Who would do such a thing? Spend months planning a picture-perfect wedding, only to leave her groom, cold, on the steps of the altar, after a speech announcing to the congregation why she did it?
That girl was me.
It was actually a Renewal of the Vows. Chauncey and I had been together for 14 years. We'd already shared over a decade of taking satirical photographs with our imitation daughter. But I'd grown tired of him while we were on a vacation in Paris. I didn't want to pay his fare home, so I left him there. After all, I could get another one for half the price. Chauncey is a Mannequin, and our marriage was a photographic farce... that went viral.
After six months apart, I decided we needed to get back together, to carry on with our destiny, to recommit. There was more for us to accomplish if we were really going to make a difference in how people thought of women. So, a Vow Renewal was planned, and I was going to photograph it, and while I was at it, make a movie too, because this spinster had a thing or two to say about marriage. And the public was listening.
When the officiant asked if anyone objected, I launched into this speech:
"Oh, come on. You didn't really think I'd marry a mannequin, did you? This is all an illusion, right?
I'm not really a bride. I'm just an artist. But for the past few months, I tried it on, the whole kit and caboodle. I tried on so many white dresses that I went snow-blind. I picked my colors and then changed them. I even went to a bridal convention, where I engaged the services of a wedding planner to walk me through the process, because no matter how many times I photographed other people's weddings, I still didn't know the first thing about how to plan one, how it's done, the whole process of it. I just knew I needed a lot of flowers and a lot of help. I knew weddings were a big production, but I had never experienced being the Production Manager of the biggest Broadway Musical of my life.
But I wanted to do this. I made myself a guinea pig. I wanted to see what I was missing.
Even my Greek neighbor sensed I was missing something, years ago when he moved in. One day, when I was carrying groceries in from the car, he stopped me and said, "Ledy, Ledy, Stop. I wan talk to you. I see you come. I see you go. I see you with all dis food, and I don see no man, no beby. What's wrong? You no heppy. Why no beby?"
I said to him, "There's nothing wrong. I'm just single. I have a good job, and I own this house by myself. I'm doing fine. I'm happy."
He said, "No. No. No. You no heppy. You Voman. You need beby. Here vat I do for you. I'm nice guy. I likah see everybody heppy. Here vat I do. You see my Garace, yes? I fix up inside. Eets nice. You like. Vee go inside, you lie down, I givah to you my Swimmers. Den, you hev beby. You be heppy! You see?"
I said "Wow! That's a very generous offer, but I'm afraid I can't accept. I've spent most of my life trying not to have a baby."
Then he gets testy and says as he turned to walk away, "FINE! Fine! You no van my Swimmers? Fine! Feh!!!! You die unheppy!! Das OK. Fine!"
Then he turns around and takes a few steps back saying, "But vee go for coffee sometime, yes?"
Well, apparently not just the Greek guy thought I was missing out on the key to happiness. A lot of people did. Nobody could believe that a girl who had it goin on couldn't get a guy to put a ring on it. And it gave me a complex. So I made art about it, so I could ask a lot of questions and start digging at what was really behind all of this.
If "Puttin a Ring on It" was what needed to happen to make my life successful, then what the heck? No job is better done than the one you do yourself, right?
I thought a lot about what it means when have a ring on your finger and what it means when you don't.
Does a ringless finger mean a life without love? An unconsummated soul? A life without an ultimate purpose?
As my boyfriend, the Best Man, said when I bounced these ideas off of him, "Deep Baby, DEEP." Well, yeah. So what if it is? It's high time to take a hard look at what this ritual is for and what it has come to be.
So... what IS it about the wedding that has lulled us into a compliant dream-like state? Are we wrong to spend half of our net worth on a party? What drives us to do it? A mix of benevolence, obligation, tradition and Disney marketing? Just how did the show come to eclipse the reason -- which is supposed to be Commitment?
I know. I did it too. Boy, is it easy to get sucked in. There's this whole fantasy factory out there just waiting for you with open arms, a warm smile and a complimentary glass of Champagne. Everything sparkles, smells good and is tailor made for you. This is how you want to be treated, and to treat yourself, every day, if you could afford it. And for this ONE SPECIAL DAY, what the hell? You tell yourself, "If not now, then when? Just once, I want it Perfect."
I can see how it happens. How we get derailed from the purpose of what we're doing by getting caught up in the process of it. I let it happen to this very production. I let the circus of media attention and the promotion and the filming of this event come dangerously close to derailing the purpose of it. What is the purpose of it?
