Wedding Planning (and Mental Health) Tips

Last week, a friend who recently got engaged asked me how I remained so calmly attentive while planning our wedding. “Teach me your ways,” she said.

This week, two high-profile celebrities, a designer/business entrepreneur and a chef/TV host who made the world better in their own ways, died by suicide.

So here are some major things I do to help manage my anxiety in a constantly humming, high-stress, at times overwhelming season of life. And if today is hard for you, I hope this list might give you some ideas of things that might help you to feel better.

1. Don’t idolize calm. Not only calm, anyway. I oscillate between feeling calmly capable, impatiently excited, and frantically stressed. If I don’t get enough sleep or food, I’m grumpily pessimistic. Just because you see me in a serene moment, or I’m intentionally projecting calm, doesn’t mean I didn’t spend most of the day in one of the less fun emotions. And such moods are just as real, just as natural, as the cheery ones. You don’t have to be happy all the time just because you’re engaged or your life is going well by the world’s standards. You’re still a person. You’ll allowed to feel all the same emotions you felt before, including frustration, fear, anxiety, sadness, and more. Calm is not the ideal. Healthy is.

2. Build a soothing nightly routine. For me, this is a 3-step ritual. Step 1: Take a shower or bath (more on that below). Step 2: Write down the events of the day in a 5-year journal (1 line a day). In doing so, I’m acknowledging what happened that day but also closing the book on it and setting it aside. Step 3: Read a chapter in the Bible. I was already reading the Psalms when I got engaged, and followed that book with Proverbs and now Isaiah. When I read a chapter, I’m nourishing my soul. I’m engaging my mind with something outside myself, and on Someone who can give perspective on my life and struggles and experiences.

3. Hot baths. It sounds frivolous or stereotypical but for me it’s 1000% true. Hot baths can calm you and help your body unclinch from all the stress you’re carrying around. Showering and taking baths are kind of like intentional sensory deprivation: you’re warm and comfortable, the room isn’t busy or loud, you choose the smells and sensations (bubbles, bath bombs, bath pillows, etc) that you experience. Leave your phone OUTSIDE, preferably where you can’t hear it buzz or ding. Read or listen to music, or listen to nothing. I like to give myself 30 min to an hour to enjoy my bath, so I’m not constantly checking the clock or wondering how much time has gone by.

4. Mystery novels. Usually, I read cheesy romances when I’m stressed. It’s my go-to genre in TV watching, too. But lately, they just aren’t as much fun, and I find my mind wandering to my to-do lists. Mysteries, however, are engaging enough to distract my brain from all the people I need to call, all the emails I need to send, and all the kitchen mixers I need to research. They’re easy to put down and pick back up when I have the time. They also tend to be short, so finishing an audiobook a week and a paperback every two weeks makes me feel accomplished. We may still be struggling to get the guest list under 250 people, but I finished two books last week, and I feel good about that.

5. Post-it notes. I keep 2 colors by my bed. One is for daily goals (pink). The other is for weekly goals (green). I cross things off when I get them done. If I don’t get everything done in a day or a week, I just throw the post it away and write a new one. If something distracts me while I’m journaling or reading before bed, I write it down and move on. It’s a quick aside and I’m not letting myself stay distracted by it. Again, acknowledge, then put aside until a better time to deal with it.

6. Take care of yourself. I get way grumpier if I don’t eat well and on time. I get way more stressed if I’m tired. Take naps. Eat green stuff. Go home early and read. Take a bath and go to bed. Drink a glass of water. Go for a long walk or a run. Play with the dog. Watch a funny movie or a mystery and put your phone out of reach. Sit in the sunshine. Make a hair or massage or pedicure appointment and let yourself enjoy it. When you’re taking care of yourself, you’re better able to deal with the stress and anxiety and pressure. You’ll make better decisions and you’ll handle sudden problems better. Your well-being is more important than any of the details of your wedding day.

7. Take breaks. Take breaks from planning. Take breaks even from talking about planning. At the beginning of our engagement, I intentionally tried to only do and talk wedding stuff with Tyler during the week. Weekends were for fun things like visiting friends, having lunch with family, and watching baseball games. If someone else brought up the wedding, we could talk about it. If Tyler wanted to run an idea past me, he would. But I saved all my plans and phone calls, and as many meetings and requests as possible, for weekdays. Eventually, that model broke down and we had to use the weekends. Now its even more important that we take breaks to focus on other aspects of our lives and relationships. Even just a meal without wedding talk can be incredibly helpful.

8. Let go. Let go of stuff. You’re going to be blending your living space and things and time with someone else. It’s a good idea to simplify, even to cull, so you’ll have more time and space and freedom. I’m currently knee-deep in a great book cull. Yarn will follow. I’ve cleaned out my winter closet and am going to clean out my summer closet as the season wanes. Also, let go of obligations that don’t align with what you want and need right now. That will mean saying no to good and cool things, even though you don’t want to. Letting go also gives you permission to cut out things that were never good for you.

As much as you can, let go of others’ expectations for you. Someone is going to get upset with you for something that you didn’t even see coming. It’s going to be stressful. Handle it in the way that’s best for you as a couple. That might mean placating or acquiescing because family is forever and you don’t want to alienate your friends over something that isn’t a make-or-break deal to you but is to them. It may also mean trusting the people who really love you to keep loving you, even when they disagree with or feel hurt by your decision.

9. This is fun. You get to pick out new clothes! You get to figure our your favorite flowers! You get to plan a big trip with your favorite person! So many old friends reach out to you! And a registry is the biggest, most expensive Christmas list you’ll make your whole life! Put another, less bridal way, you experience good things because of this season of life. Remind yourself of those good things. Make a list if you need to. Remember them especially when things don’t feel good.

10. Marriage plan as well as wedding plan. Try to make good habits now that you can keep up later. In the end, your wedding day is just one day. And so is today. Work on your communication. Make a budget. Cook together. Learn way more about your future in-laws. Learn way more about your parents. Don’t give up your hobbies and other interests. Don’t give up your friends. Make buddies with other engaged and newly married couples. Attend pre-marital counseling. Tyler and I consider counseling to be preventative care for our mental health (especially mine) and pre-marital counseling to be preventative for the health of our marriage.

The Mac and Cheese of the Bible

The psalms are good. A bit simplistic at times. A bit vengeful at times. The world does not exist exactly the way the psalms present it. But it’s full of genuine emotions, familiar phrases, provoking images, and a bit of cheese. It’s comfort food. The psalms work as the main course or as a side. They’re nutritious, especially when paired with good theology and spiced with a sermon series or study. But they aren’t the most nutritious food. And they’re not something you should eat every day, or that you’d really want to eat daily, no matter what your six-year-old self might have professed.

I recently finished reading all 150 psalms, one per day, in order, for 150 days. (Okay, I might not have read every single day, but I stayed consistent and didn’t skip ahead. And I admit to breaking up Psalm 119 over several days. So let’s say it took me 170 days.) It was wonderful. It’d been so long since I’d delved into that book. At times I used resources to aid my reading. At times I paired my daily psalm with other spiritual disciplines. At times, I just read and asked questions of God. For two months or so, I wrote down a single verse every day which confused me and I prayed and meditated on it for the rest of the day.

The book of Psalms is great for establishing discipline. Some parts are hard to understand, but the predominant emotions tend to be pretty obvious and relatable. Some verses are familiar to churchgoers because of songs, hymns, and sheer saturation in church culture. Few psalms are long. Some are downright diminutive.

