….Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
— Shakespeare — Sonnet 116.
THE FIRST TIME I WAS MARRIED I was married to over 200 naked people. We weren’t quite buck naked. The men had crudely made laurel wreaths on their heads — sometimes just a wad of weeds — while the women had wreaths of flowers around their brows and, for those old enough to have any, small bouquets of blossoms lodged in their pubic hair. All the men had large clubs and all the women large breasts. It was the butt end of the 60s and people in my set tended to have that kind of equipment. What children there were tended to be either infants or toddlers, all still nursing at will.
The men and the women had separated an hour or so before the wedding and, at dusk, the two groups came together from opposite directions.
First, the men came, chanting and grunting and pounding and waving their clubs. At our center was the groom, long black hair streaming down over his back, nude and tanned, under a kind of pagan huppah of a custom tie-dye made for the occasion and four sticks sporting God’s Eyes, also handcrafted for the ritual.
Chanting and grunting, (Yes, the LSD had kicked in an hour or so before and was still not peaking.) we made our way to a bluff of hard black stone overlooking the Great Central Valley in California from the first rise of foothills that step up into the High Sierra. All about our feet were deep, smooth indentations in the black rock where the Indians had, for centuries, ground acorns into a mash with stones.
Looking down from the stone bluff we could see all across the Great Imperial Valley to where the sun was descending behind the Coast Range. It was a green day shading into orange dusk. There were guitars strumming somewhere. In those days somebody was always noodling a long nothing on a guitar. We turned and, as men in groups at the wedding have always done, we waited for the bride and her estrogen entourage. The waiting for the women was perhaps the only traditional moment of matrimony to be had on that day.
The women emerged from the shadows of the pine forest that rolled up behind them to the starker slopes of the Sierras where the timberline looked cold and gray under the lingering slabs of snow that still, even in high summer, caught the light and shined from inside the shadows. They numbered around a hundred. Never before or since have I seen such a large grouping of naked women. All shapes and sizes, all ages. I’d like to say all races but this was early in our forced march into the rust-drenched halls of mandatory diversity and they were mostly white.
And all, at least in my memory, lovely — each in their way.
They’d spent their two hours (as the mystery molecule that was our sacrament in those years kicked in), gathering vast quantities of wildflowers from the valley and the forest. They carried large bouquets and had used the surplus for adornment. This adornment consisted of wildflower tiaras ringing the long hair or all colors that fell from their heads, and as smaller bouquets formed by placing individual stems in large quantities into their pubic hair — and in those days of dedication to the natural body, pubic hair was much more formidable than the current rage for plucking, shaping, and waxing could possibly indicate.
Standing with 100 naked men on a stone bluff as 100 naked women walked towards you singing some ancient melody is something that a man does not easily forget. I have, in my memory, a large set of mental Polaroids from those minutes and they have not faded. Primal, true, baked at high temperatures and very elemental moments have a habit of lodging themselves deep in your cerebral cortex never to be evicted.
In time the groups merged and stood close together in the warm dusk as the bride joined the groom under the tie-dyed huppa through which the sun’s light glowed.
The man chosen to lead the ceremony stood at the apex of the arc we’d formed behind the bride and groom, his back to the valley and mountains to the west. He was a man of strange interests and a fascinating philosophy. At least, that’s how I remember him since, at this remove, I don’t remember any of the odd things he believed, except there were a lot of them. He’d suffered some sort of catastrophic accident involving fire and the left side of his face was a mass of shining scar tissue which was usually pink but became inflamed and glowed red when emotions surged through him. Since this was a moment when both emotions and LSD were surging through him, it was like looking at some strange naked harlequin mask perched atop a short and stocky naked body with a large mat of red chest hair.
Somehow this pastor or shaman pulled himself together enough to begin the ceremony. Since those present at the ceremony, taken en masse, represented a lot of the original tribe that had, in San Francisco in those years, invented the Hippies, we were — so we saw ourselves — the Aquarian Center of the World and the Crown of Creation. As such, we were inventing the world anew. And one of the things that simply had to be invented anew from scratch was the Wedding Vows.
Not for us were the tired promises made by our parents and all those who came before our parents going back into the centuries-long before.
Not for us to be gathered in the sight of God ( although He saw us all more clearly that day than we could hope to know), but rather in the sight of our self-selected naked tribe that would later imagine something named Gaia as a shallow but faintly adequate god that mapped to our own egos and self-willed agnosticism.
Not for us to respond to the warning “as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, that ye confess it.” Confession was not in us, not necessary. We believed in being ‘upfront,’ except in those cases where fronting something would bust us in the other’s eyes. In which case, we stuffed it and lied. We did not fear the day of judgment. We lived in the realm of “Hey, no judgments. Cool?”
Exempt from both history and the uncool straight world that was cool with a “criminal war” against the Vietnamese peoples’ right to place themselves under a Communist dictatorship for decades, we didn’t have to take the part about “Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor, and keep her, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live? “ except as it pleased us to do so.
Love was cool. After all, was it not written in the Sacred Book of Beatles that “Love was all you need?” — here and there and everywhere. Comfort was something you could get off on so that could hang around somewhere in the vows. Honor? Very 19th-century warmonger kind of deal, man. What did it mean anyway? Sickness and health? Say, if we kept eating our macrobiotic, utterly natural salad bar we’d never grow old, sick, or even — yes — die. Health from the magic of the old ones would always be ours. Forsaking all others was, well, right out as the groom and the bride both were to demonstrate later that night repeatedly. Theirs was going to be an open marriage going in and an explosively open one coming out. None of that fidelity for life — or even for an afternoon — operated in that post-pill, pre-HIV era.
