Spectrums of Experience

Ellen (from Gdynia, Poland): I’m as likely to join the positive thinking crowd as I am a praise band. Like Ruth, they’ve stalked me. Cancer, widowhood and life’s other tsunamis brings them out of the woodwork. Mercifully, these earnest dullards are usually brief, offering such bromides as, “Everything happens for a reason”, “Attitude is all”, “Keep your chin up”. Boring, annoying and forgettable. I’d find a heartfelt “Shit happens” more comforting.

Sometimes, though, a positive thinker strays from the well trodden path to present something awesome. It doesn’t just irritate you. You’re jarred, ears ringing and teeth on edge.

Consider the following, spoken to a frightened widow sweating out breast biopsy results.

“This is gonna sound silly, but talk to your breasts. Tell them they are loved, they are healthy, they are safe. Put heat on your breasts, and wrap yourself up in a blanket. And remember – your results are negative until proven otherwise.”

This flabbergasting gem didn’t come from one of us on the widow board. Her neighbor delivered it in person. I’m not sure, but I bet there was even some puppet show style demonstration.

Once I recovered from my outrage and read on, my mouth gaped open again: the patient agreed that, yes, it was silly…but she found this comforting! And is acting on it!

I can imagine being in this woman’s shoes. Chances are good that someday I will. But I can’t for the life of me imagine how I’d react to such advice, beyond total rejection. A conversation with my breasts? Let’s see, I could open with “Hi down there. Long time no see. You scared of facing me the last decade or so, or what? Well, now you are scaring me shitless!” So much for the chances of gleaning something positive from a heart-to-heart with mine.

I’m really worried about that woman. Not just about her diagnosis. If she found a pearl in this elephant dung and is chatting to her breasts, one or the other will probably answer.

Okay, I opened up with positive thinking. Now I’m going to the other end of the spectrum: paranoia. Quite a leap, but I’m brooding about it.

As a private teacher, I give new or prospective students a standard form to fill out. It couldn’t very well be more basic: name, address, telephone number, email address, background in English, reasons for further study, etc. Agnieszka, returning for a second lesson, gave me her neatly completed form yesterday. She’s a teacher’s dream: bright, articulate and focused on passing a specific examination. She knows exactly what she wants and provided me with material I will study carefully. Our hour passed swiftly. Both of us were pleased. We even moved toward friendship. She offered to take me with her to a special open air market she frequents and mentioned joining me sometime for a walk. Like me, that’s Agnieszka’s only exercise.

Oddly, yesterday, a Sunday, was my busiest day in a week. I had three other lessons. They went equally well. At the end of the day, I decided to treat myself to dinner at Etnica, my favorite place. Aside from being cheap, Etnica offers a menu representing some 20 countries. If they do anything badly, I haven’t ordered it, and I love the softly cheerful décor, ‘40s background music and friendly staff. I walked home in a haze of well being, which was suddenly interrupted by my cell phone.

“Ellen,” croaked a nervous voice. “Agnieszka. I’m sorry to be calling you so late, but – Ellen, why did you ask for my data?”

“What? Which data?”

“That…that paper I filled out and gave you. I’m with some friends and they wanted to know. They say no one asks that kind of information and I shouldn’t have –“

For a good ten minutes I huddled in the doorway of a shop, trying to overcome my bewilderment and assuage her fears. What the hell? I reminded myself that many people today are reluctant to surrender personal facts. Also, there’s some paranoia left over from the Communist era I’ve encountered now and then. But I hadn’t asked for her credit card number or national ID. What could I possibly use against her? And why? I kept up a reassuring patter, all the time wondering: did she think I was going to cripple her computer with spam? Send a goon to break into her house while we had a lesson?

Finally, I said, “Agnieszka, listen. I haven’t even looked at your form. Would you feel better if I tear it up?”

“It’s too late!” she wailed.

I hope it isn’t too late to mend this unfortunate broken trust. Neither of us was happy when we hung up. At home, I had the impulse to write her an email. Then said, the hell with it. I felt sad, exasperated and also offended.

It occurs to me that she has even more data on me than I have on her. After all, she doesn’t just have my address; she’s visited my apartment.

On the other hand, I’ve deleted “address” from the form and substituted “city”.

Copyright 2008 by Ellen Dlott

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