Frugal Weddings

Wedding ceremony

I was in town the other day and caught a piece of an Oprah Winfrey show, one in which Oprah and a currently popular financial consultant were helping couples look at their income, expenses, savings, debt load, etc. to determine whether they should, or should not, spend such and such amount on whatever it was they were wanting to do (remodel the kitchen, send a daughter to an expensive school, etc.). Watching their process was a useful educational tool for people in similar circumstances, so I was, in general, applauding Oprah for her knack of hitting the mark.

But then came the question from a young couple who were to be married in June. The bride wanted a fairly large wedding (200 or so guests) and was willing to spend the $20,000 that such an event can run. The groom was looking at something simpler – under a hundred guests, about $5,000. Looking at their finances, the experts concluded that this couple could afford the $5K, not the $20K, event, but that since there’s no such thing as a $5K wedding (even a simple, under a hundred, affair, they said, runs at least $20K), “you’d better elope.” Even when an audience member pointed out that the important thing was that these two people wanted to marry, not how fancy the wedding was, the pros stuck to their position. No wedding.

I was startled. I know that I am often out of touch with the price of things these days, but this one got to me. Has our culture really come so far down the cash intensive road that we have forgotten how to do weddings that don’t cost a fortune?

I was reminded of one of the most beautiful weddings I ever attended. I was 17, traveling with a bunch of other Quaker/Unitarian type kids thru Eastern Europe and what was then (1963) the Soviet Union. We were driving thru Rumania, under strict orders not to stop, but one of our two VW buses broke down, and we were stuck for several days in a small village. As it happened, we landed there on the day before a wedding, to which we were immediately invited. My memories of that event are by now somewhat romanticized, but the images are of an entire village full of happy, celebratory, people, wearing beautiful, ornate, hand embroidered, clothes. Music, dancing, food, and a lot of small rituals that were obviously meaningful to the people, and to the new bride and groom. I can guarantee that that wedding did not cost much money.

Preparing the wedding feast

It did, however, cost. Who sewed and embroidered all those amazing clothes? Who prepared all that food? Who were the musicians and why did they play at that wedding?

Several years ago I had a chance to try it on myself. Our daughter, Lauren, who was by then living a mainstream life out in the real world, decided that she wanted to get married at Light Morning, on the same knoll, in fact, where several decades earlier, friends and neighbors had gathered to christen her. These were her people, the “village” that had raised her. And it was, indeed, the village that sprang into action.

Months before the wedding itself, these neighbors and friends joined us for a workday to get the main living room finished enough to be ready for such an event- ceiling, insulation, interior walls. Lilly ( Lauren’s beloved Grammiddy) started working with the bride to create the dress she was wanting. Folks volunteered to prepare favorite foods, bring bouquets of flowers. There was even a team to whom I would be turning over all the co-ordination and wedding planner responsibilities, so that I could become just the mother of the bride, and enjoy myself to the max.

The last few days before the wedding reminded me of the Arden Fair, an annual event in the intentional community where Robert and I grew up. The fair officially started at 10am, but the best hours were from dawn to 10, when everyone was out there banging nails, helping each other set up their booths, pulling together to prep for the event. The energy of the fair was born in those early hours.

And so it was with Lauren’s wedding. By the time the “just under a hundred” guests arrived and the ceremony itself began, the place was already awash in magic. People had been up early, hanging signs, setting up chairs, placing flowers, and, of course, preparing, cooking, and arranging platters of beautiful, tasty food – all in a collective effort to produce a special event for Lauren and her family. It was very clear that the wedding itself, while stunning in its beauty, was only part of the specialness of the day. It was this magic that was in Lauren’s teary, ecstatic hug, as she took me aside and excitedly exclaimed, “You know, Mom, something always goes wrong at weddings, but I think this one is perfect!”

And what was the bill? After reimbursing folks for their ingredients and other costs, paying for the pieces that did need actual cash (rental chairs, wedding cakes, minister, candles, more flowers, decorations, wine glasses, etc.), the bill came to just under $2,000.

