A and E had a vision – exchanging their promises of marriage alone on top of a mountain, just the two them. In the end, there were a few of us, but they had their moment all alone to exchange words of love to each other. They also had a moment to make their promises to each other with another as witness, and that has a power, too. Then they promised to love each other as family, and do their best as a married couple, so that their adored two year old would grow up with a healthy view of love. “Thank you for being the mother of my son” “Thank you for being the father of my son” These words were woven in to their ceremony, and they tied a keepsake ribbon after making promises. It was a very simple ritual, but it meant the world to them to include their boy, who was waiting at the bottom of the mountain to celebrate with them.

I often work with couples who have little ones, and they are delighted to know that their wedding ceremony can include making vows that include their children.

Kim Payant Photography

Kim Payant Photography

The ink is dry on the marriage licence, the dress is packed away, one or two of those fabulous photos have been framed, and is in a place of honour in your home. You are still basking in the glow of happy memories, the day those you love came together to help you celebrate what you two have with each other. 2015 was a wonderful year for me – I met so many interesting and passionate couples, and had such a good time getting to know all of you in different ways. I wish you all great happiness, that goes without saying. And I also wish you a good deal more of the imagination and dedication that you brought to your wedding; that creative, thoughtful dedication I witnessed time after time. Every one of you put your word on the line, and now you are figuring out what that means, and I feel a sense of kinship with you now.

It is beautiful, on-going, demanding work. As I type this, my husband of 28 years is snoozing on the couch next to me. We have had a great deal of happiness, he and I. And the road was not always smooth or wide. I am ever grateful for the capacity we both developed to imagine a future together, no matter what roadblocks life wanted to put in our way. Thank you for sharing your biggest dreams with me. May you all continue in the direction of love’s ideals.

[quote]

If you advance confidently in the direction of your dreams and endeavor to live the life you have imagined you will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. You will pass an invisible boundary: new, universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within you and you will live with the license of a higher order of beings. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundation under them.

Henry David Thoreau [/quote]

Sometimes I get a difficult email or phone call. The bride, or groom lets me know the wedding is off, has been cancelled, and won’t be happening at all.  I can tell what a difficult phone call or email that is to make. I don’t often hear the details of what happened, or why, but the pain is so evident.

I had a phone call like that this morning, and I have been sitting with it for a few hours. When we hear of another person’s heartache, It’s so tempting to want to say something to alleviate their distress. The phrases jump to mind: don’t worry, it’ll all work out. It’s probably for the best. Things happen for a reason. Better to find out now. All those phrases we want to say to others when life gets difficult. That’s our nature, isn’t it? We are desperate to take away suffering. We want to make it better.

I work hard at biting my tongue against those conditioned phrases, but finding the right words is not easy. This poem, by Jan Richardson has helped me this morning, to respond with love. To bear witness to another person’s pain, and not try to fix it, or minimize it, or to forget about it.

 

There is no remedy for love but to love more.
– Henry David Thoreau

Let us agree
for now
that we will not say
the breaking
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.

Let us promise
we will not
tell ourselves
time will heal
the wound
when every day
our waking
opens it anew.

Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—

as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it

as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still

as if it trusts
that its own stubborn
and persistent pulse
is the rhythm
of a blessing
we cannot
begin to fathom
but will save us
nonetheless.

The marriage vows are truly the heart of any marriage ceremony. They are the high point, the climax of the dramatic arc that is the story of the ceremony. The couples I work with come to the vow section in many different ways. Some are very clear from the start – they want to write and speak their own personal vows. Others are hesitant, worried about their ability to speak such emotional material in front of friends and family. Through the process of working together, and through the process of writing their own reflections on what it means to be getting married, many couples decide that they can do it, and take on the writing and speaking of their own vows as we work together. Others are equally clear from the start – they want something traditional and simple, and they want to be able to say, “I do”, while holding hands with their partner.

In a custom ceremony, anything is possible, and the process of creating the ceremony together is part of the wedding magic. Each couple has the opportunity to talk about what makes sense, what resonates, and what will make both of them  comfortable. Which is why I often remind couples, the wedding vows do not have to match. Each of the partners can be free to approach the vows in a way that suits them, that makes them feel at ease.  Comfort and meaning go hand in hand. Being comfortable at your own wedding ceremony should be high on your wish list, if you ask me!

