Clean the Fridge
“So mom, there’s this girl….” It took a fraction of a second for me to know what kind of a conversation my 15-year-old son was trying to start. It didn’t matter what the next sentence was going to be, I knew his underlying question: “How do you get to know somebody?”
There is a very real dance that goes on in the world of relationships. We learn the steps, practice the steps, glide along or step on toes. The mystery of how people connect is maddening and delightful at the same time. Just when we get used to the dance, the music changes, the rhythm changes, the person changes or we change. It doesn’t really matter how it plays out, it’s a universal dance so common to the human experience that a Google search for “Books on Relationship” came back in 0.48 seconds with “about 444,000,000 results”.
So here is my contribution to the astronomical amount of advice on how to connect with another person: Clean their refrigerator.
Believe it or not, there is a very real exchange that happens in the process.
I don’t recommend this as a first date icebreaker (although that could be interesting) and please don’t view it as a dutiful service project either. Instead, approach this as an opportunity to connect more intimately with someone you’re already familiar with, because as I discovered, that’s exactly what happens.
During a conversation with my friend Paula, I learned she needed help preparing for an upcoming gathering, so I offered my assistance. I arrived at her house, ready to decorate a room or move some furniture, but what she asked me to do was clean her fridge. I’m no stranger to this task, and though I thought it an odd request, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. So I filled a tub with water, grabbed a sponge and some soap, and opened the insulated door.
Now, the methodology of appliance cleaning I subscribe to, dictates a fairly logical order to empting, removing and replacing the shelves and drawers; at least if you’re one who favors a semi-organized approach. I suppose there’s a tactical slant for those who prefer pulling everything out all at once, and constructing a virtual minefield of chilled foodstuffs in the kitchen, and I can respect that, but it doesn’t lend itself to my sense of refrigerator cleaning protocol.
However, for this exercise, mindfulness is what is important, not method.
First off, let me mention this task was not begun with the slightest amount of thoughtfulness on my part. My intention was to get in, get out, and get done. But as I started my systematic unloading, I realized I wanted to put the jars, containers and condiments back the way I found them…which got me thinking. I wondered if I could replicate the actual order and placement of everything I had just removed. (No phone pics allowed.)
Admittedly, this turned into a personal challenge. Glass containers, plastic bottles and a plethora of loose items were placed on the kitchen counter to create a makeshift plot map. I removed the first shelf, washed it and wiped down the inside of the fridge. Happy with my progress, I replaced it and began to put things back so I could move on to the next one. I carefully positioned each item on the clean glass, only to realize what I was trying to do was impossible. I had no idea of exactness, only generalities. But why did this matter anyway? The fridge would be clean and the food would be cold. But that’s not the point. My desire to clean was secondary to what I was really trying to do: respect Paula’s space.
I wanted to be a silent helper, an unknown that glided in without disturbing the environment. Yet there was no way I could clean her fridge in complete anonymity. Both she and her family would notice things were different on the inside. My presence had affected the contents. I knew at some point, she would open the door looking for an item based on where she had put it last, and something would be unusual. Perhaps she’d stop and look, maybe move a few jars before she remembered why the previous organization was disrupted.
I’ve seen this happen without a formal cleaning: “MOM! Where’s the jam? It’s not where it’s supposed to be!” Thus begins the angst over an afternoon snack. Where is the bread, the mayo, the lettuce? It’s all IN the fridge, just not where our hands remembered it to be. “Who Moved My Cheese?” has a literal meaning here.
In a very real way, the familiarity with our surroundings, and how we rely upon the consistency of it, directly affects us. Humans naturally depend upon their environments and form relationships that are (hopefully) beneficial to both. This interaction extends itself into the realms of modification and adaptation. And that includes the fridge.
Regardless of how you stick your hands and head into someone else’s food locker, you cross a threshold of personal space. I had received an invitation to see this family through a new lens. I became aware of likes and dislikes. I saw where they kept the coffee and how much they liked it (many bags worth). I saw favored condiments and wondered what recipes called for such an assortment of mustards and chutneys. I saw their preference of wine and cheese. It was apparent that certain vegetables were not on the menu often, and needed to be thrown out. I recognized items found in my own fridge and made a mental note of new ones to try. I began to form questions that could start conversations I had never had with Paula before.
I have to admit, this was the first time I slowed my pace on cleaning an appliance. And I wondered why. What was it about this experience that impressed me enough to immerse more than my hands in the moment? I believe it was a genuine discovery with someone’s world, and how the organization of the ordinary revealed something extraordinary.
We matter. Our very presence changes things. Whether intentional or not, we affect things around us. A smile, a look, or entering a room, we change the previous moment. And that’s powerful.
In this case, the change was requested, the fridge was cleaned. A noticeable difference had been made, and it was reciprocal. The nuances that accompanied this task affected my perspective. As I cleaned and organized, I gained an appreciation for my friend that made me smile. Her family was communicating with me and I was connecting with them. I wanted to open one of those bottles of wine and celebrate. I felt a new kind of reverence for the commonplace. I sampled the mundane and it was delicious.
I connected with my friend by cleaning her fridge.
And with that, I added a new step to the repertoire of my relationship dance. As long as the music continues to play I’ll find there are days I wow myself, and times I’d rather sit out. And yet it is hard not to shake my head and smile over the richness added to my life by cleaning a refrigerator.