Monday, August 31, 2009

The Dark Bride

Getting engaged is a pretty monumental thing. The person you’ve been looking for wants to spend their life with you, and behold! You feel the same way. You have made the decision to walk through your trials and tribulations together. Two hearts will become one. Two families will unite to form a new bond. Two souls intertwine, like the roots of a tree, creating a union that will stand the test of time.

Plus, you get to buy Martha Stewart Weddings.

I once went to a wedding where the minister, who had known the bride since she was a little girl, began his sermon: “Elizabeth has been planning this day since she left the womb.”

But even if you don’t fall into that category, it’s still good times. You get to try on dresses. You get to think seriously about cupcakes. Your friends celebrate you and your family fusses over you. You spend inordinate amounts of time in magazine stores, flipping through Brides and Wedding Bells and In Style Weddings, and of course, Martha. And although you might point and laugh at most of the pictures, snorting out comments about how many Barbie Dolls were killed to make that tiara, secretly, you enjoy it. Because Your Wedding Day is Your Day to Shine. It is the day when All Eyes Are On You. It is the day to Look Your Best. It is the day you will glide down an aisle in a blossom of white, basking in the love you have for your husband-to-be as the crowds gush and get teary-eyed and snap digital photos. It will be, in other words, THE BEST DAY OF YOUR LIFE.

Got it?

I’m not much of a perfectionist – I swear. But as soon as we started planning our wedding, I began obsessing about things too embarrassing to even admit. I felt our wedding would be the perfect reflection of everything Tony and I stood for as a couple. It should be spiritual but not hokey. Classy but not stuffy. Outdoorsy but not Mountain Equipment Coop. Stylish but not in a way that would look like we were trying too hard to be stylish, which was going to take a damn lot of effort. Just to keep things interesting, we even bought a house two and a half months before the nuptials. Then, a week before our moving day, I found myself curled up in the fetal position on the bathroom floor.

Please believe me when I say this had nothing to do with flower arrangements. In fact, I had no idea what it had to do with. All I knew was that somewhere between the champagne and the dining room table measurements, the feeling had gone away. My excitement and love and anticipation had melted. Looming, on the horizon, was THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE. And I was terrified.

The thought of putting on my dress wasn’t filling my stomach with butterflies. I didn’t feel madly in love with Tony, and hadn’t at any point in the past two weeks. We were moving out of a miserable apartment where our chain-smoking next door neighbours had beer delivered every day at 10am, to a great house that belonged to us. So what the hell was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I thrilled to the marrow of my bones? Did this mean I was…

Making a huge mistake?

It too horrible to consider, but there I was, face to face with the gunge on the bottom of the toilet, considering it. Because when you are getting married, you are SUPPOSED to be filled with joy and excitement and little white clouds. You are SUPPOSED to spend every moment walking on air. You are SUPPOSED to be DYING to start the rest of your life with the person you have chosen. And if you’re not… well, Martha does not speak of such things in her Summer 2009 edition.

The next day, I called my friend Sofia, who herself had a big fat half-Greek wedding a couple of years ago.

“Were you excited before you got married?” I demanded.

“God, no,” she said. “We fought all the time. Everything was like one big chore. The day itself was great, but everything else… forget it. Of course, buying a house right before didn’t help. I wouldn’t recommend that. Oh – never mind.”

According to the book The Conscious Bride, while getting married is the birth of something new, it’s also, symbolically, a death. It’s the end of your single life, and, in a way, your family unit of origin. This is even reflected in some cultures, where the bride’s family actually mourns her before celebrating her wedding. The book has testaments from brides about how, in the months and weeks leading up to holy matrimony, they, like me, experienced extreme anxiety, and even panic. The brides talked about how, during this time, they had unusual urges to spend time – willingly – with their parents and siblings. Which was reassuring, since I had also begun to lose myself in old photo albums, longing to be three years old again. I was sure this was completely bizarro behaviour, but there were other women, claiming to have done the very same thing. Best of all, some of them ended up on the bathroom floor, too.

Then, something occurred to me. It might seem painfully obvious to a passing bystander or someone who’s already gone through this, but getting married is - are you ready for this? - NOT just about the wedding! It’s about announcing to the world that you will take this person and all their baggage, pile it on top of your baggage, and make a vow not to run screaming from the giant mountain of suitcases and garbage bags filled with crap. No matter how much white icing you pile on top of it, that, my friends, is a big fucking deal. Is it any wonder the majority of divorces happen within the first year?

Since she has 41 years of marriage under her belt and has known Tony for almost as long, I decided to sit down with Mama Greek and pick her brain about this whole thing.

“Were you excited for your wedding?” I asked.

“No,” she shrugged, rolling phyllo for spanakopita. “Why excited? You get married, and that’s it.”

“Were you nervous?”

“No. Why? You nervous? You beautiful, Natalie. Don’t need to be nervous. Just get married. That’s it.”

“What do you think is the most important thing Tony and I should know about marriage?” I pressed. And then she said something excruciatingly obvious, but that somehow, in all the house-buying and wedding-planning, Tony and I had managed to forget.

“Respect each other,” she said.

I know. It’s probably there, in the How to Get Married Manual, page one. But thinking about all the couples I’ve ever met, it’s the one thing they have in common. They speak to each other kindly and gently, the way you would with a three-year old. They listen to each other patiently, even when the person speaking is drooling or ranting in a deranged way about used vs. new appliances. And somewhere in the past few weeks, Tony and I had stopped doing so well on that front. We’d started losing our patience way too quickly, trying to micromanage each other and snapping when that didn’t work. It’s an easy thing to do when tensions are high. It also corrodes away at what you’ve got, no matter how good it is.

The movies tell us that if we just meet the right person, everything will fall into place. And that if the right person eventually reveals themselves the wrong person, it’s best to bugger off immediately, because life is short and the REAL right person, whom you’ll never argue with or snap at or question your decision to be with, is somewhere out there, waiting to make your life complete. But listening to Mama Greek, I started to think that all this might be more of a chicken and egg thing. That not only do you have to find the a person who treats you well, you also have to patiently and persistently watch how you treat them, even if you’re having a bad morning or a long car ride or planning seating arrangements. And that that is the stuff that makes the right person stay the right person, rather than the other way around.

I will be walking down the aisle in three weeks. But I’ve decided that I’m going to just let it be a day that, in the grand scheme of things, means nothing about the kind of couple we are or will be. In the end, planning a wedding, or buying a house or whatever it is you’re taking on, is just a giant, logistical feat. Maybe it will be the best day of my life. Maybe it will be a great day, or just an okay one. But I’m alright with that. As long as we keep working hard to respect each other, now and forever.

And anyway - that’s why God invented honeymoons.