The American Wedding Picture

The Puritans in early America, I hear, used to fall in love with each other–slowly or quickly, in cold winter days on end or in the long harvests of autumn, in the freshness of springtime or in a summer night’s hot breath of sea-scented forest, of open windows, and open stars–and coming together before the congregation of the church, would announce that they were now married–had pledged their lives before God to each other, could make a home together in laying their heads against the other’s breast, had checked each other this very morning for ticks. And the town would offer baskets of grain and dried fruit, give blankets and down pillows, give geese and chickens, firewood, and ale, and with promises of faithfulness and prayers of blessing, sing songs of sharing in their joy, their sadnesses, and their desires.

We in the United States don’t all share in the simplicity of this Puritan couple and their village, but where does this leave our practice of democracy? When we plan our weddings, how many of us feel a tug to go beyond our means? We’ve rarely dressed like this, looked like this, eaten like this, drunk like this, been photographed like this, and never, possibly, in a more exclusive location, and we’re doing it all of these at once as if, may this never be, we have finally decided to forget, for just one day, our own desires and chosen, at last, to pay into the pool of our friends’ expectations. What do we really want?

I know someone who often serves food at the events she organizes. She believes in table cloths. “Do not ever put food on a table without a table cloth,” she says, adding, “I come from the islands. I know it’s colonial. But this is how I show my hospitality.” Have we reflected enough on this? Is there colonialism in our weddings?

When we picture our weddings, we do we see? Is it the people who have come to support us? Is it the color of the flowers, or the live act of presence in the words of a vow coming out on the breath of the one we love? Do we see table filled with food that simmers and steams, that calls us into pleasure and feeds our souls? Do we hear music that more than singing in our minds but deep inside our hearts and across our bodies we feel, we who carry five, six, seven, eight decades of knowing and being known? Do we feel sweat on our necks when we step from the dance floor or tears that fill our eyes? As if to pull us from our dreaming, a starker image flashes before our eyes. We can’t ignore it for long. It’s what we see before, during, and after the ceremony, the picture that lingers with us, the one presented in the photographs and hung in our hallways. It cuts into focus: our friends and family on either side, standing in a line, wearing identical clothes. It is a powerful image, and if we let it, it will tell us much about who we think we are. Because maybe we really do so love the crispness of the suits and gowns, their softness, their matching colors, maybe “a little riper and more lusty red than that mixed in their cheek,” and reflected across the aisle and above in the curling open of the flowers. We love the look of new shoes as fragrant as the changing sky in the hush before a fall of rain. We love the exquisite beauty of cousins and sisters and brothers, of old and new friends who have traveled across time and fields to spend a day here with us, of companions who, not being the same, fill their clothes differently and, showing us who they are, show us all the kind of friends we want to be. What are saying about here about friendship and our love? And what does it cost us? How much do we spend to show our friends who we are? And when our minds form the stage picture of our wedding, who are we looking at? And who isn’t there?

The first two who loved found each other in a garden. Where before it was not good for the man to be alone, they walked together as far and as wide as the reach of the garden. There were red dawns and shadowy dusks, the smell of vines and screeches of animals, hot afternoons and the sound of breezes under the starlight rustling through the trees, birds who sang and cold fish leaping in the streams, rocky summits, spongy rooted paths, warmth and mists, bark and salty earth, sudden green hillsides and open skies, evening and morning. They delighted in following every path, in tending to every creature, in tasting the fruit from every tree in garden but one.

I had forgotten how long she looked at the fruit. How good it was for food, how pleasing to the eye, how desirable for gaining wisdom. Can they really be like God? Will it really kill her? The fruit’s skin—how delicate, how soft it looked, so perfectly wearing its exquisite colors, now glowing and now softened, unthreatening. And she watched as drips of juice began to fall from the stem. Safety, one said. She counted them. Power, another. She breathed it in. Enough. Enough of food, enough of warmth. Enough of pleasure. I will be enough. She breathed out. We will always be enough. Had she ever seen a fruit so ready to be eaten? Adam had already made up his mind. He was with her. Maybe from a distance he could sense how good this fruit would be. This is your vision, he might have told her, your day. She took some and it, and gave some to him, and he ate it. And how sensational the first taste was. The saltiness, a dash of arrogance, the sweetness, the greed. The hunger. They groaned. Had they ever before eaten like this? Their bodies started to shake, unquestioned strength. Is this what it feels like to know like God? New words formed on their tongues. Oppression. Pain. How quickly the flesh of the fruit turned sour on their teeth. They swallowed it still. Patriarchy. Colonialism. Empire. They took another bite. Images of a damaged garden scraped against their throats. Where was the thrill they had before? It was now too heavy for them. Hopeless. Terror. They each began to cry, and a new idea wrenched in their gut, one that soon filled their bodies, a word so strong that for the first time in their knowing each other it made their eyes dart away from contact and for the first time in their loving made them turn their bodies away in disgust. For the first time they felt shame, and they rushed to put on clothes.

When God came to them, searching for them in the cool of the day, and finding them, asked them, “Who told you that you were naked?” they didn’t have an answer.

But it wasn’t like this before. I remember their encounter. This is what myth does for us when it is true. Back through the generations who have recounted it, we remember their meeting. They took a look at each other from across the garden and, wanting to look closer, were suddenly breath to breath, on every part of their bodies feeling each other’s warmth cross the silence between them. And they began touching. “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” he sang to her. We know that we are naked, and what a delight it is to be made in the image of God. Fitted for no other image. (I’m talking to myself here, too.) The woman did not yet speak. Maybe her words could find no meter. Or maybe we have forgotten her song. But in the years after the garden–the many years, the pain of childbearing, the pain of losing her child, the heartbreak of watching the thorns, “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth,” come and choke the seed of love that was once sown in them–I believe it would bring her joy, mother of us all, to know that the voice of one future distant daughter, a bride, her young life brimming with eagerness, would find her song again. And raising her voice, in words that defy the patriarchy, that allow no sphere for greed, that tear off the shackles of the colonial oppressor, in a vision drenched with the richness of the earth, dripping with the taste of her lover’s body, and saturated with the simplicity of a summer evening–the wedding feasting over, or just begun—to her lover, to her sisters, to us, she sings:

I belong to my lover,
and his desire is for me.
Come, my lover, let us go to the countryside,
let us spend the night in the villages.
Let us go out early to the vineyards
to see if the vines have budded,
if their blossoms have opened,
and if the pomegranates are in bloom—
there I will give you my love.
The mandrakes send out their fragrance,
and at our door is every delicacy,
new as well as old,
that I have stored up for you,
O my beloved.