Posts Tagged ‘Writing Life’

hand wash cold excerpt

March 19th, 2010    -    20 Comments

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. read more

nothing left over

March 10th, 2010    -    54 Comments

One of my readers is having a giveaway of Momma Zen this week. Not even a new Momma Zen, but one she’s read a couple times. (Those are the best kind.) Seeing the enthusiasm people have for the leftovers gave me the idea to do something I haven’t done for a while: empty the closet. I have a load that’s drying on the line, and it’s time to make room.

Leave me a comment if you’d like to claim any of these books, held by my own grubby hands and greedily consumed by my literary appetite. I’ll choose the winners on Sunday evening, March 14 and ship them out.

Gardens of Water by Alan Drew – a stunning first novel about the cultural cataclysm between American Christians and Turkish Muslims in the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake.

How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill – decidedly latte fare, a sweet, warm, and true tale of the fall and rise of a working man.

Seeking Peace by Mary Pipher – (hardback) The bestselling author and psychologist writes about waking up on the dark side of fame, and how Buddhism saved her.

Momma Zen – a brand new one, because when you drop everything you’re holding onto, it’s always brand new.

Edited to announce winners: Bridget, Corinne, Marilyn and Jillian.

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what not to wear

March 8th, 2010    -    9 Comments

I bet Publisher’s Weekly has no idea which line in this lovely review of Hand Wash Cold thrills me most:

“Miller uses daily household chores—laundry, kitchen, yard—to demonstrate timeless Buddhist principles. The skillful weaving of personal anecdotes, a few Zen terms, and acute insights—sometimes addressing the reader directly—distinguish this book from others in the genre. Miller argues for “the faultless wisdom of following instructions” when going about the mundane activities that form the substance of everyday life. Candid about some of the difficulties of her past, Miller stresses the importance of changing perceptions, which can lead to more beneficial outcomes for oneself and others: “All practice is the practice of making a turn in a different direction.” The book wears its Zen lightly; indeed, Miller skates over the years of study—as well as the decision to become a priest—that undoubtedly ground her current perspectives. This disarming book is full of deft and reassuring observations.”

I likewise have nothing to wear when I speak at the Whittier College Bookfaire on Saturday, April 3, where I’m a late, and as yet, undressed addition to the roster of speakers. Coming in my jammies!

Stacking up: a taste of my laundry

December 14th, 2009    -    24 Comments

I started at 8 a.m. this morning and finished the last load at 5 p.m. Today was laundry day; everyday could be laundry day. And at this dark hour, on this late day of this long year, some things are done but other things are not.

The holiday greetings did not get out. This will have to do.

In a few days we leave for a foggy stay at a nearby beach before coming home for Christmas and a breakfast of – naturally – banana pancakes. With that in mind, with you in mind, with everything done and undone still on my mind, I offer you this taste of my latest confection, the first audio excerpt of my new book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life. It may be something you’ve read before or heard me say before. Either way, I know in my bones on this chilly, silent night, in my holey socks and nubby sweater, with the dog asleep and the room aglow, just me telling you my homemade story amid the sounds of my house, that you will love it. My hope is that you will stir that love into your own holiday brunch, dinner, and every meal after. I’ll try to do the same.

The most we can do for one another is listen. You’ve already done everything for me, and more.

Happy holidays, friends, brothers and sisters, all. I love you.

How to unwrap your life

December 8th, 2009    -    22 Comments

I speed-read a short story collection last week, Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, which I cannot recommend. Despite that, one story in the book stuck. It was about the relationship between a cellist and his musical mentor, a woman who described herself as a virtuoso. The woman gives her protégé weeks of technical and inspirational corrections before revealing that she cannot play a cello herself. “We are both virtuosos,” she explained in pitch-perfect logic, “but my virtuosity has not been unwrapped.”

A wrapped-shut virtuoso. Does that resonate?

We dare not yet pick up our own instrument for fear of, well, everything. We are cautious, guarded, unprepared. Getting closer, we tell ourselves. Getting ready. Awaiting the moment of fulfillment, when our mastery will be revealed. In the meantime, our virtuosity is unchallenged, shielded beneath layers of tissue, inert, immobile, a precious empty ideal. Held in reserve for one day.

