Monday, October 20, 2014

Do You Believe in Fairy Tales?

Sunday afternoon (10/19) I co-officiated Hallie and Leslie's wedding ceremony with Reverend Jim Woods at Hallie's parents' home in Indianola, Mississippi. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests: 

Do you believe in fairy tales? I do. Now fairy tales may involve some elements that are at least far-fetched. There are no fairies, no princes masquerading as amphibians, and no bean-stalks topped with extremely tall gentleman. Beyond that, some many fairy tales contain elements abhorrent to our modern sensibilities. However, these far-fetched and primitive elements do not mean that there are not profound truths in these tales. Indeed, they would not speak to us, if this was not so. They speak to our most basic emotions, and through the retelling of the story calm our fears, relieve our discomforts, and give us hope. 

That is probably why there is nothing better, nothing that soothes the soul more, nothing that inspires greater hope, than a fairy tale that actually comes true. 

That is why this couple, Hallie and Les, truly inspire me. Just imagine I was pitching you a story, perhaps for a movie or maybe a Broadway play (I now have a good connection there, trust me). Hear me out. 

It is about a girl from the Mississippi Delta and a boy from Brooklyn, New York. They don't immediately fall in love. After all, beyond their different upbringings, they are kind of opposites. However a few months in, and they become inseparable for seven years. We just fly through those years in the script, don't worry. Then she moves to another city, he goes to Haiti after the earthquake, and though they still have tremendous love for each other, circumstances cause them to drift apart, and they separate. 

Now, if this is done well on the stage or in the film, despite the fact that you know how many minutes are left, that the story must be far from over, you have bought into the finality of this. Much like Hallie and Leslie thought at the time, it's over. Each one will just move forward, if not totally move on, resigned to the fact that the other is just the one that got away. 

Not so fast. Even though they had consciously placed an ocean between them, in their hearts, they knew, deep down, that this was not the end of the story. They just needed that one crazy far-fetched act, something like, and I'm just spit-balling here, the guy driving 24 hours from Brooklyn to the Mississippi Delta, to rekindle those embers, to get this story back on track. In the play or film, as Leslie is driving, you would hear what I heard in my head writing this. It's an old song from the 80s: "You never know what you've got till it's gone. If I ever catch up with you, I'm gonna love you for the rest of my life. All I need is a miracle, all I need is you." Then they meet again, and it's like they were never apart. They truly do live happily ever after. 

Now, I don't know if the play would end there, or if they would end it with this ceremony. (If the latter, I hope someone really handsome plays me!) Regardless, I already have the words for the final scene. It would be a voice over of something Hallie wrote a few days ago, that really describes their mutual feelings: "I've lived without him, and I can exist just fine, but life just isn't the same when he's not a part of it... So rather than spend the rest of my life denying what makes me happy and whole, I choose love, happiness and to forgive us."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

It's Not about You

Yesterday (10/17) I co-officiated Mark and Katie’s wedding ceremony with Father Chris Weber at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Willoughby, Ohio.

Interestingly this very idea resonates with Katie and Mark in the way they live their lives. They are genuinely curious individuals, who try to learn from everyone they interact with, and every situation they encounter. So I wondered to myself, what is it that has allowed them to acquire this vital trait. Could it be the fact that between them they have more degrees than a thermometer? Perhaps. Then again, we all know people who are very well educated in the conventional sense of the word, while also making it clear that, in their eyes, they have nothing left to learn...

