Danna D. Schmidt
Master Life-Cycle Celebrant®
Ordained Wedding Officiant
Master Life-Cycle Celebrant®
Ordained Wedding Officiant
I became an artist and thank God I did because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”
To be a celebrant Is to be a Visionary, Guide, Scribe, Servant, Priest, Healer, Poet, Mystic, Fool, Storyteller, Detective, Shapeshifter, Alchemist and Artist. (Cards from Caroline Myss’ Archetype Cards deck).
As I sat listening to Viola Davis deliver her Best Supporting Actress acceptance speech for her role in the movie Fences this past Sunday evening, I couldn’t help but think that she must clearly be unfamiliar with the good and bountiful work of us Life-Cycle Celebrant® types because lo and behold, we, too, are in the business of celebrating what it means to live a life….as are innumerable other professionals engaged in soulful, healing, celebratory and transformative work on this planet.
I will lend latitude to her statement, however, since arguably, our work in the world is equally artisanal and I profess as much to all who are intrigued by what we do as celebrants. We help individuals, couples, families and communities aike shine a light on life’s indelible moments – be they milestones or pebbles – and yes, we do so artfully and heartful-ly. The difference, of course, between on-screen actor performances and the work of ritual leaders is that film artistry is an enacted portrayal whereas ceremony is a real-time, unplugged and uncut lived moment.
As with art, so too with ritual, for indeed, the ephemera of ceremony is plentiful. If you are at all skeptical of ceremony as a kind of art form, allow me to reveal a few of the multi-sensory tools, tricks, and talismans we celebrants keep in our professional kitbag:
A Looking Glass. One of my first and foremost tasks as a celebrant is to act as a kind of shameless sleuth with those who hire me. I may not use a magnifying glass but I do coyly snoop when I am in the home of or in conversation with a client, in order to uncover the meaningful symbols and precious things in their lives. And as any relentless observer knows, contained in our things are a phethora of stories that speak volumes to the unique ways we humans go about defining this business of living a life.
A Pocket-Sized Kaleidocope. Along the same vein, I always seek to maintain a kaleidoscope vision when helping people celebrate any big life moment. What are the perspectives and sentiments of their close friends, family and witnesses? The richest ceremonial moments make room for a kaleidoscope of perspectives and tributes, and there is very little sweeter in my job than witnessing the look on the faces of honorees who are the ritual recipients of an array of intentional tributes – be these in verbal, gift or audio/visual form.
A Tiny Music Box. My ears are perpetually attuned to the soundscapes and musical reels of those I celebrate. Favorite songs or even ones that fit a particular ceremony theme are fair game and whenever possible, I encourage those I work with to let music express what story, words and ritual alone cannot. Music nanosecond-pierces that innermost emotional chord within each of us and often, is one of the greatest not-so-secret weapons in any celebrant’s magic arsenal of ritual tools. So what is the song that plays on my music box, you ask? What a Wonderful World, of course.
A Clown Nose. In even the most somber of ceremonies, there exist opportunities to elicit smiles and laughter. My clown nose is my reminder that while I might take my ceremonial work seriously, the invisible trickster spirit that lurks in the ethers of every ceremony often has other plans in store. Case in point, my first day on the volunteer beat as a hospice companion was a clown sort of day. I was so nervous and focused on saying and doing the “right” thing when I walked into my patient’s room that I inadvertently tripped over her inflatable floor pad and triggered the nurse’s station alarm. This immediately elicited giggles from the dear lady in bed and is my take-away reminder that humility, humor, compassionate presence, and an improvisational attitude were all I needed to bring with me that day. I bring these same qualities to my ceremonies now, not necessarily in that order, as I counsel myself to lighten up whenever and wherever possible, and to seek out the moments that tickle funny bones or invite silliness, because that’s also also how we celebrate what it means to live a life.
