Life Recapitulates Art

I am really not sure what to say, but I had to share this.  Almost 30 years ago, the comic strip Doonesbury featured a two week series about a single woman, Marcia, who decided that she was tired of looking for Mr. Right, and was going to celebrate her new freedom by holding a singularity ceremony, complete with flowers, a minister, invitations and “bridal” registry:

 

Doonesbury-singularity(The whole series can be viewed at GoComics.com.)  The strip was an acerbic commentary on dating and social expectations in the 1980’s; it was funny and sad and so over the top I assumed it was satire.  Until today.

Yesterday, the Guardian ran an essay entitled I Married Myself. In earnest prose the photographer Grace Gelder describes her engagement:

Not that I could say with any certainty how exactly I’d found myself in the rather surreal scenario of proposing to myself on a park bench on Parliament Hill last November….I’d been on a journey of personal development using meditation, dance and performance to increase my self-awareness.  Included in this was a Shakti Tantra programme focused on sexuality and how this was bound up with making agreements with yourself and other people.  Sitting on that park bench, it dawned on me that a self-marriage ceremony witnessed by other people would potentially be this massively powerful means of making those agreements stick.

She goes on to describe planning the ceremony, buying a dress and picking out a ring.  It culminates in a ceremony sealed with a kiss:

It felt like a really big deal saying my vows, which were mostly about me promising to take more risks in matters of the heart. I remember really paying attention to the words as they left my mouth and it felt like they were hanging in the air. Equally, the ring, a less spontaneous purchase than the dress, brought home to me this idea of commitment, sealing the deal if you like.  The day was obviously centred on me, the final event being a mirror for me to kiss, but it also felt like I was sharing something very special with my friends, giving everyone an opportunity to reflect on their own ideas of love and commitment.

Someone, please!, help me understand this.  It would be very easy to turn on the snark and mock this woman for her self-absorption and lack of understanding of the meaning of marriage.   And maybe that is all that is going on.  But something is telling me that there is more going on here and that on the eve of the Synod on the Family, it is important to try to empathize with this woman, and more importantly, try to understand the cultural forces which shaped this decision.   This is the culture to which we must bear witness, but before we can do that we have to meet them where they are—wherever that is.

About David Cruz-Uribe
  • http://gravatar.com/wjmwilson wjmwilson

    Kudos to Grace Gelder! Instead of waiting for a man or another woman to “complete” her she has taken an important step toward affirming her own autonomy.

    I think two things are operative here: Firstly, aloneness is part of the human condition, but loneliness isn’t. Ultimately, we face life and it’s source (God if you scare to use the term) by ourselves. No one can live our lives; no one can die our deaths.

    Secondly, each of us must resolve that existential situation for himself or herself. Some clergy, theologians and preachers, via a mawkish me-and-Jesus spirituality, misinterpret the story of the incarnation to mean I never have to be alone again. To quote my late Irish-born father, “Malarchy!” Jesus, whoever one thinks he was, died alone, aware that he had been abandoned by his God.

    Miss Gelder, to her credit has seized the moment and declared her autonomy. She decided to affirm her status as an adult. We should all in our own way go and do likewise.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      But her very act of autonomy was done in community. So what was she declaring: I don’t need you, but like having you around anyway? I am an island, but choose to be connected to the main? We are not separate, isolated autonoma: we live and die in community and even though we live and die our own lives, we share in the life and death of others, just as others share in our life and death. Why else is dying alone considered so terrible, and dying surrounded by family and friends considered a blessing?

      • Ronald King

        David, I think that she is declaring love for herself in the community of people she loves. This is the first step towards becoming vulnerable and truthful with self and others. She is risking the loss of her old self and others in a ceremony devoted to taking that journey through the mystery of the vulnerability inherent on the way of love.

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

    It’s an increasingly common practice, and has been since the 90s. They even make self-marriage kits these days.

    I confess, I have no inclination whatsoever to empathize with such things, any more than I feel the slightest inclination to empathize with Erika Eiffel’s commitment to the Eiffel Tower, but to be honest, it doesn’t strike me as any different in practice than common Catholic talk about a “vocation to singleness” as if singleness were somehow parallel to marriage rather than a bunch of very different, and not always well defined, paths in life; and for all the erosion, marriage is still the most forceful instance of fully voluntary commitment anyone is likely to come across anymore, so if you’re going to make some kind of serious commitment, there’s not much else to take as your model.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      For those who never heard of Erika Eiffel (I had not):

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erika_Eiffel

      The connection to a “vocation to singleness” is interesting, but does not fully hold up in my opinion. Most of the people I know who talked of a vocation to singleness were looking back in early middle age to describe the choices they had made—no ceremony required. Also, it was unclear in her essay what she was committing herself to, besides herself.

      • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

        I’m inclined to think that it is, in fact, the same; it has nothing to do with the ceremony as such. Within the Church there’s not really any need for ceremonies themselves to pull this in, because there’s already a set-up for it: the notion of vocation is already well established and engrained, and so one can simply appropriate that. Most people don’t have those kinds of resources, so they appropriate what they can. And marriage is the most durable thing in society at large that allows for that kind of appropriation, that can serve as that kind of model. (I also think I’ve run in different crowds than you have; the kind of backward-looking view of ‘vocation of singleness’ is one I’ve never come across. Much more common in my experience is a kind of provisional forward-looking view.)

        I’m a bit puzzled about your last sentence; obviously she was committing to herself. That seemed to me to be explicitly her point.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          You may have a point about appropriating marriage, I will need to think about this some more. As for my last comment: you are right and I am no longer sure what I was thinking. Maybe my point was that I see commitment as to something external. Self-commitment seems an odd thing to celebrate as it (should) go without saving.

  • LM

    It seems like the point of this marriage to self was to make a public declaration of her ability to be emotionally self sufficient. Not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but I don’t see the need for an expensive public ceremony when a mass email to friends and family would have done the same thing. But the idea of marrying yourself doesn’t seem any weirder than the idea of marrying God, especially if God is also supposedly married to thousands of other people of both genders. At least when you marry yourself that’s more or less monogamous.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Well, marrying God (or more precisely, marrying Jesus, as many women religious do) is an other directed relationship, whereas marrying yourself is centered on the self. This would seem to suggest a substantial difference.

      • LM

        @David Cruz -Uribe

        Well, I take the view of Ludwig Feurbach that God is a psychological projection, so to me anyone who claims to be married to God is marrying themselves. I realize that I stand alone on this opinion, but this is where I’m coming from.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Okay, so long as we are clear on this! But even given Feuerbach’s thesis (which I regard as counter-factual) I think there remains a substantive difference between consciously marrying yourself and marrying the “other” who reduces down to a collective projection of ourselves.

    • Melody

      “…I don’t see the need for an expensive public ceremony when a mass email to friends and family would have done the same thing.” The big expensive public ceremony with a white designer dress and flowers (and a gala reception with a cake and champagne and a dinner and a dance) is a big part of why people do these things. Okay, I know it’s about affirming one’s autonomy and freedom and owning one’s choices. But the big gala event is also (a cynical part of me says “the main”) reason for a “singularity ceremony”. Otherwise, as you say, a mass e-mailing (or if you want to be fancy, engraved announcements) would accomplish the same thing. It’s about being queen for a day. And I don’t say that’s wrong; it’s a lot better than talking yourself into marrying the wrong person because it gets you your big day. I don’t know, maybe we need to give ourselves more permission to celebrate life, and throw a big event just because. Don’t know if any of you saw the movie, Babette’s Feast. But that was kind of the theme.
      By contrast I remember the story my grandma told me about her wedding at the start of the Great Depression. It was held in the sacristy with immediate family, because Grandpa wasn’t Catholic. I asked to see her wedding dress, and she said, “Oh, it was a blue suit, I wore it out. We couldn’t afford clothes that would only be worn once.” As a little girl I felt sad for her that she never had a big day. But there was never any doubt that she had married the right man.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        It is not clear to me when weddings had to be the bride’s big day. Certainly my parents, who were married in 1946, had a wedding that was so modest as to be almost hip today. (After the 7:30 am daily mass at the local Church, with a few friends present. A friend of my Dad’s threw a small reception at some point.) And I saw pictures of the wedding of a friend from my fraternity. She and the groom came from solidly middle class families (he was a dentist) but the wedding was a very low key affair, with maybe 35 people at the reception. So maybe the question is: why does the celebration have to be about “me” as opposed to just a celebration?

  • Julia Smucker

    I wrote about the same thing a couple of years ago here. My title betrays my judgment, but I did wrestle with similar questions about what motivates this phenomenon.

    Incidentally, looking back at that post, I notice you mentioned that series of Doonesbury strips in a comment. A double recapitulation, I suppose.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I had forgotten this post and I refer all the readers there for your thoughtful discussion.

  • Mark VA

    Sometimes insanity is just insanity.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Sometimes. But this “insanity” is embedded in a cultural matrix we need to understand in order to evangelize.

      • Mark VA

        You are right, Mr. Cruz-Uribe.

        The subject’s ethnicity appears to be English, so my assumption is that this is the matrix we need to better understand, “in order to evangelize”. I would say that this should be done carefully, if our analysis is to have scholarly merit and steer clear of stereotyping.

        On the other hand, I believe it would be a valuable exercise. If done right, such a technique could also be applied to other matrices. The repeated application of the original technique would likely refine it, giving us another benefit. Somehow, I sense a PhD opus.

        As it happens, I’m currently reading “The Isles: A History”, by Norman Davies:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Isles:_A_History
        http://www.amazon.com/The-Isles-History-Norman-Davies/dp/0195148312

        Among other things, it contains a detailed (and in my view, excellent) examination of the origins and the development of the English ethnicity (the matrix in question). Perhaps reading this book would be the first step toward an examination leading to a better evangelization.