Yes, the couple on Oprah can have a wedding! They can have a wedding that confirms the whole reason for weddings in the first place, to bring otherwise separate people together to become a collective, mutually supportive team. Let families come together, and neighborhoods, to stir up a particular sort of energy that we rarely get to experience anymore. How did we let this get lost? Can we get it back?

Ready for the reception

Given that our culture has gotten so accustomed to bought-not-made weddings, it might seem too daunting a challenge to try to engage the social vortex that creates the Arden Fair, or created Lauren’s wedding. But there are other ways to produce inexpensive weddings. I think that my favorite is still the wedding of two of our friends from Delaware, who invited their unsuspecting friends and family to what looked like a regular party and then, at about 11pm, whipped out a minister and said their vows. Voila!

There are ways, plenty of ways, to gather ones family and friends together to share in an important and meaningful ceremony. Be creative, let go of the pressures that make it expensive. Remember what’s important. Break whatever rules don’t make sense. Go for the magic. Have a great time. It’s your wedding.

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You can view more photos from Lauren and Jeremy’s
Light Morning wedding here and here.

Keep the Home Fires Burning

The Rivendell deck

We were just blessed with a lovely 12″ snowfall over the weekend. After 2-3 winters with occasional ice storms but almost no snow, it was delightful to awaken to a white landscape. Richard took off for Roanoke right after pancakes on Sunday and got stranded there until the back roads were plowed two days later. Ron tried to make it home Sunday night after delivering pizzas. But even with tire chains on, he only made it part way in before getting stuck in a snow drift and spending the night in his car. With a book to read, tapes to listen to, and the right attitude, he was fine. The next day a snow plow came in from the Roanoke County side. Ron, however, ended up driving back to Roanoke in order to replace a damaged tire chain. After waiting another night in town until the back roads were finally plowed, he made it home on Tuesday

Joyce and I had plans to travel to Richmond on Wednesday to see Lauren and Jeremy. It took me several hours on Monday to get the car free of ice and snow, get the chains on, and bull through the deep (but fortunately light) snow out to the mailboxes to await the snow plow.  While plying the snow shovel, and hoping that Ron and/or Richard would make it home before we left, the phrase came to mind, “Keep the home fires burning.” We were keeping the home fires burning for them, while they were away, and then they’d keep the fires burning while we were in Richmond.

Suddenly, while shoveling, I realized just how figuratively I’d always taken that phrase. Keep the home fires burning. Keep things nice; keep it feeling homey. But in our self-chosen lifestyle the words have a fiercely literal relevance. Keep the home fires burning, so the canned goods don’t freeze and break. Keep the home fires burning, so the house plants won’t die. Keep the home fires burning, so the expensive battery bank that holds our solar electric won’t be ruined. If you have central heating, you just set the thermostat and that keeps the home fires burning. But as you transition toward a more subsistence lifestyle, your heat comes from the woodshed rather than an oil tank. And so you depend on friends and fellow community members to “keep the home fires burning.”

Richard got home on Wednesday shortly after we left for Richmond. He emailed us that afternoon, saying, “I made it home no problem. I’ll keep an eye on the cold frames and make sure the Rowe room stays warm. Have a good visit with Lauren.  Be well, Richard.”  The subject line of his email was, “I’ll keep the homefires burning…”

A Bioregional Seminar — The First Letter


The following five letters were contributed to a Bioregional Seminar that was conducted by way of correspondence. Fifteen to twenty people from across the country, most of whom had attended the second North American Bioregional Congress in Michigan in the summer of 1986, participated. The focus of the Seminar was an essay by Thomas Berry, a prominent spokesperson for the bioregional movement.

In the first letter we each introduced ourselves and responded to Tom’s essay. In the succeeding letters we were free to develop our own ideas and/or to respond to Tom or to any of the other participants. I imagine that all of us felt enriched by the exchange of letters. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn both from one another and from the process of trying to articulate our own beliefs and feelings.

The First Letter
(November 1988)

Greetings from the northern borders of Katuah, where the headwaters of the Roanoke River, which runs east to the Atlantic Ocean, meet those of the much older New River, which flows north to the Ohio and then south to the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve been here about 15 years—“we” being a small, intentional community, currently comprised of 6 adults and 2 children, not to mention a number of households “down the road”, plus innumerable more scattered through the county, plus all the deer, turkey, bobcats, copperheads, chipmunks, oaks and maples that were here long before we arrived.

