Dena Moes, THE BUDDHA SAT RIGHT HERE: A Family Odyssey Through India and Nepal

Dena Moes, THE BUDDHA SAT RIGHT HERE: A Family Odyssey Through India and Nepal

I’m excited to be here today with Dena Moes who is the author of The Buddha Sat Right Here: A Family Odyssey Through India and Nepal. She has a BA in literature and an MS in nursing from Yale University. An essayist, storyteller, and songwriter, Dena is the mother of two girls and currently lives in California. Her book recently won first place in the Indie Publishers Book Awards in travel and also first place in the Next Generation Indie Awards in travel. Welcome to Dena.

Dena Moes: Thank you so much. I’m really glad to be here today.

Zibby: Dena, can you tell listeners what The Buddha Sat Right Here is about? What inspired you to write it?

Dena: The shortest answer is that my book is a memoir of adventure, motherhood, and love woven into a spiritual journey. To expand on that a little, in 2014 I was a mother who pretty much had it all. I was a busy home birth midwife with a very successful practice. I had two amazing daughters who were thriving. I had a marriage, a house, a yard, a dog, a cat, etc. From the looks of it, it looks like everything was swell. Inside, something deep inside me was eroding. I felt hollow. A lot of feelings came up that were not joyful. I wasn’t content. I got this crazy idea that we needed to change it up completely. We rented out our house. We shuttered our businesses. My family took an eight-month backpacking journey through India and Nepal, which was a wild thing to do. It had always been my bucket-list place to go. It had been my dream. I almost went to India several times before I had kids. Each time, something happened and I ended up not going. Right in the middle of raising my kids, I thought I don’t want to wait until they’re grown and do this at some point in the future. When I realized that they could each carry their own belongings in their backpack, I decided we should just do this.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I can’t even get my son to pick up his backpack. He wheels his backpack five feet to the car. The fact that your kids are carrying their belongings on their backs through India is humbling.

Dena: This didn’t come out of thin air. We live in fairly rural California. We had done a lot of camping and backpacking and trekking into music festivals and places like that with them through their whole childhoods. It wasn’t completely out of thin air. They were used to fairly rugged travel. They were using to carrying their stuff in backpacks at times to get where they needed to go. Our enthusiasm for the trip was really contagious. They were very excited to embark on this adventure with us.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about why India and how this became a pilgrimage and what pilgrimage means to you. Dena suggested I ask her that question, which is a great question. I want to give her credit for that one.

Dena: I’ve always considered myself a spiritual seeker. I grew up Jewish. When I lived in New York in the nineties, I belonged to a beautiful circle of Wiccan practitioners. Then I began to study Buddhism about eighteen years ago. When I learned about Buddhism, it really resonated with me. These principles of cultivating love and compassion in yourself and how that reflects out into the world rang so true to me. I thought, where’s this been all my life, and became a student of Buddhism. Of course, the Buddha lived in India. He was actually born in Nepal. Then he lived in India. He sat under a tree in India and awakened to enlightenment. There’s still a place there where you can go where there’s a tree that marks that spot. It’s a very holy pilgrimage site. We spend a good deal of time there in my book.

Then also in India, there’s large communities of Tibetan refugees. In case people don’t know, Tibet is now in occupied China. It’s now occupied by China and has been for many, many years. There’s been a big erosion of Tibetan culture and Buddhist traditions there. There’s a lot of refugees in Nepal and India. They’re building monasteries and keeping the traditions alive, keeping the spiritual path alive that is from Tibet. My husband Adam had spent a year in India when he was in his twenties. We had all these connections. It had always been my bucket-list place even though I knew it was going to be hard travels and confronting at times and really challenge us. The idea of a pilgrimage is that it’s a journey that changes you, that’s transformative. It’s not a vacation. You don’t come back the same. With that intention, we set out on this trip. Boy, did it change us in so many ways.

Zibby: In the opening section of your book, you have yourself trekking through a storm and reflecting. “What a difference from the life I left behind, I think as I trudge along. Our American life was a juggling act, and I was constantly dropping balls.” You itemized all the balls you were dropping. “Here, I have one task—walk. No schedule to keep. No to-do list. Nobody paging me or pulling at my attention. Just walk. One foot in front of the other, wiping the snow from my eyes, I revel in the simplicity, the focus,” which is great. Take me back to that moment right there.

Dena: I call that my Annapurna epiphany. The beginning of the book drops you into the middle of the story. This was about halfway through our trip. We were in Nepal on a trek. That moment was really about, my family got ahead of me. Then it started to snow. Suddenly, I was all alone. I knew they were just ahead, just out of sight. I’m always the slowest hiker. I’m not an athlete myself. I like to be behind so I’m not feeling like I’m holding people back behind me. I was going along at my own pace. Then as the snow got really thick and suddenly I realized I was in a blizzard, at first all these emotions of fear and worry for my kids and all these things arose. It was almost panic. Oh, my gosh. It’s snowing. I’m out here. We’re so high up. Then I told myself to stop those thoughts and just settle. Give that some space.

