Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:
Tell me about a time you washed the dishes. 10 minutes, go:
Until I read Thich Nhat Hanh, the only big events that involved washing dishes were the holiday dinners where the kids wash the dishes for me. I put the good china and silver away, after they scrub and dry them. But when I discovered The Miracle of MindfulnessI saw the daily routine of dishwashing as something more than one more chore to check off my daily list. He teaches that when I wash the dishes, I need to wash them in order to wash them. Period. I need to be in the present and feel the soapy water on my skin, the temperature of that water, and the adhering crumbs of food under my fingertips. I need to experience the slippery surface of the plate when it comes clean and watch the clear water rinsing off the dirty, seeing it come down in little rivulets. In short, I need to become “one” with the experience. When I wash the dishes this way, I am part of the little sink area, the double stainless basins, the graceful chrome faucet, Planet detergent, foaming handsoap, and the big window–unblocked by curtains or shades–that opens out on the green of our trees, the oleanders and bougainvillea, the flagstone walkway, and the little brown fountain. In the morning, the big gecko performs his pushups and suns himself directly in front. In the summer, hummingbirds fly up to greet me. In the evening, I can better focus on the washing itself without being distracted by the “moment” of the gecko, the hummingbird, or the buds and seedpods hanging from branches.
What a difficult one. You know how when you park your car in the same lot you park all the time you can’t find it because you can’t remember where it is? That’s because all those times have blended together–and it’s hard to isolate that one time today you parked it. Same thing with washing dishes. I wash them almost every day!
But I’ve written about dishwashing twice before, both related to the concept of mindfulness. The first post was on January 19, 2013, and the second was almost exactly two years later, on the anniversary of my mother-in-law’s birth, January 29, 2015–right when my father was so sick and we didn’t yet realize he was dying. So while I didn’t focus on one time I washed the dishes (oh, there was that time I cut myself in the water and turned it red), at least I wrote about dishwashing.
So was what I did good for memoir? The general rule is to write the specific event. The one time something happened. If it happened a zillion times, choose one time and write it that way and have it represent all the times it happened. I didn’t do this here. The assignment I give myself is to go back and re-write the above into a single occurrence.
Is there a place for this overlay of experiences in memoir?
Go ahead and try it. Start here: Write about a time you washed the dishes.
Life feels like a whirlwind lately. Instead of continuing to blindly rush through the day, I am going to make a conscious decision to focus with mindfulness. A meaningful mindfulness, following the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, as I wrote about a full two years ago here.
If it’s time to wash the dishes, I will wash them in order to wash the dishes, not to hurry through the process so that I can get back to tax preparation or writing. I hope you will go back and read that post if you are feeling at all overwhelmed.
My father has been in the hospital again ( and hopes to go to a nursing home for a week or so today). He went into congestive heart failure, with fluid on the lungs and atrial fibrillation. Then he got a high heart rate. When he left the hospital before he was supposed to go to the nursing home, but they had a flu epidemic and were in quarantine. A nurse whispered to him the first night that he shouldn’t be there as he would die if he got the flu. So he went home. Who knows if he started getting A-fib on and off and didn’t know it. Now they have his sinus rhythm normal, and I hope he can go to the nursing home today. They don’t have any flu cases.
In addition, it’s tax season, so I have much work. I am trying to enjoy a little hubbub with the publication of Doll God (hey, it’s netted me 3 bottles of champagne from darling friends!). I have approximately 5 weeks to revise my entire memoir manuscript for my Stanford instructor Julia Scheeres. And my old cat Mac requires feeding 7-10 times a day (which twigs the other cats to their “empty tummies” hahaha). Oh, and there is that pesky thing called work, too ;).
As an added blessing, on Tuesday hubby and I found black mold in the closet where I store my scrapbooks, books, and old writing. Luckily, only one scrapbook from 1989-1990 was ruined. Consequently, I’ve been moving pretty fast trying to keep up.
But if I rush from one activity to another, trying to check them off my ever blossoming list, I will do this until I just drop dead one day. Pretty dumb. So I am back to reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book TheMiracle of Mindfulnessbecause it will help me live and experience through the whirlwind and not just exist at its center.
I’ll keep his book handy. Maybe just seeing it on the table will keep me focused! How about you? Are you rushing too much?
Two weeks ago I asked you to try a month of meaningful moments. I went on to explain the Mindful Writing Challenge for January 2013. The directions are simple:
1. Notice something properly every day during January.
2. Write it down.
It occurred to me as I have tried to write these moments that what I am doing is a form of meditation. The realization that the mindfulness it takes to “notice something properly” is meditation led me to Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness.
After I began to accept this “capacity to be aware” of my surroundings as meditation I wondered why I had thought of meditation only as an emptying of my mind.
It’s impossible to empty my mind. As soon as a thought slips in, I focus on getting rid of that thought (“out, out, brief thought” or something like that) and that causes me to focus even more on the thought itself. So to be truly aware makes more sense to me. What’s more, it has worked for me this month.
In The Miracle of Mindfulness, I learned that there is a specific way to wash the dishes. It is not to wash them to get them done or to enjoy a cup of tea afterward. The way to wash the dishes is “in order to wash the dishes.” It is relaxing into the moment of what you are doing and being fully present at that moment.
Mindfulness meditation is not about removing oneself from one’s “life” or environment, but rather about experiencing each moment as meaningful.
The Foundation of Mindfulness begins with mindfulness of the body. Today I noticed my breath.
I feel my intake of air.
I envision it.
When I don’t release my thought
I breathe in rhythm
My lungs expand then contract
until my insides
have been swept clean.
If you are interested in more ways to be mindful of the body, Thich Nhat Hanh leads the monks through a series of mindful movements.