It is meant to be a chance to look at how we have let the process, the traditions, the expectations, the image, the way you are "supposed to do" life, unconsciously take over our lives themselves and how we ultimately judge our success, particularly as women. Tradition makes us feel that life ought to be a certain way. No one seems to know where the traditions come from, we just accept them as a given. They are the "Supposed To's" that drive us into pathways that have been carved out by generations. Even though the terrain has changed, we still feel as though we ought to walk the same path.
All the "Supposed To's" really got to me, and ultimately got me mad enough to want to take a poke back at it. Those supposed to's made me feel like I lived my life wrong. Every time I heard "why aren't you married?" it sent a message to me saying, "You are not good enough as you are. Your life will be empty, pointless without a commitment to a man and a child. You will regret it. Don't be foolish. You Voman, you need beby, so you be heppy."
You know what I've found through this bridal experiment of mine? Weddings are supposed to be a lot of things. But at their core, it's the recognition of a rite of passage from selfishness to selflessness. I've learned that... guess what? "I do." I actually do believe that Commitment IS indeed the best path to lasting happiness. Yes, it CAN be through a commitment to one person, but it doesn't have to be. It can also be a commitment to many through the work that you choose.
Commitment is a daily choice. It is an "I do" that is not declared on an altar.It's declared silently, every time you come back to face difficulty and fear. It's an act of bravery and of maturity. It might just be THE singular act that gives our lives meaning.
As an artist, I choose to recommit myself to this work as a way to help myself and others reconnect to what they may already know, but have lost touch with.
Last year, I left this man naked on the streets of Paris because it was too hard, too expensive, and I was tired of carrying him on my back. It was too much. But today, we are back together to face the difficulties. Nope. Very sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not committing to a mannequin today. I'm committing to what the mannequin represents. I am renewing my commitment to my unique path in life.
In searching for what I was missing, I found out what have. I have a life with love, with passion, and commitment. I have used myself as a guinea pig, an example for all who'll listen, to demonstrate that you must let go of the life you think you are supposed to live, in order to live the life that is waiting for you.*
Thank you for coming to escort me through this rite of passage."
EXIT STAGE LEFT (Cue Music)
BUT! That is not what I said. It was what I intended to say. It was 20 weeks of thinking about what I was going to say, 10 weeks of talking about what I was going to say and four weeks of writing and rewriting what I was going to say. But it was not what I actually said.
In the hot June sun, my iPad, with my speech on a teleprompter app, died. It shut down, halfway through. And so did I. I literally heard the sound of a 78 LP spin down, as if the plug had been ripped from the wall. I blanked. It was 98 degrees, the sun was in my eyes, I was sweating, everyone was waiting and all I could hear in my head was "Noooooooooooo..." And then I heard, "You're just going to have to wing it."
My other ear heard, "But, but, it was supposed to be Perfect! I spent months writing this speech! I'm too nervous, I can't think straight. JESUS, THE PRESS IS OUT THERE!"
And it just didn't matter. Nobody cared. They just looked at me. Now, I just heard... crickets.
So, I winged it. I fumbled as I searched for words. I wasn't being picky. I'd take any words. Then I found some. Not polished ones, not artfully crafted words, designed to climax in a crescendo of public speaking passion. They were raw and simple, but honest, and emotional. I did manage to conclude with the words I knew by heart, in my heart, "By searching for what I was missing, I found out what have. I have a life with love, with passion and commitment."
Ironically, with this staged wedding, I set out to talk about the false image of perfection, with a capital P. I tried to manufacture the perfect satirical image of "The Most Perfect Day of a Woman's Life." Yet, My Day was nowhere near perfect. But it's a day I will always remember as one of the most meaningful. The day in which I was taught, again, the lesson I was trying to teach others. That is - where the beauty of life is, the place in which you can truly find happiness, is in the letting go of expectations as your sole guiding force. There's an image in your head of how your life will look, which can come from others, or from yourself. You think you've got it all planned, and then you find your plan isn't worth the paper or the iPad it is written on. You hear in one ear, "Noooooo......." and then you hear in the other, "You've just got to wing it."
You may have heard this concept before. But I'm here to tell you that no matter how much you may know this deep down, we still chronically forget it. We still feel awful for a long time when we get divorced, or lose our jobs, or our pride. It is a lesson that we resist, thinking that if we just did this, or hadn't done that, we could be so much better off. I'm not saying that we shouldn't try to pursue our desires, or guide our kids to find theirs, but we do need to loosen our grip on the handlebars of how we thought it would or should look. If you can pry your fingers loose and say, "Look! No hands!," you might start enjoying the ride. Especially, if you free up your hands long enough to flip someone The Bird when they tell you that you're not doing it how you're "supposed to."
For more information on the film, "Playing House: The Vows," see playinghouseproject.com
*Based on the words of Joseph Campbell, "We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us."