Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why I will wear white

I originally imagined that I would wear blue jeans and a pink tank-top for our wedding. It’s my favorite outfit! And I wanted to wear something that would allow me to be and feel like myself. Upon further consideration of occasion and dress code, I considered a flowing skirt and a tank top. Seemed reasonable.

I simply could not stomach the associations I had with the white bridal dress. The association with virginity and the implication of purity are not ideals that I seek to embrace and support. I have discussed with other women who are both sexually active and getting married how it feels insincere to get married in a white dress that implies virginity.

I’m not getting married to make myself into “an honest woman.” I have been honest all year, living with my partner, making a life together, and enjoying each other both emotionally and physically. I think both our past and our future are part of the process that we will celebrate on our wedding day.

As we started to talk more and more about our wedding, I learned a little more about the Jewish wedding ceremony. Matt mentioned his hope that he would be able to fast (not eat) the day of the wedding, as is tradition. I attended other Jewish weddings and saw the grooms don kittels, white robes. I found out that Jewish tradition considers one’s wedding day as if it were a personal Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year. Both fasting and wearing white are elements of Yom Kippur that symbolize renewal: seeking forgiveness, separating oneself from past transgressions, and getting the opportunity to earn life anew. One element of Yom Kippur that I always appreciated as a child is the way in which it acknowledges error as inherent to human life. The central prayer of the service on the eve of Yom Kippur is Kol Nidre, and it declares that all vows made in the year to come shall be considered void. This prayer is a legal process in which Jews, together, declare and embrace their human weakness. Although they will spend the day ahead of them fasting and repenting for what they and others in their community have done wrong, they are not expected to become perfect in the year to come.

I felt really drawn to this imagery because it focused on process, on improvement without perfection, and on the wedding as a day on which to renew oneself and one’s life intentions.

Upon discovering this association between one’s wedding and Yom Kippur, I said to my partner: I’ll wear white if you wear white. Let’s both wear white. Let’s have ourselves our own Yom Kippur. And he said yes!

(Note: our wedding takes place on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Jewish month, on which fasting is prohibited, so we will not be taking on that element of repentance.)

When I put on a white dress this Sunday morning, I will make no claim to virginity, or purity, or perfection. Rather, it is a move in which I will be reckoning with my own imperfections, failures, and weaknesses. It will be a statement in which I declare my intention to enter the wedding with a sense of repentance and renewal. I have erred in the past—in this relationship, in other relationships, and in other areas of life—both intentionally and unintentionally. On Sunday, I will seek forgiveness, and I will seek a new start. When I approach my beloved under the chuppah (wedding canopy) and see him, too, wearing white, I will know that he also seeks forgiveness, and that he also loves himself and me as imperfect beings. We will both make mistakes in the future—within our marriage, with our management of our household, with our other relationships. And the commitment we make to each other in the wedding ceremony includes standing by each other through those future mistakes.

The white we wear symbolizes the freshness of our relationship, the pursuit of personal improvement, and our celebration of our own and the other’s human fragility. For the wedding ceremony itself, we will emphasize this symbolism through putting on the ceremonial white robes. Throughout the rest of the day, our white outfits will communicate that we take this day to pause for renewal and celebration amidst a long and complex process of partnership.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The beginning of the rest of our lives

Another guest post from my partner. Check out his writing on secular spirituality at his blog, The Empty Throne.

My wedding will happen in 21 days. But as far as I’m concerned personally, the beginning of the rest of my life began a little over a year ago, when my partner and I began living together. That was the day my bachelorhood ended, even though I am still technically a bachelor today. We moved in together after getting engaged six months earlier, so the domestic move was not one of trial, but of commitment. So, for me, all of the major life changes that come with marriage began on that day, not on the upcoming day of my wedding.

The above sentiment has greatly affected my hopes and expectations for the wedding. And it leads to an interesting riddle I’ve been thinking about—will I cry at the wedding?

My money is on yes. I think of myself, watching my one and only person walking down the aisle to me (walking down to a song that I also know will make me cry); I imagine myself, standing under the chuppah, looking at my life partner looking at me, surrounded by our family and friends… I tear up now thinking about it. And I know, I just know, that many times during the ceremony, I will think about how real this all feels. Real—meaning, this is happening, this is it, this is that transitional ceremony, that threshold I step through with my partner, into the adventure of life together. This is real life happening before one’s eyes, major life moment, check.

The irony should be obvious—real life is not standing under the chuppah. Transitional rituals work by serving as a discontinuity, a moment in which we mark life change by stepping out from everyday life. But “real life happening before one’s eyes” is what happens every day. The process and substance of partnered domestic life—that is the adventure of life, and I have been watching and participating in it for over a year now. Throughout the wedding planning, one of my favorite lines to repeat to my partner is that the wedding will change nothing. That the wedding, rather than move us from unmarried to married, will simply be a party we throw to celebrate something that happened last year, when our lives began again. So why this crying about the beauty of “real life” at the wedding?

The answer has to lie in the public nature of the event. If, as children, we gain our sense of self from experiencing the gaze of the other, this is surely a life-long human phenomenon. While my partner and I live day-to-day in the reality of our love and the new life together it has produced, we are almost always the only ones watching it happen. Our engagement was also something conducted privately, announced to a (mostly) unsuspecting family ten minutes later. But, when I think of the wedding, my goodness, all those faces watching us “become partners”! Nothing like an audience to make you very self-conscious. Our life together happens every single day, and I feel that reality every single day. But the wedding day is the day that our life together has its biggest audience. And, especially in our media-mediated reality, that will make it feel more real. There is just so much focus at a wedding, and the ritual, along with the gathering of family and friends, will invariably heighten our sense of life. Everyday life includes my commitment to my partner, the love and happiness, joy and excitement that life with her brings. But the wedding day— that seems to be a day solely dedicated to all this love and happiness, joy and excitement. This focus, and the step away from mundane reality that is necessary to keep such a focus, will impress the reality of it all upon me. So I expect to be crying.

Just to clear up the blind-spot lurking in this post, the wedding (with the consequent official legal/religious status of our marriage) will, indeed, change my life. When I say it will change nothing, I am thinking of life in a very small, private sense, of my day-to-day interactions with my partner. But just as the wedding holds meaning as a public event, legal/religious marital status greatly affects our experience as public individuals, which will also have its effect on us in our private lives.

