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


If you live in a foreign country for any length of time, it’s inevitable that some of its customs and culture will rub off, whatever you do to try and avoid it. On the other hand, however well you “adjust” to the new culture, you will never be part of it.

We read of British officials in India and other places “going native,” taking multiple wives and wearing Indian clothes, but that phrase was applied to them by non-natives, and to the real natives they always remained foreign. In Japan you are always gaijin; you can speak the language fluently, read the literature, wear a kimono on occasion, eat the food and go regularly to kabuki and sumo-wrestling, even marry a Japanese person, but you are still gaijin. When I lived in Japan I was told more than once by Japanese friends, “Don’t try to be Japanese; remain English,” and so I did, remaining gaijin to the last day, which was, all told, quite acceptable to the Japanese, who will usually make allowances for foreigners committing cultural faux pas.

This book is Franz’s journey towards freedom.

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

Tracy Franz, raised in Alaska, who now lives in Canada and teaches at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, discovered all of the above and more when she found herself going off to Japan as the wife of a Soto Zen priest. This would have been a rather extraordinary experience for anyone, but this particular Zen priest, Garrett (aka Koun) Franz, is also American.

So there she was in Kumamoto, Japan, where she would remain for ten years. During that time Koun spends a year on his own training in a monastery, and Franz is left to fend for herself. It must have been, at first, very lonely for her, as she was only permitted short visits to her husband; she was a woman, a gaijin and married to a gaijin who was following a very Japanese way of life and doing his best to harness the spirit of Zen Buddhism as he learns what it means to live the life of a monk before himself going out into the world again as a priest. What is she to do with her time? How can she make friends? Can East really meet West? And what happens when, after living for an extended time in another culture, one returns home?

To compound the problem, Franz’s visits home are not primarily made for fun or holidays; she has to deal with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, and she finds herself facing down childhood demons at the same time. In Japan, she does what so many foreigners do—she teaches English, but at the same time she learns Japanese and takes pottery lessons. The pottery is the book’s central metaphor, the “dirt and water” of the title, and as she fails time and time to create a cup which satisfies her teacher she becomes, as it were, the potter’s vessel herself, a ceramic cup being formed again and again until it reaches the state in which it needs to be and can finally be put to use.

The conflict between her love for her husband and her aching for spiritual enlightenment, which involves letting go of desire, is always in the background of what she does to reach understanding. “Tracy, what do you want to do with your life?” (Franz’s italics) Garrett asks after telling her he is going to become a Zen monk. “I take a long time to answer, because this is the first time anyone has ever asked me this question. Finally: ‘I want to be free.’” This book is her journey towards freedom.

It’s always uncomfortable being liminal; Franz often finds herself hovering between East, where she lives, and West, where she comes from.

Foreigners often find, as Franz does, that Japan presents itself as a paradox. This is an ancient culture, but you have to search for it, “looking for the lost,” as Alan Booth puts it, which is often obscured by the flashing neon lights, technological innovations and insistently loud modernism of contemporary Japan. Indeed, many Japanese seem, at least at first, to have little interest in their own past culture, preferring the now to the then.

Yet it’s still possible to escape the bright lights, blaring J-Pop music and milling crowds dressed in anything but kimonos and find yourself in a Kyoto tea-house or even an ancient shrine in Tokyo itself, amidst the noise and orderly bustle. Calligraphy still adorns some walls in homes and public buildings, and statues of Buddha, Jizo or Guanyin (Kannon) may be seen on sale in souvenir stores.

At a shodo (calligraphy) exhibition Franz’s friend Yoko-san takes her through the gallery and they look at the scrolls; Franz notes “a reverent feeling to the room, a monastic air,” but also notices that her friend’s five-year old daughter has “a virtual pet” strapped to her wrist, a nice juxtaposition. Yoko-san asks her, “What do you think?” and she answers, “I don’t understand anything. But I also can’t look away.” Yoko-san replies, “Oh. Then you understand.” This is one of the profounder “Zen moments” in the book, but it comes naturally; Franz avoids the pitfall of self-indulgent analysis that is so easy to fall into when one is writing a personal memoir, and leaves the reader to ponder. As the old adage goes, “he who knows not that he knows not is a fool.”

For Franz, this is no fad or momentary whim; this isn’t John Lennon taking up meditation.

This book is purportedly a journal, which makes it difficult for readers to decide what has been spontaneously recorded or what has been carefully re-worked for publication. Samuel Pepys’s Diary, for example, was never intended to be read by outsiders, and has a completely unselfconscious air about it which exposes all the author’s foibles and weaknesses. My Year of Dirt and Water does not do that, except with selected aspects of Franz’s experiences, the ones that matter most. And, in the end, this is how it should be; she wants to show readers, and perhaps even explain to herself, how Zen affects every corner of her life in Japan and carries over to the time she spends back home in America, too. For her, it’s not a fad or a momentary whim; this isn’t John Lennon taking up meditation. It becomes her reality, as do other aspects of Japanese life and culture. In America she has difficulty using a “rarely-used” debit card (Japan is a largely cash society), and goes for a walk


dressed like a middle-aged Japanese woman, with my skin dutifully covered with hat, long-sleeved blouse, and pants. I long for a parasol, but know that’s a little too much.


I suppose she’s afraid that someone will say, “It’s not raining.”

Franz incorporates Zen practices into her life, such as zazen, which is not itself “meditation”, but the adoption of a particular sitting-posture. This practice is mentioned in the book many times as a part of her daily life; in the Soto school of Zen, founded by Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253), to which she and her husband belong, it simply means the posture itself. Like other aspects of Zen, zazen becomes Franz’s normality; like much of Japanese life, she does not subsume this or anything else in a self-conscious way, but constantly struggles with her western way of thinking, which means that if she is sincere in what she is doing she must learn to “see” things differently, just as making the “right” pot or cup in her ceramics class requires many mistaken efforts. At one point, describing her first days in Japan, she writes of her “bright, strange foreignness,” but later sees herself as a “bumbling outsider” as she settles into zazen whilst a Zen priest makes the rounds with his stick and “our blissful meditation is punctuated by bursts of rhythmic violence—bamboo striking flesh again and again.” Accepting that there might be a different way to see things is the first step; “if I let him hit me,” Franz wonders, “would a lifetime of dust fly out of my body? Would I be purified?” The writing here is gently self-deprecating; the “strange foreignness” doesn’t seem to matter so much any more, and there she is, just another kneeling recipient of whatever the priest is going to do.

Franz has written a moving account of what it’s like when you finally understand.

It’s always uncomfortable being liminal; Tracy Franz often finds herself hovering between East, where she lives, and West, where she comes from.

Her husband’s choice to become a Zen priest upends their Western world, and for her, as she learns to cope on her own with an alien culture, life can be exhilarating and depressing at the same time. We long for what we were as it recedes into the background, but at the same time we long to be part of what we are, too. That’s why the metaphor of the ceramic cup matters so much.

This book is a voyage of self-discovery, but at the same time is a voyage of getting beyond the self, seeing things as they are without the filter of self-conscious selfhood. It’s when that state is achieved that the dirt and water actually becomes a finished product, the cup that is not a failure. Franz has written a moving account of her experiences, not just what it’s like to be the wife of a Zen priest who is also a gaijin, but of what it’s like when you finally understand. As she puts it towards the end of the book, “I understand. I understand. This life, too, will pass.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.