Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
Do you want your vows to be unique? Meh. Meaningful? Let’s talk.
Yellow. And you walking through the yellow.
This house. And you humming in this house.
Grey. And lights that shine through gray to guide me.
Ground, cold. And my feet on the cold ground, warm.
Now. The deep breath of now.
The urge to kiss what’s coming.
May I create this space with abandon and acceptance.
Small and brief, if those are the materials available.
Fields and infinite, if those are the gifts arriving.
Soon after we decided to get married, I started planning our wedding. Not the party (I know, counterintuitive, right?). The ceremony. Planning the rest, I believed (and sort-of convinced my now-husband), would flow from our vision for the ceremony. He was on board until I described the process we would use to write our vows. “Oh, we did a writing — workshop,” he now describes with a hint of comic exaggeration. When people ask how long it lasted, his expression reads weeks, but his words confirm, “about two or three days.”
From my perspective, we started writing our vows at the moment we decided to be together, long before we got engaged — we just didn’t know it. As we spent more time together, found greater comfort and peace in each other’s presence, figured out that we brought the best out of each other, and came to understand each other’s motivations (and neuroses), the vows just started writing themselves. We started to see a life that we could create together — not an expansion of our single-lives, but a potentially dramatic reorchestration. The words that fell so rightly into place and that we delivered to each other while surrounded by family and friends reflected the world that we slowly built during weekends spent together and strings of texts and GIFs that tethered us through the week.
Most cultural traditions have formalized this stage — engagement is peppered with events and tasks that invite the about-to-be-married-couple to establish the norms of their relationship and ease into their new ontological and social status. In the lead-up to modern American weddings, retail registries literally fill the couple’s new home with memories (or at least with practical items that can trigger the memory of someone they love, or at least liked enough to invite to their nuptials). Engagement parties facilitate new connections between family and friends, and most folks attending bachelor/ette parties, as crass or gritty as they might become, forget that the purpose of the event is much more fundamental, or at least more interesting, than strippers and jello shots. Polite mixers and debauched soirees focused on the people getting married serve a specific purpose beyond racking up gifts and getting the spouses-to-be embarrassingly soused. They make space for family and friends to transition the engagees, to wean them from the patterns and habits and relationships that constituted single life. Along the way, the people getting married feel supported, seen, and loved, a critical layer to wrap around them as they navigate a new (for them) kind of grief, the grief that comes with letting go of “before.”
Religious traditions also formalize the pre-wedding phase. Catholics, for example, participate in a “pre-Cana” retreat (well, they used to do a retreat, but like everything else, there’s an online option), taking its name from the town where, according to the gospels, Jesus performed his first public miracle…at a wedding. What was the miracle, you ask? The hosts ran out of wine, and Jesus, spurred on by his mother (who must’ve given him the look that only mothers can give, the look of, “you know what you need to do”) turned jugs of water into the best wine of the fete. Like other Catholic retreats, the purpose is to provide time and space away from daily obligations and distractions to discern, in this case, what married life will look like and what that means in the big picture. Some approach the retreat as an extended meditation on the grace of married life, while others see it as an opportunity to obsess over the question, “are you sure about this?”
Yes, I’ve just equated wedding registries, Catholic retreats, and bachelor parties. In different ways — in very different forms — they function similarly in his range of the life cycle.
I grew up (and still identify as) Catholic, and, in case you haven’t heard, the Catholic church has not quite gotten to the point of recognizing same-sex marriage, so pre-Cana wasn’t an option for us. My husband grew up without any religious affiliation and sits comfortably in the agnostic range on the spectrum of religious beliefs, so even if the church would’ve welcomed us, we probably wouldn’t have sought that kind of marriage preparation anyway. Still, wouldn’t we benefit from some kind of discernment? Shouldn’t we make time to think critically and holistically, to ensure that when we sign the license and say “I do,” we would be looking the same direction? To be confident that our hopes and values aligned, that the things we were promising were really what we needed and what we could give?
