Image: One Love Photo


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Thursday, October 21, 2010

#113: Brave Wedding: Jenna & Brendan's Cross Continent Challenge

You guys. You MUST read this brave wedding. Seriously. There's too much good stuff in this one for me to summarize, but I'll give you the short version of my reaction, organized by paragraph:
Paragraph #2: Oh snap!
                        #4: So jealous.
                        #7: Creativity and compromise can solve all the world's 
                       #8: OMG, I love this woman!
                       The last 10 paragraphs: I could resign and give 
                       complete control of Brave Bride to Jenna.
This wedding is kind of dear to me, too, because Jenna was one of my very first readers and regular commenters. She's gutsy, her wedding dress is simultaneously beautiful and bad-ass, she planned her wedding from another continent (I know, can you imagine?), she's a natural leader, her hair and jewelry literally make my heart race, and her wedding was probably the most tastefully done cultural blend of aesthetics this Asian-American girl has ever seen. It's a wedding that was beautiful both inside out - visually stunning AND executed with integrity. If I could have a marching band, fireworks, and clowns on stilts to accompany this introduction, I would. But I'll just have to settle for: Ladies and gentleman, I give you Jenna...

In what ways were you a brave bride? 

I could talk about how it was brave to stand up to family and tell them that I would be wearing fuchsia (well, a purpley-red color that is fuchsia in direct light anyhow), or that I was brave to serve tandoori chicken in the buffet, or brave to call my sister the "Ninja of Honor" in the program or refuse to get married in a church...but really, while those took cojones in terms of telling my family how it was going to be, in the long run I don't think they are half as brave as some of the ways in which we tackled the "time to be a grown-up" part of our wedding and the planning of it.  

I would say in deciding to jump in and plan a full-on wedding with 100 guests was brave in and of itself for two reasons.  The first being that in my social circle, "just elope" and "big weddings are unnecessary" and "why get married at all?" and "don't get married until everyone can" are the accepted norms, and having a wedding that looks even slightly like an actual "wedding" (fuchsia dress or no) took some balls.  I found myself defending how much we were spending - not that I told anyone outright, but it wasn't hard to guess - and why we weren't spending that money on something "sensible" like a downpayment on a house.  It takes a lot of balls to tell people that you don't want a house right now; you'd rather have the memories of a really great party with all your loves ones.  People don't always believe you or agree with you.  There's a venomous anti-wedding culture growing in Western countries and it takes a lot to justify your choices when attacked from that side.

The second is that we planned this wedding from literally ten thousand miles away - we live in Taipei, Taiwan and got married near my hometown in Poughkeepsie, NY.  The extra planning this entailed, while we were both working full time, was a test of our managerial and organizational skills.

It took a lot of inner courage to woman up and take control of things even from so far away - it is entirely too easy to fall into the "everyone else is controlling this thing" trap even if you live locally; living abroad makes it that much harder.  Only in the last few years - my late twenties - have I begun to realize the full extent of my management skills, and I had to put them to the test in a big way.  I treated wedding party decisions the way a senior manager would ("what is a plan that fits our vision and also keeps everyone happy?", "How can I tell my family that things are going to be done our way without launching into a tirade or temper tantrum?", "How can I make it clear that Brendan and I are the ones in control despite the distance?" and finally "How can I keep everyone on the same page, doing what needs to be done, without flooding inboxes with unnecessary information, coming across as a tin pot dictator, or constantly nagging others for updates?") and in the end, it not only worked out beautifully but it was a huge shot of self-confidence that I *did* it.  

At one point my mother said, while on the phone with a relative, "Just ask Jenna - she's the CEO of this whole deal" and the Reverend quipped, at the rehearsal (something he, as an officiant, is used to running while the couple looks on bewildered) that "you are so say 'OK, then this happens' and people actually do it!").  Before the rehearsal dinner, with 50 people milling around a hotel lobby, I used my Presentation Voice to organize rides and get everyone going.  Atypical for my family, at the "let's go!" signal, they actually went.  No small feat:  getting my family to do anything is like herding cats.  It was a great feeling to be in charge of that many people and do a good job of things. 

What was the most emotionally challenging part about wedding planning OR getting married? How did you respond? What big lesson(s) did you learn as a result of this challenge?

I would say that most of the wedding presented no major emotional challenges - challenges to leadership skills, sure, but emotionally it was a surprisingly easy ride.  I should note one big thing:  we are secular.  We're not hardcore atheists but we're definitely not "religious".  We did, however, have a religious officiant.  He is the minister of the church I attended as a child, which my parents still attend. He is liberal, progressive and feminist.  It was hard, emotionally and intellectually, for me to give up the idea of a secular wedding ceremony for a ceremony laden with references to a God I am not sure I believe in (having him perform a secular ceremony was not an option).  My husband is more laid-back about such things and was fine either way, so the issue was mine alone.  In the end, we agreed that it was better that we have an officiant that at least one of us knows, even if he is a clergyman, than to have a secular officiant who would have been a stranger.  

We crafted a compromise I was happy with:  the music was secular, the wedding was in a garden, not a church, and the readings were secular.   The ceremony was religious but ended with a secular benediction - a poem by Rumi ("May it be sweet as milk, this marriage, like wine and halvah...").  It was a 'marriage' - pardon the pun - of an officiant I know and respect and our more secular beliefs.

Another challenge was admitting to my inner self, as well as others, that the wedding was not actually an earth-moving moment or a sacred solemnization of vows for us.  I won't speak for my husband here, but my "solemn vow to commit to Brendan for as long as we both shall live" was not taken on my wedding day.  I made that vow long before we ever got engaged.  I can't say exactly when it happened, but there was a point in our relationship when my heart signed on for good, and that is the moment that, if I could identify it, I would mark as my true "wedding day".  As a secular person, there was nothing sacred about the ceremony itself for me:  it was making legal a truth that had already begun to exist.  Making something legal is great, but it's not momentous.  That's why, honestly, I view our wedding as a 'party to celebrate a marriage' rather than a solemn exchange of vows.  I made those vows already.  Was that party worth it, though?  Absolutely!

Finally, there were a lot of challenges in trying to craft an "international" wedding that paid homage to our life in Asia as well as our travels and experiences across the world while getting pushback from relatives about how we are culturally American, so we should do things the way they are done in the USA.  Just as much as the guest list fights taught me to let go a little, this taught me to stand up for what we wanted and draw a line as to how much criticism we're willing to listen to.  Cultural borrowing is a fine line and a contentious one at that - it's hard to defend one's choices vis-a-vis what's OK to borrow from other cultures and what should be left alone.  My line falls somewhere along "if it's aesthetic or deals with the organization of the festivities it's fine, but if it's religious or deeply symbolic it's off-limits".  It took a lot of rumination to come to that position, and I think I learned a lot as a result.

What would you have done differently?

I would have chosen an easier buffet menu, sourced less expensive plate/cutlery rentals, and not tried to control the dance music so much.  Our total control of the cocktail and dinner playlist went fine (our DJ was great about just playing music we wanted) but the dancing party of the night didn't go as planned - turns out people don't want to dance to music they don't know, as catchy as it is.  

I also would have let things go on the guestlist a little bit more to avoid all the fights I had with my family about who "had" to be invited - this is one place in which I could have bent a little and I wish I had.

I might have organized the reception a bit more - we went for an "it's not a wedding, it's a party to celebrate a marriage!" format, meaning none of the usual wedding rituals except for toasts.  We did toasts "whenever" - meaning basically when we felt like it, which happened to be at dessert.  It worked beautifully, except that one of my grandmothers missed the toasts as she left after dinner.  I would have organized it so that she was able to hear the toasts.

Otherwise, I think we did everything more or less just right!

The lesson here is - step up and take that CEO and Executive Decision Maker role in things, but know just as well when to let things go and accept that you can't control everything.

What advice would you give to engaged couples?

Don't be afraid to admit that you want a *wedding*, not a downpayment on a house, a new car or any of the other "sensible" things people will tell you that you should be spending your money on.  It's your money - you can do what you want with it.  You can tell them to back off.  It's perfectly OK to tell others to mind their own business if they get all up your butt about how you are spending your money.

