Okay, I'm like everyone else: Being outside my comfort zone is... well, uncomfortable. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, I figure. In fact, maybe you should go there a lot, so you can see what it's like, and maybe next time it won't be so scary. At least, that's my theory. Case in point: yesterday I married Jill.
To a man, I mean. (Why are you looking at me like that? What did you think I meant? Not that there's anything wrong with that....!)
Jill, good friend and technician extraordinaire, got engaged in the fall. Very touchingly, she asked me immediately if I would do the ceremony: Of course I will, I told her. I'd be honored.
The next thought in my head is: How the hell am I going to pull THAT off? Because, as I am not a minister nor the captain of a ship, this is something that not only have I never done before, it's something I've never even thought about doing. Never in one million years did I think that I'd be called upon to perform a wedding. And - maybe this is just me - it seems like it might be, I don't know, kind of important to get it right, since this is a day she'll remember for the rest of her life, AND she'll only get to do it once. Oh, yeah, and I believe there is some kind of legal impact to it. Just guessing, here.
So I did what any normal, reasonably competent and self-respecting person would do: I panicked.
Luckily, I have backup in all things ministerial: My mother, praise be, is a minister. So, first thing, I scuttled home and called my mommy. You know, like any normal coward would do.
Luckily for me, my mother has performed over 600 weddings. Not only does she know what parts are required for the wedding to be legal, she has a lovely ceremony that's already written out and can be tweaked easily as needed to suit the couple in question. There. That's half my work done for me. And, as a handy fringe benefit, she's full of useful tips, like: Never let them memorize their vows. Make them repeat after you. Even if they're professional actors, they probably won't be able to repeat their lines correctly under the stress of the moment; and even if they could, their job is to be fully engaged in the ceremony, which they can't be if they're trying to remember their lines. They should be looking into each other's eyes and making binding, lifelong and life-altering vows, not trying to remember their script. It's also best to keep the ceremony within a certain time limit so as not to lose people's attention. Additionally, when the part with the rings comes in, the man gets the woman's ring, and the woman gets the man's ring; they have to give them to each other, so they have to take the one that is NOT theirs. Oh, and while having children and dogs involved is adorable, it is also fraught with peril, as the behavior of dogs and children is not always predictable. Children may lay down in the aisle to play with the pretty flower petals, throw tantrums, swallow one or more of the rings, wander off into the congregation, wet themselves (or others), or otherwise fail to cooperate. Dogs may do much the same, although urinating on parishioners is slightly more likely than them wetting themselves. Include children and dogs in the ceremony at your own risk.
Ur. Jill's a musher. She has 19 dogs. Her dogs are a huuuuuuuuge part of her life. They're family. She's putting together a second team so she and her soon-to-be husband can go on overnight winter camping trips. And she wants one of them to be the ring-bearer.
Okay. We'll deal with that part later. First things first: get your mother's wedding ceremony copied out and familiarize yourself with the essential parts, the ones required in order to make the marriage legal. Next, give it to the bride for approval. Next, find out that the bride wants a hand-fasting ceremony. Okay, cool, we can do that - but that's not the part that makes the marriage legal. Hand-fasting was actually done in days of yore (whenever "yore" was) when there were no resident clergy in most towns and villages, and roads were often impassable in the winter to the degree that made it impossible for them to get to their constituents. The hand- fasting was done as a temporary measure until the clergy could make their rounds again (often in June, hence that being the traditional month for weddings). Even back in yore, hand-fasting was legal only for a year and a day, and after that the marriage was no longer valid, unless it had been formalized by taking church-sanctioned vows. Nowadays, of course, you can get your average veterinarian to do the ceremony, but there are still parts that have to be done properly in order for it to be legal.
Okay, then. We'll fold the hand-fasting into the rest of the ceremony. It'll be like a two-fer.
Next, read the ceremony out loud (remembering to pause for the expected "repeat after me" parts and responses like "I will" and so on) so you can see how long the ceremony will be - because you're doing it outside on January the second in Alaska, and it might be a teeeensy bit cold outside. I'm only guessing here, of course. And there will be people from the lower 48 who are not used to the cold and will be suffering, despite the handy bonfire. Also, if the ceremony is longer than about 20 minutes, you tend to lose people's attention even if they're NOT freezing half to death, so being reasonable about your timing is a good idea. Shorter is definitely better. This, of course, is an exceptionally good time to discover that the combined ceremony is too long, and an ever better time to place a frantic call for help to your MinisterMom, who will help you line it out mainly by letting you panic until you run out of steam (so that you can listen again), agreeing that it needs tweaking, and calmly reiterating the necessary inclusions and limitations. She will also most kindly express complete confidence in your ability to manage this task, and overlook the fact that your voice is so high and squeaky with stress that soon only bats will be able to hear it.
