We’ve had a lot of funerals recently. That’s really how it started.
In July of 2015 our daughter was born. In August of 2015 it became clear that my father-in-law was not going to continue to survive cancer treatments. With an infant and a toddler, we now had a whole new set of problems. Figuring out how my husband could get down to Southern California to sit with his dad while he died. Finding the world’s tiniest black shoes for a funeral. Balancing on the edge of a grave to shovel in dirt with an infant strapped to my chest. But that wasn’t all. Six hours before my father-in-law died, I got a call from my mom saying my grandmother was very suddenly dying. Eleven days and many Facetime sessions later (the kids got the flu, so it wasn’t safe for me to go visit her at the end), she died too. Another funeral, this one completely planned and written by me.
Then in June of 2018 my dad fell. He sustained a traumatic brain injury, and I was the only person in the family that was able to manage the role of primary caregiver. So with two (now slightly larger) kids, I spent a summer trying to work in hospital rooms, trying to care for him, trying to fight to get the treatment he needed. Then unexpectedly, things took a turn for the worse and he died in September of 2018. Another funeral, again completely written and planned by me.
And that’s the broad strokes. It doesn’t account for the emergency dental surgery on our three year old, the double robbery of our office, our oldest getting bullied over gender, and countless other things that on their own would have been terrifically difficult, but together blended into, “somehow we have to carry the load.”
Our ten year wedding anniversary was approaching, and we knew that it would be easy to just let it drift by. Grab dinner in the city, make a toast, move back to the hard stuff. But there had been so much hard stuff that we didn’t want to let that happen. We floated the idea of taking the kids to Scotland, where we took our honeymoon, but it seemed too expensive and logistically complicated. (Turns out we were about to throw an expensive party, but we didn’t know it yet.) Then we pondered doing a wedding chapel in Vegas. David loves Vegas, and it seemed kitschy and fun and cool. Except the more I dug into research, the more it seemed kitschy, and not cool. (Maybe for 15 years? Who knows.)
So finally we settled on the idea of heading to Palm Springs, an hour away from where we grew up, for a long weekend. We figured we’d invite the people we were closest too, and some small handful of them would be able to come, and we’d spend the weekend together by the pool, and have some sort of party.
I suppose if I didn’t work in weddings and didn’t have an overly theatrical family, it could have ended up being that simple. But looking back, it was never going to be that simple.
Religiously, I’m Jewish. But as a convert, I can’t always get away from my WASP roots. And my WASP roots said, “No vow renewals.” I had a litany of reasons why, from the Miss Manner’s-ism, “Vows don’t need to be renewed,” to fears that people would think we were attention grabby. But my Jewish self wanted ritual. So we decided to go for a ritual, to observe ten years. (Judaism is all about observing everything with a ritual, from Shabbat every week, to constantly recited prayer for doing something for the first time.)
Then we wanted to have a meal with everyone. We didn’t care much about what kind of meal (In N’ Out was floated at one point), but we needed a place to host inside, since Palm Springs gets up to 110+ degrees in the summer.
We planned on fifteen people. My friend Jess from Sentimental Fools, who’d offered to step in and help me plan this party told me, “Closer to forty. You’re cooler than you think you are.” I told her, “But we can’t afford forty!” Famous last words. Our final RSVP list was… you guessed it… forty. And we made it work. We spent more than we meant to—and got a lot of industry discounts—but in the end I don’t regret a penny spent. I’ve spent too much on tragic things to regret money spent on joy. (Wanna talk about what a headstone costs? More than this party did.)
The next question was where we should have this desert ritual. Internet research is my job, so a few rabbit holes later I decided we should head out to Giant Rock in Landers. Which is exactly what it sounds like: the world’s largest freestanding boulder in the middle of the desert. It’s history encompasses: indigenous spiritual site, UFO convention center, and the former site of a key lime pie restaurant. Before you go running off to Giant Rock yourself, let me give you a few reality checks. There are no bathrooms. It is one million degrees. But there is more.
David’s BFF and former best man has a long family history at Giant Rock (see: former UFO convention center), and he camped there the night before our ritual. During that night there was: a family campfire, a car doing donuts, a woman walking her sheep in a leash (you read that right), and a shoot out between the family campfire and the car doing donuts. It’s the High Desert, and that’s how it goes. My dress got caught in ammunition shells the next morning, but nobody who wanted to cause any trouble was up near dawn, so all was well.
And The Outfits
And then, we arrived at the outfits. David fronts as a serious lawyer, but not very far under the surface, he’s a drag-loving theatre kid. My children, obviously, are divas. Me: same.
I knew I didn’t want to wear a wedding dress, but I had no idea what I did want to wear. So, naturally, I headed to my favs on the internet. It didn’t take me long to find Elizabeth Dye’s wildfire gown, and her #shecomesincolor collection. And I knew that was it. I wanted a bright color in the pale desert. Elizabeth Dye and I came up together on the internet, so I sent her an email and crossed my fingers. In the end, she made a loaner dress to my measurements and sent it to me (you can buy that exact dress at the upcoming bridal market in NYC.) A few weeks before the party, I ended up bringing back piles of neon tulle from Mexico. I made myself a pastel lavender, totally embellished veil, and at the last minute I almost didn’t wear because this wasn’t a wedding and were veils too wedding? But I polled the internet, and everyone told me that I would be a damn fool if I didn’t wear the gorgeous creation… and that Beyonce has proven that we can wear veils whenever we damn well choose.