In high school and my first year or so of college, I read a chapter in Proverbs and a chapter in Psalms every day. And I learned a lot from them. But I kept to this routine for something like five years. I did little reading in other areas of the Bible unless it was part of a formal study or class I had joined. When I felt I needed a challenge, I read more psalms each day. I read the first chapter of Proverbs on the first day of the month, the second chapter on the second, and so on until the last day of the month. If it was the 31st, I would be reading the last chapter of the book. If it was the 28th or 30th, I read all the remaining chapters at once.

I felt like I was ingesting regular, good nutrition, but my leaves were browning in other areas. Not every part of me was thriving. Eventually I learned that even staples can grow stale. Anything can if you eat it every day. Worse still, I had grown so familiar with the verses that I no longer knew how to let them reach me. I felt bored and boring. I haven’t been back to either book in a disciplined way since then.

In the fall, feeling spiritually drained but needing food so I could continue to minister to others, I went back to my old comfort book of the Psalms. I fell in and out of love several times, but I maintained the discipline of daily reading and was back in love with the book as I worked through the final chapters. And once I was done, I felt sad. Adrift. A lost. Where should I go next? I reread a couple of favorite psalms as the month of May approached. On May 1, I read Proverbs 1.

Proverbs, I’ve decided, is like a robust Lucky Charms—sort of like if Honey Nut Cheerios came with marshmallows. The cereal is good. It’s nourishing. But the marshmallows are why you eat it. Sometimes you get a piece of cereal that you know isn’t a marshmallow, but it’s so covered in sugary goodness that you can almost believe it’s one of the pre-shaped gems. You see new value in it. And yet, the more Lucky Charms you eat, the less appealing the cereal tastes. After a while, even when you do get a spoonful with a marshmallow, you’re disappointed by how stale it’s grown. Especially after you’ve had Job and Ecclesiastes, the book’s more complex cousins, it’s hard to feel satisfied with Proverbs.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been praying about what I’ll read next. I’ve kept writing down a verse a day, mostly to help me stay invested and focused as I read.

I’m chosing Isaiah. It’s a long book, which doesn’t particularly appeal to me in this year of transitions, but it’s also one I don’t ever remember reading all the way through. And maybe those 66 chapters will be good for me, will tug me through these busy next few months and provide consistency when my circumstances do not.

I can’t know for sure, of course, what food matches Isaiah. However, when think of the book and its passages that I’m familiar with, I think of a mousse or a pudding. Something seamless that flows and fills. Maybe a huge bowl of yogurt threaded through with bites of fruit. Something half-secret and surprisingly nourishing.

In 66-70 days, I hope I’ll be as in love with the book as I was with Psalms at the end of April.

[If you’re interested in some bacon for your mac and cheese, I highly recommend Sessions with Psalms. Disclaimer: I work for the company that published this study, and I got to work on it during the editorial process. It’s still the best study of Psalms that I’ve ever read.]

Fear and Marriage Planning: Miscarriage

Trigger warning: discussion of miscarriage (non-specific, non-graphic)

Over the next few months, I plan to write about lots of wonderful parts of wedding and marriage planning. (I’m ridiculously excited to register for our Christmas stockings, for instance.) However, I feel like there’s a lot of that in the world. And it isn’t the whole truth of my experience. There’s plenty of fear as well.

I’m an anxious person. I’ve had social anxiety all my life, but I haven’t fully understood the degree to which a more general anxiety has influenced my life until recently. I don’t have generalized anxiety disorder; however, anxiety is a low-level but persistent factor in my life. My mother—I’ve always known and she’s always admitted—is a worrier. But worrying, I believed while growing up, was learned. Learned things could be unlearned, even if my shyness could not. I prayed and unlearned as best I could, but anxiety remained.

And over the course of my life, I’ve developed a number of coping mechanisms and emergency protocols to help me through situations that trigger my anxiety. A big one is managing my expectations. But lately, I’ve noticed myself trying to manage Tyler’s too.

A couple of weekends ago, Tyler and I traveled up to Atlanta to visit my best friend/maid of honor and to go to a Braves game. At some point on the drive, as we were talking about the day, I recalled how excited my bestie’s mom had been that we were thinking of going on a cruise for our honeymoon (she goes on at least 2-3 cruises every year). I hadn’t expected her exuberant reaction. Tyler agreed, saying that’s how his mom will react “when she finds out you’re pregnant.”

Immediately, anxiety gripped my heart with both hands.

Tyler was imagining a scene in the future—real to him, though not yet realized—when I will be pregnant, we will tell his family, and his mom will scream with excitement.

To Tyler, that scene is not a possibility but an expectation.

At least, that’s what I took from his words. We’ve since talked about it and he assures me both that he’s aware of the risks and possibilities and isn’t pretending they can’t apply to us. But at the time, I didn’t know that.

I didn’t want to squash his hope or make him think I don’t hope for the same, but it’s just a hope in me, not a foregone conclusion. Relationships, marriage, good health, and pregnancy are generally accepted as will-happen situations with no complications or problems. We all I know there is a possibility that these dreams might not pan out the way we have been led to expect, but we generally don’t think other people’s tragedies and pains will happen to us. In the filing cabinet of coping strategies, in the emergency protocols drawer, is a folder labeled, “Miscarriage.”

I’ve written before about how, growing up, I kept putting off my disappointing about not being in a relationship, saying it’ll happen by this age, then this later age, until I realized I was building myself up for a disappointment so profound, so capable of embittering me, that it wasn’t healthy to defer hope any longer. I wouldn’t let myself set another relationship due date. I faced the reality of perpetual singleness. I made lists of the great things about it. I read stories of women—single, widowed, or divorced—who built adventurous, generous lives that I could admire. I grieved what I desperately wanted but may never have. I prayed and tried to choose, each day, to accept my current state and whatever future might be mine, especially the ones I found most painful and disappointing to imagine.

In Tyler’s truck that afternoon, he imagined telling his parents, experiencing his mom’s joy. I imagined Tyler having to deliver the bad news, his mom’s disappointment, how she’d look at me the next time she saw me. I imagined her, some weeks or months later, asking when we were going to try again. And if not her, than another well meaning, loving person in our lives.

Tyler’s family is large and close and many of them live nearby. Good news spreads through them like a wave and bad like fire. I imagine carrying everyone’s disappointments as well as my grief and Tyler’s. A miscarriage happens inside you; it brings guilt, a sense of betrayal. I would take the weight of everyone else’s disappointments and my body’s failures on myself. It’s a weight I’m terrified of, and everyone’s knowing would add elephants to it.

I feel horrible for being afraid of something that I have no actual evidence will occur and that we won’t be ready to pursue for years, anyway. So many struggle with infertility, miscarriage, and child loss now. Perpetually.

In Laura Turner’s essay “Missing Hope: A Trio of Miscarriages, and What Happened After,” she writes, they don’t tell you that fear, to reverse a phrase from C.S. Lewis, will feel so like grief, and so you begin to mourn what you have not yet lost, because mourning prematurely is the only way to protect yourself from hope.

“I know there isn’t a family history or anything,” I told Tyler as the stadium grew large before us. “But miscarriages are so common. I’m not going to want to tell anyone for…” we hit a bump and I stayed in the air an extra moment, wondering how many weeks would be safe enough, conservative enough, “a good long while.”