This, by the way, is also an excellent time to begin having serious stage fright, as well as noticing that everyone cries at weddings, and you are no exception. Hmm. Might be good to get a handle on that so you are not all sniffly while you read the vows - which, by the nature of them, are kind of tear-jerkers, and may cause your throat to close up entirely.
Oh, goodie. I didn't have enough to worry about here, so thank heavens I've got a new terror on the horizon: Being unable to actually SPEAK the vows, let alone complete the ceremony.
Okay. Worry about that later. Right now you have to coax the bride (gently, as her head is on the verge of supernova) to give you a venue, so that you can apply for your certification and get the paperwork lined out. Do this delicately every few days for at least two weeks, while her fiancee` takes care of several things on the "to do" list but forgets daily to formalise an appropriate venue for the ceremony and reception (although he is duly addressing other matters). Rejoice silently when the date and venue are finalized. Next, contact the State of Alaska court system and get your marriage commissioner's licence, which means you have to gather certain bits of information, such as the full names of the participants (properly spelled, which can be a bit of a challenge in this case), the date and location at which the wedding will occur (and, hallelujah, you now have this information), and your own name (which, if all goes as planned, you will be having trouble remembering right about now.)
A few days after this is a good time to receive your wedding commissioner's licence in the mail and promptly panic over visions of losing it before the wedding. Stuff it in the over-sized manila envelope that has your mother's wedding ceremony in it, the hand-fasting ceremony, the combined ceremony, and all remaining traces of your sanity. Emblazon both sides of the envelope with "WEDDING" in large red letters. Note at this time that there are lots of attached pages, examples of paperwork which must be filled out and duly witnessed in order for things to be legal. Also note that - luckily for you - there is yet another version of a wedding ceremony attached. Because God knows the three you already have can't possibly be enough. Prop the envelope on your desk in a prominent area so that you always know where it is, but also so that it is conveniently to hand so that you can have a massive adrenaline surge every time your eye falls on it.
Right about now, two weeks before the wedding, is when it's best to discover that the bride's dress - being made by her sister - is not finished, the rings are not ordered yet, and the bride herself is thinking longingly and sometimes tearfully of elopement. It's also a good time to learn that the bride is so overwhelmed that when you ask her what things you can take over for her to lighten the load, she can't even tell you if she needs chocolate, dinner, or alcohol to take her stress level down one notch. Realistically, the best choice is to provide all three in a handy, carry-out sort of fashion, and then to back away slowly. It's probably wisest at this juncture, when discovering that the marriage licence has not yet been obtained, not to make any stern remarks about how we have to have that for the legalities to be observed. Just say "Oh, okay" and exit the room quietly. Remind yourself that this is a capable, responsible adult and you have absolute faith in her - and besides, YOU'RE the one who can't read the wedding ceremony out loud yet, so maybe you should be focusing on that. This would be a good time to begin living on Alka-Seltzer, if you're in any doubt about the timing on that.
The following week is the best time to discover that the dog intended to be the ring bearer has gestational diabetes, by the way, and needs to be spayed less than a week before the ceremony.
On the plus side, the marriage licence is in hand and the groom's doublet, shirt and pants have all arrived. On the minus side, the rings have not - and the wedding dress is still under construction. But back on the plus side, the seamstress sister is now in Alaska, so work is proceeding.
Two days before the wedding is the best time to find out that, if you want to go over the completed wedding ceremony with the bride and groom, your best shot is to do it the night before the wedding, when you will be helping decorate the reception venue. Since this is all the rehearsal you're going to get, you should go for it. Besides, the reception is being held in a charming log-cabin chalet on a military base, and not only is it quaint and adorable, it's a lot of fun decorating it with candles and tiny white Christmas lights and pine boughs and flowers. Plus the pizza is good, and you could really use that about now.
After putting up the decorations and being dropped off at the clinic (which will be approximately 10:30 p.m.) is an excellent time to cut out the fabric for the polar fleece tunic you plan to make for the ceremony. Since the theme is sort of Lord of the Rings meets Renaissance Festival, something that suits that genre is a good idea, and since the bride could not care less what you wear so long as you wear SOMETHING, it's perfectly fine if you don't have a pattern and are making it up as you go along. You've seen Lord of the Rings, right? Twice, even. So this should be no problem, right? Even if you DON'T have a serger on your sewing machine.