As public ceremonies, weddings require very little to be “legit,” at least in the eyes of the state. One requirement: it’s public. That doesn’t mean that it has to be performed in the middle of a city plaza or broadcast on C-SPAN. It means that someone who represents the State (aka, the officiant) witnesses it and solemnly attests that it happened. Perhaps this requirement is an antique, a vestige of another time in which formal authority was tightly held and ceremonies could be (and were) used to bolster power, but whatever its origin and current form, the requirement that a wedding be public and witnessed by a representative of the state points to two key insights about the nature of marriage (or at least, the nature of marriage in this particular cultural context and location): first, marriage is distinct from other types of relationships; second, as an institution, as “a custom or tradition that has existed for a long time and is accepted as an important part of a particular society” (thanks, Cambridge Dictionary! It’s funny…I’ve never thought to look up the definition of “institution” — just one of those words that means…well, itself, right? Which speaks to the power of institutions in our collective psyche, but that’s a different essay.), the impact of a marriage ripples far beyond the two people at the center, even beyond the network of families and friends who might surround them at the ceremony. Its impact is social — perhaps that’s obvious — but it also has political and economic effects. As the details of each person’s life are reorchestrated, every chain of relationships connected to a marrying couple is adjusted or adapted. Suddenly two groups of people that may never have intersected are bound in community. In an instant, the Monatagues and the Capulets are family. Had Juliet and Romeo made different, less suicidal decisions, the war between clans shifts to negotiations about who gets the couple for the holidays. Formalized traditions imply all of this, but it’s typically simultaneously shrouded in symbolism (that may or may not be understood by the people at the center) and rooted in and reinforcing outdated, irrelevant (to the couple), or outright oppressive models of gender.
The second requirement for a wedding to be legit (in the eyes of the state) is the declaration of commitments, or vows. Rooted in medieval Christian practice, the typical format for vows (you know, the lines we hear in the movies and on TV shows) go something like this:
I, X, take you, Y, as my lawfully wedded spouse,
to have and to hold from this day forward,
for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, til death do us part.
By declaring vows publicly, a marrying couple invites all who hear them to confirm not only that it happened but also to affirm the worldview they they are committing to. The typical iteration (above) is anything but generic and simple — the people declaring these vows are committing to live as a unit, no matter what happens, until one of them is dead. No matter what happens? Let’s go deeper. “To have and to hold” is a dense turn of phrase. Considering that sex is a distinctive component of marriage, I hear it as a prudish and distilled-for-public-consumption (G-rated, not even PG) commitment to sexual fidelity. Add to this a simultaneous and less sexually-explicit meaning of “to have and to hold” — possession. This is, to say the absolute least, troubling in light of the history of misogyny and the ways that marriage has been used to trap women in abusive relationships and degrading situations. How many times has this formula (and the world that articulated it) been proclaimed publicly and projected as the “norm” in movies and TV shows?
Not all traditional (and by this, I mean, “rooted within a particular tradition”; I don’t mean “archaic” or any other pejorative sense) vows are caught in the traps of unenlightened understandings of personhood, but it’s very on-trend to write and deliver unique vows. While just about every website in the Wedding Industrial Complex aimed at delivering your dream wedding includes a series of tips on how to write unique, memorable vows, I have yet to find guidelines that encourage a marrying couple to first equip themselves with a good dictionary and thesaurus, or that attends to the actual meaning and implication of words, advice that could boil down to “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” I glean from this that the folks writing those guidelines themselves aren’t necessarily interested in what you’re proclaiming to the world in the presence of witnesses and representatives of the state. They’re interested in helping you make a moment.
When I go to a wedding, I look forward to the exchange of vows like an emotional and cathartic climax. I know I’m not alone — this is the point in the ceremony when everyone in the room (or under the big elm tree, or on the beach) leans in and focuses intently on the couple. It’s typically the only time we hear the couple at the center of the ceremony speak, and we all hold our breath (and our smartphones) to be able to catch every word, to detect any crack of emotion. We eagerly giggle at embedded jokes and intentionally funny tics or improvisations, and we meditate on how perfect they are for each other and how happy they look. And we love it when they cry, right? For the empathetic cryers in the crowd, the first teardrop from a choked-up spouse-in-the-making unlocks the floodgates, and the beautiful site so specifically chosen becomes a big emotional pool of happy tears. My point: people are paying attention. Perhaps more acutely than ever before in their lives, and perhaps more attentively than they ever will again, people are paying close attention to the marrying couple. They’re primed and piqued and ready…but then what do they deliver?