This photo is from a recent wedding, where the personalized vows were placed in their “marriage box” in the ceremony. Here is a snippet from the introduction to the vows:

“This box contains the words you will speak to each other today. Your vows, which are your heart’s longing, and your mind’s attention. They are the promises that will not be fulfilled this day, but will unfold, day in and day out, as you live fully and deeply into them.

Speak them now, to each other, in our presence.”

Wedding season is fast approaching. I look forward to bearing witness to the many and varied promises that will be spoken this summer.

As Sharon Olds says in a poem called The Wedding Vow,  “Do I bear this pleasure? I do. ”

On one of the last glorious fall weekends of 2014, I spent the day in my front yard, picking rocks. Since July 1st, our yard had been torn up, and it took us most of an busy summer to level it by hand and prepare it for remodeling.  On that fall day, as I bent and straightened, plucked and dug, I found myself reviewing the passing of summer, and reflecting on the wedding season that was also coming to a close. Four ragged stones appeared on my shovel, and spoke to me of the extraordinary experience of being a full-time wedding celebrant in the Rockies. A few heart-shaped rocks sifted from the rocky soil to become the gifted memento of my incredible summer, in which I was witness to hearts of every shape and size.

Every bride and each groom, each mom and dad and grandma and grandpa, all the best friends, the groomsmen and bridesmaids. Every one of those guests, dressed in good clothes, making the effort, having flown or driven, some miles and miles and miles, to be there. All hearts open, every single one of them, present and exposed, for the twenty or thirty minutes of ceremony, to the generousity of love.

“My” couples had opened themselves to me, so freely and willingly, so I could get to know them and tell their story. I was so moved by that. And then, on their day, they showed up big time. They laughed, they cried, they shook with nervous excitement, they beamed with pride, they sweated, they glowed, they stood in the wind and the sun and their smiles were unstoppable.  It was extraordinary.

It was an terrifically good summer for weather, and most of the outdoor weddings went as planned under the dome of blue sky, open to the mountain backdrop. There were a few last minute changes, and some couples had to give up their dream of an outdoor wedding and graciously adjust to “Plan B”.  They were rewarded with the warmth and solidarity of family and friends.

We were serenaded by cello, violins, guitars, a bagpiper. One of the brothers became one of the sons, singing at two different weddings. One couple danced their first dance immediately after the ceremony in the mountain meadow. One wedding took place high on a mountain trail, so the tumbling brook seemed music enough for that processional. The bride’s dad, however, granted them an a capella solo; the mountains echoed with his song.

Then there were the kids. Children tumbled in the grass, trampled through the wedding circle, wanted “up” during vows, stole the show with a curtsey and cried for uncle or mommy and held the ring box oh so carefully, or scattered the rose petals with such serious precision. They made their way down the aisle in the arms of parents and beloved grandparents. Some arrived in wagons, and others walked in two by two with a sign between them that announced, “Here comes the Bride”.  Most sported big smiles, but one walked the whole length of the aisle with his eyes squinched shut. Some did not make it down the carpet at all. Preferring, in the glare of all those staring adults to stay in the back, thank you very much.

The attendants were a bouquet of wildflowers – young and not so young, family and friends, matching and freeform. Parents came in all colours and spousal arrangements. All of them were pleased and proud and happy to be there to witness their sons and daughters, their best friends, their sisters and their brothers say yes to love.

The ancestors arrived every time. Named or unnamed, we felt them hovering, the hundreds and thousands of couples who had already taken their turn at the wheel. When we called them by name, the ones recently passed, tears honoured their memory. Sorrow and gratitude and joy met the moment, and we were all touched by mention of those who could not join us physically.

