I Swore I'd Never Get Married. Then I Had Ten Weddings.
How I ended up on a cross-country wedding tour through back yards, public parks, local ponds and living rooms.
As of August 24th, click HERE to listen to this story and an interview with Dane BH on Write Here, Write Now, Vocal's new podcast.
One night, during the year's shortest days, two people who didn't much like large parties found the same quiet corner of a very busy room.
One of the people was actually at the party in order to work up the nerve to flirt with a local musician, but found himself more interested in the woman on the couch with the joke about George Bush and the quiche. He invited her to play a game of Scrabble. She offered to cook dinner. He won by 250 points. She roasted brussels sprouts and bought a Scrabble dictionary.
He brought her to meet his family, who lived only a few blocks away. She went on a cross-country poetry tour, and he joined her for a week to meet many of her family and friends. He loved the town she hoped to move back to. "I know we're not having this conversation yet," he'd said, looking around her favorite place in the world, "but I think I'd like living here."
He convinced her to join him for a trip to Disneyland, where she begrudgingly admitted that she was having fun, if only because she liked watching him smile on the roller coasters. She got better at Scrabble, but still rarely won.
They moved in together, and built a house of cast iron pans and postcards. He went to school to get his teaching certification while working as a full time teacher, and she promised to encourage him and keep dinner warm. She wrote poems and taught children to cook and sent her book to more publishers than she admitted to anyone and he hung those dreams in the sky like constellations to follow. They dreamed about children, about an extended family of friends and a back door that never locked.
It was not the great romances of the books they both loved: the high-stakes drama and angst of a quest to find true love. There was nothing for their love to conquer, nothing to prove; only a slow-growing gentleness that took hold with an incredible strength until each didn't want to live without the other. And each had a wonderful extended family, whom they couldn't wait for the other to meet and join.
But they didn't talk much about marriage. Neither of them believed marriage was necessary to build the life they wanted. Maybe someday, if it became legally necessary to protect the children, or if someone needed health insurance, but neither of them liked weddings. Too big. Too busy. Too much fuss. What was a wedding compared to a lifetime of spaghetti potlucks?
There wasn't supposed to be a proposal. Or a wedding.
We'd taken the train from Seattle to Portland, a three-hour rumble on the northern leg of the Amtrak Cascades route to our favorite bed and breakfast, where the rooms are named for Pacific Northwest writers. We settled in for a weekend of book browsing and food carts, maybe a little excursion out of the city, if we were up for it.
The plan had been to come to Portland to talk about us. We'd been dating for two years, moved in together, but had been evading and avoiding any conversations about the future. A weekend away seemed like a good container for a potentially fraught conversation. We both came into it wondering if we were on the same page.
The notebook was a spur-of-the-moment decision. A curiosity shop a few blocks down from our lodgings showcased handmade sketchbooks with unusual covers. One of them spoke to me - a small book, spiral-bound between pieces of a Scrabble board.
(I'd sworn I'd keep dating him until I won a game. I hadn't yet.)
I bought the Scrabble notebook. There were glass containers, the kind that hold penny candy, lined up on the counter. One held skeleton keys in various states of rusting. One held loose game pieces, one dice. I paused in front of one full of loose Scrabble tiles, and fished out a handful. I wasn't thinking, really, about the six letters I'd chosen from the mix. I bought a tube of glue from the corner store and headed back.
Back at the guesthouse, I glued the tiles I'd picked onto the cover of the notebook. ONE DAY, the letters spelled out. I let it dry and stuck it in my backpack before going to find him.
"What if we went out to find a waterfall?" I asked. We both loved waterfalls - the majesty of them, the meditative flow and crash. He agreed; a waterfall would be a good place to have our talk.
Multnomah Falls was a quiet 40-minute drive from the city. When we reached the water, we were not disappointed - the falls were a multi-story drop into a deep pool, breathtaking and gorgeous with a bridge at the high-drama midway point.
But it was also crowded. We weren't the only ones who thought visiting the falls was a good use of a Saturday afternoon. We crammed onto the observation platform, but quickly realized it wouldn't work for the conversation we planned to have.
It was my idea to take the hike to the top of the falls. While it looked manageable enough from the bottom, the steep path of constant switchbacks burned our legs and ran us ragged. People on their way down started offering encouragement when they saw us straggling up the hill, promising it "wasn't much farther now!"
Had I know what that hike really was, I'd have never suggested it, but turning back felt like another evasion. We'd committed to this, damnit. I let him push me up the last few switchbacks, his hands flat against my backpack, propelling me up the last few hundred feet of the climb.
There were fewer people at the top of the waterfall, and it was easy to head upstream from the falls and find some rocks to sit on while we peeled off our shoes to soak our new blisters in the icy water. After we caught our breath, I pulled the notebook out of my pack and handed it to him.
"One day," he read.
"Yeah," I said. "I figured we could take notes."
The first page reads, "Things I Want to Do." We passed the book back and forth, writing a collaborative list of our hopes and dreams, including things like "write a play," "publish a book," and "host regular potlucks."
We turned a page and started a new list: Places we want to go. When that was full, we kept going, list after list, sketching out the lives we wanted for ourselves. And when we were done writing, we looked at each other and decided: yeah. We're going to do this together.
