May 8, 2005

The Wedding Vows

           ....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 wreathes on their heads, sometimes just a wad of weeds, while the women had wreathes 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 occassion and four sticks sporting Gods Eyes, also hand crafted 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 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 an 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 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 timber line 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 leaden 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 your the 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 their 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 stock 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 Acquarian 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 were 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 'up front,' 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 at 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 -- 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 Acquarian 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 then 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 scared 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 wedding 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 Blooms 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 wall 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 its 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 you promise but to "... don't make promises you can't keep." In that I'll given 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 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 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 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 Truth: a human standing by his words. To standby 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 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 every was. We had a lot to learn.

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Posted by Vanderleun at May 8, 2005 1:13 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Good grief, Gerard.

Another one out of the park.

George Steinbrenner would go broke buying baseballs if you were a Yankee batting cleanup.

Posted by: TmjUtah at May 8, 2005 1:33 PM

Jeesh. We were the Dumbest of the Dumb. How did we so ignore our elders? You may have been with the Smartest of the Dumb up there in San Francisco. If only we could have seen Mountain Girl suing Jerry Garcia's wife for the moolah after he OD'ed on heroin some decades later.

I know how I got so stupid. Years of being spoiled and sheltered and virtually on my own. Weekends we kids sped anywhere on our bicycles, bought candy bars at the Huntington Sheraton Hotel where we so enjoyed running our dogs through the lobby and where the staff was too polite and kind to rebuke us hard enough to get us to stop. Saturdays at the library, Sundays riding our bicycles in circles in department store parking lots while the world rested. Weekdays we could choose to ride or to join the carpool to school. Life was easy and taken for granted.

Looking back, it seems I didn't learn a thing to prepare me for adulthood. School was boring and I never studied. And then, at the silly age of 15 I arrogantly absorbed the advise to, how did it go..? "turn on, tune in and drop out." This worked for Mr. Alpert, but not for me.

So I ended up in a train wreck, with the rest of the Dumbest of the Dumb. I am a very humbled human being, still being humbled, only now it has become my favorite joy. I have learned not to dig my heels in so hard when Life's lessons call. I sweated like hell while finding my way out of and back from the wreck. I'll never make it all the way. God bless us all.

Posted by: Barbara Spalding at May 8, 2005 4:29 PM

What a terrific (in the true sense of the word) story. You have not only remarkable writing talent, but amazing character to have recovered from the tsunami that was your youth.

Posted by: Moneyrunner at May 8, 2005 5:58 PM

The Van Der Leun juggernaut rolls on. As for this -- "for better until something better comes along, for richer and only for richer, for fairer or knock-down gorgeous" -- it's at least as true today as it was during the Age of Aquarius. At least.

I'm off to listen to "Grazing in the Grass."

Posted by: Allah at May 8, 2005 9:53 PM

"Grazin' in the grass is a gas baby can you feel it?"
As a kid I was on the outside looking in at the cool guys and the anti-establishment and the deeeeep inner meaning of the latest Beatle's album, maaan. I didn't get it. I was my own worst enemy but it wasn't because of the counter-culture. Your notes have revived a sense of curiosity at what caused that "scene" in the first place, and a thankfulness at having missed it.
You do good work and I'm glad to have stumbled across your site--thanks I think to Roger Simon, but it could have been another referral.

Dan Patterson

Posted by: Dan Patterson at May 9, 2005 7:45 AM

It's amazing that one guy can crank out so many amazing essays so consistently. This is what I had hoped Hunter Thompson would be doing by now. Maybe he did too, and couldn't stand that he wasn't.

Barbara, you make an excellent point. It has been galling to me to watch my parents, who absolutely killed themselves to provide good and easy lives for me and my siblings, torment themselves with guilt when we have derailed at times. They just want to know where they went wrong, and the sad truth is we had it too good.

Posted by: Uncle Mikey at May 9, 2005 7:55 AM

Excellent writing skills. I started reading you during the last election and have not stopped.

Posted by: Dave at May 9, 2005 9:37 AM

Long before my vow of marriage that, "We will all, verily, abide by the Will of God," I was racing down Carmel's main street in 1964, on 2 x 4s with rollerskates nailed to each end, and being mocked by the cool, long-haired, surfer types with their Fender Jaguars and '49 Oldsmobiles...

For I went the other way, enamored of COOL, but cursed with an inquiring mind, unable to sip the chloroform of Valley Life but unwilling to go to 'Nam...

So I opted for Korea, studied Korean at the Presidio, honed my mind and my linguistic skills, and sought refuge on an island touching the DMZ. My nights were long, filled with examinations and apologias and questions, dealing with the benefits of living the American Dream, but often asked in the "Wahthafuk am I doin' HERE?" mode...

And returning Stateside in late 68, I was baptized in spittle at the airport, mistaken for true veterans who'd actually FOUGHT for America, but it sealed my outsider status.

There followed the Summer of '69, and I was hired to play 12-string and sing at a 200-acre ranch, on the road to Sonoma, with its ballroom and wetbar downstairs, and 12 rooms upstairs, and Jerry sitting in on a rare Saturday...

But I could never sacrifice my need for Truth, and Med School couldn't quell my fire, though private practice as a licensed healer SHOULD have been credential enow, but only drew the pains of others to myself and, unable to shed them, I arranged for my wife to kidnap our son, that I might pay in pain for a doorway out...

Of all that Stateside life, but the Truth.

Posted by: Carridine at May 10, 2005 7:30 AM

Thanks for that post Carridine. My own search for truth led to 20+ years living in zen centers. I think some people in the 60's were just there for the party and others were really onto something that ended up eluding most of us anyway.

Posted by: Barbara Spalding at May 10, 2005 9:51 AM

Well, still, it sounds like a lot of fun.

Posted by: spongeworthy at May 10, 2005 12:24 PM

ahhh - a partier

Posted by: Barbara Spalding at May 11, 2005 8:24 AM


Beautifully written. It makes me appreciate the things my wife and I have been through for the last 24 years. I think I'll try to find some special way to say thanks next year.


Posted by: Subsunk at May 12, 2005 11:59 AM

You captured the 60's so well in this piece, I felt I was back there again. I wasn't into the drug scene, but I remember the "free" love part. It made it hard for a woman to say "no", and difficult for a man to stay faithful.

Posted by: Pat at May 13, 2005 12:35 PM

I partied, (there was a walnut bowl in the wetbar of the 200-acre House; bowl filled with Acapulco Gold flowertop, speed, acid, ludes... on the house) but I was honored and in awe of the power I came to wield in that little room, sitting on my St George amp and playing my Gibson 12-string with taped-in-place pickup...

The other guests dug me, my music, my drifting patter set to melodic accompaniment, quite like a troubador in '69 California... kind of like Gerard with rythmn and a beat!

Yet something bigger called, and the Summer of '69 came to a close, and I went back to straight-dude school, until my doctorate in December 74. I'd say I never looked back, but here I yam...

Posted by: Carridine at May 17, 2005 9:21 PM
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