Friday, January 27, 2006

Planning the Imperfect Wedding

Wedding planning can make you crazy.

I've been engaged for about two months, with six more to go, and I've already been to the edge of bridal meltdown and back a few times. The first rule of wedding planning I discovered is that it's wise to stay away...far away....from bridal magazines. They tend to affect me in the same way as romantic movies. They make me discontent with real life and blind to the everyday ordinary beauty of what I have been given. They make me wish for a life that is void of any real challenges besides those manufactured to create enough plot tension to keep my attention for two hours and give me a sense of relief when, predictably, the perfectly beautiful woman and the perfectly beautiful man get together and walk off together into happily ever after (accompanied by a well-timed swell of music and a perfect sunset). They make me wish I were impossibly skinny and beautiful, as if that is somehow the key to marital bliss.

On the pages of wedding magazines, every woman becomes A Bride - not a three-dimensional person with friendships, a job, intellectual interests, and a life-calling, and who just happens to also be getting married, but a one-dimensional creature who's only goal and focus in life is to plan the Perfect Wedding. I actually read about one woman who quit her job and spent 4 months full-time planning her wedding. A Bride, incidentally, should ideally be free to spend enough money to buy a reliable used car or a semester of graduate classes on a dress she will wear for about 4 hours, and to complete the outfit with a crystal tiara. I, for one, think the tiara is an especially bad idea. If I've learned anything so far in this dating/love/marriage adventure, it is that real love takes an incredible amount of humility. Tiara-wearing tends to be bad for the cultivation of humility, patience, selflessness, and other very un-princess-like qualities which are essential to marriage.

So wedding magazines make me lust for antique horse drawn carriages, three-course candlelit dinners for 300 complete with a string quartet (never mind that I don't even have 300 friends), buckets and buckets of roses, and a dress with enough crystals and beads and lace to put a real princess to shame. They make me want things I can't possibly afford and which, in my saner moments, I know to be thoroughly immoral ways to use money.

This is somewhat shocking to me since I have never been one of those women who have had her wedding all planned out since she was 15. In fact, I wasn't at all sure I would ever have a wedding, or even that I would ever want to have a wedding until fairly recently.

After watching the latest Jane Austen movie, I developed a theory about why all this wedding madness is so hard to resist...I wonder if part of the obsession with planning the perfect wedding comes from the fact that we no longer have formal social occasions other than weddings...when else in a woman's life is there an occasion where crinolines, a tiara and a dress with a three-foot lace train are appropriate apparel? Or when a roomful of people will all pause to admire you waltzing with a handsome young man? Maybe if we had more balls, it would be easier to plan a simple, modest, un-princess-like wedding.

I also think we obsess over weddings because we are anxious about marriage. It's easier to figure out how to coordinate the table napkins with the imported orchids in the bridal bouquet than it is to acknowledge the amazingly terrifying risks we take when we wed our lives and souls to another. And it's much easier to search for the perfect invitations or favors or bridesmaid dresses than it is to face up to my own weaknesses and failings which will inevitably hurt the one who is placing this dizzying amount of faith in me.

My grandmother got married in my grandfather's family's living room, wearing her best dress. I don't think that was unusual for the 1930's - it was the Depression and spending even a fraction of what weddings cost today would have been unthinkable. It was equally unthinkable that a marriage might end in divorce. But nobody these days makes it to marriageable age without having seen some serious betrayal of marital trust up close...and I wonder if the elaborateness of weddings is not inversely related to the amount of anxiety we feel about exposing ourselves to this possibility.

The real danger for me in all this Perfect Wedding madness is that it skews my view of what it means to be married. It promises that marriage can be as carefree, romantic and fairy-tale-like as the glossy photos in Brides Magazine. It promises that if I can only manage to look as breathtakingly beautiful as the models in the 976 pages of wedding dresses, I too will achieve marital bliss and lifelong romance.

As Eric and I have grown closer over the past three years, he has become infinitely more dear to me. I am definitely and without a doubt deeply in love with him and there is no one with whom I would rather live my life. But as we have grown closer we have also become more and more like family. We get on each other's nerves. We say things that we didn't mean to be hurtful, but hurt all the same, and hurt more than we could have predicted because we value each other's care and respect so much. I get upset over small things, like who will wash the dishes or take out the trash, that turn out not to be small at all when you're planning a lifetime together. We have discovered that, despite the fact that we live on opposite coasts and miss each other like crazy between visits, we both still need a break from each other sometimes. And that we don't always feel particularly romantic, and that even then, and maybe especially then, there is value and joy in doing the ordinary tasks of life together.

I think sometimes we forget that romance and weddings lead to becoming living everyday life together and coming to terms with each other's annoying habits and weaknesses and failings. That loving someone is as much about holding onto and longing for the vision of who they will be when they are fully mature as it is about being enamored with who they are now. That nobody wakes up every single morning for 40 or 50 years of marriage and feels perfectly swept away with happiness at being married to their spouse. That real joy in marriage comes only after you've made a commitment to love each other when you don't feel very much like loving each other. And that loving someone well for a life-time means loving them in multi-faceted ways...not only romantically, but also as a friend and a co-laborer in life's work, as a family member.

And family life is rooted in the everyday. It's about washing the dishes and opening the mail and cooking dinner together. It's about learning to live on a budget and to give up some of what you want for what your family needs. It's about caring for and being cared for by friends and neighbors and extended family who are also three-dimensional complex imperfect people, and not just tuxedoed or evening-gowned paper-doll Wedding Guests. It's about being a three-dimensional person yourself, with work and friendship and church commitments to keep, as well as a marriage to nurture.

So I am planning the Imperfect Wedding. There won't be any horse drawn carriages or candlelit dinners for 300. I will not wear a tiara or order buckets and buckets of roses or send out engraved invitations. We're not going to rent silver and china or linen chair covers or a three-tiered chocolate fountain. And we're not going to a Caribbean island for our honeymoon.

We're going to get married in the inner city neighborhood where Eric lived for most of the past four years, surrounded by family and friends. No doubt our ceremony will be punctuated by the loud bass car stereos and squeals of tires that fill his neighborhood on warm summer evenings. Our reception is going to be potluck so we won't have to limit our guest list based on our budget and we're skipping the wedding cake in favor of brownies and cheesecake. Friends and family will help us decorate, arrange the flowers, and serve the food. And we'll head off for our honeymoon in Eric's aging Buick.

Martha Stewart, Emily Post and Bride's Magazine would all heartily disapprove. It will be the perfect beginning to an imperfect marriage.