Even the most complex wedding begins with getting down to the basics.
After a long-planned trip to Paris with two dear college friends, I was finally ready to get down to it: planning the wedding. Jonathan and I are so blessed—with health, great families, ample resources, lots of friends—that there really weren’t any significant limits. Neither of us had an overwhelming vision of exactly how we wanted it to be. We could make this celebration just about anything we wanted, anywhere we wanted. That kind of freedom is exhilarating—for about thirty seconds. Then it's paralyzing.
What we needed was a peg to hang things on, a macro decision from which all the micro decisions would naturally flow. We quickly realized that there were four main interlocking elements: the date, the place (with the venue as a subset of that), the number of guests, and the budget. Date and place are interdependent for reasons of weather and availability. Size of guest list can dictate place, and vice versa; to some extent, date can impact how many people will show. Budget rules all.
Like solving a Sudoku puzzle, we began filling in the obvious.
Most any date would do. Our only criterion—and this is arbitrary—was to marry before either of us turned 30, so before June 17, 2006, Jonathan's birthday. Easy enough.
Place was less arbitrary, and much more complicated. We didn't have history, geography, or religion to help us narrow the field: no childhood house of worship in common, nor country club, not even a shared alma mater. I grew up in Nebraska, went to college in Chicago, and have lived in San Francisco. He grew up in Ohio, and went to college in Indiana. We both have friends and family all over the country; we both have elderly grandparents who don't travel well. The one constant in our lives is New York, but few things in life are more expensive or complicated than a New York wedding, so we ruled that out almost immediately.
At first, we thought that an exotic destination wedding would be the way to go: Convenient for no one seemed better than appearing to play favorites. I got a wild hair about Puerto Rico; specifically the island of Vieques, a lush green splotch off the coast of the big island. It sounded untouched and exotic and a little rough around the edges, a place of natural beauty and quirky culture where everyone could have a really good, affordable time.
We flew to San Juan, then took the long car ride to Fajardo and the short, choppy flight to Vieques. We loved everything about it: the battered jeep we rented to traverse the winding roads, the wild horses grazing in the ditch, the nighttime boat ride and swim in the bioluminescent bay, the impossibly pure, impossibly empty white-sand beaches. Everything. But what made a rustic, romantic weekend getaway for two would be a logistical nightmare for a wedding. We had a hard time figuring out where on the island we could bring the event in under budget, and a hard time justifying asking our guests to take tiny planes or an inconvenient ferry—with attached costs that, in aggregate, were not all that cheap after all.
Ultimately, we didn't like the thought that people we love might be priced or inconvenienced out of being able to see us wed. Even for the "would attend at any cost" crowd, it started to seem selfish to commandeer their vacation time and budgets.
Bye bye, Vieques.
Which, irrationally, pissed me off. And made me feel depressed. I guess I had sunk a lot of hope into that one idea, so when it was gone, I was bereft. We were back to square one, and time was ticking away. We scrambled for an alternative, flirting with a beach wedding in Cape May, New Jersey. After rejecting Nebraska, my home state, outright, we were revisiting that idea, too. Frustrated and impatient to make progress, Jonathan and I found ourselves fighting in a way we never had before. Not to mention that we have two sets of parents who, for different reasons and in different ways, wanted and needed to know what was going on.
Which brings me to the issue of money, for me the most heart wrenching. I'm almost 30 years old. I've been financially independent (if you don't count a few minor lapses and major gifts) since I graduated from college. I really think I should be paying for my own wedding. But the fact is, I can't afford the kind of wedding we want, and neither can Jonathan. And we're just selfish enough (or America 2005 enough) to put our wants above our means. So we're looking to our parents. And because of my sentimental, old-fashioned streak, and probably some kind of pride as well, that means my parents.
They've been wonderful, and offered us a generous amount. It's hard stuff to talk about; we've all survived by saying as little as possible. However, because we're taking their money, I feel we need to take their direction, too. Or, rather, respect their wishes. Some of them, anyway. Or, just be open to what they have to say. Well, OK, at least tell them how we’re spending their dough. But really, it's our call. Because they're not getting married, we are. Right?
Around the time we were in deepest, darkest part of the date/place/budget/size forest, and trying to figure out what we owed to whom, I went to the Smart Marriages conference, which I mentioned in my second column. What I haven’t yet told you about is the part that made my mouth drop open in recognition and relief: the banquet presided over by Bill Doherty, a professor of family science at the University of Minnesota. It was called "Let's Talk About Weddings," and in it Doherty, a long-time marital educator, took his colleagues to task.
Why, he asked them, do marriage-preparation experts insist on ignoring the wedding in their work, when it is a magnet for most of the major issues a couple will face later on? I almost fell off my chair, because the approach he was criticizing was exactly the one I'd been taking: A wedding is just a party; the marriage is what’s important. If I can't handle this, I'm a big baby. But no, Doherty said—and confessed that it had struck him like a ton of bricks while helping his daughter and son-in-law plan their recent nuptials—weddings are about power and money and control and loyalty and, of course, "family of origin" (psych-speak for "the inlaws"). And all these tensions are wrapped up together in the form of your first big public test, your first big performance, where you are the star, dressed up and looking perfect. And by the way, why are you crying, Bridezilla?
Turns out that the issues you've tried to keep separate by fervently believing it's really "your day" and “all about you" show up at the party, after all.
If acknowledging that fact is new to people working in the relationship field, I'd say I can stop beating myself up for feeling conflicted. I can't tell you how much better Doherty’s speech has made me feel.
Getting over the Vieques disappointment—letting go of a fantasy, and making space for something more real—has helped, too. So has trying very hard to be patient with ourselves, and with our families, as we take these gradual, clumsy first steps.
Of course, finally deciding that the place for us was my home state after all—and wondering why I didn't see it sooner—has brought me a lot of joy.
As has a souvenir from that trip to Paris: five meters of lace, impulsively purchased in a shop off the Rue du Faubourg St. Honore. Since we still don't know a lot about how our wedding will look, it could just as easily wind up as heinously expensive curtains as a wedding dress. But right now it's a powerful totem tucked in tissue, pure white and full of promise.
So while we don't have a guest list, or musicians, or a menu, or even an inkling of how the ceremony will come together, we do have a few things going for us:
We have the lace.
We have one wedding magazine, a gift from my friend Joanne. (The Martha Stewart Weddings Tenth Anniversary Issue, no less.)
We have a place: A beautiful, humble little Nebraska barn.
And we have a date: May 20, 2006.
Puzzle solved. Now where's that Sunday New York Times crossword?