After figuring out my dress, Jess of Sentimental Fools decided that our color theme should be neon sunrise (for the morning), and pastel sunset (for the evening). She also wanted everyone to have two looks—which in my family, twist our arms. See: pack of divas.
David decided on a light blue suit for the morning from Indochino. The man owns seven full suits, so finding a color suit he didn’t have was a challenge, but one he was happy to rise to. Somehow, though, he’s never owned a tux. So I managed to talk him into getting a tux from Indochino for his evening look, and damn if it wasn’t a good choice (more on that tomorrow).
I showed the kids a picture of Blue Ivy in that amazing gown, and they decided they both wanted to be our flower kids and wear something just like it. But you know, not $11,000. Luckily Rainey’s Closet exists, with it’s brilliant business model of renting designer clothes for children. So for roughly the cost of what I would have paid for far less amazing dresses—that they never would have worn again—they got to wear bad-ass designer gowns, that we returned the next day.
The Fun Details
Beyond that, I knew that going to the desert meant bringing something from Block Shop Textiles with me. The co-founder of Block Shop, Lily Stockman, grew up on the internet with me, and the DNA of their brand is all about the desert. So we brought the Block Shop rug from our entryway at home, did a family ritual on it, and it now has more dust and more stories.
Given that it was the desert, in August, we knew that we had to have this ritual early. Like: early early. Like: our friends would have to get up at dawn to stand on the face of the sun for us, that’s how much they had to love us. But regardless of how much they loved us, we knew we had to provide shade, and our option was parasols. I found a place where we could order white parasols in bulk. They were billed as being for kids DIY projects, which was fitting, since Jess turned them into her own DIY project, in the parking lot of the Palm Springs Motel 8.
And at the last minute, I decided to order kippot in the colors of neon sunrise. They are now favorites in our house.
With all that planning done, two weeks before the party, we realized we needed to figure out what on earth we were doing with the ritual. So we dug out our wedding service (which we’d spent many hours writing), and looked it over. What we saw was a lot of emphasis on family and community. Our parents blessing us, circling each other to signify the new family unit we were creating. We decided to keep all of that, but focus on the family unit we had actually created, through ten years of love and heartbreak. We circled our children. We blessed them. We had each of our attending immediate family members give a reading: either one from the wedding, or one that reflected where we were today. We started with this quote from Zadie Smith:
People don’t settle for people. They resolve to be with them. It takes faith. You draw a circle in the sand and agree to stand in it and believe in it.
It was read after we had circled our own children in the sand. We read this poem by Li-Young Lee:
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
We drank from David’s parents 25th anniversary kiddish cup. We exchanged a ring Anna Sheffield had made from one of my grandmother’s stones. And we ended with a community blessing.
We also wanted to celebrate Judaism, in a vivid and joyful way for our children. After a year with two horrific synagogue shootings, and tons of anti-semitism on the right and on the left, we really needed a moment to lean into our identity. But our kids, terrified by lock-down drills at Hebrew School and overheard scraps of terrifying conversation—they needed a beautiful illustration of what what it means to be Jewish. So we asked Alex of Signs of Our Lives to come out to the desert and create a Ketubah-like document, to remember the moment by. She brushed up on her Hebrew School Hebrew and created something so beautiful that our daughter has stolen it to put in her backpack and take to school, and now tries to keep in her room. We did a mutual bedeken-inspired ritual, with David putting on my veil, and me putting on his tallis (the wedding tallis that I gave him on our wedding day). We drank from a kiddish cup. We prayed in Hebrew. We ate bagels. We did Judaism, and we did it big. And joyfully.
Recently when my oldest had to do show-and-tell at school, I asked if he was going to talk about how he was proud to be Jewish, and he said, “I’m not proud of being Jewish, I just… am Jewish.” Which is the best answer in the world, and made me feel like this summer’s over-the-top Jewish extravaganza did exactly what we’d hoped.
How It Felt
In my books, I say you won’t remember how your wedding day looked, you’ll remember how it felt. And ten years later that has proved true for me.
This time, though, I do remember how it looked. Those vivid colors in the expanse of desert… symbolizing joy after loss, flowers in the desert after a long awaited rain.
But mostly I remember how people showed up for us: just after dawn on the surface of the sun. How people loved and accepted our crazy, over-the-top celebration of family. How important it felt to take a moment to expansively celebrate joy, love, our kids, and our people. How I learned that we should always take every opportunity for an over-the-top party.
And if I could go back and tell myself one thing, I’d say, “Don’t worry about what people think. Don’t worry that it’s too big, or too ridiculous, or too bright, or too much. That’s the point. And people love you just the way you are.”
And even the people who didn’t get it, but showed up anyway? At the end of the night, they all got it. And seeing them really see us: in our sorrow and loss and joy and diva-ness and love and messiness… that was a wonderful thing.
The party we threw that night, and how damn perfect it was.