Beyond Valentine’s Day

Well, it’s the day after Valentine’s Day. The balloons are deflating, the chocolates are eaten, the flowers are wilting and now the real love begins. Valentine’s Day is a sugar rush of fun but it’s only one day, and now, on February 15, it’s time for the rest of the story, the other 364 days of the year!

I’ve been officiating weddings with Austin Weddings Unlimited for 20 years now and what I’ve learned throughout this time is that just like Valentine’s Day, a wedding day is full of the promise of love, not the life of love: the actual union, the commitment, the ups and downs of living life together as a couple.

For this reason, I think it’s important to spend time in reflection about how you and your spouse relate to each other beyond the sugar-soaked frenzy of February 14 or the dream-come-true experience of your wedding day. What are some ways that you can take the euphoria of your special days together and move that into the life of your marriage? Spending some time on February 15 thinking about this question will sweeten the life of your love beyond one day a year.

Because as we all know, life is like a box of chocolates. You just never know what you’re going to get.



The Gift of Connection

The views at Mo-Ranch.

Every marriage experiences moments of stress. What holds couples together during times of intense pressure is the strength of their shared story, or organizing principle, that binds them together. In the upcoming couples retreat that I’m facilitating at Mo-Ranch in a few weeks, one of our sessions will be devoted to helping couples identify this unifying concept that supports the health of their relationship.

In my own marriage, Connection is our watchword. I’ve seen this concept of Connection help my husband and me weather difficult experiences together instead of pulling us apart.

A few years ago, my daughter ended up in the hospital with a bone infection. In the end (which was several months later), all was well. But the first few hours and days, were critical, and we were in crisis-mode.

In hindsight, I learned some things about myself. One big a-ha moment was understanding how I function in crisis. For me, managing crisis is a matter of putting my head down, focusing, and getting through it step by step. In crisis mode, I do not see the big picture. I exist moment to moment. The upside is that I am relatively calm and centered in a crisis. The downside is that my world becomes teeny tiny and my memory short-term. Example: at one point during my daughter’s stay, I literally walked past the parent of a friend of hers and did not even acknowledge their presence. Thankfully, they were the understanding type, as I truly did not process their presence.

After it was all said and done, I did, of course, look up and around me. My world expanded again, and I was overwhelmed by the amazing community of friends and family surrounding us. Lucky! I also looked up and found my husband. For over ten weeks our sole interactions had been coordinating shifts at the hospital, intravenous infusions, doctor meetings and appointments, and rehabilitation. It was all we had discussed. Seeing him once life calmed down again was like walking out of a dark movie theater into the sun. We were strangers in some ways, our marriage had wilted in some ways, and we needed to reconnect.

What does this have to do with why you should come to a couples’ weekend away? Good question! Connection and reconnection are the guiding themes of my marriage. It is the DNA of our particular relationship. We know this about ourselves and our marriage. As we re-emerged from crisis, we knew what we needed, and how to do it. We have a little cabin that is our sanctuary, so we planned a weekend away. Once there, we were able to process all that had happened, to rest, laugh, eat, and reset. In short, we resurrected our marriage over our watchword: Connect.

Some of you may already know what makes your relationship tick. Some of you know exactly how and why you are a couple. Some of you may have no clue what that core DNA is just yet. But, whatever that core of your relationship is, it is worth discovering and rediscovering. Marriage requires nurture. It requires attention. That is hard in our busy world. And it is the reason why I invite you to a couples’ weekend away. Sure, a weekend away is a luxury. It is a gift. Maybe this year is the time, and maybe it’s something you plan for in the future. But, a chance to discover or rediscover why you are a couple is imperative to the life and health of your relationship. It’s a chance to just be the two of you; to play, to rest, to dream, to relax, and to reset.

To sign up for this couples retreat weekend on February 15-17, visit the Mo-Ranch website. I look forward to seeing you there!