Monday, June 27, 2011

How not to start a fight, even when you really, really want to…

In the last week before our wedding, there are still several loose ends. Several decisions that still need to be made, several details we overlooked, and without doubt, many, many last minute changes. In the midst of all this stress, these conflicting values, and these deep and diverse desires, how will I maintain my sanity, pursue my vision for this event, and maintain my relationships with all my co-planners and other invested parties?

In this post, I list some advice to myself regarding how not to start fights this week, even when it seems like the obvious thing to do (as in, even when I feel frustrated, aggravated, or threatened).

1. Self esteem: Not starting fights is even more challenging in light of my last post, regarding my apparently plummeting self esteem. However, this week I will consciously try to access my calm and confidence. A wise friend gave me this advice: Take a moment every day to find the part of you that feels thoroughly strong and good. Although I haven’t been able to follow her advice as a daily practice thus far, I will try again this week.

2. Deep breathing: A pause. A moment. An interruption of the panic that can begin any time. Deep breathing is the link between #1 and #3.

3. Quiet voices: Once I take a breath and access my inner strength, I can then lower my voice. When I lower my voice, it often also means I say things that are less defensive. When I feel the need to defend myself, I speak loudly and authoritatively. But lowering my voice signals to myself, and hopefully to the person I address, that I am willing to let down my defenses, to share and listen to personal thoughts and feelings, to be vulnerable, and to compromise. I find even the slightest hint of increased harshness or increased volume in someone else’s voice to be particularly triggering during tense interactions, so I find it useful to take control of changing the literal tone of a conversation.

4. Check your assumptions: I have actually managed to address several conflicts in the past few weeks by doing the simple exercise of sharing assumptions. Once a conversation has been calmed down, I can take a step back and say, “This is how I am seeing it. Are you seeing it in a different way? Please help me understand.” This basic show and tell is essential to working through a conflict in a way that feels good and satisfies the most number of people.

5. Explore your flexibility: We have less than a week left. We cannot fix everything perfectly at this point. Furthermore, I do not intend to be a perfect person or have a perfect life, and I certainly do not need a perfect wedding.

6. Prioritize: Once I establish that I am flexible, I then have to determine what I need in the situation at hand. In what ways will the outcome affect me? What kinds of reflection, validation, or explanation do I need from the other person? How will the final decision reflect the meaning of the wedding ceremony, or my opportunity to celebrate and rejoice with so many loved ones? Identifying and expressing these priorities is not always something I can do the first time a conflict arises. I may need to take some time to reflect and then bring up the conversation again. Alternatively, I may want to enlist the other person’s help in thinking through my priorities. Either way, honestly and accurately identifying the relevant priorities is essential to finding a solution that feels good.

7. Make a decision: And stick with it. I am trying to close as many open ends as possible. I want as few details up in the air, or rattling around in my head, as possible. Conversations this week should be at least temporarily definitive. I want to make decisions, stick with them, and live with them through the wedding process. If there are any particularly strong conflicts with family or friends that I want to address later in July for the purpose of checking in and making sure our relationship is still strong, I may do that. But for now, I am here to commit, and I mean it.

If I raised my voice at you, responded harshly to something you said, or inexplicably started crying during a phone conversation with you, I apologize. And if I do so within the next week, I apologize ahead of time. I hope we can work it out. Let’s give it a try.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

How my Self Esteem Plummeted during Wedding Planning

I can’t exactly identify when it happened, but I’m sure it was sometime this spring semester. I hadn’t had this experience since about fifth grade, so I didn’t recognize it at first. But it kept happening. More and more. And I still can only guess at why: My self-esteem had plummeted.

I blame the wedding planning. But of course, there are some other confounding factors, the most obvious one being my first year of graduate school. Does graduate school make someone’s self esteem plummet? Since I had never had that experience before in my many other academic and professional endeavors, and since I basically feel okay about how I am doing in school, I am going to continue to attribute this phenomenon to the wedding planning process.

It’s a strange sensation, because rationally I still know that I am a great person in a lot of ways. But there is something about the social, emotional, and commercial challenges of this process that really got to me. As an attempt to dissect what happened, I am going to use the break-down for “Confidence” that we use in our research on adolescent development.

Confidence in Physical Appearance: I started out with loads of this, but I have to admit the constant focus on the details of my appearance during this one day are making me much more self-conscious than I enjoy. How will my dress fit? Will there be any blemishes on my face? Will my legs be adequately smooth, my fingernails properly groomed, and my hair not too flat and not too frizzy? I think a lot of my approach to dealing with my appearance is to wear bright colors. Since deciding to wear white, my usual strategy for telling myself I look stunning has been taken away. At least I will be wearing a kittel (ceremonial robe) during the wedding ceremony, so my attention will be completely taken off my appearance for the most important part of the day.

Confidence in Peer Acceptance: I usually have loads of this, also, but the contradictions in wedding planning mean that with every decision I make, I know there is someone who disagrees with me. I know there are people I love and respect that would have wanted me to make the other decision. Also, the more and more that I argue with people, disagree with people, fail to compromise with people, and am unable to give other people what they need from me, the worse and worse I feel about myself. A large part of my identity is based on my ability to nourish my relationships and to contribute flourishing friendships. The more conflicts I have with friends and family around the wedding ceremony, the more my self esteem plummets. And it is a vicious cycle, because with low self-esteem, I find it thoroughly difficult to hold my own when I experience tension with loved ones.

Confidence in School: As much as I hate to admit it, planning this wedding definitely affected my performance as a student and as a budding professional in my field. At the same time as I find this fact difficult to accept, I rationally believe it is completely understandable. I think it is incredibly important to strike a balance between one’s personal and professional lives. But when the wedding itself is already making me feel like I just can’t do things right, going to school and struggling there because I am overwhelmed, exhausted, and overcommitted makes me feel even worse. I gain a lot of confidence and self-respect by excelling as an educator, researcher, and activist. Scaling back from those activities this year, and performing slightly worse on the activities I did do, made me feel bad about myself.