So, I continued to wonder, and I found a more promising clue. Maybe it was that they both grew up in households with proud religious and cultural traditions. Katie grew up in the Catholic tradition, and Mark, in an interfaith household, as Mark’s dad, Howard, is Jewish and his mom, Mary, is Lutheran. Perhaps. Then again, there are people that are very much connected to their traditions, and still, sometimes even because of that very fact, seem to have all the answers...
Then I hit on it. It was a different aspect of their traditions, specifically how their parents raised them in those traditions. As you have probably noticed by now, these two grew up in very different religious backgrounds. The actual approach to religion itself was different in each household. However, there is one common thing that really stands out in how they discuss their families' and their own differing approaches to religion. Both of them say that when you get down to brass tacks, what is really important is to be good to other people.
Now, when you really and truly believe that that is the only absolute, you understand probably the most important foundational tenet of the good life: It's not about you.
Now, once you get that, the logical extension is that you probably don't have all the answers. The logical extension of that is that if you pay attention, you might just learn something.
This is why Mark will tell you that from his first interaction with Katie, he felt this incredible ease. She was easy to talk to, she made him immediately comfortable. Without even mentioning this concept, he got it: she did not think it was all about her. Katie knew the same about Mark. She had a cool telling question she had asked a number of guys: What is your favorite song? Other guys were happy to tell her, but that was it. Mark told her, and then asked her what her favorite song was. It was immediately clear to her. This guy knows, that it is not all about him.
You see the cool thing about being raised with the understanding that it's not all about you, and really internalizing it, is that counter intuitively it ends up influencing YOU more than anyone else. It makes YOU a better person, and a better partner. When you find a partner that shares this perspective, differences matter a whole lot less, because on this one issue, from which most values derive, you are on the same page.
Katie shared with me that her close friend, Lil, for whom she cared in her last years of life, told her that there was a guy out there who was just for her, a match made in heaven, if you will. Katie is confident that Lil is looking down right now, and giving her the thumbs up. This actually echoes a concept we Jews call Beshert, which like many Yiddish words almost resists simple translation, with its multilayered richness. It usually refers to a couple, and means made for each other, though it can also mean general good fortune.
Many times it is understood as something mystical, but maybe it is, and Lil's promise to Katie too, have a more conventional explanation. Our parents, and then we ourselves, make us who we are. If you are raised with and continue to abide by the simple understanding that it's not about you, than in essence, just like Katie and Mark, well, you are truly made for each other. Now, that is truly Beshert...

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Lucky I’m in Love with My Best Friend

Yesterday (10/11) I officiated Marcie and Matt’s wedding ceremony at Waldorf Astoria, in Orlando, Florida. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

We are interesting organisms, us human beings. We look out at the world around us with a jaundiced view. We see patterns, where there are none. We see plans, when it is the unplanned that beckons. We see answers, where questions reign supreme.
Why do we do this? Richard Dawkins surmises that it is because we are the descendants of the humanoids who saw the tornado, the hurricane, the storm, vested them with agency, and ran. The humanoids who did not, just thought about it, and engaged in deeper analysis, did not run, and so were wiped out. So we really need to fight our evolutionary tendency, just to help us face reality. However, if we are able to do so, this can lead to greater appreciation and gratitude, for the good fortune we have found.
So, even though Marcie says that not meeting her beloved, "almost seems like an impossible outcome because I can’t comprehend a circumstance where I wouldn’t be spending my life with Matt," this does not mean she imbues anyone with agency for having made that happen. In fact,  that would have cheapened it for her. Instead she sees in her life, "an overarching theme... of luck, gratitude and appreciation," of her good fortune.
Matt too talks about how lucky we are to be here, that that is to be cherished, and that that is what makes life magical.  As Matt reminds us, "If I rewound the clock 100 million years ago and told you what would have to happen for you to be standing here today, you’d say that would be impossible." "Based on that alone," Matt reminds us, "we should wake up every day feeling very special, insanely fortunate, and immensely appreciative that we get to take part in another day of life.  How incredibly lucky we are to simply be breathing and can experience love, joy, happiness, fulfillment, and even the negative feelings that make us appreciate the good ones."
And arguably, the greatest fulfillment and joy you can feel, is in Matt's words, "walking down the aisle about to marry your best friend," not because someone pre-ordained it, but because you have hit the jackpot. Indeed, in Marcie's words, living life, "as fully as possible means so much more if you get LUCKY enough to have your best friend by your side to share it all with."
Marcie and Matt, what we wish for you, is that as the years go by, and your love evolves, you continue to feel as fortunate as you do today, because in the words of the song by Jason Mraz, each of you can say, "Lucky, I'm in love with my best friend."

I Know How Lucky I Am to Have You

Yesterday (10/10) I officiated Mariella and Josh’s wedding ceremony at Maison Dupuy, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