With all those half-baked newly minted and untested values in play, the deeper part of the traditional vows — …to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, for fairer or fouler, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us depart, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereunto I plight thee my troth. — didn’t have a chance of even making it into the first draft of this couple’s Aquarian imaginings of what to say when, ostensibly, getting married. If they’d wanted to translate it to their new age palaver it might have read:
… to have and to hold until the next lover walks through our front door, for better until something better comes along, for richer and only for richer, for fairer or knock-down gorgeous, in health but not in an extended illness or if you should lapse into a persistent vegetative state in which case you, my love, are out of here, to love and to use in groups, till being uncool on any level makes me dump you, in accordance with nothing holy in particular, and unto you I plight thee my maybe…
All of which would have been true enough since, over the years that followed, that’s pretty much how it worked out for those two.
They had no use for the uncool traditions of the vows of the straight square world, so they did what many have done since then, they rolled their own vows.
Well, not exactly vows since the promises made were thin as mist and not true as steel. Instead, they created a minor literary masterpiece by cobbling together a hodge-podge of quotations from non-Western, non-running-dog imperialist sources until they had something like a clumsy collage of notions and potions that they were easy about promising each other. Nothing in them that they couldn’t find the out in if it struck their fancy.
They weren’t vows at all as I think back now, but merely a display of their shared coolness. There were a lot of bits and pieces from the Native American realm since that was just getting big in the catalog of cool, and a few shards of poetry… something about not breeding impediment to a marriage of true minds, and it was easy to see there weren’t going to be any impediments at all in this marriage.
The burned and naked preacher read through these while standing at the center of the naked company assembled. I don’t remember much about most of the ‘vows’ except that at a certain point it became very, very evident in a deep rose-purple that either the words or the situation were having a very, shall we say, arousing effect on the preacher. I’ve been to many weddings since including a couple of my own, but that was the only time I’ve noticed an erection on part of the preacher. They are usually much more detached from the moment.
What I do remember about the vows they’d written together was the last line which seems now to reflect so much that has gone wrong with our very modern methods of marriage. It was a straight cop from James Joyce’s Ulysses where, in Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of the book she says, “…and I thought well as well him as another..”
That said, they were wed. Not forever after, but for a few years or less.
“As well him as another” or “As well her as another,” pretty much sums up the real level of dedication to another human we took on in those years and that has gone forward, under one great wail of rationalization or another since then. Vows that reduce themselves to temporary promises until boredom or better comes along. A light shrug of the soul that, sighing, accepts that nothing between two people is really for life, but only until things become, well, difficult and unromantic, and then it’s back to the chopping block and on to the next new person.
We didn’t notice then the temporary nature of the arrangement the two had just agreed to. If we had, we wouldn’t have minded. After all, life was change and change was all good. Wasn’t it? It was, to us, as we learned from our music not important to keep your promise but to “… don’t make promises you can’t keep.” In that, I’ll give them credit for at least being honest if not honorable.
The sun had faded behind the coast range as the ceremony was pronounced finished and we moved off to a party that would continue for another two days. As the darkness slid down from the mountains, I recall seeing the wedding feast being prepared as large fires flared up and goats and pigs were turned slowly crisping on spits turned by long-haired naked men that capered about, dark silhouettes against the rising flames.
Couples and groups were merging here and there about the meadows and in the shadows of the trees, pale ghosts tumbling through the flowers and grasses down the slopes of the hills and off into the rubble of their lives to come.
I found myself with someone I didn’t know… who really needed to know anyone in those days in order to make love to them?… down by the black swimming pool where I saw, in the long evening, the bats swoop down to snatch small insects up from the surface of the water and “splash the other dreamers with twilight.”
The insects came out to mate and the bats spiraled down to snatch them up.
So it was.
And so we went on down all the past gone years, making promises like those made that evening; promises that we would not keep. We’d call them vows as if that word made them sound more serious than we ever intended them to be.
Then it was later in the days of our lives and we needed to stand in the autumn meadows and look down not on a wide valley, but on a narrower way where we’d left, heedless in our lightly given but little-considered word, the small mundane disasters of our lives. We’d fashioned our own new world out of utopian fantasies and LSD-driven dreams and it had been all been formed from gossamer.
The Chinese ideogram for Truth: a human standing by his words. To stand by the word when given, rather than just toss out some fancy words untested by the hard rain of the world and pass on.
Perhaps if we’d taken, on that summer day, not the tissue of words from our brave new world, but the tempered steel of the old vows and stood by them we’d all have learned that it isn’t the Wedding party and the Wedding night that needs to endure in our hearts, but the things that stand at the center of the old vows. We all know them. They are the words that allow no misunderstanding when said from heart’s truth: love, honor, comfort, fidelity. We all know too the promises that come later: to have, to hold, for better, for worse, richer or poorer, fairer or fouler, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, unto death and beyond, under God’s holy ordinance.
Real vows are not the casual things that come to of a stoned summer’s afternoon, but the hard things come to over long lives and many generations. We thought we were a brand new generation, that nothing like us ever was. We had a lot to learn.
[Footnote 2010: Three days after this was written on May 5, 2008, Michael, the groom at the wedding died. His wife from that wedding, Karen, was at his side. They endured.
….Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.]