Promises, Promises


August 31, 1997

We wrote our wedding vows so long ago that I couldn’t find them on my computer. Surely I meant to transfer them from the first clunky PC desktop we had to my sister’s hand-me-down Mac laptop to her next hand-me-down Mac laptop to my current one. Those vows were on my mind because our anniversary is coming up, and two friends are getting married soon after. I’m fascinated, as you may recall, by the challenge of creating ceremonial language outside of a religious context; our wedding vows were probably my first attempt. But I couldn’t find them anywhere, except printed out and framed along with our wedding photo.

So I set out to copy them for you—five sentences of prologue and then the actual vows—but I couldn’t quite do it. Not the whole thing. I was 27 then, and reading the vows now at age 44 makes me cringe a little. Though Adam and I together decided on what we wanted to vow to one another, I was the one to decide on how. And, 17 years later, the writer in me has some complaints. The prologue sets up an elaborate analogy about building a home (with the help of our friends, on the foundation of our families, etc.), and though I still like the image of leaving the door of our marriage unlocked so our loved ones can enter, the general effect is a little careful and (am I allowed to say this?) tedious. When you read it, you’re just waiting to get to the good part.

The vows themselves are so hopeful they break my heart. Like reading your New Year’s resolutions in August. Or worse: reading resolutions from five or ten years ago. The promises we made were serious and demanding and we have broken all of them. But the most forgiving one—the one that shows that, although we were young, we knew ourselves and each other pretty well before we married—promises to “try.” That’s the word that keeps the vows alive despite the wear and tear. “Try” is how I look at New Year’s resolutions, too: that they should guide and inspire you to move in the right direction over the course of the year. Or a marriage. Not make you feel shitty because you didn’t immediately become—or can’t always be—your best self, but give you the courage to wake up the next morning and try again.

♦ ♦ ♦

We promise each other: I will turn to you when I am in need and care for you when you are.

We promise each other: I will take strength from who you are, forgive who you are not, and remind you who you want to be.

We promise each other: I will try to remember, whether sunk in sorrow or distracted by the day-to-day, what I feel at this moment—my sense of good fortune, my sheer joy at being with you.

We say to each other: Knowing my family and friends surround me, knowing who I am and who I want to be—with this strength and certainty I say to you,

I have only one life, it is only so long, and I choose to spend it with you.

♦ ♦ ♦

Come to think of it, we’re still working on the home, too.


Note: if you like these vows, you can use them at your own wedding, as long as you buy a few copies of A Walk Down the Aisle: Notes on a Modern Wedding. Or get a few friends to subscribe to my blog. Or send me a picture of your wedding and a copy of your version of these vows so I can post them here. 

The Truth About Lying

You’ve tried to teach your children that it’s wrong to lie. That honesty is the best policy. That you won’t be mad about the juice pooling around your iPhone as long as someone tells you the truth.Lying (1)

Here’s the truth: your children are going to lie to you.

Don’t get too upset. After all, let’s be honest: honesty is not always the best policy.

You don’t really want them to tell the truth when their little sister says, “How do you like my picture?” And you don’t really want them to tell the truth when Aunt Sylvia asks them isn’t the Lego Star Wars Jedi Interceptor just perfect even through what they really wanted was the Lego Star Wars X-Wing Starfighter. TM.

Oh, but you think, that’s just being polite. They wouldn’t lie if it were important.

Except you would want them to lie if you were hiding Jews in your garage and the Nazis came knocking, right?

Oh, but you think, it’s always OK to lie to Nazis. They wouldn’t lie to me.

I’m going to be straight with you here. You probably think that in no way do you resemble Nazis. But in one way you do. You are the authoritarian government under which your children live. You control the food, the car, the daily schedule, even time itself. They get to pick out what color socks they wear only if you grant them sock selection privileges.

What do they get to control? The space between their brains and their mouths. That’s pretty much it. Lying is one of the few defenses the powerless have against power. And you, my friends, are the power.

So don’t be surprised if one day you say, “Did you do your homework?” and your son says, “yes,” and then it turns out . . . he didn’t. Don’t be surprised: Be proud. After all, he had to learn how to do that.

When my eldest was in first grade, he brought a note home from school. “Noah had a much better day today,” it read. Um, better than what, Noah? A previous, less positive missive from the teacher had been deposited in the trash on the school bus, a fact we discovered because my husband asked, “Where did you put the other note?” and Noah was too dumb to say, “What other note?”

He got smarter, mastering the beginner-level “Yes, I did my piano practice,” and moving on to the slightly more complex, “I was just checking the time” that accompanies the swift return of his cell phone to the coffee table. I’m pretty sure he’s lying. Am I mad? Yes, because that means he has likely broken my laws—I mean, my rules.

But the lying itself just makes sense. The poor kid has a mother who, at the slightest provocation, will stride up to him, take his phone right out of his hand, and hide it in her sock drawer. He has to be able to defend himself. So he has learned to build ramparts of deception to keep me at bay.

Some are hastily formed, some carefully wrought, some touchingly transparent. All lies.

And then after a long, long time, and much too soon, he will escape my regime. My power will evaporate. Even my usefulness will be reduced to emailing a recipe and remembering the name of that first grade teacher.

The question is, will he lie to me then? Will yours lie to you?

“We wish we could be there for your birthday, Mom, but little Mitzy’s allergies are acting up again. No, no, she’ll be fine; we just can’t travel.”

“Oh, yes, Mom, little Mitzy absolutely loves the Lego Hunger Games Arena with Rotating Cornucopia.”

“The piano? Yes, of course, Mom, she practices every day.”

Ramparts of deception that keep us at bay.

That’s what lies do—even well-intentioned ones—they create distance between us.

