Reviewed by Rebecca Fish Ewan
I met Dena Moes at AWP 2019. We exchanged our new memoirs, hers with a beautiful cover decorated by a golden Buddha and lotus flower design. It glowed warm and comforting, like curry. I began to read The Buddha Sat Right Here (She Writes Press, April 2019) on the flight home from Portland. Before I started reading, I wasn’t sure the book would resonate with me.I’m not a Buddhist, have never been to India, and moved away from California so long ago I sometimes doubt my own grooviness. Moes, by contrast, is a midwife who trekked across India with her two young daughters, Bella and Sophia, and husband, Adam. She delivers babies for a living, while I haven’t been near childbirth since pushing my son, who is about to turn eighteen, out into the world.
This is what I love about memoir and what I particularly savored in reading The Buddha Sat Right Here. I become transported into someone else’s life, experiencing their adventures and travails. The magic is that, with well-crafted and engaging memoirs, no matter how different their life is from to mine, I come to know aspects of myself through this virtual journeying. When I got home from AWP, I parked myself on my living room couch and finished Moes’ book. From time to time I’d surface from my total book immersion to announce a tidbit from her story:
Me: “Siddhartha sat under a tree for a week and found enlightenment. It’s a park now.”
My husband: “Cool.”
Joe and I met in landscape design school and bonded around our love of trees. I have one tattooed on my hip.
Me: “In India, cows walk on the beach!”
Joe believes cows are just beef, his favorite food group, so didn’t marvel with me about the beach-strolling cattle.
Me: “In India, there’s a road way higher than Mount Whitney. 17,582 feet!”
Joe: “Wow, that’s high.”
The highest place on earth we’ve ever been was when we hiked to the top of Mount Whitney together. From that trip I learned I am like trees and suffer bodily above the timberline (11,000 feet). And that the stars lay on you like a sparkling blanket at night, which makes the agony of the altitude worth it.
Dena Moes has such a command as a storyteller. Her voice is intimate, funny, and vivid. I felt the story as it unfolded, because of the rich and vibrant details. India is a place I’ve heard lots about or have seen depicted in films like The Man Who Knew Infinity, but I’ve never truly sensed the place. Before reading The Buddha Sat Right Here, India was more like a mirage to me, an image or caricature of a place. As I read Moes’ memoir, I could feel the bustle in the streets, smell the thick mixture of life and spices, taste the mo-mos and the thentuk.
I become transported into someone else’s life, experiencing their adventures and travails.
The story’s point of view is the author’s, but she brings in, through dialogue and diary entries, the voices and perspectives of her family. One of my favorite lines came out of her eldest daughter Bella’s mouth when they first entered Maha Bodhi park, the place where Buddha sat for a week under a tree over 2500 years ago in search of enlightenment: “There are a lot of Buddhists in the world besides Dad.” The beautiful description of arriving to the park created this ripe moment to let her daughter reveal one of the great discoveries in a child’s life, when they realize their parents are not so uncommon and this somehow makes them more exotic.
Memoirs of place written by visitors run the risk of reading like tourist excursions, a litany of oohs and ahhs and my isn’t that strange. I never felt this in reading The Buddha Sat Right Here. Moes’ memoir is a family saga full of adventure, conflict, laughter, sorrow and the kind of fresh descriptions of place that come from travelers yet reach beyond superficial tourist observations. The idea to travel for eight months through India was not an impulse, but born in the instant Dena met Adam under a tree (where all great things happen) at a Rainbow Gathering in 1996. As she notes: “For a Yale girl, any man who hauls a stack of books into the wilderness is worth a look…We talked about going to India together that summer as we fell in love.”
Fast forward to 2012, a career as a midwife in jeopardy, spiritually drained, overwhelmed by the ordinariness of life, Dena boards a plane to New Delhi alone to visit her sister, Amy, who had just birthed her first baby. Imagining her sister as a single mom alone so far from family compelled her to go to India. Turns out new motherhood in India is not as isolating as it can be in the United States. Dena realizes her “postpartum-doula gig could shift into a short pilgrimage journey.” The vision to return with her family happened on this pilgrimage to Maha Bodhi park. Under a tree, of course.
The Buddha Sat Right Here extends beyond her family adventure narrative to consider themes of spirituality, family dynamics, career choices, marriage, food, art, landscape, community, service, the body, growing up, and growing older. The story is so full, it may inspire other young families to take grand journeys. It may make people in a later stage of life wonder if that two-week trip to England should’ve lasted two years. Even the sense it evoked in me, that I’d missed a really fabulous boat family-wise, I loved reading The Buddha Sat Right Here. I learned so much about India, about food, about home births and Buddhism. Most of all, I was reminded that the world is a huge and magical place, right here on my couch, and way out in the big beyond. Reading The Buddha Sat Right Here inspires me to live a daring life. That’s a true gift.