Opening the Door

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?

Comments are welcome, always.

93 thoughts on “Opening the Door

  1. Fabulous writing in the post, Linda.

    Your preparation for lent coincides with the long tradition of “hunting for chametz” before Passover; that is, finding every little piece of cracker, cereal, bread–anything with leavening in it and ridding the kitchen of all chametz. This goes along with the spring cleaning rituals which early Christians (former Jews) brought to the new traditions of their Easter. They also moved the Passover egg to the Easter egg!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Cheri.

      I know the Passover story, of course, and have a certain familiarity with its rituals and traditions. But I’ve missed knowing about the hunt for chametz. Now, I know about candles, feathers, and wooden spoons, selling chametz (even online, now!) and how to clean children’s toys. Clearly, some are more strictly observant than others, but the sense of the practice seems the same, whether Orthodox or Reform.

      I found many interesting side roads to travel, but this caught my attention:

      “The search for chametz is not just the search for unleavened bread; it is also an internal search. It is about looking deep inside and seeing what needs to be removed—haughtiness, hatred, disrespect and all of the other internal waste…

      The physical flickering of the candle reminds us to look deeper into our souls, which, as brought in the Talmudic proof above, are likened to “the candle of G‑d.”

      Well, yes. That’s pretty much what I had on my mind, too.

      1. All true and thanks for the reminder to look for more than just crumbs…seems to me as I have gotten older, I spend more time on this internal search…funny, didn’t you think as you aged you would know more?

  2. Spring Fever infection!
    Growing up, no matter how much tupperware we had, it was always a jumble – mom hated the kitchen. No pretty starched aprons there.

    I do organize some – but it’s a clash of organizational style here and one of us is always resorting and “fixing” what was previously done. I’m pretty flexible…most of the time – but if in a hurry hunting for stuff that was right there not long ago is annoying.

    Great analogies – you are such a tricky philosopher. (Sun. What are you doing inside…me? Trying to not sneeze.

    1. It was a gorgeous day, no question. I was out and about for a while, but after nearly a full week of working outside, there’s something lovely about relaxing inside, with the windows open and the breezes blowing in.

      I laughed at your mention of not always being able to find what was “there” just a few days earlier. The truth is I can do that to myself. Every now and then my impulses to reorganize on a scale larger than the refrigerator shelves bring me to the point of not remembering where I put something. I try and blame Dixie Rose, but she’s good at refusing responsibility of any sort, especially when it truly isn’t hers.

      Speaking of organizational style: when I was in Liberia, I used to go around and around with Phillip, my houseboy. I organized by categories — pots and pans, dinnerware, baking ingredients — while he preferred to organize by function: rice with the pan it was cooked in with the dish it would be eaten from. There’s nothing like sharing a kitchen to foster cross-cultural discussion, if not understanding.

      1. Dixie Rose is a smart one. Napping prevents being blamed. I sometimes have been known to tape a newspaper recipe to a box/bag/jar and put all ingredients clustered together on the shelf – only to come back and find all the items to be reorganized and put with like items…and the clipping gone.
        (Do you ever wonder when we start worrying over what is the correct way to sort and group utensils/food that we may have an over-abundance? Joking…but a bit sad, if you think about it…OK Grew up in the “Eat. Children are starving in China era.”)
        Paw waves and stray thoughts sent with cheer and humor.

  3. We all have a threshold which triggers our “need to sort things out,” the need to arrest the slide of order into chaos. Entropy ensures that it’s a losing battle but we fight it all the same.

    What many don’t realize is the healing ability of cleaning house. When aspects of our world seem out of control and we feel helpless — the dead-end job, the commute, the restrictive finances, the demands of life that cannot be ignored and must be dealt with, the things we must do because we have no choice, the cares that weigh us down. The trick is to exercise control over the things we can control. I may not be able to control the kind of housing I can afford, but I can order the things inside that house the way I want them. I can rearrange furniture, and use creativity to take up the slack between what I want and what I can afford. I can clean and straighten, bring order into chaos. I can exercise control over the things I can control, and win back some of my feelings of power.

    I think of a scene from a film I cannot remember the name of, in which a father is sorting through the fridge trying to find something to feed his kids. The kid opens a container of a moldy unknown substance and exclaims, “What is that?!” The father calmly puts the lid back on and sets it aside, with the offhand comment, “It’s penicillin. Your mother made it.”

    My fridge is not quite that bad, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t pass muster with your friend Allison. Onions in the butter keeper, apples still in the plastic sacks from the grocery store with their tops hanging out of the crisper to help keep the defrost function of the fridge from sucking them dry, and to remind me I have them, and I need to eat them before the fridge mummifies them. My freezer is more organized, however. All the frozen food stacked neatly in reverse order by the use-by dates. Ice cubes in a plastic zip-lock bag. (I have to organize the freezer. It’s half again as small as the one I had in the place I moved from.)

    1. I know you have a word for that threshhold, WOL — the one that triggers the need to stop the slide into chaos. I even went over to your blog to see if I could find it, but I couldn’t. I remember that you turned it into a link at one point, and that I smiled when I read it.

      Whichever word you used, I recognized it at the time as perfectly descriptive of a condition we all experience. And how right you are about control. Your second paragraph sums it up beautifully. There are times to rail against circumstances — times even to devote ourselves to changing them — but there are other times when life is impervious to change, and all we can control is ourselves. Learning to differentiate among those circumstances is part of what used to be known as “growing up.”

