By Sue Adair
It was pure serendipity that Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions For an Ordinary Life fell into my hands.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook that the book she was reading contained so many beautiful thought-provoking sentences. I asked “What book?” She told me the title without any other explanation.
Then, the book was mailed off to me.
I had completely forgotten about the book by the time it arrived. I ripped open the package, glanced at the cover and read that the author, Karen Maezen Miller, is a Zen Buddhist priest.
“Oh God. I just can’t read another Zen book. No.” I said out loud. Then I tossed the book aside.
I was at a time in my life that was indescribable. I had recently retired from my gray cubicle job of 20 years, sold my “marriage” house and downsized. All of the heavy weights had fallen off of me only for me to discover that I was utterly burned out. I had done all the stuff I was “supposed” to do.
Why could I still not find happiness?
I even spent years and years reading self-help books and articles online. I finally gave up on all the numbered lists that tell you how to “fix” things in a few simple steps. I turned to fiction to escape. I found that I loved a good story, preferably one that was so engaging, I could forget that I was even breathing.
I picked up Hand Wash Cold a few evenings later and begrudgingly told myself that I would give it 100 pages. I think I even muttered to the book, “If you have any allegories about frogs or tigers and strawberries, I will throw you across the room.”
Don’t get me wrong; I love Zen books. But right then I needed someone to tell me how to be happy. Fast. I didn’t want to read some ethereal book of fables fraught with symbolism. I suppose had cultivated a judgement about Zen over the years. It was just too weird. I never understood why they meditated facing a wall or wasted time trying to crack impossible Koans.
It just didn’t seem like it was practical. These Zen people weren’t real people with real problems.
Hand Wash Cold has three sections:
The Laundry: To Study the Way is To Study Oneself
The Kitchen: To Study Oneself Is to Forget Oneself
The Yard: To Forget Oneself Is to Be Enlightened by the Ten Thousand Things.
In the first part of the book, Karen tells the story of ending her marriage and selling her house. I found it interesting that parts of her story were so similar to my story.
It was then that a single line leapt out at me: “I did what everyone else had done at that big that house on Avalon Drive: I left.” My God, I thought. This is precisely how I felt when I had sold my home of 28 years. All at once, I was reading the life story and advice of a nurturing friend instead of someone dressed in saffron robes with a shaved head.
As I read on, I (like my friend) found so many sentences that rang true to me that I realized I was beginning to underline the entire book.
“Yes,” I heard myself say, “Yes, that is exactly how I felt, too.” Each chapter of the book tells a small story about a part Karen’s life. Put together, the chapters tell a cohesive story of a woman searching for how to live a happy life.
Just like me.
It just so happened that Karen found happiness in Zen Buddhism. Even though I found Karen to be remarkably similar to me, I still was a bit put off by Zen. It has always seemed so esoteric and extreme. Later in the book, she reveals that the reason Zen Buddhists meditate facing the wall is because everything you need to know in life is happening right in front of you.
“Huh,” I thought. “I never thought about it that way. How simple.”
Life is not happening in the past and it’s not happening in the future. It’s happening right now. And the instructions are right in front of you—if you’re paying attention.
I especially loved when she told the reoccurring advice of her beloved Zen teacher when she would ask for him for advice about her life:
“Let’s see what happens.”
Isn’t that the truth? We can only see what happens. Try as we might, we can’t control what will happen in the future. And every time some action needs to be taken, the instructions are found in front of you.
Maybe this Zen thing wasn’t so crazy after all. Maybe I was the one that was complicating things.
My judgement of Zen softened even more on the chapters about marriage when Karen revealed that she and her husband still disagree on how to load the dishwasher and which way the toilet paper should roll. This is where I realized that she is a normal person living a normal life coping with the small annoying day-to-day problems and facing the big life-changing problems, not a person living in sterile solitude in a monastery.
By the end of the book, I realized that Zen was very practical.
I loved the book so much that I ended up staying up late and reading the entire book in one sitting. Hand Wash Cold met both my needs for a book: it tells a good story and also has the instructions of how to live a happy, fulfilled life. I was so sad to see it end that I read it a second time right away. In fact, it has also earned a respected place on my bookshelf, because I am sure I will wish to read the lessons again.
The next day, I brushed off my mat and cushion, starting up my meditation practice again. The fulfillment I am longing for is found right in front of me in every single ordinary moment.
I just have to remember to pay attention.
Sue Adair successfully raised her four amazing children in the first half of her life, keeping her sanity working in the corporate world. The second half of her life is blue sky. Sue is a columnist for elephant journal and has been published at Tiny Buddha. Sue enjoys making things with her hands, especially spinning yarn, knitting and cooking. Her blog—uncomplicatedlife—is a travelogue for finding ease.
Editor: Dana Gornall