I met Jim Berry in the summer of 1986. He gave me a ride to Lake Michigan, where we attended NABC II. (Thanks again, Jim, both for the ride and for the notice about this seminar.) As a further introduction, and also in response to Tom’s lucid essay, I’d like to share several recurring questions or concerns or growing edges pertaining to the theme of bioregions.

First–What story or metaphor offers the most creative insights into why humanity appears to be so suicidally obsessed with the desecration of Gaia? Many stories, old and new, have been proposed. Choose one we must, consciously or otherwise. Our choice will have a profound effect upon how gracefully we respond to the seemingly insurmountable problems and opportunities that confront us as a species.

Second–To what extent am I willing to wrestle with the direct connections between my personal lifestyle and the exploitation of the Earth? Where does my food come from, when I trace the various items of my diet back to their source? Where does my bodily and household “waste” go? What is the true environmental cost of the electricity I use, the car I drive? Does my participation in the current economy (the specific ways in which I earn and spend my money) feel comfortable to me, even under close scrutiny?

Third–Is it possible to divorce the health of my body from the health of the Earth, or to work toward the well-being of one while ignoring the needs of the other? Learning to listen to the bioregions of my body, and to respond to their needs, is a constant challenge. Rising to this challenge deepens my ability to listen and respond to my wife, my daughter, my friends, my garden, and, ultimately, to all the other creatures and species with whom I share these ridges and valleys.

And finally–How willing am I to use my immediate environment (my body, my community, and my daily life) as a crucible or proving ground, within which radically new patterns of belief and behavior may emerge? This close-to-home, down-to-earth work, these humble and humbling attempts to stretch into a greater measure of empathy and integrity, seem to me to be the inescapable prelude to any truly meaningful involvement in the wider arena of my bioregion.

So these are a few of the underlying questions that have been awakened by my exposure to the ideas of Tom and Jim Berry, by my participation in NABC II, and by my experiences in this ever-so-slowly evolving Katuah lifestyle. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to explore at least some of them together during this seminar.

A Bioregional Seminar — The Second Letter

The Second Letter (December 1988)

Hello again. I enjoyed spending time with the first set of responses to Tom’s essay. Quite a return on investment–to send out one letter and get 23 back! Thanks, Stan, for your initiative and your efforts. This is a wonderful opportunity.

I was moved by everyone’s clear concern for the Earth and encouraged by the diversity of viewpoints. Perhaps of most interest were the scattered expressions of the need for a new story. Some were implied; others direct. I felt J. Linn Mackey, for example, speaking my mind when he asked, “What are humans? Where do we belong in the scheme of things, and what is our role?” And then going on to say, “Some deep and informing vision of our new planetary and even cosmic role seems essential…”

Frank Traina likewise struck a responsive chord with his exploration of various windows through which we might choose to view humanity: as a “planetary cancer rapidly metastasizing”; or as “one of many ‘mistakes’ of nature–an experiment that failed”; or as an experiment that is as yet unfinished, and one that is potentially “so beautiful and different that a very high price must be paid for it.”

These kinds of questions and choices, this search for a new story, is highly significant, given that how we see ourselves as a species greatly shapes how we see ourselves as individuals. And how we see ourselves as individuals (our self-image) profoundly affects not only how we see and therefore relate to others–other people, other sexes, other cultures, other races, other species–but also how we define the limits of what is possible for us to do and to be.

Tom has likewise spoken to the need for a new story. The one he has chosen (i.e., the emergence of exploitative anthropocentrism and the transition to a participatory biocentrism) is the foundation upon which the edifice of bioregionalism seems to be built. Some of those responding to Tom’s essay can easily accept this foundation. For them, Tom is “preaching to the choir”. Their main focus is on how to spread the message and/or how to implement this version of the new story in a practical way; how to actualize the bioregional vision.

Others, myself included, want to step back a moment and consider the adequacy of the foundation; its “carrying capacity.” I would like, for example, to ask Tom some of the same questions I keep asking myself.

