Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Q&A with Dena Moes

Dena Moes is the author of the new memoir The Buddha Sat Right Here: A Family Odyssey Through India and Nepal. She is a certified nurse-midwife, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Midwifery Today and Minerva Rising. She lives in Chico, California. 

Q: What were some of the reasons your family decided to travel in India and Nepal?

A: I had dreamed of going to India since I was a young woman. As a Jewish American who had studied both Buddhism and hatha yoga for 18 years, I longed to visit places where the Buddha actually taught, to trek in the Himalayas where yogis live in caves, and to spend time Kerala where Hinduism is vibrant and pervasive.

I wanted to connect to the physical places where my spiritual practices came from. I wanted to take a pilgrimage and step away from the ordinary routines of my life, to make space for deeper understanding about reality, and life’s meaning, to come through.

My husband Adam spent a year in India in his 20s. He considered that year the most important, transformative year of his life. He came home from his time in India a devout practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. (North India has large communities of Tibetan refugees living there.) We had talked about going to India together when we first fell in love, but babies, houses, businesses postponed our plans.

My sister lived in New Delhi, India, where she worked as a foreign correspondent. When she had a baby, I popped over for a quick trip to stay with her and the baby, and see a few sights. When I returned home, I could not sleep. The colors and vibrant energy of India consumed me – I told people that India was a fire in my blood.

Once our children were old enough to carry their own backpacks, I realized I did not want to wait until the children were grown to make this trip– there are no guarantees about the future anyway.

I wanted my daughters to get outside of our California bubble and gain new perspectives about being a citizen of our beautiful planet. The only way human life will thrive in the next generations, is if humans cooperate across borders and cultures – as a global family.

And to be honest, the lonely working mother-hamster wheel lifestyle was eroding my sanity. The clutter and busyness of American family life was overwhelming me. So we rented out the house, shuttered our businesses, and went, following my adventurous dream right in the middle of raising our children.

Q: At what point did you decide to write this book about your experiences?

A: I did not take the trip with the intention of writing a book!

I love to write when I travel, though. My whole mindset becomes poetic and imaginative when I am in unfamiliar lands, navigating my way through places that are fresh and new to me.

I journal religiously, to document not just the locations, but the feelings, and incredible moments, that happen when one is on an adventure, outside the usual routines. I want to be able to look back later and remember the details of things, and how it felt to be there.

When we returned from our eight-month sojourn in India and Nepal, and were back in our cozy California college town, people kept asking me, “How was India?”

I answered, “Great. Amazing.” Then I felt ridiculous, because how can those words possibly do justice to the gorgeous, fascinating, challenging time we had? I thought, I can only answer that question by writing a book. It felt almost selfish to have taken such a profound journey, and then keep all that I learned to myself. So I started writing, and the writing become a journey of its own.

Q: What impact do you think the trip had on you and on your family?

A: The trip was transformative for all of us. Our girls were at an age where they were starting to disappear into the realm of their peers. This trip gave us one extra year to have their time and attention.

There are so many facets to our trip’s impact – Let me describe one: The degree of togetherness that living in India requires. India does not have the same understanding of, or capacity for, personal space that we have in the West. We all slept in one room for most of the eight months, three in a big bed and one on a mat on the floor. We spent many nights on night trains, sleeping on narrow berths stacked three high.

And when we arrived at our destinations, we all four would pile into an auto-rickshaw–the girls sitting on Adam and me, our backpacks on top of them. This is the norm in India – where you might see six people riding one motorcycle, no problem,. For us, it was a grand adventure and chance to re-invent the meaning of “togetherness.”

In many of the places we stayed, spirituality infuses life, and people have been making pilgrimage to these places daily, for thousands of years in an unbroken stream. It is hard for an American to imagine what that kind of devotion and reverence feels like.

Instead of amusements, attractions, and parks, we went to the ghats of the Ganges in Varanasi, the tree where the Buddha awakened to enlightenment, and the ashram of Amma, the Divine Mother. We met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and lived among Tibetan refugees for six weeks in Dharamsala.

Being immersed in such communities definitely shifted things for us all. The message of all these teachers, and all these holy places, is that love and compassion are at the heart of everything. And money, fancy cars, and possessions are not what lead you to there. Your own openness and presence does.

Lastly, I must also mention that the great disparities in the world between those with wealth and those in poverty is starkly obvious throughout India. We all gained a deep appreciation for the privilege we have of living in abundance in the U.S. and take much less for granted since our trip.

Q: What do your family members think of the book?

A: My family is proud of me. My daughters have each said, “Wow Mom, you set out to write a book and you did it!” They have read portions of the book, and of course, some of their diary entries are in the book.

My husband, as always, has been supportive of this latest wild scheme of mine. He has not read the whole thing, but he has read most of it. He has vetted all the parts in which I wrote about our marital conflicts. Those bits, he has read over and over. It is a balancing act to write about marriage problems and keep the marriage!

The writing, and now publishing of the book had been a journey unto itself. The book was a joy to write. In many places, the narrative just flowed through me – I felt more like a conduit than a writer. I love writing, revising, then shaping and reworking the text until it sings.

The publishing has not been as easy – it was a rocky road. I landed a top-flight NYC agent, who then could not sell it due to my lack of a “platform.” That took an entire frustrating year. After she gave up, I refused to throw the manuscript into the back of my closet and forget about it. So I pitched to small independent publishers, and got picked up by my intrepid, wonderful publisher Brooke Warner at She Writes Press.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Now I am working personal essays to publish in conjunction with the publication of this book. I am busy working on the publicity and promotion. I am going on a book tour to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City. The tour is up on my website.

Additionally, I am doing radio and podcast interviews, and generally hustling as best I can to help my book find its readers.

I have a second memoir gestating, about my career as a home birth midwife. I have an early draft of the proposal, and am tentatively calling it Rebel Midwife. But that’s another story for another day.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People may wonder if this book is for Buddhists only. The answer to that is “no.” My book is for anyone who dreams of travel, for parents who thirst for adventure, and for people who are open to seeking meaning in their lives beyond the acquisition of material things.

What I learned about Buddhism is woven through the memoir, but the themes of love, compassion, and peace are universally relevant.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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