At one wedding in Saratoga during my first summer of officiating, I started out with significantly less confidence than usual. For one thing, I had put on a new white robe at the bride's request. This thick, polyester garment had puffy sleeves, each large enough to hold a toddler, rendering me less of an attractive judge-figure and more like the Pillsbury dough boy.
Also, the bride's parents had flown in from the Philippines, and she was the only one of their nine children who had chosen to get married in a restaurant instead of the Catholic church. Her groom was a Methodist computer programmer from the Midwest, and he had an eight-year old son. The bride's parents were polite when I was introduced as the officiant, but frosty, and clearly distressed.
I went to find my quiet spot which, since the guests were already streaming into the restaurant, was the ladies' room. I rinsed my hands and gazed at my scared face in the mirror. Elaborate rituals lay ahead that I had only performed in my mind; there were more than twenty "aunties and uncles" to be named.
It was showtime. After a brother-in-law's several attempts, it appeared that the processional music would not issue from the CD player, so we proceeded anyway.
The bride appeared on her unsmiling father's arm, trembling and looking at the carpet. Once I saw her I ceased to care about the parents or my puffy robe or anything else but her comfort. She took her groom's hand, still trembling, and he gazed at her with palpable adoration. She must have sensed it, or perhaps heard the warmth in my voice as I spoke, because she stilled, raised her eyes, grew perceptibly taller and blossomed into a queen. The rituals proceeded smoothly: candles were lit, aunties and uncles ceremoniously bound and unbound the couple with lariats of white flowers, and we all listened quietly together as golden coins were poured from hand to hand.
"Promise never to take each other for granted," I told them using phrases my father had freely shared with me. "Remind yourselves often of what it was that drew you together. Take the time to make your partner feel special. . . a good marriage takes time and effort, courage and commitment." As they kissed, a sunbeam fell through the window. They were married. I gathered my witnesses' signatures and made my way to the door.
"Wait!" It was the bride's father, a statue of dignity and suppressed emotion. "I'll speak to you."
"Yes," I said, and we walked to the lobby. I faced him, wondering what would come next. Would this polite, stern gentleman frown and assure me that ours was not a valid wedding, performed outside of a church? He stood silent for a few moment, searching for something inside.
"When I come, I'm not sure about all this," he began, waving his hand to the crowded dining room behind us. I nodded; it must have been difficult to accept. "And the things you said, I did not ever hear those words before. Ever." I nodded again. "But," he paused, "I heard your words," and he put his hand on his chest, "and my heart. . . broke open." Then he smiled, and his eyes were wet. "My heart wept tears of joy."
He held out a warm hand and as I shook it, we beamed at each other. As he rejoined his family, I opened the door and slipped out into the sunny, quiet street.
Some couples just want to say “I do.” Others are happy to simply repeat the traditional, “For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” And still others want to write their own vows.
There is no wrong way or right decision; only what is most comfortable for you. If speaking aloud during your wedding is an unwanted load of pressure on an already full day, don’t do it.
On the other hand, if you are comfortable reading a vow you’ve written beforehand, here is a sweet template to get you started. Once you’re started, feel free to throw out the template.
Lisa’s throwaway template:
(Name), I love you because. . . .
I love your . . .
I love that you . . .
And how you make me . . .
I promise that . . . .
And I promise to . . . .
A few more thoughts:
At a minimum, try to write five or seven lines.. At maximum, anything longer than a page is a little rough on your guests.
If you are a funny person, it’s OK to add a touch of humor. If you have gone through very difficult circumstances with your beloved, you can mention this, but overall, try to keep everything in the vows positive and upbeat.
Some couples feel better if they know what each other will say, so they write or review their vows together. Others prefer to keep them secret from each other until the ceremony. If you choose the latter, try to let each other know how long your vow will be for a better balance.
It’s best to jot them down. Trying to memorize them adds another element of risk, which might keep you from being fully present during your wedding ceremony.
Finally, don't be afraid to try writing your vows. If they come from your heart, there is no wrong way to write them!
Some couples just hate the hoopla of a wedding and reception, but they don’t want to go to City Hall either. They want the intimacy of a tailored ceremony in a beautiful environment. This is perfectly achievable.
I met one such couple at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, near a lake with swans and ducks, bringing my friend Susan as witness and ring-bearer. By taking some nicely posed pics of them on her phone and emailing them, she also became the photographer – thanks, Susan! We stood under trees in a pool of dappled light.
The groom and bride had asked for a very brief ceremony as well. Here’s the gist of what we said, and no, I didn't use their real names:
We are gathered here today to create a wedding!
Beatrice and Dante, today you enter the next phase of your growing relationship
by declaring your love for each other
and your intention to live together for the rest of your lives.