Confidence in Area of Interest: I think the main reason that wedding planning led my self-esteem to plummet is that I didn’t feel like I was good at it. I didn’t have a real vision for what I wanted before I started, so that meant each detail was a new thing to navigate. I also haven’t been part of planning a lot of weddings previously, so a lot of conflicts were completely unanticipated. And sometimes I would come up with my own answer to something, and I would just be told that I was wrong. Most of those times I really was wrong—I didn’t really know what I was getting into and thus couldn’t really imagine what I needed. So a lot of the time I just didn’t feel competent. With the tasks for which I had no interest and no talent—such as selecting flowers—I just delegated completely (thanks, Mom!). However, sometimes I really did want to be part of the conversation, I just felt unprepared for the tasks at hand. Spending such a great amount of time and energy doing work in an area in which I felt truly unskilled really hurt my self-esteem.

I want to add something about the Wedding Industrial Complex, too. Because the Wedding Industry is just that, an industry and a business, it is set up to make you feel you lack something, or have specific needs, so that you will go out and buy something or hire someone to make everything better. The wedding industry is designed to kick-off this self-esteem plummet. However, the self esteem is then supposed to be rescued through purchasing and hiring. I really tried to hold myself back from extra expenditure, so I do not know how I would have felt if I had been more commercially-oriented. Or, on the other hand, I don’t know how I would have felt if I had fully committed myself to an anti-commercialist wedding.

In conclusion, I have this to say: last weekend was my bachelorette party. Two of my best friends in the whole world threw me an absolutely fabulous celebration full of surprises. I had friends present from childhood, high school, college, and these post-college years in Boston. If all of those totally fabulous, smart, caring, and fun people chose to spend a weekend celebrating with me, then there must be something good going on with me. The weekend reset me, centered me, and built a foundation for my self-esteem. I am feeling a little more ready to go into the last stretch before the wedding knowing that I am a good person, I have tried really hard to go through this process with integrity and care, and many outstanding people will be there to celebrate with me. I know my self esteem will continue to grow and get stronger, and I actually think the wedding is going to help, in the end, because of all the people that will be there.

Friday, June 17, 2011

What’s in a Name? Identity, family, and figuring it out

Getting married raises question of whether one or both of us will change our names as an indication of this union. My partner and I, along with numerous other couples in this and previous generations, recognize that the traditional practice of a wife taking on a husband’s last name comes directly out of a patriarchal tradition in which the wife, upon marriage, is considered property of the husband. She is leaving her father’s house for the house of her new husband, thus she leaves behind her father’s name (which her own mother had taken upon marriage) and she takes on the name of her husband, which she will then pass along to her children, and so on.

We are very lucky to be getting married at a time when couples find many creative alternatives to this patriarchal tradition.

On the one hand, names are very tied up with our identity as individuals. I want to use a name that feels like mine, that feels like all of me, that feels like a celebration of my agency as an individual and does not reduce me to half of a partnership. I feel strongly connected to the name I have used for all my life, in both its full and shortened forms.

On the other hand, we grew up in a culture in which the concept of “family” generally implies a shared family name. My childhood family is “The Arbeits”: we are a unit in many ways, including that we shared the same last name. Now, my partner and I are forming our own family unit. We associate names with family designations, and thus we desire to use the process of (re)naming to demonstrate this formation of our new family, our new household, while at the same time honoring our own and each other’s family of origin.

We gave ourselves time and space to find a solution to this complex question. We did a lot of brainstorming, a lot of careful and gentle playing around with different options, a lot of sharing and listening to each other’s feelings. In addition to our commitment to queering structures of power and carefully working through patriarchal pressures, we wanted to attend to our personal preferences and desires:

1. We didn’t want to combine our names. I remember one g-chat conversation in which my partner and I went back and forth with different unpleasant-sounding combinations of our two last names. Besides, we both love our families and the connections that our family names give us to our parents and siblings, and weaving together the syllables of our names would not address that desire to explicitly stay connected by keeping our family names in their shared forms.

2. I wanted to keep my last name (Arbeit) professionally. My mother kept her name professionally, and I always really liked that idea. Furthermore, starting work as a research assistant last summer taught me something: it’s nice to be easy to find on Google. My last name happens to be much less common than my partner’s. (If you’re looking for our registries, search using my name!) Plus, I have already started my career with the name Arbeit—teaching, blogging, starting graduate school, serving as a coauthor on presentations and publications—and I would like to continue my career with this name. I mess around with my first name enough (Miriam v. Mimi) and I would prefer to keep my last name consistent.

3. I felt pretty open to using my partner’s name in certain social situations and, specifically, having members of his family refer to me or address me using their family name. As mentioned above, I consider sharing a name to be an exciting element of family membership. I am very excited to be a member of his family, to be one of the Lowes.

4. My partner’s middle name happens to be very similar to my last name, so he had the idea of changing his middle name to my last name, so that my last name would be his new middle name.

At first, #4 led us to the idea that we would both be Arbeit Lowe, as two family names sitting next to each other. Arbeit (my family name) came before Lowe (his family name) because of his idea of making Arbeit his middle name. I would keep Arbeit as my “first” last name and take Lowe as my “second” last name. As per #2, I still wanted to use Arbeit professionally, with no Lowe involved. However, if professionally my name ended with Arbeit, in what capacity would I add on Lowe as my second last name? We did not address this question until a few weeks ago when we went to City Hall for our marriage license. The forms required us to indicate what our last names would be after marriage. Not our entire names, but just our legal last names.

I realized, at this somewhat inconvenient moment as we stood at City Hall, that I wanted to keep my own last name as my legal surname. It felt important to me as an indication of my continued existence as my own independent entity, connected to my past as well as to my present and future, particularly in official contexts such as law and vocation. My partner agreed, and we filled out the forms accordingly.

But later, my partner commented, “If you aren’t changing your name legally, maybe I won’t change mine either.” Wait! I felt confused. I felt that changing a legal surname and changing one’s middle name had quite different implications. I realized that there were a lot of aspects of this decision that we had not yet discussed, and a lot of options we had not yet explored. So we discussed it in more detail, and eventually came to a solution that we both really love, that embraces our personal identities and symbolizes our integration into each other’s families as well as our formation of a new family unit. I am feeling quite excited for when we implement this decision after our marriage, through venues ranging from legal documents to Facebook.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why are we getting married? Accepting privilege while wanting it eliminated

Having reached the midway-point of this June journey of wedding-prep, I will take a break to reflect on why I’m even doing this—having a wedding—in the first place. And to address the question of why we are having a wedding, I really need to address the question of why we are getting married.