      I wonder if that exchange between the father and his child was in an older film. I remember we used to look at moldy bread and talk about penicillin. It still was new and worthy of note in the 40s and 50s, and it truly was a “wonder drug.” It helped ensure my recovery from a serious case of pneumonia when I was very young.

      I need to start using up the blackberries, peaches and blueberries that still are in my freezer from last year’s picking. I tend to hoard them, but it won’t be long until this year’s crop is in. I think a cobbler would be a good start.

      1. “Critical mess” is the phrase in question. Both my office and my dining room table have just about reached that state. I am torn between cleaning those areas up and knitting baby things. Guess which is winning. . . .

  4. Your ability to segue from the refrigerator to a life philosophy boggles the mind (or is it “baggins” the mind . . .)! I laughed so hard I nearly choked on a wasabi pea (just kidding-it’s cocktail hour here, and they are tonight’s accompaniment).

    Anyway, on the fridge front, I have many times commented to the mate that what we really need, if we just had the wall space, is a fridge that doesn’t allow for more than one row of foods. I do not wish to reveal what we periodically find hidden in the crannies and nooks.

    Another thing this reminds me of is a couple of friends who are getting up there in years and “downsizing” from their house to an apartment, so have culled their CDs and proposed that we come over and take a look to see if there was anything we wanted. This time, I knew better than to yield to the temptation. We proposed to take them to J’s school as a contribution to its book fair, and I never looked back. I almost, but only almost, regret it. Oh, and one more silly story: a woman who came to help us figure out what to do with our house when we first moved in (it badly needed a bit of paint and something done outside, too) had one word for us, which she repeated, arms spread wide: “Remove!” I don’t know if that one word constitutes a philosophy, but at least I can remember it!

    1. Susan, your one-row-deep refrigerator idea reminded me of something my mother did. When my parents built our new house in the mid-50’s, she kept looking and looking at the blank expanse of wall edging half of the stairway to the basement. One day she said, “I want a pantry there.” Once she explained, she got it: a lovely place for canned goods storage, with shelves just deep enough to accomodate large cans of tomatoes or fruit. You could open one of the doors, and see immediately what was there, or what needed to be restocked. It was genius.

      So many people I know are downsizing and/or decluttering. Even if immediate circumstances don’t demand it, they have one eye on the future, or simply want to shed a different sort of weight. No question it can be hard, though. The habit of accumulation can be almost reflexice, as you found with the cds. The last time I took some china to our upscale consignment shop, I began heading back to their antique china section “just to have a look,” before I took myself in hand and headed for the front door.

  5. I so enjoy your posts. As others commented, your wending way through prosaic life and thoughtful personal philosophy carries me along.

    Our refrigerator lives somewhere between chaos and organization, depending on the day. Every two or three months, before a huge three-pronged shopping trip (Trader Joe’s, HyVee, Meat Market) when the fridge is low, I clean and scrub and toss. And spring’s a good tossing time.

    I guess getting older is a blessing as I don’t hold on to much emotional baggage – or sometimes thoughts, for that matter. I’ve said for years that my hard drive is full and I need a flash drive to go in my ear. Handy, no? I could remove it, clean out unnecessary files, back them up to the cloud, and begin again. That is, if I’d remember.

    1. Not everyone in the world would grow nostalgic over the mention of Hy-Vee, Janet, but here I am: suddenly back in high school, running to get something for Mom at 9 o’clock at night, when the Hy-Vee still was the only store in town that stayed open until 10.

      Even today, when I visit my aunt in the Kansas City area, I always stop at the big Hy-Vee there, just to have a look around. The last time I was there, they were selling freshly made potica, a staple on the tables of my grandparents’ Croatian neighbors.

      Your reference to a full mental hard drive tickled me. I hear that expression from time to time, as technology increasingly becomes metaphor. I’ve never heard anyone suggest downloading to a flash drive, though. It certainly would give new meaning to the old phrase about “a flash of insight.” It would be handy — especially since it seems there’s not much chance of upgrading the operating system, or adding more memory.

  6. I follow the axim “when in doubt, etc.” once a week as I toss out everything we did not eat the previous week. A few weeks ago after hearing from a friend in remission from cancer who went through her house throwing out everything except for things she had only the slightest need for. Furniture went along with dishes, pots and pans and of course clothing. I took her advice last week and it is an amazing feeling of freedom! One man’s trash, another man’s treasure.

    1. As a friend remarked after clearing out two of his three (!) rented garages/workspaces, the best thing about getting rid of his unused “stuff” was that he don’t have to store it, insure it, or paw through it looking for what he truly needed and couldn’t find.

      When Mom first moved down here, we had to rent a storage unit for the excess baggage. Finally, I won her over by pointing out that, if we needed to replace something in the future that had been tossed, donated or sold, we could do it easily with what we’d save on storage cost. And of course, we never needed to replace a thing.

      To paraphrase Janis Joplin (and with a nod to William Morris), freedom’s just another word for nothing left that isn’t useful ,or beautiful, or both. And of course, even when it’s all treasure, there’s such a thing as too much. I’ve had to learn that lesson myself.

    1. At least your sister doesn’t just sit back and criticize, Gallivanta. It’s true that helping hands can lead to interminable “whatever did you do with..?” conversations, but that’s a small price to pay.

