Confluence Ceremonies

Marking Your Life's Important Moments

Year: 2017

A Tribute of Love

In setting their intention, one couple cuts their guest list and creates a small, family wedding in the remote mountains of Washington State.

Sam and Julia knew that their future was bound to this place: the Pacific Northwest. Since meeting in college back in Maryland, they had traveled the world together, visiting over a dozen National Parks in more than 5 countries. Nature had come to define for them their own story. Exhilarating ascents, disorienting twists and turns, surprising changes in weather, sudden darkness. They learned new skills to best address this new territory. They dropped old habits that no longer served. They set out on a new path together that would take them away from their homes and families.

On the way, they fell deeply in love. Together, they explored the highest mountains of lush Peru, the jungles of Central America, the bays of Florida, the glaciers of Alaska, and the immense Sequoias of California’s central coast. But when they both landed jobs in the Puget Sound area, they got busy settling in, enjoying weekends in the Olympic National Park and Mt. Baker National Park. In this landscape—and nowhere else—they could imagine a good future of their own making.

And when they decided to marry, they knew they wanted their wedding to take place in this region of the country they loved. How perfect, then, that they chose to hold their wedding in the North Cascades. For there is wildness, peacefulness, and abundance. The special place they chose, near Washington Pass, also offered their guests plenty of fresh air and fishing and starry nights.

Their guest list, they knew, would be a small, select group of people. Those closest to them, those most invested in the life they were pursuing far away from those very ones they wanted near to them: their families. And the couple used the money they would have spent on a large, destination-type wedding with a caterer, musicians, and pretty venue, to instead help their loved ones make the trip out. Once here, they hoped, their families would understand why they planned to settle so far from their families.

“We want to invite only our parents and siblings,” they told me at our first meeting at a coffee shop. “We want them to fall in love with Washington State just as we have. Only then will they understand why we can’t go home, why we must start our married lives here.”

Julia’s family met Sam’s family over the week they spent together around the wedding. The couple had rented a large cabin that comfortably but modestly housed them all.

And when it was time to begin the wedding ceremony, we all gathered near the river outside. Sam’s family had helped construct the supports for the chuppa and his 3 brothers and a cousin now held it over our heads, protecting the couple from a hot summer wind. Its cover was a collage of photographs from all of the adventures Julia and Sam had enjoyed together. First the Bride, then the Groom, honored their parents for their unconditional love and their own enduring marriages.

Just before offering their vows, Sam and Julia read a poem they had written together, “Climbing Mountains,” which ended with:

Some look at mountains as a hurdle,

We look at them as an endeavor,

Never trying to go around a mountain,

But rather climbing it together.

At the end of their ceremony, they broke a glass to the shouts of “mazel tov!” And the mountain echoed their voices, the river gurgled, and the winds brought a freshening coolness just as the sun set behind them.

The power of this couple’s vision was so beautiful! In honoring their families in this special wedding trip, they also honored their own love and their future together. I know their parents were sad to say goodbye, when the time came. But what a gift they took with them: the memory of a special, loving tribute wedding, honoring this couple’s families and the love between them.

A Perfect Wedding Site in the Mountains

Flowers for Thanksgiving

“I think that real friendship always makes us feel such sweet gratitude, because the world almost always seems like a very hard desert, and the flowers that grow there seem to grow against such high odds.” Stephen King, The Eyes of the Dragon

At this season of Thanksgiving, I look back over the year’s ceremonies with a deep sense of gratitude. Weddings, Celebrations of Life, Anniversaries are the flowers in the desert, the coming together of many different folks connected by a single thread—and a thousand threads—to honor life.

One of the biggest surprises for me has been the recurrent thread of friendship in my work. My clients and their ceremonies have encouraged me to broaden my definition of friendship. For I’ve seen so many examples of friendship where I never expected it:

  •  The middle-aged daughter who, at the last moment, invited her long-estranged biological father to her mother’s memorial. She extended all she could offer him, her hand in simple friendship. And he, after sitting beside her in the front row, being welcomed by her other family members and listening to the stories of this woman’s—his first love’s—life, he was overcome with gratitude. She was grateful that she could welcome him back into the family (having suffered the loss of her beloved mother, she yet gained a father). While he was grateful for the opportunity and invitation to form a friendship with this daughter he never knew.
  • This year, wedding couple after wedding couple exchanged vows that promised friendship as well as love. For some couples, friendship meant accepting each other as they are and also accepting who they might become. For others, friendship meant simple equality. One couple even defined their marriage within their spoken vows as the formal recognition of their enduring friendship over any other virtue.
  • A widow, in recalling her first impressions of her future husband, told me that as a woman of 19, she had known she’d finally met the man she would be real friends with until death did them part. They were married 60 years until his death last Spring.
  • A couple at the end of their marriage, no longer “in love,” but instead treasuring the enduring friendship that has motivates them to help each other and their family through this difficult transition. They want a word other than “divorce” to describe the changes impacting their relationship. For they will always consider each other as the best of friends.

