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.


Harry Potter Halloween

I am harboring an illegal item or three in my home. Hint: they are a Class A Non-Tradable Material.

Everyone who knows me well knows I have a rebellious streak. I don’t bend my knee to authority without careful thought. I shy away from the mainstream in some ways, often choosing to pioneer my own path. I am skeptical of “empire,” and am willing to speak the unpopular opinion. So, it’s no surprise to find dragon eggs in my house, really. They will be an excellent new addition to Hagrid’s Hut this Halloween, along with Fawkes the Phoenix and—I am really excited about this one—a niffler!!

Some of you are wondering what you missed. And some of you found your pulse quickening when you read “dragon eggs!” Both of your responses are ok. You see, I love Harry Potter. I really love Harry Potter.

Everyone in our family is sorted into their appropriate houses. We all have robes and wands. I own a cookbook, floo powder, coffee mugs, artwork, the books, the audiobooks, various other articles of clothing, and an amazing quidditch toss set. I had three pieces of Harry Potter music played at my ordination. I love biblical texts, but Harry Potter is often my scripture of choice. And every Halloween, my house is transformed into a portion of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. As we enter year four of Hogwarts Halloween’ing at my house, preparations have begun for new installations. Thus, the dragon eggs. And niffler. And Fawkes. And wands.

These craft projects are both a creative outlet for some of my energy, as well as an opportunity to ponder again and again, the art of a beautiful story, and the magic of an inspired narrative.

Not everyone loves Harry Potter as much as I do (I know some of you love it more than I do, and I hope to meet you someday!) But most of us have favorite books, characters, or movies. I often wonder over my obsession with Harry Potter. Why not some other book or series? I don’t really know. But I do know that like the narratives I write for my couples, Harry Potter helps me make meaning out of life. Hermione reminds me I am not always the smartest in the room. Harry reminds me that anyone can do great things. Ron reminds me to ask questions.

Hogwarts reminds me of the incredibly good fortune I’ve had in my academic life, particularly at St. Agnes and Austin Seminary. I have a particular fondness for foster father Hagrid. The magic woven through the entire series encourages me to look beyond the platform, or past the veil—into the wonder-filled universe all around me. My dragon eggs remind me that rules should sometimes be bent or even broken.

If Harry Potter is your thing, be sure to keep tuning your rogue radios, DA fans. I’ll surely be posting updates on Hogwarts Halloween! And even if Harry Potter isn’t your thing, well . . . even Muggles love candy, right?


I am a Potterhead (#TeamRavenclaw). For those outside the Wizarding World, that is to say I am obsessed with Harry Potter. I love Harry’s story for its epic adventure, its themes of good and evil, life, love, and death. I love the friendships, the flawed humans, the school work, and the myriad of creatures. Hey, I even love the quirky, inexplicable rules, loop holes, and plot gaps. Harry Potter occupies a large part of my headspace, and our family’s life . . . especially in October. That’s when we transform our yard (and ok, we may have leaked a wee bit onto the esplanade in the middle of our street) into Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. And it’s magic.

Our driveway becomes a Quidditch pitch. Our large front porch houses a Potions classroom, an Herbology classroom, and of course ends at Honeydukes. The Sorting Hat sits ready at Platform 9 ¾.  S.P.E.W. graciously provides socks. Hagrid’s Hut houses some magical creatures. You can even throw your name in the Goblet of Fire. A patronus sits at the far end of the street to guide you to us. It’s been fun to share my obsession with my children, as well as watch it grow in size and reputation around our neighborhood. It’s magical. It really is.

Now you are waiting for a punchline. Because magic isn’t real. But I vehemently disagree. You see, magic isn’t about casting spells. It isn’t seeing unicorns, phoenix, or thestrals.  It isn’t even about knowing what these things are or what they mean.

Magic is time. Magic is the time I’ve spent with each child dreaming up our next projects. It’s the shared creative hours we take drawing up the plans, gathering our resources, and plotting how to cut this, or paint that just so.

Magic is space. It’s the space we occupy sewing, sawing, grinding, painting, and glueing. Our projects take over our driveway, our garage, our neighbor’s woodworking room, our craft room. For the rest of the year, those stains, wood chips, and scraps left behind remind me of magical spaces just beyond a door, a veil, or platform . . . dormant until discovered (again).

Magic is wonder. It’s what happens when the neighborhood kids show up on Halloween. Some burst through Platform 9 ¾ at full speed. Others carefully pull back the brick curtain a little unsure of what they might find. Oh the magic in seeing those wide eyes, and huge smiles. It’s hearing the chatter that erupts; the oohs and ahhs, and even the OHs that lets me know we’ve created something special.

