Weddings and Funerals Are Not Enough: On Celebration and Gathering
Last weekend I had the joyful experience of attending my sister’s wedding. It was a beautiful day celebrating her partnership and family, and gathering many of her wider family and beloved friends together. There was some spectacle, there was some ritual, there was a lot of humour, there was eating and drinking, and merry making, there were costumes and costume changes, there was singing and dancing. The marriage was at a theatre where I have seen my sister perform powerful, emotionally charged roles. Yesterday though, I could not but be struck by the big waves of emotion that surged through the ‘congregation’, especially during the speeches. I was also struck by the feeling I had towads the end of the evening when we had to vacate the venue. I sensed, in the collective, gratitude for the opportunity to gather, to celebrate, to dance wildly (relatively speaking), and to be with friends. And I also sensed how people’s thirst for such things was appeased but by no means satiated. While the DJ was packing up, I and some of the others who were there until the end, and would have liked to continue many more hours, enjoyed some communal singing with one of my cousins accompanying us on the guitar. And then it was time to leave. Several people commented to me how it was such a wonderful day, or couple of days if they had also been there for the beach picnic and pre-party the day before, and that ‘it wasn’t long enough’. ‘It’s like we’ve just got going.’ People had just got to meet and then in was time to go away from each other again, back to a day to day existence characterised by conditions of atomisation and isolation more heightened than even just one or a few generations back.
Compared to many my age, I have attended very few weddings, only a handful. I dare say I have attended fewer than perhaps anyone else of a similar age who was there yesterday. I was so grateful to be part of this beautiful celebration, and today I feel moved to write about what I noticed as a deep hunger for gathering and collective celebration. The somewhat itinerant life I have lived has meant that I have not been to so many weddings, but I have gathered in circle and I have gathered to sing together, songs of freedom, of longing, of celebration, of veneration, of deep cleansing and revitalisation regularly now for twenty years, though by no means as regularly as I would like.
Over the years, when I return to the islands of my birth, I am often struck by how things I find completely ‘normal’ are perceived as so strange, alien, wacky, somewhat disconcerting even; and how things I find really rather strange are widely seen as completely ‘normal’ here.
In particular, I find it strange that so many people here find it strange to gather and share song, to make and collaboratively, spontaneously create our own entertainment, to dance, to move in playful, exploratory ways, and to sit in heartfelt conversation around a fire.
My experience this weekend though suggested to me that it is not because these innate human appetites are extinct, just that in this society, many have never had the chance to experience them apart from at such grand celebrations as a wedding.
Yesterday’s ceremony was in a place granted the right to sanctify a marriage under law and it happened to be a theatre. However, as it was not a ‘religious’ wedding, the ceremony was ‘not allowed’ to make mention of anything ‘religious’, nor to contain ‘swear words’. I had been asked to share a reading at the wedding, which was duly vetted by the registrars before the ceremony. The registrars were very straightforward and down to earth about it, though I did find it rather strange, and somewhat ridiculous and comical, that at a ceremony in which the couple swear their commitment to join together, ‘religion’ – etymologically to join again – was verboten, and that ‘swearing’ was out of the question.
I mention this detail because what I sensed in the audience/congregation/wedding party yesterday was a mighty thirst and hunger for an occasion that allowed them to consider, even if only subconsciously, the meaning of love and life, the broader questions of what and who we commit to or orient our lives towards. And even more, the opportunity to let through and out, with tears, with laughter, with full belt singing and carefree moving on the dancefloor so much emotion.
But weddings and funerals are not enough.
Going back many years now, I have fantasised about a gathering bringing together my dearest friends who are scattered over six continents, for a week of festivities, of singing – lots of singing, of dancing, of inquiry, of ecstatic celebration of the elements and the beauty of nature, with wonderful food, with time for talking and listening, playing and digesting, sharing and learning and moving and recreating. Yesterday confirmed for me that I’m not the only one, and that weddings and funerals are not enough. In the UK, and I’m sure it’s not so dissimilar in many other countries, festivals both pagan and Christian, both relatively ancient and relatively modern, tied to the natural and agricultural cycles have both faded and we are left malnourished.
The grand music festivals and sporting occasions of the British summer season are one surrogate, one that can bring great wonder and nourishment. However, there is something very different about a gathering of say 60 to 300 people, where you can interact with almost everyone to some significant degree, and where the sense of shared, co-created experience is very different from those gatherings where the separation between the ‘entertainers’ and the ‘spectators’ is so marked. Life is not a spectator sport.
I had been looking forward to the previously planned Gathering in Ireland this July, which will now not go ahead this year as insufficient places were booked to cover the costs of running the event. All being well, we will be able to do so next year.
And all being well, more broadly, we will wake up to the recognition that weddings and funerals are not enough. That the special occasion is now and special occasions to mark the cycles and turnings of life are inherently wise. They remind us of the sanctity and shortness of life, and of the cyclical munificence of nature.
Every day we die a little, and we move closer to death. Every day is also filled with unions, of the night and the day, of our interactions with ourselves and everything around us. May we remember to celebrate and give thanks, to laugh and smile and feel gratitude every day. May we grant permission for cleansing streams of tears to flow when our days meet with poignancy, and may we walk with a lightness that allows our bellies to rock with laughter. May we sing and dance and celebrate this amazing gift of life, every day.
James Boag | Whole Life Yoga
The yoga of the whole human being. Practical philosophy, storytelling, movement, inquiry, looking in ways that reach beyond our habitual ways of looking.
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