Words, written or spoken, have a power and influence like nothing else. No sword broken on shield, no bullet from a gun, no invention by God or man, beyond perhaps fire, has the power wielded by words. We so often take them for granted, letting them loosely fall from our lips with little regard for their weight or impact… but occasionally on certain days, we come together to acknowledge the power of words and use that power to invoke vows, build lives, and forge destinies.
I had the opportunity recently to perform a wedding ceremony for my sister. Excited to play dress up and pretend I was clergy, I dutifully accepted the task and went about writing a ceremony.
Writing a wedding is dense and interesting work. You can’t simply dive into it. It’s a performance piece, so you have to find the melody of the ceremony as much as the words. Will I have a microphone? Will I have to scream it? What kind of crowd will it be? How religiously slanted should it be?
I worked through most of these questions with the bride and groom, asking for their input, and outside of the logistics of the event itself, they left it to me.
I began writing under the assumption that you should start with a welcome and maybe some kind of benediction.
Good Afternoon. Welcome. Welcome to our bridge and groom. Welcome friends, family, plus-ones, and anyone else I’ve missed. Before we begin I wish to take a moment to honor those who couldn’t be here today. I personally know one chair in particular that would be filled today if not for unfortunate happenstance, and I’m sure there probably are a few others. Those that couldn’t be here are here in thought, in spirit, and in the smiles of us all.
That’s the paragraph to get the nerves out. It is public speaking after all, and a good opening paragraph helps set the cadence and volume you’ll need.
When I performed the ceremony it was outside a friendly town in Arkansas at an outdoor venue overlooking a valley. The afternoon was waning and the temperature was pleasant. I arrived an hour early to go over the writing and play with the wording a bit. There wasn’t a rehearsal to speak of, and somehow over the years I had become the responsible one in the family that people relied on to pull it all together. Everyone was looking to me to ensure this went smoothly and I was taking that duty seriously.
I’d arrived in Arkansas two days before and had mostly isolated myself from the family. They were staying in Bentonville, world headquarters to Walmart, and I decided to stay closer to the ceremony location. I ended up getting a room in this classic hotel in the very quaint town of Eureka Springs.
After checking in and getting my room I went about walking around to get a feel for the local color. Shops full of curios and local wares lined the streets. I popped into a hat shop where an overly friendly woman skilled in the arts of haberdashery took over my life for an hour. “You’d look great in a porkpie,” she told me putting various hats on my head until she found the right one. We chatted for some time. I told her why I was there and read her some of the ceremony from the notebook I carried. I bought the pork pie she recommended and have worn it quite a bit since. I even wore it to the wedding. It made me feel more official and dynamic; after all, wearing a hat requires confidence and authority.
For dinner that night I went to the hotel restaurant. The food was pleasant enough and the waiter, who was somewhat distinct in his mannerisms, asked me where I was from. “San Francisco,” I told him. “You?”
“Chicago,” he told me.
“How does a guy from Chicago end up in a small Arkansas town in the middle of nowhere?”
“Oh,” he began as gestured with his black capped bic pen, “I had enough of Chicago and a friend of mine called and told me there was this town that was friendly toward people like myself,” the emphasis he gave those words gave me a nod and a wink toward his sexual preference, “so me and my boyfriend, that’s him at the bar,” he used the pen to point to a friendly looking bearded man, “moved down here. We’ve been here three years and love it.” He went on to talk about the culture of the town and how it was an island in a sea of the stereotypical. I went about eating my dinner and he went about waiting on his tables. After my meal I sat at the bar, met his boyfriend, and a variety of the other characters from the town. It was a fun and friendly place, and the people were kind and welcoming. I considered it a good omen for what was to come.
We’ve come together today as friends, as family, as the unique witnesses to the power of words as Breana and David have come together to join in a state of matrimony.
There are so many things that come with such a commitment and union. A promise of love, a promise of patience, a need for understanding, a promise of fidelity in body and spirit; and a most importantly for them that day, a public declaration that though sometimes the rain falls, and sometimes there is no moon to the light the darkness, and though the path forward may be shrouded in shadows and doubt — that someone will be there to stand next to you and hold your hand. Someone will be there to shutter the windows to the storm and if need be scream at the wind until it abates.
So as we stand before you all, what we seek to do here today is to begin to define the love that Breana and David have for each other. The process to define it has already begun. It began when they met and began to forge a life together. Today we pause to acknowledge those efforts and the efforts yet to come in working to define that love through time.