      I hadn’t seen the series you linked. It put me in mind of the times I’ve been without refrigeration: in Liberia, while cruising, and after hurricanes and tropical storms. Refrigeration — and ice — improve the quality of life.immeasurably. Being able to get ice after Ike meant being able to keep food and medicines, not to mention a luxurious cold drink in the midst of chaos.

        1. Clearly, even in those early years, technologies were having world-wide effects. Before the hurricanes wiped out Indianola, the Morgan shipping lines and others were moving into refrigeration. I believe the earliest regular line for beef shipment was Indianola to Galveston to New Orleans. That would have been around 1860 — only a little earlier than in New Zealand.

          Coincidentally, I was reading a piece on the death of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, where he mentioned the importance of another kind of refrigeration:

          “Question: Anything else besides multicultural tolerance that enabled Singapore’s success?

          Answer: Air conditioning. Air conditioning was a most important invention for us, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history. It changed the nature of civilization by making development possible in the tropics.

          Without air conditioning you can work only in the cool early-morning hours or at dusk. The first thing I did upon becoming prime minister was to install air conditioners in buildings where the civil service worked. This was key to public efficiency.”

          Here in Houston, I believe we’d say he was right.

  7. The turn at the end from the ostensible subject to the real subject is what carries the day in this extended metaphor of an essay. (Now that I’ve written that sentence, I see that Gallivanta right before me similarly used the phrase analogy for life).

    1. I’ve always appreciated the advice offered by one of Steve Gingold’s neighbors:

      “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
      Success in Circuit lies.
      Too bright for our infirm Delight
      The Truth’s superb surprise;

      As Lightning to the Children eased
      With explanation kind
      The Truth must dazzle gradually
      Or every man be blind.”

      And how nice it is that metaphor and analogy don’t have to be confined to poetry.

        1. And now I’ve learned yet another word (“frustum”) and have a way to calculate the volume of shaved ice in my sno-cone holder this summer. Practical math, indeed.

      1. Here’s what’s amusing: only after posting and re-reading did I catch the beauty-is-only-skin-deep sense of “it’s what’s inside that counts.” I suppose it’s a writer’s version of what you’ve spoken of from time to time: seeing things in an image after uploading to the computer that you never saw in the field.

  8. Chocolate chips relegated to the back? No No No!!! We used to buy Dove dark chocolates. They got to be too expensive. We tried alternatives. So-so and also costly. A couple of years ago while in CostCo, we found a 3 lb bag of high quality chocolate chips, high is cocoa, a very reasonable price, smooth and really good tasting. We keep a plastic freezer-tub full of them in the front of the cupboard. There is even a plastic spoon in it to make it easier to get them into our mouths.

    We try to pass on the things in our home that we don’t use. Soon after we moved to this community, we started collecting the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia set from the grocery store. Each week was a new volume. The whole set was put to use as we raised our son through school years. They were close to the dinner table and helped answer questions that came up. Today, info is so quickly accessed on the intertubes, we had no use for them. I offered them on Freecycle. One person wanted them. She got them yesterday. Everyone was happy. Now we have a big hole in the shelf unit by the table. :-(

    We moved into this house in 2002. Things got put in their places. Items got put into the drawers. Stuff was put into the fridge. For some reason, where you put it that first time is where it stays forever. It can’t be re-located. It would somehow warp the fabric of space-time and cause a cosmic shift harmful to all living things. I’ve tried moving things a little. They always come back to the original location over time. Be very careful when you first put something in its place. That is where it will stay. Just sayin’.

    1. I’ve tried to become a fan of dark chocolate. It hasn’t happened yet, but I will say that, if I were forced to eat a piece or two, Dove would do very nicely. For a real treat, I do recommend Ghiradelli’s dark with salted caramel. My goodness — haven’t we come a long way from Hershey bars and Nestlé’s Toll House morsels?

      Speaking of chocolate chips, I had no idea they were invented only a decade before I was born. If you don’t know the story of Ruth Wakefield and the Toll House Inn, you can read it here.

      The encyclopediae were such fun. I loved using them for class projects, but of course they were good for everything from rainy day browsing to researching costumes for paper dolls. I still remember them lined up along the book shelves, just above my dad’s stamp albums. Eventually, they were sold in a garage sale, along with an out-of-date Replogle globe that had a signed taped to it: “This World Is Old.”

      I’m a little like you. The first place may not be the permanent place, but once I find the “right” place, things stay. Now I’m wondering about your comment that we should be very careful about putting something in its place, because that’s where it will stay. I wonder if that applies to putting people in their places, too? :-)

      1. That is actually the first time I read about how the cookie got started. Thanks.

        I walked by Ghiradelli’s in San Francisco years ago. The smell was wonderful. I understand the prisoners on the Alcatraz were able to smell it.

        I think it does apply to putting people in their places. People find it hard to accept that someone they thought they knew turned out to be very different.

        1. What strikes me is that a commitment to quality (e.g., Ghiradelli controlling every aspect of production) seems the link between the two companies and their longevity.

          I was completely taken by this line near the bottom of the Replogle article: “If a change occurs in the world, you can request an update either by contacting your dealer or by contacting Replogle Globes directly.” There’s a vague whiff of Victorian sensibility there that’s really interesting.