I didn’t want to bring the day’s mood down any further, so I didn’t explain. Tyler didn’t ask questions. He just said okay. My anxiety eased, and we had a really good day.

The News Makes it Hard to Sleep

When I’ve been depressed and anxious, I’ve disciplined myself not to look at the news or get online an hour before I go to bed or an hour after I get up.

I wish I’d been more disciplined last night. I was curious if there were any new pictures of Blair Braverman’s sled dog puppies and ended up discovering, among other things, that a thirteen-year old black boy in Houston was kidnapped by a group of white 17-18 year olds as he was getting off the bus from school, and taken to a cabin filled with weapons. He’s a baby. His name is Zavion. And he barely escaped torture and lynching.

I couldn’t sleep for a while. I don’t understand what my country has become, how so many people think that the president is anything but a lying, corrupt, incompetent white supremacist. Calling Latinx people “animals” (don’t make the MS-13 excuse; humans are humans) is a deliberate dehumanization tactic often seen employed to prepare the way for gross human rights violations, like property theft, enslavement, abuse, and genocide.

When faced with innocents being killed, as in Gaza, I see a lot of people taking the cue of the US ambassador to the UN, who walked out of meeting rather than listen to the Palestinian ambassador speak. The act was supremely disrespectful and undiplomatic. Much like the deliberately provocative decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem or to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Not being trustworthy, consistent, or respectful on the world’s stage is a bad look for a country that loves carrying its bully stick around, policing the world, threatening dictators, and taking credit for other countries’ accomplishments. (Lest we think calling Kim Jong Un names on Twitter is a savvy political move.)

The news is flooded with so many stories of terrible things happening to innocent people because of corrupt, immoral, distinctly un-Christlike political leadership. So many people feel that their worst inclinations are justified by the racist, ablest, homophobic, misogynistic, greedy language and acts of these politicians. And those people act on those inclinations. They rant at people speaking another language or call the police to have brown and black people removed from the areas they want for themselves.

Anyone who cannot accept that someone is not exactly the same as them is dangerous. Zavion knows that. Palestinians know that. A restaurant full of people in Manhattan know that. So do two men in a coffee shop in Philadelphia. As do school after school full of children.

I must constantly remind myself that, as a Christian, I am to be a person of hope. I struggle to understand how Christians around me can extend such beautiful, selfless love and compassion to their friends and neighbors but offer venom to people who don’t look or identify as they do. I struggle to comprehend how Christians, specifically, voted for people who are known pedophiles and harassers and literal Nazis merely because they belong to the political party that Billy Graham insisted was the Christian one.

I’m white and abled and heterosexual and a Protestant Christian. My existence isn’t inherently politicized in the way that, for example, a disabled queer Muslim person’s is. I can wear a symbol of my faith and not have to worry about being attacked or harassed because of it. I don’t think it’s radical to want everyone to be able to wear a symbol of their faith with the same security. I won’t be fired for my sexual orientation or physical abilities, and I want everyone else to be protected in the same way. Marginalized people being protected doesn’t mean I, as a non-marginalized person, lose any protection. It doesn’t mean, as I’ve heard other Christians—even ministers—argue, that Christians will be persecuted if homosexual or Muslim people are not oppressed. The standard can be dignity and security for everyone. Not because of what they can contribute to the world, but because they are human. And all humans, so says the Bible in Genesis 1:27, are made in God’s image.

Hatred and apathy are both un-Christlike. Despair is understandable (thank you, Jeremiah and Job), but Christians are called to hope (thank you, Naomi and David). These days, it’s hard to find the balance between taking care of my mental health and being informed of the instances of rising bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hatred. Because of my privilege, I can choose apathy and my life won’t be greatly affected in the short term. But I have seen this pattern of propaganda, government-disseminated lies, dehumanization, and society-accepted abuse before in my political science and history studies. And I know that widespread abuse and oppression, even genocide, can happen anywhere. Even here. And it is ungodly. It is unconscionable. It should keep me up at night.

These days, I’m making a concerted effort to learn about communities in the United States that I don’t belong to. Through educating myself, I hope to better understand, respect, and support people who don’t look like me or identify as I do, and who are oppressed for it. God has shown us mortals what God wants of us: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). Self-education is one way to obey all three commands. Lately, a favorite resource has been W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America.

I’m also leaning on my word for the year: believe. I believe that people will have verbal, active compassion for others. I believe God is with those in pain. I believe I can change one person’s mind. I believe I can be generous or brave, for God’s glory, to make another person’s life a little better. I believe that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (MLK, Theodore Parker).

The Dress

Wedding dress shopping is not like it is on Say Yes to the Dress. Yes, you do try on a few dresses at a time and you have a dedicated attendant. But you can find a gorgeous dress under $5000 and the alterations department doesn’t need at least 5 months to tailor it to you. The store and trying on spaces are nice, but everything isn’t opulent. You don’t have a private viewing room or plush couches for your family and friends to rest on.

Trying on wedding dresses, at least at the David’s Bridal I visited one Saturday in April, is crowded and not really private at all. The dressing rooms are small, white boxes without furniture or a mirror and the remaining space is half taken up by the skirts of the dresses hanging above your head. You can hear the other future brides bumping into the walls on either side of you, the clip of metal on metal as they hang up or take down their heavy dresses. In my case, I needed my attendant Kim inside the room as well to help me in and out of each dress. I fought the skirts into the corners just so she would have a place to stand after she closed the door.

When you come out in your first dress, the platforms are so crowded that the only space where you can reliably see yourself is in the mirrored door of the dressing room you just came out of. Attendants angle the doors of the dressing rooms behind you to help you see the back of the dress. You’re looking in between other future brides, flower girls, bridesmaids, various motherly persons, and fleet-footed attendants.

The benefit to the crowds is that it makes for a very encouraging environment, with strangers complimenting you and offering to help flare you train or take photos. But it’s far from private and can feel visually and audibly overwhelming.

Before my maid of honor Kayla and I went dress shopping, I very intentionally avoided Say Yes to the Dress, bridal magazines, and the wedding dress section of Pinterest. I didn’t want my head so full of the images I’d seen that I couldn’t concentrate on what was right in front of me and didn’t want to fall in love with something I couldn’t afford. That is similar to an old shopping rule of mine: never try on something you can’t afford.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about how I found my dress.

My amazing attendant Kim looked like River Song, with curly dirty blonde hair that hung loose down her back. She wore all black, like all the attendants, and was about 7 months pregnant. I mention this because she only worked for 4 hours at a time once a week (she couldn’t stand up longer than that) but still had incredible knowledge of the store and inventory.

Kayla and I had looked around before my 12:30 appointment (yes, you really need to make an appointment) to get an idea of what I liked, and showed Kim my favorites. She pulled 4 of them and I tried them on in order of least skirt pouf to greatest.

I’ve never been one of those women who wants to feel like a princess, but I have a thorough imagination and these were the nicest, royal-est dresses I’d ever tried on. One was a fit and flare corset dress that felt like it would be owned by a Russian countess. Lace overlay the entire dress, only splitting on one hip to reveal the tulle underneath. I liked how I looked it in but I’d been hesitant to get a corset because it takes so long to get in and out of. I’d like my wedding day to go smoothly, and that requires functionality. I’ve also always been of the opinion that lace is rather dowdy. This dress looked beautiful, but it better suited another era, and another color. I imagined the countess who’d wear it would have had it made in exquisite red and gold, a matching kokoshnik, the shape of which would indicate where in Russia she’d been born.

