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In “Escaping American Motherhood with Dena,” author of The Buddha Sat Right Here, Dena Moes, tells all about stepping off the hamster wheel that is American motherhood, and taking her family on an eight-month odyssey to India where to-do lists, chauffeuring, and kid-centered activities wouldn’t follow. But guess what did? Dad privilege! Which unexpectedly caused her marriage to implode. Dena gives us her hard-earned “Moes Theory of Parenting” that flips American motherhood on its head, a reality check for families doing too many activities, what we can learn from Indian mothers, and lots of rich stories about how being in the right place at the right time can lead to meeting the Dalai Lama. She also casually mentions those two times she TOOK HER KIDS TO BURNING MAN. You don’t want to miss that. There’s a kid village at Burning Man.
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Brandy: Hey everyone, so I think you’re going to be inspired by today’s episode where I interview a mom who wanted off the hamster wheel of motherhood – the to-do list, the chauffeuring, the dinners – and so she plucked her family out of the American grind and took them on an eight-month odyssey to India. And wrote a book about it. Today she shares with us her tested theory of parenting that flips the family hierarchy (which we seem to talk about a lot on these), how dad privilege followed her to India (no surprise here ), and her marriage imploded because of it. Also, what it was like returning to normal American hamster wheel life. What had she learned from this trip and how did she parent differently upon returning?
Brandy: Also, what is there to learn from Indian mothers? What do they know that we don’t? She also reveals a hilarious story about Burning Man – I mean aren’t they all sort of hilarious, because Burning Man is ridiculous? It had me rolling and I didn’t even know that this thing at Burning Man existed, so buckle up for that. I reveal my own news that I haven’t talked much about, if at all, which is how today’s guest and I know each other.
Brandy: Also, I know you’re going to be wowed with the audio quality today. Thanks to my Patreon peeps, I leveled up in the audio world, but don’t get used to it, because I have other episodes that were recorded before the upgrade that are yet to come out. Shout out to Andy Weinberg and Anand Rao who became Patreon supporters (patreon.com/adultconversation).
Brandy: Okay lastly, in this episode I make a joke about the whole gluten-free and nut-free thing. Before people get offended, I am a mom of an allergy kid. I have an EpiPen in my purse, so I get it and yet it’s still funny to me, even though it’s life-threatening. Gallows humor, people. On to the show.
Brandy: Today on the podcast I have with us Dena Moes – Hello, Dena.
Dena: Hi Brandy.
Brandy: Dena and my life cross over in a variety of ways, one of which is you were a home birth midwife.
Dena: Correct, I was a home birth midwife for 12 years.
Brandy: You posted on somebody’s post on Facebook that I’m also friends with in the birth world and I saw your name, and I had seen your name on something else totally unrelated, which is you just published a book. I have a book coming out next year, which I don’t think I’ve talked about at all on the podcast, but we have the same publisher.
Dena: Yeah, we have the same bad ass, independent, feminist publishing house, She Writes Press.
Brandy: Yes, amazing. So when I saw your name pop up, I thought it was like our worlds coming together here. This is birth related, but then you’re also with my publisher. Then I had to reach out and be like, “We’re meant to know each other.” That’s how it got to be that I’m up here in LA while you’re on your book tour and we’re going to have this lovely conversation, which I’ve been dying to have since we booked it a month and a half ago, so thank you for doing this.
Dena: Oh sure, I love talking about everything that we’re going to rap out about today.
Brandy: Okay awesome. So just a little bit about Dena is you were born in Hollywood, which I feel like that needs to add a whole hour onto the podcast – what the hell did you see? Let’s come back to that. Your book – tell us the title of your book and tell us your blurb about it.
Dena: Okay, The Buddha Sat Right Here: A Family Odyssey Through India and Nepal. In 2014, I was an exhausted supermom, so I shuttered the house, I pulled the kids out of school, and my husband and I took our daughters ages 10 and 14 on an eight-month trip through India and Nepal on a spiritual odyssey.