Each ceremony was different, and had its own special flavour. We made our ceremonies meaningful with words, with readings, and with ritual. Traditional, invented, and adapted, the rituals included beer, bread, wine, Sangria, river stones, knot tyings, hand-written letters, blessings, tokens, burning sage, the laying of flowers, building a cairn, a Harry Potter book, and of course, the rings.  The bridal knots, tied with tartan, cord, satin ribbon adorned with charms, or climbing rope, became treasured keepsakes to take home.

Every single ceremony ended with a kiss. (Several couples squeezed in a few unplanned kisses before, during and after the pronouncement, I noticed.)  Somehow, through all those words, and actions and with all the focused energy of all those gathered, the unmarried became married, and began the joyful journey home.

As I picked the rocks in my yard, I sorted through all the ceremonies, humbled by the abundance of happiness I was witness to. I probably said the word Love about a million times, and I meant it. And they heard it, I could see them listening. Those couples put their hearts on the line, in public, and made their vows to each other in front of those they cared most about. It was extraordinary.

I was left that autumn day with four stones, a plentitude of memories and a deep satisfaction that comes with a good day of working in the dirt. I don’t know what will happen to all those couples. I know they’ll have wonderful lives. And I know their lives will be painful, and suddenly shifted, and surprisingly difficult. I know they’ll forget the exact wording of the vows they so carefully promised. But I know they won’t forget their day.

In the remembering, they will perhaps be reminded, as I was, of the heart of the whole matter. Which is everything about hope, and a few things about faith, and everything about yes. And something about our hearts, which, no matter the size, are somehow big enough to contain a world of love.

Last year, we were in Patzcuaro, Mexico, for Dia de los Meurtos, Day of the Dead. Five friends, traveling together,  very spontaneously created an altar in our rented house, and sat around talking about our own dead: mothers, fathers, grandchildren. It was a moving experience. So this year, I felt drawn to making another, at home. And it has been just as moving. All these loved ones who have passed, gathered in memory. Inviting them to visit for the briefest time, feeling the thin veil lift, between where I am and where I’m headed. May you feel surrounded by love today, from all those fully present in your lives. And all those others, fully present.

We are gathered in the spacious great room of a home, and the mountains are right there through the large windows, peeking in and out as the clouds lift after a night and morning of heavy rain. It is a somber gathering; the sadness another guest in the room, milling around the standing bodies. This is a young community, and their open faces reveal various levels of grief, discomfort and pain. For all of that, I sense the strength and length of deep, sincere hugs, this is close community. I feel slightly dizzy as I make my way through the room to begin my welcome.

We are gathered for a service of remembrance for a small baby, and the fireplace mantel behind me holds precious photos and a teddy bear, a vase of roses and candles. I read from the words I’ve been preparing all week. The words I choose speak of unconditional love and a sweet, peaceful presence.

I am working to keep my emotions in check, so others don’t have to. I want this to be a container, a place of support and comfort for the family. These things I also say. I’m trying my best, with all the skills I have, and I’m just hoping it is enough.

I’ve prepared a ritual for the service that involves beading hand-painted glass beads on to a braided ribbon. It is to be our gift to the baby, to help her cross to wherever her journey is taking her next. Everyone has a bead, and the braid is to be passed around the room from one person to the next.

I signal for the music to begin, and prepare for a time of quiet reflection.

I offer the braid to her parents, and they oh so slowly and tenderly thread each bead. Then they rather reluctantly pass it on. And so it goes, the braid passes to the grandparents, and the aunts and uncles, all of them young, and some of them brand new parents themselves. On to the next the braid moves unhurriedly, gently. It is lovely.

The gathering is even larger than we had anticipated, and although there are enough beads, I see that it is taking much longer for the braid to pass through the room than I had prepared for. As more beads are added, the braid gets heavy, and I notice people reaching out to support the beaded end while another does the threading.
I see we are barely through a quarter of the room, and I think about what there is left to do within the ceremony. I begin to think I have made a critical error in planning. There have already been tears. A little sobbing, even, when we listened to the exquisitely tender rendition of the baby’s last hour, courageously offered to us by a warm-hearted NICU nurse.

