Season of the witch

I'd like to tell my conservative Christian mother-in-law I practice Wicca. Do you think she'd understand?

Published January 2, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Mr. Blue,

Fifteen years ago, I began practicing a much maligned religion called Wicca. It has brought a sense of connectedness and well-being that I received from no other source. I am quite happy spiritually. But some people can't handle my religion: Some friends have turned away from me and I am estranged from my own family. So, understandably, I'm a bit hesitant to tell most people about my beliefs. I'm engaged to a wonderful, loving man who is a very sincere Christian. We have a great relationship because we respect each other's opinions and points of view. My future mother-in-law is a warm, kindhearted woman, rather conservative in her religious leanings, and she does not know about mine. She has made great efforts to make me feel comfortable within the family, but I cannot feel truly welcome until she knows who/what I am. I'd like to tell her before we are married, but my fiancé wants me to just leave it be. Is it so wrong for me to want to know how she'd accept me after learning about my beliefs?

Not a Wicked Witch!

Dear Not,

This is a good plot for a sitcom. Bob brings his fiancée, Glenda, home to Summerville to meet Mom, a devout hymn-singing cake-baking Baptist, and Bob drops Glenda's suitcase on the stairs, and it springs open, and all these funny necklaces and statues and pictures of Beelzebub fall out. A great commotion ensues, shouting, weeping, slamming of doors, and then three commercials, and then peace is restored. Maybe Glenda uses her witchcraft to locate a lost child. Maybe she forecasts a tornado and saves the town from destruction. Everybody's happy. In real life, people aren't happy about this. Your sincere Christian's conservative mother will not freely accept having a Wiccan daughter-in-law. Maybe you could put a spell on her or whip up a potion in your cauldron, but on her own, she is not going to accept you. It would've been uphill even if you'd been a macramé Unitarian or a mackerel-snapping Catholic. Jewish would've been tough. Wiccan? You've got to be kidding.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've published work of all shapes and sizes in a variety of magazines -- fiction for teenage girls, book reviews, poetry, nature articles, even smut in magazines that require I.D. at the point of purchase. And short front-of-the magazine nonfiction. But I seem to be losing the capacity to produce "important" work, or anything longer than 800 words. I'm well paid. But I'm writing less of my own stuff than ever. Is there a way I can rekindle the talent I was said to display when I was younger, or am I doomed to believe it was all a matter of young, dumb luck?


Dear Discouraged,

You're a slick professional with a facility for the quick grabber, able to give an editor 500 words in a few hours on the subject of closets, clamming, chlamydia, closure, classic French cooking, cliff-dwellers, Clint Eastwood, Van Cliburn or clitoral response, and I should hope you are well paid for this -- it's a rare skill, like chicken sexing, and one in big demand in the Age of A.D.D. Unfortunately, reading this crap is singularly unsatisfying for the mature reader, and you're basing your writing career on your ability to appeal to the illiterate. This is not a good strategy long-term -- it denies a writer his long suit -- and so you need to find your way into writing long and writing "important," i.e., putting forward an original voice and point of view and landscape, one you unmistakably own title to. The short writing gave you good training in effective writing and cutting to the chase, but producing a long work is crucial to your career. It's not a question of self-expression, but self-preservation.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in love with a wonderful, smart, kind, loving, socially marvelous man. He is The One. I never used to be the jealous kind but now I find myself getting ridiculously jealous and incensed when anyone appears to flirt with him, my gay friends, my gal pals, anybody. It's only harmless social flirting, people being more animated toward him than anyone else. Is this just insecurity on my part?

I adore him, and I do not want our social life to slow down, and I don't want to unfairly burden him with this particular, silly baggage. His behavior and sense is not in question here; I just want to stay sane and calm and get back to my old, unjealous self.