Right now, on any given day, I would like to put an ocean and a couple of European countries between myself and my children, but to imagine them distancing themselves emotionally from me when they are grown and gone is, well, a little heartbreaking.

So I’m trying to teach them not to lie. Don’t misunderstand: they should know how to, and I accept that they will as long as they are the powerless subjects of a capricious overlord.

But still they need to know that the only way to be truly close to someone is to take down the ramparts. To tell the truth.

That’s why I try never to lie to them. I won’t tell them it’s “rice” if it’s really farro. I won’t tell them the cat went to heaven when we all know where that damned cat was really headed. And I won’t tell them I love their pictures unless I mean it.

The truth, however unpleasant, is a sign of respect. A mark of trust. A precondition of closeness.

So I’m crossing my fingers that one day I’ll say, “Noah, how do you like my essay?” and instead of saying, “It was great,” Noah will look up from his cell phone and reply, “I don’t know, Mom. There were some good parts. But don’t you think the ending was a little abrupt?”

♦ ♦ ♦

I wrote this for a reading held by the Pine Hills Review on August 10. The theme: Bullshit.  Thanks to Dan Nester for the invitation, which inspired me to write about one of my favorite subjects. 

Let the Old Traditions Fail

RedskinsVirginia, my home state, has celebrated Lee-Jackson Day every January since 1904. State and city offices close; Confederate flags unfurl. After 110 years, this seems unlikely to change. In fact, in 1983, when Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, became a federal holiday, Virginia appended the Civil Rights leader to its traditional Heroes of the Confederacy observance.

I kid you not: the third Monday in January was officially Lee-Jackson-King Day. State and city offices closed; Confederate flags unfurled.

From Virginia I went to Dartmouth College, official motto:  Vox Clamantis in Deserto (“The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness”). Unofficial motto: “Lest the Old Traditions Fail.” Dartmouth’s illustrious history included excluding women, elaborately hazing fraternity pledges, and nicknaming its sports teams “the Indians.”

My own home team was the Jews, whose time-honored customs include snipping off the foreskin of newborn males.

The argument in defense of much of the above-mentioned behavior was (and is) “tradition.” But of course just because someone did it before you doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing to do. Tradition is not an excuse in itself. It has as much moral weight as “well, they did it.”

A tradition is just something that’s been passed on to you, like a chain letter. And like the senders of chain letters, institutions and cultures threaten dire consequences if you don’t pass their traditions along and promise good fortune if you do. (If I don’t circumcise my child, he can never really be Jewish! If I puke my way into this frat, my “brothers” will one day get me a job!)

I hate chain letters. If you’re wondering who broke your recipe chain, it was I. It was I who failed to forward that email telling ten women in my life how important they are. I used to feel torn about it, as if I were letting people down when I tossed the letter out. The older I get the more I want whatever comes from me either to come from me or to be something I would be perfectly proud to have thought of.

That’s the thing about tradition: if it’s coming through you, it’s coming from you. Even if you’re just going along unwillingly or uncertainly, as I did when we had Noah circumcised, it’s still coming from you. You can pretend you are merely the conduit —or even the victim—but you are actually the one perpetuating it.

Of course, that’s no big deal when you are perpetuating the eating of nachos to celebrate the end of school or the wearing of white at a wedding. When the tradition is frivolous. But when the tradition you pass along is harmful or suspect or offensive, you should be able to defend it with reasoning beyond “well, they did it.” You should be able to defend it as if you had just thought of it. “You know what we should do with our baby’s penis?” . . .  “Hey, I’ve got an awesome name for our team: The Redskins. Huh, guys? Isn’t that great?”

If you can’t defend a behavior as your own, you shouldn’t behave that way.  The institution that insists you do will not wither as a result of your refusal—or maybe it will, and should. More likely, it will suffer the dire consequence of . . . evolving.

In 2000, Virginia unshackled MLK Day from the day commemorating Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee (which is now the Friday before). In Lexington, where both Confederate leaders are buried, there is still a parade, a ball, and plenty of Confederate flags on Lee-Jackson Day. But, since a court decision in 2011, no Confederate flags have flown from city poles. And this June, Washington and Lee University moved the Confederate flags from Lee Chapel—where the college has many of its official events—to the Museum below ground. The Sons of Confederate Veterans organized protest rallies, but the college seems to be standing firm.

Dartmouth College began admitting women in 1972 (there were protest rallies, but the college seems to be standing firm). By the time I got there in the late 80s, the Indian symbol was officially banned,[1] but still visible. Now, as with the Confederate flag, you can still display it, but its stated meaning has been overshadowed by its subtext: “I’m OK with your thinking I’m an asshole.” That’s progress, in my book.

And believe it or not, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a fraternity whose disgusting pledge hazing traditions were detailed in a 2012 exposé in Rolling Stone, changed its policies this past March. According to the Supreme Council, there are officially no more SAE pledges—no underlings, in other words, who can be forced by their “brothers” to chug milk and vinegar until they throw up.

We’re still working on the Redskins. But I’m happy to report that some Jews are making progress on the foreskin front. Israel’s High Court just ruled that the Rabbinical Court couldn’t force a mother (who is opposed to circumcision, divorcing a father who favors it) to circumcise her infant. Dire consequences may befall her yet. But good fortune has already come to her son: he has a strong mother to defend him against the vagaries of tradition. Her refusal to perpetuate behavior she doesn’t condone is the best thing she could possibly pass along.




[1] The school’s nickname is now The Big Green, which is supposed to represent its picturesque central yard, but I’m so hoping someone will eventually show up at football games dressed as a dollar bill (OK, you’re right: a one hundred-dollar bill).



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 64 other followers