Tracy Franz on her Year of Dirt and Water

Books Japan Zen

My Year of Dirt and Water: Journal of a Zen Monk’s Wife in Japan

Tracy Franz

Stone Bridge Press, 2018

308 pages, paperback, 5 x 8 x 5/8”
$16.95/ $22.99 CAN
ISBN: 9781611720426 (p), 9781611729306

Westerners have been writing about Japan since the first missionaries arrived there in the 16th century. In the 1800s, Lafcadio Hearn won international acclaim for his memoirs of his time there, and since then many others have added to the genre. It’s difficult to bring something fresh to the subject. There have also been a number of books recounting western encounters with Zen, often from the perspective of beginners, and that makes it even more difficult to reveal deeper truths. It’s easy to fall into the grooves of well-worn tropes.

In My Year of Dirt and Water, Tracy Franz tackles both tasks from a truly unique vantage point: that of a Japan-hand who spent ten years in-country, a seasoned Zen practitioner and wife of an American Zen monk in training to become a fully licensed Zen Buddhist priest (who in the Japanese tradition may be married). It makes for fresh territory and delightful reading.

While waiting for her husband to complete his year of formal training, she teaches English at a university for young women, takes pottery classes from a Japanese teacher (hence the dirt and water), and chips away at her meditation practice. Amidst it all, she keeps a daily journal that eventually becomes this book. Her lyrical prose and sense of moment bring each vignette to life.

My Year of Dirt and Water explores many Japanese cultural motifs through descriptions of special events such as festivals, traditions of gift-giving, office parties, lay zen group etiquette, and the norms of personal relationships. The book also explores daily life and ritual transitions within the Zen monastic training regime she experiences vicariously through her visits to her husband on special events, and through his letters, phone calls and conversations.

The back-story, providing context, reflects on her difficult childhood in Alaska, a brief first marriage, and plenty of regrets for imperfect choices, mistakes made, and lack of clear direction in life and love in years gone past.

My Year of Dirt and Water takes place in 2004-2005. Now, in 2018, Tracy lives with her husband and two children in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where her husband, Koun Franz, is on the editorial team of Buddhadharma magazine. Her Zen parenting blog, continues the story begun in her book.

In fact, it was through Tracy’s blog that I first became acquainted with her writing. The blog’s title comes from a famous quote by Dogen (1200-1253 CE), founder of the Soto Zen school, who famously said, “There is the principle of the Way that we must make one mistake after another” (Dogen’s Extensive Record, p. 132). Tracy was also one of the contributors to Lotus Petals in the Snow: Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women, published by Sumeru in 2015.

In Dirt and Water, Tracy fills many journal entries with descriptions of her frustrated attempts to master the seemingly rigid rituals of her pottery training (making the same object over and over, and failing, under the critical eye of her teacher), paralleled by her husband’s exhausting schedule of seemingly incomprehensible tasks and ceremonies (leaving one to question if Japanese Zen is nothing more than mastery of an arcane set of endurance tests).

Many of her journal entries embody haiku-like precision: an experience, a query, something that may or may not be a transcendence. Others bounce back and forth in time, the past seen from the present, or the present in light of the past, seeking lines of congruence. Sometimes clarity comes, sometimes not. Life seen through a glass darkly, but with grace.

I had many questions about the book, and had the opportunity to interview Tracy for this review. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, expanding on some of the themes from My Year of Dirt and Water

What was your first introduction to Zen?

I don’t recall, exactly. A few borrowed books in graduate school, I think—something to do with a crush I had on this guy. The books presented a worldview that struck me as very clear and inherently familiar and so, maybe, true. I think my first “spiritual” experiences occurred as a child. I had some periods of loneliness, and I was alone with my mind a lot, noticing how that works. (Sometimes I think it is a shame that this kind of loneliness is disappearing—now we constantly stare into digital worlds to alleviate discomfort, which perhaps creates a different mental experience altogether. I’m not convinced that it’s a positive one.) As for my first experience of zazen, I remember that very clearly. Koun showed me how to sit shortly after I moved to Japan for the first time, in 1999. We sat in his little house in the Aso countryside. I remember the frogs were singing outside and my back hurt a lot.

How do you see your practice as distinct from Koun’s?

