Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
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Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
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A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out www.alysasalzberg.com.

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SEPTEMBER 25, 2011 5:47PM

Turning into the Witch-Wife

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At some point in my early teen years, I discovered the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I was captivated by the resonance and, often, the sadness of many of her poems from the first time I read them.  But few of her lines struck me and stuck with me like the ending of “Witch-Wife”:

 

She loves me all that she can, 
And her ways to my ways resign; 
But she was not made for any man, 
And she never will be all mine.

 

I felt this stanza described me so well; no matter how much I love people, no matter how well I connect with them and enjoy their company, there will always be the power of my own inner world and my need for solitude calling me away. I doubted that I could ever wholly belong to someone.  

Years went by, and with them came my parents’ ugly and – for my siblings and me, unexpected – divorce, followed by other major and minor disasters and betrayals of all sorts and from many different sources.  More and more the trust I might have had flecked and faded away, leaving a barren surface behind.  I knew not to count on anything, or to trust anyone fully.  This doesn’t spring from anger or from a hatred of humankind; rather, it’s just that life is so unpredictable.    How can I know now what I’ll be doing, thinking, feeling, ten years down the road?  How can anyone?  How can you say you’ll be faithful to someone for your whole life?  How can you believe they’ll be faithful to you?  Nothing is permanent.  “Man plans, God smiles,” was my grandfather’s saying. It was chosen as his epitaph.

I guess, though, I always thought someone would come and change my way of thinking. My prince charming wouldn’t enter my world impressively mounted on a white horse and wearing armor, but rather walking in ordinary clothes, with a broad, guileless smile.  He’d take me into his arms and remind me that there are some things that can last a lifetime; he’d remind me, for example, that I will always love my family.  

When I met my boyfriend, in many ways he corresponded to my dream man. But he wasn’t that trusting, smiling fellow. When we shared our life stories, I told him that I tried always to see the good in people, but that there were few – if any – individuals in this world that I felt I could trust or count on 100%.  I had no idea how much I’d regret that confession.

The boyfriend also has trust issues. Compared to mine, their origins are mysterious and run deep.  There are few things on the surface of his life that would make it obvious what causes him to be so distrustful of everyone and everything.  I felt that, like me, he could put those worries aside when it came to our relationship.  I live each day knowing that one day our union could crumble – nothing lasts forever.  But I also know that for now we’re in love and faithful to each other.  

As girlfriends go, I’m pretty easy to deal with, I’d think, when it comes to trust.  I’m not a partier, and don’t have friends that I keep to myself. I want my boyfriend to be able to socialize and have a good time with any of my pals, and if I do go out with one of them from time to time, I always tell him he’s welcome to come with us.  And what are these nights out?  Not dancing in a club or going to a bar and staggering home shitfaced – rather, dinner and conversation at a good but cheap restaurant, maybe followed by a walk.  I don’t keep my cell phone or email boxes secret; I even loaned the boyfriend my phone when he went away on a reconstitution group meeting yesterday.  I try to make it clear that I have nothing to hide.

I like to joke, though….  I’d say half the things that leave my mouth are meant to be funny. And sometimes those are playful stories or lies or exaggerations. For example, if someone says, “Do you know….” followed by an extremely obscure song/book/event, etc, if I know the person well enough, I’ll say, “Oh yeah, that’s my favorite!” or something like that.  I might go on a little while, embellishing.  Maybe it’s the writer in me.  In the end, though, I always say I’m kidding.  

A few weeks ago, the boyfriend asked if I knew a folk song soldiers used to like to sing in Napoleonic times.  Of course I didn’t!  But I found myself answering, “Oh yeah, actually, in the U.S., we learn that in school and kids sing it on the playground all the time.” I honestly thought the boyfriend would realize that wasn’t true. But instead he looked at me so innocently – when I think back on it now – and pleasantly surprised – and when I told him I was just kidding, he seemed crushed.

