I sat on our enclosed front porch early yesterday morning. I had done my timed writing meditation, 15 minutes of putting down what crossed my mind, and then I had to consider next what to do with the rest of that part of my day when everyone else remains asleep. With that quiet.

A large part of me sorted through all the ways to be productive: I could start the next piece of writing; I could get in my exercise while the morning was still cool, the sky still overcast and the wind blowing intermittent puffs of breath through the trees; I could flip through my journal, marking and sorting ideas.

But then, I became preoccupied with my fingernails.

They’d grown longer than I liked, as things that have been unattended tend to do. Early on, when they first seem just a little long, I tell myself that now is the best time to get to them, and then, of course, I forget.

They grow a little longer, and I almost come to regard them as cool and pale and elegant crescent moons at my fingertips. I tell myself that maybe just a little long–just like this–is almost perfect. It makes it easier to, oh, open envelopes, or scratch an itch, or peel the sticky labels from the skin of fresh fruit before I wash it. Besides their style, these slightly longish nails could actually be convenient.

Then they reach the stage—and it’s probably different for everyone—where they become annoying. If I’m not careful, I can accidentally scratch one of the children when I go to hug them. The nails catch on this or that. They begin to get in the way. I start to remember the rumors about an aging Howard Hughes and how his nails sometimes grew so long they started to curl.

Not a good look. Not for me, anyway.

And in the morning’s cool green and gray, I decide that clipping my nails has its own urgency. I choose to set aside the writing and the exercise and the reading that will help me generate new ideas. I choose to set aside the pull of all the obvious productivity and turn toward maintenance.

“Self care” is the phrase that’s been riding a wave of popularity for a while. Self care has become a branding tool, a concept that’s used to sell products from stationary bikes and exercise programs costing thousands of dollars, to lotion and hair dye, to spas and massages and nail polish, to expensive vacation escapes, to chocolate treats, to guilty-pleasure TV programs.

And there’s nothing wrong with any of those.

But my maintenance takes simpler forms. Partly that’s because I’m just cheap. Mostly it’s because I’m so boring that the small things recharge me most effectively: a shower and lotioning on my dark skin to glowing; sitting quietly; going for a walk or run on quiet streets; listening to Ruben Blades or Astor Piazzolla or Cesaria Evora; doing the dishes and seeing the clean counter and kitchen at the end. Fixing the bed. Meditating. Writing in my journal. Trimming my hair with my clippers, or shaving my face.

Maintenance. Nothing fancy. Just attending to myself so that I don’t break down from neglect.

And it works best when I don’t expect—or at least don’t think about—any practical, productive payoff. When I just let myself take time–or “let time go” would probably better express it. Instead of clutching at time and trying to squeeze every millisecond of doing and achieving from it, maintenance is just the time I release to set myself right.

When I belonged to a formal religion, maintenance was, in a way, how I thought of prayer. And maybe what I call maintenance now is the way that I still pray. Presence. Calm attention to myself and where I am.

These times are heavy with action and movement and choosing and struggle, and necessarily so. We’ve spent too long indulging in distractions and diverting ourselves from painful realities around—and within—us. We’ve told ourselves that everything’s find while we sit in the middle of the building as it burns.

But as any accomplished athlete will tell you, doing the work, if anything, increases the need for maintenance. It matters more that I tend to myself when I’m under stress, because it humbles me and reminds me of my humanity, reminds me of how easily we each can break.

So yesterday morning, I turned myself over to that: The click and snap of the clippers against my nails. The gathering them up and throwing them away. And then the satisfaction as I step back into the day.

2 thoughts on “Maintenance

  1. I love this : “Instead of clutching at time and trying to squeeze every millisecond of doing and achieving from it, maintenance is just the time I release to set myself right.”

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