Strategic Retreat

Strategic Retreat

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It started with a fire on the stove. A moment’s inattention to some oil and three kernels of popcorn in a pot. Never mind, clap the lid on, set the pot outside! The smoke alarm never even went off, but there was still enough soot to grime up the kitchen, and for the acrid smell to waft insinuatingly through some of the other rooms.

Nobody wants to quit before they start…well, no, I actually wanted to. But this is Lent, right? Fleeing to your room and throwing the bedcovers over your head would be giving in to the sloth and despair we pray against with St. Ephrem the Syrian. So, no question about it—out come the buckets of hot water and extra-strength vinegar, the rags and sponges and ammonia-based glass cleaner, the rubber gloves and the step stool. Am I ready? Oh yes. And anyway, this kitchen has had this coming for a long time….

I got off on the right foot, I can say that much for myself. It’s a squinchy little double-galley apartment kitchen, with a space at one end housing a sideboard and shelf full of home office clutter and household paraphernalia—you know, a conglomeration of nooks and crannies to catch and hold soot particles. To the left, the dining room I’m not even thinking of cleaning yet; to the right, sliding glass doors to the balcony where I’ve exiled the offensive charred pot. In a fit of efficiency, I wisely start where the worst of the filth has plastered itself–on the stove side from the counter tops up. The top of the fridge was already sticky with dust-filmed grease before this minor catastrophe, and the cabinets are twenty-year-old cheapo peeling foil that used to be white (I’ve been told.) But I will CLEAN IT ALL, yes I will!

Four hours later the stove top is disassembled, the sink is piled high with parts, and the counters have sprouted a forest of temporarily homeless dishes cleared from the smoke-smeared cabinets. The floor is awash, and instead of smelling like smoke, the place now smells like smoke, vinegar, ammonia and Febreeze.

The sink side of the kitchen is untouched, as are the lower cabinets on the stove side. My back aches.

Dinner break, in which I did not break, but definitely did bend the fast. Then slave over loads of dishes, reassemble the stove and microwave fan vent cover and put some things away. Where are all those mice Cinderella had to help her? Yeah, my building only has silverfish, but you think maybe they could earn their keep too? This chore is going to stretch into the next day. Sigh. Okay, if we must, we must.

Even though it’s improved at this point, I know can’t say it has a real hope of gleaming at the end of it all. And worse still, I can’t say the smell is gone. I am afflicted with a particularly acute olfactory sense, but even the other members of the family are still wrinkling their noses when they enter the room. Never mind, I’ve done what I can—I will embrace the asceticism of just living with it!

Oh, but wait! I can at least redeem myself a little with my thriftiness! Now that the kitchen has regained at least a semblance of order, I will salvage that pot! I will rescue it, welcome it back into the kitchen as a beloved returned prodigal!

I am an old hand at salvage. When we first moved here to our new mission parish, penny-pinching was next to Godliness for us. I would buy the kids thrift store clothes, even for Pascha, and make do with worn out and hand-me-down mismatched utensils and the like. I would let both bulbs in the ceiling fixtures burn out before replacing them. These days, our budget is more generous than that…but still….this pot. It was less than two years old. And anyway, I had junked another pot from the same set about a year ago because, well….I let it burn…..

NOT AGAIN! I vowed.

Long story short, my house smells like smoke. Again. Because when you put a burnt pot through the dishwasher, all those foul little microscopic particles cling to the parts you can’t reach without tearing the machine out of its moorings, and the lovely hot water gradually vaporizes them and sends them out through the front vent into the air again. The dishwasher is, in effect, a gigantic plug-in scent diffuser, but it doesn’t smell like Garden Rose or Fresh Seabreeze.

Okay, sloth and despair, so you win this round in the kitchen. But I’m only making a strategic retreat. That pot is gone now, even if it polluted the dishwasher for a while. And maybe my mistake was just trying to be a little –too– ascetic. Sometimes there are things in life that you can’t really redeem, and instead, they end up contaminating the rest of your existence—bad habits, bad relationships, bad thoughts. Once you get them out the door, you bring them back in again at your peril.

Meanwhile, if you want to give me all your brilliant household tips for dealing with smoke, just don’t, thank you. I’ll be making my strategic retreat—in bed with the covers over my head.


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Donna Farley

Donna Farley has been writing all her life, and currently keeps a blog about spiritually refreshing stories at Storyspell. Her short fiction has appeared in YA magazine Cicada and in SF and fantasy publications such as Weird Tales and Realms of Fantasy. Conciliar Press has published her book about the Orthodox liturgical year, Seasons of Grace, her picture book The Ravens of Farne, and her young adult historical novel Bearing the Saint. She lives with her husband Fr. Lawrence Farley in British Columbia, where they have served the parish of St. Herman's for 25 years and now have two grandchildren.