Hand Wash Cold by Karen Maezen Miller

3 of 52 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

If I’d known Hand Wash Cold was a book about a woman’s decision to become a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher, I probably would have overlooked it. I’m interested in learning about Zen, but that description just wouldn’t have grabbed me. Luckily, I didn’t read that description of this book (or any description evidently) before I picked it up. I was free to love it without preconceptions, and I did.

This is a book about a woman’s decision to become a Zen Buddhist priest, but it’s more about the simple truths of living an ordinary life. It’s also impressively well-written. Karen Maezen Miller has a strong and compelling voice.

She wields that voice through a series of endearing anecdotes about her relationships with her family–her parents, her daughter, her first husband and then her second husband–and through those reflections we learn that life is laundry.

The basic lessons of Hand Wash Cold are that we find peace and meaning in taking care of the simple daily chores required to live in the world, in appreciating and tending to our immediate environments, and in cultivating our relationships just as we would our gardens.

I particularly enjoyed an anecdote in which she talks about struggling so hard to drive her daughter to a top-notch preschool so that she would have a chance to make it into top-notch schools all the way to Harvard, and then one day her daughter said, “Where are my friends?” The child didn’t have friends to play with at home because she went to school in an area that wasn’t convenient to get to from their home. That’s when Miller realized that her daughter’s relationships and her sense of belonging in her own community were more important than whatever perceived academic advantage she might find in the more competitive schools. The daughter was enrolled in a public kindergarten near their house.

That story I can appreciate. I’m not sure the competitive track is all it is cracked up to be. I’m ready for the simple life. That’s how I found this book. I went into the Kindle store on Amazon and searched “simplifying life” and ended up downloading this mainly because I recognized the title. I had seen it previously when one of my friends gave it a high rating on Goodreads.

Maybe a Kindle download is not supposed to be part of the narrative for simplification, but it is in my narrative.

Regardless, I’m glad I found this book, and I’m glad I read it. It’s easy reading, and there is no advice in it so profound that you’ve never read it before somewhere else, but it is still a wise and comforting read.

I finished it thinking it was easy for someone who lives in California with a Japanese garden tended by a team of professionals to talk about appreciating what’s right around you instead of wanting so much to be somewhere else. I wondered if I could find that kind of satisfaction in my plain little yard gone brown for the winter.

I walked outside to think about it and saw this.

Light in January

That’s a start at least.

If you need to turn things down a notch and make peace with your own anxieties, read Hand Wash Cold. It’s as good as a hot cup of chocolate on a lazy afternoon.

One thought on “Hand Wash Cold by Karen Maezen Miller”

  1. Loved this book, too! What hit me profoundly was when she was talking about being more loyal to the life we actually don’t have (the one we pine for, the one we will have *someday*), than the life we DO have.

    I blogged about it here:
    http://angeladigiovanni.com/2010/12/29/the-survivor/captain-of-my-ship-master-of-my-destiny/

    Thanks for spreading the word on a great book that can be life changing if we let it.

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