Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Celebrating the Everyday: A Review of The Gift of an Ordinary Day and Hand Wash Cold


The Gift of An Ordinary Day: A Mother's Memoir
Katrina Kenison (Springboard Press, September 2009; $23.99)

Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life
Karen Maezen Miller (New World Library, 2010; $14.95)

Like so many women and mothers I know, my life is exactly as I planned it and nothing like I expected. The last several years have been about letting go of my expectations and my focus on the next thing in favor of recognizing what was already right in front of me. I'm eight years into my life as a mother but in many ways I feel like I'm just beginning. My son stops to point out a stormy cloud in the sky, my daughter bursts into tears when I unwittingly cut her off to greet a friend, and every single day they tug me back into the now of my life.
Motherhood has been the thing that finally capsized me, shifting me from a life geared toward achievement and destination to one with far less external validation, one whose primary energy - that of being present right this minute - questions the importance of movement at all. Katrina Kenison's The Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother's Memoir and Karen Maezen Miller's Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life are both books whose quiet truths hide similarly loud and powerful messages about the ways in which motherhood helps us learn to celebrate the extraordinary beauty of everyday lives.

Kenison's and Miller's books are both rooted in the particulars of their own ordinary journeys: Kenison describes the decision she and her husband make to leave their familiar Boston suburb to move to New Hampshire. This choice comes out of a gnawing sense that Kenison's sons needed a different environment, and a growing feeling that they want a life with less emphasis on the external and more time spent in quieter contemplation of that which they suspect really matters. Miller, meanwhile, speaks of her conversion to Zen, which comes after a hard-driving and high-flying career. She, a woman who had never done her own laundry, finds that it is in the mundane realities of life, like housework, that she best understands our world.

Kenison's The Gift of an Ordinary Day is, at its heart, a love letter to the transcendence that exists in the everyday realities of mothering. The story traces the arc of a summer spent in a cabin on a rural New Hampshire hill, the decision to raze the cabin, and the process of building a new home in the same location. Kenison is a gifted chronicler of the everyday; under her steady gaze the most mundane moments become luminous pearls. She describes a late-in-the-day snowshoe trek with her son, the way a sunset brings meaning and color to an entire day, the lessons learned in the careful, rote stripping of years and years of paint from their cottage's old doors, and the heartbreaking mix of pride and sadness in watching her older son across a college cafeteria, chatting with sophomores and seemingly already right at home.

Through these details, she explores the bittersweet and undeniable impermanence of life, the inevitability of time's moving forward, and the profound desire to recognize the beauty right in front of her. Falling in love with a specific landscape and the project of building a house there becomes a metaphor for finally putting down roots, literal and symbolic. This, of course, entails closing doors and accepting what will never be, which Kenison acknowledges and mourns:

Being alive, it seems, means learning to bear the weight of the passing of all things. It means finding a way to lightly hold all the places we've loved and left anyway, all the moments and days and years that have already been lived and lost to memory, even as we live on in the here and now, knowing full well that this moment, too, is already gone. It means, always, allowing for the hard truth of endings. It means, too, keeping faith in beginnings.

As Kenison unpacks boxes in her new home she stumbles upon a pile of her old journals. In their pages she rediscovers the self of ten and fifteen years ago. She realizes that her desire to live in the moments of her life has always been there. The bittersweet truth of parenting is unavoidable; every day brings both a goodbye and a beginning. What Kenison highlights is that this is true for both our children and - importantly - for ourselves. As we watch our children grow and move inexorably forward (leaving behind things we and they loved), so too must we, releasing old notions of who we are in order to embrace a new reality. The farewells and the beginnings are inextricable, and therein lie their sadness and their music.

This, I realize, is what I've wanted all along: to be more attentive, to honor the flow of days, the passing of time, the richness of everyday life. Some part of me has always known it, known it well enough, apparently, to write it down, over and over again, year after year. Finally, there is another part of me that's ready to stop and listen to what I've been telling myself, ready to pay attention to what I know.