Mo-Ranch Couples’ Weekend Retreat

Mo-Ranch in Hunt, Texas

Every married couple has been there. Life goes from the exciting questions like,”What great new restaurant should we try?” to “What’s for dinner?”  and “Did you figure out where you’d like to go on vacation this weekend?” to “Did you pick up the dry cleaning this week?”
Probably not exactly what you were thinking life would be like during those first moments of your relationship. So now, a few years or a few decades into your marriage, as you stare down the day-to-day, or even if you are wanting to get your marriage off on the right tempo, it’s time. It’s time for a weekend to dream, plan, and reconnect.  It’s time to get back to those fun questions, belly laughs, and simple pleasures (if you call zip lining a simple pleasure!) with your loved one.
Any of this resonate with you and your partner? I am about to make your life easy:  how about spending a weekend away in the beautiful Hill Country west of Austin to discover or rediscover the DNA of your relationship at the Mo-Ranch Couples Retreat. I am honored to be serving as the retreat’s facilitator and am looking so forward to getting to know each couple that attends and helping them craft the story of their marriage.
Wait – what?  What is the DNA of my relationship? Good question and thanks for asking! I cannot tell you what that is, but after years of marrying couples, and living in the world of marriage, I can help you discover that DNA.  Simply stated, though, I think of the DNA of a relationship as that core element, watch word, experience, or agreement that will help you get through all of the good and the tough times in life.  It’s the bones of your relationship.  It is, perhaps, the very spark that lit between the two of you.
For my husband and me, it’s connection.  Given our personalities and backgrounds, we could easily lean into being highly independent people, but long ago – in the beginning as they might say – we found a comfortable connection that honored who we were as individuals, where we came from, and what we visualized for our family unit in the future.  So, this watch word – connection – guides our decisions and lives.  We vacation together, we are often up in each other’s business and faces.  We have inside jokes, play board games together, value brutal honesty, and show up for each other.  We already anticipate big shifts in our family connections as we anticipate our oldest flying from the nest next year. So, we are already explicitly talking about about connection and reconnection next year.
Are you already thinking, “Hmmmm, maybe our DNA is about [insert some words]?”  Good.  I hope so!  That means I am doing my job. As a long-time wedding officiant in the Central Texas area, I help couples marry every weekend, and use the concept of Marriage DNA to craft beautiful and authentic wedding ceremonies. Through pre-marital coaching and pastoral work, I help couples that are just getting started or are decades into their couplehood figure out their marriage’s DNA, or redefine it, or even bury it and start again as a way to live into this strange and beautiful story of marriage.
I hope you will join me for this adventure at Mo-Ranch! We will be zip-lining, hiking, canoeing, having a nice dinner, painting wine glasses, sleeping in, bird-watching, and reading books at MoRanch’s Couples’ Weekend.  We will be discovering and rediscovering your couple-hood along the way, too.  Come kick back, have some fun, and raise a toast to you. The cleaning can be picked up another day, after all!  Cheers!

To sign up to attend, visit the Mo-Ranch Couples Retreat website or send me an email with any questions.

Let’s get married!

Joe’s proposal to Sarah. New Orleans, September, 1993.

I’ve heard some pretty amazing engagement stories through the years: on top of Hawaiian volcanoes, at family events, over a quiet cup of coffee, London, Paris, a bench in Germany, after years together, on a third date. They are all such good stories. I could listen to them all day long; not just for the story, but also to just watch my couples as they share their stories with me.  The bright eyes, choice of words, the laughter, and the depth of emotion shared in a gentle touching of hands?  Well, it’s magical.

I was engaged over 25 years ago in New Orleans.  My now-husband and I had been discussing marriage, but he actually did catch me off-guard.  While milling around  Jackson Square in the heat in early September, he convinced me (after some cajoling) to sit to have my picture sketched.  When he turned the picture around it was not me, but my ring and his proposal.  My husband, as you might guess, is a romantic.  My answer, as you might guess, was yes.

What I love about my story – and every story I hear – is how each story is at once unique and universal. Of course, each story is a unique chapter in a specific couple’s story.  It is a glimpse into a couple’s relationship, their language, and their love.  At the same time it is a universal story of human love.  It’s the story of how we are all somehow drawn to each other by a force that is bigger than us, a force that creates all that is grand and beautiful in this human saga, and frankly, makes it all worthwhile.

At Austin Weddings Unlimited, we’ve made telling each of our couples’ stories the hallmark of our business. And not just because we love to hear the stories ourselves, or our couples and their family and friends long to hear those stories, but because it is important to weave those stories into the bigger tapestry of love and humanity. We feel it is a huge privilege to share time with our couples not just because we love to tell the unique story, but because we love being a part of what we truly believe makes the world a better place.

So, in this season of engagements, we’d love to engage with you and hear your love story.  Let’s get married!

Creating a story arc . . . and a marriage

Ancient text, Turkey, 2013.