Witnessing such profound expressions of friendship, friendships that stretch the traditional definitions of the word itself, has deepened my own gratitude of those instances of friendship all around me. The odds against us can be so high. We must try to remember to also see and appreciate the flowers that grow in the “very hard desert,” the beautiful friendship that abounds all around us.

The Music of Love

David and Nicole first met while working in a musical theater production. Nicole was a dancer and singer, while David was a musician, playing the guitar onstage for different musical numbers. Whenever she could, Nicole secretly watched David from afar. She looked forward to each rehearsal as a chance to see him!

By the show’s performance dates, Nicole was smitten. Her best friend, Heidi, encouraged her to ask him out. After the wrap party, she made sure to walk him out to his car, and, by gathering every ounce of courage she could muster, Nicole did indeed ask David to meet her the next week for lunch at the local mall.

At the appointed time, Nicole stood waiting. Would David come? Would he be as sweet outside their shared world of community theater as he was inside? And as David approached her, he thought to himself, “She is so beautiful!”

Their first real chance to talk to each other, to begin to get to know each other, showed to them both all the things they shared: previous marriages, adventurousness, love of family, love of music, and dedication to a vision of life as what you make it. They each knew by the end of that afternoon that they had made a good friend.

There was no music playing when David proposed to Nicole the next year. Instead, they were standing on the ocean’s shore, on a beach enveloped in fog and mist. The wind and the waves provided the sound that marked this profound moment in their love story.

I knew, in the months before their wedding date as I helped them envision their wedding ceremony, that David wanted to offer Nicole a musical serenade. While he would write his own spoken vows to her, there was more he wanted to say to her. He turned to the language of music to honor her and to express his heart in ways that words could never do.

He took a while to consider her favorite songs: “Close to You” by the Carpenters, “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He expertly wove them into a musical medley that spoke the language of love.

And in their wedding ceremony, just before they offered their vows to each other, he picked up his beautiful electric guitar and, sitting on a low stool, played his love for her before their audience of beloved family and friends.

Guests gasped. Strong men cried. Heidi, Nicole’s maid of honor, sobbed quietly. It was such a beautiful, timeless moment. The bride? She stood there looking at this man who would soon be her husband—and there was such love in her eyes. Nicole did not cry. She smiled and slowly swayed to the sound, feeling the music of love.

“Say you’ll share with me one love, one lifetime . . . .”

It was as if Nicole and David were standing alone up there onstage, and he was playing just for her.

The Compassion of Scars

“But the real voice, that of the spirit, is saying to us: Be quiet, listen, feel. Be kind. Accept differences, even those of Divine belief, for there is no ‘truth’ in these things, only lessons. Learn from the differences. Feed your neighbour. Take your anger out on an untilled field. Liberally apply compassion, especially to yourself, for if we’re not compassionate about our own foibles and screw-ups, then we can’t authentically be compassionate toward others. We’re all in the same foundering boat. It’s our scars that unite us.” –Bruce Cockburn’s autobiography, Rumours Of Glory

In my small town, you get used to seeing some people often. The checker at the only grocery store within 10 miles is one example. She is in her early twenties, strong, quick in movement, and vivacious. She looks you in the eye, but only long enough to make the transaction, then she concludes it with a courteous “Thank you!”

Seeing her always reminds me to think about scars, physical ones and emotional ones, as she has a scar running the length of her face from above her forehead, down the bridge of her nose, across one cheek, then down to her jawline, just inches back from her chin. And it’s wide. It says “I AM A SCAR. I COVER WHERE THIS POOR GIRL ONCE WAS CUT OPEN AND HURT. SHE CRIED AND BLED. THEN I SLOWLY FORMED. I NOW COVER WHAT ONCE WAS EXPOSED. At least that is what my own mother’s heart hears that scar say to me whenever I see her.

I’ve never asked her about it. Years in the college classroom have taught me to see past the physical student to the person within—such that I sometimes miss the all-important external clues to one person’s journey. I really should pay closer attention. But I’m always occupied thinking about the less physical realities we all share. And anyway, we’re taught it’s impolite to mention people’s scars, unless they do so first.

Greeting me in the checkout line one day, which is gloriously short in a small town grocery store, she said, “Hi,” then quickly pulled my groceries over the reader and dropped them into my bags. While I fiddled with the credit card machine, I noted her looking over at the man in line directly behind me. I had noticed him wandering toward the frozen food case while I was shopping. I’d guess he was in his early 30s and was buying ice cream. He moved in a tenuous way that said, “I’m not from here.”

Being a resort town, we get used to outside visitors, and they often do stick out. But we love it. It keeps things fresh. And we get to show them how friendly and helpful the rural west really is.  We have to see ourselves as a community. With the wildfires and floods, on top of our somewhat isolated location in the heart of Washington State, we often have to rely on each other for help and support. And we are often called upon to assist others.

