I was inspired to go to divinity school by the religious scholar Mircea Eliade who, in The Sacred and the Profane, argues that humans have an inherent yearning for the sacred. Even if we don’t practice a form of organized religion, we create our own divisions of sacred time and space. We carve out the sacred in a profane world. We make holidays of significant events, we create rituals for ourselves, we give spaces their own powerful significance. Growing up, I loved a set of strange boulders settled in the valley of a neighborhood park. I called them the Wizard Rocks. To me, they were holy and had what some would call “energy.” Once I cried when a friend got Cheese-Whiz all over the largest rock.
Twenty years later, Dan jumped off that same rock and knelt in the grass. He started with “You were a strange kid, and I was a strange kid too,” and then he proposed.
Death and other inappropriate ceremony subjects
We strange kids-turned-adults have spent the past month working on our wedding ceremony. It’s been kind of a problem, a problem best expressed to me when Dan and I were out walking the other evening. As we wove through the high-heeled Shanghai ladies and the dumpling stands of our neighborhood, I pointed out an adorable kitten sitting on a ledge. “How can we get that thing into the wedding?” Dan said, teasing.
Fair enough. It’s true that perhaps I’ve been eager to include all that we love in our ceremony. For example, I want all the readings. How can we only choose two or three readings, when there are so many incredible poems to share? And Dan and I have a tendency to want all the slightly depressing readings. When my sister asked me to choose a poem to read at her wedding, I picked “A Blessing for a Wedding” by Jane Hirshfield, a beautiful, but somber piece (“Today when someone you love has died / or when someone you’ve never met has died”). It was not the favorite. Roy Croft’s “Love” was the favorite (“I love you / not only for what you are / but for what I am / when I am with you”). Dan and I like the Margaret Atwood poem “Habitation,” in which Atwood writes that marriage is “the edge of the forest, the edge / of the desert… the edge of the receding glacier.” Dan’s a sucker for things that acknowledge the severity of life. And deserts.
We’ve also known for a long time that we would include one of Robert Frost’s weird later poems, “Too Anxious for Rivers.” We spent a summer afternoon several years ago sitting on Dan’s couch in Ann Arbor and reading from Frost’s collected works. We loved the poem immediately and set about trying to memorize it: “Oh, I am too anxious for rivers, / to leave it to them to get out of their valleys.” The poem asserts the mystery of love, how we were created in its efforts, but it is more than anything else about how we know and what we cannot know. It has meaning to me and Dan, but will probably leave the audience slightly perplexed. Where’s the romance? After all, the ceremony isn’t just for us, but also for all those we love who will witness it. It can’t be a secret exchange of inside knowledge. The ceremony must be meaningful, in some way, for everyone.
We’ll also have a reading from the Bible, but its historically rooted, hodgepodge of texts has been making our selection difficult. We want to move beyond the often-used verses from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. (This same instinct to “do something different” is what made both Dan and me choose the viola instead of the violin in elementary school. We never got to play the melody.) Of the wealth of the Bible, Dan and I both prefer the Book of Job to anything else, but Job’s meditation on senseless suffering and its poetic assertions of God’s power don’t seem quite right for a wedding. “If only Job had gotten married in there at some point,” Dan sighs.
Into the Sacred
My great uncle, my maternal grandmother’s sister’s husband, will marry us. He is a Presbyterian minister. I was raised Lutheran, Dan Episcopalian. Our ceremony will be a traditional Protestant wedding. Although appropriate, this fact has left me slightly unsatisfied. The marriage rites are sacred, but they don’t seem sufficient somehow. Dan says the vows themselves are enough for him. Our vows, which we will write together, are illocutionary acts: the saying is also the doing. Shouldn’t it be enough that we stand in front of everyone we love and commit our lives to one another, that we stand in a long tradition of others who’ve done the same?
I suppose it should be, but I want something beyond text and music. Something that visualizes what we’ve done. But what? Protestantism offers little extra in the way of wedding ritual. We have the exchanging of rings, but that seems too small and too easily confused with the vows. I went to the wedding of a Hindu friend in which her uncles carried her to the site of the ceremony in a bamboo basket. Yes, I thought, I wish I could do something like that. Or the Jewish chuppah and the breaking of the glass. Or even the communion, the full Catholic Mass that gives the ceremony weight, or at least length. You can blink and miss a Protestant wedding ceremony.
The Sacred… Sand?
Although this perplexes me, the sand ceremony made it to South Dakota in a big way. Two electric-neon colors, one for the bride and one for the groom, poured together to make a jar that recollects an elementary school art project I once completed (to be fair, I loved the way those sand layers looked). Sand ceremonies make more sense to me in a beach wedding, but in South Dakota sand is scarce. Corn pieces dyed with food coloring, perhaps, but sand?
I’ve always liked the unity candle ceremony, although the tradition chapter of A Practical Wedding has changed my mind a bit. (Hint: The unity candle comes from a soap opera script.) Anyway, we can’t have candles at the lake because the American West is a tinderbox. So that’s out.
I suggested to Dan that we could sign the marriage certificate as part of the ceremony. My sister married a Canadian in Canada, and after their vows, the two of them headed over to a table set up on the lawn and made their vows Canadian legal. The witnesses signed as well, and my sister gazed lovingly at her new husband. This might be a good idea, eh? But Dan was immediately opposed. No way the government was worming its way into our wedding ceremony. We’d sign the state-issued marriage certificate hurriedly and afterwards. I’d forgotten, for just that moment of asking, that Dan is from Texas.
Crown Me With Love
So we’re on hunt (or I’m on the hunt) to find a way to meaningfully express what happens in the vows. Something symbolic without being too cheesy, and something that offers up love as its center, but not the easy, romantic love. Something that reminds us that our lives are beautiful and strange and hard, and that what we’ve just done is beautiful and strange and hard too.
Something like having the bridal party process to “Purple Rain.” The song is so big and grand and solemn, and at 3:47, the guitar solo begins and it’s the perfect swelling of sound and emotion for the bride’s entrance. The song opens with the lyrics “I never meant to cause you any sorrow,” which is perfectly in keeping with our somber poetry selection. And Prince is awesome. But can we ignore the second verse and Prince’s crooning, “I never wanted to be your weekend lover”? What about the next line: “I only wanted to be some kind of friend”? Is “Purple Rain” (and whatever purple rain signifies) right for a wedding ceremony?
Here’s where we have to make our own decisions about what will be a significant ritual for us and what will be special to us, not only at the moment of the ceremony, but for years afterward.
One day I might say: This guitar solo. This is when I stepped off the gravel path. I looked out over the lake. There were paddleboats. There were so many people we loved. There was the man I’d chosen, waiting for me.