Living · Reading · Writing

The Wedding Vow is a Performative Speech Act

In the category of Wonderful Things I Never Thought I’d Do, I officiated at a wedding.

It was on Halloween, or Samhain, or Dia de Los Muertos, or Midterms, depending on your denomination. And it was an utter delight. This is good news, as it was quite stressful for me in the months working up to it. Contrary to popular belief, the ability to stand before a room full of undergrads and talk about how we read myths judiciously is not the same as the ability to enunciate clearly the knitting together of two souls before the people who care about them most in the world.

But I did it. And I am grateful for the honor. And I had such a lovely, lovely time, that of course, I have to write about it.

I was terribly, terribly nervous.

I was enchanted by the ritual of the thing. This couple—former English majors and alumni from my school—wanted some literary reading, a Welsh handfasting, and “whatever medieval badassery” I could come up with.  Hours of careful internet and bookish research convinced me that the formula was easy, but it was all about the details. Such is life.

You need a greeting and a general spiel about marriage and/or love. I got to say my version of “Dearly beloved” and mention that this couple met in a literature class, and that went some way to explaining why I was there, and why I was deploying William Butler Yeats instead of Ecclesiastes.

You need a reading—from a spiritual text typically, but in this case, I read Yeats’s “The White Birds,” and the bride’s uncle read the description of love from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. (I hadn’t read that before, and holy wow, is it beautiful.)

You need some rings, and some vows to accompany the exchange. (I may have made a cheap Lord of the Rings joke. I hope no one filmed. It was shameless.) And you need some promises you know you can keep. In this iteration, the vows were punctuated by the mothers of the couple binding their hands with  a sash, and when they had spoken their vows, they could literally tie the knot. That was very satisfying.

And then they smooched. That’s important too. It’s all important.

The vows are important; the words are important. The wedding vow is one of very few “performative speech acts” left to us in a literate society. As Westley notes in The Princess Bride, “If you didn’t say it, you didn’t do it.” But the march is also important. The recession of the wedding party, followed by the crowd. The first dance. The toasts. The cake. These are all formalities, all weighty, and all observed with remarkable consistency even at a wedding as funky and cool as a masquerade on Halloween.

Human life is formulaic. Our rituals are too. If we’re honest, our arts are too—music, literature, even visual arts. We bear according to pattern in so many things, from the genes we pass on to our children to our “regular” dishes at our favorite restaurants.

And that’s just fine. Because we find ways to make each step our own, while sharing enough structure to create bonds with others. Now this couple has their wedding story to share. It is uniquely their own, with all the goofy, delightful specifics and also its shared participation in a tradition. And in that lovely way that events turn in to stories, and stories belong to all who live and tell them, I now have a new story too.  

Living · Teaching

Once More to Graduation

This weekend ended my sixteenth year at my current position. That’s a lot of graduations, really, but I never get tired of it.

I never get tired of seeing people reach their goals, sometimes after many years, and so all the more richly appreciated. I never get tired of families shouting the names of their young folks (and some not as young) as they cross the stage. I never get tired of hearing the stories of graduates as they thank their families and loved ones for helping them get there.
Ok, I’m a sap. But it’s the best day of the academic year.
In a very real sense, it’s the reason we do our jobs. It’s the reason the university exists—to give students a solid foundation in learning that they can apply the rest of their lives. To open the doors to the universe and see where they will go.
This weekend’s graduation was spectacular again—so many wonderful students crossed that platform; so many hands to shake, so many wishes to share.
And then there was one more.
All weekend long, there was commencement after commencement, from Friday evening through Sunday evening. The one I attended was Sunday afternoon. But I was back this morning, because in the most ruthlessly, beautifully efficient use of resources, the high school my kids attend–which happens to be annexed to my university campus–used the still-erected stage and already-wired sound system for their own graduation. And my oldest child marched down that aisle.
His hat didn’t fit and kept sliding to one side. His medal was twisted around to reveal a 20-sided die from Dungeons and Dragons taped to the back, as if that were his award. He looked uncomfortable, but also excited, anticipating. He was perfect.
I just sort of assumed my graduation stance and cried. I kept seeing him as a baby, as a kindergartner, as a miserable middle-schooler, and none of that fit with the vision of the tall, handsome young man he was walking down from the stage, diploma in one hand, doofy, ill-fitting hat in the other. He didn’t care about the hat. He was over it–moving on. He was happy.
That’s why graduations are great. No matter what happened on the way, they are crystalline moments where we get to pause and just be happy. Yes, tomorrow will bring more work, and we’ll have to set new goals and carry on. But to pause and recognize good work, to be content for a moment and celebrate success with those who have the most vested interest in your happiness, to breathe in a sweet breath of completion and accomplishment and not worry about what comes next for a little while: that’s worth a lot.
And to share in that feeling with hundreds of people at the same time—that’s some powerful magic.
Congratulations to the Class of 2018. We’re ready for you.