Brandy: Okay, what I love about that and what the listeners don’t know yet but I know, is the reason behind doing that for you was what the hell are we doing on this hamster wheel of motherhood where we drive our kids to after-school activities and to school, and we just do this grind? There has to be more to this.
Dena: That’s right. I had everything, and on paper and social media we looked like the perfect family, but inside I just felt like something deeply important was shriveling up. It was showing up as resentment, frustration, irritability, and a sense of dissatisfaction, even though I had everything that I thought I wanted in life. I realized that it was the whole lifestyle that was just not doing it for me.
Brandy: Oh my god, I’m sure none of the listeners can relate to any of those words you just said. I feel like everybody listening is like, “Oh my god, this is my problem. I need to go to India,” so we’re going to talk about that. The thing that I wanted to mention too, is your book recently won the gold medal in travel literature in the 2019 Independent Publishers Awards, which is a huge fucking deal, so congratulations on that.
Dena: Thank you so much.
Brandy: As writers, from the outside I feel like everybody thinks everybody feels confident and knows that they’re a good writer, but it’s really nice to have these little validations – or these really big validations by things like awards or publishers basically validating it’s not just you, your book is really good, so I’m sure that felt amazing.
Dena: I’m a couple inches off the ground still after seeing that.
Brandy: Something I ask everybody is what is something that you think the listeners should know about you?
Dena: I always wanted kids, but I have an extremely adventurous spirit and I’m at my happy place when everything I own can fit on my back and I can just walk out the door with it.
Brandy: Okay, so yes, so if we had to label that, does “hippie” sound about right?
Dena: I’ve been called that, yes.
Dena: Hippie, but also a wanderer, an explorer. I love to travel, I love to arrive in new places where I don’t know anybody or anything and just take in the environment in the present moment. I find that travel really peels away all the layers of habits and patterns that you get into and creates space for new understandings and transformation to take place, so I just love to travel.
Brandy: Wow, so do you have anxiety of any kind? Because I feel like people with anxiety are like, “This woman is insane.”
Dena: Oh yeah, I have anxiety.
Brandy: Okay, I was like, “You are enlightened, Dena, tell us.”
Dena: You should have seen me driving into LA, oh my god, I live in a small town now in Northern California, and to me the most anxiety thing is driving on LA freeways. I would rather take a plane or a train any day.
Brandy: Yeah, got it, so you’re a human being, this is good to know.
Dena: I am a human being, yeah, but I get a lot of anxiety about remembering everybody’s schedules and trying to stay relaxed and present, even though I know dinner’s not going to be ready and I missed a dentist appointment for a kid again, and I have forgotten to call my mother-in-law in three weeks. The bills are unpaid.
Brandy: The library books are all due and you can’t find two of them.
Dena: Well they’re lost, I haven’t seen them in weeks. I’ve been lying to the library like, “Oh yeah, we’re still reading them.” When I’m traveling, everything’s so simple, and when we traveled as a family I didn’t have to worry about getting anybody anywhere. We were just together everywhere we went and that just made it easy.
Brandy: Gosh, isn’t that interesting. Maybe the bigger things that we think give us anxiety are not really the things that contain that anxiety, it is all of that to-do list, and then as you’re going through it and you’re already like, “What are we going to have for dinner? I know they’re going to ask me in about two minutes and I’m going to try not to snap, but I’m going to try to come up with something and hopefully it’s going to be healthy, because we had pizza yesterday.”
Brandy: Then you remember, “Oh, and then the library books,” and then like you said, “Oh, I haven’t even texted or checked in with my mom,” and all of a sudden it’s all piling up. Interesting that normal American life like that, motherhood, could be more anxiety-riddled than being dropped in a foreign country and not knowing anybody or anything.
Dena: Absolutely, because there’s no expectations on you to do anything or achieve anything. You’re just being in the present moment, and that is the most spacious place to be.
Brandy: I’ve heard that. I can’t tell you first hand.
Dena: I think American mothers have an incredible low-level chronic anxiety constantly, and that’s because of all the expectations that are put on us. It’s too much for one person, it’s too much for two people what we do.
