We were married 20 years ago today!
Early in 1999, Shonnie, in her professional capacity, was setting up at a health fair at the Asheville Civic Center. While we rather liked being committed to one another but not married, we’d discussed matrimony from time to time. Since I was leaving town for a few days, I was moved to pop the question, almost as a throw-away line: “Do you want to get married?” She was in the midst of organizing her booth and replied with a simple, “Sure,” kissed me lightly and went back to her duties. I left her to her work, and as I approached my car parked in front of the center, Shonnie came running toward me with tears in her eyes. “Did you just ask me to marry you?” “Yes,” I replied with a smile. She embraced me, kissed me passionately and laughed joyfully. “Of course, I will, you silly man!”
We set the date for May 30, 1999, at Bend of Ivy Lodge, fifteen miles north of Asheville. Bend of Ivy was a sixty-three-acre rustic resort, with extensive walking trails and great mountain views, nestled in a secluded forest of walnut and sycamore trees by the Ivy River. About three months out, we asked Don Leighton-Burwell, my friend from my Austin men’s group, and Carolyn Baehr, a mutual friend from the More To Life program, to be our wedding team leaders and began planning for a participatory event that expressed who we were and the world we wished to create, a wedding that differed significantly from the typical American wedding. Our intention for our wedding:
With our wedding celebration, we intend to love and be loved, acknowledge and be acknowledged, gift and be gifted, honor and be honored, evoke and be evoked through an inclusive, meaningful ritual that publicly consecrates our life-long bond and commitment to one another. We will honor the people and the life-force that have made us who we are and who we are becoming. We want to unite our bodies, minds, and spirits; promote compassion and connectedness between all the folks we hold dear—ourselves, our true and trusted friends, our cherished blood relatives, and those who are now with us only in spirit. And we intend to create a better understanding of who we are, the kind of world we are creating, and the connection we have to one another and to all the Earth itself.
We were overjoyed when the wedding team members began to arrive at Bend of Ivy on Friday, May 28. We welcomed them, we hugged them, we let them know how much we’d missed them. Many of the team came from Austin and almost all were friends from the More To Life community, our Austin marathon training group, or my old men’s group; most of them stayed with us at the Bend of Ivy Lodge, a spacious and inspiring sanctuary, with a balcony railing crafted from the old tobacco poles as well as skylights, huge windows and towering cathedral ceilings. Besides a wedding, this was a homecoming of kindred spirits.
On the day before our wedding ceremony, Saturday, all wedding guests were invited to join us on a hike to Shining Rock, the same hike Shonnie and I had undertaken during our visit to Asheville almost two years earlier. Twenty folks joined us for a joyful time—hiking, talking, getting to know one another better and enjoying the 360-degree views. Shonnie and I spoke of the unique flora and fauna of the region; the fact that Cold Mountain of the book by the same name lay at the end of this trail; the legend that Shining Rock, an outcropping of pure white quartz, was an energy vortex that some believe has helped create a sense of serenity and well-being that had drawn intellectuals, artists, outdoors people and independent thinkers to the region.
Our friend and then-videographer, Daniel Barber, videotaped the entire outing including a staged scene in which Shonnie and I hastily shed our day packs, rushed madly toward each other and leapt wildly into one another’s arms. Thereupon, I swung Shonnie around and around (hefty hiking boots and all), and finally we embraced for a passionate kiss. Daniel later added a dramatic operatic aria in the background. Who says you can’t have a little fun the day before committing for a lifetime?
Rather than a bachelor and bachelorette party, on Saturday night, Stanley Dill and Bob Todd gathered the men around a bonfire and led the men’s gathering, while Loyd Kinnett and Julie Demaree led the women’s gathering inside the lodge. Instead of getting intoxicated and telling bawdy stories, these events were intended to prepare us for married life through the shared wisdom of the participants. My daughter, Lilla (who that night had left my infant grandson, Jack, with Brandon), Shonnie’s step-mom, Deb Lavender, and her birth mom, Jeri Clemons, joined in the women’s gathering, and Shonnie’s dad, Bob Lavender, was present at the men’s gathering. The women brought buttons and ribbons they used to create a vest for Shonnie that included a pocket filled with their wishes for her:
Always remember why you fell in love with Bruce.
Keep growing—as individuals and as a couple.
Every moment is an opportunity to create exactly what you want.
Remember to be as considerate to Bruce as you are to others.
As we sat around the fire at the men’s gathering, Bob kept the fire burning brightly while Stanley presented me with a six-foot hickory staff to help me travel my authentic path. Then every man had a turn to share from the heart with me:
Share yourself fully with Shonnie, including your hopes and fears.
Have the courage to change whatever needs to be changed to have a close, intimate relationship with Shonnie.
It’s OK to cry.
Choose being happy over being right.
Keep your purpose foremost in your mind.
On Sunday, our wedding ceremony and celebration were the final and culminating events of the weekend. The wedding itself took place a few hundred yards from the lodge in a sheltered little dell through which a gurgling mountain creek ran over a rocky stream bed into a small pond.
When the wedding ceremony was about to begin, Don Leighton-Burwell played instrumental guitar, and our family members were escorted to where they would stand. I ushered my mother to her place with my other family members and then took my position with the officiants, Ken Kinnett, our friend and an Episcopal priest, and Howard Hanger, Jubilee! Community minister of ritual and celebration (the Asheville house of faith we’d become part of). The best woman, Cullen Hicks, and two best men, Art Mulkey and Tom Poe, then arrived. Finally Shonnie, glowing in her made-to-order purple wedding gown, was accompanied by her dad, Bob, and stepdad, Chuck German, to her position in front of the officiants.
