Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life

Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life

by Karen Maezen Miiller

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It’s easy to think that meaning, fulfillment, and bliss are “out there,” somewhere outside of our daily routine. But in this playful yet profound reflection on awareness, the compelling voice of a contemporary woman reveals the happiness at the bottom of the laundry basket, the love in the kitchen sink, and the peace possible in one’s own backyard. Follow Karen Maezen Miller through youthful ambition and self-absorption, beyond a broken marriage, and into the steady calm of a so-called ordinary life. In her hands, household chores and caregiving tasks become opportunities for self-examination, lessons in relationship, and liberating moments of selflessness. With attention, it’s the little things — even the unexpected, unpleasant, and unwanted things — that count.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781577319054
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 09/24/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 1,156,269
File size: 325 KB

About the Author

Karen Maezen Miller is an errant wife, delinquent mother, reluctant dog walker, and expert laundress, as well as a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. She is the author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, and her writing is also included in the anthologies The Best Buddhist Writing 2007 and The Maternal Is Political. She offers retreats and workshops around the country. You can catch up with her writing and events at www.karenmaezenmiller.com.

Read an Excerpt

Hand Wash Cold

Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life

By Karen Maezen Miller

New World Library

Copyright © 2010 Karen Maezen Miller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-905-4


Full Basket

a life as told by laundry

bY SEPTEMBER EVERYTHING WAS GONE. Given away or sold cheap. Every stick of the living room furniture went to my sister, who hired movers to take it. Two garage sales emptied the shelves. The full set of crystal from my wedding registry, still in plastic in the original shipping box, sold for thirty-five dollars. The buyer halfheartedly bargained — "Is this set complete?" — before she laughed at her own question and handed over the bills. One Sunday night I invited the little guy from the aerobics class inside and sold him the wine rack for twenty dollars. He'd wanted dinner and a date, but he drove away with the rack standing up in the backseat of his MG convertible.

I kept what I needed and wanted. They'd become the same. The bed, desk, books, a chair, and about half my clothes. I sublet one room, the smaller one, in a two-bedroom apartment from someone who seemed desperate for the company and the cash. I did what everyone else had already done at the big house on Avalon Drive: I left. And then, after two years in a falling market, the house finally sold. The closing date drew near.

It was time to take care of the last bit of housekeeping. Just a day's worth, a day in September.

There was stuff left in drawers and closets, like the cabinets above and below the tiny wet bar between the kitchen and the living room with the blue-and-yellow-tile counter. An understated spot that had made the house seem so authentic. This would make someone a lovely home, I often thought, realizing it wasn't me. I surveyed the mismatched glassware and souvenir mugs, the army of half-empty liquor bottles my husband had brought home after doing beverage inventory at the hotel he managed. We can't use it there, he'd said. We never used it here, either. I poured every bottle down the little sink and stuck the empties, like bones, into garbage bags. Dragged outside, the bags piled up behind the little white picket sanitation fence by the garage. Up and over the top, an embarrassing tower of unmade toasts.

Upstairs, I swept through the closets of empty hangers and leftover shoes, pausing over a stash of get-well cards from my surgery five years earlier, when the doctor said, "Get pregnant now," and, looking at my blank-faced husband, I knew I didn't love him.

I pulled down the attic stairs and went up. In some ways, it was my favorite room. We'd bought the house from a surgeon, and that explained the precision of the place. No visible scars. The guy had actually done his own gardening and cleaned his own pool, installed his own sprinkler system and outdoor lights. Awash in aftershave, I imagined, with an aperitif in hand.

The attic was high-ceilinged and light. The span was clean and shadowless. The surgeon had put in a solid floor and neatly lain old doors and shutters across the rafters in case someone could use them again. On one wall was a built-in shelf where I kept my small store of Christmas decorations. There weren't enough ornaments to cover a tree, but there were centerpieces and ceramics I'd set out in the years before I could no longer lift the sentiment.

I saw an unfamiliar bag and opened it. Inside was a jumble of clothes like a forgotten load of laundry. I couldn't remember the clothes, but tipped my head in and recognized the scent. It was the smell of excitement and fearlessness, of love and optimism, all run out. It was my someday, my glorious one day, the one that had never arrived. And here I sat, snorting a sudden gust of wistfulness from a sack of dirty socks and shirts.