Shakespeare wrote, “And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.” That’s what I was seeking. I wanted the crowd to marvel at the coming together of two people willing to borrow from the foundation of their individuality to build a life together. Breana had given me months to plan and write. When I got assigned the job I read a few of the “standard” versions of wedding ceremonies, looking to thread the needle between being romantic and sweeping in scope, to personal and unique; and knowing this was taking place in God’s country, I thought a bible quote or two would be a good idea.
First Corinthians says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Though these words are poetic and lovely I don’t entirely agree. Love is the exercise of patience as it is the exercise of kindness. Love is about boasting and shouting about it being proud to have achieved a synergy with someone. Love, to me, is understanding, and forgiving, and love learns from wrongs and doesn’t omit or ignore them. Strength in love comes from partnership. Equality among participants wherein those who seek to engage and find happiness mustn’t ignore the follies of youth or past, but learn and grow from them. Sometimes love does fail — in the gale force of rigidity, confusion, and ill communication — and a wedding is two people willing to publicly declare their desire to be flexible. To communicate. To provide clarity; and in doing so give love, as if it were their first child together, a chance to grow and thrive.
No one, certainly not me, purports that forging a shared destiny is a small task. No one purports that there is no value in this great adventure; and that’s what I was tasked to shepherd; The start of a grand adventure. In crafting this speech I wondered where will this adventure would take them. It had already taken me into a flurry of words and hyperbole, and ultimately a fleeting moment lost in the breeze of fading memories. It may eventually take them around the world and back, to the moon and beyond, but it started, really started there; and it was my great quest to give them a strong wind at their backs.
When the ceremony started there wasn’t much structure to it. The groom in a classy grey suit, and his two groomsmen — one also in a suit, the other in work pants and a short sleeve shirt and tie, walked down the aisle. Seeing that there wasn’t anyone but me to direct traffic I position them to my left as I faced the sixty or so people assembled in the white folding chairs in front of me. My step-mother, the wife of my deceased and missed father, sat to my right, on the bride’s side of the aisle in the front row. The groom’s father, a stunning and fantastic stereotype of an Arkansas man, sat across the aisle from her, his long grey hair falling over the shoulders of his dated and ill-fitting tuxedo. He looked proud and on the verge of tears.
Next came the one bridesmaid and two small flower girls. She looked lovely in a blue dress and white sweater to keep her shoulders warm. I directed them to my right. The crowd looked back and instinctively rose as my sister Breana was led down the aisle by her father, who was beaming himself with the pride and gravity of the moment. When they reached halfway down I realized I hadn’t written anything about giving the bride away.
“Who gives this woman away?” I improvised, shouting a little louder than I had anticipated my first words to be.
“I do.” He said sternly, shaking David’s hand, then mine. I gave a quick bit of quiet stage directions, and then more loudly asked them to face each other.
Behind them, that rocky aisle she had just been led down was the first steps of their adventure together. That’s why we gathered that day. That’s what it meant for them to stand there and exchange words. We, as a group, acknowledged that they were about to begin this new time together, forging a life together, first by public declaration of love and commitment, and then when these words — these words we’d all bestowed with the power to bind and to join — were done, they’d seal it with a kiss and take the first steps of that adventure.
It was a great personal honor for me to be performing the ceremony. I’ve known Bre since she was a little girl, and it was a privilege to be chosen to stand there and unite her and David in marriage. When I sat down to write this ceremony I spent some time lost in how best to express both the pride I feel in its performance, but also how to encapsulate the love these two people are sharing today.
Lost in the stillness of my mind as I desperately sought the skill to order words in such a way that it would be worthy of the moment, I found myself feeling as though the task was impossible. How could I begin to articulate their love? How could I have the hubris to think myself loquacious and emotive enough to stand in front of a group of strangers and deliver something worthy of such a moment? I considered bowing out, asking Bre to turn to someone else. A justice of the peace, maybe a local priest would have the experience in at least faking grandiosity. They wouldn’t make it overly unique and impactful, but they also had less of a potential to ruin it with hyperbolic gruff.