When people find out I am a minister, they will often ask me, “What’s your favorite scripture?” Even though this is not the first time I’ve been asked this question, I often fumble to find an answer. My first response is to quote something from Harry Potter, my favorite text. In fact, I was asked the same question in my final assessment for ordination. I knew better than to quote Dumbledore! I am sure it is no shock I fumbled: I am a better writer than speaker in many ways. I deliver beautiful weddings. But remember, in those moments I am not speaking off the cuff. I have carefully planned and written the wedding ceremonies. Nothing I say is a surprise to my couples.

Even now, my favorite scripture? Not sure. I suppose it depends on the day. Some days I need a good lament from Psalms or Lamentations. Other days, I like a quippy piece of wit from Ecclesiastes. I might be a bit of an outlier among my colleagues, but I love Paul, and Peter annoys me. And of course, digging into the Gospel is always a good chance to challenge my way of being in the world, and ask myself some hard questions. Some days I am game for the challenge, and other days I try to dodge the Gospel (at my own peril).

But overall, it’s a story arc I love. Or interplay among stories. For example, I love the story of the magi. It has long been a favorite of mine. But I don’t love the story in isolation. Rather, I love what the story became for me when I read T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” at a critical point in my teenage years. I love the journey from Jerusalem to Rome in Acts of the Apostles when read alongside the epic journey Odysseus makes from Troy to Ithaca. Or the trio of Ron, Harry and Hermione next to the Ramayana’s Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita. And the women nestled in the texts: Mary, Lily, Hermione, Penelope, Lydia, Sita, and Hannah. They beckon me to listen to the rests between the musical notes, to the voices in the back of the room, to the whispers, or even the silences.

Now, what does this have to do with marriage you might ask? Well, an awful lot. Marriage is a story arc. There is a beginning. There is or will be an end. And there will be favorite chapters, painful chapters, hard chapters, easy chapters, and boring chapters. If we write our marriage story well, it is a story that will no longer belong solely to us. I hope my marriage story is one that other couples will read alongside their story. Even more importantly: my husband, Joe and I hope our story is one that our children will use to shape their stories, and tell their children. I hope our story is long story, and one where the ending chapters are not even written by Joe and me.

Part of my job as a wedding officiant and a minister is to equip my couples to enter a story arc. I try to help discern key themes in their dating, and use those themes to anchor the couple’s narrative. Or maybe it’s that I help articulate a thesis statement for them – something they see in themselves, and something they wish to become. I try to help narrate a movement that is marriage; from “you and me” to “we.” I want their favorite verse, their favorite chapter, their favorite story to be . . . them!

The Mess of Marriage

Hey! This amazing couple is not the couple I am blogging about in this story. Just wanted to make that clear! Photo credit: Dandy As Lions Photography

Note: this story is shared with explicit permission from those involved.

A colleague (and my colleague’s spouse) landed in a marriage counselor’s office. My colleague claimed he was not there to save his marriage. Rather, he decided that in order to end the marriage in a most tidy way, he had to check the box “sought counseling.” The meeting with the counselor was perfunctory. At some point during their first (and supposed final) session, the counselor asked what he did for a living. According to my colleague, he actually sobbed declaring, “I am a marriage counselor! Imagine that!” Then he laughed through the tears. Oh the irony.

It turns out it was not the final meeting. He and his spouse are still married. And me? I like this story about marriage for many reasons, some of which I can share, and some of which I am bound to hold in confidence. For what I can share, I will say that I love the messy in this story. The laughter in the midst of gasping sobs. The desperate flailing from someone who is the supposed expert in their field. I love the easy silence of the counselor entrusted with the whole story. In the Disney version of marriage, we get all the complications during courtship. Then it’s happily ever after. But I’ve yet to meet one couple that lives Disney. That’s not life, and it sure isn’t marriage. Marriage is messy. Life is, too. Maybe that’s the point.


The One and Only Love Boat

Once, in the presence of my marriage counselor, I told my husband that I’d never marry again. My husband was insulted. While our counselor placidly listened, he said the comment hurt his feelings. I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings, but it is the truth. I’d never marry again. One “I do” is enough. Not because our marriage is bad or wrong or hard or unhappy. We’ve had bad, wrong, hard and unhappy. But we’ve also had thrills, excitement, sheer joy, goodness, luck, adventures, and ease. We’ve had more of the latter than the former. But marriage is a big deal. And covenants are a big deal. I do not take lightly the “I do” of marriage. And I wouldn’t do marriage with just anyone. It isn’t for the faint of heart.