* * *

Life is laundry.

When I say that, I don't mean I do a lot of laundry, although I do. I just started my fifth load this week and it's only Tuesday. Still, some folks do more and some folks do less. Either way, that's not the point.

I don't mean my life is like laundry, although it is. Troubles pile up, and I ignore them as long as I can. Just about the time I sort through the heap, clean it, and stash it away, it reappears and I have to take care of it all over again. So yes, life is like laundry, but that's not what I mean, either.

I mean life is laundry, and when you do not yet see that your life is laundry, you may not see your life clearly at all. You might think, for instance, that the life you have is not at all the life you had in mind and so it doesn't constitute your real life at all. Your real life is the life you pine for, the life you're planning or the life you've already lost, the life fulfilled by the person, place, and sexy new front-loading washer of your dreams. This is the life we are most devoted to: the life we don't have.

When I was thirty-five, I looked up one day and realized that I hadn't had a life. Oh, I'd had a lot of things. I'd had a husband and a marriage of sorts. In fact, I still did. Between us, we had two late-model cars, two high-speed careers, and a two-story house on an oak-lined street where people left their blinds open so everyone else could look in and sigh. I had a great job working with talented and energetic people at my own company. I worked too hard, but I made enough money. I had a pool and even a little pool house, neither of which I ever found the time or friends to fill. I had my youth. I had my looks, and I had the self-devotion to maintain them at any cost. I had fancy jewelry and cookware for which I had no use. What I did not have was laundry.

I had no laundry. I had clothing, and plenty of it, but I also had Theresa, who week after week did lifetimes' worth of other people's laundry, including my own. For more than ten years running, Theresa came to my house each Wednesday when no one was home. Except for the rare coincidence when I might be waylaid in bed by the sniffles, I never saw her come, I never saw her leave, and I never saw what she did in between. In this way, we had the strangest kind of intimacy.

She saw my underwear. She soaked my stains. She smelled my sweat. She did the same for my husband, all of which I refused to do. She swept and polished, emptied the trash and the hampers, and filled the house with a heady haze of lemony pine. Upstairs, on opposite sides of our bed, she laid our warm, clean laundry folded in his and her stacks. Everything was in its place. Only it wasn't my place, because it wasn't my life. My life was going to begin on some other day, when I had myself situated in some better place.

All those years she laundered my hidden self, I never knew much about Theresa. Because I lived in southeast Texas at the time, it wasn't so unusual that she was Creole, her people from Louisiana. She had a lilt in her voice, a kind of saucy French accent thrice removed, and her stories were spicy and colorful. She had truckloads of men and kids, problems everywhere, things to fix for five hundred miles in all directions. We'd learn about these in notes she left behind, or in calls to reschedule in calamity's wake. She had a real life, it seemed, and I didn't.

Just as I never touched a stitch of dirty laundry, I stood at an antiseptic distance from everything in my life. And who wouldn't? To my critical eye, everything around me needed so much improvement. My relationship with my husband needed fixing, but that was largely up to him. He had a lot of changing to do. My work was a problem, what with the long hours and troublesome employees. Good people were hard to find. My friendships were scant because I didn't have the time or an interest in people who weren't like me. I had so little in common with ordinary women.

As you might expect of someone with such unrelenting standards, much of what was simple about life was beneath me. Not quite beneath, but certainly too trivial to mess with. I bought into the view that life was a transaction, and that time was money. Since I had proven I could make a respectable living using my time in one way, I outsourced just about every other thing there was to do. I had a cleaning lady and a pool man. I had a yardman and an old guy who came around every spring and cleaned my rain gutters. We ate out. Our cars were hand washed and polished by someone else. My secretary addressed my Christmas cards. I had a manicurist and a hair stylist and, even more, a hair colorist, none of whom I could live more than one month without. My closest relationships were with the retainers and surrogates who tended my self-image.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this; these are choices many people make, and I still make some of them. What was wrong was that I was numbingly unfulfilled. I was deeply angry and silently, sleeplessly anxious. I thought I was working harder than anyone, and yet I was missing what everyone else seemed so easily to grasp. A life.