Dena: Traveling, you’ve dropped all those other expectations. You’re not trying to do anything else, you’re just being somewhere, so for me it’s very naturally a more ease full place to be.
Brandy: Yeah, tell us about the lead up or the moment in which you realized I want off this hamster wheel.
Dena: Yeah, well as women we’re always trying to fix ourselves first. I of course for years was thinking, “Oh, I’m not trying hard enough. I’m not thin enough, my closets are too cluttered, these are the problems.” None of those things fixed it, and so I had also been studying Buddhism for a long time, which is no surprise. The book is called The Buddha Sat Right Here.
Dena: Although it’s not just for Buddhists, but the Tibetan Buddhist teachings that I’d been reading about guided me to think more big picture about the whole materialistic lifestyle overall, not just my particular behaviors within that paradigm. That got me thinking about taking a spiritual journey. My husband is also a hippie and a Buddhist. And an acupuncturist and a doctor of Chinese medicine. He’s an incredible human being.
Dena: He had spent a year in India in his 20s, and he always talked about it as the most important year of his life.
Dena: Other than falling in love with me of course.
Brandy: Of course, right?
Dena: We had always talked about going to India. I had always thought, well once we had kids and businesses and a house I thought, “Oh, we’ll have to put it off until the kids are grown.” Then I started thinking, “I don’t know the future’s going to bring. There’s no guarantee that by the time the kids are grown we’ll be able to go to India,” so we decided to just do it right in the middle of raising our kids. Once the kids could carry their own backpacks.
Brandy: Oh, so that was the, we have to get them old enough to be able to do that thing?
Dena: Yeah, old enough to do that thing, and young enough to not be horrid snarky teenagers. We almost missed the boat on that one. Our 14-year-old was definitely one of the most challenging travelers in our group.
Brandy: So, 14 might be the limit for that?
Dena: That’s the upper limit. I would suggest the sweet spot is between 9 and 13.
Brandy: Oh my god, I have six months to do a trip with my son.
Dena: Your oldest is a boy though, that might be easier.
Brandy: It might be.
Dena: Teenage girls are so intense.
Brandy: Oh no. Everybody always says – people who have teenagers are always like, “Oh, you think toddler years are hard, try teenagers.” It literally cannot be as hard, because of the physical needs, but the more that I’m getting closer to that place, I’m like maybe they’re right. SHIT.
Dena: That’s another podcast, yeah.
Brandy: That’s another podcast.
Dena: Just imagine your toddler doing all the most self-destructive behaviors you could ever come up with, and even things you can’t imagine and then think about that. No, I’m kidding.
Brandy: No, no, I don’t want to think about any of that. Okay, everybody denial, everybody just shut it down.
Dena: Not your teenager.
Dena: They won’t try anything that you did as a teenager.
Brandy: No, we’re not even going there. There was something that you said when we had spoken earlier about your daughter or daughters were in gymnastics and you found yourself … Is that what …
Dena: It was violin.
Brandy: Violin okay, and you had found yourself driving them to violin waiting in the car while they took violin –
Dena: And dance lessons.
Brandy: Yeah, and doing this thing where you got up in the morning, got them ready for school, packed lunches, went to school, picked them up, took them to the thing, sat in the parking lot of the thing, picked them up, came home, made dinner, put them to bed, repeat.
Dena: And worked while they were in school, mind you. I was running a home birth midwifery business and I had it –
Brandy: Which does not fit between 9 to 5, by the way.
Dena: Yeah, so the driving around was only if I wasn’t at a birth of course.
Dena: But I had my office hours set, so that I could go and take them to these afternoon activities, which often they didn’t even want to go to anyway. I was so mad that I had made the effort, paid for the thing, bought the leotard, it’s like, “You’re going to dance class.”
Brandy: Right, and so was there a moment where you thought, “What am I doing? What are we doing?” I think you said something to me like, “So I’m just going to drive them around and then teach them that when they become mothers this is what you do?”
