Faith Gong: Maintaining

We went to Maine this summer. It felt like a minor miracle that we were able to pull off this trip: the only normal, scheduled event that hasn’t been cancelled in our lives since the COVID-19 pandemic wiped our calendar clean and confined us to our home. I will be reminding my children about our Maine trip anytime they complain of boredom for the rest of the summer. 

Gong Child: “I’m SO BORED!” 

Me: “Remember how we went to Maine this summer?” (Unspoken, but implied: “You ungrateful wretch!”)

Oddly enough, one of the best parts about going to Maine was coming home.

“Ah!” we sighed in wonder as we drove across the Green Mountains and saw Vermont’s familiar fields stretching out before us.

“It’s so good to be home!” we exclaimed as we entered our house, unpacked our bags, and settled back into our own beds. 

Our house, which had begun to feel like a prison in the weeks before the trip to Maine, reclaimed its cherished place in our collective hearts after a week’s absence. It was nice to feel that we wanted to be at home, not just that we had to be at home.

The warm glow of homecoming lasted approximately 24 hours. Then I went outside and looked at my garden.

It is astonishing what one week of neglect can do to a July garden. My garden is never perfectly pruned, evenly planted, and weed free, but after a week away it had become the Amazon Rain Forest; I had to hack my way through with a machete and wrestle jaguars just to reach the tomatoes. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but there were some pretty frightening horned tomato worms involved.) 

I took a break from beating back the garden and turned my attention to the animals. Our poultry have stopped their streak of being eaten by predators, thankfully, but due to long stretches of hot weather combined with seasonal moulting, their egg production is down 50%. Our dog, who has had on-again, off-again ear infections for the past five years, is on-again, so I’m back to making biweekly trips to the vet, purchasing an expensive ear concoction, and swabbing what looks like congealed motor oil out of her ear three times a week. And our cat went outside and got sprayed by a skunk; after two tomato juice baths and one treatment with hydrogen peroxide and baking soda, the odor is still odiferous.

Inside the house is no better. Our house is large enough in square footage to accommodate a family of seven, but having spent the past five months largely homebound, I’ve realized how very little public space there is. When all seven of us are inside, we live most of each day in the open kitchen-dining-living room that constitutes our only common area. This means that the floor is always carpeted with Playmobil setups, piano sheet music, and books, and our dining table is always covered with paper, colored pencils, sticker books, and other creative endeavors. 

I remind myself multiple times a day, as I pick my way across the living room minefield or sweep piles of paper aside so that we can eat, that a house should be lived in. That having a large number of creative children is a blessing. That someday I will miss the mess. 

But this past week, a louder voice shouted inside my head: “Never have you had so much time at home, and still everything is falling apart! Why can’t you keep on top of things?!?”

I remind myself that comparison and social media are demons that feed off of each other and are best avoided for our emotional health.

But this past week, a louder voice shouted inside my head: “If you look at Facebook and Front Porch Forum, everyone else is cleaning out their basements and organizing their bookshelves! What are YOU doing?!?”

As I wrestled with these inner voices, even louder voices burst in upon my thoughts: My children, whining, “I’m SO BORED!”

“Remember how we went to Maine this summer?” I said, waving them off. 

But I sympathized with them more than they knew. Boredom complaints are easier for me to dismiss in a normal summer, when they come in between busy rounds of camps, playdates, and day trips. This summer, I have very little to offer my children apart from what I’ve been offering them since March: read a book, play outside, do a craft. I’m becoming bored with my own suggestions, and I’m running out of inspiration. 

Fueled by the desire to accomplish something, I brainstormed a list of house and yard improvement projects with my family over dinner. Almost everything we came up with landed within my husband’s areas of expertise.

“I’m sorry,” I said to him, “I feel like I’m just throwing projects at you.”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “What projects are you working on?”

“I have projects!” I protested, as our children’s heads swiveled from his end of the table to mine.

“Really? What projects?” he lobbed back.

“Well…” I parried, “I guess I’m not much of a project person. I’m more of a maintainer.

It sounded like a lame excuse, until I considered the meaning of maintaining.

The verb maintain comes from the Latin phrase “manu tenere,” which means “to hold in the hand.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the various definitions of “maintain” include: to keep in an existing state, to preserve from failure or decline, to sustain against opposition or danger, to continue or persevere in, to affirm. 

That is a powerful verb, and one I’d like to embody in these uncertain times. 

We often think of maintenance as something we do for our cars or appliances to keep them in good working order. If we apply that metaphor to today’s world, the idea of maintenance may look foolish, like trying to do an oil change on a car with failed steering. That’s how my life felt this week.

But our perception of life depends on how we frame our stories. What if life right now isn’t so much a runaway car as a car on a journey – a journey for which we have no directions or map, a journey that a will surely involve difficulties and dangers alongside moments of joy and beauty, a journey with an uncertain destination? Looked at in that way, routine maintenance might be a good idea. 

If you are feeling how I felt this past week, I invite you to join me in being a maintainer. Maintaining does not require more:  a more perfect garden, more sweet-smelling animals, a more spotless and decluttered house, or more entertained children. To maintain is to take the life we’re given right now, hold it in our hands, and do what’s most needful to sustain that life. Maintaining looks like getting out of bed for another day, fixing another meal and washing another round of dishes, smiling at your children, hugging your spouse, walking steadily through what each day throws at you, and affirming that – although we don’t know where this car is headed – we will face the difficulties and dangers and celebrate the joy and beauty along the way.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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