What happened was I had this total release of surrendering responsibility for my entire family. I realized how much as a woman and a mother I’m always trying to control everybody’s experiences somehow. “It’s snowing. Does everyone have their coats on? Is everyone walking safely? Does everyone have their water bottle? How far ahead? Because Sophia’s so small…” always thinking of everybody else. In that moment, because I couldn’t even see my kids, I didn’t know exactly where anybody was, I just let go. I felt this utter and complete freedom. It was so joyful. I started crying tears of joy. I felt here, fully present in the moment without any worries or thoughts of the past or the future. It was a spiritual epiphany. It allowed me to break some patterns in my parenting and think differently about my children who were, at that point, old enough, transitioning from child to teenager.

Zibby: How old were they both when —

Dena: — They were ten and fourteen. That permission to no longer be responsible for their experiences, I can bring the family to places, but the experiences that they have is up to them. I need to be aware of my experience.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. Can they tell that you changed in that regard? Is it more a shift in mind-set for you? Are there things that you actually do differently now with them?

Dena: Naturally, because they keep getting older and older. One went off to college. That’s really letting go of control. It was more an inner thing for myself and a relaxing of a certain amount of anxiety and worry that I was always holding about them and my own ability to trust them more and trust reality more to hold them. As my husband says, the sun will rise even if I’m not thinking about it.

Zibby: I like that. Excellent. This is great. This is going to be help for anxiety. I’m now realizing this is my added perk of this session here.

Dena: I will say that my overall moto for India travel is relax because absolutely nothing is under control.

Zibby: Sometimes though, when people tell me to relax, it does not help me relax at all. A story like yours about how you did it, that’s something that you can take in your back pocket. You had another passage about how things were before you left to contrast. You said, “This whole American approach to parenting to whack.” Then you tell your kids, “Sixty-three! Do you know what that number is? That is the number of times I feed you each week. Can you even believe it? Sixty-friggin-three. That is three meals a day for three people, seven days a week. And it is not even counted as a job.” Talk to me about where you were and then where you came back. Then I’ll talk about the middle journey after this.

Dena: Here’s one piece in my story. My sister lives in India. She is a foreign correspondent. She had a baby. Before I took my whole family, I went to visit her after she had a baby. She’s a single mother in India. I went to India with this idea that I was going to cook for her. I was going to tidy the apartment while she rests after giving birth. I got there. She has a cook who’s in the kitchen all day making food. She has a maid who’s tidying the house. She has a driver who takes her where she needs to go. This is normal in Asian culture for working women or women without extended family, without relatives who live in the home. It just hit me how in America, mothers are so isolated and are expected to do so many people’s jobs all by themselves and how wrong that is on so many levels, how unsustainable that is.

Seeing how families operate in Asia, I saw that in America, the way we do it is really just a drop in the bucket of global humanity. Women are not so isolated all over the world. It broke open this perspective. A lot of people are talking now about emotional labor and the mental load of motherhood and how much women juggle. I came back from visiting my sister. I thought of course this doesn’t work. It’s not meant to work. One person is not meant to do so many things. I started realizing all the jobs that I do that aren’t even considered a job. It’s completely taken for granted that Mom knows where everything is. Mom knows where everyone’s going. Mom knows what’s going to be for dinner. Mom works full time because it’s equality. It’s equality between the sexes now. Men and women are equal, but not really. It’s really hard to make that true in the home.

Zibby: What can we do about it?

Dena: That’s a great question. I’m not sure I have the answer.

Zibby: That’s okay. I’m not sure anyone has the answer.

Dena: When I look at my husband and I, we’re a little older than you, maybe. We grew up in the seventies. Feminism was brand new. My husband’s mother was a stay-at-home mom who cooked and had a nice dinner on the table every night with lipstick on for her husband when he came home and took her kids for ice cream sundaes after school. That’s his memory of Mom in the house. Change comes slowly. My husband and I, we’ve been working on it within our home really intensively since our India trip when all the issues about this bubbled up for us. Talking about it is really helpful because I didn’t even have the language to describe what the problem was until I went to India and saw that all moms all over the world are not being these super moms juggling six different jobs. Prior to that, I didn’t even have the vocabulary. I thought the problem was just me and Adam. The problem was in my marriage. The problem was with me. Getting the perspective and having people talk about it and talking about it, men and women amongst themselves and with the next generations, I think it is changing. I know it’s changed a lot in my family too.

