(Albany, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2018)
Tracy Franz’s memoir, My Year of Dirt and Water: Journal of a Zen Monk’s Wife in Japan, chronicles the year her husband, Koun, attends intensive training in a cloistered temple to become a Zen Monk. Left alone with only intermittent access to Koun during his residency, Franz is left to navigate the foreignness of an unknown culture as well as the foreignness she feels in herself. The book is structured in a set of running diary entries broken up by seasons, chronicling both the linear time of Japan’s holidays and climate, as well as Franz’s own emotional changes as she works through each month of Koun’s residency.
Though Franz is a westerner and an outsider, only understanding the surface of Japanese culture, she is an avid student of the country, devoting herself to the art of Japanese pottery, dutifully practicing zazen, and learning from her own students at Kumamoto University. She studies the language and fills her days with all that Japan has to offer. However, the more she learns, the more alien she feels, bringing forth introspection into the aloneness she has always felt, brought more acutely to the surface when she returns home to Alaska to visit her mother. While in Japan, she is foreign, but she is accepted, though she often feels like she is only on the edge of understanding. But Alaska brings memories of a lonely and unhappy past that has her yearning to return to the careful simplicity and structure of the Japanese culture.
Part memoir and part travel-log, Franz lovingly introduces readers to the intimate parts of Japanese culture and society, while using what she’s learning to look honestly at her own life. She is a warm, calm, and curious voice, transporting readers into Eastern culture and Japanese religion with a humble respect that allows the reader to pull back the curtain and truly appreciate Japanese customs with a new, un-westernized lens.
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Abagail Belcastro has a Masters in Fiction with Fairleigh Dickinson University. She is a reader for TLR and a teaching assistant with FDU’s Creative Writing department. Her essay, “A Time for Fantasy” is published with Fiction Southeast.