The other dress I really liked in that first batch was a ballgown with a sweetheart neckline and a drop waist covered in exquisite beadwork. It gave my waist great shape and made me feel like I could confidently descend a staircase, Cinderella style. It also kind of felt like I had been squeezed into a very large bangle: the bodice didn’t give at all. And if this was Cinderella’s dress, I can see why she’d lose a shoe by midnight. The skirt was unwieldy and that stiff bodice would make breathing harder and harder as the hours, and dances and songs, ticked by.

Because Kim had listened carefully to what I noticed and liked about the previous dresses, for the next batch of dresses she focused on heavy detailing that would give me good shape. Among these was an a-line dress so lacy and beautiful that it felt like a trick. This one I could imagine looking great on camera in a Hallmark movie (one of the higher budget ones, probably), with the gorgeous lace loops at the bottom. But it was much too long, so those loops would have to be detached and moved up to hem it. We’d discovered that both ivory or soft white dresses looked great with my skin tone (which Kayla said was “kind of unfair, frankly”) but here we discovered my nemesis: blush. The pale, dusty pink made my skin look really red. The lace at the sweetheart neckline tickled the tender undersides of my arms, not in a good way.

The last dress I tried on was a “trust me” dress. It was mermaid cut, which I’d told Kim I didn’t want, but it had a lot of great beadwork and would show my shape, and Kim had a good feeling about it. The other dresses felt like dressing up to play a role, but this one felt like putting on something that was already mine. I came out to “Ohs” from Kayla and the various attendants, brides, and their mothers nearby, which was a good start. Kayla started tearing up, which was even better. Looking at myself in the mirror, I felt excited. I instantly knew how I wanted my hair and started holding sections up to try to get a similar effect. I remembered the lime green mermaid dress I’d worn to junior prom, the Princess Jasmine bell I’d yearned for at a shop in Disney World when I was eight. Maybe those two good memories were partly why this dress felt so familiar. Kim pulled a sash from a nearby rack and, drawing it over my waist, the dress felt complete. It felt like me. I wasn’t imagining who would wear this dress; I knew that I would.

Having a bride try on a veil is a secret trick employed by Say Yes to the Dress attendants to making waffling brides say yes, already, but I didn’t want to be that person. I didn’t want to be convinced by a square of tulle. But I wanted to see what I’d look like on my wedding day. I was still working up to asking for a veil when Kayla suggested it. And because she had, I felt relieved, like what I wanted was valid. Which is why she’s my maid of honor and best friend: she helps me trust myself.

While Kim searched for a veil and hair comb, I trotted around on the raised platform, swooshing the skirt and kicking the train out of the way, testing my range of movement, and picturing Tyler’s face when he saw me in it. When Kim tucked the veil into my hair, Kayla really did start crying, though she would call it “a little misting.” The veil was the perfect length, embroidered with beads in a similar style to my dress. It cupped my shoulders, which I hadn’t realized I’d wanted until that moment. And, looking at the full effect in the mirror, I understood exactly where all those wedding dress and veil clichés come from.

During Say Yes to the Dress’s heyday, I watched marathons while walking or jogging on my mom’s treadmill. The visuals were fun and engaging, and I didn’t need to hear the episode to follow along (that treadmill is ridiculously loud). I observed many beautiful shapes and variations of dresses, many troubled familial dynamics, many women who knew what they wanted but were afraid or unable to claim it. One evening, while watching an episode in the living room with my mom, I told her I felt overwhelmed by all the options. How would I be ever able to pick a dress? I tend to make quick decisions about what I like and don’t like, even if I had no opinion the moment before a choice was put to me, but I’m also terrified of making the wrong decision. I worried that that the uncertain, afraid part of me would render me incapable of choosing. I didn’t voice that I was afraid I’d never have the opportunity to choose a wedding dress because I feared, with exactly one short-lived relationship under my belt, that I would never marry.

Mom, however, had no such concerns.

“You will,” she assured me. “You’ll know when it’s the right dress just like you’ll know when it’s the right guy.” I felt skeptical, asked how I’d know, and didn’t much appreciate Mom’s, “You just will.” But my blessed, compassionate, funny mother knows me. And she was right. She knew it when I called that April Saturday, gushing about the dress we’d found and asking her if she could come up to see it with me when she and my dad came to visit in a couple of weekends. And, because she knows me, knows how I make decisions, knows about my under-budget-to-try-on rule, and knows I like to have a choice made and over with quickly, she and my dad encouraged me to go ahead and buy it.

TV brides exclaim their yes to their wedding dress, their eyes often shifting self-consciously at that last moment, though they can rarely hold in their smiles, and everyone claps and cheers. I suspected this was done up for the cameras, but I did feel like there should be some tradition, some spell or phrasing, to indicate that I’d made my final decision. If my attendant had asked me if I was saying yes to the dress, I would have willingly fallen into the script. However, David’s Bridal has a different tradition. When you’ve decided, your attendant brings you a big gold bell with a black handle and you make 2 wishes, one for your wedding day and one for your future. Then you ring the bell and everyone in that loud, crowded, glittering little heart stops what their doing to clap and cheer for you. It’s a moment just about you. The loved ones you brought and the strangers around you celebrate the choices you’ve made to get you to this moment and the future you’re planning.

I think that’s a much better tradition.

Read about The Ring here.

6 Factors to Being a Copyeditor

Last week before Bible study, one of the leaders asked everyone to share an interesting fact that “won’t knock anyone’s socks off”. I could make a joke about mediocrity in contemporary church culture, but I shall refrain.

Unfortunately, the tidbit I shared missed the mark: There are hyphens, as I’m sure you know, but there are also two kinds of dashes.

That, apparently, was sock-knocking-off material. And although I hadn’t intended to explain the differences, their reactions necessitated the simplest explanation I could give. (And if you’re dying of curiosity, I’ve included this riveting information at the bottom of this post.)

Which reminded me how unusual the daily details of the publishing world are for most people.

So here are 6 things I’ve learned are important to being a copyeditor.

1. Re-learn to read.
When people read, we’re actually reading each word as a whole. That’s how we can read those those emails and Tumblr posts where evere vewel hes been repleced weth e sengle letter. It’s also how we can read something (like a blog post) a dozen times and not notice a typo. It’s why spelling can be difficult: vacuum and vaccum look quite similar, so conjuring up the image of the correctly spelled word can be hard. Copyeditors must learn to slow down and read not word by word, but letter by letter. We must re-learn to sound out words to help ensure that the spine text says Message to the Gentiles, not Message to the Genitals (yes, that really did happen).

2. You’re going to miss things.
Welcome to humanity, my friend! You might be great at spotting italicized periods that should be in regular font, hyphens that should be en dashes, or too many spaces between words. You might excel at correcting citations or semi-colon usage. But you can’t be excellent at everything. You can’t spot every mistake, even in the areas you’re particularly skilled in. But that’s okay. You’re one cog in the production wheel. Even if the buck stops with you for a particular error, rightly or wrongly, lots of other eyes examined the same material. You’re looking for so many details, it is impossible to find and correct everything.