Beatrice and Dante, treat yourselves and each other with respect,
and remind yourselves often of what brought you together.
Take responsibility for making one another feel safe,
and give the highest priority to the tenderness, gentleness, and kindness
that your beloved deserves.
Please prepare now to make your vows.
Dante, before you stands Beatrice, a smart, beautiful, hard-working,
and stubborn woman who will continue to grow and change.
Will you have Beatrice to be your beloved wife,
to share your life with her,
and do you pledge that you will love, honor and tenderly care for her,
in ease and adversity, and to keep your heart open to her
from this day forward?
Beatrice, before you stands Dante, a good, kind-hearted man
who will continue to grow and change. Will you have Dante to be your beloved husband,
to share your life with him,
and do you pledge that you will love, honor, and tenderly care for him,
in ease and adversity, and to keep your heart open to him
from this day forward?
Words are powerful. And to follow them, we use rings as a physical token and ever-present reminder of the words spoken here today. (rings are passed)
Dante, repeat after me:
(DANTE REPEATS EACH LINE)
Beatrice, I give you this ring
in token and pledge
of my abiding love.
With this ring, I join my life to yours.
Beatrice, repeat after me:
(BEATRICE REPEATS EACH LINE)
Dante, I give you this ring
in token and pledge
of my abiding love.
With this ring, I join my life to yours.
May the steps you have just taken toward each other help you find new strength.
May you find comfort, security, and vitality with each other.
may your home be a place of happiness for all who enter it,
a place for growing, a place to come home to after traveling,
a place for good food, and friendship and laughter.
And should shadows and darkness fall within its rooms,
may it still be a place of hope and strength for you
and for those who are entrusted to your care.
I call on all of us present to witness that Beatrice and Dante,
have exchanged their promises,
and according to the laws of the State of California,
they are now husband and wife.
You may kiss each other for the first time as a married couple.
The ceremony took less than ten minutes, which suited them perfectly. Small children played nearby, ducks quacked, and the newlyweds strolled off, hand in hand, toward their honeymoon.
When I interview wedding couples in order to draft a customized ceremony, we discuss who will be there, the steps in the ceremony, and so on. Toward the end I ask each one of them, “What does [he/she] bring to the table that will contribute to the success of this marriage?”
I ask for two reasons. On a practical level, if they want to write their own vows or read a few personal thoughts, I will have this information ready and written down in case they call me the night before and say, “I have no idea what to say, help!”
But also I ask this to get them thinking. It's generally something the couple have not articulated to one another before, and may have not even considered. It’s one thing to love a person, the way her hair falls, the way he is with your nieces and nephews. But now the couple is embarking on a huge venture: to create a successful and long-lived marriage. This is a contract, a civil commitment with witnesses and property and families, and it’s worth considering how your partner can support the business of marriage.
I’m happy to report that, after their first surprise, couples hardly ever have trouble identifying each other’s qualities that support marriage. “His practicality supports my huge visions and hazy details,” “He is energetic and full of ideas and solutions,” “She’s so organized, and I love her sense of humor. We’re going to need that as we travel the world together.” And when one talks, the other very often has tears in their eyes, because it is something very precious to hear that your sweetheart cherishes your qualities.
It opens their hearts to each other even more.
It can also reveal any red flags as to why this couple may not be quite ready to marry. “She’s going to sober me up” is a red flag. It means that, for now, equality and independence are lacking.
Long ago I interviewed a very wealthy couple. She was the CEO of a well-known company, and he was a consultant. They shared a commitment to fitness, which they discussed a lot. The interview was nearly over when I asked them this question. She answered something about his very healthy lifestyle, and then I asked him, “What does she bring to the table?” His answer stopped me in my tracks.
“Well, in the end it’s all about me, right? I need things around me to be perfectly in tune with me so I can get into my flow. And she is never any trouble. She likes to do what I like to do. She fits around me like an old slipper.” I waited to see if this was a joke, but apparently it was not. An old slipper! Woe to this CEO when she suddenly has to work late, or travel abroad, or decides to take up a non-fitness hobby. Or gets sick!
I was young, and not bold enough to tell them my thoughts right in the room. I politely concluded the interview, and a few days later, begged off the wedding. I knew that they would marry anyway, and learn whatever lessons they had to learn. But my conscience wouldn’t let me marry them.
I've been writing my Masters' thesis, a slim biography about my maternal great-grandmother, for three years. At first the book was mostly in my head as I struggled with structure and voice. Finally, scenes began to find their way onto paper.
During year two, I constructed a long, awkward 'spine' of a book with clunky pieces. I was still in the gathering and placing phase, and many of the pieces went off in all directions. It was such a mess! I shared it with friends who gently reflected back that yes, it was such a mess. Still, the book had come alive now, and we were in a rather obsessive relationship.
