The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on September 23, 2010.

Insights, observations, and life lessons sometimes come from the strangest places. Like my refrigerator.

Not long ago, I noticed a funny smell coming from the fridge. Although it doesn’t happen very often anymore – not since the days when both of my kids were living at home and the refrigerator regularly held way more food than it does now – every once in a while some little bit of fruit or leftovers will get pushed to the back and hidden behind a larger container. There it will sit, quiet and forgotten, until it turns into a “science experiment” and makes itself known.

That’s what I figured must have happened, so the first thing I did was to move everything on each of the shelves in order to find the offending food. There was nothing I could see that was causing the problem. Next I checked the drawers and bins, and the jars and bottles in the door of the fridge. Still nothing. So I decided to do a full overhaul. I was a little overdue anyway, for cleaning out the entire refrigerator.

One shelf at a time, I took all the food out of the fridge. I removed the shelves, separated the pieces that came apart, washed and disinfected everything, then reassembled the pieces. I scrubbed out the inside of the refrigerator, wiped down all the food containers, and rearranged everything as I put it back in the fridge.

I never did figure out exactly what was causing the bad smell, but it was gone by the time I finished cleaning. When I was done, I stood for a moment – as I always do when I’ve completed a clean-up or decluttering project, no matter where in the house it is – and took a look at my handiwork. I enjoyed and admired how spotless and organized everything looked. And in this case, I also enjoyed noticing how fresh and clean it smelled.

There’s something else I noticed too, however. It’s that even though I had tossed out some things that were just about past their prime, and even though there were no leftovers in the fridge that were waiting to be consumed, or specific ingredients gathered together to prepare for that evening’s dinner, the refrigerator was still pretty full. That’s when I was struck with a profound realization:

Life is like a refrigerator.

Sometimes it gets stuffed with so many different things that a few of them get lost, pushed aside and forgotten. That may seem harmless enough, but if we don’t take care of them and finish them off – or dispose of them properly when their usefulness has passed – they can cause problems that come back to haunt us. The remnants left behind can seep into newer and fresher things, and can spoil them. At the very least, they take up space and energy that can be better used in other ways and for other purposes. And at worst, they can cause damage or destruction, or just take the fun out of everything else.

We may also find that we simply have too much of a good thing. A refrigerator that’s filled with different types of sauces and spices, exotic condiments, fancy mustards, jams, and cheeses can leave your mouth watering for something of substance that you still can’t find. You can have a full refrigerator, but nothing to eat. Or a jam-packed closet, but nothing to wear. Or a day filled with busy activities, but nothing that really gets accomplished.

When we start noticing this, it’s time to let go of some things. Even if they haven’t reached their expiration date. Even if they still fit and they’re still in style. Even if they’re enjoyable and useful activities, but they don’t help us accomplish what we really want to get done.

I’m not emptying out my refrigerator, my closet, or my calendar in one fell swoop. But I am trying to weed out and get rid of what I no longer need, what doesn’t work for me anymore, or what other people can get more use or enjoyment out of than I can at this point in my life. I know it can be done quickly or gradually, and I’ll do it at the pace that works best for me. But I’ll remember as I go along that the more I pare down in any area of my life, the more I’ll be able to use and enjoy whatever is left.

I think this is food for thought that will take some time to digest, so the first thing I’ll do is take another look inside my clean, fresh, organized refrigerator. It will serve as a reminder of what I intend to do. It will give me a renewed sense of inspiration and motivation.

And it will allow me to figure out what I’m going to fix for dinner.

© Betty Liedtke, 2010