The walk down the trail was giddy. We practically flew, cheered the bedraggled hikers making their way up the switchbacks. We paused on one turn and asked a fellow hiker to take a quick photo of us.
Two weeks later, I assembled the biggest group text I'd ever sent.
So, to make it easier on the parents, grandparents, and most of the world's normal people (who have relationships that follow a progression from meeting to dating to seriously dating to engaged to married to death), [Partner] and I devised a shorthand to explain exactly what happened two weeks ago atop a waterfall in Portland.
However, if it makes sense, or if you want to engage with our relationship on the same terms that we do, consider this story.
We went to Portland with the intent to have a Long And Serious But Good What-Do-You-Want-Out-Of-Life-And-This-Relationship Discussion. To do this, we climbed a waterfall, and bought a notebook to take notes in. The notebook covers were pieces of a Scrabble board. We sat down with our feet in the water and made a bunch of to-do lists that included things like "have babies" and "cultivate an awesome community" and "get play produced/novel published" and "make art" and "go to Wales" and promised that we'd stick around to support one another in getting those things done or do them together. Then we climbed down the waterfall and stuffed ourselves full of delicious Cuban food, feeling like nothing had changed, except that now all the vague and unspoken feelings we'd been carrying for awhile were now spoken and specific actions.
And we couldn't, for some reason, stop grinning.
That was supposed to be it - the happy announcement, a flurry of congratulations, and then the beginning of the rest of everything.
We didn't expect protests.
does this really mean that we don't get to dance at your wedding..?
There has to be dancing. It's a rule.
I demand a party!
Mazel tov. And I'm with everyone else. We like Parties!
The chat comments were soon followed by incredulous inquisitions from our families and communities. It wasn't long before we realized we were going to have to give the people what they wanted - in some form, at least.
A typical wedding was a nonstarter - for one, neither of us liked big parties. The very thought of cacophony, music, and mandatory two-minute socializing with dozens of guests was exhausting.
Plus, we were young. Most of our friends weren't wealthy. We had family on two different coasts, and friends scattered in between then. We'd already refused several wedding invitations ourselves, unable to afford the travel and the time off work. We didn't want to be a burden.
I'll give him credit for being the first to say, "Well...what if we went to them?"
It wasn't a far-fetched idea. By then, I'd gone on two cross-country tours, performing poetry in peoples' living rooms, art galleries and coffee shops. We both liked a good road trip. I had a planner's love of spreadsheets and logistics organizing. Maybe there was a way to do this that would offer the celebration our community sought in a way that...actually made us feel celebrated.
We called it The Wedding Tour. Over ten stops and six states, we held small ceremonies with groups of family and friends. His mother got to help plan one, in a public park with a marimba band, and deli platters. My mother got to help plan one at a local zoo, with a cart full of popsicles and a collection of pies instead of cakes. One, in the living room of my parents' house, was devoted to my college friends; three thousand miles away, we ate Chinese takeout and tres leches cake with his college friends. A fiercely competitive scrabble game emerged at the wedding featuring both of our mothers (we all lost to my partner.) At another, we had to fight a film crew for the park pavilion we'd rented (it turned out our shockingly inexpensive permit was for the grass around the pavilion - but when they heard what was happening, the film crew graciously shared the space, and got out of there before it was time to break out the chuppah.)
We cobbled together a short ceremony with components from our respective traditions: a Unitarian chalice, breaking a glass, a different chuppah at every ceremony, and vows that were partially improvised and partially based on the seven blessings said at every Jewish wedding. But the ceremonial bit never took longer than ten minutes, and then it was all about community. With groups ranging from four people to 60 (the one at the zoo was my family and the biggest by far) we could spend real time talking, relaxing, and enjoying ourselves.
(At one wedding, we forgot who was supposed to bring the chuppah and instead were sheltered by our friends' lifted arms, in a powerful - if tiring! - metaphor. They were REALLY good sports.)
Three weeks on the road meant I had a rotating cast of three wedding dresses, each of which could be easily rolled or stuffed into a suitcase without getting wrinkled. He switched it up between a pair of pinstriped shorts (it was August) and a button-down and a Utilikilt.
At each ceremony, we explained our wedding rings. His, a plain gold band with textured grooves that vaguely resembled tree bark; mine, an Art Deco heirloom from my great-grandmother, with a diamond set in silver filigree. While I work with my hands and couldn't wear the ring full time, I liked the role it played in our ceremonies; it was my "something old."
We knew we wanted physical memories of the weddings, but hiring ten photographers was definitely out of the question, so we decided that anyone who WANTED to take photos, could. (Hence the surviving photos that made it into this story!) But for the rest of the time, we had the scrapbook station. At each wedding, we put out colorful paper and markers and invited people to write messages, memories, or - in the case of some wonderfully talented family members - sketches of the day. People loved it - and got really creative. Being able to show off the book as it grew became one of my favorite things about the later weddings.
Of course, the end of the wedding tour WAS just the beginning. And when it came down to it, nothing was more important than that day atop Multnomah Falls, and the way we slowly, together, wrote the story we wanted to live. These days, those pages are full of notations, cross-outs, and check marks. Some things have changed with time. Some, like "have really good friends," will never have a specific date scrawled next to them. It's a journey, and one we're still on together - sometimes pushing each other up the switchbacks, and sometimes skipping merrily down.
Oh, and reader? Two years after we got married, I finally won a Scrabble game.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!