3. Spell check is your friend, but not your best friend.
As you saw in the above example (Gentiles/Genitals), some mistakes aren’t ones spell check is going to catch because, technically, your typo is a correctly spelled word. Or maybe the word you’re looking at would show up with a red squiggle even if were spelled correctly. In this business, you find yourself second-guessing the spelling of proper names you’ve always been able to spell or that you see often. You carefully compare letters in words like “postexilic” and names like “Ahasuerus”. You know that someone before you might have misspelled that word every single time, or spelled it correctly every time save one. Spell check can definitely help with that, but it’s an algorithm and can only act that way. Still, you’ll also be grateful when spell check alerts you to some glaring mistake, like two O’s in “hope”. The trick is to focus your attention where there isn’t a safety net like spell check, but to remember that the net has holes.

4. You can’t let it affect you.
You’re a professional. You have to keep reading. You may have just read the most beautiful account of a dog’s sacrificial death that’s ever been penned, but you can’t cry over it for the rest of the afternoon. You may have read a deeply convicting devotion, but you can’t stop and dwell on it for half an hour. You have work to do. You have to keep going. You have deadlines and a duty to remain professional. You can’t read a novel like a novel; if you do, you’ll be reading, not copyediting. You can’t read a piece like a consumer, you’re a staffer. Wipe your eyes, take a picture of the question that got you thinking, and move on. The trouble with training yourself in this way is letting things affect you when you’re not on the clock. I’ve walled off part of myself to help me get my work done, and it’s hard not to sit behind the same wall when I’m reading for pleasure, not errors.

5. Reading is a tiny bit ruined.
It’s still fun, of course. But when you’re paid to read in high volume and pick the material apart, it’s hard to slow down and enjoy without the same urges to be critical. It can be hard to let yourself be influenced by what you’re reading. I love to read fiction, particularly YA and mysteries, and am so fortunate that I work in an entirely different genre. It helps separate the work and personal reading in my brain. But I still find myself bothered by a typo or bad line break in my personal reading until I turn the page. I’ve even taken a pencil to my books to mark the problem. I regularly do this with the church bulletin and sermon notes, too. The mistakes bother me until I mark them, but once done my brain can relax and focus.

6. Keep Sharpening Your Skills.
Grammar is boring, even to me. But it’s necessary. Not only to catch errors, but to be able to communicate your changes, or questions, to other editors. (And to know what to Google when you aren’t sure.) The same principle applies to the house stylebook. Basically, this just means that the company you work for has already figured out all the subjective stuff about how all the projects should look—from font size and style to whether to abbreviate books of the Bible and what pronouns, if any, you should use for God. The more you learn by heart, the less you’ll have to look up. Repetition will dull your mind over time, so make an effort to keep learning, and re-learning, as you go.

***

Hyphen = connect words or verses in the Bible
En Dash = indicate a span, like a span of time or chapters of the Bible
Em Dash = set aside a phrase in a similar way to how commas or parentheses might

Spring Reading Recap

Hello dear readers,

Work is really busy, personal life is really busy, and I’m physically tired and emotionally drained. So this week, I’m going to tell you about some of the best books I’ve read this spring.

I’m trying to stress read instead of stress eat, which has significantly contributed to my reading 19 books so far this year. I’ve found that mysteries are most effective at giving my brain a break from wedding details, interpersonal concerns, work problems, and everything else I’m stressed about these days. I keep a book in progress on my phone, on audiobook for my various commutes, and a paperback in my purse. If I get to Tyler’s ten minutes before he does: paperback. If I have to drive downtown for another vendor meeting: audiobook. If Word crashes my work computer for the third time in an hour and has to be rebooted again: eBook.

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
The Sound of Glass by Karen White

Perveen Mistry of The Widows of Malabar Hill, set in 19020s Bombay, is my favorite new heroine. I’d preorder the sequel right now if possible. The Sound of Glass was actually a gift to my mom for her birthday, since she’s long preferred mysteries and this one is set in our hometown. She loved it so much, she sent it back with me to read, too, and now I have two more White mysteries waiting on my shelf.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Prior to a failed attempt last November to draft a mystery, I hadn’t read much in this genre. I’d only read two Christie novels before, both in the past two years, and have been wanting to work through her best known and best loved books. I haven’t even seen the TV shows or movie adaptations, so it’s all gloriously new territory for me. In particular, I like to listen to Christie’s works on audiobook so I get to hear the great accents. Murder at the Vicarage is my first with Miss Marple. Death on the Nile is my second with Poirot.

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole
If the Dress Fits by Carla de Guzman

One of my favorite genres has long been romance. The structure of romance books are familiar and predictable (which is not to say that the stories are). I like seeing how characters are transformed for the better by loving someone else. Alyssa Cole is hardly a new author, but she is to me. I’ve had this book, about a Union spy during the Civil War, since it came out last year and am kicking myself for waiting so long to read it. I bought If the Dress Fits on eBook after I saw that I’d missed a big read-along and discussion of it through WOC in Romance. I could tell from everyone’s reactions that I would adore its sweetness and its heroine, and boy-howdy have I.

The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins
The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace

When I can’t write prose, I write poetry. When I can’t read novels, I read poetry. When prose weighs me down, poetry is also a good palate cleanser. I’ve had Lovelace’s first collection for ages, widely touted on the bookish circles I run in on Twitter. I bought The Rain in Portugal on a whim during a recent Barnes & Noble trip. Billy Collins is critically touted and widely published, but I discovered him when I noticed the cover and opened to a poem that spoke to me in a familiar way. Lovelace’s follow-up collection, The Witch Doesn’t Burn in this One, is already on my shelf.

Into the Woods

Last weekend my parents visited and Mom and I talked about my recent blog post “Wilderness.” She found my take on wilderness surprising because (1) as a little girl she would rather be alone in the woods than anywhere else, and frequently was, and (2) I’ve done a ton of things that would terrify her to do, like flying alone to other countries and driving long distances by myself.

I asked her if I’d ever shown her the musical Into the Woods. (I haven’t. We’re going to change that very soon.)

In the musical, I explained, The Woods are scary, but all the characters have to enter the woods in order to obtain what they most want. There’s no other way for Red Hiding Hood to reach her ill grandmother. Cinderella’s stepmother won’t allow her to attend the kind’s festival, so she must visit her mother’s grave in the woods, hoping her mother will provide the means for her to attend the ball in secret. Jack must sell the dry milk cow at the next village, through the woods, so he and his mother won’t starve. The baker and his wife want to have a child more than anything, but the witch next door cursed the family a generation ago, so they must go to the woods and procure the items they need to break the curse. (Interestingly, the only person who doesn’t go into the woods for what they want is the Baker’s father, who went into the witch’s garden instead and was cursed for it. Even the lady giant descends the beanstalk and goes into the woods to seek revenge.)

Moreover, each character views the woods differently. To Cinderella, it’s a place of hidden safety, where she can escape her stepmother and sisters, mourn her mother, and later escape to and from the palace unseen. Red Riding Hood takes a familiar route and isn’t afraid, but the woods are not to be explored. To the Bakers, it’s unfamiliar and frightening, but holds possibilities for familial and personal growth. For Jack, it’s just a long path he doesn’t want to travel; if he’s aware of the dangers, he doesn’t heed them.

At times, particularly in the second act, we see that choices made in the woods can be drastically different from what the characters would do in other circumstances. The woods can make us desperate, daring, compassionate, petty, or wise.

“It’s like that,” I explained to my mom. “I have to go into the woods to do the things that I want and that I know will be good for me.” Like those trips I took. Like the new Bible study Tyler and I are attending. Like marriage.

Uncertainty and anxiety is necessary. I can lessen but not escape it. In order for me to live the life I want, I have to go through the woods.

