As anyone who has been married can tell you, marriage is all about reality: it is the process of creating a joint future in close quarters and close partnership. When it is a good match, it is one of the best things in the world; and when it is not – well, then let’s just let it suffice to say that it is not.
Weddings, however, are all about fantasy. My first husband had requested that I wear a big white dress with (in his words) ‘a draggy thing.’ So I had the yards and yards of tulle and the draggy thing, and a veil and 200 or so guests. I looked like Cinderella in white shoes.
That was the wedding in which I fulfilled everyone else’s expectations.
But later, older, wiser, and less prone to fantasy, I remarried. When I went to purchase a dress for my wedding to my husband Tom, I went to one of those cute little bridal shops and picked out a nice dress from a catalog: a bridesmaid dress, actually, in shell pink satin.
The day that it arrived, I was ecstatic: I wanted to go in and try it on and feel like a bride. But as a single mom with a tight schedule, the only way I could go over there was to bring my son with me in an appointment sandwiched in between lunch and teaching.
Now, let me tell you: if you want to understand the difference between reality and fantasy, go to a bridal shop as a nearly-40 single mom in a subdued pink bridal gown, which is really a bridesmaid gown repurposed, and stand next to the 20-something young women getting fitted with big white dresses with yards of lace, beads, sequins, and tulle.
Go there and stand next to women who have not yet lost the glossy sheen of youth, who do not know love’s disappointment or despair.
My pink gown was wrinkled and the zipper was broken and gaping open, and my six-year-old son kept picking up those plastic clips that they use for fittings and clipping them randomly all over my dress. ‘Here Mommy: I found another one,’ he would say as he clipped it on.
There is reality, and there is fantasy, and the sales ladies at this little bridal salon were none too thrilled to have the two standing side by side.
We all have an image in our head of What Things Should Look Like; some of our greatest disappointments, in fact, are when things don’t match up to that fantasy. We might spend long years in denial, in fact, hoping that the image in our head is at some point matched by the facts on the ground.
What gets us into trouble, however, is when we pretend that the reality and the fantasy are one and the same. When we think that the job or the marriage or the living situation will get better when we know in our bones that it will not. But it is very easy to hold on to that fantasy and to hope for the best.
Our relationship to God – and by extension, our relationship to Judaism – can also be a bit like that. We think that things should happen a certain way, and then they do not. Should we give up on our faith? Should we get angry at God?
As I said, my first marriage started in fantasy – in the great white wedding with a tulle-and-lace Cinderella gown with a draggy-thing and a tiara and white gloves. And then that most lovely wedding ended in the reality of a divorce; the unraveling of the relationship began almost immediately even though it took many years to complete.
But that second dress – the shell-pink bridesmaid’s dress, beautiful at last after it had been steam-pressed, altered and repaired – was the one in which I traded fantasy for the reality of a mature and lasting love, the fairy tale for happily-ever-after.
Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD., serves Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York and teaches at SUNY Plattsburgh.