Deciding to get married: Over two years ago, my partner and I expressed our mutual desire to embark upon a lifelong partnership together. A lot of our decision to get married came from our desire to demonstrate our investment in this partnership and celebrate our joy with friends and family. That said, why the marriage license?

In college, I became ardently against the institution of marriage as it now functions in the United States. See for some activism that has informed my beilefs. The basis of this stance is that the benefits and protections afforded to married couples should be restructured so that all people can access them. This position grew out of a radical response to the same-sex marriage movement.

I believe that the same-sex marriage movement and the beyond-marriage movement are both extremely important. I believe we must restructure the legal institution of marriage to incorporate same-sex couples, as well as couples in which one person is genderqueer or intersex. In addition, I believe that our country must engage in the long-term work of restructuring our many systems of social and economic privilege so that all people can access these cares and protections.

Legal protection: Beginning to intertwine my life with someone else’s is really exciting, and it is also really risky. Both in Jewish and American law, getting married means taking on certain responsibilities and gaining a degree of legal protection. As we share living quarters, a bank account, and possibly offspring, our marriage license gives us access to a plethora of legal back-up options should something happen to one of us individually or to our relationship.

Tax breaks: Married couples get tax breaks. As a Massachusetts resident at least I know that my married same-sex partners do have access to at least some of the privileges of legal marriage. However, since the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages, legally married Massachusetts residents do not receive the federal tax break if they are in a same-sex marriage.

Health care: While on a personal level I am excited and relieved by the prospect of being able to put my partner on my health care plan or vice-versa, I also think that health care should be available to everyone. Married, single, healthy, unhealthy, employed, unemployed, old, young, everything. Everyone should get health care. Health care is a right, not a privilege.

On the one hand, I have listed and explained some of my reasons for getting married. On the other hand, many of these same reasons inform my belief that the legal institution of marriage should be eliminated.

I look at it this way: I recognize that for myself and my partner, access to health care, tax breaks, and legal protection will improve our lives. We have the privilege of signing a marriage license and thus enjoying these benefits. However, it also seems obvious to me that if everyone’s lives would be improved by such access, and making a lifelong commitment to someone of the opposite sex does not make me better or more deserving than other people, I should not have access to these resources while others do not. The institution of marriage in our country needs some radical restructuring.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sanctifying our union: Setting the scene through an opening blessing

From even before getting engaged, I knew that my partner and I would have a blast working out our wedding ceremony. We found a fabulous friend to officiate, one who honors our feminist and humanist values while helping us understand and connect to the laws and symbols of our heritage. The three of us have each made strong contributions to this process. The one challenge we are still addressing is the opening blessing.

Ebn Leader wrote a modern version of the opening blessing to a Jewish wedding ceremony, written in the spirit of the traditional blessing: “Blessed are You, who sanctifies us with Your commandments and separates us from unethical sexual behavior, permitting each of these partners to the other by means of the wedding canopy and the betrothal.”

Before I critique the blessing, let me explain two needs addressed by opening with this blessing: it states the function of the betrothal process that is about to occur, and it states that sexual behavior is a defining element of the relationship currently under discussion. While I like that the blessing incorporates these two aspects, I find the actual messages that end up getting sent to be quite problematic.

I very much like the idea of opening the wedding ceremony by setting the scene, or, in spiritual words, setting an intention for what is about to occur. Before going right ahead with what everyone already expects to happen, let’s take a moment to reflect on the act and to invite those present to join us in sanctifying the process, in making it joyous, positive, healthy, spiritual, meaningful. Why are we having a religious ceremony? What is the purpose of all these symbols and rituals? For me, the answer is not that we are doing these things so that God can sanction our life together. A re-worded opening blessing could appropriately set an intention, or introduce a mindset, that can prepare us as loving partners and our friends and family with us to take in the rest of the ceremony.

And on to my second point: I value discussion of sex and sexuality. A colleague of mine actually pointed out that there is no other place in the wedding ceremony in which sexuality is mentioned, so for those of us who think that frank discussion of sex and sexuality can be healthy and positive, there is an inclination to embrace it here, in this opening blessing. However:

In no way do I want to imply that getting married sanctions sexual behavior between two people or that a healthy life partnership must be sexual.

Let me repeat: I am not getting married in order to make myself an honest woman, and I do not want to erase the fact that people who do not want to have sex together may still choose to get married.

I do not want a blessing that implies that getting married renders acceptable, on the one hand, or requires, on the other hand, that my partner and I have sex.

That said, I do value making distinctions between ethical sexual behavior and unethical sexual behavior, and I do think that ethical sexual behavior is a healthy and beautiful thing worth celebrating, a thing I might even consider holy. Furthermore, my partner and I do value each other sexually and value the sexual aspects of our union. And I think it would be pretty cool if we could express our valuing intimacy and pleasure and passion through an opening blessing. We still need to work on getting the wording just right, and recognize the problematic history that has resulted in this modern blessing with these words and implications.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reckoning with Personal Privilege

This weekend was Boston Queer Pride. As a cisgendered female about to marry a cisgendered male, I spent a lot of this weekend and the weeks leading up to it thinking about social and political privileges that come with making a lifetime monogamous commitment, with religious recognition of our commitment, with legal recognition of our commitment, and with being able to talk about that commitment in any professional or social situation in which I find myself.

Friday night before the Dyke March, several members of a local Queer Jewish community met up for a Shabbat potluck. After dinner, another member of the community, whom I had met several times but do not know on a personal level, asked me very warmly what my plans were for the summer. I told her that my biggest plan is to get married in a few weeks. She smiled excitedly and paused as she carefully chose her next words so as to avoid assumptions about the gender of my betrothed. “And, is your fiancĂ©e here?” she asked.

