Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Karen Maezen Miller. Zen Priest. Memoirist

I was due to join the Butler grad student dinner last night with Zen Priest Karen Maezen Miller, and I didn't know what to expect. A silent, beaming figure? Beatific smile? Otherworldly? Maezen Miller wasn't exactly that. Not that she didn't radiate a certain type of energy, but she was a lively dinner companion. She asked each of us about our lives. She had opinions about topics of discussion and she shared them. In short, she was engaging, definitely of this earth.

I was psyched to meet Miller. Her first book, "Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood," was, for me, that magical book that found its way to me at the very time I needed it most. In "Momma Zen" Maezen Miller tells how she uses Zen to navigate the "crooked path of motherhood." Maezen Miller said that while "Momma Zen" is the story of a daughter becoming a mother, her new memoir, "Hand Wash Cold," is the story of a woman becoming a wife.

After dinner we gathered at the Efroymson Center for Creative Writing (my graduate writing program's lovely new home). Maezen Miller spoke about the path she took to becoming a writer. A petite woman with close-cropped gray hair, she slipped off her shoes and moved around the floor, gesticulating to emphasize points. "Everything I read and write is right in front of me," she said. To illustrate this she read a quote from an article she found in her Efroymson Center bedroom. The quote, from Andy Levy, director of the grad program, was about how the Efroymson Center will give our program a home and enable it to grow. Maezen Miller remarked that her writing helps her to make a home in her own life, and enables her to grow.

Growing up, teachers praised her writing, giving her confidence in her creative ability. She loved words and language. This affection for the written word led to her successful career in marketing. Ultimately, though, her work as a ghost writer and in writing speeches for others left her unfulfilled. After her mother died she realized she wanted her words to be her own, to serve something other than the corporate world.

"Don't write what doesn't need to be written," she said.

Maezen Miller uses writing as a process to examine and become intimate with her life, pointing out that there's a difference between one's life and the story of one's life. When she finds herself sick of one of her life's stories, she seeks the underlying truth, tries to unwind it, and look at it with fresh eyes, without filters and judgment.

In response to a question from the audience, she said she never hates writing. "Hate comes from fear," she said. "There are times I may not be ready to write, or may be confused. It may be hard for me to have faith during these times, but if I can roll with that, without ever passing through hate, I end up in love with writing again."

The funniest part of the evening was when Maezen Miller addressed discipline and practice, as they pertain to writing and Zen. "Put your ass on a chair," she said as she slapped her rump and pointed to the chair behind her, illustrating the point. "Every practice needs structure."

A self-professed late-comer to both Zen and motherhood, Maezen Miller told us she came to Zen when "everything fell apart." "Liberation comes when the walls collapse," she said.

She closed her talk by reading new work that happened to tap into my interest in the Hasidic roots of my family's lineage. She commented that just as it's the older generations' job to take root, the newer generations' job is to uproot.

Definitely something on which to meditate.

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