In my Sept. 5th post I mentioned my unexpected week of “staycation” in August, and my reading of Michael Singer’s book The Surrender Experiment. As my developmental editor Jess Beebe pointed out, several threads in my writing and life relate to the question of control/planning/effort versus acceptance/going with the flow/relaxation. At Jess’s suggestion I want to reflect more on this theme, and a story from my week of “staycation” seems relevant.
Early in that week, I spent part of a day sorting and cleaning closets with Don. It was the kind of task you think and think and think you will do someday, but maybe never get around to. My dress clothes were in the closet in what has become his meditation room, and his dress clothes were in the closet in what has become my office. This wasn’t a problem until the last couple of years when he’s started doing 1.5 hour meditation sessions regularly! In the process of swapping closets, we of course did some sorting, cleaning, and getting rid of things we no longer need or want. One of these things was my wedding dress.
Now, you may not know this about me, but Don and I had a fairly traditional Jewish wedding. We “reconstructed” some things about the tradition, made the chuppah (canopy) ourselves with the help of many friends, wrote our own ketubah (wedding contract), and included a song from one of Don’s Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh. But we were married in a synagogue, by a rabbi, in front of 100 people, and I wore the full regalia – fancy, white dress with train and veil (and a tiara I made myself, with matching earrings and necklace).
I didn’t necessarily have a vision or intention of wearing a traditional wedding dress. I first went shopping for dresses with my mother, while visiting her in Atlanta, near the beginning of what turned out to be a long engagement. At the time, going shopping with my mother for clothing was a frequent way to pass time during our visits. She loved to shop, was a serious clothing aficionado, and a very good shopper, whereas I mostly avoided shopping except when I was with her. This would have been a fine arrangement, except that our tastes in clothing were diametrically opposed. She loved girly, frilly things, pinks and pastels and aqua; whereas I tended towards earth tones, hippie, and significantly less feminine attire. One time she brought me a sweater to try on that I instantly loved. I was surprised and asked her how she’d picked it. She confessed that she had looked for the thing she disliked the most!!
So it was with some trepidation that I allowed her to take me wedding-dress shopping, (trying on outrageously expensive gowns) and even more trepidation that I allowed her to bring me a veil to try on with one of the dresses. Really, I think I felt I was just humoring her, letting her feel a part of the planning, letting her “qvell” about her daughter (finally) getting married, to a nice Jewish man. The instant I donned the veil and looked in the mirror, tears sprang to my eyes. It hit me in a whole new way: Oh, my god, I’m getting married. Seeing myself looking like the iconic bride, it sank in on deeper level, and touched a place where I’d felt hopeless about ever being happily married. While I was fully aware that the cultural power of this icon could be a double-edged sword, I decided to embrace it. I can’t remember whether I admitted my depth of feeling to my mother at the time – did I actually let myself break down and cry? – and now she is gone and I can’t ask her, or thank her for leading me to that moment.
We did not purchase a dress that day, and later I shopped with a friend at David’s Bridal in Madison, and selected a dress that I was very happy with. Unlike the $4-5000 price tags of the dresses I’d tried on with my mother, this one was a still very-large-sounding $1200. It was traditional in many ways, but with a beautiful swath of small embroidered flowers in sage, blue and rosy pink flowing up the bodice and around the base of the skirt and train. The train could be buttoned up for dancing, and the veil had tiny rhinestone sparkles sprinkled sparsely through it. The dress came with a matching drawstring pouch, which I cut apart and sewed into a yarmulke for Don to wear.
I felt a bit guilty spending so much money on something I was going to wear exactly once. I also, at some point realized that, even though the price seemed high, it was likely made for Oleg Cassini in some sweatshop in a third-world country. I felt very guilty about this, and actually tried but failed to find out whether this was true. In any case I vowed that I would do something about it later – perhaps sell the dress and donate the money to an appropriate organization. And I enjoyed wearing the dress, and dancing in it, and even though it became uncomfortable eventually, I kept it on as long as I could that day so that on the way to the hotel where we were honeymooning people would know I was a new bride!
