Karen Maezen Miller, Hand Wash Cold (2010)

The downside of being more aware of space constraints in our bookshelves and having the easy possibility of giving away books through networks like Bookmooch or other non-virtual systems is that right in the middle of the book, I’m thinking: “Will I keep this one?”, “Should it stay or should it go?”

Don’t worry, this one is made to stay. I’m quite tempted by Asian philosophies and Buddhist approach to life and spirituality, but I am not a religious person. I simply don’t know how. So to make me touch a more spiritual way of living, you need to take me by the hand and show me in small, factual steps, not anything remotely lyrical and abstract. And that’s exactly what Karen Maezen Miller does here.

“Hand Wash Cold” tells how Miller became a Buddhist (first as a student then as a priest), explains Buddhist Zen principles and vision, and also illustrates how one can live by Buddhist rules in very mundane ways. I love her matter-of-fact, no-nonsense voice. She is not your next-door neighbour, nor your best friend (like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love), but she has a caring, wise voice of someone you can trust and count on, even if sometimes what she says is tough love.

I want to illustrate with a few favourite quotes to highlight how much she speaks about changing perspective on usual stress sources, like time management or skirmishes between spouses on daily chores:

I have a system i rather like. (…) I don’t put my stainless restaurant quality pots and pans in the machine, because the instructions said not to. So i wash them by hand. I wash a lot of things by hand. Like when my husband loads thr dishwasher, i wash many things that come out ofit by hand. I do it my way.
As you might have guessed, he doesn’t fully rinse the dirty plates or cruddy bowls before he loads them, because the instructions said not to. (…) He does it his way.
Miraculously it works. It take the dirty dishes caked with dry food out of the machine and hand wash them. The miracle does not occur in the machine. (….) The miracle occurs when i don’t say a word about it. It’s’ not only what i do or don’t do; without me knowing, he silently performs a million. Miracles himself. Truly, the miracle of marriage lies in what we don’t say, and deeper still in what we don’t know. A marriage takes a dishwasher and two miracle workers.

And this paragraph I keep on a small notebook in my purse:

The question i’m asked more than any other is: “where do you find the time?” (…) I don’t. I have never yet found time. Time isn’t something we find, but time is something we losen all those times we fail to recognise that time is always at hand.
We are never apart from time. (….) Time doesn’t even exists. You are what exists. Time is what you are doing at the time you are doing it. There is no time other than this, so stop searching for the perfect metaphor for time and pick up the rake already.
Attention is the most concrete expression of love. What we pay attention to thrives. What we do not pay attention to withers and dies. What will you pay attention to today?

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8 thoughts on “Karen Maezen Miller, Hand Wash Cold (2010)

  1. Love both quotes, but especially ‘Attention is the most concrete expression of love.’ As a mother of three, also trying to give myself attention after 11 years of parenting, that’s my challenge!

  2. This book sounds really interesting. I like reading about Buddhism and other Eastern religions, so I will look this up. I like what you said about needing to have things explained in concrete ways. I do have a religious background, but I’m not that way anymore, and I think I respond well to small, factual steps, as you say.

  3. Pingback: Anna Quindlen, A Short Guide To A Happy Life (2000) « Smithereens

  4. Pingback: Dani Shapiro, Devotion (2010) « Smithereens

  5. Pingback: Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (2010) | Smithereens

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