This summer, in shifts of between one and four hours of work on it every day (and dreaming about it all the time), I managed to cut and sand away the rough edges, find an internal logic, and let the story begin to shine by itself. I didn't answer all the questions I had about her, but now I could see parts of her life more clearly.
I'm a month away from submitting it to the first committee for their round of edits, and I have not performed a wedding for a year. And yet. Weddings are around me, I remember them, I think about them. Here is a clipping about my great-grandmother's engagement to my great-grandfather. . .
And here is what the wedding was like:
Somewhere I have a blurry grey and white photo of the couple, but I actually think the reporter's breathless words do them better justice. A gown trimmed with Valenciennes lace! Orange blossoms on her veil! My family remembers that the wedding took place in the 'keeping room' because it was a little too chilly to hold outside. The keeping room is where dairy products were kept at a steady temperature. My guess is that the milk and butter were removed, and the room was filled with flowers.
Thank you for reading, and wish me luck on this thesis.
It’s not uncommon for one or both of the wedding couple to have parents who have passed away.
L.R. recently wrote to me and asked if there is an appropriate way to incorporate the memory of deceased parents into the wedding ceremony. She went on to add, “We want this to be a happy moment and I want to be careful not to turn it into a memorial service.” At the same time, as she said, “This is a cherished moment when they should be present and it will give her comfort taking this big step in her life.”
When I thank people for coming to the wedding, after opening the ceremony, I often say, “We also want to acknowledge those important people who are not sitting with us today.” If someone couldn't travel for health or other reasons, or is serving overseas, this is a good time to name them.
Then I say, “And especially, (the deceased person’s name or names). He (or she, or they) ARE here in spirit, and in our hearts.” It is perfectly OK to have a poignant moment in an otherwise cheerful ceremony, and it allows everyone to welcome the memory of those people into the gathering.
As an alternative, the couple could place a photo or two of the parents or loved ones at the sign-in or gift area in the reception. The photos could be happy, so they are easily remembered with joy. Might there be a wedding photo of them?
In some ceremonies, I’ve seen the couple come down the aisle together before the ceremony started, and quietly light a votive candle in front of photos of the deceased parents. No words were spoken; some guests understood and others didn't see it, but it was a sweet and solemn gesture before a joyful occasion.
Finally, if there were particularly characteristic phrases or funny things the parents or loved ones were known for, your couple might like to have some of that woven into your celebrant's address. For example, you could mention that a sense of humor is critical to a long, good marriage (it is!), and thank goodness the bride got a boatload of humor from her dear parents.
I would choose 2-3 possibilities, then try to have an informal chat with your couple to see what sounds most desirable to them. My couples always appreciated knowing about that part long before the big day.
I don’t regret a single moment from my first marriage, which lasted nearly thirteen years. I'm especially grateful for the gift of my daughter from that union. But the marriage we built was riddled with assumptions and problems, and when it was tested, it collapsed in a terribly painful way.
I never expected to fall in love again, but I did. This time, I resolved to do my part differently from the start.
The first marriage’s courtship and engagement period: six weeks. Lots of great conversations in bars, large parties with friends, and many joints shared on the benches in North Beach’s Washington Square.
The second courtship took two years, then an engagement of six months. I was sober. We, too, had great conversations together while walking, in cafes, going on adventures, doing stuff around the house. A friend mentioned a book that turned out to be a pre-wedding gem, because it got us actually talking about us, about stuff that would naturally come up the longer we lived together.
That book is Ten Great Dates Before You Say I Do (Zondervan, 2003). While the authors approached it with a distinctly Christian perspective, the information and process can be valuable to everyone. I’m recommending this book to you.
Many couples do premarital counseling. These talking dates are a way to dive into the same kinds of issues. My betrothed and I went out on ten Thursday night dates after separately doing a page or two of homework.
The homework helped us to sort out our expectations and differences. We talked about where we each came from, our talking style, the ways in which we showed love. (I’m really glad about that last one, because I know that his changing the oil in my car is pretty darned romantic, as is my folding his laundry.)
We talked about really awkward, difficult things like money issues and debts, and sex. We talked about how we’d try to solve problems together, and endure crises and old age together. How we’d handle the housework, our nearly grown children, and our different faiths. Our similar and sometimes very different ideas of fun vacations.
The ten years we’ve been married have slipped by so fast in an atmosphere of trust and enjoyment. Those Thursday dates had a lot to do with it.
There are certain mistakes that even smart couples might make while planning their wedding. Inadvertently making them can cause no end of anxiety and distress before the wedding and even during it.