First, is our sense of estrangement from the Earth and from our local bioregions the cause of our other problems, both personal and collective, or are these many problems (including our alienation from the Earth and its bioregions) symptomatic of a deeper, more fundamental alienation?

Second, when did this separation from our biological and planetary matrix occur? Assuming that in an earlier time our species was more intimate with the Earth–its needs and gifts and seasons–how and why did we lose this precious intimacy? Was it due (as you suggest, Tom) to the development of our “scientific and technological skills”? Was this the forbidden fruit whereof we ate, causing us to be cast out of the “Garden”?

If so, then who (figuratively speaking) is to blame for our predicament? The weak “man” who succumbed to temptation? Or the seductive “woman” who offered the fruit? Or the subtle “serpent” who planted the seed? Or the inscrutable “god” who placed the subtle serpent, the seductive woman, the weak man, and the irresistible tree within the Garden and then demanded an impossible abstinence?

Finally, and growing inevitably out of the earlier questions, is the bioregional goal of “re-inhabiting the Earth” essentially a call to repentance for having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, so that we may return to the Garden and restore our lost Edenic intimacy with the Earth? Or was the “fall” from grace, from biological and bioregional integrity, from an easy and innocent attunement with our fellow creatures, in some mysterious and disturbing way a necessary alienation? Does it perhaps serve some deeper, more inscrutable, not-yet-fully-realized purpose? And if so, what might this purpose be?

What story, myth, or metaphor, in other words, might help us remain open and responsive to the rising planetary tide of suffering and despair without indulging in self-recrimination; without yearning for a return to an earlier era of innocence and simplicity; without throwing the “baby” out with the bath water?

My gut feeling says that a growing, practical bioregional and biocentric vision and lifestyle is crucially needed in these times. It also says to be careful not to build such a vision and lifestyle on certain old and tenacious assumptions that may no longer be relevant or viable. And it says that bioregional awareness is but one beautiful theme being chanted around the evening fire, under the stars, in a circle of storytellers. Thank you all again, and especially Tom, for sharing your stories.

A Bioregional Seminar — The Third Letter

The Third Letter
(February 1989)

Joyce had a strong dream last night. I had stayed up late, searching for a focus for this letter, and went to bed asking for help from my dreams. In the morning I awoke disappointed. Nothing. But then Joyce, who had no conscious awareness either of my searching or my asking, who hadn’t even known that I was working on this letter, shared a surprisingly powerful dream. It’s as though, in some uncanny way, her dream came in response to my own unspoken need.

In the dream she is attending a workshop on environmental issues. Many of the people attending this workshop are railing against the government or the corporations for their unresponsiveness to the critical problems facing the planet. Joyce is moved to say, with great emotion, that we have no right to demand radical changes from those “out there” when we ourselves are unwilling to effect comparable changes in our personal lives.

“The changes that we must turn to first are personal,” she emphasizes. “And they’re going to have to be radical.”

She then uses herself as an example of radical personal change, briefly recounting some of the alterations in her own lifestyle over the past 15 years—giving up electricity, running water and television; drastically reducing her level of income; learning to rely upon home health care, home education, and home-grown food; exchanging her personal car for a community vehicle…

Her intent isn’t to brag or to set up her lifestyle as a model or pattern, for each person’s circumstances are unique. It is her intent to be brash and abrasive. She concludes by actively challenging everyone to examine their own lives; to see if they are asking the same sacrifices of themselves that they are asking of Dow Chemical or the House of Representatives.

“Does your desire for change,” she asks,”run deeper than the mere willingness to recycle aluminum cans or send $25 to the Sierra Club? That’s a worthy goal for some, but not for us. We must become willing to consider inconvenient, even impossible changes; changes sufficiently radical to disrupt and transform our personal lifestyles!”

What strikes me this morning, upon hearing her dream, is its sharp contrast to waking life. Joyce doesn’t enjoy speaking before groups and only rarely gets riled. “Brash” and “abrasive” are two of the last words I’d choose to describe her. Yet in the dream she was outspoken and provocative, seized by a sudden and compelling realization of the magnitude of the impending changes.