“No, he is at a friend’s place tonight,” I responded, as my entire body filled with waves of emotion. What simple questions. In the past several weeks and months, I have repeated similar conversations several times. Telling people I’m getting married. Answering follow-up questions. Sometimes I am the first to express my partner’s gender, sometimes the other person does, indeed, make assumptions. But honestly, most of the time, I don’t notice.

This simple, safe, and supportive conversation with a fellow community member emphasized for me the heterosexual privilege I have benefited from during these several conversations about my wedding: I can talk about it wherever and whenever I choose. My physical, emotional, and professional safety is not on the line in these conversations. I don’t have to hold myself back and wonder if bringing up this topic would be taking too much of a risk. When I want to tell someone, when I want to refer to the wedding or bring it up, I can. Even by blogging about my wedding, by being so public about making this serious commitment to a “heterosexual lifestyle,” I am exercising privilege. I did not have to think through what this blogging choice would mean for my career, my public image, my family’s comfort, in the same way that I might have thought through it if the phrase “my partner” was followed-up with pronouns other than he, him, and his.

When I finished the conversation with the community member at the potluck, I looked around me for a few moments and then wandered away from the group, sat down by a tree, and sobbed. The weight of the moment, the weight of all those moments of casual conversation that had filtered through my personal and professional life throughout this period of engagement and wedding-planning, had hit me.

I think one of the reasons it hit me so hard is that this is a privilege I haven’t figured out how to use yet. I haven’t figured out how to share the “I’m [getting] married to a man” news and, in the same conversation, express my feminist values and queer politics and do or say something as a queer ally. I also haven’t figured out exactly how marriage will change the social aspects of this privilege. I know that there are legal, religious and material privileges that will come with marriage to a man — and I hope to share my thoughts on those in a different post — but there is also a different set of social privileges that come with marriage. Once I no longer have a boyfriend and do have a husband, how will that affect my social and professional standing? Furthermore, what responsibilities can I take on to be an even stronger ally for people who do not have access to those privileges?

I am about to enter one of the most cherished socially constructed privileges that a person can acquire in this heterosexist, patriarchal society. The question I want to address is, what can I do to foster critical self-awareness of that privilege and to doubly dedicate myself to eradicating the structures of power and oppression that have created it?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Doing Femme

Yes, wearing makeup can be a feminist act. Wanting to appear feminine and femininely put-together can be a feminist desire. I never meant to imply otherwise. What I meant to say is that wearing makeup is not always a feminist act. Sometimes, it is a demonstration of internalized oppression, a desire to hide flaws, an act of objectification and submission, a nod to the system. When I wear makeup and skirts and pink and feel I’m doing that as a feminist act, I call that femme. I feel feminine, beautiful, brilliant, and powerful. I feel in control.

Doing femme means simultaneously critiquing and celebrating femininity in a variety of forms. It means embracing the aspects of femininity and female-focused culture that I find empowering and pleasurable in conjunction with embracing aspects of myself that totally clash with traditional conceptions of what it means to be feminine and womanly. Femme is about embracing contradictions, strengthening personal agency, and having a whole lot of fun. At least, that’s what femme means to me.

My last post was also about embracing contradictions. This contradiction: my decision to wear makeup does not only come from a place of femme desire and personal agency. It also comes from a place in which I feel I need to be girly in order to be accepted, in which I fear rebellion at risk of my own comfort and privilege, in which I yearn to achieve that standard of prettiness that I see held up as the ideal. Yes, that girl exists inside of me. Those fears and insecurities are a part of who I am.

Those fears and insecurities don’t make me any less femme and fabulous. Or do they? To be honest, I had not thought about it much until this week. I had associated doing femme with the times and places in which I feel truly free and empowered to be myself, to live and breathe and show off my own contradictions, to push boundaries. I had associated doing femme with weekends, vacations, or those days that seem so stressful that my best coping mechanism is to break out the red dress and black lace tights and go for it.

Until now, I had not thought to associate femme-and-fabulous with that place of insecurity and fear. When I chose to wear makeup at the wedding, I knew I could be radical and choose not to; but I still felt pressured by a desire to conform to mainstream practices of female beautification. Because I felt this pressure, this strong influence and pull that would, in the end, be a strong element of my decision, I didn’t feel I was doing femme. If it wasn’t totally free, it couldn’t be femme, right?

I realized today (through a conversation with a glorious femme friend) that not only had I been holding myself up to a ridiculous and damaging ideal, but I had also been holding up femme to an ideal that restricted it. I was trying to protect my femme identity from my own imperfections. I was protecting my femme identity from the parts of me that feel insecure, disempowered, and scared. But that’s not fair. What will it take to free my femme identity and let it flourish?

Femme can be imperfect. The reality of my inner experience is that, at this point in my mind-twenties, I can proudly and strongly embrace of my own power and beauty and brilliance. I am quite femme-confident. AND. And I have a good chunk of that internalized-female-oppression that entails a constant questioning of whether I am measuring up or not. I have both. And I bet a lot of other people do, too! And that’s okay. And that’s difficult. And it’s real. And yes I am using the word “and” over and over again on purpose to demonstrate that finding personal agency includes this process of embracing over and over again the contradictions of our own desires. And we can find beauty in these contradictions. And we can find power. And we can find feminism.

We can find these things, if we’re willing to risk looking for them.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Three lessons about decision-making I’ve learned from wedding-planning: A guest post

When I told my partner about my series for this month on wedding planning, he asked if he could contribute. So here is his guest-post! Check out his writing on secular spirituality at his blog, The Empty Throne.

1) If you really want to choose something, first consider not choosing it.

When we were first discussing getting married, Mimi told me how, in college, she did not to think of herself as someone who would definitely get married someday. While at first I found this distressing, I later found strength and comfort in her explanation that her more recent decision to get married was made that much more confidently… clearly, she wasn’t getting married instinctually, by default, or out of societal expectations. By being able to feel whole in herself without marriage, she was consciously and confidently able to take on marriage as a life choice.
With all of the stress around wedding-planning, I recently realized that I myself had never considered not being married, but moreover, I had never considered not having a wedding. I attempted to imagine not having one, and how I would feel about that, and very quickly I felt far more confident in my choice—I’m happy about marrying Mimi, and I want to share that happiness through celebration. Pretty simple stuff, but it became much clearer after I attempted to consider not-wedding scenarios.