Airports have become a sort of metaphor for the woods for me. They can be confusing, frustrating, labyrinthine, but I’ve traveled enough that I have a strong sense of how airports and flying work. Even if I’ve never been to a certain airport before, I basically know what needs to happen, how to get where I need to go, and how to gain information and supplies (bottles of water and Pringles, mostly). I’ve even earned some hacks/tips/tricks to make the experience of flying better (buy nothing until you’re through security; check the boards before you start walking down your terminal, there might not be another one and the gate might have changed).

I was once on a mission trip to a snowy cabin in the woods outside Pittsburgh and it was a personal emotional disaster.

A small sister church in Pittsburgh was holding a women’s retreat; our team’s purpose was to supply everything they needed, from food to teaching to fresh linens, so they could all rest, feel renewed, and build relationships with one another. We were to work in the background, unobtrusive but helpful, caring for their needs. I believed in the purpose of what we were doing and I was excited to be a part of it.

I was the only unmarried woman on the all-woman team, and also the only one without at least one child. Almost all my team members knew each other from before the trip through their children. And, they almost exclusively talked about motherhood-related subjects. For the entire weekend.

Like, the first night, they talked about breast feeding around the kitchen island while we were preparing dessert and for the next morning’s breakfast. For two hours. An hour and a half into it, the leader of the group, who is the only person I had a relationship with prior to that weekend, realized the conversation was isolating me. She exclaimed, “Oh, Katie! I’m sorry. This isn’t something you can really contribute to, is it?” There were exclamations of “Oh, Katie!” and “Oh no!” from around the island. Like they’d forgotten I existed. Or that silence isn’t my natural state.

I admitted, almost crying but smiling, that no. It wasn’t something I could contribute to. And then they continued to talk about breast feeding for another half hour. Someone had noticed, as I’d desperately wished, but the group hadn’t cared enough to stop isolating me and the leader didn’t do anything further to correct the problem. I finally fled the kitchen so I could sob in the basement bathroom, alone, while cleaning it.

The whole weekend was like that, in that big cabin in the Pennsylvania woods. I felt just as miserable, isolated, and unwanted as when I was a very young child in school. I prayed fervently for strength and humility and a good perspective. I went to retreat attendees and offered to hold their babies during sessions and while they ate, offered to clean rooms and wash dishes, whatever could think of to stay busy.

I tried to have discussions with my group members about the Bible (we were all Christians after all), travel, health, siblings, anything I could think of. And I did manage to draw a few of them into those discussions. They were nice people. But they were thoughtless and self-centered and hurtful. I even learned all the names of all their children, wrote them down, and prayed for each child every night. But I was still miserable and, emotionally and spiritually, felt my threads unspooling as the weekend went on. A few hours before we left town, while out souvenir shopping, the entire group was ooo-ing and aww-ing in a kitchen store. I walked up and down every aisle, feigned interested for about thirty seconds in the mixer 6 of the 8 women were drooling over, and finally stood in the back of the shop watching the kitten bowl until they were ready to leave.

I’d given up watching the Super Bowl with my friends, a long weekend, plus taken an additional day off work, for this. Our service was over, my hands were raw from washing dishes, I was cold. I wasn’t enjoying the snow anymore, even. I didn’t want a single souvenir. And I wasn’t interested in being around these women one more moment. I wanted to be home.

Finally, finally, we reached the airport.

As we walked through the sliding glass doors, I felt myself relax. I scanned the terminal, located the sign we needed, and headed in that direction. The others were still standing in a knot behind me, trying to get their bearings. I turned and called to them, pointing at the sign to the Delta counter, but I didn’t wait for them. Up the escalator, across the terminal, to the kiosks. I was done catering to them and didn’t call them again. But they followed, and after checking in and sending my bag up the conveyor belt, I few breaths, smiled, and helped the others check in.

I was still fighting bitterness at their thoughtlessness, but I no longer needed to be part of this group. I knew where I was and where I was going. Despite never having flown out of that airport before, I was back in the woods. Scary and disorienting for them, familiar and empowering for me. I felt like myself again: confident, capable, kind.

Going into the woods is the means to gaining what you most want. In bad experiences, the woods can provide safe passage home. You don’t have to go through the woods in life, but To get the thing / That makes it worth / The journeying, the woods really are the only option. And the more you enter the woods, the more familiar they are.

Into the wood, you have to grope,
But that’s the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.
Into the woods, each time you go
There’s more to learn of what you know.…
Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Then out of the woods—
And happy ever after!
(I wish!)

The Beach

I grew up 45 minutes from the beach on the marsh of the Broad River. Every Saturday from March-October for most of my childhood, Mom would pack sandwiches and Cokes and Little Debbies into a cooler and Dad would take my brother and I out in his 12’ aluminum johnboat for the day. We’d come back in time for dinner, giving my stay-at-home mom some much needed hours of quiet and the three of us some much needed time together. Once or twice a summer, we’d stand in the dining room while Mom slathered us with sun screen, fish out our sandals and plastic pales, load up another packed cooler, and head to the beach.

I was my mom’s sun baby. I could tan sitting by a sunny window and my hair was always bleached blonde by the sun. I loved being outdoors, loved the boat, and loved the beach and ocean. Although not a very strong swimmer, I knew my limits and important coastal skills like how to escape rip currents (swim parallel to the shore until you swim outside the current’s grasp, then swim back in; otherwise, you’ll tire yourself out trying to swim toward shore against the rip current and you’ll drown), and what to do about jellyfish stings (sprinkle meat tenderizer directly on the wound; DO NOT RINSE WITH WATER).

We usually parked on the north end of Hunting Island, a SC state park, and visited the light house before finding a good spot on the beach away from most of the crowds. As a state park, Hunting Island has no restaurants and only two stores on the island, one selling t-shirts and ice cream bars by the light house, the other selling a wider variety of those things, plus basic gas station fare, by the campground on the island’s far northern end. We took school trips to the island, looked for the alligator in the pond covered with algae by the welcome center, took photography exhibitions, and sometimes found really interesting birds or sand dollars or horseshoe crabs on the sand.

The last time I went to Hunting Island’s beach for the day—which is to say for the sake of the beach, not to show it to a friend or my brother’s girlfriend—I was in high school. Three friends and I packed up our towels and water bottles and books and sunglasses. We found a fairly barren stretch of sand on the southern end of the island near the old fishing pier. We took long walks and read and hung out and baked in the sun because, as we learned the painful way, the surf was full of jellyfish.

My best friend screamed, standing where the waves break, then screamed again, more insistent and shrilled, falling forward. We couldn’t see any danger—the water was too shallow for her to be struggling to swim or to have been attacked by a shark. Was it a horseshoe crab? Had she stepped on a conk shell? Got snipped by a crab or sting ray? We ran to her, finding big blisters on the back of her calf and right hand, which she’d used to pull the jellyfish off when, after jumping away and screaming, the waves had pushed it back into her.

“Pee on it!” She ordered as we helped her back to our towels. A friend grabbed her water bottle, twisted off the cap, and had begun to pour it on the stings before I could stop her. After another short scream and my pulling the bottle away from our friend, she pleaded, “I’m serious. It hurts so bad! I need one of you to pee on it! Please! Please!”

We hadn’t had trouble with jellyfish in so long that I’d taken my mom’s meat tenderizer out of my beach bag.