Jealous and Hating It

Dear Jealous,

I hear you. Stay calm, don't do stupid things such as bursting into tears and accusing him of encouraging flirtatious attention, and gradually your jealousy will fade. Mine has. I am married to a sparkly and vivacious woman who smiles winningly and has a beautiful and musical laugh, and wherever we go, people gravitate toward her, men lean over her and regale her with their wit, and I, her husband, a gloomy galoot, lurk in the corner, muttering, nursing a sloe gin, doing an inventory of the host's bookshelves, checking the time and enduring waves of jealousy. But it's gotten better. I used to carry piano wire in my pocket and I garroted several dozen men who touched her elbow, but the most recent garroting was a couple years ago. I doubt that I will kill again. Now I only punch guys out. Even that is becoming less frequent. In a few years, I expect this too will have passed.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a lesbian mom, 42 years old. My children are 15 and 12. Raising my children alone has been hard, hard, hard work, rewarding and fun, oh yeah, but I feel relief knowing that Freedom will be mine in a few years. A year ago I met a wonderful, charming woman. Early on she told me that she was in the process of adopting a baby. A little alarm went off in my head, but I chose to ignore it and ploughed bravely into a relationship with her. As the dream baby (which she will raise perfectly, avoiding all the mistakes I seem to have made) becomes more real, it could arrive in a week or a year. I am getting colder and colder feet. I don't know if I can do that whole chaotic small children thing again. There's definitely a competitive mom thing going on, too. I think sometimes I'd rather just be alone in my 40s with a book, preferably written by me. You went back there, to the land of small children. What do you think?

Been There

Dear Been,

You seem to suggest you don't want to be with this woman, and not only because of the child care, but also because some psychological sparring has occurred, some jealousy on her part, some resentment on your part of implied criticism of your mothering of your kids. But it's hard to read between the lines here. All very complicated. You're sort of in the position of an older guy, divorced, having raised his kids, meeting a babe who, as they plunge down that relationship slope, lets it be known that she wants to get pregnant. A guy would say, Whoa. He knows the moral burden he would incur through fatherhood. He knows this exactly. What is the moral burden in your case? Evidently, you're not a party to the adoption. Apparently, you're not living together. But if you're a partner to this woman, then you are in some sense a co-mom. If the partnership is not so strong, then now is the time to end it. If it is strong, then I guess you're back in business, Mama. Better start reading your parenting books now -- there are thousands more now than when your kiddoes were little. And figure out right away whether the dream baby is going to sleep with the two of you, or not, and what the company policy is on crying -- let it cry, or pick it up. Lots of policy to be decided. But first of all: Who is she to you?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am finding myself falling for a married man, of course something I thought would never happen to me, and I am confused about how he acts around me. We work together and he talked me into joining his health club so we also go and work out together when work is over. We work the evening shift so we end up going to work out at 11 p.m. We hit the steam room and then the hot tub after our workout and just talk about anything and everything. He talks about his son all the time, but rarely about his wife. He is a very affectionate person with everyone at work, but I feel like he does pay extra attention to me. Whenever he needs help with something, he always seems to ask me first. We have only been working together for three months, but I find myself thinking about him all the time. We have shared a lot about ourselves and I feel so close to him. I know he and his wife don't get along very well and he spends more time with me than with her.

My question is: Do I tell him that I am starting to have feelings other than friendship for him or just ride it out and see what happens? Do you think it sounds like he might be interested in me other than just as a good friend?

I know I shouldn't even be having feelings for him beyond friendship, but it is incredibly difficult! Help!


