Tracy Franz’ memoir, My Year of Dirt and Water chronicles the year her husband, Koun attends intensive training in a cloistered temple to become a Zen Monk. 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’ own emotional changes as she works through each month of Koun’s residency.
I’ll be honest, when I was given this book to review, I was very worried that this was going to be an “eat-pray-love” kind of thing where the little privileged white girl goes to a different country to find herself. But I was thoroughly, thoroughly mistaken. Parts memoir and travel-log, one of the greatest things I loved about this book was the humble respect Franz pays to her Japanese experiences. This isn’t a white woman wandering around Japan, judging and questioning their systems. She asks questions, she tells us things that annoy her or puzzle her, but there is never judgement. She is a warm, calm, and curious voice that allows us to see Japan in an accessible way. As a westerner, she can explain things to us in a way that transcends the cultures and helps us understand. 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.
Literally, I want to go to Kumamoto after reading this book. I started googling Japanese pottery studios in my area, I looked up what zazen was, and Franz’ opportunities to visit Koun at the cloistered temple opened up a whole new world of interest in me for Japanese religion and culture. If you’re looking for a primer on Japanese culture, I highly recommend this memoir.
4 stars for humble respect of other cultures.