A man at the nearest catch of towels had seen the whole thing and dug out his family’s bottle, saving us all from the inevitable urination. I’d already ordered it in my mind. I was the only one who would be willing to do the deed, so the other two would have to hold towels up into a blind in the woods and my best friend would have to kneel or lay down in the brush. It would have been terrible, but stings are agonizing and this one was bad.

The rest of the afternoon, we stayed out of the water, and the man with the tenderizer went up and down our stretch of beach tending to the blistering pain of those who had been stung. Finally, no one was in the water. We roasted instead, knowing the relief of the water would bring more stings.

I told Tyler this story several weekends ago when I brought him to Hunting Island for the first time. We’d had lunch with my parents that morning, had done a little shopping downtown, then my parents had some errands to run and I’d really wanted to take Tyler out to the beach. It was March and windy and growing cloudy, so we packed bottles of water and sunglasses and windbreakers. We stopped by the welcome center to see the gator in her algae-covered pond. I gave Tyler the wrong directions, taking us to the southern end of the island instead of the northern end by the light house. But the island isn’t all that big, so we got to the sand and started walking north.

The ocean is trying to split the island. That’s one of the reasons why the rip currents can be so bad. It’s also why, north of the lighthouse, trees are lying in the waves and on the beach, dying, the bark stripped away by the salt, leaving white trunks and black branches. It looks like an art exhibit. On high tide, beachgoers in that area have to lay their blankets in the tree line and wade amongst the branches, being careful not to trip or let the waves push them into wood that will break skin. The rest of the island has been expanded with thousands of tons of sand over the years, and hurricanes several years in a row have washed much of it away.

So as we walked north and I told my story of the last time I’d been to the southern end of the island, Tyler asked if any of it looked familiar. “No,” I told him. “Not really. The shore was at least a hundred yards that way the last time I spent any time here,” I said, pointing into the ocean. But we kept walking, passed the lighthouse that had been erected in the mid-1800s after the ocean took the original brick lighthouse, the remains of which are more than a mile off shore.

When we reached the creek, I explained to Tyler how, on warm, sunny days, hundreds of fiddler crabs flee your feet as you walk. Because it was cool and overcast, I pointed to their holes in the pluff mud. Tyler asked if I wanted to walk up the creek, but I explained that it’s brackish and swampy and mostly just a mosquito hole. We walked on until we reached the campground store. The nearest bathrooms had been badly damaged in Matthew, last October’s hurricane, and hadn’t yet been restored or torn down, so we trekked inland until we found one. Then we headed south again, walking into the wind, making my ears cold and my nose run.

The lighthouse was closed by this point, so we walked around its base, looking at the brick foundation of the destroyed innkeepers’ house with some fellow tourists. We continued, talking and tell stories. I found a plant unique to the sea islands that we had a lot of at my house growing up, but that I hadn’t seen in years. It looks like a green lilypad on a stem and gross in slightly sandy soil near the water. I picked one, intending to weave it into my braid as we walked, but was distracted by the big, unbroken shells and the dogs walking with their owners, and Tyler’s hand in mine.

At one point, Tyler suggested that we head up to the treeline to look in the woods. It seemed kind of weird, but I thought he just wanted to be adventurous. When we got to the top of the rise, we found dead trees laying side by side for hundreds of feet before us and to either side. Some had been blown down from the roots in Hurricane Matthew. The ones that remained had been snapped off 20-30 feet up and the tops lay beside the fallen. They were utterly dead, many stripped of bark and white. It looked like a dead tree cemetery.

“Well, this is kind of depressing,” Tyler said.

“Yeah,” I answered, “But it’s kind of cool, too,” and tromped off into the trees, reminding Tyler to be careful of snakes, especially poisonous copperheads. “They should still be hibernating,” I told him, “but just in case.”

After a few minutes, after Tyler wiped the snot from beneath my nose and kissed me (evidence of love if there ever was any), we headed back to the beach and continued walking.

The next time Tyler wanted to look at an area with downed trees, I didn’t think anything about it. I jumped onto the smooth white trunk of an artful tree and walked along its base. I felt Tyler come up beside me and I turned to him, thinking he wanted a kiss (he didn’t) or a hug. While my arms were around his shoulders, he held onto my sides and pulled me off the tree. I am fleet of foot (ish) and didn’t lose my balance, but I was confused, and was still orienting myself when I realized that Tyler was moving away. He lowered to one knee, and he was holding the ring we’d designed.

The first thing that popped out of my mouth was, “Really?!”

I feel rather badly about that. But, as Tyler points out when I tell this bit in person, “It was a happy, excited, ‘Really.’”

I really thought it’d be a couple more weeks. I knew Tyler had, as planned, talked to my parents the night before about his intention to ask me to marry him. They had, as I knew they would, given their blessings. But for some reason it didn’t occur to me that he’d propose the same weekend. And to him, it was obvious that he would. After all, he he wanted me to be able to see my family right away. And, as my roommate pointed out, he was tired of waiting.

He told me that he loved me and wanted to marry me and hadn’t planned out a lot of things to say because he’d known he would forget them all.

Meanwhile my brain was in overdrive. I was still holding the lilypad thing in my left hand, and I wanted to drop it because I needed my left hand, but by that point it was part of the moment and I wanted to keep it, so I switched it to my right hand and forgot about it. And apparently I took the ring out of Tyler’s hand, though I don’t remember this. I do remember feeling relieved that it was so gorgeous. Part of my brain was chanting, “THIS IS IT. PAY ATTENTION. THIS IS IMPORTANT. PAY ATTENTION, PAY ATTENTION.” Another part was going, “These are the clothes I’m getting engaged in….I wouldn’t have picked these. BUT OH WELL.”

And somewhere in here Tyler asked me to marry him, and I said yes. I kind of remember the question. I don’t remember saying yes, but he assures me that I did.

He stood up and we hugged and I was holding that ring so tightly on my left thumb. The part of my brain that had been going “PAY ATTENTION, PAY ATTENTION” was now going “DO NOT DROP IT. DO NOT DROP IT.”

Tyler pulled back and I didn’t know how to get him to put the ring onto my finger in a smooth way, so I did it. He asked if it fit, and it did. “It isn’t too loose is it?” he asked. I turned my hand and shook it so he’d see that it wouldn’t, even though my hands were cold and it was a little loose and my brain was still going, “DO NOT DROP IT.”

“Oh crap,” I thought. “Now we have to plan this thing.” But I didn’t say that out loud because we were literally still in the moment and I didn’t want to put a damper on things.

I asked that we take some selfies. We took 3 or 4, most with the trees behind us, one with the ocean. The one we like the most is the one where I remembered to put my hand on his shoulder so the ring was visible. We have the best expressions in that one, and it was right before the picture where he wasn’t smiling and I was kissing him on the cheek, squishing my nose against his cheek in a decidedly unattractive fashion.

I realized then that I had a text from Rachel, Tyler’s sister, and laughed at the timing of it. Then I remembered that, that morning, I’d scheduled a text to her about Tyler’s mom’s birthday for 5pm, and she was merely texting me back. And not letting on that she knew Tyler was going to be proposing that afternoon, and was waiting by the phone for the news. We called her first, then Tyler’s parents, then my brother, and I texted the women who would become my bridesmaids.

But while we were still on the beach, after texting Rachel back, Tyler suggested we wait until we got back to the truck to start calling people. We held hands the remainder of the walk, passing the remains of the old fishing pier. When we started to get into the truck, we heaps of sand shrugged off our shoes, so we got back out to stamp our feet and shake sand off of the floor mats, which was a very mundane thing to be doing in my brand new ring, four or five minutes after we got engaged.

