Ordinarily, tea bags are pretty…well, ordinary. Neatly arranged in colorful, perky, perfect-sized boxes or stacked like Pringles® in pretty metal tins, tea bags generally stay perched on a shelf till needed. Whatever their packaging, dressed-up cardboard or embellished metal seems to make up for their ordinary-ness.
Tucked away in my pantry are ordinary tea bags of all sorts. Calming herbal concoctions, soothing throat coats, energizing lemon zingers, and more. In Tetris-like fashion, I had, over time, stacked and displayed the tea boxes on the particle board shelf. The collection grew. As I was not in the habit of making tea for quite some time, those precariously arranged boxes remained in place like Buckingham Palace sentries.
That is, until I decided to brew some tea a few months ago.
No, the Tetris tower did not come tumbling down, but I inadvertently changed the look and feel of the pantry shelf by dismantling the collection to retrieve the chamomile lavender sachets. And Zach did not like this.
In Zach’s world, there is a preference for order and a penchant for consistency. Also, many things in his environment require precise placement. When it comes to items on a shelf, in a drawer, or in a cabinet, the appearance of the contents plays a crucial role as does the way something is situated. But it is not necessarily what one might assume.
No, the socks and underwear don’t need to be folded with military precision; instead, they must be scattered across the baseboard so as to not show any trace of the bottom of the drawer. The cans of soup and tomato paste don’t need to face forward like a boot camp roll-call; there just cannot be space between those cans. They must touch. It’s difficult to describe completely accurately, without a verbal explanation from Zach. But trust me when I say things must be a certain way.
So, when I innocently plucked the chamomile lavender box from the shelf, I disrupted things. Big time. So much so, that for the next three hours, Zach, atop a footstool, arranged, rearranged, and re-rearranged those little boxes. I knew this could continue on for days. It was likely, given hindsight into socks, underwear, and cans of tomato paste, that he’d wake up, come downstairs, and spend two hours before anything else trying to make those perfect-sized boxes look and fit perfectly on the soon-to-be-worn-down-to-bare-wood shelf.
My first attempt at resolving the issue of badly behaving tea boxes involved stacking them in a tray to keep the “base” steady. Then, on a firm foundation, the rest could pyramid up with balance. Both structurally sound and pleasing to the eye, no? That worked for about 24 hours. Then the rearranging began again.
I had to figure something out, because spending all this time in the pantry over such a task was…difficult. (I wasn’t the one spending the time doing it, but in a supervisory role, I could not leave the post so to speak).
The next stroke of brilliance I had involved getting rid of the boxes! I thought why not remove the tea bags, discard the pesky boxes, and use the rectangular tray to arrange them in that? When a certain someone wasn’t looking, I did just that. I saved the boxes just in case my plan backfired. I felt confident it wouldn’t. The nice little packets were now arranged in cute little rows in the tray, with no space in between except those naturally occurring due to package wrinkles.
Cue the truck backfiring.
Tea bags are not exactly the same size and shape. This created anxiety, and when I realized that, I felt horrible for creating distress. Zach was so distraught about where the boxes went (forcefully pointing to the shelf and vocalizing stress and panic) that I ended up stuffing the tea bags back in their respective boxes as rapidly as I could to alleviate that stress. Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory had nothing on me.
Somehow, the following day’s arrangement satisfied. Even though the boxes were dented and misshapen, the stacking met the arranger’s approval. I did not dare drink tea for months after that in his presence.
One weekend, I felt the impulse to give the pantry a good cleaning and reorganization. Zach was not a witness to this (precisely planned that way). I bought square, open-top, plastic bins that lined up evenly, and I put to use old Tupperware-like bins with lids from my classroom days. With this strategy in mind, I re-shelved items that often irked Zach with their inability to “touch” or “cover” adequately. I took photos of the “old” pantry just in case we had meltdown over the “new” pantry; I wanted to be able to restore it with accuracy. I knew the applecart would be a bit upset, but I ultimately wanted to eliminate worry. I said a prayer that my reorganization would work.
And the tea boxes? Well, here’s what I tried. I put the cylindrical metal tins on the tray, and they fit just right. I put them rather high up so scanning Terminator eyes would not pick up on possible anomalies. The tea bag boxes were discarded (temporarily) and bags were stuffed into a plastic bin that had a custom-cut piece of poster board surrounding them. Inquiring eyes would not see what the bin contained. Yes, in most cases, out of sight, out of mind does work.
During the morning inspection, I held my breath. He wandered in, checked it out, pushed on a couple of items, and walked out. Release breath! I had a newly-organized and clean pantry that would pass Hercule Poirot’s inspection AND I could drink tea again. (As long as I retrieved tea bags with the stealth of Tom Cruise “in the vault.”)
All was fine and dandy in the tea bag world. Weeks rolled by. Then, you know what September brings, don’t you? Pumpkin Spice. That’s right – everything.pumpkin.spice. My husband was making a grocery store run and asked if there was anything I needed. I should have stopped at bananas and bok choy. But at some point in my adult life (thank you Starbucks) I was bitten by the pumpkin spice bug. I knew there was one company that made an organic pumpkin spice tea (think cinnamon, orange, and vanilla). But what was the brand? With Zach out of sight, I slipped into the pantry, closed the door, and peeked in the secret bin. I knew I had saved one precious bag of pumpkin spice tea (you know, it was my ICE tea. Not iced but In Case of Emergency tea). I reported to my husband: Yogi pumpkin spice.
