Hand Wash Cold

I had been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life by Karen Maezen Miller. I was midway through Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Everyday Blessings, which I put aside to read this beautiful, slender book. I loved every word of it, of this book that communicates its deep wisdom in a deceptively gentle way. I say deceptively because it is easy to read, conversationally written, approachable, and yet it is immensely powerful: Karen’s words have already permeated my porous mind, shifted slightly but irrevocably the way I look at the world.

Hand Wash Cold, which is on the surface somewhat unassuming, has in fact the most ambitious and noble goal of all: to change how we live our lives. Karen asserts that life’s grandeur is right here, in the laundry, in the dishes, in the view out of the window above the sink. Admittedly, I’m a receptive audience, as this is the theme I return to over and over lately, the message that the universe is sending me more and more loudly over time. Even so, I adored this book. It is lovely, lyrical, potent, and sage. Actually, Karen’s description of reading the Tao Te Ching is an apt description of how I felt reading this book:

But the words fell inside me, dropped all the way down and echoed back up again. My skin shivered. My heart throbbed.

The words echoed and are still echoing. Karen is able to express the ineffable space of true holiness: the power of attention, the importance of letting go of attachment and judgment, the futility of looking for others to complete our own selves. As I read this book I thought of cathedrals, and of how what Karen has crafted is the opposite of that. Let me explain. Cathedrals awe me: they are ornate, expansively beautiful, often glittering, a celebration of something far away, revered, not fully understood. Faith, however, is something truly different; faith is more intimate. It is right here. It is understood so completely it does not need to be articulated. It is curled in my very chest. Hand Wash Cold is, in my view, a pure expression of faith.

There are so many passages that I underlined, so many sentences that made my breath catch in my throat and my eyes fill with tears. I love Karen’s writing about how we are not our emotions, her head-on confrontation of the things that most of us fear most deeply (they are all going to come true anyway, she posits, rightfully, so why waste the energy?), her articulate distillation of that place that is “beyond the intellect,” and her longing, loving descriptions of parenthood as “complete and inexpressible union with the divine. As I flip through the book, there is ballpoint pen on almost every page, notes scribbled in margins and passages underlined.

There is so much to say about this book, but at the same time I don’t want to lard my review with excess language, to complicate in my words the phosphorescent simplicity of Karen’s message. The message that your life is right here. In front of your eyes. In the laundry. In the mess. Nowhere else. Not even tomorrow. The message is both a challenge and a reassurance: there is simultaneously so much to do, emotionally, and also nothing at all. Just sit here, breathe, and look at your life, Karen seems to be saying. It – and you – are already enough. Thank you, Karen, for these glowing words of wisdom. I will return to them – I already have! – as touchstones, turning them over like secret rocks in my pocket, drawing strength from their smooth surfaces in my fingers. I close with my favorite passage:

Life is suffering. No one can make less of it. Pain finds us without fail. Hearts break; dreams die; hatred flourishes; sickness prevails; people and promises leave without a trace. I dare not trivialize. I only dare to turn toward the glimmer and let it lift me into a moment’s radiant grace. This is the turn we have to take, over and over, to make our way home, to reach the untrammeled peace, the pure marvel, of an ordinary life. We must finally see that the light we seek streams from our very own eyes and always has.