Monday, August 16, 2010

The Terror in my Kitchen

Called in sick to work today. I do have a cold, but really I just needed to punch the reset button. There are times when my mind gets overstuffed with a sense of obligation, of duties impending, ten thousand things that I ought to do all contending for the upper spot, fighting to be the thing that I actually do, like a swarm of beetles climbing over each other. Enough already. No one is going to die if I don't go in to work today.

(I'm very glad, by the way, that I didn't become a doctor. What if I couldn't say that?)

It's interesting that this mental condition afflicts me, not at the times when I'm genuinely too busy, but at slack times. I guess that's when I start thinking about all the things I ought to do, as opposed to the one thing that I must get done if I can.

It's not really dependent on the external world, of course. It's more in response to the internal tides of my mind. Any old duties, real or imagined, can play the roles. It's an old play and they all know the words. If I wasn't so self-indulgent, if I had the right kind of will, if I had a spirit like a clean bright sword instead of like a forgotten egg-whisk, if I had a genuine spiritual practice, if I lived up to my potential, if I was lean instead of fat, quick instead of slow, true instead of false – a long monotonous mumble of self-reproach in multiple voices, telling me about chances missed and resources squandered. As if anything one could actually do, in the real world, could satisfy them all. No. Not if my blog won a Pulitzer and my massage research won the Nobel prize and W. S. Merwin admired my poetry. Not even if I weighed 155 pounds.

A brilliant day. Not yet hot, but it will be. By this afternoon it will be a scorcher. The light is shockingly beautiful, playing over the faces of passersby, making their summer shirts into flaming banners of blue or yellow or white. They go by, stage representations of themselves, their faces a little too big, too real to be true, their eyes squinting into the rising sun. What shall I do with this day?

It doesn't matter. I'll sit shamatha a little while, and clear up odds and ends, do some paperwork. The kitchen is already clean.

I'm ashamed of being proud of the kitchen, but I am. So I'll tell you about it. All my life I've lived with messy kitchens, taking what modern businesses would call a just-in-time approach to cleaning. When you're out of bowls, you wash some. When you need to wash vegetables, you clean the sink. When you have nowhere to put groceries, you clear a counter. What this means, of course, is that when you contemplate preparing food you are contemplating an enormous task, hours of work. Just to put the groceries down you'll need to clear a counter which means you'll need to clear the sink which means you'll need to deal with whatever dubious things have been in there since you don't want to know when, and you'll have to look up which of those containers can be recycled and which can't, and, you know, the food at Burgerville is actually local and fresh and surprisingly good and they never make you wash up. So it's gone on, year after year. Until about a year ago, when I started cleaning the kitchen every morning, first thing in the morning, cleaned it until it was completely clean. Every single morning.

It's sort of miraculous. The house feels utterly different to me. I swear I can feel my pulse slow down when I enter that kitchen, as my heart realizes, it's actually under control here, I don't have to worry. I didn't know I was worrying, but apparently I was.

It meant adopting what was, for me, extreme ruthlessness and cruelty and immorality. A couple days ago Martha brought in a tiny new potato that had grown in our compost, and washed it and put it on the counter. We'd grown a potato! Inadvertently, but we'd done it! Very cool.

Well. Yes, but it was now our solemn duty to cook it and eat it. And I knew, I knew the fate of that potato the moment I saw it glistening on the counter. It was going sit there, and sit there, and sit there, and grow old, and the flesh under its peel would turn green, and it would sprout, and eventually, after having served as evidence of our inadequacy and a trigger for depression for months, it would be thrown back into the compost whence it came.

But you see, it wasn't mine. It was Martha's.

I chucked it into the compost after two days. Yes, it was a perfectly good potato. But I've discovered a startling fact: when you clean the kitchen daily, everything in it belongs to you. When mysterious objects appear on the counter, I wash them or throw them out with reckless disregard of their origins. There's only three things I do with things that appear on my counters now. If I recognize them as things that belong in the kitchen, I wash them or I put them away. If I don't recognize them, I throw them out. I've instituted a reign of terror in my kitchen. And though there is some occasional murmuring, I think everyone is grateful for it.

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