I see no distinction—but I’m not him, so I don’t know precisely his experience of practice; I just know mine. His role is different, though. He is a priest who serves a community of laypeople, and I am a layperson.

I know that in Japan, priests’ wives fulfill a number of roles, as do rabbis' wives and ministers’ wives here. How do you relate to those roles?

I don’t presently relate to those roles at all, though sometimes it is interesting to hear people’s assumptions about me. Some are surprised—when they meet me for the first time—that I’m not Japanese. Others have funny ideas about what a monastery in Japan is like, or what I was doing in Japan while Koun was in training.

How is a woman’s Zen practice different from a man’s? (If, in fact, it is.)

Firstly, I feel somewhat uncomfortable speaking for the experience of all women or all men. My first thought is that there is no difference. And my second is that we all carry years of cultural and environmental conditioning, and our perceptions will be coloured by this to a certain extent. For example, if I go for a walk alone on a quiet trail, I am very aware of certain dangers that women have a higher tendency of encountering in such a situation—I’m not sure a man experiences a walk in the same way. Maybe practice is a little like this, too. We walk the same path, but it is possible that we encounter different things—and also the same things.

How have your thoughts on Zen evolved as a parent?

Again, I don’t want to speak for others here, but I do see change in myself over time. I think, compared to when I was younger, I am a much more compassionate person; I am, perhaps, better able to recognize the suffering of others, and also how we all suffer. I think I have a better understanding of and appreciation for impermanence. But—maybe I still have a long way to go in my understanding. I don’t know.

Looking back, how have the last 10+ years changed your views of that time in your life?

Koun and I moved to Japan together on three separate occasions, each for a period of two to four years. The book chronicles one year during that second move, Spring 2004 – Spring 2005. This was the year Koun spent fully cloistered in the monastery. (He did, of course, attend various sesshin, spend summers in monasteries, and engage in priestly duties at other times over his 12 years in Japan.) In 2006, we moved to my first home, Alaska, where Koun become resident priest of the Anchorage Zen Community for four years. After that, we moved back to Kumamoto, Japan, for another four years. And then in 2013 we moved to Nova Scotia.

My relationship with Japan now spans 19 years, as I first moved to Kumamoto in 1999. Living in Japan—and then returning to North America for periods of time—has had a profound effect on my life. I’m very grateful for it all, which is not to say that it was all positive. It wasn’t. It’s just life; it’s complicated. But what I did get to see more clearly is how cultural conditioning can inform so much of what we do, and how we perceive the world. Looking back now, I think I have an even clearer view of that.

Maybe this is subtle, but an example that comes to mind is a moment of reverse culture shock that I experienced in Alaska. I was serving tea after zazen, during a sesshin. As I moved from person to person with my tray of cups, so many people expressed a preference: “No, thank you. I don’t care for tea.” Or “I’m not thirsty.” Or “Do you have herbal? I don’t do caffeine after noon.” It really struck me how we Americans are always asserting our autonomy, our individuality. Maybe we want and need people to know how unique we are, in all that we do. I remember feeling—in that moment—that the sesshin participants missed the point. The giving and receiving of tea is a practice of being a guest and a host, of practicing in those roles. It has nothing to do with the consumption of tea, really. It has nothing to do with individual ego or personal preference. It is a ritual of being in a position and just embodying that position completely. . .

But now, I’ve been back in North America for a few years. Maybe I would be the one expressing a preference for herbal tea (and I really do dislike caffeine after noon). That is possible!

How did you come to be in Halifax? What’s it like there for you?

Koun and I were considering leaving Japan, and then he was offered a job at Buddhadharma, which has its offices in Halifax. It seemed like a nice way to bring together his experience as a writer and also as a Zen priest. And we really liked Nova Scotia.

I love it here! It’s a great place for raising our kids, and we have easy access to nature, to the ocean. (My only complaint is the lack of mountains. Maybe the landscape of my first home, Alaska, is too strongly imprinted on me!) Oh, and then there is another layer—Koun and I are both Americans living in Canada. We can feel a slight cultural difference here, and also how our children, who once embodied aspects of Japanese culture, now embody their new home. It’s all fascinating. I’m a junkie for being out of context, I guess.