Magic is mischief barely managed: candy wrappers everywhere, sticky butterbeer sloshed on robes, and floors. Socks pulled down, examined, and swapped. The brooms scattered across the lawn, and bean bags willy nilly in the driveway. It’s the wands left behind, and the few potion bottles left uncorked, turned over, or even broken.

Magic is gratitude. It’s the many unsolicited verbal and written thank yous that have shown up over the years from adults and children. Those are true treasures, to be sure. We’ve kept every one of them.

Oh yes, there is magic. So much magic. Always magic. Always.

Marriage is a Dragon

“We aren’t having a ring bearer. We are having a wedding dragon,” declared one of my favorite couples at our initial meeting. I remember meeting this couple for the first time. They squeezed me in over a one hour lunch during their busiest season of the year: Halloween. Before meeting them, I was not even sure who I was meeting. Their names were gender neutral, and the work site was in the hippest part of town. My first thought as I saw them walking towards me: they are way too cool for me. No way I’m getting this job.

But, our meeting went really well: they were delightful, creative, kind. And that wedding dragon? Well, the son of a friend who’d been asked to bear the rings declared he’d do it – but only as a dragon.

Now, dragons are quite the creatures. They’re wrapped in mystery, myth, fire, magic, power. Dragons defy all labels, shapes, colors, and sizes. They cross cultures, weaving their way into every society’s mythology. Dragons exist as something separate and set apart. Chasing dragons is desirable and admirable. We celebrate those who’ve tamed dragons. We sing of dragons, write poems of dragons, paint dragons, dress as dragons, dream about dragons. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a dragon in life, much less a wedding?

And marriage? Well it’s a dragon, is it not? We come to marriage full of fire! As Bishop Curry declared at this summer’s royal wedding, that fire of love is powerful stuff. But no matter what we read, what we hear, what we witness, marriage is a mystery. For each couple, it’s the undertaking of an epic journey. And each journey is unique, weaving together cultures, stories, families, histories, as well as individual people each with their own likes and dislikes.

I am often asked if I can tell whether a couple will “make it” or not. First of all, I am not even sure what “making it” means. But to answer the question: no, I cannot. How can anyone predict such a thing when we’ve no idea what adventures await a couple?   We’ve no idea when we head out into marriage what life will throw at us. The journey of marriage is its own beautiful task and undertaking. Some, it seems, have smooth seas and easy trails. They get Puff the Magic Dragon. But I’ve watched other couples encounter storm after storm on rough seas, and uphill marriage all the way. They clearly drew the Hungarian Horntail Dragon. There is not one way to chase it, tame it, slay it. That ring bearer was smarter than he realized! Marriage is, indeed, a dragon.


Telling the Story of Marriage

Tellin’ tales

My husband Joe and I are parents to two delightful children, each with their own particular gifts. The second child, our son, is a keen observer, with a wry sense of humor. When he speaks, it is often to pepper us with witty puns and anecdotes, as well as insightful observations. Somewhere in his third year of life, after returning from his half-day of preschool, he amused us with a little story about his day. Whatever the story was, I knew it to be a stretch of the imagination. As the story wrapped up, I commented, “Oh, T, you’re just tellin’ tales!” Without missing a beat, he replied, “Yup. That’s what I do.”

Tellin’ tales. That’s what we do, isn’t it? Humans, in the end, are storytellers. And we all have a story to tell. Think of stories you tell about yourself and your life: rituals you had in your home, unbelievable events that happened to you, happenings that made your heart soar, or your head hurt. These stories help make sense of our world, and create meaning. A good story stays with us, and we can revisit it, reread it, rehear it and something new emerges each time.

I am a minister. Most people think that means I live within the walls of a church, and work on Sundays. But the truth is – my story is — a little different. My ministry is marriage. That’s correct . . . I marry people! You know that person that stands up at the front, says things, calls for a kiss, and voila – a couple is married? Hey – that’s me! So, I mostly work on Saturdays. But in reality, my work is all week long.

Marrying people has been my job for years. And marriage has been my work since saying “I do” to Joe in 1994. Between the two – marrying people, and being married, I feel I’ve been immersed in intimate relationships for several lifetimes.  And during those lifetimes, I’ve learned a few things, heard some great tales, and spun a few myself. Now I’ve decided to share these stories with you.

I’m gonna tell ya some tales . . . cuz that’s what I do!