Friday, February 29, 2008

The Conscious Bride

For my staff pick this month, I chose The Conscious Bride by Sheryl Nissinen. Because this isn’t your typical wedding book, I wanted to write a little more about what it offers that most other wedding-related books do not. As my own wedding approaches this summer, I have somehow felt that I “should” be perusing bridal books and magazines to gather all the latest tips, advice, and reminders of all the little details that can’t be overlooked. Also, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when you get engaged? It seems that we’re surrounded by numerous experts to guide us smoothly through the engagement and wedding…that is, if you’re only looking for experts on dresses, flowers, and the etiquette of whether to invite your second cousin once-removed. I certainly have consulted these sources, sometimes for a laugh and sometimes looking for and finding genuine good advice. I understand and sympathize with a desire to make your wedding tasteful, aesthetically pleasing, and celebratory in whatever way best fits you, and clearly a degree of some planning is necessary for any event. But in my perusal of wedding “literature” I was searching for some insight beyond the planning and implementation of just this one day.

Nissinen’s book offers a different take on the wedding, which I think is a wonderful complement to any other wedding books or magazines you may be reading. Being a “conscious bride” (“as opposed to unconscious/drunk?” one of my friends joked) is about being aware of, and willing to face, the variety of emotions – both joyous and painful - that can surround the wedding and beginning of marriage. Nissinen views the engagement, wedding, and first year of marriage as a rite of passage, with typical stages and rituals that characterize all rites of passage. A rite of passage, she argues, involves a transformation of identity, as the “initiate” lets go of his/her old way of life and moves into a new role. The three stages of separation, transition, and incorporation of the new self are present in the wedding process, too. And as with any separation and transition from the old to the new, we can be scared, confused, and even sad, which Nissinen argues are all natural and necessary parts of any rite of passage, including a wedding. So often, though, our image of a wedding is one of pure and total happiness, and we worry that if any other emotions are present there is something wrong with us.

Nissinen brings to the surface the confusion and doubt that even the happiest of brides can feel during this lifecycle event, and dispels the notion that feelings of fear and sadness are not okay. Rather she argues that many brides and their family and friends put so much energy into the planning of this one “perfect” day precisely so they don’t have to face the changes and emotions this new stage will bring. Nissinen interviews and gathers stories from many brides reflecting on their experiences. The personal voices and variety in these stories were one of my favorite aspects of the book.

My one big complaint about the book is that while Nissinen moves beyond the material aspects of the wedding to focus on the emotional process -- which I clearly value and think makes the book worth reading -- the wedding template she uses is still of a very traditional nature (an engagement ring, a fancy white dress, and a father “giving away” his daughter). There is little discussion of same-sex or inter-racial and inter-religious marriages. In the introduction, Nissinen makes a disclaimer to this point: “Because what we are talking about is an archetype, it makes no difference what we call this commitment - marriage, sacred union, spiritual partnership; it makes no difference what combination of races, cultures, and sexes enter into this union.... so although the book is largely written for heterosexual couples, the energy that consumes brides applies to all committed unions.”

Despite the problematic and limiting nature of looking mainly at the archetypal heterosexual wedding, I still appreciate the emotional/psychological guidance this book provides. It truly is unique to find a book that acknowledges the full scope of feelings involved in the wedding process. It is rare to see someone completely avoid advice on how to make the external and material aspects of a wedding as “perfect” as possible, and instead advocate improving your inner landscape before and during the wedding. That is why if you’re engaged, or know someone who is, this is an incredibly important wedding book to own. I can only hope that Nissinen, or someone else, will expand on this unique perspective and write another book that more actively includes a diversity of participants and rituals.


Trish Ryan said...

Congratulations on your upcoming wedding! This book sounds like a nice counterpart to the insanity of the bridal world :)

Lance said...

It looks like Sheryl Nissinen now goes by Sheryl Paul (presumably her maiden name, as she's called "Sheryl Paul Nissinen" in some online interviews). Perhaps she, too, became more conscious of herself after getting married...

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