How to Unwrap Your Life

1. Do something you’ve been avoiding, without thinking twice.
2. This might mean that you need to mail the letter or send the proposal. It will put things in motion.
3. This might mean you need to make the call or send the resume. Go for broke.
4. This might mean that you need to tackle the hand wash cold.
5. This might mean you need to make a meal from whatever you have on hand in the kitchen, without restraint or apology.
6. This might mean a dog walk or a litter box cleaning.
7. This might mean forgetting what he said, she said, you said and everything that has been said before now.
8. No one can tell you a thing. There is no “how to do.”
9. There is only do.
10. Play as if your life depends on it. Without you, there’s no music.

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Holy clothesline

October 7th, 2009    -    8 Comments

An early start on an easy load!

(Taking pre-orders before it’s even dry.)

Tiny bubbles

August 2nd, 2009    -    29 Comments

Celebrating the news that my next book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, will be published by New World Library in time for Mother’s Day 2010.

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First, be famous

July 8th, 2009    -    5 Comments

And Other Short Cuts for Striking Out in Publishing

“If my book gets published, I’ll be famous!”
“No, if you get famous, they’ll publish your book!”

– Ted Weinstein, my infuriatingly brilliant agent

Since it is the season of camps, I’ll send you straight to the source of enlightenment on how the nonfiction publishing business works (and often doesn’t). See all of Ted’s online resources: a snazzy book proposal template, audio workshops and more. It’s all free! And if your aspirations make it out alive, haul yourself back to the keyboard and pound your writing to life.

Ready for something amazing and true*

June 25th, 2009    -    8 Comments

*A hope note given to me by Jen Lemen.

The other night at the bookstore I handed out a list of my recommended summer spiritual reads, and even though I’ve shared some of these before, and even though one of them has been around for two thousand summers, I thought I’d share them again. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for something amazing and true.

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and Stephen Mitchell – my favorite translation of the ancient Chinese text that informed the ancestry of Zen. Easy, accessible, beautiful and intuitively meaningful.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – a hauntingly honest and powerful response to the question of life’s meaning, particularly to those still chasing idealized notions of love and work.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi – a lovely book “not about Zen,” but rather the spirit of Zen conveyed in talks given by this 20th century teacher. Effortless and spare, this slim work satisfies as a full meal.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – Pulitzer Prize winning novel and modern spiritual classic. An aging country preacher testifies to the plain and lucid miracle of existence in a memoir left to a young son.

Endpoint and Other Poems by John Updike – A collection of poems written by the late novelist in the last seven years of his life and assembled shortly before his death. Clear-eyed, stunning and resonant.

My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Noemi Remen, MD – The kitchen table storyteller uses recollections of her rabbi grandfather to spiritualize everyday life.

Off for a weekend in San Francisco with family and new friends. Bay Area denizens: Come and get your zenagains!

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Look, ma, no hands

June 20th, 2009    -    5 Comments

Offered as a prayer of love and thanksgiving on this, what would have been my mother’s seventy-sixth birthday. Her silent ovation never ends.

Dear Karen,

Thank you so much for writing Momma Zen, or as the title is in Dutch: Zen Mama! I enjoyed every minute of it. You helped me so much with all kinds of struggles that I have had as a mother. Your book inspired me to look at life differently, to see all the beauty that is around me, in my children, in my marriage, in my work. I am kind of a hyperactive person some times and after the birth of my youngest daughter, I lost all my flexibility in life. I could no longer look at the bright side of life, felt so guilty towards my daughter at not being able to solve her problems and really fought hard to get myself back on track. Then I read about your book, ran to the bookstore, started reading and could not stop for a couple of hours. I think I never quoted a book so many times in conversations with my husband because you used the words in your book that I was looking for.

You have no idea what you did for me and my family. I am so happy at the moment, enjoying every minute of my two beautiful girls without doubting if I am a good mother. Thanks Karen for everything!

Every friend of mine that celebrates her birthday will receive your book for the coming years.


I have 27 pages of emails like this, 9500 words, from four continents. They are the world to me.

Now, give yourself two chances to win a signed copy of Momma Zen at the wishstudio or at Elissa Elliott’s Living the Questions blog. Visit both and be greedy! It’s a birthday.

