2014 was the year I married Allen, my favorite person in the world. In front of family and friends, I promised to love him with reckless abandon. I pledged to live the most soul affirming life with him. Quoting the effervescent RuPaul’s sacred words—“if you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love someone else,”—I vowed that we always love ourselves enough to be great people as individuals who have the capacity for mercy, grace, and dignity; and through that self-love (not to be confused with selfish love), may we always show merciful, graceful, and dignified love to each other. With an open heart and an affection for the fictional Parks and Recreation couple Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt, we repeated: “I love you and I like you.”
I loved my wedding. This sentiment is largely because, for the first time in a very long time, I felt truly present and fully aware of, what Mary Oliver calls, our “one wild and precious life.” What I found most important and unique about my wedding was the way in which I felt as if my life was fully realized in that moment. To be clear, I’m not describing some traditionalist view of feeling like a complete woman by getting married. As a womanist, academic, and believer in Ntozke Shange’s words “I found god in myself and I loved her fiercely,” I have always believed, that by the grace of God, I was my own best thing. In this sense, what I’m describing then is the way in which my wedding—defined as an act of reveling in love—had the transformative power to call me to my own attention, reminding me to not just be in love, but to celebrate it to the fullest.
Before my wedding, people warned me that the day was going to fly by, and they were right. I was aware of the cautionary tales of couples who didn’t really have time to enjoy their day because they were distracted with the details of the wedding. I knew that I wanted to be as present as possible on my wedding day, and trust me, this was no small task. The twelve months leading up to my wedding were a whirlwind. I was finishing my dissertation, on the job market, flying all over the country for job interviews, teaching, and working as a private tutor. I felt an overwhelming sense of worry about my future during this time. Even when I landed my dream job, a tenure-track position in my field of cinema and media studies, I had little time to revel in that accomplishment since I still needed to finish and file my dissertation.
For the first time, I was not thinking about tomorrow, my dissertation, my graduation, or my career. I was here today, basking and rejoicing in our love.
I then had to figure out the logistics of selling my condo in Los Angeles and moving to upstate New York. One can only imagine the pressures of planning a wedding in Atlanta while living in Southern California.
In reality, I didn’t plan much. After detailing our vision for the day, I left everything up to the wedding planner. I often “playfully” joked that while I was glad to be getting married to the love of my life, I’ve only known him two years and have been trying to get my PhD for five. I wasn’t wedding planning; I was dissertating. All of this background information is to underscore in the simplest terms that I felt constantly in flux.
In the midst of the tumultuous swells and storms of stress in my life at the time, my wedding day became a sanctuary. Unlike the months (and really, the years) of solitude it took to finish my dissertation, I spent my wedding day surrounded in communion with all the people I loved as I dedicated my life to the one I love. Therefore, what I loved most about my wedding was that it surprised me in a way that I hadn’t expected. Sure, I knew that I would walk down the aisle on the arm of my mother to the lyrics of “Set a Fire.” As the song called out “There’s no place I’d rather be than,” I knew that the ceremony backdrop would respond in confirmation: “here in your love.” I knew that our wonderful friend, Leneé, would officiate and that she would touch our hearts with the words she prepared. I knew I would cherish every word of Allen’s vows, and I would make him laugh with mine. I knew we’d be pronounced man and wife, and the song “Happy” would play as we’d dance our way back up the aisle. I knew that my bridesmaids would enter the reception to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explaining what a feminist was while they wore “Flawless” flannel shirts. I knew our first dance would be to Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong Our Love Is” because Allen knew it was my favorite. I knew that I would have a special moment with my mother, a single mom, as we did a “mother-daughter” dance to Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” which led to a pretty epic “Wobble.” I knew I would be touched deeply by the thoughtful words of my maid of honor and best friend, Amanda, and Allen’s best man, Dougal.
What I didn’t know, what surprised me, was how aware I would be of the joy I felt. Instead of worrying about the future, my dissertation (which I filed the week after the wedding), and the countless to-do items that lead up to my graduation, I was finally in a moment of mindfulness, of liveliness. I was present to my own happiness. I spent my wedding dancing so hard, laughing so mightily, and living so momentously. I didn’t care about the fact that it rained and I couldn’t have the ceremony in the garden meadow as I planned. I didn’t care that family members arrived late and had their own drama going on. I didn’t care about the décor or details (in fact, I totally forgot that I was supposed to pick up the wedding favors, 100 boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts). All I cared about was being in the moment. All I could see were the faces of friends and family as they celebrated Allen’s and my happiness. All I could hear were the resounding beats that kept me on the dance floor until the final song of the night. All I knew was that I had finally found the person who I could love with grace, mercy, and dignity. For the first time, I was not thinking about tomorrow, my dissertation, my graduation, or my career. I was here today, basking and rejoicing in our love.
Photos by Milanes Photography
Samantha Sheppard is an Assistant Professor of Cinema & Media Studies at Cornell University. She enjoys going to double features, watching The Golden Girls, reading romance novels, and going to brunch with her favorite person, Allen.