Dear Hopeless,

You shouldn't be having those feelings. So pinch them off now, while they're easier to stop. Climb out of the hot tub, honey. It's the cold tub you need. And stop the workouts. Tell him you can't do this anymore, and don't offer an explanation; he isn't entitled to one. If you ride this out, it's going to be a bad ride. This is a roller coaster that leads, first, to sex, which is very exciting for about 15 minutes, and then the clouds roll in. He takes you to a $38 motel room, the kind where you have to ask for shampoo packets at the front desk and where the towels are the size of washcloths, and he hustles you into a room overlooking a parking lot and into bed you go and he mounts you and moans and shouts, "Oh God! Oh yes! Oh God! Oh yes! Oh yes yes yes yes yes!" and he ejaculates and then he gets dressed and then something else happens. Either he says, "Thanks, babes," and you see him the next day at work and he's sheepish and cool and avoids you and a few months later you realize you've got to find a new job. Or he uses you to extricate himself (painfully) from the marriage and you thereby become his therapist and his leading lady in a psychological drama that goes on and on, and one day you look at the sodden lump of guilt sitting across the breakfast table whimpering to himself and you realize you've got to kick this loser out and find a new job. If there's a happy ending to this, I can't think what it is.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a graduate student, in my fifth year, trying to churn out my dissertation, but I am a horrible procrastinator. It takes longer and longer to get anything written. I miss deadlines constantly. The more important a piece of work is, the harder it is for me to start it, to work on it or to finish it -- though I do get the work done eventually. I am happily partnered with a woman, and we have two children. We both spend a lot of time with our children, so I have a limited amount of time each week for my studies. She has become impatient with my progress on the dissertation. She wants to get on with her own career and buy a house, and she has issued an ultimatum -- finish -- and she wants me to show her what I've done each month.

I write to ask what advice you have. The writing is just so painful now, and almost every day is clouded by guilt. How should I go on? Is there some technique that helps you set aside concerns about the worldly implications of your work so you can get stuff done? Do I need a personality transplant? Am I just damaged goods, and should I pursue a different career (one that does not require self-motivation to meet multiple long- and short-term deadlines)? Should I tell her to fuck off, and let me do my work my own way, and let her decide whether or not to stick around?

All but Divorced

Dear All,

Your partner is throwing you a lifeline and it sounds as if you need it. It's awfully decent of her to offer, and you reject her at your peril. You're not in desperate shape now, but you soon will be. Why court desperation? Start writing for this new audience of one, and do your best to impress her with your acumen and elegance. As she reads what you've written and gets a clear idea of the scope of the dissertation, she'll be equipped to discuss with you where it's heading. This can be a great boon. This is the way to get out of the swamp: Stop focusing on the procrastination and focus on the writing. Talk with her about the next chapter, about the basic thrust of the work, and see if it doesn't gin you up to get to work and get this hog butchered. The way to write it is to write it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Help! I have been dating him for almost three years. A very stormy relationship. I have a tendency to speak my mind and say all the wrong things. Well, the other day we had a huge falling out (all my fault). So now we have broken up, him saying he needs his space and maybe we can work it out. Meanwhile, he has told everybody about our breakup, and he goes around saying, "I am happy to be single." This is driving me crazy. I love him madly, I always have. Do I beg him for his answer? I just want him back.


Dear Suffering,

The gentleman is behaving in a cavalier fashion, having told you to hang on and wait further word, and then sashaying around town advertising his availability. My guess is that he really is single and that he's not coming back to you, and that his lines to you about space and so forth are just so much bad faith. My big concern here is your dignity. Don't traipse after him. Don't beg him for anything. Don't let yourself be driven crazy. It's hard to lose someone you love, but it's even harder if you lose your dignity in the process. Suffer in private, do sensible things to ease the pain -- talk to close friends, stay away from alcohol, get lots of exercise and plenty of sleep, eat light, focus on work or school -- and just suck it up and soldier your way through the dark and then it gets better. And you'll be so grateful that you didn't crawl to this yahoo and cry and plead and lick his boots.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a college student. I love the university I attend, I've made great friends, I am excelling academically, yet because of such a tough year I had last year I've just recently begun therapy for depression. Because of the enormous stigma that mental illness has in this country, I'm very wary of letting even close friends know that I see a psychiatrist. How should I explain where I have to run to after class?


Dear Student,

You're right to be wary. But it has not so much to do with stigma as with the basic necessity of privacy. It queers your life to have your inner life be an object of casual interest among strangers. People whispering, "I heard she's going to a shrink because of depression. Funny, she doesn't act depressed. What do you suppose is going on?" You start to feel like an actor playing yourself for an audience of "concerned" friends who really are only enjoying it as a movie. It's a lot cleaner to limit your secrets to people you trust absolutely and who are levelheaded and interested in you and want the best for you. And in defense of your privacy, you're entitled to tell the other people anything you want. You don't owe casual friends an explanation for your absence. Good luck.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in love with a good and sweet guy, attentive, patient, funny. We have been together for more than two years, and it's been a wonderful time, but I am not happy about his being overweight. It's partly an esthetic problem and partly concern about his health. I want to hike and camp; he's not interested. Sometimes he seems 20 years older than he is.

