We sit in rows of white chairs and look out at the Pacific Ocean. It’s a hot July afternoon in paradise, and the only worry is that the incoming tide will swamp the bride and groom before they exchange their vows.
It’s my first beach wedding, and I’m working hard to keep my inner event planner in check. I remind myself sternly that I’m a guest here, aunt of the groom, visiting relation. My only role is to smile benignly and offer applause and warm wishes. Someone else is in charge of the tide chart.
In the end, it’s all perfect: the bridesmaids in shell-pink dresses, the groomsmen in beige linen jackets, three tiny flower girls wreathed with roses and pulled along the shore in a beribboned wagon. The waves roll to a stop inches from the happy couple. The two families nod at each other across the sandy aisle. A new story begins.
When I was young and oblivious, I used to wonder why people cried at weddings. The whole tears-of-joy thing seemed way over the top to me, all those white handkerchiefs and snuffling old ladies. To my mind, there was nothing weepy about looking fabulous and promising to love and cherish forever, followed by lots of champagne and dancing until dawn.
Now that I’m old(er) and clued in, I get it. I’m still not much of a weeper, but I recognize that a wedding is a life event, a big, bold bullet point in someone’s story. Watching it unfold from the second row takes us back to our own bullet points, marital and otherwise. We remember those rare, indelible moments when we knew for certain that something was ending, and something was beginning, and nothing would ever be the same again.
The ceremony winds down to the fading notes of Pachelbel’s Canon. It comes to me that there is something fitting about a wedding by the ocean. The ebb and flow echoes the rhythm of relationships, noisy and exciting giving way to flat and muted. The shifting winds and rip tides and unpredictable undertow remind us to be watchful, careful, respectful. Because after the champagne and the dancing comes the rest of life. After the wedding comes the marriage, a vast new expanse of uncharted water.
Once I asked a Trappist monk what the hardest thing was about his vocation. I thought he would say it was the silence, or the lack of sleep, or the monotonous vegetarian diet. But without missing a beat, he answered that it was the common life. The life in community, the everyday trudge, together. Living in proximity, faults and quirks of character are magnified. If someone drives you nuts, he told me, you just have to work it out. Because there you are, under the same roof.
When I asked him what the best thing was, he replied again: the common life. The everyday trudge, together. The common life is a school for love, he said. It requires sacrifice, and a sense of humor, and the ability to leave a great deal unsaid.
Marriage is its own vocation, with its own set of vows and expectations. But its similarities to the other kind of vowed life are striking. There’s the starry-eyed phase, when both spouses appear to be flawless. It’s all fair skies and smooth sailing. Then a gale blows up, the first of many. Annoying habits emerge. Voices acquire a certain edge. Some days, the simple task of staying afloat requires supernatural assistance.
We turn from the white chairs and head for the reception, where the band is tuning up with “Surfin’ USA.” I take one more look at the Pacific, and hum the song running through my head:
The water is wide and I cannot get o’er
And neither have I wings to fly
Give us a boat that will carry two
And both shall row
My love and I.
Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.
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