YOU, HE SAID. YOU THINK OF GETTING MARRIED LIKE YOU START out with a certain amount of capital, and that's all you're ever going to get, and you start to spend it the day you get married.

By which he meant emotional capital, of course, and he was right: It was exactly what I believed. My parents had divorced after 35 years together. I must not get married, I thought, until I found myself in a relationship so manifestly rich that 35, 40 years, a lifetime could not spend it.

It was a new idea to me that marriage could be a source of capital, instead of the thief of my hard-won store. It was the concept that changed everything.

I'VE BEEN TO A WEDDING ON A FARM, IN 1969, WHERE THE BRIDE wore a diaphanous white dress and no shoes and the groom wore a mismatching suit and no shoes and a funny Daniel Boone hat, and the service took place in a cornfield. The couple were friends of my best friend Julie's parents, and after the ceremony the groom took me and then Julie on motorcycle rides. I was 11, and the day's novelties -- seeing what I took to be actual hippies, and being alone with the groom, holding loosely as I dared to the warmth of his back, and riding a motorcycle, which would surely have horrified my mother -- still carry a wild romance for me.

I've been to a wedding on a golf course newly carved out of a bluff overlooking the San Diego Freeway, with golf carts still whirring toward the clubhouse as the bride and groom came down the aisle, and a stiff Santa Ana worrying the huppah. Later, inside the clubhouse, the groom's mother gave a toast, holding microphone and cigarette in the same manicured hand.

I've been to the wedding of my former high school boyfriend, who got married a year out of college on the bank of a lake in Upstate New York. Everyone, including me, seemed to think it made fine sense for me to be his best man: The bride and I had become friends by then too, and he was something like family. Hours after the ceremony I found myself sitting alone on the damp grass, drunk, under a whirling sky. I carefully timed my retreat to bed so I wouldn't have to talk to anyone on the way.

I've been to the wedding of close, close friends radiant with the rightness of their marriage. The wedding of my college roommate, who married her boyfriend of seven or eight years with her usual air of having known since she was 6 exactly what she was destined for. The wedding of my sister, 13 years ago; of my father, only two years back; of near-strangers who assumed an immediate definition for me through the intimacy of their celebration.

But a lifetime of going to weddings, I am learning, is scant preparation for having one. Doing one? Throwing one? There is not even a verb that relates the bride and groom to their wedding, except for planning, a correct but wildly incomplete description.

As I write this, our wedding is five months off. We allowed 10, from the time we got engaged: Tim and I have lived together for two years -- there was no rush, and we had a shared instinct that we would need the time. To assemble all those details without having to drop the other threads of our lives, for one thing. But also to enjoy the planning, to meet each piece of it consciously and with care.

We learned, quickly, that there is a genial conspiracy in the world toward nuptial hysteria. Not until October? people said. That hardly counts as engaged. There was something . . . plodding, it was implied, about allowing time to experience this promise we were making. You should do what we did, they said, and:


Get married next week at a friend's house.

Run away and get married in a cave in Hawaii.

Decide not to get married.

For some couples, the decision to strip their wedding to essentials may be their own way of preserving or heightening its meaning. But the advice comes through as a call to urgency. Hurry up, hurry past; the covert message is that marriage is just too frightening an undertaking to enter into deliberately.

Paradoxically, these scoffers-at-ceremony have a lot in common with the camp that favors drowning a wedding in oceans of ritual and formality: They share the urge to avert their eyes from the occasion's meaning.

All weddings, I think, are ruled by the tension between ritual and meaning. Rituals hold meanings, of course: You cut the cake, you dance the first dance, in the South you send guests home with a boxed piece of groom's cake, to slip under their pillows for dreams; you say the vows, you break the glass, you toss the flowers. All of these practices are containers of meaning, but every person who gets married has a choice: to use the ritual to keep the meaning contained, or to pour out the meaning, and taste it.

For a man, the invitation to evade his wedding's meaning comes wrapped in the generic packaging of stereotype: the near-universal suggestion that men's lives aren't supposed to be all that rich in emotional meaning. Tim is routinely told by friends (especially married ones) that he should resign himself to being a pawn at his own wedding.

For a woman, the invitation to distraction is more lavishly seductive. There is the tradition that brides should fret, making up in a surfeit of nervous feeling for the groom's supposed stoicism; there is all the pressing hokum of the bridal magazines: I am urged to "start working on" my choice of bouquet three months in advance.

I still can't make up my mind about the bridal magazines. I've bought them, to be sure, skulking compulsively into magazine stores, approaching the cash register with the studied nonchalance of the porn store habitue. And they are a kind of pornography, promoting as they do the whole aspect of weddings that objectifies the happy pair on the most important day of your life; that especially objectifies the bride, her beauty (brides are always beautiful) and her body.

On the other hand, you can find between all those ads, as you find it few other places, the earnest message that something important is afoot.

But of course, I buy them for the ads. For a woman in her thirties, marrying more than 10 years after she first read The Second Sex, wedding porn has a certain added charm -- the one-time-only offer of legitimacy for the abandoned, forbidden sweets of girl-dom.

Peau de soie, I find myself saying, the words hilarious but tasty on my tongue. And tulle, and stephanotis. Will I buy little white shoes swathed in satin? How preposterous. With little covered buttons, maybe? What fun.