    1. Exactly so. Proof? Try getting a favored toy away from a determined toddler, or a smart phone away from — well, nearly anyone, these days. Try taking power away from a politician, or a mirror away from a narcissist. We could have quite a list, if we worked at it!

  9. Oh yes, the fridge. I hate looking at mine even though it is not the best in orderliness or cleanliness. Once in awhile I tackle the fridge but I just try to maintain a semblance of order every day. The freezer at the top is clean and tidy though.

    Great post as always. I can not imagine a friend that has a perfect fridge. She must be a clean and neatness freak. I mean that in a good way. :-)

    1. Isn’t it funny how we all have our little quirks about our living space, Yvonne? Some people can’t abide dust, others have to have sparkling windows, and still others need every piece of paper in its rightful place: no tables, counters and desks piled high for them.

      It’s true that the phrase “obsessive compulsive” has been used in Alison’s presence, but she just grins. I finally figured out the basic difference between us. While we both enjoy a nice, clean house, she actually enjoys cleaning house. I scrub and dust because it’s necessary. She does it because the process gives her as much satisfaction as the result. In that sense, her housecleaning isn’t much different than my writing or vanishing, where I enjoy both the process and the final product.

      I wonder if freezers stay tidier than the fridge for a lot of us because they’re smaller? Perhaps we keep them more organized so we can cram more into them.

      1. I think you’re right about the freezer. I hate house cleaning because there are so many other things that to me have a higher value and priority. Sounds as if cleaning house is your friend’s hobby.

  10. Linda, you always surprise me the way you weave a story, it is one I needed to hear and mull over, and this morning is no exception. (It is insomniac-thirty as I write this, BTW) At first I thought you were leading into getting a new refrigerator, but no, then it was on to housekeeping. However, you really threw me for a loop when you transitioned from housekeeping to lifekeeping, and every word of it made sense.

    In a strange way I have been getting to this point for many years. Letting go of the stuff that puts the lead in my plans, and my heart. Though I wish I could have been more like your friend Alison and just got the job done!

    1. Well, dealing with life is a lot more difficult than keeping a refrigerator, Lynda — as you so well know. Just when we think we have things under control, along comes the interruption: the illness, the debt, the family member moving in, the lawsuit, the business complication. It’s just the way things are.

      As for Alison, don’t put her on too high a pedestal. She can’t sew a stitch, and your geese would send her over the fence and down the road in a minute. But she’s my role model for housekeeping, even when I ignore all the good tips she has for me.

      I suspect it’s often that way. We listen, we take in, we reject — and then we start the process all over again. There’s a lot of realism in that two steps forward, one step back business.

      I tried to figure out how to use one of your aprons from your Etsy store for that top photo, but I really wanted a 1950s image. No matter. The next time I need a good pic of an apron, I’ll know where to come!

      1. Yay! I would be more than happy to share one of my aprons with you! And, I will be making full aprons soon enough!
        : D

        As for dealing with life, NO Kidding!!! We were never so glad to be done with a year as we were 2014. We will be paying for it for the next two years, but it will get paid!

  11. Hi Linda,

    Every time you post, I’m reminded of what a delightful read you are.

    And, one of the great things about your posts is that you manage to introduce life’s lessons into every one of them. From stocking, sorting, re-sorting, and re-stocking items in your refrigerator to brainstorming about the things in life that need “throwing out” (much like some of the stuff in the refrigerator), your words are as palpable as the deep conviction they convey.

    I especially loved the paragraph: “Occasionally, I pour my morning coffee, sit down at the table, and relive in a different context the experience of gazing directly 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.” Simply beautiful!


    1. Thanks, Andrew. One of the convictions I’ve developed over the years is that wisdom and insight aren’t to be found by leaving this world, but by delving ever more deeply into it. Once I accepted that premise (and a couple of related ones that the church describes in theologies of creation and incarnation), it becomes clear that anything can be a path to wisdom: even an untidy refrigerator!

      Besides, as you so well know, a good story beats a lecture every time!


  12. Love it!!! “Maybe stir fry…” – Yep that sounds familiar! With 2 Virgos in this small household (not including the cache of kitties), we’re constantly in Spring Fever mode. It helps being an army brat, too. Less clutter equals less chaos; which is difficult with book lovers and antique fiends, hah!

    1. FeyGirl, I just saw the notice of a 7.6 earthquake and tsunami warnings for Papua, the Solomons, Vanuatu, Marshalls, etc. You can find it here. I’m not sure if you still have family or friends there, but I thought you’d be interested, regardless.

      One thing about moving so often is that accumulation doesn’t happen so easily (and stealthily). Rolling stones, moss, and all that. When I was moving about every three years and felt like I’d just finished unpacking when it was time to pack again, that was all the motivation I needed to keep things under control.

      Books and antiques — nothing like dealing with heavy and fragile!

      1. Holy COW I had no idea about this! The Marshalls are affected, but more the outer atolls. But with rising waters (some islands have already been evacuated) — this natural event doesn’t help. :(

        You’re so very right about that sneaky accumulation. As much as we try, we are always cognizant of it. And you’re right: Why NOT love the heaviest of the heaviest of furniture! Hahahah!

