Care and Maintenance #1: Over and Over

“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” — Kurt Vonnegut

This is a legacy post from a short-lived newsletter I wrote in 2020 called Care and Maintenance.

Hello from a quiet sunroom in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It’s the first issue of Care and Maintenance! Thank you for your patronage. What’s to come is a partial collection of your various warranties, guidelines, and suggestions for use—the fine print. Let’s dive right in.

In her Manifesto for Maintenance Art, Mierle Laderman Ukeles asks, “after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”

This balance between revolution and routine is at the heart of her 1969 manifesto, in which she draws a distinction between Development—pure individual creation—and Maintenance—keeping the dust off the pure individual creation. Development is revered, offering new and exciting advancement. Maintenance is thankless, offering low wages, low status, and poor conditions.

Her purpose, in part, is to highlight the inequities between these two classes of work and demonstrate the importance of keeping the systems humming. It’s a purpose she also pursues in her role as artist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation, a position she’s held since 1977. During her tenure, she’s shaken hands with all 8,500 sanitation workers over the course of an eleven-month period and turned garbage trucks into art pieces by covering them with mirrors. You might imagine yourself, staring into your own face reflected on the side of a dumpster, considering just how and why you are able to live the life you do.

Though her goals are artistic and socially-minded, in her focus on the mundane work of keeping the world afloat, she may have a kindred spirit in writer and comedian David Sedaris, who spends his time—sometimes up to nine hours a day—cleaning litter off the ground in West Sussex, where he lives. In 2014, the district council named a garbage truck after him: Pig Pen Sedaris. It might not be covered in mirrors, but it reflects a certain truth all the same.

Who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning? Sedaris has arrived at an answer of his own: I am.

I’ve been developing a preoccupation with the small and mundane. Those who read my 2018 blog, The Quiet Post, know that I’m curious about the shape of things, about the boundaries and functions, both inherent and created, of stories, of thoughts, and of places. This newsletter grows directly out of that interest. More and more, I’m finding these shapes to be, not precious, but utilitarian, common, and unconcerned.

In fact, I’m finding I have very few questions that aren’t answered by Mary Oliver’s poem, “I Go Down to the Shore:”

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

And don’t we all? “The work of the world is common as mud,” Marge Piercy writes in her poem, “To be of use.” I return to this line constantly, whenever I get too proud, or too down on myself, or try to find meaning in the choices I’ve made. It’s not about me, it’s about the work, and the work is ongoing, and the work is every day. Everybody has shit to do. Dig in.

So I do. I have a junk drawer filled with manuals and tools. My clothes all have tags on them with laundry instructions. The seeds for my garden indicate seed depth and space and maturation time. I need to buy a mop. My dracaena plant isn’t looking too healthy and a twelve-minute YouTube video tells me to pluck the lower leaves off. I need to wash the dishes again.

“Maintenance is a drag,” Ukeles says in her manifesto. “It takes all the fucking time.”

And yet in her efforts to yoke maintenance to art, she suggests a different way to approach the dullest tasks in our lives. Because maintenance, above all, is about learning to care.

David Sedaris looked at the garbage lining the highway and decided he cared. He would do the work. And it doesn’t have to be drudgery. Most of my best moments have arrived in the maintenance and service of myself, of other people, and of the world.

Here’s what I’ve found in these moments.

Each day passes, hour by hour, and in each moment is the keen awareness of time going by. The Japanese phrase for this is mono no aware, a sensitivity to the impermanence of things, and a gentle sadness at their passing. Flowers bloom and die. The river runs on. This sensation can be uncomfortable. I might try to distract myself with acts of what Ukeles calls Development, to stop time—or maybe defeat it—by leaving my mark through grand schemes and projects. But leaving a dent in the universe is, as writer Austin Kleon notes, an act of vandalism.

The alternative is an act of generosity. Maintenance—from shoveling snow to writing a letter—opens me up to the gentle sadness of time by offering continual and fleeting reminders of why I’m here, what’s important, and that I am a small part of a larger whole that is always changing and always outside of my control. “Washing the dishes,” says Thich Nhat Hanh, “is like bathing a baby Buddha.”

Through proper care and maintenance, I learn to slow down and situate myself. I keep the world moving.

This newsletter is an effort to dust myself out. It will include thoughts on stories, art, language, and how we use them and what we use them for. Throw it in the junk drawer with your loose batteries, take out menus, and extra IKEA hardware. When you need it, dig it out and fold back the spine.

“Renew the excitement,” Ukeles says. “Show your work—show it again.” It’s a sentiment echoed in another of Mary Oliver’s poems, “Mindful,” when she muses on the idea that what she was born to do is “to instruct myself / over and over / in joy.”

Over and over. The work of the world is common as mud, and it takes all the fucking time. It requires us to relearn the same things we already relearned last week. This is not a flaw.

It’s just taking out the garbage.