For example, if you are planning your wedding, are you absolutely clear as to who financially owns the event? If you and your betrothed are covering the cost completely, you can call all the shots. If someone else, usually one or more set of parents, is footing the bill, you will need to gather all your diplomatic skills and negotiate so that both you and the "event owner" are satisfied with the wedding. This may mean saying, "Aunt Jane, as long as everything is buttercream yellow and I carry roses, I don't care who you invite or what we eat."
Or, "Dad, we are paying for this and it will remain a vegan, gluten-free, and alcohol-free wedding, so just deal with it." Just make sure you get this kind of clarity early in the process. There's no worse wedding guest than a festering family resentment!
In some ways, the wedding ceremony is the smallest physical part of the wedding day. It usually doesn’t go on past 40 minutes (unless a church service is involved), a far smaller allotment of time than the reception, the preparations, or even the picture taking with family. And in terms of financial cost, the ceremony itself is usually tiny compared to such things as feeding all your guests, hiring the band or the florist, or wearing that ultimate dress.
Despite its smallness in proportion, people agree that the wedding ceremony itself is the most magical and sacred few moments of your wedding day. Consider that you arrive at your wedding ceremony as two distinct individuals. The ceremony itself is a crucible for transformation, and after certain words and rituals you will emerge from the other side as two (still distinct) individuals who are joined in the eyes of their community, beginning to walk on the path of one life together.
Somehow, planning the wedding ceremony often gets lost among the shuffle of searching for your venue, tasting cakes, and calling up transportation companies. And that’s why even smart and conscious brides and grooms can easily overlook some important action items. Like setting aside time to think about writing your vows, or whether you even want to. And don't wait until the last minute to choose or book your officiant. Many couples have been unpleasantly shocked to find that officiants are already booked, and have been so for months.
When you don’t clearly think through these issues, a general miasma of anxiety begins to rise up around the wedding which makes planning not so much fun for anyone. Fortunately, you can settle these issues fairly quickly and release a great deal of tension from the planning process.
When you officiate at a wedding, carry a handkerchief. It should be soft, with no scratchy embellishments. It should be small enough to hide in your sleeves or notebook. You might even consider carrying one to the wedding rehearsal.
Consider that the bride has (usually) just spent hours having her makeup carefully applied. Yes, it is romantic when tears come to her eyes; that means she is fully engaged in the process of the wedding, and something has moved her deeply. At the same time, she does not want her mascara running down her cheeks, nor does she want her nose to run. Help her retain her maximum photographic advantage. Whip out your hanky and let her delicately blot the tears away.
During my dozen years of officiating, I have also used that hanky to swish away enthusiastic bees from a bride's fresh-flower headdress, and to help a bride mop away the "glow" from marrying on a hundred-plus degree summer day.
The groom is just as likely to tear up. He often has a nicely folded handkerchief in his breast pocket, but yours is more convenient while he reads his vow.
Make sure you are not emotionally invested in the handkerchief, because in the ensuing chaos after the ceremony, it won't make its way back to you.
I remember performing a wedding in a white-towered tent surrounded by a blooming lavender field. The bride had thoughtfully placed a table piled with vintage floral hankies at the entrance to the tent. Alas, there was no sign specifying that guests were able to choose and have one, and so most of those hankies went unused that day. It must have taken a lot of work to assemble that lovely heap of cotton wisps; I hope the couple later made something like a hankie quilt with them.
This is the stamp they chose
The brides arrived at my house late in the afternoon, having picked up their Santa Clara county marriage license the day before. They were already weary after a long, hard drive from Oregon.
We sat at my kitchen table with bottles of cold water. My daughter sat with us. We scrutinized the marriage license, which was in order.
I cleared my throat. “Do you, D, take M to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
“And do you, M, take D to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
“Then, by the power vested in me by the State of California, I now pronounce you to be a legally married couple.”
We cheered and my daughter signed the certificate as a witness. I made copies and slipped the original license into its envelope.
Then we had dinner.
Before you call this wedding completely prosaic and boring, let me continue: I had been with these women six days before, at a late morning wedding under a lace canopy in one of Portland’s botanical gardens. As four closest friends held the poles of the chuppah steady, the brides washed their hands in clear water and fed each other tastes of honey. A framed and witnessed ketubah, a visual reminder of their vows to one another, stood on an easel nearby. The ceremony lasted twenty minutes, and guests beamed with joy and even wept. Vows and rings were exchanged, and that day I said, “By exchanging your private affirmations, you have pronounced yourselves to be married.”
But that wedding is not yet legal in Oregon.
Later, the mother of one of the brides remarked on the fragile hydrangea blossoms that shone like bits of lace among the dark green bushes surrounding our ceremony. There had been no sign of blooms the day before.
Here are some thoughts about weddings, writing, and the world. Enjoy.