After the honeymoon, the dress hung in my closet. I knew some people got their wedding dresses “preserved,” but I couldn’t see the sense in that. On the small chance I might have a daughter someday who might get married, what would the chances be that she would want to wear the same dress…?! But I could relate to the emotional attachment to the garment, which was so rich with symbolism, both cultural and personal. I did wear the detachable bodice once, on our first anniversary I think it was. Then, back to the closet it went. At some point I tried to sell the dress on Craigslist. I don’t remember how much I asked for it, but there was one nibble and no bites. (There are a lot of wedding dresses for sale on Craigslist!).
So, the dress hung in my closet until the week of “staycation” this August, when, post-cancer treatment, I realized I was finally really ready to let go of it. For one thing, I’d had a lot of practice in letting go. For another thing, even the bodice no longer fit me, without my D-cup breasts! And this was my week to practice surrendering. I decided that morning to post it for free on Craigslist, and see what happened. I posted pictures of the dress and a brief description, sizing information, and said that I’d been happily married for 11 years now, and wanted to help make that happiness possible for someone else. I knew from past experience posting things for free on Craigslist, that responses were likely to be swift and plentiful, and I was not mistaken.
The first response was a very excited one from a woman named Jia. I called her and learned that her boyfriend, who had been talking about maybe getting married, had found the Craigslist posting and sent it to her, saying maybe if you get this dress, it means we’re supposed to get married! She told me she was working (cleaning houses) and didn’t have a car, but could get a ride to my house the next day. I hesitated, and said “Um, well, there are likely to be a lot of other people interested, if there is any way you can get here today that would be better.” She said she’d try. Indeed, in the next half hour I got several more inquiries about the dress. Jia called back and said she’d arranged to come over later that day, so I put the other folks off.
A few hours later Jia arrived, with an older female friend who appraised my house and asked me who cleans it (it had, in fact, recently been cleaned by Kim, a white woman who’s been cleaning for our family since Don was single-parenting the young Sam & Sarah). Jia and her friend were super excited about the dress. They explained that they were both from the Philippines, and that Jia’s visa was about to expire, and that if she didn’t get married, she’d have to go back. She’d been dating her boyfriend for 3 years, and they’d talked about getting married, but he hadn’t “popped the question” yet. I guess he was waiting for a sign, and this beautiful, free dress, in approximately her size, might be it…!
Now, I was vaguely aware that the Philippines is one of the countries that has sweatshops… I haven’t (yet) asked Jia anything about her life there, or what it would mean for her to have to go back there, but it was clear that she preferred to stay here and marry her boyfriend. There were incredible squeals of delight and a few tears, when they decided the dress fit well enough (without even trying it on – they had a method I’d never seen before, of wrapping the waistline of the skirt around her neck – apparently if it wraps around the neck all the way (when doubled), then it will fit around the waist…?!). It seemed to matter to her that I was happily married, too.
We kept in touch via text, and Jia did indeed get engaged, and then invited me to be one of the witnesses at her wedding! It was on a Tuesday morning, and I had to miss trapeze to go to it, but I did. It was at the Wisconsin State Capitol, with Judge Joanne Kloppenburg presiding, and the only guests were a friend of the groom, the groom’s young teenage daughter, and me! I felt pretty awkward, since I didn’t know them at all. The wedding was so completely different from mine, and I wondered if it was today’s immigration-policy-inspired equivalent of a “shotgun” wedding. But I kept practicing surrendering. (I don’t think Jia or her groom knew anything about Kloppenburg’s fame (she was the one who came close to winning a hotly contested and possibly stolen seat on the State Supreme Court in the immediate wake of the protests Walker’s Act 10), but being in the Judge’s presence was inspiring to me, and she was very gracious, kind, and, well, judicial.)
Now, I imagine that Jia and her boyfriend (now husband!) would probably have married even if they hadn’t gotten the dress. But, I’m not entirely sure they would have. And would they have had the requisite 2 witnesses without me? I feel a strange responsibility, like somehow my life is now entwined with theirs. And all because clay camp got cancelled that week, and I decided to see what emerged…! Life works in mysterious ways, I guess. Of course we are all interconnected in so many ways that we aren’t usually aware of… breathing the same air, wearing clothes and using items made far, far away by the hands of strangers, in unknown working conditions. And people living in the same city at completely different economic levels and from different cultural backgrounds not interacting… my surrender experiment, combined with my earlier vow to make good use of the dress, gave me an opportunity to meet one of these strangers, and to choose to feel connected, and to act on that connection.