In my age demographic, I sit with as many divorcees as I do married-types. Probably because of my work, marriage often comes up in conversation. While peeling some crawfish the other day, a friend of mine – divorced – stated she wouldn’t ever marry again. She was happily surprised when I agreed with her. She said her realization was something she wouldn’t have welcomed just after her divorce. But several years later, she valued her independence, her discovered resilience. Her dream was to retire to a cruise ship, wear all sorts of glittery costume jewelry, enjoy shows, people watching, and seeing the world through waves of water.

I’ve been on one cruise, so I found her story especially delightful. Maybe that’s why it stuck with me, and I kept thinking about it. When it comes to cruise ships, we all board around the same time, haul in about the same amount of luggage, and eat the same meals. Similarly, my friend’s life was not so different from mine: college, marriage, kids, careers, sailing towards retirement. She had added an extra chapter titled divorce, but that didn’t lessen her other chapters, nor make my story better. In fact, we reached similar destinations: one marriage! And for me, while I loved it, one cruise is probably enough for me, as well. I’ll let my friend have my share of sparkly jewelry and cruises! Bon voyage!


An Abundant Mast, Fat Squirrels and All the Trimmings

by Sam Riccobene, MDiv, AWU Officiant

“Call me a squirrel. I don’t mind.” Every year about this time driving along a city street or on a morning walk, or if you’re me, riding a bicycle. Large patches of road or sidewalk get covered with acorns, or pecans. Usually, but not always, oak and pecan trees are masting abundantly this time of year (masting: a large crop of acorns, pecans or other nuts falling from trees). This year we have a good crop. So much so that they crunch under our tires or the soles of our shoes, leaving their messy tannin stains on our pathways, a mark of abundance. Squirrels zip, zag, and jump around in nature’s amazing nut piles, munching down and gathering up. I can’t help but think animals that depend on nuts for their survival are happy about this abundance just as we humans are.

When the weather cools down, and the pecans come down, and the days get shorter, you’ll find me thankfully filling my pockets under those gigantic pecan trees in Zilker Park, beside Barton Springs, or just about anywhere in town I happen to be. I love fall shade under these old giant branches. A squirrel indeed. I take them home, bag them up, get them cracked, shell them and put them aside for use in pecan pies and ice-cream sundaes. Um, um good.

Sometimes I wonder if the best things in life aren’t simply free? Like pecans for the taking, the love of another person, happy gatherings of people around a table full of favorite foods, the chance to cuddle with an infant, the quiet companionship of a good dog. Thankfulness is a very fine state of being.

Here in North America June has earned favor as the marryin’ month. But in Texas a fall wedding is a thing to behold. Once I officiated a late fall wedding at a venue near Dripping Springs. My couple used yellows and browns and oranges to the max, picking up the colors of the season, expressing their mutual love of those vibrant tones while sharing their gratitude for having found love in each other with their families and friends. It was a wedding fat with all the trimmings; color and gratitude and deep appreciation for the gifts of life.

Happy Thanksgiving!

~ Rev. Sam Riccobene

Five Really Good Reasons to Hire a Professional Wedding Officiant

Planning a wedding is a lot of details, some of which are mundane (cocktail napkins), some of which are profound (who you will marry!) So when it’s time to choose who will perform your wedding, I’ll start by asking a question: When have you ever walked into a large event, a life-altering moment, or any significant event in your life without research, preparation, and pros in charge? Odds are your answer is—next to never.

As costs mount, and the pile of contracts grows, the wedding officiant may seem, in this grand scheme, a place where you could trim your budget. You could ask a friend to do it. They are a great speaker. They know you so well. They’d do it for free.

But here are five really good reasons to reconsider:

5.  Experience. All weddings have a structure, a rhythm, and a particular energy. As professionals, we’ve lived in that space for years, many times, over and over again. We understand the flow, and not only help you work within it, but know just where to bend it and mold it to make it your own. We are familiar and comfortable with the energy around wedding ceremonies: joy, stress, anxiety, surprise. We are trained to hold that space, and to create a place for you that is non-anxious so you can actually enjoy getting married to each other.

4.  Credibility. It matters. It really does. Just ask my couple who discovered their best man had forgotten to file their license. (That was the last time I left a license with the best man! I file paperwork myself now. Oh – and yes, we quickly remedied the situation.) The requirements for who may marry whom, what paperwork must be filed, how it is filed, and when it is filed vary a great deal. And not only do they vary, they vary from year to year, state to state, county to county. And the statutes themselves can be vague and confusing. Professional clergy, as well as judges (and certain other public servants) are safe choices who insure that your marriage is valid, and is and will always be legally recognized.