As we stood there, Howard cracked wise to ease the bride and groom’s nerves: “Did you hear the story about the photographer at the wedding reception? The photographer called, ‘Would all the married men please stand next to the one person who has made your life worth living.’ The bartender was almost crushed to death.”
As the ceremony officially began, Howard and Ken welcomed everyone and thanked them for joining us on this significant weekend. Then Howard burned sweetgrass and called prayers to the four directions—north, south, east, west—a Native American tradition, inviting in the spirits of our deceased parents and other family and friends not physically present. We then recited our self-written vows and exchanged rings that had been dipped in water from the stream on the property.
I will join you in full partnership to co-create the life we both envision.
I will join you in living consciously, purposefully, passionately, congruently.
I will join you in creating true community and a more compassionate world in which to live.
I will laugh and dance and sing and have fun with you.
I will tell you the truth even when I think you might not want to hear it, and I will hear you when you tell me your truth.
I will afford you your humanity and not expect you to always be at your best.
When you forget who you really are, I’ll remind you of your power, spirit, integrity, intelligence, creativity, athleticism and beauty.
I will remember that any anger, resentment, frustration I show toward you is more about me than about you and will refuse to hold ill will toward you.
I will be true to you and honor the commitments that we make to one another for all our days.
I will open my heart to you and love you with all my being.
I will be authentically me. Bringing all my gifts and challenges and willingly using all the tools I have to fully live out my life’s purpose.
I will be your mirror. Reflecting the truth and reminding you of who you are, listening attentively, with an open heart and mind as I seek to better understand and support you in fully living your life’s purpose.
I will be your helpmate. Willingly sharing our responsibilities and honors, owning my part in creating our life, readily and fully forgiving, and working together to put us back on course when we stray from our path.
I will be your partner. Treating you with respect and equality, being creative and flexible in living interdependently in a way that reflects who we are individually and as a couple.
I will be your lover. Passionate and playful, tender and loyal, sharing myself fully and nurturing our love so that we grow ever more intimate.
I will be your friend. Honest and trustworthy, compassionate and committed, sharing all that life brings us.
I will be your companion. Honoring these sacred vows as we walk together, hand in hand, heart to heart, soul to soul, for all our days, giving all that we have and being all that we are, to create a world full of peace, love, and understanding.
Ken then bound our ringed hands together with his prayer shawl and read a Native American poem about marriage. Our families were asked to hold hands in a circle around us, and our friends were asked to hold hands around the family circle, with everyone committing to support us now and throughout the future. Howard then pronounced us married. Finally we all sang two verses of “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that would later emerge again at another significant moment in our lives. Then Stanley invited everyone down the hill to help water the tree that had been planted that morning in celebration of our union. Shonnie and I strolled, arm in arm, happy to be married and relieved that the marriage ceremony was complete, down the hill to water the tree. All the guests took their turn filling a dipper of water and pouring it at the base of the tree, symbolically providing the nourishment we needed to flourish and grow. Lilla did so somewhat acrobatically while holding infant Jack in one arm. Shonnie and I greeted each guest individually as he or she completed the simple task.
Then began the wedding celebration starting with dinner, which was catered by Laurey’s Catering, an Asheville household name, along with spicy vegetarian tamales sent from Austin by Reid Murray and made by his company, White Mountain Foods. The beer was Highland Brewery Gaelic Ale, compliments of handball buddy, Oscar Wong. Then the cutting of the wedding cake—four layers, white and decorated with orange, pink and purple edible flowers—took place. Here we did follow one wedding tradition: Shonnie and I inelegantly fed each other the first piece.
In addition to traditional “toasts,” we had invited guests to share poems, songs, readings or their personal thoughts, and there was an outpouring of love, acknowledgement and encouragement. Last of all, Shonnie and I expressed our gratitude for the presence of everyone who had joined us, some travelling from as far away as Seattle, Texas, New York and Puerto Rico, and we expressed the hope that they each had received something for themselves by being a part of our celebration.
Finally, as the three-piece swing band led by Bruce Lang played “Unforgettable,” Shonnie and I blissfully danced the first dance, then she danced with each of her dads while I danced with my Mom. Molly, my darling granddaughter, now three-years-old, danced and twirled around the dance floor with another little girl who was around her age. After Mom danced with Art, she contentedly sat nearby with her great-grandchild Jack nestled in her arms.
As the evening ended, we watched the orange moon rise in a valley formed by two nearby mountains.
Shonnie and I had set about to create a community of inclusiveness, connection, and love during our wedding weekend. We wanted our friends and family to have an opportunity to know us and one another at a deeper level. We wanted to give folks a chance to participate in the weekend, not merely be spectators and to have an experience of how it can be to come together in the spirit of love, willingness, and community. We wanted folks to leave our wedding transformed by their participation in the events. To a great extent, I believe we accomplished all of this. From our thank you note to wedding team members and those who participated so fully on that weekend:
Words alone cannot express the deep gratitude and reverence we feel toward you—our friends and family who contributed your unique gifts to create our wedding weekend, who loved us, who held us so firmly yet so gently. The tasks you were willing to undertake with such grace were vitally important to the fulfillment of our vision. But more than that, how you were willing to be—with us, with one another, with all the guests—was the most meaningful element in making this a joyful, inclusive, connecting, gratifying experience for everyone who was willing to partake. No doubt about it, this was big stuff—much bigger than I think we’d actually anticipated. It was a time of transformation. And we truly believe that the energy generated through the connections that we made were carried forward by every one of us, out into the world, into our everyday lives, thereby creating a subtle shift and movement toward a more compassionate and caring planet.