“Hand Wash Cold” by Karen Maezen Miller
This is my first time reviewing a book for Wildmind. I agreed to write this on Bodhipaksa’s recommendation that this book might be “up my alley” since one strong interest I have is in how the Dharma works for me in my life right here and right now. This is how Karen Maezen Miller’s book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, came into my hands.
Another thing I especially delight in is books written by women. Sexism is a meme that’s still alive and well in the world, and I love coming upon anything that tends to dispel that kind of malignant influence. Dharma books by women teachers have been especially dear to me.
I haven’t done a book report (fancy name for a review) since junior high school, but I remember some of the key things our teacher wanted us to address. What is this book about? Who is the main character and why do you care about what’s happening to this person? What’s the main message of this book. Should we read this book too? Or don’t bother? Why and why not?
At first, I was charmed but her use of the “hand wash cold” metaphor; but then, I began to get annoyed and also a little confused — was this a clever dharma talk? a women’s magazine confessional à la “Can This Marriage Be Saved”? I found myself saying, “Come on, where are you taking me in this story, and are we there yet?” Which is a curious thing to need — to go somewhere (anywhere!) when the main event in Zen (and really most of Buddhist practice) is to stay right here, fully attentive, in the present moment-by-moment.
At the same time I was reading “Hand Wash Cold”, I was reading “The Great Failure” by Natalie Goldberg. I often have several books going at once, and often I get rewarded by unexpected concurrences and contrasts. Now, Goldberg is a writer by profession, and you could argue that her superior technique turned my head. You might be right, too, but I think I’m seeing something other than technique that is bothering me about Miller’s story. Both used a confessional format as a way of demonstrating things that are true for all of us. But where Goldberg’s story was no less painful or baffling to her as she was living it as Miller’s must have been, Goldberg let the drama of her story be something that carried the forward pulse of the book, if you will, but this was far from the point of her telling the story. Miller’s story was dramatic but in a way that seemed to be trying to capture the experience solely from the standpoint of where she was then, in that more self-centered, egoistic voice. This made it hard to cheer her on or see where she was going with this (except to relate this to her housework metaphor). Goldberg let the maturity of her practice — that is her present experience, the benefit of the wisdom she has accumulated — inform the story of the not-wise-yet past “her” and how she wised up. It is in this way that Miller’s effort shows the limitation of making the metaphor work so hard to organize the ideas and insights that it loses its ability to zing and reframe. Yeah, we do all these ordinary tasks, and they’re great occasions for mindfulness, but in and of themselves, they’re too flimsy to hold the Dharma.
I do a bit of gardening from time to time, and there are times I’ve been pulling weeds and think of how it’s such an apt metaphor for how we purify all our ratty, pernicious, negative habits — and how simply cutting them down leaves the roots intact and able to grow back — gotta dig right down into the dirt, get your hands dirty, and slowly but surely pull, pull, pull and then out they come, and that’s the end of it. I wrote a dharma talk one time using gardening metaphors for dharma practice and the spiritual life. By the time I was done, I was really tired of that metaphor. It ended up barely material enough for a 30 minute talk. For a whole book? No metaphor is sturdy enough to carry an entire book. I think Miller fell in love with this metaphor and then got stuck with it. It’s a danger we all face whether writing something, giving a talk or even in how we converse in everyday life. Just like the time I had made a decision to buy a vintage Volvo wagon and restore it and then saw Volvos everywhere. That was cool, for a while, but then it wasn’t, and that car needed to be sold some time later, and then I bought a Honda Fit and then I saw THEM everywhere. There are, in fact, all sorts of cars everywhere, but what we fall in love with we then see to the exclusion of other things and our world narrows.
So there’s a big long part (or it seemed long) where Miller is young and concerned with her hair and make-up and career and “having it all.” Then her marriage becomes unsatisfactory, and she tells us all about how it was unsatisfactory and she didn’t know what was what or how to make it better, and I kept thinking, “And where’s your practice?” It wasn’t clear to me when she actually began taking her spiritual life seriously — it seemed like one more thing she was doing so well — but there wasn’t a sense of increasing depth or how she saw her practice as integral to making sense of the rest of her life. The story of that would have been much more interesting. And then she’s a teacher at a Zen Center … how’d that happen? And so now everything is okay? Hmmmm… and is all her laundry fresh and sweet and all put away now?
So I think in the best, deepest sense, this book is about how we have to wash the ignorant and unskillful parts of ourselves with our own hands. That the accoutrements of modern life, which can, in our immaturity, include our Buddhist Center, teachers, sangha-members and even the Dharma and practices themselves, aren’t enough if we’re passive consumers of them. We change us, accompanied and influenced by everything and everyone that surrounds us, seen and unseen. And we accompany and influence them as well, whether we see how we do that or not. But better to see, and see more deeply and compassionately, and commit to doing so on purpose.
I wish Miller all success; I’d give this book a miss.