, unencumbered by the "noise" of striving to achieve some goal. And from that place of quiet emerges - possibly, sometimes, no guarantees in this life - a different kind of relationship and belonging from that which we experience with other people: a connection with the immensity of existence. Virtually every religion and wisdom tradition, whether Western, Eastern or indigenous, has practices that claim to induce this transcendent experience, but many of us have shied away from those practices because we feel they're associated with belief systems or dogma we can't subscribe to. Uh-uh; I don't buy it. The belief system, the dogma, is only a model some people use to explain to themselves a mystery that is essentially beyond words. The experience of inner quiet is the doorway into the mystery (sometimes open, sometimes shut). The practice is the bicycle - or maybe the unicycle - we ride through the door (no helmets needed or allowed).

So what DOES happen in that instant of quiet and connection? I can only speak to my own experience, but perhaps it will serve. Let's go back to my example of brushing my hand over that large rock every day when I walk at the mall (yes, darn it, you'll have to read the previous post). When I engage in that practice, here's what it seems like to me - in a kind of analytical "slow motion" deconstruction of an instantaneous event: The first part of the encounter is sensory. I respond to the rock visually as I approach - see the beauty in its solid presence, recognize its familiar, varicolored markings, its irregular shape, the flecks of mica that sparkle in the overhead light. I greet the rock as I come near (non-verbally, so as not to startle other mall walkers who don't habitually talk to rocks). I brush my hand over it as I pass. Touching its sandpapery, hard surface, I get a sense of its age and the deep roots of stone out of which it was pried. It feels patient. I take a deep breath.

The second phase of the encounter is entirely - spiritual? Psychological? Emotional? (Ah, well, often all those roads lead to the same place.)  At the risk of sounding painfully New Age-ish, I believe that every time I touch that rock I reaffirm what I can only call a relationship - better yet, a kinship - with it. Without any intellectual effort, in a flash of perception, I know that my existence and the existence of the rock are both contained within and nurtured by the life of the earth. And the existence of the earth is contained within and nurtured by - indeed, was born from - the heat and heart of stars in an unimaginably immense universe. In this moment, I feel very much smaller, but my life feels very big. And very connected. To everything. Often I bring this awareness of participating in the immensity of things back to my "ordinary" day. It's great for perspective when being human gets tough.

The most wondrous part of this capability, I think, is that we can enter into this relationship with the mystery of existence through that most corporeal of pathways: our senses. By seeing, touching, listening, smelling and/or tasting - by paying rapt attention to the world - we transcend the limitations of this package of skin, bones and neural synapses that each of us calls "me."  We belong to the entire universe.

Try it. Try really seeing light dancing on the river's surface or the spider building its web. Try really hearing a birdsong or the wind roaring through treetops. Taste your food. Touch the bark of a tree. Smell the night air. Watch the stars. Let them tell you what's really going on. And find your place in the interconnected world of what Taoism calls "the ten thousand things" - that is, all of existence, from sawgrass to supernovas.

Every time the daughter of quiet is born, catch her in your arms and rock her as if she were your own. She is.