Ultimately, the book becomes a beautiful witnessing both of Kenison's ordinary family life and of her growing sons. It is a record of three unsettled years of moving towards a new definition of home. And it is the commitment of a woman at midlife to continuing to grow, which means letting go of old identifiers and, ultimately, coming home to herself. In moving forward, we so often circle back, to something that has always been true but that has required a certain amount of life experience for us to be able to see. Kenison quotes Jack Kornfield, "To live is to die to how we wanted it to be." As Kenison explains:

The future is never ours to call anyway. No matter how carefully we may try to orchestrate or foretell outcomes, there are forces at work in this universe that are far more powerful than any of our human machinations. So be it. We all learn by going where we need to go. Let us welcome the mystery then, and trust that what is meant to be, will be.

Like Kenison's memoir, Karen Maezen Miller's Hand Wash Cold celebrates "the inexpressible beauty that comes tucked inside an ordinary life." Hand Wash Cold conveys its deep wisdom with a patient, deceptively gentle voice. Miller's book is easy to read, conversationally written, approachable, and yet it is immensely powerful. Where Kenison speaks often, and lovingly, about her sons, tracing their growth as much as her own, Miller's focuses on her own personal transition from a business career to a quieter life as a Zen priest and on her deep reverence for the details of a quotidian existence. In very different ways, both books share a powerful message: there is radiance in the very small details of our ordinary lives, if we are just patient enough to look for it.

Despite its unassuming surface and title, Hand Wash Cold has the most ambitious and noble goal of all: to change how we live our lives. Miller asserts that life's grandeur is right here, in the laundry, in the dishes, in the view out of the window above the sink.

Miller's story itself is deceptively simple, told in plain and declarative words. She describes a midlife realization that something in her life was broken, the stumbling upon Buddhism, and the gradual commitment to the path that leads to her being ordained as a Zen priest. She frames the book in terms of housework, which is a device that makes the story approachable and relatable.

Miller's words and story have an echoing impact. She posits that through paying attention and letting go of attachment and judgment, we may see the ineffable holiness that exists in our own lives. Faith, to Miller, is intimate. It is right here. It is understood so completely it does not need to be articulated. Faith means knowing that we are not our emotions, and confronting the things that most of us fear most deeply (they are all going to come true anyway, she reminds us, so why waste the energy?). Faith also means that we recognize a place "beyond the intellect." Even parenting is a "complete and inexpressible union with the divine."

Fundamentally, Miller asserts that life is right here. In front of our eyes, in the laundry, in the mess. Nowhere else. Not even tomorrow. She emphasizes this revelation with the very structure of her book, in sections entitled, "the laundry," "the kitchen," and "the yard." She also reinforces the notion in the nuances of her own story, which traces her return to a communion with the most ordinary aspects of her own existence. Where once she was a career woman with a full-time housekeeper who washed her dirty laundry, Miller's journey to Zen priest also means she now encounters her family's soiled socks every morning. "Fulfillment," she says, "derives not from lofty achievements, but from ordinary feats. It arrives not once in a lifetime, but every moment of the livelong day. To find it, look in the laundry, the kitchen, and the yard."

Her 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, Miller seems to be saying. It - and you - are already enough. The reader returns to Miller's words as touchstones, turning them over like secret rocks in her pocket, drawing strength from their smooth surfaces. In one of the book's strongest passages, Miller states, simply, but directly:

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.

Both authors remind us that by focusing on the everyday, we will also learn how to survive life's necessary beginnings and endings. As Kenison and Miller so clearly illustrate, this is not only a lesson inherent in motherhood, it's a truth we continue to explore even after our children are gone, or the laundry has long been washed, folded and put away.

Lindsey Mead is a mother of two, a writer, and an executive search professional who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in print in the anthology Torn: True Stories of Kids, Careers, and the Conflict of Mother Motherhood, the collection of short memoirs titled So Long: Short Narratives of Loss and Remembrance, and online in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, BlogHer, and Zen Family Habits among many other sites. Please visit A Design So Vast to read more of her work.

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Thank you for these reviews. I love both of these books and could (and should) re-read frequently for their gentle, yet powerful messages that can soothe all my varied mothering angst with a quick sentence. (these books would be great holiday gifts for mothers)
I have read Momma Zen, also by Miller, and found great comfort and inspiration in its pages. It was nice to read this review and to be reminded of my intent to read other books to nourish and revitalize my spirit.
Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.
To the stern student of affairs, Beirut is a phenomenon, beguiling perhaps, but quite, quite impossible.
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