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My Year of Dirt and Water

Review by Maryse Cardin

My Year of Dirt and Water, Journal of a Zen Monk’s Wife in Japan
Tracy Franz
Stone Bridge Press, 2018

In My Year of Dirt and Water Tracy Franz transports us to Japan, specifically to the year she lived there alone. Her husband Koun spends that time residing in a monastery in training for Zen priesthood.

While she profoundly misses her husband, this beautiful memoir is not about a woman waiting. Franz is deep into her own training during that year. She is a student of many practices furthering them at home as Koun does his in the monastery. She too is a student of Zen, of karate, of the Japanese language, and of traditional pottery.

The book is a diary of many of the days of that year. Each entry is self-contained, linking to the other entries, but also standing alone. Many moments and routines repeat themselves— another ceramic cup crafted, another phone call from her husband, another meditation session — but each is also unique, presenting in all their newness a multitude of opportunities. As we read and slow down, we come to savour each one as it ends in a reflection, a dilemma, or a revelation. Take this excerpt:

“While drying one of my favourite tea cups this morning, I fumble and the cup flies free of wet hands and towel — shooting out neatly in an upward trajectory, pausing (it seems) in midair, and then completing the arc. The sound as it hits the floor is slight but decisive — a body exploding outward from the point of impact. For a few brief seconds, I believe I can preserve the cup by simply willing myself to get a better grip, to make a less aggressive pull with the towel. A course correction in the past tense. But this fallacy is quickly eclipsed by the forward motion of cause-effect logic. I cannot undo what has already been done, or not done. There is only this moment and then this moment and then this moment and then… this moment. Well, I think, at least now I’m paying attention.

There is discomfort and confusion as Franz faces this year alone. She doesn’t try to escape from the uncomfortable feelings that come up. There are few distractions in this year of training and contemplation: “I can’t sleep, so I get up to sit with it all. I understand. I understand. This life, too, will pass.”

She contends with the strangeness of being a foreigner in Japan, and living in a constant state of semi-confusion— “As usual, I do not understand anything.” There’s the striving to ameliorate her practices. There are the resurfacing memories of a hard childhood. And there’s a deep longing for her husband.

“There is that constant and pervasive loneliness of being foreign, of being out of context. And then there is the new loneliness of missing him. There’s a rawness there, a new shock to the system. But it’s only been a month. How will I feel exactly, in six months? Or eleven? I just don’t know. I do wonder how we’ll have changed in that time.”

“Or if he will change and you won’t?”

“Yes, that’s the fear, isn’t it? Or worse — that he won’t change at all. Twelve months apart for nothing.

Franz works as a university teacher. She is either a teacher or a student in many contexts of the book. The Japanese words for teacher (sensei), practice (renshu), and training (shugyo) come up throughout the text.

Her study of Japanese pottery is telling. Franz sits lesson after lesson making an interminable number of tea cups — the majority of which are deemed unworthy by her teacher and are destroyed. Yet she comes back to the wheel wholeheartedly each time.

“This evening in pottery class, I falter. I can’t seem to get the cups to stay put for trimming, as my heavy-handed, clumsy scraping yanks them clean off the wheel again and again.”

I enjoyed reading the tactile descriptions of her time at the pottery wheel, holding the wet clay, giving it form. The cover of the book itself is coated in a material that makes it feel thick, soft, satisfying to hold. As I am reading, I am aware of my hands holding this book.

There is so much that resonates with me in this story. I too am a university teacher. I too lived in Japan, and studied Japanese. Franz’ book transported me back to that country, to its idiosyncrasies, its ancient customs, modern ways, and mysteries. I lived in Japan about the same number of years as Franz, and was about the same age as her. That’s where the similarities in our stories end. My life in Japan was everything but contemplation, and practice. I lived in Tokyo, and worked long hours in a PR agency. I was fully immersed in what this fast city had to offer. I saw Baryshnikov dance; I wrote restaurants reviews for a local magazine; I was a regular on the nightlife scene.

But I can also see that some seeds of contemplation and practice were planted that would take root later. I often visited neighbourhood shrines, enjoying their solitude. I knelt and chanted with my Japanese host family in front of their home altar. Now I too am a student and practitioner of Zen Buddhism. As life would have it, the week that I am reading My Year of Dirt and Water, I am attending a Zen meditation retreat. As I sit for hours on my cushion each morning, Franz’ words come to me: about how meditation (zazen) is different each time we sit, and how the mind struggles mightily during some sessions.

“You could give up on zazen for a awhile.”

“Sure, but it doesn’t only happen in zazen. My mind is always ugly.”

Underlying everything else is the love story. Each phone call and letter from Koun is treasured. In the few times she is allowed to visit the monastery, they cannot touch and can hardly speak to each other. Yet, in these visits, there is a tenderness, a bubble of intimacy that is created around the two of them as they chop vegetables side by side in the communal kitchen. They cannot stop grinning in each other’s presence. He stands to attention as she drives down the steep mountain road away from the monastery.

“There’s a certain pleasure in solitude, and yet I miss Koun in every moment of every day. These twin feelings reflect each other: I don’t know what it means.”

Maryse Cardin writes from West Vancouver. Her last article for PRRB was Seeds of Peace, #21.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #24