Shaking The Nonsense Out
“Hey, this is Reggie,” a man with a Brooklyn accent said on my voicemail. “I’m callin’ from The New York Times. I wanna get your voice into the narrative that I’m writing for your, yunno, announcement.”
Inconsistent as it might sound, I’ve been an avid and enthusiastic reader of The New York Times Weddings & Celebrations section since picking up the paper my first weekend in town.
My amateur diagnosis is that reading a dozen or so wedding announcements a week has provided me with evidence that, despite what I might have witnessed first-hand, marriage can work. Or even if it doesn’t, people seem to keep tryin’. I like to think The Times played a role building my confidence in the institution itself.
And so as Abbigail and my wedding approached in the fall of 2007, as un-rock ‘n roll as it might sound, we wanted in on that ink.
When Reggie and I connected, he’d already spoken with Abbi, so I was just confirming facts and elaborating on story points.
We met at Rockwood Music Hall. Yes.
I sing and play guitar. Yeah.
I was in a relationship when Abbi and I met – wait, wait, WHAT!?!
No, no, no, no, I told Reggie, I was as single as I’d ever been in my entire LIFE when I met Abbi. I was just doing one of those “time off” things.
“So how long had you been single?” he asked. “And how long was your previous relationship?”
And I was all like, No, no, no. It wasn’t like that. There wasn’t some long-term, heavy-duty, break-up and bounce-back thing. More like a series of mishaps; three years here, a year there. Always a fail.
And so there I was, I told Reggie, late thirties, trying to figure my shit out.
Which is when Abbi tapped me on the shoulder.
Much as I worried that our borderline-saccharine story (not to mention my enthusiastic re-telling of it) would make Reggie puke, he was great. And our announcement was published the morning after our Saturday, October 6, 2007, vows. It read thusly:
Mary Abbigail Keller and Benjamin Barenz Wagner were married yesterday on Brays Island, S.C. Jennifer Day, a notary public, officiated at the nondenominational ceremony, which was led by Bo Lozoff, a founder of the Human Kindness Foundation of Durham, N.C.
The bride, 32, works in New York as the North American marketing manager for Tiffany & Company. She graduated from the University of North Carolina. She is a daughter of Gail D. Keller and Richard H. Keller of Wilmington, Del.
The bridegroom, 36, is the vice president for digital news at MTV in New York. He graduated from Syracuse University. He is a son of Mary Bolster of New York and of David Wagner of Indianapolis.
Ms. Keller and Mr. Wagner met in March 2005 at Rockwood Music Hall in New York, where Mr. Wagner, a singer and songwriter, was performing.
“Rockwood is smaller than my office,” said Mr. Wagner, who has recorded 12 independent albums, including “Heartland” in 2005.
“I knew everyone there but her, and so I wondered if she had randomly walked in off the street.”
As it turned out, Ms. Keller had come across Mr. Wagner’s profile on Friendster, the social networking Web site, two months earlier.
At the bottom of Mr. Wagner’s profile was a link that led to a personal blog in which Mr. Wagner wrote about his passions — singing, songwriting and photography.
“Suddenly, I’m peeking into Benjamin’s life,” Ms. Keller said. “He enjoyed many of the same things that I enjoy, and so I became intrigued.”
Which is what took her to Rockwood.
“I walk in with a friend and all the regulars there look at us and we just scoot up to the bar to get a beer and watch the show,” Ms. Keller recalled. “I thought Benjamin was good, and I also thought he was cute.”
When the show ended, Ms. Keller tapped Mr. Wagner on the shoulder.
“I have never been that aggressive before,” she said. “But I saw a chance to introduce myself and went for it.”
They chatted and chatted, and continued talking that same night at Coffee Shop in Union Square. But Mr. Wagner, single after what he described as “a long series of relationship mishaps,” failed to mention that he was “just taking some time off to figure things out.”
That left Ms. Keller wondering why he did not call.
“We liked each other and exchanged numbers,” she said. “I just didn’t get it.” So in mid-May, she called him.
By the time his telephone rang, Mr. Wagner had figured it out. He went on a date with Ms. Keller two weeks later, and they have been an item ever since.
“When she called again I told myself, ‘She’s awesome. Don’t be an idiot, man; lightning doesn’t strike twice.’”
* * *
It took some convincing to get author, activist, and mystic Bo Lozoff to preside over our ceremony.
Christofer and I had, of course, spent a day on his ashram shooting footage for what would become our PBS documentary, “Mister Rogers & Me,” the year prior.
Short of Fred presiding (and I would have asked, had he not passed four years before), Bo was one of the wisest, deepest, most spiritual people I knew.
Sita and his Human Kindness Foundation’s Prison-Ashram Project had Bo traveling to 200+ prisons a year, corresponding with hundreds of prisoners and scholars, and publishing books and newsletters.
The weekend of our wedding was to be just days after Bo wrapped a particularly grueling leg of his tour, and a few days prior to moving off of his 75-acre communal farm.
So Bo was reticent. And for another reason.
He explained how his spiritual seeking and months on the road had left him feeling rootless, child-like, and unpredictable.
“I’m not sure anymore what I’m going to say next.”
Bo’s name on my cell phone was the first thing I saw the morning of my marriage (other than the ceiling, which I’d been staring at a fair portion of the night).
Was he pulling out? Had he fallen ill? Ethical dilemma?