I imagine we’ll still be here in 10 years, engaging in similar activities (Koun as a writer/editor and resident priest for Zen Nova Scotia, and me writing and teaching writing). Moving overseas has gotten considerably more complicated now that we have two kids. Still, Koun and I do talk about that desire to return to our other home, in Kumamoto. I miss it quite a bit. I hope to return at some point for a visit.

Japanese culture, as you describe it, seems inordinately preoccupied with outward form and ritual. Will we eternally see Japan as the mysterious other and romanticize it? How does the Japanese cultural form of Zen training work with Westerners?

I don’t see Japan’s preoccupation with outward form and ritual as a negative per se, though I suppose negatives can manifest in anything; maybe everything has its shadow. As I understand it, these set forms—these kata—are key to all of the traditional Japanese arts and practices. At least two things are being expressed here (and really there is not enough space to explain it all properly): The first, is that Japan is an example of a mastery-valuing culture, whereas the West (the U.S. and Canada especially) has a tendency to highly value “autonomy and personal expression.”

In my experience, moving through set forms repeatedly, bringing care and attention to them, creates a mind-body oneness—the body/mind becoming the action. Doing a thing over and over—and bringing full attention to the act—develops mastery. (I’m thinking now of a musician learning her scales. . . learning the essential structures so that she can move fluently within her art.) In the West, we have some aversion to this concept, I think. If you are copying the moves of the master, if you are emulating the master, then how can you self-express, how can you show your special, unique self? Culturally, that bothers Westerners quite a bit, and at a very visceral level.

The second issue here has to do with matters of high-context vs. low-context culture (okay, not quite a separate issue, but an overlapping one). A Japanese experience is a highly contextualized one—"Where am I? What am I doing? Who am I engaging with?”, whereas a Western experience tends to be more individualized—"I am me no matter where I am or what I am doing or who I am talking to.” So, I don’t think what you describe as “external” or “outward” is really that at all, from a Japanese perspective. A person is not quite a separate, distinct being. A person exists in a context, a person extends out to his/her context and vice-versa. A person is what surrounds him/her. Externality and internality might even be a single expression (you can readily find this in Japanese literature, in haiku, for example).

Of course, please do keep in mind that this is all a spectrum of experience and behaviour: We have cultural tendencies toward one end of the spectrum or the other, and our individual backgrounds, personalities, etc. will influence that as well. Also, this is certainly not the only model for describing culture, but it is the model that I have found most useful in understanding my own cultural tendencies as an American as well those tendencies so frequently expressed in Japan.

So, to get to your question about how Zen training works with Westerners, I don’t know exactly, but I can make some guesses. I suspect Westerners will feel challenged by set forms and repetition, by ritual—and also rigid hierarchies. They may place higher value on acts that potentially are achievement- or goal-oriented at the personal level (zazen, for example—though I feel awkward saying that, as I don’t personally see zazen as “goal-oriented”). As well, Westerners may be compelled to express their individuality in some way through this practice. (I’m reminded of Koun’s blog piece, “My Teacher Doesn’t Get Me.”) I don’t know—maybe that’s all okay.

Will we continue to see Japan as “mysterious other”? Again, I don’t know. The world is getting smaller in many ways; people are traveling more. Japan, too, is changing and evolving, as all cultures do over time. I currently teach international university students, including immigrants and refugees, from Saudi Arabia, China, Syria, Iraq, Korea, Japan, Argentina, Kuwait, Iran, Brazil, and so on. What I see is that we’re all just people—with many, many shared values and habits of mind—but also with these layers of experience that inform how we relate to and interpret the world. I am grateful for this diversity, for all of these perspectives. My students really are some of my best teachers.

I’m sure many readers will identify with your recollections of mistakes, stumbles, and regrets. Where do you find transcendence?

In every moment.

What does transcendence look like for you?

So many things come to mind. . . It’s working out the tangles in my daughter’s hair each morning. It’s slicing vegetables for a meal. It’s finding one of my son’s drawings tucked into his backpack. It’s holding Koun’s hand at the end of a difficult day. It’s a quiet walk on a sunlit afternoon. It’s working out complex linguistic structures in the classroom with my students. It’s in the flow and solitude of writing, that impossible task of translating the heart/mind to the page.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a novel (fiction) that echoes some of the themes from the memoir. I have the ugly first draft, so now the real work begins. . .

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