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The Meek and Invisible Labor of Maintenance
- What are you doing? - asked my husband - I thought you wanted to get our RV ready for the upcoming trip?
I looked at him stumped, raising my head over the RV cupboards I’ve been washing. What else could he possibly think I was doing? How are we supposed to leave for the next trip without cleaning up?
- But you said you’d be packing our stuff today.
- Yes, but that was before I took a look around the RV and saw what actually needs to be done!
What followed was a long and heated discussion about our priorities. My husband insisted that cleaning up can be done while we’re already on the way, so I’d better focus on all the other stuff that can’t wait. I tried to explain to him that I can’t possibly know what to pack until I review what’s already inside and get rid of all the things that shouldn’t be there, and that I can’t put anything on the shelves before they’ve been washed, not just with wet tissues but with actual soap and water. We’ve been together for many years already, but in that moment it felt like each of us was speaking in a completely different language.
Yes, it’s true that we could in theory leave without cleaning up. We’ve already done it a few times before. But this time that we’re finally not that much in a hurry I wanted to finally take care of all the things I’ve been neglecting in the past to make our trip as pleasant and joyful as possible. If I couldn’t finish it all on time before our planned departure date, I’d much rather leave a few days later than originally planned.
I can totally understand where my husband is coming from. He’s the kind of person who regularly does pretty much impossible things, and that’s possible mostly because he can quickly identify the most important and urgent thing to be done and ignore everything else. Yes, it would be nice to tidy up, but there are other things that are much higher priority, so shouldn’t we focus all of our efforts on these first instead?
The world totally needs people like my husband. Without them, nothing would ever get done in the first place. But if I too adopted his strategy and only cleaned up when there’s nothing more important for me to do, this would mean that our place has become completely unliveable and there are strange civilizations living in our fridge and kitchen cupboards. Tidying is much easier and more pleasant when done regularly, and everyone’s life is much easier and more pleasant then too—but this means I have to actively prioritize it before it actually becomes a priority. I simply can’t wait until it becomes the single most important thing.
So which one of us was right in this situation? In the end we came to conclusion it was both. It’s great to have someone who will get stuff done as fast as possible, and someone who will make it all enjoyable and pleasant—not just in a marriage, but in all sorts of team projects.
I enjoy maintenance work more than most people I know, definitely more than my husband does. I find joy in making things beautiful, bringing order to chaos, and delighting my loved ones. I used to see home maintenance as pesky chores that need to be completed as fast as possible, now I cherish the opportunity to take care of my husband and daughter this way.
And yet all this work is largely invisible, and only screaming for attention when something has gone horribly bad. When someone ships a new product or feature you can clearly see the results of their work. If you put the same amount of thought and effort into keeping things running smoothly, people will wonder if you’ve actually done anything at all.
I don’t really need to accomplish great things, or to be widely recognized for my extraordinary achievements. I could happily spend the rest of my life making people feel loved in my home, neighborhood, and community. The world might not recognize this as real or important work yet, possibly because there isn’t much to show for it on the outside, but I have no doubt that it will sooner or later when enough people get to experience its loving touch.
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