Zibby: I think you’re right. I’ve also interviewed a number of authors who are working on this and changing gender stereotypes and responsibility of who does what. It’s definitely a focus.

Dena: It’s in the cultural conversation right now, which is fantastic.

Zibby: I don’t want to get off track because I want to hear more about your trip and talk about your book. It’s not like even if the dads did just as much — I’m not sure that’s the answer either. I think it’s this extended community situation. It’s not like if my husband took on twenty of those sixty-three meals our life would be so easy.

Dena: Right. I say that in my book at one point. I feel this forgiveness towards us. It’s not Adam. It’s not me. All of this was never meant to be done by even just two people, a huge home, a yard, the kids, all the activities of community and society we’re expected to perform and provide. I do think the answer is creating more of a village and a community. When we came back from India, that’s something we really invested in. It’s our neighbors, creating a network of sharing and helping and support with our kids. That’s been really wonderful.

Zibby: Probably better for the kids too.

Dena: Definitely, yes.

Zibby: Speaking of the kids, when you were travelling all over, a couple times I started getting really nervous. As I mentioned, I was reading this alongside my son as he was reading, which was sweet. I would read different passages. I’m like, “Oh, my gosh. Her daughter is throwing up against a window. Something really bad is about to happen. What if the daughter doesn’t get better? What’s going to happen next?” You keep adding all these things where you would get sick. Adam would get sick. A daughter of yours would get sick. I was like, “Should she be over there? What’s she going to do?” I started worrying. Did you start worrying? When you were climbing down the mountain and you were so sick, it was just you and the girls. I’m thinking, oh, my gosh. Is she going to make it?

Dena: She makes it. She’s stronger than she thought. Here’s the thing. If we had just stayed home, in the course of a school year, do your kids ever get sick?

Zibby: I know. Yes, of course.

Dena: When you’re travelling, they are going to get sick. Here’s the thing. I had my sister in Delhi. She’s lived in India for fifteen years. She is healthy as anything. We got a lot of advice from her about staying healthy. The bottom line is if you’re travelling in the developing world, there are times when you’re to get sick. Then you’re going to get better. That’s just a reality. We accepted that. Everyone gets tummy upset in India if you’re there for a while. Even if you’re there for a couple weeks, you probably will. Most of the time, you get better on your own. I am a nurse. My husband’s a doctor, Chinese medicine. We always knew that if one of us got really sick, we’d go in for help. We never needed to. We were never in the hospital or anything like that. Nothing was ever that serious. The closest we came was little Sophia in that beach resort. The problem solved. She was better. I wasn’t afraid of getting sick. Also honestly, healthcare in India, there’s quite good healthcare. It’s not there’s no doctors. We’re not somewhere where there’s no doctors, there’s no medicines.

Zibby: You’re probably better there.

Dena: It’s very high quality. There was a couple times, it didn’t go in the book. Sophia, she got something in her ear. We went to the doctor. He gave her these drops. Even that was such a little magical experience going and meeting the doctor and getting the care and it being so smooth, none of this paperwork like in the United States. You got to a doctor, you have to fill out twenty pages of paperwork and insurance and ID. In India, you just go in and hand them a few dollars’ worth of rupees and sit and have chai with the doctor. He looks at the problem and gives you a little medicine packet. It’s lovely.

Zibby: Maybe I should go there just for that. Let’s go back to your nursing and the fact that you’re a midwife. I found, as I mentioned to you before, in the book, those were some of my favorite parts because I haven’t read that much about women who worked as — actually, I read Midwives forever ago by Chris Bohjalian. Did you read Midwives?

Dena: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: That was a long time ago. I found it so interesting, the situations in which you found yourself like going down these country roads and horrible storms and then to the delivery and even all the details. I found it so interesting. Yet you end up sort of in trouble. That is a theme that stays with you throughout this book. Tell me a little more about that.

Dena: I’m a certified nurse midwife, which means I’m a registered nurse. I have a master’s degree in nurse midwifery. Most nurse midwives in the United States work in hospital settings, but we are trained and licensed to work in home, hospital, or birth center. I became a midwife because I was very drawn to home birth. I read the book Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin as a young woman. It set me on the path of midwifery. I was very blessed to serve as a home birth midwife in my rural Northern California community based out of Chico for a dozen years while my kids were growing up. It was a beautiful experience. I got to be the town midwife, the community midwife. So many of our friends, I got to attend the births of their children and be such a part of the community.