Joyce takes the dream figuratively, as representing various portions of herself. As such, she finds it somewhat threatening. “Even in the dream,” she tells me, “I understood that although a person may have made a radical shift, a further octave is being called for. It’s an ongoing process. No one can afford to become complacent.”

While agreeing with her assessment of the dream as being largely symbolic and personal, I also feel that it came in answer to my own asking from the night before, and therefore take this opportunity to share it with you. The crocuses and daffodils in our front yard join me in wishing everyone an enjoyable and transformative spring.

A Bioregional Seminar — The Fourth Letter

The Fourth Letter
(April 1989)

As we near the end of this seminar, and prompted by Joyce’s dream, I want to share some of my growing edges as I try to bring the bioregional question more clearly into focus in my daily life. What follows are some of the outer or lifestyle concerns. Next month I’ll attempt to touch the inner challenges.

Transportation We have no car. Pay a friend mileage for occasional use. A well-rooted dependency here, despite the awareness of high financial and environmental cost. We keep asking, “Is this trip really necessary?” Deeper needs and issues are clearly at work just below the surface–freedom, mobility, independence. A car can easily serve as a surrogate for these underlying needs.

Fuel We heat with wood and use photovoltaics for electricity, trying to lessen our contribution to high-power lines, acid rain and nuclear waste. Yet smoke from wood stoves can be a significant pollutant, and all the new DC gadgetry can sure be alluring. Current challenges include keeping a rein on how many amps we “need”; burning only dry, well-aged wood; improving our insulation; and incorporating more passive solar technology as a heat source.

Entertainment We seldom make the long trip to town and have no TV. The alternatives are rich and traditional, yet slow to develop–storytelling, dream-sharing, the almost lost art of conversation, massage, homemade music, visiting neighbors.

Income We try to minimize our need for income, thereby lessening our dependence on the cash economy. This enables us to turn more directly to one another and to the Earth for our needs. Learning to simplify, and to generate a small but adequate income at home, is what we’re currently working toward.

Parenting A strenuous and illuminating struggle. Constantly wrestling with the tendency to try to control my children in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Direct parallels to the repression of women, minorities, third world countries, Gaia herself. It goes deeper than exploitation. A hidden, archetypal fear of intimacy, of spontaneity. Strange how what I most deeply fear is what I most deeply desire. Children bring the challenge home.

Waste We have no indoor plumbing, but haven’t yet converted our outhouses to solar composters. Likewise, we turn our kitchen waste into compost, and do some other recycling, but need to do more. The county landfill is filling up, and the alternatives aren’t appealing. Composting is a marvelous dream or sacrament–an outward and visible sign of an inward and interpersonal process. How do we transmute our mental and emotional excrement into nutrients?

Education As Lauren approaches traditional school age, the question of home schooling looms large. Many of the values, objectives and root assumptions of public education feel deeply inappropriate, given the world in which she’s going to be living. Yet the time, energy, clarity, empathy and consistency needed for home education is daunting. Underneath all the problems, however, I sense a wonderful opportunity.

Health This one gets scary at times, as when difficult decisions to forego immunizations or medical insurance come up against a case of whooping cough or the appearance of a breast lump. Basically (and while trying to claim the dream), we mistrust orthodox medicine’s divorce of the human body from the human heart and soul, and its subsequent pre-occupation with the treatment of symptoms. Exploring the healing virtues of local plants, adopting a healthy lifestyle, and learning to listen to the quiet wisdom of the body as it speaks through our dreams and intuitions, offers an indigenous, if not anxiety-free alternative.

Food Our community diet is vegetarian. We grow close to 50% of the food we consume. The desire to make our diet even more indigenous comes from health considerations; from the ethical uneasiness of being tied to modern agricultural practices; and from wanting a more direct connection with the Earth. The resistance comes from the appalling amount of time and energy it takes to grow one’s own food; from our conditioned appetites; and from our misuse of food as a surrogate for affection. Living in community makes these issues more complex, but the goal more attainable.

Time to plant some carrots and potatoes. Warm spring greetings to you all.