“So what have you learned, Yan, with all that travelling under your belt?” Uncle Jack takes a sip of rancid coffee from a plastic cup.
Every time, whenever somebody asks me this question, if I’m not expecting it, I always struggle to find something profound to fire back at them.
A casual thought falls from the sky…
…There are thousands of ways to stack a dishwasher. While volunteering on a horse stud farm in New Zealand, my duties included cleaning the dishes after every evening meal. I used to dread this event, as the lady of the house, a fierce middle aged woman with a temper like a pit bull chained to a fence, would scream her instructions as I fumbled to stack the cracked china plates.
“Don’t put them there, they go on the bottom, you idiot! And not that way around, turn them so they face left!”
When I was working on an alpaca farm in Arizona, although they didn’t have a dishwasher, they did have a particular way of drying their tableware. It became an after dinner game, attempting to delay the washing up until the hosts were settled in front of the TV.
“Be careful you don’t break anything!” a voice would bark from the next room.
Really, I didn’t realise, I was about to throw them at the wall. Thank God you told me.
Little One and I are house sitting in Southport at the moment – a lovely residence, but with set rules on how to use the dishwasher.
“We don’t use it to actually wash the dishes, but as a place to stack them so they can dry without cluttering up the draining board. Oh, and not like that, the cutlery slides in from left to right. It helps them to drip properly.”
And I thought I had an OCD problem.
I’ve never struggled with the tidying form of the illness. Or washing my hands a hundred times an hour, or arranging sausages in parallel lines on my plate. It must be extremely restricting, a particular room in Hell, and I do have experience battling with light switches and shadows on the wall, so I understand the frustration, the heavy dread that sits in the heart. Although I obsess like a world champion, believe me, it comes with heavy doses of Crow evading compulsions too. They’re simply hidden behind my eyes, and if you could take a look inside my mind, you’d see a tiny version of myself on my knees, ritualising like a fanatic most days. I suppose you could say I wash my hands and line up those sausages in my head. A twitching eye, a mumbled word under my breath, these are the signs of distress that appear if you look at me long enough. Evidence of the war raging within.
“So you learned how to operate a dishwasher?” says Uncle Jack.
“Not just one, several. And a thousand ways to balance plates.”
“How to fight intrusive thoughts when cramped on a packed bus spluttering through the Rwandan countryside.”
“What did you learn from all those different cultures?”
“That mental health affects all four corners of the world. Black and white, rich and poor, tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor. The religious and those with no faith at all.”
“OK,” nods Uncle Jack. He crushes the plastic cup and lobs it into the bin. It lands on a glob of yellow paint. “What did you eat in Rwanda?” he asks.
“Lots of pizza.”
Everyone takes away something different from an identical experience. If I shared a table in a restaurant with Uncle Jack, ate the same dish, delivered by the same waiter, we’d both come away with different experiences. For one, seafood gives Uncle Jack indigestion. And it’s even tougher to accurately envision something that we haven’t seen for ourselves. An exact reckoning is impossible. A smile breaks out behind my mask when people ask what I got up to when I was travelling. Even without OCD, I think I’d surprise them. How do we evaluate a person’s experience at a restaurant, let alone their years living out of a backpack.
What did I do? Lots of stuff.
What did I learn? Plenty.
I try to avoid these questions because when I answer truthfully, I always think people will be disappointed when they hear what I have to say. I’m no Bear Grylls catching breakfast from a river every morning. I like McDonalds’ sausage and egg McMuffins. And usually eat them staring at a picture of that clown’s stupid grin while batting away negative thoughts of how we might all die today.
What did I do yesterday? You’re a nosy bastard, Uncle Jack.
But if you want to know, I delved into my bag of anxieties and obsessed over stuff, smashed out a few rituals to give me a bit of breathing space. I went shopping too but if I only mentioned buying groceries, you’ll think I wasted my day and should have done better…
Anyway, Uncle Jack, enough about me. What did you do?