Genetics are not on his side; everyone in his family is short and roundish. He has said he would like to lose some weight and build muscle. We've had several "big" conversations about this, all of which, ultimately, don't seem to result in much. I've tried to make it clear that this issue is straining our relationship. I feel like a nag and I want him to decide to get in shape for himself.

I can't imagine finding a better guy whose personality melds so well with mine. Yet his weight is really bothering me. Am I being small-minded? I am in a bind that makes me feel annoyed, frustrated and guilty all at once.


Dear Uncertain,

Don't discuss this with the blub anymore. Push ahead with the hiking and camping and the sports and exercise on your own, without him. Everyone is entitled to try to live her life. And see if the relationship allows you the freedom to be yourself and live your life and not have to trim your sails to accommodate a potato. Enough with the conversations. Go, do, onward and upward, and if he allows and even encourages this, fine. But if you go climbing and trekking and then return home to find the marshmallow unhappy about your neglect of him, then it's a problem.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I live in a big city in the East, live in a wonderful neighborhood and see women all over the place, but I can't seem to meet one. My friends are great, but insular; they don't bring new people along when we go out. Unfortunately, I'm also a bit reticent around strangers, and so have never understood how you meet someone at a bar, or at a coffeehouse. How do you meet people when you never meet people?

Shy Guy

Dear Shy,

It is possible, for limited periods of time, to pretend that you're not reticent and to walk up to a total stranger and say, "Could I ask your advice about something?" I mean, you did it by e-mail to me, so you can do it in person to a tall interesting woman with short red hair. Shyness is a mild hindrance; it isn't like being quadriplegic. Women are disposed to like shy men after all the gasbags they meet in the course of a day and the men with voices like circular saws: A man who speaks softly and doesn't regard himself as master of the universe is a nice prize, especially if he has some smarts and a sense of humor. So put your shyness forward as an asset. And walk up to her and ask her advice. People enjoy being consulted. Ask her if you need a haircut. Ask her if she knows a good restaurant. Ask her if she can recommend a good book you could give your brilliant cousin (who is the same age as the tall interesting woman) for her birthday -- you've racked your brain and can't think of a thing. Ask her how in the world we're going to survive four years of this smirking frat boy president who shows so little curiosity about the world and so much arrogance. She'll turn out to be a devout Republican. She'll flay you for your ignorance. You'll fall in love. You'll take her to dinner. Conversation will flow. The rest is up to you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

For six years since my husband and I divorced, I've raised my two children in this affluent community where they were born. I also earned my Ph.D. so I could become an academic and support my children. (My ex does not pay child support.) I love my children and I really enjoy doing things with them, but I've become so lonely. I live in a world of couples. The women who should be my peers act as if I am after their husbands. I am not. I'm trying not to think that, as a middle-aged woman (overeducated, I've heard), I am destined to be alone for the rest of my life. I want a partner, but I am like a fish out of water around here. I can't leave because the divorce decree only allows me to move within an hour's drive of my ex. I'm not beautiful, but I am slender and intelligent and sometimes funny. I dress very simply, with (I hope) a certain elegance. I have been described as "striking" and "exotic." I like travel, books, movies, plays, fairs, camping -- life, in general. But, where do I find an available man of like interests? I keep busy, and am mostly happy, but I don't want to be alone forever!

