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.
This is the outside of Oakland's amazing Cathedral of Christ the Light. When I wandered inside and meditated for a little while, I remembered how my own spiritual pilgrimage began.
My early childhood Sunday mornings were spent reading the funnies while the grown-ups padded around in robes, drinking coffee, perhaps cleaning the aquarium or getting sun in the garden. The only intimations of religion I remember were from television: Sidney Poitier visiting some stubborn nuns and building their church, and Sally Field as the disarming Flying Nun.
Then, around age ten, I detoured one day from walking home from school (my house key on a string around my neck) and headed instead to old grey St. Bridget's a block away. They didn't lock their doors then. I slipped inside and sat down in a pew, awed and excited. My solitary experience that day was of sweet silence, light through colored windows, the faint smell of sweat and incense. I asked my father that night if I could be a Catholic.
Dad, embracing Unitarian and Humanist fellowships after a Jewish and Christian Scientist childhood, managed to hide his surprise. "You can be baptized anything you want," he said firmly. "Once you are eighteen."
Suddenly, becoming baptized seemed tremendously important to me. Dad showed me a book called "The Church Down the Street." "Look at all these religions you can choose from," he said, leafing through the chapters. Baptist. Jew. Muslim. Buddhist. "I recommend you study them before you make up your mind." My work was cut out for me.
Over the next seven years, I attended a session of Catholic summer camp and two years of Jewish summer camp; six months of Wednesday night youth group at my Mormon friend's church; yoga and meditation classes at the stuffy top-floor studio of the Iyengar Yoga Institute; zen meditation at Green Gulch; informal but thorough lessons in Wicca and Tarot reading from friends; services and summer family camp with Unitarians, and some quiet time sitting with Friends. Oh, and a ten week course in Episcopalian history.
As I turned eighteen, I had the usual mix of blustery bravado and intense shyness, idealism and cynicism. I was living with a boyfriend by then, waitressing, writing poetry. Dad mentioned that he was worried about me-- so many young people were flocking to the Hare Krishnas, to Jim Jones, to Reverend Sun Moon. "No way, Dad," I said. I had already proven to myself that, with my freethinking ideas, I did not fit in anywhere.
The previous summer, I had baptized myself by a splashing snow-melt stream in the high Tuolomne Meadows. The bright sun was nearly swallowed in vast blue sky, and the banks of the stream were a riot of Indian paintbrush and purple lupine.
Here are some thoughts about weddings, writing, and the world. Enjoy.