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Look how far you can go on a box of cookies

June 19th, 2009    -    2 Comments

Thanks to our friends, customers, neighbors, fans and unexpected benefactors on a journey into this wild blue wonder.

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The angel of Assisi

June 16th, 2009    -    24 Comments

Here’s a little story about spiritual pilgrimage for those of you who are traveling to my city of angels this weekend for the Mother’s Plunge – and those of you who aren’t. The extraordinary response to the first splash has me planning a countrywide tour of backward steps. Where should I bring the retreat next? Minnesota? Arizona? Kansas? Tell me.

Even the man at Marshall Field’s who had sold me the yellow travel umbrella had said it: “You must go to Assisi.”

Everyone, it seemed, had said it – You must go to Assisi! – and so the fifth day of a solo trip to Italy became the day for me to go the distance. It would require a car, which I obtained from a rental agency a few blocks from my hotel in Florence. It would require getting out of town, which I accomplished with an angel on the dashboard. And it would require a couple hours’ drive south on the Autostrada, which I high-tailed in the slipstream of the surging traffic.

“You will see it on the hill,” another advisor had told me rapturously. And I did, in a purple haze of trees and tile and imagination. I steered my little vehicle onward in the soldierly direction, ascending the hill and circling the top, passing the marked parking lots with all the beached buses, inching slowly alongside the streams of tourists who had come for the St. Francis experience, motoring up the wrong streets and down again until I mustered my purpose and pulled over on a narrow hillside shoulder. I angled in among the other likeminded pilgrims who were committing, I hoped, the pardonable sin of illegal parking.

I strode upward to the Basilica de San Francisco. It was big, too big, outsized for its namesake, and oddly uninspiring, I thought. Inside to more frescoes, more pews, more people, and decidedly more organization than in the other sacred spots I’d stopped. This, I could see, was a system.

I headed down into the crypts containing St. Francis’ tomb and there uncovered the day’s only treasure. “Scusa, scusa,” the ushers whispered to those, like me, who had barged in to bystand at the wedding ceremony underway in the underground chapel. I lingered in the shadows at the rear, charmed by the elaborate smallness of it. A local couple surrounded by local people, wearing uncomfortable new clothes for the biggest event of their lives.

Leaving, I wandered the winding medieval village. The heat had turned the streets into baking stones.

“You will feel it in the air,” another friend had confided. I felt stifling languor and epidemic disinterest. Wandering into an antique shop, my idle browsing did not disturb the mistress at the back watching American TV soap operas dubbed in Italian.

Then the divine message arrived.

Every place is holy.

It was my departing thought, a conclusion and a comfort, and I headed home, satisfied.

True north is due north

June 7th, 2009    -    6 Comments

The Buddha Way lies outside thinking, analysis, prophesy, introspection, knowledge and wise explanation. – Dogen Zenji

I’ve just come from two events: sitting a day at the Zen center, and performing the monthly memorial service for lost children. You might think I do these things for a reason. In a way, I do. They are acts of compassion. But in truth, I do them just to do them, because they appear due on my calendar to be done, and that is what true compassion is: the absence of a qualifying rationale. The absence of self-service. They are good, but not in a way I can know or identify. Not necessarily in a way I can see. They are good because they are not tied to the expectation of an outcome.

The first book I stumbled across when I started to look beyond hope and reason for spiritual salvation was that slender remedy, The Tao te Ching. All the verses struck me, sung me, rung me, but none more than one that went slightly like this (memory serves when memory fades):

In the absence of the Tao there is goodness
In the absence of goodness there is morality
In the absence of morality there is piety

Even in my faulty recollection you can begin to see the essence of the wisdom. You can see the erring ways we layer our value judgments onto reality, to the fundamental truth of what is, and propel ourselves farther into self-righteousness and intolerance.

Beyond the superficial clouds of reason, thinking, introspection and wise explanation is the clear blue sky of wisdom and the deep ocean of compassion.

All this is a delinquent announcement of a trip north I’m taking later this month to give a free talk at the South San Francisco Public Library on Saturday, June 27 at 2 p.m. I don’t know if anyone will be there. I don’t know many people in the area. There’s no particular reason I’m going, except that they asked me. Have compassion and come! I’ll meet you due north – true north – for no good reason at all. Perhaps good will come.

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