At the bridal salon, mothers and daughters contend over dresses in the international language of mother-daughter aggravation. Over necklines, to be specific, the daughters yanking the bodices down to the cleavage, the mothers turning to the saleswomen, those masters of diplomacy, to suggest that the lines of the dress are lovely, but perhaps a little veiling . . . here, above the bodice -- and up to the neck -- like so. Sit there long enough, waiting your turn to be conducted into one of the dressing rooms and back to another century, and these exchanges take on an uncanny sameness. A daughter tries on confection after confection, all of them designed to make her look gorgeous, until finally she is unlucky enough to hit on one that does nothing for her. Nine times out of 10, this is the one that brings the mother out of her chair in admiration.

Standing in front of a long mirror, surrounded by other brides-to-be, I can usually remember that this part is simply the costume.

At other times, it seems to me the ultimate act of self-definition: As I marry this person, who am I? I know I am not ruffles, not beads; I know I am exposed shoulders, a bit of swagger. This one is definitely too fussy, this one perhaps too severe. Goldilocks in the dressing room, I seek the one just right.

MY OLDER SISTER, LIKE MY MOTHER, GOT MARRIED AT 23. My sharpest memory is of knocking over a Coke bottle while helping her with her hair, nearly splashing it down the front of her dress. She jumped out of range in the nick of time, but when I think of it, more than a decade later, my heart can still beat faster with fear.

Such is the terrible weight of weddings. I've watched perfectly level-headed friends unravel under the pressure; I've watched as the smallest things began to take on otherworldly significance for them. (CAN YOU BELIEVE MY SISTER-IN-LAW WANTS TO BUY BRIDESMAIDS' SHOES WITH A LOWER HEEL?) I never understood until now that it is because there is no easily found seam between the two meanings of marrying, the day's events and the life's commitment. Hence the parade of bridal anxieties: The trivia of menu planning (and we are talking trivial here -- two kinds of mustard or three, to go with the ham?) gives way to the largest issues in our relationship, now out on the table as the first work of our marriage; in the next moment, these seem less pressing than how long the musicians should play.

There's only so much meaning, it seems, a person can stand.

Since I got engaged, I've learned that people -- intimates, acquaintances, near-strangers, family -- have large reactions to the inherent emotional power of this thing Tim and I are doing. Tides of response rush at or past us, some of it very intimate and dear to us, some of it absurdly misplaced. It seems a function of people's own marriages or weddings, of the unknown roles in which people have cast us, as people always will. But for every sudden sting or acid comment that must be turned aside, every Don't worry, you can always get divorced, there is an assertion of love, a claim on my friendship or his, that cannot go unmet.

Of course, any wedding is two weddings, if you add in the social event taking place for the four or 60 or 300 guests. Weddings are one of our last great vessels of clannishness, rigorous schools of cultural education.

What's more, even if the bride and groom marry by themselves, in a Vegas wedding chapel or a lean-to on the tundra, they never marry alone. Every wedding is at least a little haunted by the children they were. Whether or not they avail themselves of it, a wedding is each bride and groom's most explicit chance at our common, three-word heart's desire: Look at me. And the child's experience of that wish -- whether it was expressed or fulfilled, whether it was answered too much or too little -- is present in the decision to elope as surely as it is present in the happy exhibitionism of a couple who marry before a throng.

One friend, the radiant one, confided that she hated the idea of holding her reception in a single large room. For her, and the child she had been, there was unbearable tension in demanding that her guests focus so constantly on her and her business of the day; far better to give them choices, other rooms, other (possibly more interesting?) things to do.

But she and her groom did it anyway, deliberately, making themselves the shining center of a great big room full of their pasts. And so her ghost of former years was only a very faint presence and, I thought, a grateful one.

HALFWAY TOWARD OCTOBER, THE TIDE OF WEDDING HYSteria sucks ever more strongly at our ankles. With each decision we make that successfully steers away from reflex, whether over a grand or a trivial matter, we feel a surge of pleasure to find ourselves still in control, still masters of the event instead of its objects.

One decision I made was to ask a very close but relatively new friend to be my only attendant. An old friend from college would have been an easier choice (I was her maid of honor four years ago), but I wanted with me someone who knows me exactly as I am today. Another, mutual, decision was that we would serve at the reception only food Tim and I both liked. (Whether the salmon constitutes an exception is a whole other story.) A third was to find a site only blocks from our house, for the sake of making our promise with feet planted in the center of our lives -- not in some glade, however gorgeous, unrelated to our every day.

In each decision there is a moment of stopping to will away the automatic impulse: to try to look beyond what background or family tradition or social convenience or sex stereotypes or Checklist for a Perfect Wedding say we should do.

Sometimes our decisions coincide with the advice of these oracles. Some wedding ritual, I have decided, may help me by remaining just that: an underpinning of custom to lift us all past the anxiety of family reunion. For part of what my wedding will mean to me is seeing my parents together, in the same room, for the first time in more than four years; a room in which my stepmother will also be a welcome guest. Everyone will behave well. But the prospect touches in me, as weddings always do, every familiar bruise. I am astonished at my hubris in marrying as long as we both shall live. I have to concentrate to remember my confidence that I have learned how to compound interest.

If it will ease this reunion to rely sometimes on what the rule book says, so be it. But I want to know that in making each decision, I have at least uncorked the bottle and sniffed at the essence inside. We have not decided what vows to say, for example, but we liked the advice we got from the old friend who has agreed to marry us: Even if couples want a standard ceremony, he asks that they also, privately, write their own vows, to make sure they can articulate to themselves and each other what promise they are making. In the same way, I want to know I have teased what meaning I can from all the other rituals of the day.

When I think about my wedding, some of my wishes are things that are only partly in my control. Ways I would like people to be with me, and connections I hope to make -- with my sisters, for example, or with particular friends. But my biggest wish is one whose fulfillment is entirely up to me. It is that between now and October, I cultivate in myself a generous enough appetite that I can take it, or let it, all in.