Unbeknownst to me, these little stories of mine had started to nag at him.  How could someone lie with such a straight face, he wondered?  Nevermind that when I try to lie about something important, I’m terrible at it.  Oddly enough, I think it’s because maybe deep down, it’s not in my nature to lie  – not about anything really serious. I think I want to be honest, to be able to be myself and say what I think, what I want and don’t want to do, what I have a problem with or think is okay, without worrying about the other person’s reaction.  The boyfriend’s got it all wrong. 

And nevermind that in all our years together, I've never cheated on or betrayed him in any way - nor given cause for him to think I'd done such a thing behind his back. 

It’s like I’ve misused magic:  My jokes, combined with what I said about never being able to fully trust anyone, have caused the boyfriend to doubt more than ever that he can fully trust me.  In spite of being a faithful homebody of a girlfriend, someone who I’d like to think people can tell has integrity, I’ve become the witch-wife.  The way he looks at me, the walls he puts up, have made it even easier for me never to fully be his.

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ooooh Alyssa, I hated to hear this, but understand your POV so clearly. Some folks aren't built with a sense of ... backwards humor I guess you could say, but it's hard to feel 'known' when the one you love doesn't 'get' yours. I think the trait I find most attractive in another is when they get my 'flip side' comments and think I'm funny or at least a little quick witted sometimes. I can keep a straight face in a funny moment, but am a terrible nervous liar - even with the little white kind. ("Sorry I'm late, I hit some traffic..." but unsaid is, "I was dreading coming and just put it off to the last minute") GUILTY! Very well written A.
Just a thought. Look into something called attachment theory. In particular something called psychic equivalence. In sum, the ability to navigate between the what's real and what's play, and to understand that these lines are very blurry, is a sophisticated mental trick that not everyone is good at. It could be that you have a talent and that others can't always keep up with you.
I am guilty of snarky remarks.. but I mean.. asking you about a war song???:)
You are a great person and he realizes it.. you know it he does too.
BUT man and female both have their traits..:)
HUGGGGGGGGGG
There is nothing funny about a witch wife and so that is NOT you. He'll get over it.
I very much identify and have had similar relationship issues. My mind lopes along ten miles ahead of the truth, sees things, reports back, in the belief that all is forgiven if it's entertaining or funny, and that isn't always the case. If a sincere apology and a request for future guidelines, a heart-map of painful places, doesn't suffice as penance, then I'd wonder if every innocent mistake would provide proof of...something expected (expected due to history not of your making), and that would get very old indeed.
You've become the witch-wife? Absolutely, not the case! Lots of us sprinkle our conversations with facts that stretch the truth and that should not cause a wall to go up between the two of you. If I were presenting a case in court it would be clear the evidence to support the idea he can trust you is incontrovertible!
Why should sexual fidelity be the central trust issue in a relationship?

Perhaps it is like air -- if you have it, it seems trivial. If you don't, you are gasping for life.

It just seems like a such a skewed, one dimensional view.

Can the person step up when you are at your weakest, at your worst?

Can you count on them when it matters?

Perhaps you are right in rethinking your gentle form of humor. But this isn't about trust in the sense of sexual fidelity.
Sometimes there are changes afoot and any excuse becomes the reason for change. Once thought clever, now not, sometimes people, even together, grow different and at times apart. Some times it means a break, sometimes a break up, sometimes it just means communicating more. Maybe something else is bothering him, or you or nothing. I understand what you are saying. Don't change who you are. It is who we are that attracts the person in the first place...
Alysa, I felt almost as if I were reading your diary, feeling a little guilty but so fascinated I could quit. It's given me some thought food, as well. I'm wondering if in your situation some of the misunderstandings that are interfering with your boyfriend's trust - and that's what they are, misunderstandings - has something to do with your different cultures. Humor is seen differently depending on the cultural environment.

