I have a friend whose refrigerator resembles a surgical suite. Pristine and organized within an inch of its life, it’s perfectly stocked with every staple, main dish ingredient and culinary extra you could hope for.
In the door, condiments and dressings line up like grade-schoolers waiting for a class photo: tall ones in back, short ones in front. All of the dairy products are close at hand when the door swings open. If you’re looking for the cottage cheese, it’s there with the milk, just as it should be. Other cheeses live in a plastic container underneath the cottage cheese (no meat drawer for them!) and the yogurts are stacked just behind, according to flavor. Why it’s important to have all the raspberry yogurts together rather than intermingled with the lemon and dutch apple I’m not sure, but that’s the way it’s done in her refrigerator.
In my friend’s refrigerator, greens are always crisp, fruit never goes bad and you never, ever have to haul everything off a shelf to get to the bag of chocolate chips hidden in the back. (The fact that they’re hidden there to slow down the chocoholic who’d gotten into the habit of grabbing a handful now and then is beside the point. In her world, everything should be accessible, and the chip-grabber should learn a little discipline.)
I know my friend likes me too much to ever say a word, but I can see her nose twitching like a disapproving schoolmarm when she comes to visit. She opens the door to my little food haven with the trepidation of a spelunker in unfamiliar territory. If her refrigerator is a Shakespearean sonnet, mine’s an old issue of National Enquirer. The fact that I usually manage to avoid unidentifiable fuzzy things in plastic containers is a plus, but barely. From her perspective, things are out of control, and she’d be much happier if I established a little order.
The truth is that good intentions are my downfall. I want to be thrifty, organized and creative with the contents of my fridge, but that limp bell pepper huddled in the corner (“How about stir fry one night?”), the over-the-hill nectarines (“They were such a bargain at the time”) and the orange juice container taking up space with just a half-swallow left in the bottom are evidence that good intentions aren’t always enough.
Eventually, the time comes when even I can’t stand it any longer and The Great Re-Organization takes place. The Great Re-Organization is, of course, a euphemism for The Great Grocery Toss, a ritual that’s always accompanied by stirring quotations of a famous line from one of my domestic heroines, Peg Bracken. “When in doubt, throw it out”, she’d intone at every opportunity, and that’s what I do. Steeling myself against inevitable waves of guilt and regret, I set to work. When I’m done, the limp pepper, the ancient rice, the bit of juice and the hoary baked potato are simply gone, toted off to the trash in a black plastic bag that hides the evidence of my disorganization and sloth from prying neighborhood eyes.
When it’s over, the sense of joy and relief is palpable. I give the refrigerator itself a good cleaning, line up the bottles and jars, restock the veggies and greens (washed and plumped into their special little bags) and sit down to admire my handiwork. Once, I even called my friend. “Get over here now,” I implored. “I want you to see this refrigerator living up to your standards at least once in your life.” That I made the call is funny enough. That she was on my doorstep within the hour is even funnier, a clear indication she understood the forces of chaos only had been pushed back and not overcome.
There are days when I pour my morning coffee, sit down at the table and feel as though I’m gazing directly into the depths of that horrid refrigerator. Instead of beautifully organized tasks, fresh visions and plenty of space to store whatever delights the day might bring, I see only half-finished projects, limp resolve, over-the-hill intentions and dried-up impulses. Even the treats are hard to get to. Writing projects, intriguing books and late evening walks down the bayou are pushed to the back of my life like so many hapless chocolate chips.
When it reaches that point, only one solution is possible. Like a neglected refrigerator, an unattended life needs a good cleaning every now and then, and Peg Bracken’s wisdom applies to life as well as to lettuce. “When in doubt, throw it out”, she implores, and so I do.
Cleaning up a life doesn’t mean tossing friends or family, acquaintances, associates or realities and responsibilities that need to remain on life’s shelves. This is a tossing-out of everything that keeps us from tasting the freshness of life, appreciating the variety of its flavors and being nourished by its substance. It’s an opening of space for things that matter, while letting go of those that don’t, without regret.
The set of garden pots I picked up at the dumpster, intending to “do something with them someday”? It’s been two years – so back to the dumpster they go. The critically acclaimed book I never finished because it bored me to death? Half-Price Books is the answer. Piles of snapshots and photographs no one in the family can identify? They could have been picked up at a garage sale for all we know, but my nostalgic-collage-making friend will love them just the same. All those tiny shampoos, conditioners and soaps from motels? The women at the shelter need them more than I do. With just a little effort they’re gone, creating more space for me, and filling a need for someone else.
Material goods that aren’t used, aren’t needed and sometimes aren’t even wanted are obvious targets for the dedicated cleaner-upper, but spirit-wilt can be a problem, too. Withered bits of nastiness, leftover grudges, unappetizing commitments and slowly hardening expectations can make any life feel like an overstuffed fridge.
And if inattention has allowed humor to turn to ridicule, disagreement to harden into contempt and belief to grow the nasty mold of judgementalism, it’s probably time to open the door, sort the good from the bad, and take out the trash. Not only will it provide a little space for fresh perspectives and delectable new ideas, it makes it far easier to reach in for one of those treats that’s been hidden away, just out of everyone’s sight.