I sense fatigue, and I am worried for the parents, who have been wrung out by all of this. I think I need to move things along. I motion to the young woman in charge of the music to turn the volume down a bit, and I read a poem that had been planned for after the beading ritual. I finish, and look up as the friends continue to string the beads. I can see that it is becoming more difficult as it passes through the crowd, the ends fraying a bit. I squirm a little and I try to think what I could do to help this along. The braid is barely through a third of crowd. I skip ahead and read the note of thanks, it feels out of place.

I am definitely out of sync, and I realize I am afraid of the sacred space I have worked so hard to create.

But evidently I am the only one. As I scan the group, I can see that somehow, everybody has already figured it out. They are taking the offer to put their silent blessings into a single glass bead seriously, and as they stand shoulder to shoulder they seem willing to bear this quiet.

The music plays softly, sun floods the room. The windows, which are open, waft in a clean, fresh breeze. All the snuffling has stopped, the tears dry on our cheeks, and it seems another visitor has stepped into the room. The barest breath, a whisper of peace.

I see one couple struggle with the bead and the braid, and I pay attention. He keeps at it. It is hard. He tries again, and again. His partner holds his arm and watches and doesn’t offer to take over, to do his job for him. She just waits at his side. It is hard, but it is his job to do. As my eyes pan the room, I realize we are all doing the same thing. Being in patient, present silence.

No one is restless. No one is giving off signals that they’ve had enough, that they want out, that they wish this difficult service would be over. They stand, they wait, they breathe.

At that point, I settle down, and I put my hands in my lap. I, too, am helpless to change or alter or make any easier this situation. I rest, finally, with the others, in sun-filled room.

Finally the last bead is added. The nurse who had been with the wee one after her last breath, the one who had so lovingly told us her story, slipped on the final bead, and handed what had become a gorgeous necklace to me.

I tied it together and we all admired it collectively. It was heavy. It was white and gold and pink, and it glittered a little in the sun. The gift we were offering to the small one, lovingly, patiently, slowly assembled, was now complete.

The room had become a tranquil oasis. I set the necklace on a table that was spread with rose petals. In that moment I understood that the spirit of that calm, sweet baby had transformed our space and our hearts.

It was an extraordinary gift. And I mean the one that was given to us.

When I started this blog I was worried about my audience, and thought I needed to appeal to my “ideal client” and all of that. Since my business includes weddings and funerals, and any rite of passage in between, that covers a lot of ideal people. I’ve been a little self-conscious. You know, you post something about a Death Café, and the brides don’t like it too much. You talk too much about vows and tulle, and the baby boomers glaze over.

The truth is, life is messy, and full of love and loss, every inch of the way. There is no such thing as a major life event that doesn’t contain within it the whole shootin’ match, the entire spectrum of beginnings and endings:  dreams, potential and farewells. What I noticed this week, as I walked some length of a lifeline through ceremony, is how much we share, at whatever stage of life we’re at. I also noticed, (no big surprise) that my clients change me. So I write this blog the way I’ve always written in my life, not so much because I have something to say, but because I need to figure out what just happened.

First thing Monday morning, I married a young couple at the Banff Springs Hotel. This was a joyous occasion. They were teenage sweethearts, who had met at an ice-cream shop and began their relationship nine years ago to the day. They were well suited to each other, they had already tested their relationship, and they adored one another.  And still, the tears! Her father, in the hotel lobby, minutes before he walked his daughter down the aisle. Wiping his eyes, which were already tearing up, he admitted to me that he didn’t realize until that minute that he was losing his little girl, and handing her over to another man. Of course, the absurdity of his statement was also apparent, as she was well grown up and had been with this fellow for many years. Still. The ceremony cemented an understanding, and helped him face the passage of time and meaning.

Later, when we mentioned and brought to mind the parents and grandparents now passed, there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd, which was comprised of the very closest friends and family.  Once again, the sensation of the wheel of time, and our precious part in it, was shared among all the family and friends, and the room was thick with emotion.

Mostly though, there were smiles and laughter, as in, when the bride raised her eyebrows “so high”, when her groom spoke of his pride at this particular skill of hers. The groom look as pleased as punch in his new grey suit. The bride’s confident and powerful recitation of her vows only cracked when she said “the father of our children”. Hope, love, and Orange Juice, all before noon.

