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Excerpt from "Hand Wash Cold"

Full Sink. Who Made this Mess?

by Karen Maezen Miller

There is a certain hour every day, although it rarely lasts for just one hour, when I most want to leave home.

I see the faint blush of morning light under my eyelids. It’s dawn. I hear the dog begin to patter on the parquet in the next room. It’s time to let her out. I feel the inescapable weight of the morning routine descend upon me. It’s time to get up. My husband sleeps on, undisturbed. It’s up to me to do it.

There is the dog to attend. I let her out and fill her bowl. The coffee to make. I grind the beans and boil the water. The breakfast to assemble. I slice the fruit and toast the bread. The grumpy daughter to wake and marshal through her morning’s grim reluctance. The lunch to pack, the clean dishes to put away, the dirty ones to load. The million, billion pieces of everyday freight to clear through this port, the kitchen, where I stand like a sentry over a long, dense shadow of never-ending duty. I am the stationmaster of this mess, and there’s no replacement in sight.

There is an hour every day when I most desperately want to leave home. And the thing is, I should. I should spend the rest of my life leaving home, just by stepping into the kitchen.

Life is a kitchen.

When I say that, I don’t mean I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, although I do. I begin and end every day there. Still, some folks spend more, and some folks spend less. Either way, that’s not the point.

I don’t mean my life is like a kitchen, although it is. I take the ingredients I have on hand, mix and mash them into the semblance of a meal, and try to nourish myself and others the best I can. I may not always like the taste of my own cooking, but I’ve learned that I can toss the leftovers out and start over. So yes, life is like a kitchen, but that’s not what I mean, either.

I mean life is a kitchen, and when you do not yet see that your life is a kitchen, you may not see your life clearly at all. You are here for one purpose: to serve. Serving others will fulfill you as nothing else will.

I didn’t come to this observation knowingly. When I began to rebuild my broken life, there were a few things I knew for sure about what I wanted to be, and this job was not in the description. Once imprisoned by property, I never wanted to own another home. I would be free and nimble. Having lost in love and marriage, I never wanted to entrap myself in a meaningless match. I would welcome love’s first sight but forgo its aged fade. And seeing how fragile, frightening, and unpredictable the future could be, I was more certain than ever that I would remain childless. How could I give life when I had hardly savored my own?

I thought these deductions sounded reasonable and, based on what I knew about myself, smart.

But in every way, I ended up in some other place entirely.

How can this happen, we might wonder, when we have come to believe we are in command of our life? So sure of what suits us? Confident that we need only set a course to make all the right turns?

We are fairly convinced that visionary goals and intentions, executed with brand-name calendars, software, seminars, and positive thoughts, will deliver us to total fulfillment.

Except that’s not how fulfillment works. It doesn’t work the way we think or the way we want. Oh, it seems to sometimes, those few times the plan falls in place, and then we prematurely congratulate ourselves on our self-made successes. But most of the time it doesn’t work, and we bemoan our complete failure to achieve the dream we had in mind.

But we do neither: we never fail, and we never succeed. We are not the designers of our lives. Life is the designer of us. Life is vast and grand, intelligent, clever, and completely unknowable. It always has the last word. It is the last word. Life interrupts us when we are at our most self-assured. Life diverts us when we are hell-bent on going elsewhere. Life arrives in a precise and yet unplanned sequence to deliver exactly what we need in order to realize our greatest potential. The delivery is not often what we would choose, and almost never how we intend to satisfy ourselves, because our potential is well beyond our limited, ego-bound choices and self-serving intentions.

I once read a testimonial from a woman who was trying out the “law of attraction” in little ways throughout her day. It seemed every time she applied the technique at her favorite shopping center, she found a choice parking spot. You know, the kind you never get. It feels good to find a parking spot. But then I thought, “Why doesn’t she just give the parking spot to someone else and feel really good?”

And there’s the secret. True satisfaction lies outside ourselves. It requires forgetting ourselves, along with our small-time schemes and narrow imaginings. Lasting satisfaction comes not by redesigning your ego’s home according to your fickle predilections but by leaving that home entirely. True love demands the same.

“You’ve managed to have it all!” friends sometimes gush about the turnabout in my life. They don’t realize that I have what I didn’t want, and I manage it by not managing it at all. The only thing I try to accomplish, every day in the vicinity of dawn, is to open my eyes and take care of what I see in front of me.

“Let’s just see how it goes,” Maezumi Roshi would often say in parting. I was an eager and impatient student in the early years, anxious for him to transport me to the promised land of an altogether different life. I could picture it perfectly.

It would be in a foreign country, yes that’s where it would be, my different life. My face would be serenely unlined and radiant. I would, naturally, lose a little weight. My body would be lithe, no, make that skinny, from macrobiotic purification. I’d spend my days raking gravel and trimming candlewicks. Leaving my modest straw sandals outside my cell each night, I’d sleep in pious solitude amid the whistling hush of the pine forest boughs. I’d be like all the other monks — because there would be other joyful, impish monks — except for my hair. It would be long and lustrous, and, get this, after ten years of chemical coercion, it would reveal its own true nature: rich caramel brown with soft blonde highlights and not a sliver of gray!

I romanced myself by reading memoirs of Buddhist nuns and backpackers. Can you be romanced by such things? Yes, if you have an idealized notion of what constitutes a sacred life.

“Let’s just see how it goes,” Roshi would say as I pressed my suddenly urgent spiritual agenda. What do I do next? Where do I go now? When he responded with such seeming disinterest,

I heard his dismissal as a cliché, a simplistic social courtesy. He doesn’t speak the language. But that wasn’t so. What he said was never mere social convention but was instead a precise prescription for enlightened living.

It always goes, you see, this life of ours. It goes the way it goes, moment after moment. The point is, do we see it without blinding ourselves with our preconceptions and biases? Without rejecting the unexpected or pursuing the ideal? The search for greater meaning robs our life of meaning. The pursuit of higher purpose leaves us purposeless.

The world doesn’t need another wanderlusting soul seeker. The world needs a homemaker — me — to make my home within it.

Five years after my awakening to this once-unseen dimension in life — the way things are — I found myself fully equipped with nearly everything I’d once decided to do without: a house, a husband, a child, a dog, and a full sink to empty several times a day. Every day, I found my daughter’s scorned breakfast left on the table, and my husband’s crusty oatmeal bowl on the counter. I found streaks on the windows, crumbs on the rug, and footprints on the floor. I found shelves of food that no one but me would cook, cabinets of dishes no one but me would wash and put away. I found a near-empty milk jug, overripe bananas, and moldy bread. I found out the same way you did that a self-cleaning oven absolutely never cleans itself.

In all this mess, I found the ingredients for the next stage in the spiritual journey: the opportunity to move beyond myself and into compassionate care of everything and everyone that appeared before me morning, noon, and night. I found myself in the very heart of life, an ordinary life, the best spot to give and receive pure love.

You won’t see it on a plan or a map, but I can tell you how to get there. It begins when you have the courage to leave home, and it leads no farther than your very own kitchen.

Karen Maezen Miller is the author of Hand Wash Cold and Momma Zen. She is a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles, California. Visit her online at http://www.mommazen.com.

Excerpted from the book Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life © 2010 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

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