I love home birth because I love giving women the opportunity to listen to their own bodies and do what they need to do. Birth is a physiologic process. Mammals all give birth in privacy, in darkness, squatting on the floor. When you give a woman the freedom to find her way, that’s usually how she will give birth in the home setting. Then of course, there’s the whole political side of midwifery. It’s very politicized because it’s territorial. The obstetricians are very threatened by autonomous home birth midwives. Also, obstetricians don’t really understand natural birth because the way they were trained is looking for complications. So many births in hospital settings are not normal because of the positions and the medications and the monitoring and the IV. Most obstetricians can’t really imagine what a home birth is like. There’s a lot of political — who has the power? The doctors.

What happened in my community is vaginal births after cesarean sections were banned the same year I opened my home birth practice due to politics and insurance and bureaucracy. That right there was an infringement on the rights of women. Only in obstetrics can a patient not refuse surgery. She is forced to have surgery. Think about that. You can’t do that in any other branch of medicine. Oh, your neck hurts? I’m sorry. You may not refuse surgery. I and most home birth midwives, when the vaginal births after c-section started getting banned, we continued to provide them in the home setting. I will always stand by the fact that the most outrageously gorgeous births that I ever attended were VBACs. A woman who’s given birth by a c-section with her first birth who then goes on to have a natural birth at home and get to just hold her baby in her arms and land in her bed and be totally supported and respected and feel every sensation of that baby coming through the birth canal, there is nothing more powerful than that rite of passage.

I provided VBACs not even that often, just a few here and there. Women had to find me and ask for them. It’s not like I was advertising. I had one that became a very complicated situation that actually had nothing to do with the VBAC. There were other medical complications. When I went into the hospital with that patient, the obstetricians were livid. They wrote a letter. They turned me into the board of nursing who then came after me. As a result, I am not doing home birth at this time.

Zibby: Still? Aw.

Dena: I’m working in a women’s clinic, which I absolutely love and which is also extremely important in these times right now, vital reproductive healthcare.

Zibby: That’s amazing that you’re doing that. It’s amazing. I just feel bad because I know you loved it.

Dena: It’s good. I’m enjoying not waking up in the middle of the night.

Zibby: Now that you’re back, to close this chapter, you had this amazing journey which you wrote about in a great way like including letters from your daughter, not letters, her diary entries, such a great way of showing it from a lot of perspectives. You came home. Now you’re trying to leverage your neighbors. Anything else that you took away from the trip now that you’re back that maybe we all could benefit from without having to take the trip?

Dena: Yes. I developed my Moes’ theorem of parenting, which is that when the adults in the home are being creative and thriving, the children will naturally thrive as well. What I saw in families in India is that the focus is not as much on the kids and the kids’ activities as it is in American families. There’s more trust that if the kids are orbiting parents who are doing interesting things, the kids will also develop and be creative. One of the things I did was dial down all the expectations. Part of that was this forgiveness of myself and forgiveness to my husband for the difficulties that we’d had in the years leading up to that where I had these extremely high expectations. His parenting style was naturally a lot more low-key and go with the flow. We weren’t very good at communicating between those two styles and how to find that middle ground. Forgiving ourselves and forgiving myself for not being perfect and that there weren’t be a homemade stew every night. Some nights the kids could just make themselves spaghetti and a salad and call it good. Dialing back expectations, reaching out more into the community.

One thing that was so wonderful about our trip is that we were all together for this long period of time. In so much of American life, each day, everybody’s going in a different direction. You have school. You have work. You have this activity. We’ll all meet for twenty minutes here. Then we’ll all go to bed and do it again tomorrow. When you’re travelling, your days are loose. You’re all together. How precious that was. We all appreciated each other more. We all had grown so much closer through that experience. Setting aside time to be as a family without plans, without activities is something that we started doing and we still do and that I would really recommend families do. Even if it means saying no to birthday parties, no to this, no to that, it’s really precious to hang out with the people that you love in an unscheduled way.

Zibby: What is coming next for you?

Dena: I’m probably going to start a book about my life as a midwife, my career as a home birth midwife. It’s tentatively titled Rebel Midwife. It’s in the development stage at this time.

Zibby: I can’t wait to read that one. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Dena: Yes. If you are inspired to write, just write. Stories are powerful medicine. They are what hold our culture. The stories that we put out into the world shape and affect how we think as a community and a society. It also can be very powerful for your own healing and your own transformation. Anaïse Nin wrote that we write to taste life twice, once in the moment and then again in the retrospect. I certainly found that true. In the writing of this memoir, I got to relive my journey through India. Through pouring through my journals and my daughter’s diary and piecing it together, I learned so much more about what that trip was about through the process of writing. When you’re travelling or living your life, everything’s happening in real time. It’s all happening so quickly. Writing is naturally a time for introspection and processing and integrating the experiences. Just write. Don’t worry about how will it get published and so forth? If you’re feeling like writing, just write as a practice. Write for the joy of it.

Zibby: Thank you. That was great. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Dean: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Of course.