The Romance of Regularity
How do we valorize unglamorous acts of maintenance?
Next week, I’ll share your thoughts on telling stories without conventional climaxes. This week’s post is on a similar theme—asking what kinds of faithful work we praise and tell stories about. And I’ve wrapped up my Kickstarter for Back Again from the Broken Land, but you can check out the essay I wrote on the design for this Tolkien-inspired game, and why the mechanics focus more on forgiveness than fighting.
In my middle school ceramics class, I’d slap my clay down on the table, gather it up, and then do it again, wedging all the air bubbles out of my material. Outwardly, the clay remained a big lump, with no sign yet of artistry, but without this step, whatever I sculpted later would blow itself to bits in the kiln.
As I thudded the clay down again, I kept a rhythm by chanting in my head, Gutta cavat lapidem non vi sed saepe cadendo. It had the benefit of fitting an iambic thwup, and the meaning of the Latin phrase suited my work: “The droplet breaks the stone, not by force, but by often falling.”
In our discussion of friendship as regular, low-stakes presence, I thought of that expression. A recent piece in the Atlantic was a moving tribute to this kind of chosen, small, commitment. It’s an interview with two friends who high-five every week:
Andy: It wasn’t until 2014, when we were both at the same party and having that same conversation—“Man we’ve got to hang out”—that Gabe told me he had moved just a mile and a half down the road from me. I said, “Gabe since you live so close, what if we just walked [toward each other] and high-fived in the middle? If we do that every week for 10 years, that’s the kind of story they would do on CBS Sunday Morning [our wives’ favorite TV show].”
Beck: Walk me through the high five’s early days.
Andy: The first was probably a day or two after that party. I have it right here in my high-five journal.
Beck: Oh my gosh. [At this point, Andy pulled out a notebook with the outline of a hand on it.]
Andy: It was 8:05 AM on April 30, 2014. We texted and said, “All right, let’s leave our houses.” We met at the middle point, gave a high five—and then weren’t sure what to do, so we talked for three hours. The only rule in the beginning was that we had to do it one time each week. The middle point happens to be a park, so we’d give each other a high five, and then we would shoot baskets, talk for 15 minutes or so, and go back home.
The humble routine acquires weight (and a journal of high fives!) by being repeated. But it still might not have made it into the magazine without some other, more dramatic hook to the story. In this case, what elevates the story to notability is the fact that Andy’s friend Gabe got sick and lost part of his memory. He forgot that the high five tradition existed, but it remained engraved in his body as a reflex.
The article is great, but I wish it were more common to valorize this kind of tradition without needing a dramatic twist to make it count. I love G.K. Chesterton’s writings because he has such a strong sense of the romance of taking care of small things. Like my clay chant, he helps reenchant diligence. As he writes in Orthodoxy:
We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.
This work isn’t exclusive to women, but it tends to fall particularly to women (and to be valorized least when women do it).