Sharon Watts Writes

when pictures fail me…


The older I get, the more OCD’d I get. Before the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders shone a clinical light on our brain tickings, the phrase “set in my ways” had been covering it for generations. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is not just what a junior high school classmate had exhibited at the washroom sink for ten minutes, lathering and scrubbing away, piquing my discreet curiosity; it was behavior imperceptibly seeping into my own life, a steady drip throughout the decades.

At home, it’s easy to not see the forest for the trees. I have lived alone for longer than I’ve shared my space with any partner. So nothing seems out of sync, out of place, or out of the ordinary. This is my world.

However, recently I spent some time with an old friend who dates back to 7th grade. I still have fond memories of what bonded us in the first place: Beatlemania. We’ve stayed in touch with occasional phone calls and holiday cards, and I was eager to reconnect in person. I really wasn’t aware just how set in my ways I’d become.

A visit to Washington, D.C. environs gave me a clue. My friend lives in a suburb that she’s regretted moving to every day of her life since 1997. That is when, as a jarringly new widow, she made the decision to buy a house and get a job there. Once happily married to her British sweetheart (she had adopted England as her true home upon graduating high school in 1971, the same year I had adopted New York City as mine), now my friend was grieving and creating her own world of coping and continuing, on the “wrong” side of the Atlantic. Memories seemed to both shackle and cocoon her, and I naively thought I might be able to help with some overdue attitude adjustments. I was no stranger to sudden loss either, and know that revisiting the happy times of the past can be a comfort. I don’t dictate a specific shelf life for mourning, but what does raise red flags with me is unwavering focus on the road not taken. It robs us of not only the present but the future. My friend’s mantra was and is “I never should have moved back here.”

I loaded a couple of unhappy cats and a carful of essentials for the two-week period I would visit, including a tote bag of gardening tools and a portable Sony tape deck along with a dozen or so vintage compilations made (obsessively and compulsively, of course) when my own marriage was unraveling in the mid-80s. I also brought food–anything that might have gone bad in my refrigerator or on the vine in my garden–that I knew I could whip into a tasty vegetarian meal. Along with anything that had become a kind of culinary security blanket: homemade ketchup from my grandfather’s recipe, my favorite vegan hot dogs, and spicy peanut sauce to counteract D.C. summer’s heat and humidity. I was trying to ease my entry into a new environment at a point in my life where my “when in Rome” bubbly attitude had deflated considerably.

Arriving to a refrigerator so chockful of food that there was no room to shoehorn in my own provisions, I wondered, Who’s going to eat all this? Clearly my friend had her own method of organizing the messy business of life and loss, and preparing intricate meals (with lots of chopping) was paramount. She likes having everything she could possibly want or need at her fingertips. My way is more about working with what I already have, creating something simple yet tasty out of next-to-nothing, preferably plucked from from my minuscule raised garden bed. We both care about food, yet the contrast in our veracity highlighted what this was really about. For her it was a way to be present, in the moment; preparing nourishing, complex dishes for herself and her friends. For me, this full-fridge scenario was about the probability of waste. And that is the trigger to my OCD.

At home, I am an eco-conscious model citizen. I pride myself on only needing to place my recycling bin on the curb once a month instead of every other week. And scheduling our town’s once-a-year-textile recycling into my life, collecting anything from sewing scraps to worn out shoes until that highlighted day in May. I also let friends and neighbors know when I am heading to the county’s location drop off for electronics and all manner of toxic materials (oil-based paint to old nail polish). My 1998 Subaru Outback, another relic whose date with the junk heap keeps getting pushed into the future, becomes the trashmobile for carpooling my neighborhood’s refuse. I use my OCD for good, not evil.

Away from home, I could be perceived as borderline psychotic. I can’t walk past a litter receptacle anywhere without glancing in, cringing at the recyclable bottles and plastic calling me to rescue them from an endless afterlife in the landfill. At my friend’s home, I found myself fishing the occasional empty cat food can out of the garbage, rinsing it, and putting it where it belonged, in recycling right next to the trash bin. The arbitrariness of her system flummoxed me, but my cats were definitely benefiting from her stash of Fancy Feast, regardless of where the empties went. We were guests. I zipped my lip as best I could and tried to maintain standard operating procedure without her noticing. Was I helping anyone or selfishly feeding my own neurosis?

My friend was downsizing, getting ready to sell her house and move back to her beloved England. When she pulled out very attractive, never-used free giveaway totes from treks to the Neiman Marcus cosmetic counter and asked me if I wanted any, my knee jerk reaction was to say Yes! (How many tote bags do I already have? A lot.) A promise more to myself than to my friend was that I would find them homes. (And I only kept one for me).

Our differences are now greater than the fact that I once liked Paul and she once liked George. We have each grown into women with strong opinions and values, sometimes in sync and sometimes an ocean apart. Our filters are our past lives, the ones we thought were so in tandem– hers in London and mine in Manhattan. Funny thing is, they once were. But as we faced down traumatic loss individually, we each fell into distinctly different custom-tailored patterns.

By the end of two weeks together, our initial crosscurrents had settled into a gentle overlap, as we shared white wine on the deck against a backdrop of screeching cicadas. (I loved them, she didn’t). Rigid behaviors were worn away just a bit, or was it that we each became more accepting of the other’s individuality?

If my friend does move back to England, I would love to visit her. It will be different next time. My cats will have to stay behind, and so will my OCD.

September 2015

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This entry was posted on September 19, 2015 by in Essay, My Stuff and tagged , , , .
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