A few weeks ago, Stonebridge Press sent me an advance copy of My Year of Dirt and Water: The Journal of a Zen Monk’s Wife in Japan by Tracy Franz. I’ve been fortunate to review a good many Japan-themed books on this blog over the years but never before have I been privileged to review the book of someone I know personally, and consider a good friend.
I met Tracy a few years ago, as her story in Japan was winding down and mine was entering its middle years. Introduced by a mutual acquaintance, I gravitated to this calm, eloquent woman. She was a teacher at a university, with two children around the same age as my own (a big selling point, as most parents of young ones will agree) but with hints of a life that differed drastically from my own – a Zen priest for a husband, a childhood in one of our furthest flung US states, a history in Japan that far surpassed my own. Just as quickly as we came to know each other, our paths diverged, with her family leaving Japan for Nova Scotia and ours remaining in Kumamoto.
Yet sitting down with Tracy’s memoir, My Year of Dirt and Water: The Journal of a Zen Monk’s Wife in Japan was akin to the continued conversations over mugs of tea that I can only hope we would have had. Her journal follows one of her first years in Japan, as she navigates the choppy existence of a person emotionally attached but forced into a state of solo existence by the departure of her (future) husband, who was spending a year of training in a Japanese monastery. My interactions with Tracy herself had been all too brief, never allowing us to delve into the deep questions of her long history in Japan. So I devoured the answers in the crisp white pages. Tracy in real life rarely shouts but Tracy in prose practically sings, with melodic passages and descriptive phrases so perfectly molded, much like the clay teacups her younger self eventually perfected in the ceramic class that weaves in and out of the narrative. A popular tenet in Buddhism is the koan, a paradoxical question that monks are to meditate on in order to understand or unravel higher truths. My Year of Dirt and Water is filled with questions – on love and loneliness, on fulfillment and failure – and as Tracy ponders them (both behind and away from the potter’s wheel), it prompts a self-examination by the reader of their own state of awareness, happiness, and acceptance.
Those with experience living abroad, particularly Japan, will find much to relate to as Tracy sorts through the nuances of daily existence in a country not her own. Those who’ve experienced their own separations – as Tracy’s memoir recalls a year spent apart from her husband – will perhaps find some of the author’s self-questioning equally familiar, even painful and conflicted. Yet even if a reader can’t draw on either of those threads in their own life, there’s a hypnotic effect to Tracy’s storytelling – unrushed yet utterly page turning – that will make this a hard book to put down.
I look forward to someday having that mug of tea with Tracy and showering her with praise over her beautiful, intimate memoir. Until then, I’ll savor her story again and eagerly await the next – published – chapter in her life.