Dena: Well yeah, I now have the Moes theory of parenting, which has come off of my year spent in India with the kids, where instead of driving the kids to these kid-focused activities, the kids came with us to the sacred sites of Buddhist India and hung out in Tibetan monasteries and met the Dalai Lama.
Dena: The Moes theory of parenting is that if the adults are content and leading satisfying lives, the children in the family will naturally thrive. I really saw that in India, and as we got to know families that we met on our journey in India, I did not see mothers in India driving their kids around and their kids in all these scheduled activities.
Dena: The kids got themselves to school, they got themselves home, and they hung around the adults interested in what the adults were up to, whether it was maintaining the house, or helping in the business, or doing whatever. It just felt so much more organic and natural.
Brandy: It was like you switched the hierarchy.
Dena: The hierarchy is switched, the adults are the focus. The kids learn to respect and be a part of the adult world. Yeah, they might not end up with a trophy for violin, but I mean it’s not like they can’t have music lessons, but it’s just not the focus of all the adults in the household.
Dena: What I see in the United States coming back is that how many women, their whole focus is on their kids activities? While I know for a lot of women that’s very meaningful and they get a lot of joy from that – of course, I love to see my kids thrive and develop as artists and dancers – but there’s got to be a balance, it can’t be the whole thing. And so the Moes theorem too is well I have daughters. I started thinking, “Well, what do I wish for them? I wish for them lots of dance recitals and violin recitals as children, so that when they’re adults they can drive their children around to lessons? Do I want them to think more long-term about living a creative life, about being artists and seekers their whole life, instead of just during childhood, and then when they have kids they just got to devote themselves to their kids and it’s enough creative outlet for them?” That doesn’t seem to me like a very sustainable or holistic model for a culture…
Dena: …A culture to thrive. It seems like the women of our generation have fallen into that pattern, and then women are finding their way out of it.
Dena: You’re starting a podcast, you’ve written a book. A lot of women when their kids leave the house, they suddenly have a second spring and they feel all this creative energy and discover new paths for themselves. My theorem is why not do it while the kids are in the house? And the kids – you will model for them what it is to be a healthy, happy adult.
Brandy: Exactly, that’s what I always come back to. I probably talk about it ad nauseam on this podcast, about when you model that for your kids, that there are things that are important to you and passions and you’re going to take the time to do them, that if they decide to become parents, you free them that they can do the same thing, because –
Brandy: You just never know what kind of personality your child’s going to have. Are they going to have lots of passions and have a hard time juggling parenthood? It’s at least what I like to tell myself. Something that goes through my mind a lot is, “What are we doing?” Also, “We’re doing this wrong.” I always say, I didn’t know that motherhood was supposed to feel like this.
Brandy: I don’t think that it is, and so I’m always trying to figure out … I also call it grasping at straws. I feel like if I ever wrote a memoir, it would be called Grasping at Straws, because I’m always trying to find the thing to fix it to make it feel better. When I heard your story I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is groundbreaking.” Then I went into myself like is this something I could do? Could I leave my life?
Brandy: I want to ask you – and I’m sure some of the listeners are wondering like practically, logistically – so is this something that you saved up money for, for years that you knew was coming? Were you in a financial situation that it was feasible for you?
Dena: Several things, so first of all we are very lower middle-class people. We are not wealthy people, so this idea that you have to be rich to travel is actually wrong. The deal is, is that especially if you travel in the developing world or Asia or Southeast Asia, life costs a fraction, literally a fraction of what it costs to maintain a life in California. We did have some money saved, and that was because we were both self-employed. My husband’s an acupuncturist and I had a little home birth midwifery service. When we first opened our businesses and our kids were babies, this woman scared me to death, because she said, “If you’re both self-employed, neither of you will get disability. If something ever happened like you broke a bone and couldn’t work, you don’t get state disability as a self-employed person, so you need to set aside three months worth of income and stick it in a bank account and save it in case of emergency.”
Brandy: I love that, because then you’re like, “And we’ll go to India on it.”
Dena: Well yeah, the emergency didn’t come, so I became the emergency.
