I went by the house to do some yard work last week. We haven’t started renovation yet, but it’s been a month since we closed, and the grass, already tall before, had gotten out of control. I borrowed a friend’s weed trimmer and went to town; it took me a whole afternoon just to clear out the front yard, an afternoon of learning how to hold the trimmer in a comfortable way, of stopping to unspool the grass that had wound itself between the shaft and the bump head, of accidentally spilling gas-and-oil-mix all over the place when I tried to refill the tank, of stopping to pick up candy wrappers and plastic bottles and, somehow, two asthma inhalers, hidden in the thick green hair.
I have mixed feelings about maintenance. I’ve always much preferred to build things than maintain them (I’m looking at you, personal website). At times it feels absurd and almost pathological – that we have a social contract to restrict the plant life on our lawns to set lengths and species. That buying a car means also committing to changing oil and spark plugs and wiper blades and cabin air filters and engine oil filters and pinky-size bulbs that burn out above your license plate. That’s why I’ve preferred living in smaller spaces and not having a lot of things – less to clean, less to maintain. As I write this a favorite t-shirt’s collar is falling apart because I unintentionally chew my shirt collars while I’m in a writing groove. It’s easily mended, except I keep putting it off.
And yet, I’m beginning to learn the virtues of maintenance. When I’m outside working on a warm day, I wave to my neighbors as they walk by, get a far better sense of the activity in the neighborhood than on my previous visits. One of the trimmer’s plastic strings comes loose and I can’t get cap unscrewed, so I take it over to my friend’s place for help and new string and we end up barbecuing and drinking beers and talking late into the night. I think about the dull knife in my kitchen drawer and the tomatoes I’m not cutting; I think about the bike in need of a new tube in my apartment basement, and the rides I’m not taking because of it.
I also think about the joy of having tools that work well, and the corresponding analogies to writing. What edges need to be honed in this time between drafts? What can I take the time to maintain now, so that when it comes time to work again the tools don’t get in the way of the work? What can I be reading, writing, doing?
For now, my answer to the last question is to perform these little acts of maintenance in the other areas of my life, to be the main tenant of my experience and all I’ve committed to and am responsible for, whether I signed up for it wittingly or not. The work is ongoing, but it feels like a place to start.