Day 4: A Cupboard of Misfits

It’s the last in the row of cupboards flanking one side of the kitchen. If I open it, it’s only to retrieve the toaster, and that only when friends from England are staying. The rest of the cupboard is home to a collection of diverse containers—empty ceramic mustard crocks, cruets and vials of various sizes, thumb-sized glass storage jars, mills and shakers—but mostly novelty coffee mugs. A set of six Ikea coffee mugs, white with a thin band of royal blue, that were long ago replaced by an almost identical set of Ikea coffee mugs, this time without the band. A trio of porcelain cups that mimic the shape a crushed beer can, an insignia mug with my name emblazoned above the university seal, one with “God Save the Queen” and the Union Jack. A left-handers cup with a hole drilled in it on the side that made it impossible for right-handers to use.

The cruet has long lost its top, though I could improvise with a cork. The Ikea mugs are slightly chipped but hold coffee. The pepper mill grinds a stream of granules as fine as talc, but that might be what you want in a velvety hollandaise. And I could use the mustard crock to store cloves or juniper berries. I’m not sure what you’d store in a glass jar the size of a thumb, maybe saffron or hemp seed. It’s a “you never know” cupboard, a scrap-yard of objects which have long outlived their need (if there ever had been one) that you keep because, well, you never know, they might come in handy.

I could use the mustard crock to store cloves or vanilla sugar, but I’d soon forget what’s in it, which is probably why I never used it that way in the first place. Besides, there’s already a small glazed terracotta crock on the same shelf that says “Spices” on it, which was never been used. I just may need the mugs if I have the entire cycling club over for coffee and Danish, but I know I never will. The cast-iron fondue dish was used just once; I eat cheese in 30-gram installments, so even the idea of dipping into an entire vat of bubbling cheese makes me gag.

The truth is, the cupboard is like the Island of Misfit Toys, a final resting place for awkward, impractical, or unusable objects, the culinary equivalents of an ostrich-riding cowboy and a squirt gun that shoots grape jelly. But I have a certain affection for the novelty cups because they came from friends. They weren’t the kind of gift that speaks of great forethought but whimsical trinkets that simply said, “I was thinking of you.” But I will not mourn their loss. I don’t need to see the Queen mug to be reminded of Jonas’s affection for me and his iconoclasm. It may say something that when the Christmas television special was first aired, Rudolph never went back to the island to save the misfit toys.

I rescued the toaster but packed all the rest in boxes that I set by the side of the dumpster on my way to work this morning. When I got home the day the boxes were mostly empty, even the University glass mug with “Nathan” written on it was gone. Nobody took the crumbled ceramic cups, though.

It felt good sweeping it all away. It was a theatrical gesture that left a visible result: an empty cabinet (not counting the toaster, that is). In his appropriately pithy guide to living with less, Wisdom for Minimalists (for the time being in German only), Peter Steiner notes, “The less we need to enjoy life, the more alive and free we feel.” But I didn’t feel any wiser or freer or more alive afterwards. Maybe it has to do with the insignificance of what I am unburdening myself of.

Steiner writes,

We need to be very much aware that for everything we gain, we lose something. There is no gain without loss, and no loss without gain… If we have many possessions, we lose our carefreeness, because these things demand our attention.

Perhaps my gains are minor—a couple of square meters of shelf space (which, considering I won’t be acquiring anything in the near future isn’t much of a gain)–precisely because my losses so far are so minor: brandied fruit I’m too afraid to eat, sheets that accumulate dust, pepper mills that don’t grind. The possessions I’ve gotten rid of to date did not demand my attention. They didn’t need to be polished or washed or dusted. They never needed to be repaired. They never needed to be cared for.

I need to get serious.


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