Frankincense & Myrrh Oil in a Gold Gauze Bag. Few myths are as perennial and provocative as the birth of Christ. Religiosity aside though, as a soulsmith, I find myself drawn to imagining how we might all have been conceived in imitatio dei, which is to say, imperfectly perfect. Having these seemingly sacred oils in my traveling celebrant bag helps me ensure I invoke a subtle sense of smell in ceremony, where appropriate. This might be in the form of an essential oil of the honoree’s favorite flower, or it might be with perfumes, culinary scents or other personalized fragrances that are reminiscent of that person or persons.
Chocolate. We cannot possibly be in the business of celebrating what it means to live a life without involving food. Now granted, food is not always present in every ceremony, but I do what I can to integrate some small sweet or savory taste element, or ideally, incorporate a post-ceremony feast. Just as music and aroma help us embody and encapsulate ceremonial memories, so too, with our taste buds. At my father’s celebration of life, it was small cups of butterscotch ice cream in honor of his vocation as a milkman and later, ice cream shop owner. At my son’s farewell enroute to a college and town renowned for its food trucks, shredded pork tacos and Walla Walla onions figured prominently.
Kleenex. A box of tissue is a staple in any celebrant’s kit: we never leave home without it. Tissue also serves as a reminder for me that the magical moments I aspire to in my work are the ones in which I am able to make people laugh and cry at the same time.
A Tiny Fairytale Book. Some of my favorite stories began with these six words: Once upon a time, there lived…. Tucking a pocket-sized fairy tale in my celebrant kit helps me recall the magic of myth and power of story that is awakened each time we gather ceremoniously.
Quill Pen & Ink. The tales of our lives seldom get to live lively on pages, even as they always speak themselves aloud in the form of human journeys. A quill pen and ink jar is the most primordial and potent of celebrant tools, for it serves as symbol and hallmark of our work as scribes: writing the personalized story of the moment in question, which forms the heart and soul of every well-crafted Life-Cycle Celebrant ceremony.
Magic Wand. When people ask what I do, I describe my job as equals parts shaman, sherpa and shazamer. My work in the world is not always wizardly, but what’s created in ceremonial space — most notably when people feel empowered to enact personalized rituals — is, in deed and in creed, the stuff of magic and mystery. As symbol of the power of ritual and ceremony as a force for good, I carry a mini light saber in my celebrant kit. It’s kitschy but hey, clicking that little LED light on before each ceremony and getting to turn it off at the end is a pretty dang fun and empowering ritual.
Message in a Bottle. One of my most coveted items within my bag is a tiny scroll wrapped around a small sprinking of dried sage within a tiny corked bottle, upon which I have inscribed these words by Robin Wall Kimmerer from her masterpiece of a book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants: “Ceremonies large and small have the power to focus attention to a way of living awake in the world.” I love that the words upon this scroll are mostly hidden to me but that their wisdom continues to reveal itself forward with each new ceremony I officiate.
Van Gogh Action Figure. I have Viola to thank for fully owning my artisanal status as a celebrant and for the latest addition to my travel toolkit. New to my kit this summer will be a mini Vincent Van Gogh action figure with removable ears. Not only will be it be totemic that every ceremony I craft is a bank canvas awaiting a unique and masterful creation, but it will also be my not-so-subtle reminder to keep leaning in listening with two big ears.
To be sure, not every profession requires one to travel with such an eclectic bag of tools and tricks and talismans, but as someone who custom designs ceremonies from birth to earth, my work in the modern world is a tad uncommon. Helping people, in celebratory fashion, answer the age-old question of what it really means to live a life ought be the tagline on every Life-Cycle Celebrant’s business card.
And while I may not have an Oscar to show for this magical, mystery tour I call work, I do have a miniature light saber, some tiny toys, an emergency stash of chocolate, and a genie in a music box such that I get to bring Louis Armstrong back to life at whim. That’s the shazamer part of what I do and truth be told, I wouldn’t trade it for any gold statuette, no matter how shiny.