The morning of the wedding is when you should stitch the tunic together. The best background noise for this would be one of the Lord of the Rings movies, naturally. This is when you'll discover that a Ford's interlocking suture pattern works really well on polar fleece - and since it's your favorite suture pattern anyway, this should bring down your stress level to the point that only two Alka-Seltzers are necessary to keep your stomach from burning to the ground. You should also get up at 6 a.m. the day of the (afternoon) wedding so that besides suturing up your polar fleece, you also have time to practice the ceremony at least 5 more times, in the frail hope that you will be able to get all the way through it if you practice it several times in a row. This will be the best time to discover that the key to this is to stand up strait, speak loudly (so that everyone can hear you) and support with your diaphragm. If you do this, suddenly you are the one leading the ceremony, not merely a participant, and some magic of grace comes to you so that you can, at last, do it without either ignoring the import of the words, or else being so touched by them that you can't talk above a choked murmur. It seems that if you can control your breathing, you can control the rest of it. Your voice now sounds confident and assured, instead of rushed and breathless and hitching.
Ah. Suddenly this is coming together. Something just clicked.
Trundle off to the clinic, where the bride is picking you up to go to the ceremony (since your "check engine" light is on in your truck, and it would be a faux pas if you broke down on the highway en route to the wedding and were never heard from again.) Call to check in. Discover that the bridal party is running about 45 minutes behind, because the dress is still under construction. Consider this excellent news, as you are not 100% sure you turned off your curling iron and would rather run home to check it than worry about it til the end of the reception.
Return to the clinic to await the bridal party. This is a good time to be flipping through radio stations and randomly come across your all-time favorite song (Unchained Melody, the Righteous Brothers - you know, the good version.) However - even with all the planning and preparations done, even dressed in your many layers of clothing (topped with your new tunic), even with your beaver mitts and your ceremony cheat-sheet and the knowledge that you CAN, in fact, speak every word of it, and with all your wedding paraphernalia beside you, ready to go - you will not have the 3 minutes' peace it takes to enjoy the song.... because your tech Jessica is waving a frantic semaphore at you from the back of the clinic. This can't be good. I am suddenly 100% certain that whatever she is about to tell me, I don't want to hear it.
"What's up?" I ask her, having rolled my window down.
"Jill's van won't start and she needs you to call her right away!" Jessica exclaims. I imagine she does. Sorry, Righteous Brothers. Wait, what's that distant pooom! I just heard? Oh, that would be Jill's head exploding.
I trot upstairs to the main floor of the clinic and call Jill.
"So, the van won't start?" I say. "Is it your battery?" I ask. I have cables; I can go out and jump it for her.
"I don't think so. When I turn the key nothing happens."
"Hmm, well if you have juice, you should at least hear something when you hit the ignition," I say doubtfully; I'm no mechanic, but in times when I've had a car fail to start but the battery is not dead, it seems like I can hear some kind of noise, even with the radio off; the fuel pump, or that solenoid click, or something.
"I don't know, but I don't have time to think about it," Jill says, which shuts me up at once. She's right; she doesn't have time to think about it. "Tom is coming by the clinic to get you, and then he's coming out to get my sisters. Do you want him to come by and get you first, or get them first and then get you?"
"Whatever's the easiest for them," I say.
"Okay, you first," Jill decides, and hangs up. Meanwhile my boss - who is covering for me, as it is Saturday and normally I work the Saturdays alone - hands me a chart, asks me to call the owners, and says, "If only Jill had had the common courtesy to tell you that her van was going to break down, YOU could have worked this Saturday." I laugh, but I also think about getting up at six to make the tunic, and the fact that, until that very morning, I didn't think I'd actually be able to DO the ceremony, and I'm thinking: Yeah, I could've worked today. Not. Meanwhile Tom shows up and informs you that now Chris is bringing Jill and Wayne is bringing the sisters, so we're able to head right on in. Good thing people are flexible. Plans are now changing by the minute.
Still... I am at the wedding venue in good time - by which I mean, before the wedding party. It's very cold - the site is in the shadow of a mountain as well as down in a hollow, so all the coldest air within 10 miles is gathered there. I also note that (unsurprisingly, given that Jill and I work together) a reasonable number of attendees at the wedding ceremony are clients of ours. Excellent, I think. This means if I screw it up I'll never be able to live it down! Peachy! Right about now I start having visions of me having a seizure in the middle of the vows, or perhaps having an episode of Tourette's syndrome or possibly pitching headlong into the bonfire. Ah, a little more adrenaline hits my bloodstream. JUST what I needed.
However... it is very pretty here now, and that in itself is soothing. Because it's so cold, all available moisture has precipitated out onto the trees, frosting every twig and branch gorgeously. There is a stream running only a few yards from the bonfire; its quiet murmur seems to erode the spiky edges of my anxiety, smoothing them off. There are two sleighs, with black Percherons teamed up in front, in black harness trimmed in red and laden with jingle bells. There are red feather spikes jauntily crowning the horses, who look suitably renaissance-y and who are waiting patiently for something to happen. One of them turns his big, dark eyes on me for a few moments, calm and relaxed and endlessly patient. This is a particular specialty of the cold-bloods, it seems, who are long on patience and short on fractious, by and large. Especially large.
