Life Lessons from Laundry

Karen Maezen Miller is one of my idols. No, really. She, even on the screen, radiates peace, calm, and the hard-won wisdom of someone who has really put in her time to live in her life. I mention the hard-won part because my sense is that for her this is a practice, a deliberate effort. This makes her lambent wisdom all the more impressive to me, and makes her inspiration that much more influential. I highly recommend Maezen’s first book, Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, and I’ve already preordered her second book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life.

Maezen’s blog, Cheerio Road, is one of my absolute favorite stops on my daily web perambulations. I can’t recommend her writing highly enough. Her voice is like that of a gentle but firm, very wise friend, who makes me see things I thought I understood in wholly new ways. That makes me aware of how little I understand, actually, but makes me feel wonder, and not defeat, about that fact. There is insight as blinding as lightning in her writing, but it is always shared in her kind, thoughtful voice.

Maezen is a Zen Buddhist priest, and she views all of life through that lens. She points out the beauty in the everydayness of domestic life, and I always leave her posts with a renewed commitment to stay present enough to see the splendor of my regular days. I’ve written a lot about my preoccupation with maps. I think it’s not a coincidence that at this moment – when I feel abandoned by these maps’ implied clarity of direction and assumption of motion – I’m feeling the lure of Buddhism. Perhaps, finally, it is time for me to stop moving so fast, for me to let go of the desperate need for a destination. Perhaps life is right here. And Maezen points this out more poignantly and powerfully than anyone I know.

Maezen’s post yesterday moved me deeply. It’s both my favorite of her recent posts and absolutely emblematic of all of the rest of her work. Please do go visit Cheerio Road – you won’t be sorry.

8 Steps to Happy Laundering

You might think I’m using a metaphor when I say that my spiritual practice is doing the laundry. Metaphor or not, laundry is the practice of seeing things as they are. Take a look at how to go from the hamper to happiness in eight steps.

Empty the hamper – Laundry gives us an honest encounter with ourselves before we’re freshened, fluffed and sanitized. It gives us a mirror to the parts of ourselves we’d rather overlook, and makes us take responsibility for our own messes. Self-examination reveals the pure wisdom that resides within each of us.

The instructions are in your hands – The tag inside a garment tells you exactly how to care for what you hold in your hands. Not just clothing, but very bit of life comes with instructions when we are attentive enough to notice. Doing it well may take more work than we’d like, but the effort is always worth it in the long run.

Handle with care – It’s inevitable: everything shrinks, fades and falls apart. Nothing stays brand-new. The most precious things we have are fashioned of flimsy fabric. Be mindful with each moment you have and you will experience your life in a different way.

Treat upsets immediately – Tomato sauce sets. Coffee stains. Ink is indelible. In laundry as in life, resolve upsets immediately before the residue of resentment sets in. When they’re not treated quickly, everyday messes can worsen into a lifetime of regret.

Don’t swallow the soap – There are no whiter whites or brighter colors, no matter what the detergent promises. Nearly all of our problems stem from the stubborn view that what we are and what we have is not good enough. We wear our insufficiency like a permanent stain, and that’s why everything we keep buying is some kind of soap. Don’t swallow it! When we release ourselves from judgment, we free everyone else from our criticism and blame. Plus we can save money on cheaper brands.

Let the spin cycle stop – Most of us spin the same anxious thoughts, fears, and worries in our head over and over, creating needless suffering for ourselves and everyone around us. Only when we let the spin cycle come to a rest, quieting our churning minds, can we lift the lid and find the load inside rinsed completely clear. Then, we can move forward into the fresh breeze of daylight.

The treasure lies within – Like the wad of bills left in a pants pocket, or the spare change that turns up in the bottom of the dryer, there’s a treasure to be found where you’d least expect it: inside. Stick your head in and have a good look.

Every day is laundry day – Every day brings the chance to slow down, pay attention, take care and engage intimately with the fabric of your own life. Sort the light from the dark, the delicate from the indestructible, and the heavy duty from the hand wash cold. The very thing you think you’re missing – happiness – is found every time you reach the bottom.

9 thoughts on “Life Lessons from Laundry”

  1. Funny story, I clicked onto this original post from Twitter, thinking it was really about laundry. Imagine my pleasant surprise (mingled with a tiny bit of disappointment) to read this great metaphor!

    I have yet to reach the bottom of my laundry pile. But, I know that when I do, I will be joyful.

  2. Oh Lindsey, I needed this today. And I feel like I have so much to say about this, her, you, these words…even before I get a chance to click over to the blog.

    This glowing recommendation is absolutely beautiful. Absolutely.

    And you know I can get behind some clean laundry (chaos out of clutter, right?) but did you know I can also get behind some Buddhism. Out of the many things I lack in my life, spiritual practice ranks in the top five. Maybe even above having my very own bathroom!

    I’m clicking over right now…thank you so much for the suggestion of a new place to travel in this great ocean of blogs and words.

  3. I love Karen’s writing, although I haven’t yet read her books. Every time she posts, I feel like adding two scoops of vanilla ice cream and a quarter-cup of Ovaltine and whirring her up into a zen malted milkshake.

    I did that last night actually. She wriggled a bit but I’ve been working out.

    And hey! We share a friend – and I’ve been meaning to come here forever (I’ve been here before, I know I have, late some night…) and say hey! So. Hey! Not only do we share a friend but we also share tastes in milkshakes.
    xo Kate

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