Momma Zen Does It Again

In January, while the cold wintry winds blew the snow into higher mounds outside, I holed up in a local coffee shop and read an advance copy of Karen Maezen Miller’s new book Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life.

I didn’t know what to expect, except as most of you know by now, I credit Karen’s first book Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood with giving myself permission to become a parent.  [I know, just that statement alone implies a set of personal neuroses, and I’ll admit I had them all when it came to thinking about becoming a parent.]  I must say, though, to those of you reading…

Both books are not just for mothers.  Both books are for everyone.  They’re delightful, funny, truthful manuals about living.  [Manuals makes them sound utterly boring, which they are NOT.]

My prediction: Hand Wash Cold is one of those books that will become one of your dog-eared, broken-spined books that you end up taping together, just to keep the wisdom all in one easy-to-go-to place.  Of course, you can always buy a new book, but you know how that goes.  You’ve probably marked meaningful passages, and there’s something sacred about the original that’s reflected your life so well.  Because, believe me, Karen may be telling her own story, but it’s all of our stories–in one way or another.

You’ve heard of Eat, Pray, Love, right?  I loved that book.  I loved it for its adventure, honesty, and self-deprecation.  I loved Gilbert’s freedom, her ability to flee her problems.  Because I dreamed of doing the same thing.

But there was one major flaw with the story, which couldn’t easily be changed for the reader.  After all, it was a memoir.

Gilbert did what she thought she had to do.  She ran to save her life. Isn’t that what most of us think we have to do?

Hand Wash Cold is Eat, Pray, Love without all the scurrying from something.

Most of us want a different life–different houses, different spouses, different kids, different friends.  Somehow if we travel to another place, it’ll be heaven.  The wine will flow, we’ll be beautiful, we’ll be successful, we’ll be happy, and we’ll have the perfect friends and family.  Of COURSE.

But no, our lives are here.  Believe it or not, we’ve chosen these lives, and we must find ourselves here, in the thick of everything that seems messy and uncomfortable.  If you say “Ewww” or “I don’t want to” then you need to read Karen’s book, because you’ll find lovely insights that will make you rise up, refreshed and invigorated, to find your place in this life you’ve been given.

I have to quote several passages, only because you need to see why you should pick up this book.  Ready?

On marriage:

“You could probably say much the same for other marriages, because marriage seems to give us far more of what we dislike in one another than what we like.  We might quickly conclude that we chose poorly: erring by type, looks, interests, values, background, or beliefs.  This may be the case, but it’s still irrelevant.  It’s what we do with our mismatch that matters.  Deep, transformational love is born out of what you don’t much like at all.”

On dwelling on our difficult pasts:

“It’s not so easy to be done with your own sob story.  We might set it down for a time, but we hardly ever get rid of it.  Provoked, we haul out the old emotional wardrobe and put it on again.  We’re so accustomed to familiar, wounded feelings and self-serving narratives—they caress us like the gentle fold of an old T-shirt, the nub of a well-worn weave — that we mistakenly think they’re who we are.  We think we are our thoughts; we think we are our feelings; we think we are nothing more than a bulging basket of past experiences.  Can we really find happiness by letting go of what we know of ourselves? It is the only way.”

On being afraid:

“Nearly everything we’re afraid will happen is going to happen anyway, so what’s to fear?  There is no secure or unchanging ground, and we make ourselves safe only when we see and accept the way life is.  Utterly spontaneous and impermanent.  When it is time to laugh, we laugh.  When it is time to weep, we weep.  We are cheated of nothing in life except that from which we withhold ourselves by ego’s narrow bounds.  These bounds were made to break; indeed they must, if we ever hope to be whole again.”

On child-rearing:

“We expect it to be the way we want it to be; and the way we want it to be is the way we call right. In other words, my way.  My way is what you have before you have children.  There is no right way to parent; there is only a right-now way.

Like it or not, this is the offering that children give us, over and over: right now.  We reflexively swat it from their hands—I can’t deal with that right now!—since we are, after all, busy strategizing their brilliant futures.  They return with the gift again, in fresh packaging.  Children always show us the present moment unfolding.  Our full attention is the only thing of value we can give them in return.  Good thing too, because it is the only thing that makes a lasting difference.

When you step outside your judging mind, the mind that picks and chooses what it sees as good and what it sees as bad, what it fears most and desires least, you see that raising children is not impossible at all. It is only impossible to judge.

That’s the day that you look up and see what all has happened while you had your head stuck in a cabinet.  Your baby grew up all by herself.  This is bound to be an unpopular view.  The popular view is that parenthood is difficult because we are inadequately schooled and supervised.  I’ll grant that’s part of it.  But I was adequately schooled and supervised in Spanish, and I still can’t speak the language. I  can’t speak it because I don’t practice it.  As a parent, I make the job more difficult because I don’t practice doing it the easy way. The let’s just see how it goes way.”

On how to live:

“Whether the shelves are full or empty, the vegetables fresh or stale, the broth rich or thin, in Zen meditation we cook ourselves into a state of even-minded ease with things as they are.  Tasks are undertaken not because we want to do them, or like to do them; not because we choose to do them; not because we have suitable talent, temperament, or ingredients; not for reward or appreciation; but simply because it is time.  Without thinking, we engage wholly in tending to needs as they appear and, in this way, live with clear purpose and total fulfillment.”

Oh, my dear reader, don’t you see the great wisdom (and unbelievable joy) in finding fulfillment in your own current life?

Since Karen is a friend of mine, and since I desperately want to share her with others, I’m giving away two, signed copies of Hand Wash Cold. All you have to do is leave a comment below (or e-mail me at comment4elissa at gmail dot com) with what you like best about spring.  That’s it.  That will get you into the drawing.  You have until midnight on Friday, April 9, to enter.  Good luck to everyone!

In the meantime, check out Karen’s website, which is full of goodies, and view her lovely trailer below.

Such beauty.  It needs to be shared.

Updated on April 10, 2010:

Drum roll, please.

We have two lovely winners for Karen Maezen Miller’s signed copies of Hand Wash Cold.

[May I take a little detour here, first, to thank all of you for your beautiful descriptions of spring.  I wish I could shower every single one of you with copies of Karen’s book.  If I had all the money in the world, I would.  That said, my husband picked these two names out of the bowl (yes, a literal bowl!)]

Sharon &


The winners have been contacted, based on the e-mails and/or URLs they gave.  Thank you to the rest of you for entering.

Sadness ensues for the rest of you, right?  So, I’m offering another chance at winning.  No, not the same book, but one that I’ll be reviewing on Monday.  It’s called Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom, written by Real Simple’s editor, Kristin van Oftrop.  I’ve been given three copies to give away.

Come back here on Monday for your chance to win.

You can read a snippet of the back cover on Saturday’s post here.

[Post image: Karen Maezen Miller]


  1. […] readers, a friendly reminder: remember to enter the giveaway for one of two, signed copies of Karen Maezen Miller’s book Hand Wash Cold.  The deadline is tonight at midnight PST.  I’ll […]

  2. […] Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for one of two, signed copies of Karen Maezen Miller’s Hand Wash Cold. You can enter here. […]

Leave a Reply

The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

Recent Tweets

    No public Twitter messages.

Blog posts by topic

Archives by month

Buy Eve: A Novel by Elissa Elliott