  13. Oh Allison would just fall over if she saw my fridge. We don’t usually let things go to waste (well, except for cool whip & sour cream – I can NEVER remember to make things that use those items, which I usually purchase for a one-time meal). But we have condiments that were old when they moved with us to our house six years ago. And since we have room, I just let them sit there, undisturbed. Would you believe that the reason I don’t get rid of them is because I would want to recycle the bottles & I don’t want to spend time emptying & rinsing them? How’s that for lazy? !!

    Your other “spring cleaning” tasks hit close to home too – in every respect. I have felt a profound need to try to be more kind, just in general. I don’t always remember, because my default position is “snark,” but I’m trying.

    1. I’ve gotten much better about not wasting food, Dana. After Mom died, it was an adjustment to move from cooking for two to cooking for one. As time’s gone by, it’s gotten easier, partly because I eat differently now and partly because I’m not trying to keep her fridge supplied with things that would be easy for her to fix or heat up.

      I was going to laugh at your condiments, and then I remembered: mustard, Worchestershire sauce, and chili sauce. They were there for Mom, and there they are: still sitting. Let’s see… almost four years. My goodness. I suppose I should do something with them, too.

      What you say about snark as a default position made me smile. I’d gone looking for the source of something my mother always said (“Pardon my dust”), and discovered that Dorothy Parker is the source. Not only that, she wanted the line as the epitaph on her tombstone, and eventually she got it.

      In the process of learning all that, I came across another of her lines that’s equally good: “There’s a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.” I wonder if she’d consider today’s snark equivalent to yesterday’s wise-cracking? Hard to say, but it’s interesting to ponder.

  14. I love this one in so many ways, Linda! You had me from the get-go, when I found myself identifying with your friend Allison. Oh, the shame of organizing and re-organizing until everything is in military precision! Can’t help it — it’s just part of my Virgo nature — and fighting it would only add more stress.

    Then I had to laugh aloud at your description of toting your rotting veggies out in a black sack so the neighbors wouldn’t see them — thank goodness for opaque bags, huh?!

    And I have to identify with your suggestion to toss out what’s no longer useful or loved, in favor of opening our spaces to something else. What a freeing thing that is! Lent is a great time for getting rid of those grudges and nasty emotions!

    1. Debbie, your mention of organizing and reorganizing made me laugh. That one’s a double-edged sword. My mom used to reorganize things to death, especially her yarn stash. She’d say, “I’m going to get this organized so it doesn’t take up so much space,” then go to work. It was like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Everything ended up in a different place, but “everything” still was there. She’d just sigh and say, “No matter what I do, I can’t seem to reduce the space it takes.” Eventually, I decided “reorganization” was just an excuse to take everything out and look at it. Nothing wrong with that!

      Speaking of garbage, there’s another metaphor waiting to be explored. One thing I’ve been intentional about this Lent is avoiding as much nastiness and vitriol as I can. I’m no prude, and hearing foul language or sharp exchanges isn’t going to leave me quivering in a corner, but there’s a good bit of so-called entertainment and internet “discussion” I just don’t need. The programmers’ very useful acronym — GIGO — applies well outside the world of coding.

      It tickled me to death to find that my favorite Annie Dillard holds the same view. In “The Writing Life,” she says about the author: “He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, for that is what he will know.”

  15. What a wonderful piece of writing, I love how it flowed, full of humour and insight! I shall ponder on this for a while I think, yes, there is much baggage that can be disposed of from wilting lettuce to emotional entanglement….it’s just a case of learning to let it go and making the time to do just that.

    I do have an urge to peer into my fridge, I’m always afraid to do that…..I would be able to hear Allison’s shrieks from here! Not pretty….AT ALL! xxx

    1. “Learning to let go” is a lifetime process, for sure. I still remember a kindergarten struggle with a classmate over a little red truck in the sand box. I was made to give it to him, but then I buried it in the sand when his back was turned. I suppose the fact that I was four years old, and an only child, helps to explain a certain lack of social skills like “sharing.”

      Avoidance is pretty common, too, I suppose. Combine it with a tendency toward procrastination, and we could drive Alison right over the cliff. The good news is, it’s never too late to start setting things right.

  16. Father Justin Belitz, a popular Franciscan out in the midwest, gave a talk once on the cathartic benefits of reorganizing a closet — and by extension, I suppose, a refrigerator or a life. I do it frequently, and just as frequently fall backwards into a morass of accumulated stuff. No matter, Father Justin would tell us. The very point is that you and I can clean up from time to time. That’s what this season reminds us of, as the hymn says: we are “a people born to rise and rise again!”

    1. Exactly so. Death and resurrection in all its forms is a basic dynamic of life, not a one-time event in the far past. Whether rising from bed in the morning or picking ourselves up after tripping over a curb, it’s a daily reality.

      The other thing that occurs to me is that engaging in the process of reorganization forces us to really see what’s in front of us. It’s easy to become so accustomed to things-as-they-are that we no longer notice them. We “pay them no mind,” as my grandmother would say.
      She also liked to say, “Mind your manners” — that is, pay attention to your behavior, the way you treat other people. In her day, people “minded” children, too, watching over them to keep them from harm.

      It’s interesting to consider reorganization and decluttering as special forms of mindfulness: ways to pay attention to our world that allow us to live in it more fully.

      A blessed Holy Week, and a Happy Easter to you and yours!

  17. I feel like you wrote this for me, and that’s what I’m telling myself. My hand will have to touch almost every item in my house over the next few weeks. I’m so glad we purged a few times over the past couple of years. It would be completely overwhelming.