Brandy: Right, maybe this was the emergency.
Dena: So, our three months of income in California lasted eight and half months in India and Nepal.
Brandy: Oh my god.
Dena: We rented out our house. That was really easy, and so the house kept paying for itself, so we didn’t have to sell our house. I mean if we were renters, we could’ve just packed it up, but we did own a home. It was really easy to rent out our house. They even kept our dog for us.
Dena: They loved our dog, so the dog stayed in our house. Yeah, and so it took about a year and a half of planning. We made the commitment that we would go and we set the date and it was about a year and a half out. That gave us a year and a half to try to scramble together a little more money too and just plan it out and prepare the girls.
Brandy: How did they feel about it? Were they like, “This is going to be an adventure,” or were they like, “Mom?”
Dena: They were like, “This is going to be an adventure.”
Brandy: Oh, wonderful.
Dena: That’s something else that I talk a lot about is how in India a family vacation is to sacred sites and ancient temples. There’s no Disneyland, there’s no Legoland, there’s no swimming park or waterslide park. India is about culture and ancient traditions. Modern Indians enjoy that as a family, and so when I got to India and we arrived in the place where the Buddha sat, Bodh Gaya, India, which has this incredible park around the tree where the Buddha sat for three weeks until he awakened into enlightenment. I was so worried what would the kids do? Of course, they’ll start to complain, but again that’s part of the Moes theorem, is that adults … Energy is contagious, and when the kids saw how fascinated we were and amazed and awed, they picked up on that and they became fascinated and awed and amazed as well. The kids actually loved it, plus we ate out every single night.
Brandy: They didn’t mind that so much.
Dena: They didn’t mind that and that was always the prize at the end of the day. Tibetan food is delicious, it’s just big bowls of noodle soup and of course the girls loved it.
Dena: We just ate it every night after sitting in the park meditating and meeting yogis and monks and nuns all day.
Brandy: Oh my gosh. There were no balloons to buy, there was no gift shop you went through?
Dena: Well, I mean, the other thing, there’s all kinds of amazing shopping in India. I mean there’s just little stands and bazaars and everything’s so affordable. Yeah, here’s some prayer beads and here’s a beautiful scarf. Yeah, it’s just such a fascinating and vibrant country. And my kids had grown up … Well, I mean this trip wasn’t out of thin air. We had always traveled a lot as a family, because it’s something we love to do. They had actually never been outside of the United States.
Dena: You’re going to really laugh at this one. They had been to Burning Man with us twice.
Brandy: Oh my god, wait, derail.
Dena: There is a kid village in Burning Man for people who come with their kids. We went to Burning Man twice as a family.
Brandy: Oh my god – this level of hippie and also amazingness Dena, it’s just through the roof right now.
Dena: Yeah, so India in a way is like Burning Man.
Brandy: No, we’re not bypassing this. Let me pick my jaw up. Burning Man with kids, just give me a snapshot of one moment of weirdness, amazingness.
Dena: Oh, total amazingness. So kid village at Burning Man is like a little two-block enclave and it’s all people with kids. The kids run around in that little block radius and have their own little mini Burning Man, while the adults hang out and just relax and spell each other to go explore the rest of the event. Incredible things is that there’s these giant mutant vehicles at Burning Man, like people build these pirate ships that sail across the desert and take people around to see all the art. A lot of these mutant vehicles would schedule a pickup at kid village in the middle of the day, take all of us with our kids on it, and take us on a tour of all the art in the far edge of the playa. That was one of my favorite memories is getting on this giant pirate ship with all these other families and then right out in the middle of the desert this little snow cone truck shows up and serves snow cones to all the kids one by one as we get off the pirate ship, so that’s Burning Man.
Brandy: Oh my god, okay, I don’t even know where to begin, but as a kid to experience that with your parents, like your parents are like, “This is normal. Get on this weird ship that’s gong to sail in the desert and then there’s snow cones.” Your kids must be so amazing, and also everything in life pales in comparison to what you are giving them as children.