While the moment always makes for a good photo op, most of the “unique” vows in non-traditional ceremonies aren’t very unique. This is not to say that they’re not honest, earnest, and effective — they echo the advice disseminated by the Wedding Industrial Complex, advice that promotes brevity and clarity (good tips, always) and that steers away from too many “inside jokes” (also a good tip, but not followed often enough). But I learned all of that in my 10th grade Speech class — what does this have to do with the proclamation that changes a couple’s status in society? Some sites offer dozens of options for vows, but most of the differences are aesthetic. Some are flowery, some are sparse. Some are traditional, some are modern. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. At their core, though, most follow a formula that was developed in and that carries with it the worldview of a particular place and time (medieval Christianity), a place and time long before anyone was searching for vows online. Is that the kind of marriage you’re entering? Some sites provide templates, but the implication of a template is that the [nouns] delivered in the [noun] are just a [adjective] form of [proper nouns] . [key: vows, wedding, romantic, Mad Libs].
The unoriginality of original vows is a result of our lack, as a culture, of a well-developed capacity for reflection. Traditional ceremonies, including the language of vows and the choreography of rituals, reflect centuries of reflection (meta, right?) on natural and divine mysteries. A culture’s worldview and the evolution of its practices are embedded in the details of its rituals, so when we step outside those traditional contexts, it’s hard to find a starting point for that kind of reflection. Going with conventional forms of language isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t invalidate or diminish the marriage, but in addition to inadvertently reinforcing an outdated and probably irrelevant (to a couple choosing a non-traditional wedding), it does miss a few opportunities.
First, it misses an opportunity to articulate truly unique vows that “say what you mean and mean what you say.” That means going deeper, thinking more systemically, and envisioning for the long term, well past the gushing and lists of “reasons I love you” that typically take up most of the space in original vows. It’s never a bad thing to remind someone that or why you love them, but (especially when left as a chore to be completed at the last minute, right, Mr. Big? #satc) just focusing on the mushy stuff doesn’t flesh out what the future holds or how your shared life will impact the people around you. It’s more difficult and perhaps requires some coaching, but engaging in deeper reflection allows a marrying couple to design a formula that is uniquely theirs, that emerges from their deepest understanding of the relationship they are forging.
Second, it misses an opportunity to make the process meaningful for you. Dedicating space (physical- and head-) and time to pay attention to the details, like to the words chosen in solemn vows, may not be at the top of the list of fun things to do on a Friday night, especially if it’s approached like a chore or a box to be checked on the long party-planning to-do list. But it’s not just a task to be completed; it’s part of the hard work “they” say is central to marriage. Like most things, putting the time and effort in at the beginning makes for steadier navigation down the road. It’s laying the foundation, it’s charting the roadmap, it’s [insert other metaphors here] for the life you are pursuing together. It may not qualify as fun, but it’s meaningful.
Third, it misses an opportunity to impact the culture. Rituals, particularly life-cycle rituals, are laboratories in which culture can be reinforced and purified, or developed and disseminated. There’s a reason cultural and religious authorities often hold the reins on the ceremonial lives of communities very tightly — people are paying attention. If a marrying couple shares an experience of marginalization or injustice, or if their life plan includes wanting to be characterized by particular values, the proclamation of vows gives them a stage, microphone, and spotlight to project values, hold themselves accountable to those values, and invite their witnesses, the family and friends around them (including the representative of the state), to reflect on and maybe even join in their vision of what the world could be.
In the week or two leading up to our self-imposed, three-day (cue: comically exaggerated tone) workshop, we started looking for our starting points. Knowing that we’d probably include one or two or a series of readings in the ceremony, we collected texts that meant something to us, or spoke to us or about us. We scanned quotes from wise people. We flipped through poems and paragraphs by sages. We walked through our shelves and pondered books from different stages of our lives. We copied them over to a Google Doc. Then it was time for reflection. Separately, over the course of a couple of days, we took time to sit with these texts and identify phrases or words that struck us, that spoke directly to the life we were constructing together. We also sat with and wrote our responses to a series of questions:
What do we bring to each other?
What do we need from each other?
What is the world we want to create together?
How will we engage the good stuff?
How will we engage the hard stuff?
What do we promise to each other?
What do we promise to ourselves?