Don't feel like you have to justify all of your choices - if people question your decision to have a secular officiant (if your social circle is religious) or a religious one (if you hang with a more humanist crowd), or have a go at you over whatever you choose to spend, what color you choose to wear, how you choose to run things, who you choose to invite, know when to draw a line and make it clear that the decision is yours as a couple. 

Own your decisions - if you want to spend $X on flowers or whatever, then don't be ashamed of your choice.  Don't hide behind excuses.  If you feel you can't own your decisions, maybe you need to re-evaluate your decisions.  

Don't worry about the small things, and don't think you have to do certain things just because that's what's done:  I suggest the following instead.  Are you happy with what you are planning?  Are you appropriately thanking people and not taking advantage of others?  Are you acting politely and with good etiquette - not as in "where should this fork be placed" but as in "you do know that it's rude to ask for gifts on the invitation, right"?  Did you make arrangements so everyone would be comfortable re: the right amount of food at the time of day you are holding a reception (if you choose to have one), weather and temperature, comfort for elderly, ailing and disabled guests and guests with children?  Did you avoid silly requests ("All guests are requested to wear X colors to match the decor" etc.)?  Are you staying true to what you want and staying in your budget? Are you hosting a wedding you can afford, not the wedding you want at a price tag you can't make good on?  Did you send out thank you notes?  If so, all the other stuff is irrelevant.  Attendant attire, dress, cake, first dance, garter tossing, alcohol, flowers...all if it icing on the overpriced cake.  With that stuff, do what you want.  "Tradition" here is thoroughly meaningless unless it has meaning to *you*.

Remember that your fiance is just as much a part of things as you are - ask his opinion, discuss what he will do, tell him when you are drowning in checklists, and most importantly, if his family is giving you issues, remember that it is his job, not yours, to act as a liaison and communicate with them.

Don't be afraid to appoint yourself co-CEO of the festivities (with your intended) - there is no such thing as a Bridezilla (a truly horrific bride to be was probably not a great person before she got engaged).  I wrote an article about this for Offbeat Bride, and I stand by those words.  If people try to bash you for being "controlling", remind them whose party it is - this is assuming, of course, that you are not actually over-controlling.  I believe that readers of Brave Bride would not fall into that camp! 

Regarding vows and toasts - bone up on public speaking and presentation skills.  Take a class if you can.  There are tons of wikis and websites if you can't take a class.  This will help you not only at your wedding but in the future.

And enjoy it!  If you're not having fun, something is wrong.  If you can't afford it, something is wrong.  If it doesn't reflect who you are as a couple or feel right to you, something is wrong.  

If, on the day of the wedding, people come up to you complaining, asking for something to be done, or otherwise insisting that plans be changed, you are within your rights to tell them to stuff it.  It's OK to say "dude, this is how it is.  DEAL."  It's OK to say no.  It's OK to refuse to drop everything and run to everyone else's aid.  You don't necessarily need a day-of coordinator (though they can be a big help), but you do need to be able to say "no, we are not going to do that" and "this is how it's gonna be - deal with it."  You'd be surprised how people respond to statements like that if made in an authoritative, confident voice.  They may not like it but they will respect, and maybe even grudgingly admire it.

Finally, don't be afraid to be honest.  Have tact, of course, and know when to just not mention certain things (does Aunt Millie really need to know that you're planning on purple tablecloths?) but on the big issues, just say it like it is.  

Watermaked photography: Keira Lemonis @
Other photogrpahy: Donna Renjilian and Jocelyn Casser
Bridge Creek Catering @



    Seriously, so beautiful and Jenna you are a creative badass.

  2. Bravo Jenna!! I LOVE the part about owning your choices and being able to stand up for what you want, even if it differs from your social circle. You vibrance and authenticity shines through in your pictures and especially in your writing. I"m so glad to have met you via this site. And please know that your "balls" are awesome!! :)
    Also thanks so much for your follow up comment on my post. I definitely agree that it would be better to not cordon off different types of women into differnt sub-types (plus size brides, southern brides etc.) but it the short term it's nice to at least be represented because so often women who look like me aren't. In the long term I'd prefer it be a melting pot all in one show/one magazine etc. Here's to progress continuing...