    “When in doubt, throw it out.” I will take that into account over the next few weeks. I promise.

    1. I remember those “purge posts,” Bella, and it certainly seems now that it was effort well spent. It’s not going to make it any easier, I suppose, but at least you’ve primed the pump.

      The decision-making always is the hardest. One thing I’ve found is that keeping some representative items, rather than the whole boxful, is good enough. One of my report cards from each grade in primary school will do, thank you. I don’t need every single one (as Mom did). Once I started thinking of objects as keys to unlock memory, rather than as the memories themselves, it became easier.

    1. That’s one way to avoid fridge-cleaning, Z. Given your regular power problems, it makes sense, quite apart from the cost of the electricity itself. Besides, when there’s not a ready supply of ice for drinks, they become even more of a treat when available, no?

      1. you are so right.. crushed ice is always a treat, though i usually prefer room temp for drinks unless it’s a cold cervesa on a hot day.

        am in quito and it’s raining, so all i want right now is a warm bowl of creamy soup! that’s easy to find in the andes!

  18. Oh, this blog and comments were painful for me to read. Clutter in all its forms is the source of my daily struggles. Even my head feels cluttered. I’m somewhat reassured, though, when I read that others hide things going in the trash, stash goodies in far corners to outwit themselves, and harbor outdated condiments to avoid emptying and cleaning the containers. Misery loves company!

    1. NumberWise, in the process of writing this, then pondering the issues while responding to comments, I’ve had a terrible thought. Assuming I get my vision issues corrected as promised, what is my house going to look like to me? I’d considered the fact that I might see more signs of aging than I have in the past, but what about the dust? the kitty fur? the less-than-stellar grout around the tile? It may be more than bluebonnets and constellations that present themselves. Oh, my.

      “I once was blind, but now I see” may be a great metaphor in a hymn, but it could have a literal downside. Stay tuned!

  19. You have your Alison, I have my house-guests. Or, more accurately, roomie has the house-guests. Nothing like having people in the house to get roomie’s list to grow grow grow — from closet shelves to garage clutter to under-bed “storage”. She even put her computer on the de-clutter list.

    “Thrifty, organized, and creative” are the very same sentiments I feel when faced with a spoonful of jam or some crafty idea on the internet. Once we’ve conquered the clutter, don’t you wonder why it takes so long to tackle it?

    1. There are plenty of good reasons to have house guests, nikkipolani, and way down at the bottom of my list you’ll find exactly that reason: it’s a shove into true de-cluttering and reorganizing. Would any of my guests look under the bed, just for a look-see? Probably not. On the other hand, why take the risk?

      It is strange how the smallest task can seem so overwhelming. Do we imagine it as larger than it is? Perhaps. In any event, I finally made the trip to the local nursery yesterday, and now have the pots and organic potting soil necessary to do to my balcony what I’ve already done to the fridge. Onward!

  20. Thanks for this, especially the bit at the end inviting us to think about the need for an interior sweep every now and then. While I read this I thought a bit about my desk. I rarely have a messy desk. It greatly annoys me. But my drawers! Yikes!! I long for order below the desk top, but it seems unattainable. If I had a therapist, I’m sure she could make much of this… but for now I simply have to clean up or learn to live with chaos below the surface. What a choice!

    1. Hmmm… Chaos beneath the surface? I believe I’ve heard a story or two about creation emerging from the depths of chaos. Maybe you should name your drawers Tiamat and Apsu, and just let things roll. If you have more drawers than that — well, there’s always Marduk, and the kids!

  21. Brilliantly funny writing, Linda. Yes, my fridge has had a big clean out and better order is in evidence, but at the end of the day I’d still rather be sweating over the writing of my latest book. We need domestic order but stretching my creative muscles will always win out. It’s just so much more interesting and enjoyable to create rather than to clean.

    1. On the other hand, Mary, isn’t editing a sort of verbal decluttering? Cleaning up a manuscript is far more fun than cleaning a fridge in my book, too, but the dynamics aren’t so very different. I suspect that’s why I find it easier to read, research, or write when things around me are under control. I don’t need to spend time looking for the pickles, or that sheaf of notes.

      Of course, it’s different for us all. That’s one reason I so enjoy the occasional article that shows the writing space of different authors, like this one. It’s the differences I find so intriguing, and some of the habits, like Jonathan Franzen using a computer with no distracting connection to the internet.

      1. Point well taken, Linda. Yes, editing is absolutely a required form of decluttering. As I’m a Virgo, I usually have a fairly well ordered environment around me … and yet, if I have to choose I’ll always head for the latest creative project first.

  22. I grew up with a well-organized refrig that my mother managed diligently…as with all the household. I would not say that I ever rebelled from the order, but my bachelor fridges were always chaotic at best. I guess I married well because the same chaos reigns in the fridge today. We periodically empty the whole thing out and, to our dismay, deposit an immoral amount of decayed victuals into a bag for the dumpster. I think that you and I are in the majority, Linda. It’s the rare Alison-bird that has a sparkling cold food keeper.

    1. I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study on how refrigerator contents and organization change over time? I can remember some of the same refrigerator chaos from my college and early working years. Of course, when cold pizza, cheese, cold cuts and beer are life’s primary staples, what difference does organization make?