Waiting for my next electronic prompt as I paid my bill, the checker said with a smile: “Where’d you get yours?” This was addressed to the guy. He smiled and answered kindly, “A skiing accident about ten years ago. You?” Only then did I see his own scar, that started at his ear and crossed the bridge of his nose, ending just above his lip. “I fell out of my car seat when I was 2,” she quickly said. They kept smiling at each other, comfortably, and as I left, I heard them speaking like old friends. I had witnessed a moment of immediate, honest friendship between these two strangers.

These two and their scars taught me something I needed to learn: the metaphor of the scar is so simple, as it suggests a permanent marker, a wound that is now healed but ever-present. But now I saw it differently. They were bonded by their scars. They saw each other’s scar and simply called it out. And the very act of doing so created a momentary, yet palpable, bond between them. It was as if a lasso had materialized over their heads and captured them simultaneously in its circle.

Singers by Everett DuPen, 1943

If only we could see that all of us carry with us a place that was sliced open by a jagged door latch or a broken ski pole or a shiny scalpel or desolate poverty or a dangerous parent or a lost pregnancy or an attacker. Loss and grief are natural elements in our human lives.

If only we could reach across the void that separates us from each other and say, “Hi! Where’d you get yours? Oh, I see. Mine, yeah. Well, paper or plastic?”

Life leaves marks on all of us. Our scars are a part of us. And these facts should serve to open us up to each other, especially to those we love. What if, like this momentary couple, we accepted our own and others’ scars as facts? What if we asked and answered a simple question: “How? When? Where?”

These two regular people seemed to me like the most godly of humans that day. From them I learned an important lesson: We are bound together by our human scars.

It Is Really That Simple

“The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.” Mahatma Gandhi.

My wedding couples sometimes ask me for referrals to pre-marital counselors. They share their concerns that maybe, no matter how much they love one another, they won’t “do it right.” So they want to learn from someone who can teach them how to succeed. I understand. Marriage is a huge decision, and some of us don’t have inspiring role models to follow in crafting a healthy one. 

 

What do you think is the secret to a successful marriage? Do you know?

Kindness.

That’s it. Just kindness.

Not the presence or absence of children.

Not the couples’ sexual relationship.

Not socio-economic pressures.

And not whether they married earlier or later in life.

But researchers firmly believe, based on peer-reviewed data that has been replicated in numerous studies over the last four decades, that the strongest predictor of a good marriage is the presence of kindness.

“Your own soul is nourished when you are kind; it is destroyed when you are cruel.” (Proverbs)

Kindness toward another involves many, many behaviors: compassion, concern, empathy, respect, care, humor, helpfulness. Partners show kindness by requesting connection with the other. “Would you like a warm-up?” “Thanks for taking the mail with you.” “Enjoy your work-out!” “What would you like to do on Saturday?” Kindness can also include acts of silence and quiet acceptance without judgement.

And partners who receive kind behaviors can also show kindness by gratefully acknowledging the giver: by putting down the smart phone, making eye contact, smiling at the other, and just actively listening. “Oh, Saturday might be a great day to walk together. Maybe we could talk about your frustrating week.” The Gottmans called this responding “turning toward” as opposed to “turning away.”

The kernel of this relationship research comes out of my own state, Washington, where Dr.s Julie Schwarz Gottman and John Gottman have conducted the Gottman Institute for over 40 years now. Their research, combined with that of Robert Levenson and many others, has focused on what behaviors predict that any committed relationship will last.

And researchers have studied loving relationships of all kinds and found similar indicators. For both straight and LGBTQ couples, being treated with kindness and having the kindness you offer your partner accepted and appreciated is central to a relationship’s success.

On the other hand, predictably, behaviors the Gottmans call “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, will doom a couple to misery. Any of these four weapons can, over time, destroy the atmosphere in which kindness can be offered and received. And of these, contempt is the most damaging.

Moreso, these negative behaviors result in physiological arousal (think “fight or flight”) in most of us. As our heart rate increases we become angry, we yell, we withdraw, and we lose access to our rational mind. When we feel attacked, we will reflexively either respond in kind or retreat to safety. No relationship can thrive in such an environment. And next time, we will behave defensively or with anger even before provoked. And so the spirit falters.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

(Dalai Lama)

In her 2014 article in the Atlantic Monthly about the Gottmans’ research, Emily Esfahani Smith writes of contemporary marital success: “Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?” Research has supported the findings that working hard to treat our partners with kindness is a worthy effort, and will create an environment of safety and understanding, an atmosphere in which love can grow.

Can it be that simple? Perhaps not in every single case. But the facts are strong. Credible research indicates that, when we teach young couples to exercise behaviors positive for kindness, their relationships flourish and the likelihood that they will stay together and continue to report satisfaction with their relationship is greater than for couples who do not learn these behaviors or learn them too late.

When we realize we alone are responsible for what we unpack into our relationships, when we each realize that we help set a tone by the spirit we bring to the table, we can choose whether that tone will tear down or build up.

“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” (Henry James)

 

Continue reading