My Year of Dirt and Water by Tracy Franz

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Years ago, I read a book by a woman who spent two years in Japan learning about pottery. From it, and from my friend Pat, I learned about Japanese woodblock prints, so it was an important book for me. I read this book to revisit that one I loved so much.

The subtitle of this one is Journal of a Zen Monk’s Wife in Japan. The author and her husband had been in Japan for a few years when in 2004 he began his year of intensive training in a monastery to become a zen monk. Tracy taught at a university, went to her pottery class, struggled, along with others, to keep their meditation class going, and agonized over her dark memories. Though she clearly has great fortitude and has accomplished much, her refrain is to belittle herself. “I am a complete linguistic failure.” After her teacher lends her a pottery wheel: “It seems my long holiday will be spent in the spare company of my constant failure. A winter solitude.” Perhaps it was her loneliness that made her focus on her shortcomings, her problematic childhood, and an earlier bad marriage.

My own outlook improved when she described her summer visit to the US. On her way home to Alaska she stayed for a time in Seattle and tells about walking around Green Lake. I read this just after our friends Steve and Cathy from that city visited us. Cathy walks around the lake regularly and I have joined her on several occasions and have fond memories of it. The author says, “There is one familiar face:  the old man with his sandwich board advertising Spanish lessons walks past, speaking to a young man who nods, listens intently, and then responds slowly.” I wonder if Cathy has seen him.

The author’s description of her various spiritual practices were quite alien to me, though I attend a weekly meditation and a dharma talk. She describes the zazen sits both in her hometown of Anchorage and in Japan that sound challenging. To relieve her discomfort about returning home, her brother-in-law shows her a ritual she describes this way, “It begins with both of us sitting on meditation cushions in front of his makeshift coffee table alter. Vishnu, deity of ultimate reality, is involved through mantra; incense and a candle are lit, and water is sprinkled on a miniature plate of cooked rice. The candle, then, is lifted and circled.”

She described a visit to a temple in Japan:  “We settle into zazen again and this time the priest makes slow laps with the kyosaku [a stick]. As he approaches, nearly everyone holds their hands in gassho and leans forward to request the stick; our blissful meditation is punctuated by bursts of rhythmic violence–bamboo striking flesh again and again.” Good heavens.

And there’s her husband’s experience in the monastery where things fell apart when the authoritarian “leader” became sick and was away for periods of time. Koun (his Zen name) was not sure about his own safety in the monastery. The monks’ discipline seems to disappear and they sometimes stole keys and took the car into town. My God Miss Agnes.

On the positive side, I’ve found that the UVa library has the book I read years ago:  The Road Through Miyama.

Tracy Franz, My Year of Dirt and Water, Stone Bridge Press, 2018, 309 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available from the UVa library and from Amazon.

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