March 22, 2010

Hand Wash Cold

by Karen Maezen Miller
I met Maezen several years ago when she visited Kansas City and gave a dharma talk. Since then, we have kept in touch and you could call us good 'internet' friends. Here is a video excerpt from her new book 'Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life'. And below the video is an excerpt from the book. It goes on sale April 1st but you can still order a copy now at If you like this, you might also like her first book called "Mamma Zen: walking the crooked path of motherhood"

Chapter One: Full Basket - A life as told by laundry

Life is laundry.

When I say that, I don’t mean I do a lot of laundry, although I do. I just started my fifth load this week and it’s only Tuesday. Still, some folks do more and some folks do less. Either way, that’s not the point.

I don’t mean my life is like laundry, although it is. Troubles pile up, and I ignore them as long as I can. Just about the time I sort through the heap, clean it, and stash it away, it reappears and I have to take care of it all over again. So yes, life is like laundry, but that’s not what I mean either.

I mean life is laundry, and when you do not yet see that your life is laundry, you may not see your life clearly at all. You might think, for instance, that the life you have is not the life you had in mind and so it doesn’t constitute your real life at all. Your real life is the life you pine for, the life you’re planning or the life you’ve already lost, the life fulfilled by the person, place, and sexy new front-loading washer of your dreams. This is the life we are most devoted to: the life we don’t have.

When I was thirty-five, I looked up one day and realized that I hadn’t had a life. Oh, I’d had a lot of things. I’d had a husband and a marriage of sorts. In fact, I still did. Between us, we had two late-model cars, two high-speed careers, and a two-story house on an oak-lined street where people left their blinds open so everyone else could look in and sigh. I had a great job working with talented and energetic people at my own company. I worked too hard, but I made enough money. I had a pool, and even a little pool house, neither of which I ever found the time or friends to fill. I had my youth. I had my looks, and I had the self-devotion to maintain them at any cost. I had fancy jewelry and cookware for which I had no use. What I did not have was laundry.

I had no laundry. I had clothing, and plenty of it, but I also had Theresa, who week after week did lifetimes’ worth of other people’s laundry, including my own. For more than ten years running, Theresa came to my house each Wednesday when no one was home. Except for the rare coincidence when I might be waylaid in bed by the sniffles, I never saw her come, I never saw her leave, and I never saw what she did in between. In this way, we had the strangest kind of intimacy.

She saw my underwear. She soaked my stains. She smelled my sweat. She did the same for my husband, all of which I refused to do. She swept and polished, emptied the trash and the hampers, and filled the house with a heady haze of lemony pine. Upstairs, on opposite sides of our bed, she laid our warm, clean laundry folded in his and her stacks. Everything was in its place. Only it wasn’t my place, because it wasn’t my life. My life was going to begin on some other day, when I had myself situated in some better place.

All those years she laundered my hidden self, I never knew much about Theresa. Because I lived in southeast Texas at the time, it wasn’t so unusual that she was Creole, her people from Louisiana. She had a lilt in her voice, a kind of saucy French accent thrice removed, and her stories were spicy and colorful. She had truckloads of men and kids, problems everywhere, things to fix for five hundred miles in all directions. We’d learn about these in notes she left behind, or in calls to reschedule in calamity’s wake. She had a real life, it seemed, and I didn’t.

Just as I never touched a stitch of dirty laundry, I stood at an antiseptic distance from everything in my life. And who wouldn’t? To my critical eye, everything around me needed so much improvement. My relationship with my husband needed fixing, but that was largely up to him. He had a lot of changing to do. My work was a problem, what with the long hours and troublesome employees. Good people were hard to find. My friendships were scant because I didn’t have the time or an interest in people who weren’t like me. I had so little in common with ordinary women.

As you might expect of someone with such unrelenting standards, much of what was simple about life was beneath me. Not quite beneath, but certainly too trivial to mess with. I bought into the view that life was a transaction, and that time was money. Since I had proven I could make a respectable living using my time in one way, I outsourced just about every other thing there was to do. I had a cleaning lady and a pool man. I had a yardman and an old guy who came around every spring and cleaned my rain gutters. We ate out. Our cars were hand washed and polished by someone else. My secretary addressed my Christmas cards. I had a manicurist and a hair stylist and, even more, a hair colorist, none of whom I could live more than one month without. My closest relationships were with the retainers and surrogates who tended my self-image.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this; these are choices many people make, and I still make some of them. What was wrong was that I was numbingly unfulfilled. I was deeply angry and silently, sleeplessly anxious. I thought I was working harder than anyone, and yet I was missing what everyone else seemed so easily to grasp. A life.

And I was missing it, because I thought life was something other than my life. I thought life was something envisioned and achieved. I thought it was manufactured from ideals and earned through elbow grease. I thought it was yet to arrive, and so I missed everything that had already come. I was blind to my marriage and my absence from it. I saw my job almost exclusively as a necessity and rarely as the exhilarating invention that it was. My home was a headache, a pile of rust and dust. I was certain that I never wanted a family: not one more person to clean up after. And I had never examined my mind, my heart, or my hand in any of this.
When I finally did lift a finger, it was just to nudge this lifeless, loveless world asunder.

Here is an audio excerpt called "Stacking Up"
Buy a copy of Hand Wash Cold from