Now, I was absolutely silent in my seeking. He could not have seen me nor heard me, but the second I shut the pantry door, Zach scurried across the kitchen like a cat sensing his Tender Vittles®. He set his sights directly on the plastic bin (there’s that Termo Vision again) and plundered the contents. Tea bags were promptly scattered all over the floor. I could tell by his vocalizations that anxiety sparked. We were back to square one with tea bag topsy-turviness.
I stood, defeated, next to the kitchen island. Leaning on my elbows, fingers entangled in my bangs, I watched Zach begin to collect each packet and try to arrange them in his hands. He looked up to the exact spot where the boxes once resided. He remembered. Of course he did. Only I had discarded those boxes months ago. It was not like running back to the Goodwill donation station to un-donate the wine glasses I just dropped off. Thinkthinkthink.
“Here!” I said, loudly and firmly – “Give them to me! I will take care of them! Wow! So that’s where they went! Here, I got this! Hand them to me! Thank you, Bud!”
Swoop in like an osprey on a fish and suck the life out of it. I whirled around with tea bags pressed against my belly, my fingers splayed like talons around chamomile ginger lemon vanilla cinnamon hibiscus rose rooibos blueberry and milk thistle. I flew out of the room without dropping a bag.
“I took care of it.” Reappearing, I announced this with the seriousness of Michael Corleone reporting to Don Vito. Any shred of trepidation on my part would have consequences.
Time slowed for a moment while he considered my statement. Our eyes locked. I tightened my jaw. He tightened his shoulders. I didn’t twitch. He didn’t turn. Stand firm I told myself. If he goes hunting for those tea bags, it’s over. I didn’t want to cause distress, but I also did not want to reincarnate the tea canisters catastrophe.
Zach turned, flipped off the light, and closed the pantry door. My lungs deflated.
Darn you, pumpkin spice! I wondered if this would open a Pandora’s Box later on. Would Zach be investigating all the bins with lids, now that he knew bins could CONCEAL things? I shuddered. I also realized the predicament upon me now: what to do with the darn tea bags.
I had a heap of tea sachets plopped on a dresser. My Virgo tendencies cause me to want order and organization (Zach and I have that trait solidly in common). And so I needed the tea in close proximity to the honey, the coffee, and the sugar. I felt off kilter with the tea not being in the pantry. I needed a plan for Earl Gray placement that would satisfy both my idiosyncrasies and Zach’s. So the grey cells got to work.
While Zach snoozed the other morning, I stood in the pantry and stared. If I combined all the bags currently in tin canisters, I’d have at least some space for the rectangular bags. He was not bothered by those tins. But I quickly realized I had rectangular bags, circular bags, tetrahedron-shaped bags, and even loose tea in baggies. That wouldn’t work.
My eyes landed on a large cereal box. If I took the cereal out, I’d have a nice box within which I could stash tea bags. I sealed the end with clear packing tape and cut the cardboard open on two sides. Now, the front of the box served as my lid. I arranged the sachets in the cereal box, carefully taped down the “lid,” and returned the box to its known location. So long oolong! Sayonara cinnamon! See you soon, assam! Not a single thing appeared any different, and all the tea was now incognito.
The true test of my crafty solution was, of course, Zach coming downstairs, opening the pantry, and moving along. Playing it cool, I did not even let my eyes dart in the direction of the pantry. If I allowed myself to even let the word tea cross my mind, I was sure Zach could see the three letters appearing across my forehead like sky-writing. I kept my cool and focused on sockeye salmon. (I wanted lox for lunch).
Zach bopped into the kitchen, looked around, and lifted his nose like a hunting dog detecting ducks. Sockeye salmon. Sockeye salmon. Keep your eyes on the notepad. Do not look at the pantry. Do not think about cereal. Did I put the packing tape away???
Pantry door swung open. Eyes scanned. Faint rustling sound. Please work, cereal box. If cereal boxes could hold their breath, I was willing it to do so. Three…two…one. Light switch off. Door closed. All clear. Mission complete!!
Current situation: plastic bins remain stacked and packed with coffee supplies. Square bins house cans, cooking oils, and kalamata olives. Tea canisters remain in the tray. And cereal boxes camouflage an herbal tea collection (including pumpkin spice). Just another ordinary day in the life of a family facing autism.
When I think about Zach’s propensity for order and organization, I cannot, will not, fault him, and it would be incorrect to equate a need for order with autism spectrum disorder. He comes from a long line of order seekers and organization lovers. We are not neat freaks, but we come close at times. Surprising that Marie Kondo is not related to us.
I feel for him when the compulsive part of his personality gets ignited alongside the organize-everything tendency. It seems to me that nothing can be just right until it is 100% perfectly, undeniably “RIGHT.” I think it has to look right, feel right, smell right, “sound” right. All senses are affected. If one is off, it’s all off. And he simply can’t walk away until whatever he’s compelled to do is “fixed” in all the right ways.
It’s challenging, and I’m sure it’s frustrating to him, when those “items” just can’t be checked off mentally. Get the look right, and the feel may slip off. Get the feel right, and the look may get altered. Everything has to be simultaneously A-okay. I’ll support him in every way I can, and I’ll continue to try to lighten that burden for him. If that means stashing my tea in cereal boxes, so be it. I just hope he doesn’t decide one morning that he wants to try toasted berry Kashi, or I’m in hot water.