Maintenance is Ninety Percent of Our Lives
When our father died, my brother and I washed his car and then drove it to a nearby railroad underpass. We parked in the shade, and then we waxed and polished that black ‘49 Plymouth my brother owned at the time. We didn’t say much, because at the time guys didn’t share much. But it became clear to me, as we waxed and polished, that we were following the same sort of routine women did when a tragic event happened: men wax and polish, women clean and cook. That was the way it was in the Fifties, at least in our house.
I do the same thing today when tragic events crash into my life. Only now I cook and clean as well as wax and polish the car. I maintain things in order to maintain my equilibrium.
Maintenance is ninety percent of life. We are interested in more than a percentage, of course. This is not facts and numbers; this is the grist for our mill.
Maintenance is what you do to keep from being overwhelmed by the magnitude of stuff. Maintenance is what you do to keep a certain amount of sanity when life goes nuts around you. Head down, eyes front, shoulder to the wheel, one foot in front of the other: that’s the way it goes. Forget shopping. When life gets tough, wash and dry the dishes. Mop the kitchen floor.
These activities, I’ve come to believe, are all acted prayers. When we cannot find the words to articulate our pain to the one who listens, St Paul says, then the Holy Spirit will arrange it so that our groans and whispers fall on God’s ear like intelligent speech – even if those groans accompany waxing and polishing or cleaning or cooking, perhaps especially if they do.
Spectacular moments are rare in life, and it’s a good thing, too. Life does not consist in thrills but in routine. When you look for thrills you’re asking for trouble, but routine brings sense and sensibility into your days.
When you do maintenance, you receive four gifts.
First, you focus on one particular small task; that alone helps to ease your mind from weightier matters. Trying to get that fender so shiny our eyes hurt from the glare, my brother and I were relieved momentarily from the darkness that overshadowed our hearts.
Second, small tasks are manageable. They have limited goals – getting through the stack of dishes, keeping the living room clean, and so forth. Our tragedies appear so unmanageable as to never get through them. Focusing on a small task reminds us: one thing at a time, and eventually we will get through.
Third, maintenance tasks are controllable. Nobody is asking you to be the ultimate problem-solver. You’re only concentrating on one small piece of the universe that’s yours to work with.
From Henri Nouwen I learned the legend that you can recognize the messiah as the one who binds up our wounds, one at a time. Attentiveness to one small detail is more sanctified than all those mega-plans that never get off the drawing board.
The fourth gift of maintenance is completion. The car is not big, the floor not many square feet. Finish the task and you receive an inner reward that will strengthen you for larger, more difficult tasks. One step at a time.
Philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead said that “God is in the details.” If so, then taking care of these maintenance items on your list can bring you into the presence of the One who brings comfort and solace when the hard and long tasks cross your path.
published 04 May 12