The rest of the week, with the help of a community of friends, I walked a place of more sorrow than joy, as we planned and prepared a memorial service for one of the brightest human beings on the planet. This particular community turned a raw and snowy spring day into a riot of colour, with pots and pots of daffodils, tulips and irises. The cavernous school auditorium was transformed into a garden, and there was music and singing, and words to lift our very heavy hearts.  The function of this ceremony was to give us a container; a space for our grief for a time, so we could feel held and embraced by the love that guided our friend’s life.

I noticed as we collectively remembered her ever-present smile (in the face of great challenge), the atmosphere in the room was light, and I felt my own heart soar. To truly bear witness to an exceptional life was inspiring beyond circumstance. In the midst of grief, I noticed myself re-dedicating to life, surprised once again by the middle road we walk between winter and spring, hello and good-bye.

The week rounded out with a trip to the winter wonderland of Lake Louise, where I met the couple from Florida and their twin girls, who were there to renew their vows after ten years of marriage. The big loss this time was luggage that didn’t arrive, which meant the brand new suit and dress also didn’t arrive. But this couple took it in stride, shopped at Cross Iron Mills on the way from the airport, and carried on with their plan.

The ceremony was intimate: just me and the family, and the photographers (and my friend and her guide dog as witnesses).  We were in the empty ballroom at the Chateau, which of course, felt a bit like a castle in a fairy tale for girls who had never seen snow before. When I told the couple’s “love story” to them, I was reminded that days before I had addressed my friend’s grown children with the words, “We know ourselves through our stories.”

These six-year-old girls hung on my every word, and they were especially delighted when their “entrance” was announced within the story – the day they were born, when their parents knew their job was to stay together because they were a family. When the groom read his vows aloud, his daughter looked at him like he was Prince Charming – her mouth rounded in a small “o” of wonder and pleasure.

The girls added their own words to the story within the ceremony, sharing what they love about their family: “My mom and dad take care of me when I’m sick. They take us on trips.  My family gives me cuddles and kisses.” When they stood in a circle and smiled at each other, I sensed this moment would imprint on all of them, and become one of those treasured memories.  No tears this day, just some heartfelt words of thanks for love recognized. And poodle hugs.

It was a big week, and my heart is swelling with gratitude for the “clients” that I was privileged to work with. Because of course, they weren’t clients at all. They were teachers. That’s an ideal I can live with.

It’s not always easy to explain what a personalized or custom ceremony looks like, because each one is unique to the setting, the needs and intentions of the couple. When I work with a couple to create a custom ceremony, I take the time to get to know them, and they take the time to consider the symbols and relationships that they bring to their lives. It is creative work, and unearths some lovely surprises and meaningful connections. As much as I like to think I bring something to the couple, I find their ideas and visions to be inspiring and uplifting.

Today I performed an intimate ceremony for a second marriage, which included immediate family members. It was bitterly cold outside, and as I drove in to Calgary, the radio announcer assured me the temperature was minus 40 with a wind chill. But things were toasty warm inside the couple’s new home, with a comfy chairs pulled up to a cheerful fireplace, and the coffee table set with an elegant blue tablecloth and fresh white candles and flowers.  The mantle was adorned with a pair of carved dragons, two delicate stone eggs, two custom designed rings in their boxes, and a metal disk covered in pink  flowers.  Large sparkling amethysts and carved and raw stones evidenced a rock hounding passion that has been passed from parents to son.

There were six guests, the people who were “home” to the couple, who had met online 18 months earlier: three sons (one of whom joined via Face Time from Afghanistan), and three living parents. The fourth parent was brought into the room by the presence of a lit candle in the shape of a dove.

I had prepared a script, as I do, which was written in consultation with the couple over the last two months. It contained their love story, several poems and readings, and a house blessing. The three of us had collaborated and come up with a beautiful ceremony that spoke of their love, the gratitude they felt at finding one another, and their commitment to living toward their best selves.