2) If you really want to choose something, make the choice a few times before announcing it.

My waves of excitement at having a wedding have many times now run aground on the frustrating politics of managing family and friends. If I could do it all over again, I would make more decisions with my partner before sharing them with the outside world. And I would mull over those decisions for at least a week. Given that I have never had a wedding before, my hopes for it and visions of it have changed over and over again, making my previous decisions seem short-sighted.

3) If you really want to choose something while in a partnership… be as open as possible.

Early on, I warned my partner against using the term “my wedding.” The loving/crushing reality continues to be that it is “our wedding,” and joyously/tragically the “our” often includes family and friends. A wedding is a minefield of decision-making, and I never seem to know when my hopes and dreams are about to run head-on into someone else’s. I have learned, as much as I can, to tread lightly. This one event seems to have many meanings for each person involved, and anxieties can be triggered by both the content and the process of making a wedding. I never realized how isolating it can be to throw a party celebrating a union. Because, of course, it is still “my” (own, child’s, etc.) wedding to many of the people involved—including myself. The powerful process of collective decision-making makes and breaks us.

These have all been hard, and terribly important, life lessons for me. In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Berachot), there is a list of this-worldly items that are “1/60th” of an other-worldly item, such as Sleep:Death, Dreams:Prophecy, Sabbath:World-to-come, etc. To this I add that love between two people is 1/60th of the messianic age—the arduous process of learning to effectively love oneself and another, we get a taste of what is necessary to make peace for the whole world. Life and love together is made of all of this decision-making, and we need all the practice we get in order to get better at it!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Social Construction of Desire

I have a confession: I am getting my makeup done professionally for the wedding. Well, let me qualify that confession: A close friend of one of my best friends is a makeup artist and has offered to come to my parents’ house to do my makeup and the moms’ makeup. I am really happy to be supporting a friend (financially), and I am really touched that she wants to be a part of this process. However, I am still letting her paint my face.

I went back and forth with this decision for a while. I had a very explicit conversation with one of my best friends in which she told me that getting professional makeup was completely optional, that I could choose to do my own makeup the simple way in which I do it before I go to work or before I go to a party. I could choose not to wear any makeup, but I probably wouldn’t, since I do enjoy wearing some simple makeup items (especially eyeshadow). So I knew I had a choice. And my friend-in-common with this makeup artist brought me over for a trial run, and I actually thought it was pleasant enough and that my face still looked natural enough with makeup on. And, as yet another friend pointed out, it will be one more thing that someone else will take care of on the day of the wedding, I will not be in charge of my own makeup. I will have support in that task as I will in many others, and this support is something I have deeply cherished throughout the process of this wedding.

I am sharing this story not because I think my makeup is that important, but rather because it illustrates the clashing and crashing of so many different desires, some that come from my feminist values, some that come from my aesthetic preferences, and some that I know are socially constructed from my two and a half decades of living and breathing in a materialist patriarchy. This clashing and crashing has been incessant throughout the planning process. The kicker is, all of the desires are real, they are all strong emotions that I experience and with which I need to cope. I cannot have everything I want because so many of the things I want conflict with other things I want.

I want to not care about how I look. I want my appearance to be a mere detail in the exciting and spiritual proceedings of the day. I want to not have to edit, adjust, and cover up my natural physical states in order to show that I can rise to the occasion.

But I also want to look good. I want to feel pretty, I want to be happy with how I look in the pictures, and I really want my mother to be happy with how I look in the pictures. And I want to express physically the glowing joy and ecstasy I feel emotionally about the commitment and partnership that this day is meant to celebrate.

Mostly, I want to not feel self-conscious. I want to not be wondering if others are judging me for different choices I have made about my appearance. But that’s not an option. Just as it’s not an option for me to make a decision that I myself won’t have a way to judge, it’s not possible for me to make a decision that others won’t be able to judge.

I need to ask for acceptance, and I need to ask for forgiveness. I need to ask for these things from myself, and from my partner, my friends and my family. I need acceptance of my strong, complex and often-conflicting desires. I was, am and will be inconsistent, but passionately so.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Stamps of Sexism

As much as we try to have a feminist, egalitarian wedding, we are still participants in the heterosexist patriarchy. We grew up in it, we are getting married in it, and we can only hope that we will do all we can to work so that future generations do not have to also suffer under it. The intention of this post is to render visible the stamps of sexism that are leaving their mark on our wedding, with hope that through making these visible, through acknowledging and understanding the effect of the patriarchy even on this careful couple, we can develop the communal awareness necessary for working together to repair this broken world.

10 stamps of sexism (among many) in our wedding and in the wedding, in the order in which they appear:

1. My Tisch.

In traditional Judaism, only the groom has a tisch (which means table in Yiddish). The Tisch is the time right before the wedding ceremony. There is a specific ritual in which the men distract the group while the bride is supposedly getting ready. Well, the Tisch now takes place after photographs have been taken, so I will already be ready. So I am also going to have a Tisch, except there is no tradition for a bride’s Tisch. So I will be making up my own thing, while my partner participates in an old, old tradition.

2. My hair and makeup.
This is not a Jewish tradition. This is an American tradition. Let me know if you need me to explain further.

3. My dress.
I didn’t want to wear a dress. I wanted to wear a skirt. I was told, by various sources, that I needed to wear a dress. My partner was not told he had to wear a dress. In fact, when he told people what his (untraditional) wedding outfit will be, no one told him he was wrong or not taking this seriously enough.

4. My kittel.
It is traditional for the Jewish groom to wear a kittel, a white robe, during the wedding ceremony. My partner and I will both be wearing one. See #1 regarding the contrast between his participation in an ancient tradition while I, going through almost the exact same motions, will be doing something unusual, surprising, shocking, and possible upsetting to others.

5. The opening blessing.
We are going back and forth with our officiant to try to figure out a version of the opening blessing that feels good to all of us. The traditional opening blessing references the distinction between sanctioned and unsanctioned sexual unions, and I just can’t stand the fact that we would open the ceremony with even the implication that we were implying that marriage is necessary to sanction our sexual relationship. If that’s not patriarchy, then what is?