Dena: Well, I guess you could say that’s why they were game to come along with us on this wild scheme. We’ve never been to Legoland, but yes we have been to Burning Man. That’s the Moes theorem, we wanted to go to Burning Man, we don’t have any relatives to watch the kids, so we went as a family.
Brandy: I’m not saying your kids will do hallucinogenic drugs, but if they do they’re going to be like, “But this is like my childhood. I’m feeling nothing, this is just normal, this makes me feel very nostalgic.” So I just need to know more – when they’re older, I need you to come back and tell me.
Dena: I can tell you, so the snarky 14-year-old in my memoir is now a 19-year-old freshman at UC Santa Cruz. She is an amazing young woman and her diary excerpts are actually peppered throughout. She’s a co-author of this book, because her diary was just so precious and she handed it over to me when I started writing the book. She said, “Just use whatever you want, Mom.” She really understands how special her childhood is. She expresses to us gratitude for all the wild and crazy things that we did together as a family.
Brandy: See I’m immediately like what weird shit can I now do with my kids that I felt like before like maybe not? Thank you, because now …
Dena: Whatever you want Brandy, what is it you want to do?
Brandy: Last summer I went to Summertime in the LBC, which was like Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Warren G. All the things that I want to do are just, there’s not a kid village there, nor should there be.
Brandy: I really have to think outside of what’s appropriate that also is me. I’ll be thinking on it, but in your book, will you read us a passage of your daughter’s that was really cool?
Dena: Okay, let’s go to Amma’s Ashram in Kerala. In case listeners don’t know, Amma is also known as the divine mother. She’s also known as the hugging saint. She’s this little, short woman who was born on a very humble farm in Kerala. As a child, she started showing these miraculous spiritual qualities. She began having these darshans in the family cow shed where she would hug people and they would have miraculous healings.
Brandy: Okay, what’s a darshan?
Dena: A darshan is like a Hindu gathering, spiritual kind of gathering, almost like a service you might say.
Dena: Since then, Amma has become a worldwide spiritual leader, and she comes to California and she hugs people all night. She doesn’t sleep, she doesn’t eat, she doesn’t drink water. 120,000 people line up and come and get her hugs.
Brandy: Wait, this is a real fucking person, this isn’t just an idea?
Dena: No, this is Amma, you haven’t heard of Amma, Brandy? I bet your listeners have.
Dena: I bet some of you out there know who I’m talking about, because she’s world-famous.
Brandy: I didn’t know it was a person. I feel like everything I know about Buddhist culture is all a philosophy.
Dena: Oh no.
Brandy: Except for I know the Dalai Lama’s alive.
Dena: The Dalai Lama’s alive, oh, I can read you a passage about meeting him. We’re not Hindu, but we have a great respect for Hinduism and just enjoy the vibrancy. Of course, I wanted to meet Amma.
Brandy: Okay, yeah.
Dena: I wouldn’t stand in line with 120,000 people in San Francisco to hug her, but if we happen to be in Kerala, which is this beautiful jungle landscape by the Arabian Sea, which is this light blue warm ocean, we went and stayed at her ashram. We got to live there for a week and get several hugs from her.
Brandy: Oh my gosh.
Dena: Here we are, I’m going to read my daughter, Bella’s, diary entry. We’re on our way there. “Dear diary, unless you’ve been on an India local train, you have never felt claustrophobia. People take up every square inch. They pack themselves in like it is nothing. I was standing sandwiched between four people. The heat and the smell were overwhelming. Imagine being on a bus at full capacity, now pack 40 more people and turn up the temperature to 95°. Have fun, I actually did. Love Bella.”
Brandy: That’s so beautiful that she’s a great writer, and then also that she is making meaning out of something that you’re doing.
Brandy: I love it.
Dena: Five days later after our hug with Amma. “Dear diary, I got to hug Amma, Amma is a living saint and the embodiment of the divine mother. Wow, it was as though the stars in the sky were singing. She pressed me to her and my heart fluttered. She started laughing and her whole body shook. I heard a voice in my head saying, ