It doesn't take a reporter to know when someone's come prepared to an interview.

Harleigh M. Hodge contacted me in late August after I posted to and caught my attention immediately when she wrote, "I would trade you comments in blogging and future opportunities instead of pay."

And, in a first for The Bartering Bride, I'm not the only person who stands to benefit here: Harleigh is offering any bride and groom who mentions this blog her ceremony services for free (!) during the summer of 2013. Email her here.

Sound too good to be true? I feared the same. But, if you know me or if you've been reading how exhaustive I've made my search for the right dress or the right vendor, you know I do my research. Because, let's be honest: Paying for something quality is always better than receiving something that doesn't impress for free.

But, I'd been here myself as a businesswoman. When my sister and I launched our company back in August 2011, I asked a friend of mine if we could create a Story of Your Life
for her for free. We did, and now our business is all paid work (thankfully). All businesses must start somewhere, and sometimes the only way to start creating a track record is to go gratis. I get it.

Harleigh ultimately convinced my future husband and me to hire her over Chinese food. We'd agreed to meet for lunch to discuss, among other things, why she'd just become a certified wedding officiant in the summer of 2012. I liked her answer: She'd seen the joy in weddings (including her own) and wanted to be a part of creating that joy for others.

Harleigh (see picture below) struck me as soft spoken, but confident, and my interest in becoming her first bridal client grew when I learned she's a teacher. Clearly, one must be able to speak before an audience to command a classroom.

But what really cinched our interest was how prepared she was. She brought outlines and worksheets to help us decide which elements we want to include in our ceremony. Maybe every officiant does this, but it impressed us still.

Here's the outline we're using to delineate what we want:

And here's an example of a worksheet Harleigh, who is certified through a non-denomination church and prefers to perform small weddings, provided. It offers several options for each step in our ceremony, so we may choose the one best suited for us. And no worries, Harleigh told us. If there's nothing on the page we like, we're welcome to share one from another source.
My love has circled the options he likes, and I put hearts around them. Now, we're working gradually to decide what we want our ceremony to convey, which parts of the outline we feel are essential and which we'd rather not have. What we know definitively is this: We want to write our own vows.

It won't be easy. When, as a newspaper reporter, I sit down to write a story I know is incredible, it's always hard because I feel the pressure of doing it justice. So the question of the next several months is: How will I ever write vows to a man who's been so incredible to me, who is my everything?

For starters, I took notes at a wedding we recently attended. This couple also wrote their vows, and I teared up at much of what they said. Some excerpts:

"Every day that we're together is the best day of my life."
"I will love you as you are, not how I want you to be."

Of course, one shouldn't steal vows from another couple. The point of writing your own vows is for them to be precisely you two. That's what makes this whole intimidating process worth it in the end, right? So, one thing Steven and I have decided to do is collect and read every card we've ever exchanged in what we've dubbed our "card party." Here's the rainbow of cards we've amassed:

See any common denominator in many of the cards I've received? Hint: There's a live clue present (as she is whenever I'm doing something that involves paper on the floor).
And a couple months ago, my husband-to-be gave me this pretty little number and wrote his own description on it. He's a.d.o.r.a.b.l.e.
Being a writer and writing my own vows is akin, I'm sure, to being a composer and writing one's own first dance song. Inspiration is going to be key.

So, my love and I are having our card party. From what did you draw inspiration to write your vows?
It's Thanksgiving, and I am FULL. Full of juicy turkey and a smorgasbord of other foods that have made the once-a-year gorge-yourself event a resounding success. As usual, we ate well at my Mom's, and in a first, I carved (OK, butchered) the bird:
And here are the two dishes I whipped up using recipes I discovered on my phone while roaming the aisles of a local Heinen's. After perusing more deviled egg recipes than I knew existed, I settled on this one: typical egg yolk, yellow mustard and mayonnaise filling, topped with crumbled bacon, sliced cherry tomatoes and fresh basil. They called it deviled egg a la BLT:
This here is Brussels sprouts, pan fried and then cooked with shallots in chicken broth, before being garnished with bacon:
And the full orchestra:
So yes, I am stuffed to the brim. But I didn't write this blog to share that I'm full of food.