While my then-fiance was a good student who responded to each individual question, I went rogue and responded in more of a stream-of-consciousness ramble. We read each other’s reflection, cried a little, laughed a little, and talked a lot. We identified two texts to be part of the ceremony — an excerpt from the Song of Songs, translated by feminist poet and scholar Marcia Falk, and a sonnet by the poet and activist Pablo Neruda. We picked out phrases from what we’d written and juxtaposed them with the phrases that grabbed us in the Song of Songs and Neruda’s sonnet.
Stamp me in your heart,
Upon your limbs,
Sear my emblem deep
Into your skin.
For love is strong as death,
Harsh as the grave.
Its tongues are flames, a fierce
And holy blaze.
Endless seas and floods,
Torrents and rivers
Never put out love’s
Those who think that wealth
Can buy them love
Only play the fool
And meet with scorn.
Song of Songs 8:6–7, tr. Marcia Falk
One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII
I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose
from the earth lives dimly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.
Pablo Neruda, tr. Mark Eisner
We saw a basic structure emerge — from you to I to we, from past to present to future. When we noticed we’d gotten wordy or ambitious, we scaled back. We read it silently, letting the phrases unfold; we read it aloud, imagining what others might hear. No need for flowery language or superlatives; no need to compare our experiences to any others; and certainly no need to promise anything we couldn’t or in good conscience wouldn’t (“to have and to hold” didn’t make the cut). The resulting text captured a little bit of gushing (neither of us us skilled in accepting compliments) and settled into clear language about the partnership we intended to construct, the home we wanted to build, the world we wanted to live in, and what we planned to do to make that world happen.
You are more than i deserve, and more than i ever believed i would have.
You restore my confidence and challenge my assumptions.
You make me want to see the world through your eyes and for you to see the world through mine.
I will strive to be true to myself and to you, to stand by your side, to be my best self and to help you be yours.
I will praise you when you deserve it, laugh when you’re funny, and care for you when you need it.
I will speak not with fear but with compassion and consideration.
We will build a life of laughter, honesty, support, understanding, and forgiveness.
We will remember to hope.
We will strive for a world of peace, equity and justice, of kindness and charity, of reverence for the miracle that is life and the universe.
We will be home for each other.
Stamp me in your heart, love me directly, without problems or pride, and be my husband.
I love you.
Yes, our vows served their purpose as a public declaration of our commitment, and yes, our vows communicated our values to the people who surrounded us, and yes, our vows established a strong foundation from which the rest of the ceremony could grow. But most importantly, the process of writing our vows established a strong foundation for our marriage and enabled us to begin to tend to the culture of our home. By inviting our family and friends to witness our proclamation, we were also inviting them into the home we wanted to create, inviting them into the process of shaping the world we wanted to live in.
Over the years and before I ever thought about designing my own (getting married was not on my bucket list), I’ve worked with a variety of couples to design their weddings — friends who for whatever reason didn’t have a cultural or religious tradition they wanted to draw on. Some hoped to incorporate religious and spiritual language from traditions they grew up in or practiced together, others sought strictly secular scripts (alliteration, #amiright). The common purpose that guided us was to make their weddings meaningful, and I learned two things from them (I learned much more, but relevant to this topic…). First, “meaningful” means something different for each marrying couple. Second, the ceremony is only as meaningful as the process from which it emerges, the process that begins at the moment a couple decides to be together and that lasts a very long time. Some couples draw on, embody, and contribute to the cultures they grew up in, but others, especially those of us who have been pushed to the margins or who need to reject parts or all of our formative contexts, have the opportunity to develop new ways of making meaning. We don’t necessarily have centuries of tradition to glean from, but we do have our own lived experiences. That’s the starting point — for reflection, for vows, and for shaping culture.
I encountered poet Cin Salach in a virtual poetry club about six months after our wedding. Her sense and clarity of language really captured me, and as I searched for other examples of her work online (the new library shelf, right?) I stumbled on “welcome,” printed above. It strikes me as a blessing that isn’t bound by ancient norms and practices, as an invocation of what is sacred to us, and most importantly, as a beautiful starting point.
May I create this space with abandon and acceptance.
Small and brief, if those are the materials available.
Fields and infinite, if those are the gifts arriving.