Handy as your re-purposed refrigerator might be, heart-warming and comforting as that pastiche of schedules and memorabilia tacked to the fridge-front surely is, for most people, it’s what’s inside that counts.
Once upon a time, when women talked of “keeping a good house” and wore aprons as a matter of course, a pristine, fully-stocked, and well-organized refrigerator was de rigueur.
A friend who prides herself on being a throwback to those times — simpler, or simply aggravating, depending on your point of view — keeps a good house and maintains a refrigerator that could rival any surgical suite. Pristine, organized within an inch of its shining, white life, it’s perfectly stocked with every staple, main dish ingredient, and culinary extra you could hope for.
In Alison’s fridge, condiments and dressings line up like grade-schoolers waiting for a class photo: tall at the back, shorter in front. When the door swings open, dairy products are close at hand. If you’re looking for the cottage cheese, it’s there with the milk, just as it should be. Hard cheeses live in a plastic container beneath the cottage cheese — no meat drawer for them — and yogurt cartons are stacked just behind, sorted according to flavor. Why raspberry, lemon and Dutch apple yogurts can’t intermingle, I’m not sure. But that’s the way it’s done: edible birds of a feather made to perch together, whatever their natural flocking tendencies.
For Alison’s family, greens always are crisp, fruit never goes bad, and there’s never a need to haul everything off a shelf to get to the chocolate chips. The fact that they’re hidden in the back 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 Alison likes me too much ever to say a word, but I see her nose twitching like a disapproving schoolmarm’s when she comes to visit.
She opens the door to my little food haven with a level of trepidation that suggests a spelunker in unfamiliar territory. If her refrigerator’s a Shakespearean sonnet, mine’s an old issue of National Enquirer. 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.
In truth, my intentions are good. I want to be thrifty, organized, and creative with the contents of my fridge, but that limp bell pepper huddled in the corner (“Maybe stir-fry…”), the over-the-hill strawberries (“They seemed such a bargain at the time…”), and a space-taking orange juice container with only a half-swallow in the bottom serve to convict. Good intentions aren’t enough.
Eventually, I can’t stand it any longer, and The Great Reorganization takes place. The Great Reorganization is, of course, a shameful euphemism for The Great Grocery Toss, a ritual accompanied by muttered incantations of a line made famous by one of my domestic heroines, Peg Bracken. “When in doubt, throw it out,” she demanded of us 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 dried-up half of a baked potato simply are gone: toted off to the trash in a black plastic bag meant solely to hide evidence of my disorganization and sloth from prying neighborhood eyes.
When it’s over, my sense of joy and relief is palpable. I give the refrigerator itself a good cleaning, line up the bottles and jars, restock the veggies, wash and bag the greens, and then step back to admire my handiwork.
Once, inordinately impressed with myself, I even called Alison. “Get over here,” I said. “Now. 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 more amusing. Clearly, she understood the forces of chaos only had been pushed back, and not overcome.
Occasionally, I pour my morning coffee, sit down at the table, and relive in a different context the experience of gazing into the depths of an out-of-control refrigerator. Rather than an array of beautifully organized tasks, fresh visions, and plenty of space for storing 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 along the bayou too often 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 from time to time, and Peg Bracken’s wisdom applies to life as well as to lettuce. “When in doubt, throw it out,” she says, and so I do.
Granted, cleaning up a life doesn’t mean tossing family or friends, responsibilities, or commitments that need to remain on life’s shelves. This is a tossing-out of everything that prevents the tasting of life in all its freshness and variety, appreciating its flavors and being nourished by its substance. It’s an opening of space for things that matter, and a 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, some day? It’s been two years: back to the dumpster they go. That critically-acclaimed book I never finished reading because it bored me beyond all expectation? The library sale rack is the answer. Piles of photographs taken of people no one in the family can identify? They can find a home with my ephemera-loving neighbor. Motel shampoos, conditioners and soaps? Families coming to Lighthouse Christian Ministries can use them. With just a little effort, all these things are gone: creating more space for the future, 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 as much a problem as two-week-old lettuce. Withered bits of nastiness, leftover grudges, unappetizing commitments and slowly hardening expectations can make any life feel like an overstuffed fridge.
If inattention has allowed humor to transform itself into ridicule, disagreement to harden into contempt, or belief to begin growing the nasty mold of judgementalism, it’s time to open the door, sort the good from the bad, and take out the trash.
Not only does an absence of trash provide 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, out of sight. Life strews her gifts with a profligate hand. Who’s to say what we might find to enjoy?