main·tain – verb |mānˈtān|
: to keep in an existing state (as of repair, efficiency, or validity) : preserve from failure or decline
: to sustain against opposition or danger : uphold and defend
: to continue or persevere in : carry on, keep up
: to support or provide for, sustain
: to affirm in or as if in argument : assert
I talked to my car this morning after I picked her up at the garage. We’d been apart for a week, and the last time she’d seen me, I was abandoning her to the back of a tow truck. I spoke in the gentle tones one uses with a child, or someone who’s recently received a tough diagnosis, or someone one has recently argued with. The tones that convey “It’s going to be all right,” or “You’ve been through a lot,” or “It scared me too, and I’m sorry. Let’s keep going.”
“How are you?” I asked my 12-year-old Toyota Matrix. “You’ve had an adventure.” I felt low in the saddle after six days of driving a borrowed Mitsubishi Montero. It took a few miles to get reacquainted with the seat, with the mirrors, with my own position moving through space.
For weeks, the car had been shuddering when I’d accelerate lightly, and either shuddering or threatening to stall out at stops. Then it did stall a few times. Some days it was fine. Friends theorized a problem in the fuel line. The night it stalled out driving on a curvy downhill road, I called a tow truck.
The car behaved for the man at the shop the next day, but eventually did the same bump-bump-bump for him, like an arrhythmic heart. He prescribed a spark plug and gasket transplant. He could see a throttle something needed cleaning, and he did that too. Then he also experienced the stalling out. Then it drove fine for him for a few days. Deferred maintenance performed, symptoms gone … ailment still undiagnosed. It bugged him. “If it acts up again, bring it back,” he stressed.
Some car owners know when it’s time for new spark plugs. I’m not one of them. I give my car gas, and the usual oil and filter changes, and a bath once in a while, and a new hubcap when she ejects yet another. But infrequent work that some folks would consider routine maintenance, well, I don’t even know to fix it until it breaks.
Maintenance is the word on my mind, but it’s a concept; the verb, maintain, is the action. Maintenance is what things need. Maintain is what I do, or don’t.
I was away from home 17 weekends and five full weeks last year, and a lot around here didn’t get maintained. The first half of this year was pretty full, too, but now, after 24 busy months, there’s time and space to face things I’ve put off.
The bodily toll of too much sitting and too little exercise. The bags of randomness that seemed like an easy way of decluttering at the time. Collections that need culling—clothing, books, whatever’s in the closet that functions as a storage unit. The peace lily that has outgrown its pot. The friendship with a hairline fracture.
Maintaining relationships went the way of dusting and vacuuming that year. I like to have people over, to feed them, to hear their stories at my table. For that whole year, the only people here were the friends who fed the cat and watered the plants while I was away with my dying father.
What do you want to accomplish by the end of the hour? asked the professional and friend on the other end of the line.
I want to identify some things that will help me turn around the accumulation of a few years of bad habits, or a lack of habits, within three months, I said, partly joking. But, like all jokes, it had a base of truth. So she took me seriously. We came up with a list of four things to do, daily, to regain and maintain what seems essential.
Writing: Every day. Sometimes morning, sometimes evening, but daily, I sit down to write, to work on a project, or to unclutter the mind just as I’m uncluttering those closets.
Domestic: something for the house, as simple as making the bed each morning and washing the dishes each night. One day I cleaned the bathroom like I haven’t in years, down to toothbrushing the baseboards.
Community: daily meaningful contact with people —sharing a meal, phoning someone, going to church, writing a letter.
Gratitude: five things (at least) every day. Writing them in a little notebook is the last thing I do before lights out.
Two years ago, a guy in a big pickup ran a red light into the passenger side of my car. A few months later someone, possibly a tipsy neighbor, hit the driver side while it was parked. A month later an ice-covered, snow-heavy pine branch pierced my windshield. After every accident, someone asked if it wasn’t time to get a new car. Aside from people running into it and trees falling on it, I’d say, it runs great.
After a few repair jobs, though, it’s easy to start dreaming about the shiny promise of new cars—and new relationships.
Still. We’ve driven almost 169,000 miles together. My goal is 200,000. I like the car, and I like not having a car payment. And I think I like being loyal to something that has been with me for so long, a little like one character’s loyalty to his swaybacked horse in the novel I’m reading now.
After lunch Sunday, my friends and I all broke open our fortune cookies and read our fortunes aloud. “Someone in your life needs a letter from you,” mine read.
I don’t see divine significance in cookie fortunes. But the next day I emailed the organizer of a weekly round-robin snail mail group I’d signed up for on a whim. I’m sorry, I told her, but I need to back out. For now, those handwritten words and little sketches and Forever stamps are better spent maintaining existing bonds.
WORD COUNT: 973
Laura Lynn Brown is the author of Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories. Her writing has appeared in The Iowa Review, Slate, Art House America, The Curator, Every Day Poems and elsewhere. She works as a copy editor at a daily newspaper. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter.
Author photo provided by Laura Lynn Brown, used with permission. Photo above by Kim S, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License. Design by Charity Singleton Craig.
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