  • http://gravatar.com/tausign Tausign

    “Someone, please!, help me understand this.”

    Well it does get ‘curiouser and curiouser’… doesn’t it? I usually try to avoid the ‘slippery slope’ label but it does seem apropos here as you lament the loss of the meaning of marriage. Though, this sort of ceremony is an outlier even by today’s standards.

    As far as any ‘meeting the culture where they are’ is concerned, I would say the more common experience is the marriage of self-composed vows made publicly as the couple transitions from cohabitation with children to some expression of a deeper commitment.

    What I find most lacking is the understanding of the nature of a vocation in any state of life, single or married. First in the religious sense, the vocation always implied a response to God’s calling or will for one’s life, which was explicitly based in service; one to another in marriage or service to the larger community in single life. This reality was explicitly expressed and sought after in church life.

    Interestingly, if you speak to the last generation of life-long marriages (prior to the sexual revolution of the 60’s) you find a distinct break with modern expectations of marriage. There was no talk of finding ‘the perfect match’ or ‘true soulmate’…such a vocabulary didn’t exist.
    That generation consistently spoke of finding ‘someone suitable’ that they could make a life together under traditional norms of generating a new family with shared sacrifice.

    • trellis smith

      As they say Tausign past performance is no guarantor of future outcomes ,As marriage evolves, the absurdity of it becomes evermore so apparent. And so to is romantic love around that which modern marriage revolves. Robert Capon understood this,”Romantic love is about as close to the real point of marriage as anything can be: It is a mystery leading to a mystery, an absurdity inviting a further absurdity. We were meant for greatness, for glory, for the vast coinherence of the City. If our marriages do not, it is not because marriage is contrary to romance, but because we have violated romance itself, have made the fatal mistake of stopping at Beatrice instead of glory.”(- Robert Capon Bed and Board.)
      “Finding someone suitable” doesn’t even look for Beatrice. Our God is a jealous god after all and seeks that we fall in love with “him” as “he” is in love with us.

      That is not to say there has to be no practical grounding after all at the very least and most hopeful it is a place to be.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I am not sure I get where you are going with this, but I want to say that I married my wife because I was hopelessly in love with her. Making it work and staying in love with her (30 years next year) has been an act of will and lots of hard work. I don’t see why romantic love and making it work cannot coexist.

    • http://maddygirl.wordpress.com elialuz

      When my older sister got married in 1972, she and the groom invited only close family and friends and the reception was held at my sister’s apartment. My sister and her girlfriends cooked all the food prior to the ceremony, choosing favorite dishes of the guests. Then as the guests arrived from the church they each received an album of photos of the bride and groom from babyhood to the present with two pages left for the wedding photos. Different, uh? And it wasn’t a question of money as much as of making the wedding unique.

  • Melody

    Tausign, speaking of generations which were before us, you said “….There was no talk of finding ‘the perfect match’ or ‘true soulmate’…such a vocabulary didn’t exist. That generation consistently spoke of finding ‘someone suitable’ that they could make a life together under traditional norms of generating a new family with shared sacrifice.” To an extent you are right. Their expectations may have been lower and perhaps more based in reality. However we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that romantic love was not important to our ancestors. The bundles of love letters tied up with a faded ribbon, the stories of courtship, the old black and white photos of couples long dead which have come down to us tell a different story. We are more like them than we are different.

    • http://gravatar.com/tausign Tausign

      “However we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that romantic love was not important to our ancestors.”

      I agree and I didn’t mean to imply that. Look, if romantic love ‘means anything’ it’s because it represent a reality that exists between the couple, no matter what era they live in. And of course people of all generations can fantasize love before it arrives, this is human.

      I don’t want to create a false dichotomy between an arranged marriage based on suitability and a romantic marriage based on love (though some folks do hold onto this notion). But I know from my long experience of discussing this with the elderly, that they were very conscious of their roles in marriage (the duties as well as the rewards). Thus they generally thought about the ‘potential other’ in terms of being able to live up to, what they would refer to as higher expectations, not lower. Again they didn’t zero in on the quality of ‘being pleased’ as much as the quality of being willing to make a sacrifice, to serve. This is the heart of love, is it not?

  • LM

    Although the idea of a self marriage seems odd to me, I can’t entirely knock it, because I feel like women in general are socialized to give of themselves until it hurts, without expecting much in return. Women in traditional religions are also denied to opportunity to define themselves and their relationships to their own lives. Rather, they are told that their only purpose in life is to be a “helpmeet” to men at best, and at worst, evil seductresses who are actively trying to lead men astray. Either way, women are only defined by their relationships to men and how they affect them. For all I know, this woman could have dealt with sexual abuse, self-harm, mental illness, or some other obstacle and decided to throw herself a wedding to celebrate her triumph over adversity, and if that’s the case, more power to her.