The Revolutionary Art of Maintenance

Currently, I am reading Eula Biss’ deliciously thoughtful Having and Being Had, which traces the roots of our assumptions about wealth, work and property, and reveals the ways in which capitalism is inculcated and internalised.

One of my favorite creative nonfiction writers, Biss likes to write about her firsts. When her first child was born, she wrote On Immunity: An Inoculation. In Having and Being Had, she has just purchased her first home in Chicago and sees her life divided into two distinct parts: “the time before I owned a washing machine and the time after.”

My life is divided into two distinct parts, too: one before and one after m breast cancer diagnosis. And much like owning a washing machine, once I had one in my basement, I found it impossible to live without it.

In Biss’ “Maintenance” chapter, she explores what it means to maintain her life—the hedges, the house, her marriage, and the kid. As her mother warns her when she’s a teen, “Middle age is really all about maintenance…you spend your life accumulating things and then you have to maintain them” (175). 

Biss also explores the work of artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who wrote “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!” after the birth of her first child. As a woman and artist, Laderman Ukeles had difficulty finding time to be both and exclaimed, “I literally was divided in two,” In the “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!”, she points out the distinction between Development, an implicitly male endeavor and Maintenance, often associated with domestic workers and women. And as she notes, the problem is that our culture values Development, while Maintenance “is a drag; it takes all the fucking time.”

Living with MBC, Maintenance is defined: Treatment is palliative and directed to prolong survival, decrease symptoms and improve patients’ quality of life. In some ways living with Stage IV breast cancer is just as dull and pedestrian as this sentence, which, ironically, is exactly what I want!  

When confronted with marked increased lytic lesion or greeted with no new or progressive metastatic disease identified, I’d like to adopt Ukeles’ revolutionary art of being a maintainer. She aptly asks, “Who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning after the revolution?”

No longer enamored with the daring and adventurous, risky and dangerous, I am much more nuanced in my approach to life, more focused on the process rather than the product. It’s thrilling to realize that I am able to maintain the many facets of my life. 

In that way, I am–in my middle age–living just like Biss’ mother warned. Having been raised in a capitalist system, I have acquired relationships and things, so now my life is spent taking care of them. But when you live with MBC–a land that both defies and embodies capitalism–this type of caretaking is a blessing! 

I am now like a quiet gardener, carefully tending to the growth of what I have and who I am, while also getting my dose of Enhertu, to keep out the weeds and weevils. So on the days when my attention to laundry, my kids’ pick-up schedule, that sentence I wrote is boring, tedious, and undervalued, I shout Mierle Laderman Ukeles: My working [is]the work!

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