The fine art of the wedding speech (or how to be less of a jackass)

I know. No one should begin a blog post on the topic of vulnerability with “Last weekend, in a yoga class…” But I’ve been trying to practice the fine art of not giving a shit this summer so I’m going to do it, even though I know you might stop reading right here.

So, last weekend I was in a yoga class, and the room was set up so the instructor was in the middle and the rows of mats on either side faced the center of the room. What this meant in practice was that once the room filled up, my mat was very close to my neighbors’ mats. And when we were in cobra pose—bellies down, backs arched, gazing forward—my face was just a couple feet from someone else’s face. I cannot imagine who thought arranging the room this way was a good idea. Apparently everyone else in the class was a Sunday morning regular and perfectly content to updog right into someone’s post-coffee breath.

I like yoga because, like all writers, I spend a lot of time in my head and yoga forces me to remember that I have a body. I like it because it’s good exercise, but it doesn’t have the existential demands of, say, rock climbing. (While doing yoga, for example, I never wonder if I might break my ankles). But I like it much less when the spritely instructor asks us to come into a deep lunge, raise our arms high in the air, and make eye contact with someone across the room. And then, if we want, to “turn up the corners of our mouths.” Here one is forced to either smile gamely at some sweat-soaked stranger across the way or to actively avoid their serene faces and out yourself as the one very uncool, very un-Lululemon-ed member of the group.

I harbor certain useful illusions about myself as an open person. I write about my life for public consumption. I am lazy about closing the bedroom curtains. If you asked me to tell you a secret, I’d have a hard time coming up with something my friends didn’t all already know. Once I was on a date and I mentioned that sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I lie in bed and say the prayer I said every night growing up: Now I lay me down to sleep…. “It’s not that I think someone is listening,” I said. “But I find the words soothing.” “Wow,” he said, “That’s a pretty revealing thing to say on a second date.” This had not occurred to me–given the context of the conversation, it seemed relevant to share. Conversations like this inflate my sense of my own openness.

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the bride- and groom-to-be

Lately, however, I seem to be bumping up against the boundaries of my openness. This experience has taken various forms, but the most prominent one is my utter terror at giving a speech at my sister’s wedding. My sister is getting married! In two-and-a-half weeks! And I am so happy for her. I think this is the right thing for her right now. I think her boyfriend is the right guy (or, to be technical, because I staunchly oppose the soul mate myth, I think he is a right guy; I think he is great and they are great together).

When people ask me if she and I are close, I always tell them that she is my favorite person in the world. She is. It’s no exaggeration. I’ve even thought about mentioning this in my speech. But the idea of articulating even this minor anecdote in front of a room full of the most important people in her life makes me want to cry-slash-puke. It’s hard to explain my anxiety to people. They say, “But you’re a writer.” Or, “But you talk in front of groups of people for a living.” Yes, but I don’t regularly stand in front of my students and verbalize my deepest, most sincere joys and anxieties (while wearing a floor-length tulle gown, no less).

I am the oldest and my sisterly protectiveness seems to take the form of deep empathy. When she cries, I cry. I’ve done this my whole life. When she’s happy, I experience her happiness as if it is my own. I tell my sister I love her almost every day, but a wedding speech demands this love be articulated in a very specific format. It is essentially an invitation to publicly declare to the people you love the most that you find their happiness so overwhelmingly good that you can hardly stand it. This is a version of openness I am struggling to grasp.

For me, the gap between writing these things and stating them is expansive–expanding. I am pretty good at one and petrified by the other.

Recently I reread this Dear Sugar column, “Like an Iron Bell,” on the complications of loving someone and figuring out exactly how and when to articulate that love. You should read it—don’t be content with my summary—because she gets at the topic with a depth of sincerity the very best of us just aspire to. But there are some points I’d like to highlight. “Our main obligation is to be forthright—to elucidate the nature of our affection when such elucidation would be meaningful or clarifying,” she says. She also says, “The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it.”

A couple weeks ago, a friend and I decided to take the protocol from a study designed to make strangers fall in love in the laboratory and try it on ourselves. It involves taking turns answering a series of increasingly personal questions, then staring each other in the eyes for four minutes without speaking. I won’t go into too much detail here because I’m writing about it elsewhere, but I want to talk about that eye-staring part for a minute. I think about eye contact more than I would like to. I think about it when I teach and I think about it on first—and probably second—dates. I think about those Seventeen Magazine articles I read in middle school that recommended kissing with your eyes open. And I think about yoga classes.

I imagine that people who are truly, genuinely open don’t think that much about eye contact. Thinking about eye contact is the domain of the self-conscious, and of middle-schoolers who have never kissed anyone, and, I now know, of people who are preparing wedding speeches. Sometimes this self-consciousness is important, like when you want to make your students feel welcome in a discussion. Sometimes it’s terrifying, like when you find yourself on the Granville Bridge at one in the morning, staring your friend in the eyes while your iPhone timer ticks down four minutes in your pocket. That feels a little like tackling the motherfucking shit out of life.

Sugar says, “Don’t be strategic or coy. Strategic and coy are for jackasses. Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word love to the people you love so when it matters most to say it, you will.” But strategy and coyness are comfortable, just like knowing a lot about the science and philosophy of love is comfortable. This knowledge is a shield that enables you (me) to talk about love with the people you love without directly articulating your love for them. And, to extend that thinking, a blog is a shield where you (I) can write what you should state because you can look into a screen instead of into someone’s eyes. You can write, Holy shit. You made a squirmy, red, weird, perfect baby and I am so happy for you I can barely stand it. Or, Listening to you talk about your disappointment with marriage is slowly breaking my heart, but I want to listen anyway. Or, There is nothing I’d rather do tonight than lie naked on your bed and watch YouTube videos together. Or, You’re publishing a book. And I am so jealous and so thrilled. Or, For at least the first two minutes of staring into your eyes, I couldn’t breathe properly. Or, The only way you can fit into my family is by loving the people I love as much and as generously as you possibly can. Or, I’m horrified by what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri, but I don’t know how to express it beyond a token Facebook post.

The thing about love is, scientifically speaking of course, that it thrives on kindness. If the best thing you can do for someone you love is be kind, and being kind depends on embracing a certain amount of openness, and openness might be demonstrated by a willingness to make eye contact with strangers in yoga class, then I have some work to do. Tonight I am making biscuits for dinner and starting a wedding speech. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

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