6. The Hebrew versions of the blessings in general.
My partner and I grew up in Conservative synagogues and youth programs with lots of Hebrew prayers. As such, our ceremony includes Hebrew prayers in their original form, although they will be followed by English feminist-humanist interpretations of the meanings of these prayers. As such, there is a ton of sexism and patriarchy hidden in all that sneaky Hebrew.

7. Signing the Ketubah.
The Ketubah is the Jewish marriage contract, signed by me and my partner and our two witnesses. They will sign in English and in Hebrew, and one’s Hebrew name generally consists of one’s first name, one’s gender, and then one’s father’s name. We will go out of our way to ask our witnesses to sign also using their mother’s names to identify themselves. But should I really have to ask?

8. Stepping on the glass.
For logistical reasons, we could not come up with an egalitarian version of this ritual. My partner will be stepping on the glass. That’s a piece of patriarchy for you.

9. The dads toasting.

Our mothers will be offering toasts at the rehearsal dinner, and our fathers will be offering toasts at the wedding reception. I fully respect their decisions, but I am allowed to find it noteworthy, right?

10. Partner dancing.
My partner and I have been taking dance lessons in the hopes that we will do more than just hug for our first dance. While I have been finding the dynamics of power and consent in partner dance quite interesting, I am clearly the follow and he is clearly the lead. I guess this relates to #8, in that I am not a huge fan of taking on something myself just because it is traditional for him to do it. But I still find myself feeling feminized in a way I don’t really enjoy.

I hope this post doesn’t get me into trouble.

Monday, June 6, 2011

My favorite parts of wedding planning

3. Creating our song list

It was challenging. Actually, quite challenging. There was probably more yelling than necessary, and some tears of frustration might have just about surfaced. But let’s face it, my partner and I love music, and we totally love dancing. We wrote the first draft of our song list within a week of getting engaged and then, a year later, when we actually needed it for practical purposes, could not find it. No problem; we started over. I think that creating the songlist was quite emblematic of a lot of the wedding planning process because it required an extremely delicate mix of considering my tastes, my partner’s tastes, what will please our parents, what will rouse our guests, and what will be most in line with our values (which in this case, include dancing, and lots of it). I think I am also still quite nervous to see how it will play out since, now made, this list is literally in the hands of our DJ.

2. Making the seating chart

Seriously, the seating chart was one thing I have been most excited about since the beginning of the process. I just couldn’t do it until now because I didn’t know exactly who was coming and who was not coming. I love making the seating chart because I love all the people who are coming to the wedding. I am having the wedding in the first place because I want these people to come celebrate with us. Making the seating chart is the one task in which I get to bask ahead of time in the glorious presence of all these friends and relatives. Each person matters, each person needs their seat. Furthermore, I can see the networks that we have supporting us, the webs of people that become so important to my decisions about who will sit where and with whom. It appears a pretty easy task of counting to ten (as in, ten seats at a table), but as I complete this task I am filled with joy at the physical promise that all of these people will be in the same room together, dancing with me.

1. (Re)writing our ceremony

Tonight we met with our friend the rabbinical student who will be officiating our wedding ceremony. Designing the wedding ceremony has been by far my favorite part of the entire wedding planning process. My partner and I are very verbal people—words mean a lot to us. Jewish tradition and liturgy also has meaning for us, but in a very complex way. In planning the ceremony we have carefully and critically considered each gesture, each blessing, each process. We are taking into account Judaism, feminism, humanism, our families’ tastes and our personal styles. It feels like us, like the core of what all this fuss is about. (Re)writing the ceremony is the one part of the wedding planning process that draws on our strengths as writers and as people actively engaged in reimagining spiritual and symbolic practices.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Navigating Family Dynamics

When my partner and I first got engaged, I went to my hometown public library and checked out three books on Jewish weddings. I read only one of them, and had to return it before I got the chance to write down and follow-up with any of the ideas it gave me. One particular piece of wisdom in this book, a suggestion that seemed forced and unnecessary at the time, I now regret ignoring. This wisdom was found in the section of the book addressing family dynamics.

One of the most difficult and inaccurate myths about weddings (in my humble opinion) is the idea that “this is your day.” A lot of well-meaning, earnest, and excited people have explained to me some variation on the idea that the wedding is all about me and my partner and that we should get what we want out of the day. They have said this to me maybe to encourage me to voice my desires, or maybe to comfort me that all the hard work and stress will be worthwhile because in the end I will have something that is completely mine, or maybe just because they had heard it said before and figured it might be a nice thing to say.

I rarely had a good response when people said that to me in the past. But now I say to all of them: That’s not true. The day is not just about me, or just about my partner and me, or just about our relationship. It’s about who we are, where we’ve come from, and the people who have been our role models, our guides, our sources of encouragement and support, and, in no small ways, our lifelines. It is about us; it is about our parents; it is about family.

And by “family” I mean everything so often meant by “family”: love; mess; drama; complex family histories; collaboration and conflict across political, religious, and aesthetic divides; yelling; crying; and still a whole lot of unconditional love.

The book I read on Jewish weddings recognized that parents and families are an important part of the process. The piece of advice that the book offered (that I foolishly ignored) is this: Sit down with your parents early on in the wedding planning process for a “visioning” conversation. The couple could sit down with all their parents at once if possible, or different parents at different times. Start by inviting everyone to share some feelings about the wedding planning process. Then have people share what they are most looking forward to—what elements of the wedding are most important to them. From there, a conversation about details can develop. What specific parts of a wedding does each person really want, or really not want, or really want to do a particular way? Everything shared during this conversation can be adjusted, reconsidered, and changed; but everything must be heard. I can see now, from my vantage point at the near-end of this process, how powerfully such a conversation could open up the lines of communication and create a collaboration of mutual respect and care.

Although we did not sit down with our parents for the purpose of such a crafted and carefully facilitated family conversation, many of the intentions of this conversation did inform our wedding planning. We tried to respect each others’ desires, identify points of contention and ways to compromise, and understand that no one person and no one couple had to have everything go their way.

