My Year of Dirt and Water: Journal of a Zen Monk's Wife in Japan by Tracy Franz

Author:  Tracy Franz

The cover to My Year of Dirt and Water by Tracy FranzBerkeley, California. Stone Bridge Press. 2018. 308 pages.

In March 2004 Tracy Franz began a journal to document a period of separation from her husband, a Zen monk spending a year at a six-hundred-year-old Buddhist monastery in Japan. The year is a journey for her as much as for her husband, and she immerses herself in reflection and meditation, occupying herself with her job as a teacher and with her hobby, crafting Japanese pottery.

Throughout the book, loneliness is a constant companion for Franz, something that she encounters in a myriad of forms. Most obviously, there is the ache of missing her husband. Their contact is incredibly limited, and even when they can meet, their interactions are monitored for the smallest amount of impropriety. This physical isolation is compounded by her isolation of being a foreigner with limited language skills in a different culture. The constant outsider, Franz struggles to find her place.

In her isolation she discovers, or perhaps rediscovers, knots of her past tangled around threads of her present. She’s constantly searching, working out the moments that haunt her as she works clay into cups and her limbs into the motions of karate. Her efforts to delve into these traumas and anxieties about life inspire a sort of reciprocal reflection in readers that moves beyond the pages of the book.

The daily journal format itself is a very effective choice, eschewing a single, broad narrative for a winding journey to the center of her soul and then back out as she reconnects with her husband at the end of the year. It makes reading the book a very intimate act, as readers relive her experiences unfiltered. The small, day-to-day fluctuations can be traced through the bite-size portions of life that carry a significance too easily missed otherwise.

The usage of Japanese throughout the book is well balanced and adds a powerful layer to the book that would have rendered the experience less immediate without. On most pages, there is at least a word or phrase, sometimes a conversation, that is left in Japanese. Without ever hindering the reading experience, these snippets achieve the effect of placing English-speaking readers in that foreign space.

My Year of Dirt and Water takes readers on a personal journey of reflection, posing questions that are larger than the life in which they arose. The very act of reading this journal is meditative, prompting a profound stillness worth experiencing and definitely worth recommending.

Reid Bartholomew
University of Oklahoma

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