I have a sarcastic way about me that I've developed, I think, to express a negative viewpoint without being abruptly confrontational. My wife hates sarcasm, says it's cruel, so I've learned to hold it back around her. I'll say things to the kids that make them laff but would either go over Angela's head or upset her. Different jokes for different folks. I hope that despite this glitch in understanding, your boyfriend appreciates how lucky is to have your love.
Oops, I meant "so fascinated I couldn't quit." Can't read these henscratchings.
I was apparently the Witch Wife because I was always coming up with things that I imagined would be a good idea but he thought of as nagging. I was just too creative for him and he took it personally that he couldn't keep up with all my ideas. Hey, they were just ideas. But he was so practical.
It all adds up after time. The bottom line is trust in awful situations. Can you count on each other with the big one. Can he blend with your family. You are a wonderful creative person and he is lucky to have you. Thanks for this great post.
There's something so sad and touching about this, Alyssa. I think in the end we are all alone. That you cannot trust fully and have your own unique sense of humour, I don't think makes you a "witch wife". We all have our dark sides, but you certainly don't strike me as the witch wife of St. Vincent Millay.
My favorite Millay is:

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again
--Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man -- who happened to be you --
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud -- I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place
--I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

I have lived a long time and permitted myself to deeply love many things, people, animals, and watched, as hostages to time and chaotic happenings and gross stupidity of people, they were destroyed and their final loss tore my central being to shreds but, that witch tough center which we all must retain pulled on the threads and the pieces gradually came back together not without great pain. But we must do this to endure, to retain that diamond hard central jewel which makes a witch or a sorcerer or we die.
Very interesting. I echo Bellwethers comment. I think I am one of those witch wives. Hmmm. Also interesting about Matt's wife. Much to discuss here
I kid around non stop(not in that bad always on comedian way, though.) Sometimes humor doesn't work or offends but what you going to do? What I do when faced with this is perhaps not sensitive or right - -I just think they are wrong and look for someone who finds me a gas and visa versa.
He is French and you could blame it on language and culture.

I think the term "trust issues," is overused. Any mildly bright person living past 20 y.o should have trust issues. Many people stink, and there are things like serial killers and sociopaths. Harrumph.
Linda does snark??

Some people have advised me not to be so sarcastic or to make *jokes* about Serious Stuff, cuz not everyone shares what I like to think of as my sense of humor. I've done that exact same thing - somebody asks a question and I answer it with something made up because how could they possibly believe. "Do you mind if I...whatever." "Yes, I mind, stop that." A look of shock. So then I have to say, "Of COURSE you can ... whatever." I try to tone it down when I remember...

But TRUST NO ONE, or at least TRUST NO ONE 100% seems like a reasonable attitude, given human nature - one's own included.
Omygdz, Jan Sand had a comment that was painfully right-on.

And why has Larry Lauerman taken to participating here on OS, posting and commenting? Trying to encourage those of us who are left?
Wow Alyssa, I totally get your kind of humor. I can be so sarcastic and I love humor. I think people who don't get subtle humor are really missing out on a lot of fun. I'm so sorry you are in this situation. It's none of my business, but I'm pretty blunt, and I think that if you know he's not the right one why waste your time. I would recommend the book, "Are You The One For Me" by Barbara De Angelis.
I understand what you mean, and that is a good trick, because it is a complicated scenario. Whatever the day, whoever the person you face, ultimately it is HIS problem to figure you out and to trust. You could cut him some slack, and that might help, but you can't trust for him.
Sorry to read this.

No criticism of you meant here, but I have seen (and done this) humor used as a highly effective tool to short-circuit intimacy and create emotional distance. I did it for years and it didn't do me any good. If you mean what you say, people will listen. I'd rather be (as I have been) accused of being too earnest than brittle and amusing -- and unknown.

Bon courage.
Please don't listen to those who tell you to abandon your sense of humor ( or humor altogether!!)
Lack of intimacy and emotional distance are not byproducts of humor. Earnestness is a curse.
I think the boyfriend may be confusing "lying" with "joking." Unless you're also treating more serious subjects lightly and then stringing him along before you tell him you're kidding, is it possible he interprets things a little too literally? Perhaps if this is really troubling you, you should let him read your post.
drama and jealousy are very well implanted in your story;
it is new!
"an unexpected moment":

someone you never forget
Yeah, I hear you on the trust issues. I've had an unfortunate pattern in my life where people I get close to suddenly leave my orit for reasons beyond my control, sometimes without an explanation or a good-bye. And it's often been at least annoying and sometimes deeply painful. It makes me wary of getting really close to anyone I'm not related to. I don't think anyone can know for sure what lies down the road ten years out. So I understand that mental reservation well.