We drove back to my parents’ house and I got to hug my mom immediately. They’d known the plan, of course, and hadn’t let on at all. As is the nature of mothers, I didn’t start crying until I saw her. We cried happy tears for a minute or two in the front yard, then went inside so I could hug my dad, and Tyler could hug them both.

That night, we went to a local seafood restaurant with an hour-long wait, telling my parents stories about dating and knowing each other in college, tons of funny and sweet stories they hadn’t heard before. I refused to get my normal fried shrimp because I didn’t want grease on my ring and left it with Tyler on the table when I went to the bathroom, not trusting myself with it in a public restroom just yet.

I can not imagine a better day.

Wilderness

I need another week on the proposal story (the second part to last week’s “The Ring”), so I hope you don’t mind a story from this week.

A month or so ago, I was privileged to discover Rev. on the Edge’s daily Lenten ruminations. Every day, she chose a word to explore, and one of them that I immediately responded to was “Wilderness”. The photo on her blog depicts C-3PO and R2-D2 in the red sand dunes of Tatooine, a deeply familiar image.

Even without the droids to put me at ease, desert isn’t wilderness to me. Wilderness is the woods. Wilderness is a place that, theoretically, I could, as a child, wander into and never return from. Areas I could enter, feeling confident of my way, and then become lost in. Wilderness is the big woods where Laura Ingalls lived, where Brian crashed in Hatchet, where Sam runs away to in My Side of the Mountain.

I grew up on an island on the coast of South Carolina. Family vacations were either to my grandparents’ home in rural GA near the fall line or Cherokee, NC. I remember trembling with fear when I watched a TV show’s dramatization about a Bigfoot sighting (and chase) in the Appalachian mountains. After that, I looked for hulking, hairy bodies stalking me from the woods as we drove those routes. I shivered, looking into the dark trees that edged the playground at school, behind the Holiday Inn parking lot, and my grandparents’ backyard. Wilderness was a place I could access and a place I couldn’t understand. Wilderness contained danger (poisonous snakes and poorly marked trails and kidnappers and cold and bears, and maybe Bigfoots). Wilderness could confuse and injure and trap and terrify me. Wilderness made me feel anxious, even if we were just passing through, and no amount of reading or hiking has broken me of the association.

Wilderness can also be a new social situation like the first day of school (oh, how I dreaded the first day of school) or the first day of a new camp or choir rehearsal or club meeting or doctor’s office. Even now, I equate wilderness with a new place and people I don’t know and no clear understanding of what will happen there. I faced this sort of wilderness Monday when Tyler and I went for the first time to a Bible study aimed toward engaged and newly married couples.

My social anxiety and shyness and introverted nature combine in the worst ways in social wilderness situations. I know going the first time is the hardest part. I know I’ll be nervous no matter what. I know it isn’t normal to ask a dozen questions about the format and set up and precise timeline of events and a list of likely attendees, so I don’t ask. Instead, to make the wilderness less formidable, I look up the exact directions, using Google street view to see the outside of the house, how it’ll look from the road as we approach, what the turn onto that street looks like, and back and back until I have a good sense of location and directions beforehand, as well as when we should leave to make it on time. I did this Monday afternoon, though Google Street View hasn’t traveled up that particular road before, and the satellite images were several years old.

I also fight the wilderness by planning details of my appearance so I feel more comfortable and confident. Unfortunately, on Monday I was completely out of clean jeans and my favorite work pants were dirty. I’d been out of town the weekend before, so I’d had no time to do laundry to prepare. It was also a cold day for this time of year, so I had to dig out a sweater and a scratchy coat that would match a pair of work pants that are lose in weird places.

That day, Tyler’s grandmother was admitted to the hospital (she’s doing much better now), and for a while we weren’t certain if it’d be best to visit her or go to Bible study. I found myself hoping we’d visit. You know your social anxiety is bad when the slight wilderness of an hour in a hospital you haven’t been to before to visit your fiance’s ailing relative is preferable to attending a Bible study out in the woods for the first time.

Tyler was nervous too. For days, he’d asked me a lot of questions about what the group studies and who leads and their style and what dinner would consist of. I didn’t know the answers, and with every “I don’t know,” my nerves ratcheted up another level.

On the phone with Tyler after work, as we both drove to his apartment, he told me what he’d learned about his grandmother’s health and that his dad didn’t think it’d be a good idea to visit that night. Tyler said we should just go on to Bible study. My nerves instantly spiked, my voice dropped half an octave, my answers became clipped. Tyler could hear the change.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just nervous.”

“About going tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Try not to be nervous.”

I didn’t answer.

“It’ll be okay,” he said.

“I know.”

“I’ll be with you.”

“I know.”

When we got to his apartment, taking my hand after we hugged, he asked, “Do you still want to go?”

“No,” I said immediately, “But it’ll be just as bad next week.” The last time he’d seen me this nervous and withdrawn about an event had been before his family’s big Christmas party.

“It’s just one night,” he tried to assure me. “We don’t have to keep going if you don’t like it.”

“I want to like it.”

And I did. I think it’ll be really good for us to be in a study together and with other couples in a similar life stage. But I did, desperately, wish not to go. I would have rather done most anything else.

Tyler held my hand on the drive.

I navigated, relying on the directions from my Maps app as well as my research earlier in the day. As we got further and further outside Macon, the road looked increasingly like my mental image of wilderness: thick trees and long shadows and underbrush, places to get lost in the worst ways.

Then we turned off the main road. At the top of a small rise, the road turned to dirt. I searched through the trees for any sign of the house, but it was too far away or the trees were too close together. Even though I knew from others’ stories that it was hulking, a mix of stone and wood.

We found the right gate and wove through still more trees until we arrived at the house. We backed into a space in a line of cars, right on time, but no one else was outside. We weren’t sure which door to go to. We followed a brick path to the nearest one as twilight fell in earnest, knocked, and received no answer. Tyler turned the knob and it gave. Upstairs, we could hear soft voices, so we let ourselves upstairs, me leading the way, smiling my shield, telling myself it’s going to get better. In just a moment, as soon as the leaders see us, it’s going to be better.

It was 20 minutes later before a face I recognized arrived. By then, we were learning names and wondering how the food situation would work (everything was laid out but no one was touching it) and where in the woods we were exactly. The rest of the night was like that, with no concept of what was coming next until the transition began. It’s a disconcerting way to spend an evening.

Once we were there and found the right room and were greeted by the hosts, most of my nerves calmed. The night was still difficult, and I felt caught in the unknown, but I know it won’t be so hard next time. And it did help, so much, to be there with Tyler. I tried not to lean on him too much.

Just because I’m going to have a husband and we’re going to be a team doesn’t mean I won’t have to go new places and meet new people without him. I need to continue to be able to do that. Resigning myself to the experience and the anxiety helps. So, near the end, I purposefully left a conversation Tyler was participating in to join one with strangers.

The drive back to Tyler’s apartment was much easier because we were more certain of the way. The dark had closed in, but we had things to talk about and the wilderness was slipping away with every minute.

In six months or a year, I’m sure I’ll feel familiar with every hill and turn, most of the signs and minor landmarks. I’m sure I’ll understand the pace and flow of the evening, and will probably forget to tell new people what’s going to happen before it does. But the first time in a place is always wilderness.

And unfortunately, in my limited experience so far, entering a marriage is a lot of wilderness.