But at this point of the process, I am struggling to find a way to compensate for the lack of extreme openness and, clearly, that certain element of touchy-feely-ness that the above conversation might have precipitated. A few ideas float through my head, the most prominent one is this: What if I try to facilitate an analogous conversation on the Friday night before the wedding (two nights before our Sunday wedding)? We will be having a small family dinner, mainly parents and siblings and us. While simply sitting together for a small, intimate meal will, I hope, help us develop a family connection that we will build on throughout the weekend, the facilitator/community-leader in me wants to come prepared with some go-round questions, for example, asking everyone to share what they are most looking forward to for the wedding weekend, or one hope they have for the weekend, or one thing they have been thinking about most in the week leading up to the weekend. Any suggestions would be welcome!

Friday, June 3, 2011

“I promise we will not get in a huge fight over your wedding”

I have great friends. The wedding-planning process has made me realize lots of things, including this fact.

Before getting engaged, I also knew that my friends are great. But planning this wedding has made me feel so vulnerable in so many ways, and this vulnerability has really allowed me to new explore aspects of my friendships. Maybe it’s that my fears and anxieties feel so strong and so urgent that I am voicing them more often. Maybe it’s that my communication skills are getting both strained and strengthened in many ways on a regular basis. Maybe it’s that my friends are kind, insightful, generous, loving people. (Yes, you!) Whatever it is, I have really benefited from all kinds of support from my friends during this process.

The “promise” at the title of this post is just one example of such support. As I told a friend about my anxieties regarding the “social politics” of the wedding process, she stopped the conversation and firmly committed to me that she would not fight with me through the process of wedding planning or over something occurring at the wedding itself. She just said it. She took responsibility. And it made so much sense to me. It was such a comfort. She wasn’t saying it descriptively—it was not a guess or a hope. This particular friend and I certainly conflict on occasion, so it was not unimaginable that we might fight over the next several months (it was March at the time). She was assuring me that she would actively take steps to not get into a fight with me. Of course, that does not mean I am being careless with our friendship. On the contrary, I feel a heightened commitment to enhancing the positive aspects of our friendship and enjoying the positive roles she is taking in the wedding process.

Living free from the fear that those closest to me might put our friendship on the line at any moment has been incredibly empowering. I could describe many other examples of the ways in which my friends have expressed forgiveness, understanding, and genuine support for my personal decisions even when they disagree, even if they disagree avidly. All in all what it comes down to is this: I can throw myself into wedding planning (and, in thirty days, the wedding itself) with the freedom to embrace vulnerability, explore anxiety, respect fear, and feel empowered that whatever goes right or wrong, those who love me will continue to love me, and I will continue to have their support.

And they, I can assure you, will continue to have mine.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Focus on the Marriage, not the Wedding

I had a moment this afternoon that justified my decision to spend one month writing about weddings on a blog that is dedicated to explorations of sex education. I was at a meeting of people who work as sexuality educators in various capacities around the state, reviewing Sex Ed curricula. The leader of the group, who has spent decades working as a sexuality educator and advocate, was talking about the need for education that is inclusive of students who come from a variety of backgrounds, including, in this case, conservative Christian backgrounds with abstinence-until-marriage values. As advocates of comprehensive sexuality education for all students, we need to learn to reach those students also, she explained, and in a way that respects and builds on the strengths of their cultural backgrounds. Then she commented about how even individuals who do pursue abstinence until marriage have the right to learn how to have a healthy romantic and sexual relationship during marriage.

Then she brought up weddings. With all the focus on weddings these days, she asked, who is focusing on the marriage? The young couple is caught up in a storm of wedding planning, and then after the wedding, are they prepared for the marriage? Are those people who helped them plan the wedding and enjoyed the colors and flowers still around to help them navigate the challenges of partnership and the pursuit of shared life?

I started nodding vigorously as this woman and another colleague sitting next to me both elaborated on this point. Eventually she noticed my nodding, and I felt the need to explain, “I am getting married in 31 days.” And I was relieved that my disclosure was not the conversation-stopper it sometimes can be. She picked right up on the theme—

“Have you and your partner thought about what life will be like after marriage, and how getting married will have an impact on your life?”

Have we? Will it? How am I supposed to know if we are prepared for marriage, and what that would even mean?

To be fair, we have had many conversations about life after the wedding, the meaning of marriage, and the specific and serious nature of the commitment we are making to each other. But this woman, herself married for possibly longer that I have been alive, was talking about something I can only now imagine.

I consider myself pretty well-versed in the language of relationships, but the more life experience I get, the more I realized how many vital topics are so often left out of high school sex ed.

Marriage. So much more than just a wedding.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My June Journey: 30 Days of Blogging, Working and Wedding Planning

June has 30 days, and I have decided to write a short blog post for all 30 of them—or at least to write one post for every day during which I have Internet access. Why? These are the 30 days leading up to my wedding. The wedding ceremony will be on July 3, so July 1 marks the day the families start arriving and conjoining and, in addition, the day I go to the mikveh, where I will immerse myself in water to mark the transition.

Throughout the past months, when June was mentioned in a conversation, I would think to myself (or remark out loud) that I have little imagination for what June 2011 will be like, feel like, entail. Excitement? Insanity? Overwhelm? Calm? I’m curious. Slightly nervous, but mostly really curious. I also feel that June might go by so quickly, with so much jumping from one thing to the next, that as the next months come and go, I might not remember what June felt like. And I want to remember—partly because I am grossly enthralled by this phenomenon of bridedom and wedding prep, and partly because I want to pursue a way to feel centered during this time. I hope that introducing this daily opportunity to write will give me a structure in which to reflect, to be with my emotions and to contextualize them.

I want to add that during the 30 days of June, I will not only be blogging and wedding planning, but also working as a research assistant and serving as the Health Education intern at a local public school district. I will likely be feeling a lot, and a lot of different feelings, throughout this month.

This month on my blog I will be trying lots of different things. For one, I have never before tried to blog daily. I imagine that blogging every day will mean that the content of my posts are very different. I am entering this process in order to record my thoughts and feelings in the moment, which is clearly a much more personal endeavor than my previous posts about my job, volunteer work, and opinions on current events. I hope that you, as a reader, will find some of these posts interesting and, above all, that you will comment. The words of my friends, families, colleagues, and allies have been a source of motivation, inspiration, and hope for me throughout my life and especially during the wedding-planning process, so I expect June to be no different. I look forward to hearing from you.

And with that, let these 30 days begin.