I am full of gratitude. Six months ago, after the love of my life proposed to me, I came to the regretful realization that we likely would have to get married at a courthouse or conduct some other form of party-less wedding that is dramatically less than I would have liked for him and our friends and family (and me, I admit). I'm a firm believer that it's not just your spouse who should know, through the wedding, how much you love him/her. It's your guests, too. (I am so thankful that we have incredible people with whom we will share our big day.)

Today, I am a most fortunate woman. We will have a wedding that will be great fun, great tasting and greatly us because vendors see value in a) what I can do for them and b) bartering in general. They believe in my abilities, I believe in theirs and together, we win.

But, I couldn't do any of this without Steven. He told me early on that if I am writing to earn for us the wedding we can't wait to have, I won't do dishes anymore. I won't be responsible for wiping counters anymore. And, true to his word, I rarely do housework. In doing everything he's doing at home, my husband-to-be has affirmed for me that ours is a true partnership.

Which brings me to my last point: I am full of gratitude that I found this man and that he came to love me. He adores me despite knowing EVERYTHING about me: every sugar and spice thing, every brow-raising, is this girl cuckoo? thing. I know he's The One because I want to be a better person, a better woman, a better everything for him, not because he gripes at me or pressures me, but because I see every day how he vies to do the same by me.

This time next year, when perhaps the Brussels sprouts and the spruced up deviled eggs return, I will be his wife. There aren't words for how thankful I am for that.
I love it when a plan comes together.

As I browsed the pictures I took during a recent visit to the venue with the Husband-To-Be, my little sister and designer extraordinaire, Stephanie, and my event-planning friend, Katie, I realized: We have chosen most of the vendors  who will transform this wonderful place into our wedding. So, so happy to have such an incredible *cast*!

Capturing it all will be Cavanaugh Photography, which recently gave us access to all of our engagement proofs. We are thisclose to selecting which will be the image for our save-the-dates.

Doesn't this stage seem built for the karaoke and DJing Something New Entertainment will deliver?
And we're excited to have Bill the Bartender behind this rustic bar, too. Nice and spacious:
Here's where our officiant (whom I will introduce in my next blog entry) will marry us. Interestingly, those who get married here have to pay a fairly nominal fee for security because otherwise, there's really nothing separating guests from the cliff into the lake (except common sense, lol):
We still are looking for ideas as to how we can transform this simple gazebo into something rustic and whimsical, perhaps using fabric of some sort. Have some thoughts? I await your email:

There's another vendor I have yet to introduce: OUR CATERER!! But I'm waiting until our taste tests, which are scheduled for January, so I can show off their food. Our wedding meal will be served up for our guests in this enclosed patio overlooking Lake Erie. We figured it'd be a nice view for people to take in while they wait. I'm not revealing our menu yet, but here's a clue: Every plate will be completely customized to each person's tastes.
What remains to be determined is what style and color flowers we'll use. My mom is somewhat allergic to flowers that possess strong scents, so I'll need a florist's opinion on which would least harass her. (Hint, hint: If you're a florist with ideas, I'd love to hear from you!)

I also am contemplating crafting one or more of the 40 DIY projects presented here. Namely some variation of numbers 3, 13, 20 and 21. Maybe you'll see some ideas you like?

In the meantime, I am quite pleased with the collection of pickle, spaghetti and Mason jars we've amassed, as well as the 20+ tree slabs. We're planning to outfit each table with an ivory linen and a contrasting lace overlay, topped with three tree slabs and an assortment of twine- and lace-wrapped jars, a la this (though we only had two slabs during this particular visit):
A word to the wise: Always take a second (or third) walk through your venue, especially if you're responsible for the decorative vision. Top reason I'm glad we did? It solidified for us that chair covers are a MUST:
Waiting to hear why this blog's title references a bear? Behold, our furry friend. My handsome HTB joked that we should dress him up. There will be no toying with the big, dead bear, I retorted.
I guess, when you ask for rustic, a taxidermic animal isn't such a stretch.