The groom shows up, looking spiff in doublet, fur jacket and mukluks. Shortly thereafter Jill arrives, and she is looking beautiful. I know they say all brides are beautiful, and maybe it's so, but I have to say: Beautiful. She is wearing a long burgundy velvet cloak and her dress is gorgeous. And glory be, here are the bride's sisters, one of them with a last minute addition to the dress.
Ah. Now that the bride is fully kitted out, it's time for our sleigh ride.
Accordingly, we all pile into the two sleighs (one of which has a "just married" sign on the back) and tuck ourselves in amongst the lap blankets. We go over the river and through the woods - well, through the woods, THEN over the river, then back over the river and back through the woods again. The trees tend to bow over with the weight of the frost on their branches; looking up at them as we go underneath, it is as if we are passing under a wintry bower, a latticed arch of crystalline white. The clop of the horses' heavy hooves on the road is both soothing and enlivening, a sound thick with happy memory for me, and for a little while I forget that the opportunity to really make a hash of things still lies just ahead.
Soon we are back at the bonfire, which smells divine in the cold air. We gather around the bonfire. One of my clients helpfully stashes my beaver mitts in his capacious pockets so that I don't trail them in the fire. Jill is at the edge of her ability to cope with all the attention, congratulations, queries and compliments, not to mention a blizzard of flashes from various cameras that makes it look like she is at a red-carpet premiere. We decide between us where she and Karl are going to stand. Aaaaand... I'm up to bat.
Somehow I manage to speak all the words in the correct order in a clear voice that, I am told later, was audible and intelligible to everyone. Both bride and groom are able to speak clearly and reply where indicated. As we go along Jill goes from looking a little stressed and frazzled... to glowing. She looks as if someone has lit a candle inside her. There is a big, genuine smile on her face and her eyes shine. The cold has put roses in her cheeks and she looks, at that moment, like she is about 18, full to brimming over with the flush of young love.
Ah. It must be working for her the way she wants it to. And isn't that a pretty sight.
Raven delivers the rings on cue, neither of which are dropped in the snow. They exchange rings and vows. I pronounce them husband and wife. I speak the blessing over them and close the ceremony. We have hot cider and cocoa by the fire. A wave of relief washes over me: I did not pass out, have a seizure, pitch headlong into the fire, nor torch up my beaver mitts. I did all the legal parts in the correct order, and there was no inappropriate swearing. Whew. I think I scraped out a win. In the spirit of celebration and sacrifice to the gods, I give my ceremony cheat-sheet to the fire, and let the smoke carry the invocation to whatever deities are watching over our small, semi-pagan wedding, thinking: May your days together be good and long upon this earth. This is the last part of the blessing, extracted from my mother's ceremony, and it's lovely, and simple, and right to the point. Just the thing as I watch sparks spiral up in the smoke, flying away amongst the frost-silvered trees and into the rising tide of evening.
I notice I can't feel my fingertips; I can't decide if it's cold or nerves. "Hey... where's the hip flask?" I ask, joking; but a shout goes up: "Yo! Someone over here needs cough medicine!" and lo and behold: rum to go in my cider.
Now we saddle up and head onto the base for the reception (which will be more heavily attended than the wedding, at which only 30 or so people were present). I am feeling a vague unreality which, upon arriving at the chalet, is immediately eclipsed by being waylaid by every person I see, half of whom compliment me on how pretty the ceremony was (not that I had much to do with that, apart from helping tweak the passages written by others into a reasonable order); the other half buttonhole me and ask how it went. I eat, I socialise, I run occasional errands between guests, DJ, caterers, and the marital couple. I get the paperwork signed so that it's all official, keeping the appropriate copy for my records. I eat excellent food and have two glasses of wine. At the end I stay to help strike the decorations - by no means a requirement, but it's a short task, and it seemed like the right thing to do - and at last I am headed home.
It was a 19-hour day, and a good many things that were supposed to get done a day (or seven) before the wedding got done on the morning of - but in the end, I think it was okay. Everything got done, and at the end, depsite the many monkeywrenches that appeared at the last minute, it seemed suddenly to come together in an amazingly seamless fashion. Everyone switched horses in midstream rather flawlessly, when it came right down to it, cheerfully altering their plans to accomodate vehicular failures and what have you, and everything that might have been a problem... ultimately wasn't.
I don't know if I would do it again (certainly not for anyone but a good friend, someone like Jill, for whom I would willingly walk through that particular fire again) - although presumably, as with many skills, the first one is the scariest and the hardest; the process of doing something like this teaches you a few things. So I may never push this particular limit again... But at least I know I can.