By Regina Connell
Part of alt luxe is the appreciation of the imperfect, the undone, the used. These are states of being and evolution in objects (and people for that matter) that connect you to life, that keep you grounded, open, humble.
But what of that in-between state where things aren’t quite so bright shiny and new, but haven’t yet achieved that wabi sabi state of beautiful disrepair: a category into which most of the things, people, and relationships in our lives will fall? We grudgingly look to maintain them, the act a necessary evil in our lives.
As a society, we tend to take the same approach. In the West, while we pay lip service to all that lovely wabi-sabiness, we actually worship at the altar of Progress. The New is what matters. Innovation is king. And consuming all that innovation is your patriotic duty.
I recently came across an article in Aeon magazine that’s got me thinking about all this. Entitled Hail the Maintainers, authors Lee Vinsel & Andrew Russell write about the need to value The Maintainers. “Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end?”
Whatever you call them – the maintainers, the repairers, the tailors, the cobblers, the conservators, the mechanics, the cleaners, all those keepers of things in working order – well, it just doesn’t have the same ring as “the creators”, or even, god forbid that dreadful phrase, “knowledge workers”. Those who can’t create maintain. Maintenance is a necessary evil. Do I smell a whiff of class-ism? And here I thought we Americans were supposed to be beyond class.
The maintainers make innovation and design work. And last. They don’t waste resources. And you’d better believe they’re knowledge workers: repair and maintenance is all about knowledge of materials and processes. And it’s not just the professionals: we too are maintainers, caring for our clothes, our homes, our cars, or at least finding the right people to do so.
So why do we not pay more attention to this, why don’t we care, why is it – and the people who do it, and the time we spend on it – just a necessary evil? It says a lot about us. As Vines and Russell write, “A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there?”
The notion of maintenance comes from extremely good stock, stock that should make us rethink it: it comes from Latin manu tenere “hold in the hand,” from manu, ablative of manus “hand” (see manual) + tenere “to hold”. The current meaning of “to carry on, keep up” is from mid-14c.; that of “to keep oneself, to support” is from late 14th century. There’s honor there.
While I don’t think we should shy away from the word maintain (particularly now that we know its roots), maybe if we started to think about it in terms of caring – not fixing or maintaining – things might soften up a little, generate a different energy, put that innovation fetish in a different light, as in: Innovating versus Caring. Disrupting versus Caring. Yup I’d say the energy shifts.
And of course, there’s that age old question: what, really, IS the line between maintaining and creating? What is “new”, anyway? Isn’t a lot of maintenance about creation, or actually, re-creation?
Here’s a scary thought: maybe all those innovative techies have figured this out: could it be that there’s common ground between my emerging appreciation of maintenance and the perpetual “beta” that Google / Apple and all the apps with their background daily updates? “Always beta” state is more about the constant belief in ever-better evolution, not fix-it-and-be-done revolution.
So have a care for the people who keep things running, even if that’s you. Pay attention to maintenance and care. Take pleasure in the process, whether it’s cleaning that bathroom grout (OK that may be a bit much for me) or – when you’re outsourcing it – learning from the pro’s. And take pleasure in being able to observe through the practice of maintaining how time and use change things, developing the wisdom to understand what can be fixed, and what can’t. There are probably larger lessons in living that can be taken from that.
It may not be about the miracle of birth, but it certainly is about the miracle of life.