  3. Sorry, just had to add that this paragraph truly says it all!!!

    "If you're not having fun, something is wrong. If you can't afford it, something is wrong. If it doesn't reflect who you are as a couple or feel right to you, something is wrong."


  4. Aww, thanks you guys, and for the kind words, Kim!

    It was hard, but it was also a lot of fun. I know it sounds weird to categorize "making 150 escort cards and them sticking them into a box to mail home because they won't fit in your luggage" or Skyping your caterer at 11pm your time because that's the only time you're all free to talk, or negotiating a custom wedding dress to fit a drawing you made and not a pre-made pattern with a tailor who speaks no English (and I mean NO English - my Chinese is good but I still had to learn words like "bodice") as "fun"...but it kind of was. Fun in the way that a professional event planner with a passion for their job would describe it as fun.

    As it should be!

  5. PS - that photo of the back of my dress just before I walk down the aisle was not, as I previously thought, taken by my aunt (Donna) or bridesmaid (Jocelyn). It was taken by my father-in-law, Howard Cody!

    My bad :)

  6. I've been reading your posts since you first started posting at Offbeat Bride Tribe, so I am thrilled to see this post on Brave Bride, particularly since I felt like I agonized over the creation of your dress and your guest list dramas with you.

    Lovely, lovely wedding, Jenna!

  7. "Another challenge was admitting to my inner self, as well as others, that the wedding was not actually an earth-moving moment or a sacred solemnization of vows for us. I won't speak for my husband here, but my "solemn vow to commit to Brendan for as long as we both shall live" was not taken on my wedding day. I made that vow long before we ever got engaged. I can't say exactly when it happened, but there was a point in our relationship when my heart signed on for good, and that is the moment that, if I could identify it, I would mark as my true "wedding day". As a secular person, there was nothing sacred about the ceremony itself for me: it was making legal a truth that had already begun to exist."

    YES. YesYesYes.

    I was having those exact thoughts, albeit less articulate, this morning. It started because I was thinking about elopement in that sort of wandering thoughts way, and I imagined us showing up to the courthouse and just signing a piece of paper - no ceremony, just signatures. And I realized I'd still be ridiculously happy because he's already my husband, even if he isn't yet my husband. You know?

    Like I said, I'm less articulate, but golly was it validating to read that paragraph. Nobody ever talks about those feelings, you know?

    So basically thanks.

  8. Thanks!

    I do think a lot of women felt that way. This is in no way meant to criticize APW (because I *love* APW) but I remember the resistance and slight tone of disbelief I received over there when I admitted in the comments that I did not, in fact, view my then-upcoming wedding day as anything terribly solemn or earth-moving, and in fact it would have been OK if we did not get legally married on that day and went to the JP afterwards.

    The reaction was something like "Of course it won't be OK! You'll see when it happens how profound it really is". Which had been a possibility, I admit.

    But it wasn't. I never did view our marriage as something that began on our wedding day. If I had to put a date on it, our marriage started over a year and a half ago when I made the joke that "You say that now, but wait until we're 90 and I have to remind you to put your teeth in" and realized that I *meant* it and that I fully intended to be there at 90 to remind Brendan to put his teeth in.

    I do feel like nobody talks about those feelings, because you're not really supposed to feel them: you're supposed to either be spiritual and believe that your wedding day is the day that God shines down upon you to solemnize your marriage (which is totally awesome if you do feel that way, I just happen not to)...or you could be secular and still view it as a life-changing moment. It's hard in that milieu to come out and say "no, it was not a life-changing moment for me".

    A life-changing process, yes. Definitely. But that has precious little to do with the actual legal wedding. And the process of emotionally committing to another was I don't see anything wrong with the fact that there was no flash of lightning to herald it on a specified date.

  9. Jenna, this is such a great post. Congrats on your marriage xx


Babbling about weddings is so much more fun when people babble back. :)

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