My Year of Dirt and Water: Journal of a Zen Monk’s Wife in Japan

By Tracy Franz
Stone Bridge Press, July 2018
308 pp., $16.95, paper

Tracy Franz’s My Year of Dirt and Water is the gracefully written record of a challenging year in the life of its author. The vivid and highly distilled prose drew me in from the beginning and gave me the pleasurable sense of a journey to a world different from my own. Yet as I read, I found a kind of writer’s koan emerging: how does one write about an ongoing state of loneliness and isolation in a way that creates a palpable sense of intimacy for the reader?

From the outset, the reasons for the author’s sense of disconnection are clear: she is an American living in Japan while her American husband is spending the year in a Zen monastery, furthering his training as a priest. The book is written in present tense as the chronicle of a momentous year for the couple, even as they shared it primarily through absence, long stretches of time when the only contact was a postcard or a fragment of almost inaudible phone conversation.

Related: There Must be Some Kind of Way Out of Here 

Franz had already been living in Japan for several years by the time her husband entered the monastery, and she was gradually growing more proficient in the language. Still, the ongoing sense of being on the outside looking in at the culture surrounding her is one of the book’s central themes. It’s not that she doesn’t have interactions and affiliations: Franz teaches English at a university, trains in a karate studio, sits with a Zen meditation group, and devotes herself to the art of pottery, melding “dirt and water” under the gaze of a brilliantly gifted teacher. In each context she enters into a shared discipline, and her connections go well beyond the realm of superficial social chitchat. Yet she often sees herself as a fish out of water, not quite following the drift of conversation around her, feeling as if she’s fumbling, dropping a stitch, or missing a step.

This recurrent sense of failure is closely intertwined with the loneliness Franz experiences. Often she seems to blame herself for her sense of isolation, even as she knows that there has always been something deeply self-contained at the core of Japanese culture, a pearl that foreign hands can’t pry from its shell. In this context, I discovered another, related writer’s koan: if one is a reserved person, living in a culture that values reserve, discretion, indirect communication, how does one break through the layers to fully engage the reader? And Franz is a very reserved writer. Early on, there are hints that her childhood in Alaska was marred by deep unhappiness. But it’s not until halfway through the book that some big biographical blanks are filled in and we finally learn about not one but two troubled stepfathers who clearly impacted her life.

Similarly, it’s not until deep in the book that her husband, Garrett (who now goes by his priest’s name, Koun), starts to emerge as a three-dimensional character. In part this is because we, along with the author, are only catching glimpses of him during brief and highly supervised visits to the monastery. During these scenes, we see flashes of his tenderness toward his wife, but mostly what we see is his serious, highly disciplined nature. Nearly 150 pages in, I was startled to discover that he was the family “ham” as a child, and I felt somewhat cheated that I hadn’t been more fully introduced to him earlier.

In some ways, you might say the book mirrors life: we become more intimate with the characters over time, as they gradually reveal more facets of themselves. From the start I felt drawn to Franz as a narrator, the way she moves through the world with open senses, a delicate irony, and a gift for detail. As I continued to read, I felt a deepening appreciation for her heart that dares to love through absence and despite a painful history of ruptured and abusive relationships. But at some point I began to feel that the book was keeping me on the outside looking in at someone who experiences herself as on the outside looking in, and I longed for her to dive headlong, with abandon, into the question, the mystery, the suffering of this perspective.

Related: The Tree Guardians of Kyoto 

This is precisely the kind of question that—in the proper context and with adequate support—one can dive into in meditation, but here too, there seemed to be a kind of shoji-screen between the author and her experience. At one point she acknowledges it: “Sometimes I think I just want to sit zazen because it is like sitting with Koun—this little thread of connection across time and space. Maybe that’s all this is for me. Maybe that’s it.” Certainly I admired her honesty in describing this somewhat tenuous, ambivalent relationship to Zen practice, but overall I kept hoping she would discover more of the passionate intensity and exuberant playfulness that lie beneath its austerely beautiful and sometimes even harshly formal surface.

Toward the end of the book, when her mother’s cancer diagnosis calls her back to Alaska in the middle of winter, I felt the author becoming braver and less veiled on the page as certain extremely painful memories from the past refused to stay under wraps. At one point, contrasting the extreme cold of Alaska’s winter to the low-grade chill of Japan, she writes: “Early this morning, I step outside into darkness and the singular clarity of true Alaskan cold. In Japan, I find the comparably milder winter chill annoying and ever-present, not unlike the vague discomfort that is the constant second-guessing of self and cultural habit.”

That’s it! I thought. Throughout the book I kept wishing that a certain gray, low-grade discomfort that kept her always “second-guessing” would fully intensify into the blackness of pure unadulterated pain—a blackness that, if we let it, can provide the most potent fuel for burning through the past and releasing us, finally, into full and intimate presence.

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