And I was missing it, because I thought life was something other than my life. I thought life was something envisioned and achieved. I thought it was manufactured from ideals and earned through elbow grease. I thought it was yet to arrive, and so I missed everything that had already come. I was blind to my marriage and my absence from it. I saw my job almost exclusively as a necessity and rarely as the exhilarating invention that it was. My home was a headache, a pile of rust and dust. I was certain that I never wanted a family: not one more person to clean up after. And I had never examined my mind, my heart, or my hand in any of this.

When I finally did lift a finger, it was just to nudge this lifeless, loveless world asunder.

"Why don't you leave?" I asked my husband one day after work. It was not an unusual day. Nothing had been said. Nothing had happened. It was a day like any other that I'd hauled across the wide river of my discontent.

He left.

It wasn't quite the end, but it was the beginning of the end of something that was already over. After a few squalls about money and other things that stand for money — rights, obligations, fairness, and furniture — the divorce was done. But the undoing wasn't.

A few months after my husband left, I started to worry that the problem might not have been my husband.

I took a lover and fell quickly overboard. After that lover left, and the lover after that, I started to worry that the problem might not have been the lover.

I sold my business. After the business sold, I started to worry that the problem might not have been the business.

I left the house, and after I left, I started to worry that the problem might not have been the house.

In the attic that last day, kneeling over a bag of stale and wrinkled recollections, I had a hint of what I had been missing. Laundry. And not just laundry, but what laundry gives us: an honest encounter with ourselves before we're freshened and fluffed and sanitized. Before we have ourselves put together again.

Do your own laundry, and the tag inside will tell you exactly how to care for what you hold in your hands. Every bit of life comes with instructions when we are attentive enough to notice, and on the high bluff of my prime I hadn't yet opened my eyes.

I gave that sack of old clothes away, but soon, and every day after, I took back a bit more of the load I had long foisted on someone else. I took back responsibility for myself, my relationships, my work, my days, my nights, my joy, my love, my pain, my happiness. I took on the washing, drying, and folding that constitute an authentic life.

I began to excavate what all the ancients, and my own spiritual forebears, tell us we can find at the very bottom of the basket, beneath our rumpled, stained, and worn-out lives. I went looking for a change of clothes, and I found the path to clear wisdom, compassion, and enlightenment. Bit by bit, I reassembled the remnants of my discarded life and made myself happy and whole. I can tell you how. It begins with the laundry, and it leads everywhere you never thought you'd go.


Handle with Care

some shrinkage will occur

iT HAD ONCE SEEMED EXOTIC, like the smell of places I'd never been, a secret world, an extravagant dream. Now there was one name for the aroma in the attic, and it wasn't Husband. It was Him.

Our happenstance meeting in a restaurant down the street three months after my marriage quietly ended. My heart-pounding drive home. The still, sure hush before the phone rang the first time, him at home a thousand miles away, me on my back in the dark. Four days later, my last-minute, first-class flight up to sleep with a stranger. The hotel room where he knocked, carrying wild-flowers, and where I studied his unrecognizable face. The music, the meals, the endearments, the habit he made of calling me Sweet. Thanksgiving in Santa Fe in the snow and the firelight, every shimmer sanctified by the arrogant absolution of our one true love. All the beds and showers and airports and love made coming and going. And the hand-penned story that arrived in a box for my birthday, the story that ended "and the universe became their own." His urgent drive down in the old Audi to stay, with hallowed books and hiking boots and a duffel of romantic destiny, when the bag of attic-bound clothes had arrived. The terrible year when everything turned and dropped and terrified me, sleep snuck out like tide, and I finally stood hysterical, sobbing, stiff against the sound of his sure-footed leaving. Every late-night ramble through every room in my house and my head, every wail and every gasp and every shameful time I punched in the long-distance number, no way to brace against the certain fall. Days and weeks and months, nearly a year until the phone rang on its own. He hadn't called for any reason, he said. Perhaps it was to hear me ask the question that I couldn't stop from asking. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I am in love with her," he said.

Downstairs, a friend was calling my name. The cheery, faithful one who had promised to drop by to help me finish the house by late afternoon. We met on the attic stairs, where she took the bag from me and glanced inside.

"Salvation Army?"

* * *

All that, in one whiff.

I'd started in on this story earlier but got lost in the telling, as can happen when we make things up. We make a story of our lives, and we don't much care for a simple one. So we embroider with feathers and lace and antique buttons pilfered from grandma's chifforobe. Or we rip out the seams, lengthen the hem, and sew something else more to our liking. We do this all the time, with nearly every sigh and backward glance, and so we hardly ever see what is really in our hands.

In my case, a bag of old stuff. Just a bag of old stuff.

Everything else I'd crammed into the attic stash was my invention, a sickening bouquet of memory, ache, and martyrdom, but I called it my truth. For sure, I once thought this sack of crap was the truest thing I'd ever known.

You might have a bag like this in your own attic. You might call it Her, or Then, or When, or If Only.

The short of it was, I'd fallen in love. I'd fallen in love not with my husband, whose uneventful company I'd kept for a decade, but with a mysterious drifter. That much was fact, but I'd adorned it, in the falling, with layers of meaning and promise. I'd explored it first with desperate lust and longing, then plumbed it with poetic grievance. My love for the fellow had hardly lasted a year, but my love for the loss loomed eternal. That's what I'd found in the bag — that's what we all find whenever we go looking in all-too-familiar places: pain.

This book is a love story. Every life is a love story, but few of us know what love is until the story is nearly over.

We spend most of our lives thinking love is a feeling. Sometimes we even feel it. We look for it, we wish for it, we revel in it, we grab and clutch, only to lose it, then travel the world to find it again. But love is not a feeling. And that particular feeling we call love never lasts. Everything — every feeling, every face, every filament — shrinks and fades and falls apart. Nothing stays brand-new. What becomes of a life fashioned of such flimsy fiber?

I can't recall the first time I fell in love. Certainly I felt the hot flush of teenage need, the reckless rush to lose my lonely goodness. A schoolgirl, I cruised the hot nights of north Texas under the influence of bad boys and strawberry wine. I worshipped the unattainable and settled for whoever knocked on the door. Mine was the adolescent's double life of close calls and intact curfews. But my recollections are certainly wrong — all recollections are — enlivened today by the seasoning of fresh sentiment and memory's selective service.


Excerpted from Hand Wash Cold by Karen Maezen Miller. Copyright © 2010 Karen Maezen Miller. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


prologue: Care Instructions,
PART ONE the laundry: To Study the Way Is to Study Oneself.,
1. Full Basket: A Life as Told by Laundry,
2. Handle with Care: Some Shrinkage Will Occur,
3. Lights and Darks: No Whiter Whites or Brighter Colors,
4. Toughest Stains: Getting Out the Traces of Self,
5. Final Rinse: Wringing Out What's Left Behind,
6. Spin Cycle: Changing the Ending,
7. Hand Wash Cold: Waking Up to What It Takes,
PART TWO the kitchen: To Study Oneself Is to Forget Oneself,
8. Full Sink: Who Made This Mess?,
9. Broken Glass: Cracking the Illusion of Security,
10. Sanitize Option: What Children Do Not Require,
11. Scrape or Rinse: Marriage on a Plate,
12. Stacking Up: And Nothing to Show for It,
13. The Good Dishes: The Life We're Saving For,
14. Ordinary Life: Love the World You Wake Up To,
PART THREE the yard: To Forget Oneself Is to Be Enlightened by the Ten Thousand Things,
15. Full House: No Inside, No Outside,
16. The Sun: Attention Is Love,
17. At Hand: All the Time in the World,
18. What Dogs Do: When an Object No Longer Offends,
19. The Hardest Gone: The Altar of Impermanence,
20. A Better Place: Taking the Bus Back Home,
21. Making Peace: Knowing When to Quit,
epilogue: Airing Dirty Laundry,
index of lost socks,
about the author,

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