As we started the ceremony, I tried my best to keep to the script, but I noticed there was a good deal of improvising as the ceremony proceeded, mostly in the form of additional kisses. I had to stop the proceedings a couple of time so we could find and use the Kleenex. (Note to self, keep some tissues up my sleeve) There was laughter and a bit of fumbling over the candles, but in the end, the family candle burned brightly, and the connection in the room was palpable. The bride and groom successfully recited their vows by heart, and all of us were touched by the deep sense of presence and sincerity in their words.

The bride’s wedding ring had been designed by the groom. A hammered river, representing the journey their blended family was taking together. Five yellow sapphires, collected by the groom when he was a teenager, had been selected by himself and the boys in a careful, collaborative effort.

As a final blessing, I offered the words of D.H. Lawrence, with his poem, Fidelity.

Man and woman are like the earth, that brings forth flowers

In summer, and love, but underneath is rock.

Older than flowers, older than ferns, older than foraminiferae,

Older than plasm altogether is the soul underneath.

 

And when, throughout all the wild chaos of love

Slowly a gem forms, in the ancient, once-more-molten rocks

Of two human hearts, two ancient rocks, a man’s heart and a woman’s,

That is the crystal of peace, the slow hard jewel of trust,

The sapphire of fidelity.

The gem of mutual peace emerging from the wild chaos of love.

 

 

 

I believe it’s a sin to try and make things last forever

Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day

Got to let go of the things that keep you tethered

Take your place with grace and then be on your way

Bruce Cockburn

Over the years, I have taken part in writing groups, mostly with women. The pattern shifts a bit with each group, but there is usually a time of talking, (a lot of talking) and then a time of writing. We talk because it seems like the most natural thing in the world to do. We are women, and we like each other, and we are very, very happy to be out of the house, and not working. Because we are in a circle, and because we have come with an intention, (to write) the conversation usually takes an intimate and eclectic turn. We take turns “checking in”. How are you? Becomes a real question, for which we expect and listen for an answer. No polite smiles here. We wait for the answers, which spill like fresh picked fruit on the tablecloth of our conversation. The answers contain stories of our husbands and our children, our struggles with identity and work concerns. Over the years, we have decades of ages and stages, plumbing the depths with tears, laughter and mutual commiseration.

When we are done with the talk, we write, gathering the ripest bits and letting our unconscious selves sort the flavours and colours. We are always, without fail, reluctant to write. We’ve learned to make a joke of our reticence, watching the stalling techniques, and shucking off our fear anyway, knowing resistance is a fine gauge of commitment, a necessary precursor to the dive.

We write because all of us like to write, and writing has helped us make sense of our own lives, unraveled some of our messes, and made clear a connection that on many occasions has seemed like a lifeline. For all our unique and particular content and style, we are so much the same.

Once we talked about mothering, and dancing, and what it means to step into a place of growth. When the time for aw shucks is gone. When the time is right to step forward and take our place, to own the ground taken. Here is an excerpt from that evening’s writing:

Kim is coming in to a second stage with her dancing. Not a beginner anymore. Beginner mind, maybe, but not beginner. Realizing it’s time to embody the trade she has spent time gaining skill experience and expertise in. She admits that this time it is different. Now she is dancing from the afterward of motherhood.

What an empowered, confident place to dance from. Knowing from the tips of her wings to the depth of her root chakra – it’ll never be about just about her again.  Our children teach us that magnificent lesson. Maybe that’s where the word mother comes from. “Me” joined with “other” forms a new being, a woman who can never think of herself in quite the same way as she did when she was a maid. A woman connected to the future, and linked to the past by ancestral generations of men and women birthed before her.

The dancing doesn’t end, but the way we dance changes. I watch my own mother, now in an assisted living home, learning, in many ways for the first time, to breathe in each day as it comes; a gift wrapped in the colours of sadness and sunshine. Even as she points her toes with a new step, and twirls with an attitude of ‘I am not gone yet’, one hand arcs back to me, and she says, “I’m proud of what you are doing.” Leaving me to lead the next round.

We are a link in the chain, and our work, our big and holy work, will not be completed in our lifetime. We will work hard in our time, but when the time comes, we must learn to pass the torch to others; to those who will dance forward. And may they learn as well to take their time and place, with grace.