Losing Hope in a Small Town

Dear Losing,

Get your lawyer on the horn and have that divorce decree revised. If your ex doesn't pay support, his rights to convenient visitation are limited. Whether you plan to move away or not, you should get that chain off your foot. And then take a close look at your social circle. Weed out the couples with the suspicious wives. Dump people who are suffocating and search out some oddballs. You'll find them in the arts and in churches. If you're attending the Church of the Sacred Couples, then switch churches. Among the crowd at your kids' soccer games and choir concerts are surely a few divorced dads. Easy to spot. Go sit near them, not with the Hooples and the Postlethwaites. But you're not hunting for a Man, you're hunting for congenial company, folks who make you happy, and somewhere in the social ganglia of that crowd, a degree or two away, you may find the Man, but first you need to get yourself situated. You may need to leave this town for a bigger pond, you know, and the kids won't like that.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a writer and my life story may be my novel some day, but the ending has yet to be written, and that's where I need your help. When I was in my early 30s, a nice man whom I'll call John fell in love with me and asked me to marry him. I was not in love with him, but I was lonely and he was appropriate and so enthused about marrying me that I accepted his offer and decided to make the best of what life was offering me and make John happy. I was absolutely not physically attracted to him, but I had always heard that passionate love and sex fade away, and down the line you'd better be married to someone you're friends with or your marriage won't survive. So I reasoned that I was being very practical in marrying my good friend John.

For about the first 14 years, life hummed along and we were reasonably happy. I didn't feel much one way or the other; and then I admitted to myself that I was not happy and fulfilled, emotionally or sexually. I quickly did the unthinkable in light of my Christian upbringing -- I developed a flirtatious relationship at work with a sexy guy who lit my fire, yes indeed. I never had sex, though, and after going to counseling, was able to put this affair behind me. My counselor told me to "let myself" love John.

I tried to, but I just could not succeed in turning my feelings for him around. A year later, I fell madly, head over heels in love with someone new. And he loves me back! We feel we are soul mates, and compatible sexually, intellectually, socially and spiritually. We have not had sex because we are Christians, but the thrill is there. This relationship has gone on now for a year and a half, and no end is in sight. We would like to be able to spend the rest of our lives together.

Here's where it gets heart-rending for me. My pastor told me that my marriage, while it was not founded on mutual true love, is a marriage in God's eyes nonetheless. I feel that if I leave John and marry my true love, I will be living in sin. Furthermore, I believe John loves me, and he will be crushed and I will ruin his life if I leave him. How can I do such a terrible thing to him? The guilt is eating me alive, day by day. We have no children, so that is not an issue. Every day I die a little more. After I have sex with him, I cry. I am eating myself into morbid obesity.

I suppose my question is, do I have a right to another life, or should I forget all this nonsense about "true love" and make the best of what God gave me, and live the rest of my life with John?

Fat Lady Trying to Sing

Dear Fat Lady,

Let's address the eating disorder first. You need to see a doctor or therapist who deals with obesity issues, not a weight-loss guru but someone who can help you see what you're doing and where it leads. It's a destructive path. It can be stopped. I have a close friend who was on such a path, and in the past six months, he's turned away from it and has lost 30 pounds. He did it by eating less, under the supervision of a doctor. He's happier. The impossible mountain turned into a manageable chore and the chore became a sort of adventure. You could do the same.

Your pastor is right, of course, that, regardless of your feelings, you are married to John in God's eyes. God was there when you did it and observed the whole thing. But something is wrong if, after 14 years, you haven't come to love him or feel satisfied in the marriage, if you're unhappy and feel something dying inside you, if you cry after having sex with him. Every marriage goes through some rough patches, but one is not meant to accept a lonely and arid life, desperately longing for love elsewhere. You need to express yourself to John, preferably in the company of a counselor, and get his thoughts on the matter. The idea of true love isn't nonsense, though there may be many different definitions of it, and, yes, I do think that a person has a right to a life that allows her to give and receive love. Your soul mate, however, is a piece of fiction, I'm sorry to say, a fiction born of your unhappiness. To leave John some cold moonless night and run away with this imaginary hero is not going to make you happy either. The soul mate may be a fine fellow and a good bet and a true friend and maybe you'll even wind up making a life with him, but he is not the gilt-edged answer to your problems. You will need to find that within yourself, same as the rest of us sinners do.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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