One of the first things Mariella and Josh told me was that they wanted their wedding to be personalized and meaningful, and a celebration of them, their family and friends coming together. That is fairly standard. However, they also wanted their ceremony to have a particular emphasis on books and nature as the things that brought them together, and still play a central role in in their togetherness. Not that standard, however, anyone who knows Mariella and Josh, will not be surprised by this at all.
Not surprisingly, how they met is both connected to books and reads like a short story. Here is how Mariella recounts it: “Josh and I met on the blue line train in Chicago. I have been riding this train for 15 years. One day this cute guy sits next to me on the train. I am usually focused on my book, and don't pay attention to my surroundings. But he sits next to me and pulls out a book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is this amazing historical fantasy about a magician and his protégé, where magic is actually a line of work. It is one of my favorite books, and I was so surprised that this guy in a suit would pull it out. Not exactly the Wall Street Journal. So I just casually said, "That is a really good book, you're going to like it," and… then we talked about Neil Gaiman, whose book I was reading, sort of the same genre, and we started talking about our favorite books. And then he let it drop that he was a writer, and I am too. It was kismet…” As Josh says, in what almost reads like the sub heading of a review of the story: “How’s that for the beginning of a love story?”
Though, “kismet” a Turkish word, derived from the Arabic word “qisma”, which means lot, is taken to mean fate or something preordained, Mariella probably used the word colloquially, not literally. Even so, listen to Josh, a staunch rationalist: “I can’t account exactly for why I was where I was when I met Mariella.” Mysterious, huh?
This reminded me of one of the most beautiful book passages I know in a book about Mariella and Josh’s other shared love, nature, “Unweaving the Rainbow”, by Richard Dawkins. In a scientific tome, you do not expect to find words that read like poetry, but here you are. Mariella and Josh marvel at the good fortune of them, against great statistical odds of the Chicago Transit Authority, having met. Dawkins marvels at each one of us even coming into existence against much greater odds:  “The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds…”
So, when you incorporate what Dawkins says and what Mariella and Josh say, you arrive at a fascinating idea: When you find that one person that you love, that one person, who in our groom’s words gives you, “woozy magic of the stomach and heart,” and who you also know as our bride says, will love you more than anyone else ever could – then you have won. Having won Dawkins’ lottery of nature, you have now won a second lottery – the lottery of the heart.
That can allow you to embody the words of a song that I was reminded of, when I thought about the wonderful relationship Mariella and Josh have, the story of how they met, and how lucky they are to have each other. Beautiful, by Jim Brickman, alludes, once again, to nature and literature, but also to beauty and love:
From the moment I saw you,
From the moment I looked into your eyes.
There was something about you I knew.
That you were once in a lifetime
A treasure near impossible to find.
I know how lucky I am to have you.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Answer the Call of the Moment

This last weekend I officiated Rachel and Eric’s wedding ceremony at the Ritz Carlton in Dallas, Texas. Rachel and Eric’s families have known each other since before Rachel was born, and here they were many years later marrying. How cool is that? Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests: 

One of the first things I always ask every couple is how they met. Most couples have met two or three years before, others met in college, some are high school sweethearts. Every now and then I come across the couple that met in one of those settings, lost contact, and they reconnect years later. Imagine my surprise when Rachel and Eric told me that essentially they have known each other since Rachel was born, and that their families have been close from before Rachel was born.
Of course, then I had to ask, and I have a feeling others have wondered this too, what happened, what changed back in 2009? They acknowledge this when Rachel says: "It's funny to go back and look at pictures and videos from my early childhood and see Eric and me together. Who knew that many years later we would be getting married?!" This question becomes especially acute, when you hear them each describe the depth of love and mutual admiration this couple has. Let me give you a taste of that:
Here is what Rachel says about Eric:
"Eric treats his mom like (so well)... He is handy around the house... He is, hands down, the nicest person I have ever met; he doesn't have a bad thing to say about anyone. He is annoyingly athletic, handsome, optimistic, intelligent, driven, supportive, patient, calm, and everything I've ever wanted in a future husband. He makes me a better person.
Eric gushes about Rachel too, and says:
“In a lot of ways, she is the opposite of me, and that’s what I really like about her. She is outgoing, where I am more reserved. She is more creative, where I am more numbers oriented... She seems to even me out. She is an extremely caring individual and will do anything for the people she loves. On top of this all, she is incredibly smart and challenges me to think about things in different ways."
So what is it? What changed? What caused them to suddenly see each other in a different light? What is the cause of such epiphany moments? Now, being a rabbi and all, you probably expect me to have some type of brilliant answer. Frankly, what can I say, I don't. I don't know that anyone does.
The more important question though, is not why, but what. What do you do when you have that epiphany moment? What do you do when you can see something you couldn’t see before, something that has the potential to be wonderful? This is an important question, since I think that many of us, if we are honest, have more epiphany moments in life, than we care to admit even to ourselves. And the fact is that most of the time, we don’t act on them, because epiphany moments can be scary. Change – even good change, even wonderful change – can be very uncomfortable, and the warm comfort of inertia, is extremely tempting.
The lesson that Rachel and Eric teach us with their story is that it need not be so. You CAN overcome that fear, you CAN follow your heart, you CAN answer the call of the moment, and dare to venture out on a new path. So next time you hesitate, next time you are tempted by the wet blanket of inertia, think about that. Think about Rachel and Eric's example, and live your dreams.