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Marriage Part I: We Do
by Forrest Seymour
The other day I heard Garrison Keillor reading on the radio an excerpt from Elspeth Huxley's "The Flame Trees of Thika," describing her experience of moving to Africa, and her marvel at how heat was actually visible in that climate. I realized listening to Garrison's sweet voice that, though I am, like him, a native of frigid Minnesota, my childhood was punctuated by visions of visible heat during frequent visits to the desert country of Utah and Arizona with my family, episodes often on my mind of late.
These almost yearly trips peaked in a four-week, 5000 mile journey through the U.S. West involving 21 people between the ages of two and 81. This was a heady experience for a young teen. It was the early 70s, and, in the spirit of hippies and yippies and such, it was possible to see us in my unkempt imagination as another earthy tribe migrating through the cultural and literal wilderness, despite the reality that we were all simple middle class families from Midwestern suburbs on vacation. What we were doing felt new and exciting, as I recall, as well as at times exhausting and even lonely.
Like many experiments in lifestyle of those years, this one too imploded upon itself in divorce and dispersal. An ignoble end to what may have been an ill-informed but certainly well intentioned effort by our parents, too old to be a part of the cultural revolution happening around them, and ultimately unable to let go of the materialism which originally lead them to the suburbs.
I'm now the age my parents were then, and in defiance of our joint history, I'm getting married, again. And like that period was for them, Nancy and I are experimenting in community. I was not originally so sure about the role of community in our wedding. After all, we've been living together for six years, we have a daughter, and a baby on the way. For a while this wedding seemed more about codifying something within our relationship than it was about building connections between people.
Besides, I've often felt uncomfortable with the all too easy way people ask for support from the witnesses to their marriage. In the past there was the rote, "If anyone here knows any reason why these two should not be joined..." Did anyone ever really object in response to this query? The drill now is more positive, as when, at the recent wedding of a cousin, the minister lead the entire assembly in a vocal affirmation of commitment to nuptial support: "We do," the crowd shouted with enthusiasm.
Please. Are we supposed to believe that these watchers actually feel commitment to help the happy couple through the hard times? I mean, these tears welling up in my eyes are only the pollen, right?
"I think you should try taking those affirmations more seriously," my friend Albert suggested, after I cynically related the story of the group chant. And he and his partner Ally do know about community. Each year they journey all the way from the intentional community they inhabit in the woods of New England down to Central America in order to work there with refugee communities seeking to return to their native countries. This work they do is about preserving communities, and the tools employed, solidarity and mass presence, are borne of community.
"A public affirmation and request for support helps set a tone for the relationship
between the couple and the community," Al assures me over a dinner of garden veggies and whole grain French bread he's just baked. I chew this over, trying to get past the bitter taste of too much divorce. Maybe it's the healthy food, maybe the earnest conversation, or maybe my attitude is changing, for I begin now to see what he means. These guys seem to know that of which they speak. And besides, they are offering to bake our wedding cake.
Maybe, I begin to wonder, my parents' efforts at community were not so ignorant. Perhaps they just needed more practice. Did they speak then the language of solidarity, consensus, and group decision making, which we children of the 60s and 70s know so fluently? Did they even know how to ask for help when it got hard? Do I?
Nancy and Emily and I have just returned from a weekend camping at the ocean. A group of families from Emily's preschool invited us to join them there. I was hesitant; cautious to toy with the ambivalent memories of those trips west a quarter century ago. Did I want to risk this fragile community caravan again? Or, alternatively, could anything compare to those trips of my youth? One way or another group travel like this can only lead to trouble, I feared, as we left.
Despite my apprehensions, the trip went well. The last night of the trip we all built a fire on the beach. Up and down the surf other campers tended their flames. The sun set in spectacular glory, refracting through the sky. The five daughters between us danced together on the sandy slope to the music of the ocean. The wind kept the fire blazing, and round it talk drifted to family, children, and our mutual hunger for support.
One couple, the parents of two of the dancing daughters, are now expecting twins. Ed described his own parents; hesitation to embrace grand-parenthood, their preoccupation with their own lives and lack of time for their grand-children.
"I just wish they'd be around to help more, especially now," he says, his voice trailing off as he gazed at his wife and her growing belly. Ed's a pretty autonomous guy; I guess he's had to be, and this seemed like a significant admission of the worries which, though common to many parents, are so often left unspoken.
Perhaps I felt some threat from the wind, it's power almost taking my voice away, for several moments passed before I could respond.
"Ed," I finally said. "You should let us know what we can do to help. Really," I offered, leaning into the wind towards him, the fire's smoke drifting around us all.
And this simple offer of help, so innocuous and momentary, felt like a great risk, like an admission of common fear, like a step towards a closer bond between our families far beyond what I'd ever thought would happen among these families who have mere parenthood in common.
"Thanks," Ed replied. It felt to me like we understood a common need our extended families just weren't meeting. Then the wind died a moment, a child whined from the sand bank, and the moment was gone.
These cryptic moments of intimacy may, it now occurs to me, be just what community is built from. While I remain committed to using our coming wedding to not only affirm but also construct the connections between us, our families and our community, to set that tone which Al and Ally favor, I also see the temporality of this event, this public ceremony, this symbol of our relationship. Community, it seems, comes from regular attention, periodic journeys to the Central America of our hearts, war torn, ancient, diverse places in need of support.
We are asking a lot of many friends in the creation of our ceremony. Some will sew the huppa canopy, others prepare food, still others sing and play with us. There is a certain circus quality to what we are building; entertainment, drama, and hot dogs. And, though it will help in our efforts to build a community for ourselves and our family, it is also those unexpected, windswept moments that forge the connections through which one can ask for and offer help.
Packing up at the beach, tired girls complaining, there was a moment of hush among the circles of fire up and down the shore, as at one moment we all noticed the moon, larger than it was ever meant to be, rising orange out of the sea. It was an unearthly moment, the sea and stars and moon and fire, elemental materials of life. As we lifted our tired kids high in the twilight, making sure they all shared in that moment, I felt sure too that the fragile and serendipitous quality of community we seek would indeed be there to comfort and contain and empower us, despite our shared uncertainties. Maybe these are the same assurances my parents and their friends gave to themselves as they embarked on their efforts to build community in the wastes of suburbia. Maybe building on their experiences we today can get a little closer.
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