      I just was talking with a friend tonight about one benefit of locally-grown food that no one seems to talk about: it lasts longer. Greens and veggies from the grocery probably have a good week or more behind them before they ever show up in the store. When I can buy from a farm, the produce is often picked the same day, or only a day or two old. Of course, that doesn’t do you much good through the winter, but spring is coming, and then the summer crops!

      And there’s no question that Alison’s the outlier here. Thank goodness she’s not obnoxious about it!

  23. How do I love this post? Let me count the ways. I love that your fridge more closely resembles mine than Alison’s does. Good grief, she’d faint at the mix of science experiments that abound. But, like her, I tend to hide the evils (in my case, the ice cream and frozen chocolate chip cookie dough — don’t ask) behind boatloads of chicken, roasts, extra bread, boxed bits and whatever so that at least if I need to get to it, I’m burning a few extra calories in the process. But then, I’ve never been obsessively tidy so I suppose my fridge would be no shock to you. Hmm. I wonder if the outside and inside of a fridge have a scientific correlation? If you have everything BUT the kitchen sink HANGING on the outside, do you have everything else within? Like you, I have good intentions. But I get bored easily and all of a sudden that yogurt I have 10 of (because it was on sale and it does lasts, after all) isn’t really my cuppa tea.

    But oh, how devilishly clever you are to do as you so often do — walk outside the boundaries you have initially drawn and begin another circle till all of a sudden we have a Venn diagram with the fridge, our friendships and the rest of the clutter in the house all with an overlap (that is probably larger than the amount left in the outside circles. Yes, I love that, too!

    And I love that this post reminds me that since tomorrow is trash day it really wouldn’t kill me to spend a half hour seeing if the peppers are too wrinkled to enjoy for dinner tonight, if the blackberries have caved in on themselves and might that mustard from France be expired? Or the yogurt, for that matter. Maybe I’ll drink the half (mini) bottle of OJ and mix it with club soda and pretend that it’s something special!

    My linen closet. That’s the spot I always seem to start every six months or so. And the worst part is that no one can really see it — or don’t bother to sneak the door open. But the fridge — open season!

    Well, I’m starting to free associate and Lizzie is starting to hound me with the usual “It’s five o’clock somewhere” yowl, so over and out, and thanks for the smiles and motivation. (And your package will be in the mail tomorrow!)

    1. I love that Venn diagram reference, Jeanie. Did you see the social media diagram that was making the rounds two or three years ago? I know I posted it somewhere, but just where, I can’t say. I found it again, and it still gives me a laugh.

      Given the amount of cooking and entertaining you do, I’m not at all surprised that your fridge is stuffed to the gills, or that things disappear now and then. I suspect your pantry’s just as full — to paraphrase the old saying, “Abundance, thy name is Jeanie!”
      The good news is that personal style isn’t necessarily a failing. Remember that note of Mom’s I found when I was cleaning out her apartment? She started out on the Alison end of the spectrum, and eventually inched a good bit toward ours. When I think about it, I’m really glad she did.

    1. That kind of pattern goes along with a couple of other things I was taught to do when I was growing up: plan the week’s meals, and shop accordingly. I suspect you had the same experience.

      Going to the store, buying food, and then deciding what to do with it was as foreign to us as the thought of eating a weeknight meal in a restaurant. I’ll often end up going back to the store for more milk, lettuce, or whatever, but I do try to think things through, and do that traditional weekly shopping, too.

      1. Yes, your description describes me fairly accurately. If I’m missing an ingredient for a dish that I want to make, I’ll either make a different recipe or substitute something else. I take pride in figuring out how to use the foods and ingredients in my house to make attractive and nutritious meals. This is a skill that I definitely failed to teach my children–but times have changed. :)

  24. This is really good. It’s complex in parts, thoughtful, meaningful. And then it’s just about how you keep your refrigerator, too.

    I used to be pretty close to your friend’s tidiness (but not stocked to such a degree!) and it made me think less of anyone who had a messy refrigerator. And I admit I still have those judgments…I can’t find my way to cope with a truly stuffed box of wads of plastic jammed into every inch. That makes me want to go home and alphabetize my food…

    Either way is an extreme and it hints at deeper issues. Having suffered from OCD for a long time, I can’t hear of or look at things like this and not feel some concern for the person. OCD is agony.Funny sometimes, but agony.

    If everyone had no one to leave anything to (including their cat), they would live more lightly. But when you discover that many people who have lost everything to catastrophic storms rebuild and refill their homes with just as much stuff…

    And have you ever helped someone clean up after a tornado or other such storm? Ever help fill those massive dumpsters over and over and over with stuff? Then realize this was just ONE family? And ONE storm? And the poor earth has to eat all of that.

    1. Well, yes. I have cleaned up after storms, as a matter of fact. The worst, personally, was tropical storm Allison (isn’t that ironic!?). She sent four feet of water through the house and ruined nearly everything: furniture, photos, books, family mementos, carpeting, clothing, sheetrock, floors. The mud, the mold, and the stench were inescapable.

      And then there was hurricane Ike. Entire communities were wiped off the map. The lucky ones were the people who had something left to put in the dumpsters, because it meant they might have had something to save. After an Ike, a Rita, a Katrina, or an Allison — or a Christchurch or Phuket, for that matter — it’s not the poor earth that I think about.

      It’s true that people who rebuild after such events bring more stuff into their homes, but I’ll never begrudge them that. Being able to sleep in a bed again, cook a meal, or turn on a light at night is small comfort for all that never can be replaced.

