Maybe it's because we live in a consumer culture focused on buying and new.
Maybe it's because for much of human history life was all about maintenance.
Maybe it's because we associate caring for the broken and dirty with being broken and dirty.
For whatever reasons (consider your own here), the percentage of time and money we spend on maintenance has declined steadily over the past few decades in the U.S. both individually and as a country. On the one hand this trend suggests we are increasingly free from persistent drudgery like washing our clothes by hand and cleaning out stables. Yet a more dubious consequence of this shift is loosing touch with an essential and valuable component of life: taking care of it. There is something about the act of chopping wood and carrying water, to borrow a phrase, which is profoundly grounding and connects us to what it means to be alive.
Cleaning, mending, repairing, updating, editing, pruning—all of these require that we show up and connect with the present. In addition to being in the moment, these activities give us an opportunity to make an investment in the future. The purpose of maintenance is to keep stuff in good working order now so that we and others may have an easier, more productive and enjoyable experience later. While we can experience immediate rewards, even joy, from taking care of something—the sparkle of clean, the satisfaction of fixed—maintenance is frequently a gift we are making to the future, as well as to others. Look around you and see how many things you are currently enjoying because of the efforts someone made in the past.
"A building begins to fall apart from the moment it is built," intoned one architecture professor we knew which, when you think about it, is true of just about everything. This is why maintenance should be a consideration in the initial design of not only buildings, but blenders, boots, and buses, as well as friendships, financial plans, and files, to name just a few. From the start, we might want to ask ourselves: How are we going to take care of this? What time, energy, money, and skills will be required? How will it age? What will happen if there is a lack of maintenance? Piles of papers and dust bunnies are one thing, but broken bridges and hungry pets are another!
Besides pleading whimpers and doleful eyes, what compels us to take care of something? We are most easily seduced into maintaining those things we find useful and beautiful, and which we love (Fido eats!). We take care of what we value. The more we are able to fill our lives with the useful, the beautiful, the meaningful, and the well loved—while conversely reducing the less than useful, the unappealing, the irrelevant, the lukewarm, and the despised—the more likely we are to budget for upkeep. For example, while walking in a suburban neighborhood in Japan, we noticed that each front yard was more exquisite than the next. Eventually it occurred to us that the people living there had only a small postage stamp of a garden to tend, and consequently they were able to lavish attention and care on each botanical jewel.
Recently, there has been a renaissance in learning how to repair things as an outgrowth of the Maker movement which, as its name suggests, promotes making things. People are sharing their knowledge about making and repairing clothing, small appliances, electronics, and other household items. This is a great way to build community around meeting each other's needs in very tangible ways. A client recently said she bought a slightly more expensive metal fan rather than a cheaper plastic one because she could repair the metal one. Thinking this way reduces waste and saves money over time. Who knew that you could both save the world and create community by repairing a toaster?
By now you are probably thinking, "Maintenance rocks! I can see how it is essential to Slow Living." Oh, how right you are, savvy readers. Caring for things keeps us mindful of the rhythms, resources, and connections in our lives. And then there is the spacious quality to be enjoyed from a well maintained home that can be both grounding and enlivening. Think of the feeling you have in a clean, well functioning, de-cluttered room—Ahhhhh!
As you begin to look around you at the things in your life that could use a little tender loving care, be sure to notice the ways in which you are already benefiting from the maintenance done by others, often many years and miles removed. Consider those whose efforts have left you with a good place to live and work, the folks who work to keep things clean and safe, and the people who make sure things are running smoothly in your neighborhood and town. In this thanks-giving month, we would like to give a shout out of appreciation to everyone in our family, at work, and in our community who makes life better by taking care of the world in some way. Thank you!
Name at least three areas you like to maintain and three you don't.
What is the pleasure you get from maintaining these things?
Example: enjoy the activity, like the results, get praise, etc.
What prevents you from maintaining the others?
Example: time, consequences are far removed, made to do it as a child, etc.
Choose one item on your list of things you don't like to maintain and brainstorm with someone about ways to make maintenance more streamlined and appealing. Example: Having the right tools handy, a reward system, scheduling it on your calendar, etc.
Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving!
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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