I let the call go to voicemail, and went for a walk along the edge of the property. The tide was out, leaving narrow, muddy shallows through the deep green reeds. On the lawn beneath the 300-year-old Live Oak that would act as our alter, a flock of white egrets picked at the soil.
I walked through the thicket to the dock as Abbi and I had two nights prior when — in a moment of rare and wondrous synchronicity — a pod of dolphins swam past. I sat on the edge of the dock a while taking in the river’s slow bend through Low Country.
The sky was bruised purple. The river was gray like lead. I reminded myself that my worrying would not change the weather, and then continued worrying about it.
Walking back towards my cottage, I spotted Abbi’s dad racing off to his tee time. I heard women’s laughter, then turned to see Abbi — from whom I’d been quarantined the night prior — and her girlfriends jogging off on their “Bride’s 10k.” I smiled, went back to my room, and listened to my voicemail.
“Benjamin,” Bo said in his raspy baritone, “I’ve been up since 4:30 thinking about you and Abbi and the ceremony, and I realized that we just didn’t spend enough time together yesterday. There are a few more things I think are important to discuss without anyone around.”
I called him back, set a time, and then pulled on my running shoes.
While the ladies kept to the road, I set off along the river’s edge. Everything around me was green and gray, wet with morning fog. A hawk circled overhead. A blue heron stood motionless in the shallows. Stone crabs scurried clear of the muddy path in front of me.
I’d hoped to run with my groomsmen, but, they’re sleepers, those guys, so I relished the solitude. And I got lost on trails I’d run dozens of times before.
Later, Bo and I sat down to talk on the front porch.
“I was reflecting on Abbi and your vows,” he said, “And I’m not sure they’re explicit enough about your commitment to one another.”
“Yours are beautiful and lofty and poetic and very personal, which is great. But Ben, as I told Abbi, love is not always beautiful and poetic. It can be querulous and difficult, and you may want to give up.”
“In our culture,” he said, “there are plenty of voices that might say, ‘Do what’s best for you.’
“But we don’t wear a ring on our finger to show our commitment to a job, or to a place, or to anything except our commitment to one another.”
I started editing.
By lunchtime, it was pouring rain.
When I drove myself through a full-on monsoon to pick up a sandwich, my rental Jeep kicked up a speedboat’s wake through the pond-sized puddles.
‘This,’ I thought, ‘sucks.’
Three hours later, I stood in the men’s room of of The Inn at Brays Island reciting my vows aloud to the mirror.
My brother, Christofer, and Groomsman, Sebhat, were queued just outside the door. My buddy, James, who helped me step my rookie half-Windsor knot up to the more classic full, stood next to Bo.
“It’s gonna be fine, dude,” my brother said.
I wasn’t worried, really. Neither about whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Abbi, nor whether we’d nail the scripting, staging or blocking.
Still, I was wound like a top, short breath, all nervous prattle, and heart palpitations. Like before a rock show. Which, let’s face it, our wedding kinda’ was: three bands, two tents, open bar, light show.
It’s easy to be swept up in those things: portraits, poses, place settings. It’s easy to focus on the celebration but miss the ceremony. Everything conspires to that end
But Abbi and I were aided and abetted by our self-described “Depth Protector,” Bo, who pledged to keep the ceremony grounded in the sacred.
“If it feels like I’m leaning on you to keep from passing out,” I told Sibby, “I am.”
We were standing beneath an ivy-covered trellis just outside the Inn, my right hand resting on Bo’s shoulder, my left on Sibby’s. My parents were jostling around me, all of us in some sort of stunned, awed, overwhelmed silence.
The strings began “Clair De Lune,” and my mother teared up.
“Do you know what song this is, honey? Your grandfather loved that song.”
“I know, mom,” I said. “That’s why I chose it.”
She kissed my cheek and smiled as Chris — with a wink and grin in my direction — lead her down the aisle.
The aisle, as it were, was one-hundred feet of lawn leading to that giant, Spanish moss-strewn Live Oak in the center of the great lawn.
In front of the tree, in two sections of eight rows of eight seats each, some 109 guests’ necks craned in my direction.
The sun had broken through the clouds, and was casting silver and gold diamonds on the suddenly blue waters of the Pocotaligo River.
Bo, who was humming “Claire d’ Lune,” squeezed my hand, and set off down the aisle. He reached the alter — a thicket of mulch and palm fronds at the base of the tree — as the music stopped.
A lone cello began the bass line of Badly Drawn Boys’ “The Shining.” I paused for the counter-melody two bars in, took a deep breath, and began walking.
Shoulders back. Eye contact. Slow down. Oh my God the river looks amazing. There’s Ron! There’s Tony! Fish! Robbie! Slow down. Smile. Uncle Jim! Don’t trip. Dad. Hey Dad. Holy shit, that’s my Dad. And I’m getting married!
I am standing between Bo and Chris, the Live Oak — as thick and wide as a Volkswagen — to our backs. The time is 4:36. The temperature is 89 degrees. The humidity is 100%.
I reach into my back pocket and wipe my forehead with the color-coordinated Paul Smith pocket square Abbi had slipped under my door in the night.
Over my strained, smiling cheeks, and through my squinted, tearing eyes, I spot Abbigail floating across the lawn toward me.
When it came time for Bo’s remarks – the homily really, the sermon — he recited from memory verse from the 14th Century Persian poet, Hafiz:
Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.
If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room by your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.
Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth
That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,
Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.
God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.
The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:
Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.