  25. We’ve all been there metaphorically, Linda. The fridge, the drawer, the cupboard, the shed in the garden. Life seems a permanent struggle to keep things in order.

    We are de-cluttering as you may have heard me say in my blog – in preparation for a move. Places are looking cleaner, tidier and neater than ever before. Things are moved and stored some place else. But here’s the problem. Somehow I could always find something despite the appearance of chaos. Now – I haven’t a clue where I’ve put some things. I must have thought of a rational way to store things when I placed them where they were placed, but trying to re-think that rationality is like teasing apart a bowl of spaghetti into its original strands. And when I eventually find something I am baffled at my thinking, Must be something to do with getting older!!

    1. I’ve always found that confusion over mis-placed or re-placed items is one of the worst parts of moving. It can take months before I stop looking for things where they were — in an entirely other house!

      Right now, it’s my photo files that are causing me the most trouble. Like Topsy, they’ve grown, and, in the beginning, I didn’t do any tagging. I didn’t even put them in files. Now, I sit around thinking, “I know I took that photo….” but finding it is another matter entirely. Sometimes, when I do find it, I look at how I’ve titled it and think, “Good grief! Why did I choose that?”

      I’ve learned my lesson, but it’s going to take some real time to sort things out. I’d rather clean a fridge.

      1. Cleaning the fridge certainly has some appeal when it comes to tackling the more major tasks. If only we could see the future then we would get the filing sorted on day 1 – I’m still learning about that too!!

  26. You catch me on the day when I’m ‘disinfecting’ my carpets! Treat them with a mix of distilled vinegar and water, let them soak, and vacuum the dust (and hopefully whatever tiny invaders that have set up shop) right up.

    Cleaning my refrigerator is an urge that hits me right after the holidays, when the scents of long-departed cookies still linger. There are also the practically empty bags of flour…sugar…and other baking oddities which will surely go bad before I use them again. So out they go.

    I have also learned to minimize waste when choosing recipes and ingredients, in particular I never – unfortunately, I suppose – buy fresh herbs. I only use 1/3 of what I buy, if that, and the rest always go bad. So it’s the dried kind for me.

    Things like clothes, jewelry…I clear these items out at least twice a year. If I haven’t worn them in more than a year, out they go. As for books…do I foresee re-reading them? If not…sorry, then: we must part our ways!

    1. I must confess: I use vinegar for many purposes, and have read of even more good uses around the house, but your carpet trick is a new one. It’s gone directly into my “things to try” file.

      I was raised by a mother who was a great fan of a well-stocked pantry. Of course, she did more cooking (and especially baking) then I do, so there wasn’t much chance of anything going bad. It was the same with my grandmother. You can buy flour in twenty pound sacks or larger if you’re baking bread, rolls, pie, and cakes on a regular basis, but I’ve done all the weevil-raising I want to do in this life.

      I’m a dried herb user, myself. I may try some basil again this year. I think the last I tried to grow must have been quite tasty — something ate it all up long before harvest, and I suspect that “something” had multiple legs to go with its voracious appetite!

  27. When I first started reading this, I thought you might be “Allison”, and was so relieved to find out you’re more like me on the refrigerator end of life. That you segued refrigerator chaos, then purging, into a life lesson was brilliant!

    Most of the time I try to use up the leftovers, but I have to face the fact that a lot of times I’m just storing them to throw away at a later date. Although I do usually manage to do that before they reach epic penicillin experiment status.

    In my Baton Rouge house, along with a walk-in pantry, there were also “can cabinets” on either side of the door going into the dining room. They were just one can deep and went from floor to near ceiling height. They were great. I also stored all my spices there. I’m kind of a hoarder when it comes to pantry staples. I start to panic when it starts looking less than full. I guess that comes from a childhood of never feeling like there was enough food in the house.

    1. Trust me — I’m no Alison. I can receive unexpected company without having a coronary, but anyone who starts checking for dust or peeking into cupboards gets what they deserve.

      Those “can cabinets” sound wonderful. Mom would have been in heaven to have that much space. It was a good idea to use them for spices, too. Small spaces can do a lot. One of my few genius decorating ideas was to buy a pair of cherry arts & crafts glass-fronted cabinets that were meant for cds, and use them for china. A real china cabinet would have taken too much space, but those are just right for smaller pieces of china, and fit nicely in the dining room.

      Mom was the same, when it came to hoarding food. They never had enough when she was growing up, and she never got over it. I could be the same, were it not for hurricane season. I always try to have everything cleaned out of the freezer by about July — except for my peaches and berries. When the crop comes in, I harvest. If I have to evacuate, I just cross my fingers.

  28. It’s amazing how many things were suppose to be in a certain way back in the days – even how you used the fridge. I don’t think I have ever had a fridge that lived up to its standards… I am better at cleaning my life and anything else than my fridge.

    1. And I’m always being surprised by how much the 1950s girl I still am. Much of that is good. What sense of discipline, responsibility, and thrift I have comes from those days. On the other hand, I still can carry unnecessary guilt when I open that fridge door and see that things have gotten out of hand again.

      You’re the lucky one. There are a lot of people who substitute a clean house and a tidy refrigerator for a well-organized and pleasing life. If there’s to be chaos, I’d much rather it be in the vegetable bin than in my work or relationships!

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