I don't know that anyone can be "all mine" to another person.
rated
yeh the Shiral et al is bullshit;

actually, you have a blood chant going
Alyssa, your words are a process of what you feel today, I can tell. As a mom type, I can say sit down with him and confess your heart. As a writer, I say "excellent edginess throughout, and you lead us into your own heart with a trail of blood." As both, I say your beginning (Edna St. Vincent Millay) is perfect to introduce us to you, your heart, your world, and your predicament. xoxo J
I am not sure at all whether it is really possible to be all someone's, or should be. This probably requires a naïveté that living in big cities strips you off quite soon. And it might betray the experimental nature of this one ever changing existence we have and nobody else can live or should conduct for us.

Alysa, there might be some subtext running beneath your relationship even beyond the subtext you already see. Look for more signs. And keep off infernal cycles.
Hey there Witchy Woman:

Ha! Kids sing it on the playground!

Sorry, but he is a bit of a lunkhead if he doesn’t laugh at that.

Sit him down and make him read THIS piece.

Translate it into French if you got to!

(Seriously: he simply HAS to somehow accept this very important part of you: as you say, it is “the writer in you”. It is what you DO, it is who you are. I mean, c’mon…do you really GET all this Napoleonic reconstruction/reenactment stuff of his?)

A nice long night of serious heart to heart discussion is called for! Make the relationship fresh again: go deeper, both of you. Put on your psychic scuba gear: the pressure will be intense, but maybe at the bottom you will find Atlantis of the Heart.
You should change your tatic by simply saying, "I haven't heard ..." or "I didn't know that." Your humor, while I think is funny, can get a little annoying especially when someone is pasionate about a subject, or being serious. R
Wow, you really seem to have struck a chord here, judging from all the comments. Your first three graphs were a great lead-in to your relationship saga with The Boyfriend. Impermanence. A timeless topic.
A small note, but not advice since even though married 25yrs, I have none. You will have disagreements, he will get mad, he will get glad, you will get mad, you will get glad. Perhaps due to your past you worry that you cannot survive disagreement, but if you love each other and want it to work, you will. As long as you agree on the big things .
I love the introspective quality of this piece--and the snippet of poetry.
There's no such as perfect trust and we all make each other feel betrayed at times. You and your boyfriend have talked about having a child together before long. This raises the stakes.
Your sense of humor (that he doesn't get) might be a catalyst for questioning. This is a good thing.
I know these realizations have made you question yourself as well as your boyfriend. That's a hard place to be. What you will learn, though, will be invaluable, no matter what the future holds.
There's no such as perfect trust and we all make each other feel betrayed at times. You and your boyfriend have talked about having a child together before long. This raises the stakes.
Your sense of humor (that he doesn't get) might be a catalyst for questioning. This is a good thing.
I know these realizations have made you question yourself as well as your boyfriend. That's a hard place to be. What you will learn, though, will be invaluable, no matter what the future holds.
I, too, have a sarcastic sense of humor that some just don't get. But it's part of what makes you, you. There will always be issues in relationships, but they don't all have to be deal breakers. It's tough when it gets tangled in the trust issue but from what I've read of your relationship, it sounds like it will work out.
Beautiful piece, Alysa. I've read no less than five book reviews in the last few weeks that point to how impossible it is to piece together the 'real' person behind the texts. Your post reminds me how hard it is even with flesh-and-blood people.
something to think about
When I posted this, it was in a fit of frustration and despair. I hesitated, but I'm glad I decided to hit "Publish". I want to thank you guys for reading and sharing your thoughts. I didn't know what the reaction to this would be, and there is so much insight and wisdom and support here - I appreciate it more than I can properly express. THANK YOU!
The main thing, I think, is knowing the difference between fact and truth.