I’d written maybe a sentence when I was ready to throw in the towel; but there exists a voice in my head — A familiar tone of a man long since passed, who’s voice once soothed me back to sleep after nightmares, and cheered for me from the stands even when I struck out. My father once told me that if we are created in the image of god, and god always appears as a flame, then we too must be fire. “We are star stuff” he’d tell me quoting Carl Sagan. “When we were forged in the heart of a star all those eons ago, we were split in two. Twin flames.” My father demonstrated this to me by saying true loves fits like holding hands, while twin flames fit like interlocking fingers.
My father was a man of poetic license and cognitive dissonance, but in remembering that story I realized any one of us could stand there and meet the challenge of the moment. The hard work was done. Breana and David’s life together has already begun. I could read the dictionary, have them answer a question and they’d still be married and forging ahead.
After my father’s words, I turned to Walt Whitman and a line from his poem Perfections:
ONLY themselves understand themselves, and the like of themselves,
As Souls only understand Souls.
Only themselves understand themselves. Only Breana and David truly understood the love they shared. It’s as true of them as any one of us who choose to share their lives and heart with someone. We let them into our world — we open the door for them — at first just a crack — and eventually they are let all the way in to see our soul, bared, our emotions raw, our face smiling or tearful. I had finally found my voice and, though slowly at first, I started to write.
Drawing from another poet, Arthur O’Shaugnessey, I found in his masterpiece Ode that he expressed the hope and desire of fate and fortune, in love and in life. He wrote:
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams; —
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
Breana and David were the music makers, the dreamers of dreams; and though the world is not perfect, and as they were acutely aware, neither were they — this was their world, and they were the masters of it.
The odd task of the officiant is essentially to find a poetic benediction, to engage in ceremony, and to assist in the public declaration of love between two people — but in truth, I was redundant as they were already married.
The irony for me, particularly in crafting the ceremony, was that Breana married David the moment she knew she’d stand by his side and love him no matter what. David married Breana when he realized the depth of which he loved her and that he’d never let her go. The ceremony was just the legal affirmation of love; it’s certainly wasn’t the creation of love, and in truth it wasn’t the declaration of love, the ceremony is merely the expression of love, love already created. Love already affirmed. Love already declared. We joined in the expression of that which already was, in hope that for an instant, a bolt of lightning across our beings , that we get to live vicariously through them . We don’t envy, we hope. We remember. We fall in love again. Mostly, we celebrate. That’s what a wedding ultimately is, a celebration.
We stood there warm in the sun, and I prattled on through my words as they stood there staring at each other.
We’ve now come to the time where I offer prose, and formality as I ask you both a question. David — do you take Breana to be your wife. To hold, to help, to understand, to listen, to treasure, and to love as your equal and partner? […]Breana — do you take David to be your husband. To hold, to help, to understand, to listen, to treasure, and to love as your equal and partner? […] Do we have the rings?
David, please place the ring on Breana’s hand and repeat after me:
Take you Breana Rose
Vows are funny things for me. I asked Bre if she and David wanted to write their own, or had any input. “Nope,” she flatly told me. I knew I wanted to write something that was recognizable but also thought that if two people are entering into what is essentially a verbal contract based on five thousand years of tradition I wanted to endow it with a certain amount of modernity.
First to get a rewrite was the typical “to have and to hold” line. It’s cute but cliché.
As you are, as you will be
To be my wife, my partner, my twin flame
Next was I wanted to do away with the “Death do us part” bit.
From days long before this
Until days long after
Then I just got wordy and poetic.
And thus promise
To not be complacent
To be calm in the storm
To provide light in the darkness
And to love you, honor you, respect you, and cherish you
This is my vow
As David, and then Breana repeated after me, I felt words that I had thought were just a formality, just hyperbolic, poetic nonsense, slowly take on weight. With each sentence, as they spoke them to each other, they believedthem. Those words became a solid and understood contract between them; not about the literal meanings of the word, but as a mutual understanding of their life together. The real vow they took was to be more than themselves, taking the life and responsibility of another into their hands.
Vows had been exchanged, “I Do” has been said not once, but twice, and so it was with great pride that, in their expression of love, the power of their words and vows, and acknowledgment of that ceremony, that I declared them to the crown on hand to be Husband and Wife. Down that path behind them was the beginning of another great adventure. They took it together, with boldness, and courage, and moxie — and did so willing to walk off the ends of the earth with each other if that’s where the path took them — but before I sent him, I informed David, now a brother, politely, “you may now kiss the bride.”