3.  Customization. One reason people want their friends to marry them is because they desire a more personal touch. Now that makes a lot of sense. Each couple’s story is at once universal and unique. It’s a precious story that begs to be told here at its opening chapters. As a seasoned wedding officiant, part of my job is to plumb my couples for tidbits and tales that both bind them to the universal value of love, but also their unique traits. I bring years of ideas, as well as the keen ability to wordsmith – to articulate thoughts and feelings and thus, customize the wedding while simultaneously (I hope) giving each couple some tools upon which to build their new marriage through that customization of words and actions.

2.  We work for you. This may seem obvious, but it is worth saying. We work for you. We aren’t your guest. You don’t need to feed us, or entertain us. We aren’t there to party, or catch up with other family, friends, or guests. That client relationship gives both the couple and the officiant (me!) the freedom to be fully present in the wedding itself. We’ve been hired to create a wedding, and then hold that space for you. Our focus is you, your wedding, and your ceremony!

1. Marriage is more than a moment. Yes, of course we are there to make your marriage legal, and do it beautifully. But you are the ones who actually have to be married. It’s a verb. Marriage reaches far beyond that date and time listed on your beautifully designed wedding invitation. Our job, at the very least, is to create a ceremony that is a true rite – something that gives our couples a strong, articulated foundation, rich soil, hooks on which to build their marriage. We hope that each ceremony we craft is a sort of working document for our couples. It will be something to recall and revisit as marriage unfolds.

For this insight, we really have millennials to thank. It’s their love of connection and community that helped us articulate and realize this part of our role. More and more we’ve found ourselves becoming part of our client’s lives. It doesn’t always happen, nor is it always sought out. It’s certainly not expected. But, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in joy or in sorrow, we are a known, professional source, a safe place, a trusted entity.

The Commonwealth

One of my very best friends married her husband in Virginia. I presided as the officiant at their wedding. It was a special and privileged moment for me.  It was special for her, too, but I am quite sure for different reasons.

Anyway, prior to arriving in Virginia, I wanted to be sure I’d done my homework. The regulations establishing who may legally officiate weddings vary from state to state. So, I called the Clerk in Arlington County, Virginia, to find out exactly what the fine State of Virginia required of me. Before educating me on the finer points of who may marry whom, I was schooled on the proper name of Virginia. You see, my good friends, Virginia is a Commonwealth, not a state. It was quite clear she meant business. Only after my “yes, ma’am, and thank you ma’am,” did the Clerk proceeded to guide me through their rules and regulations (which incidentally, are different than Texas).

I still chuckle when I think about how that call went down. To be honest, I wasn’t too familiar with the word commonwealth at the time. The word merely conjured up an image of English party goers who straggled way past the end of the Queen’s party. Today’s leftovers from the British Empire banquet, so to speak. Clearly, I had not been paying attention in my government class.

Commonwealth is actually a beautiful word. For those within a commonwealth, there is a commitment to the public good and over all well-being of the citizenry. It’s a statement of solidarity, an acknowledgment of the human need for community. It rejects the myth of rugged individualism. Commonwealth values something beyond itself, and costs the individual a little (or sometimes a lot) for the sake of greater ideals and greater goods. Fire departments, public bridges and roads: all great examples of the commonwealth.

I think of marriage as a mini-commonwealth. It certainly demands of its members; sometimes a little, and sometimes quite a bit. Just ask my husband who has had to sit through quite a few RomComs. I am, of course, speaking for myself, but I have done more, grown more, created more, been more because of my marriage with Joe.

Without a doubt, I have learned to be more flexible, more open-minded, and far less selfish. I have learned it is not always about me, at the same time that I’ve learned my commitment to our marriage does not mean sacrificing my self. But together, we point to something far greater than the mere sum of the two of us. I truly think I am a better person for my marriage to Joe. Countless studies have shown that a good marriage promotes health, wealth, self*, and builds bonds not just within the marriage, but throughout a community. We benefit, our kids benefit, and even those outside our mini-commonwealth benefit. So, to you, Commonwealth of Virginia, I lift a glass. Thanks for schooling me, and cheers to the common good.

*I do believe in carefully considering these studies: who is funding them? what are their goals? what is the bias? Please, dear reader, be a smart consumer of information. And as always, marriage is not for everyone, and not every marriage is a safe, habitable space.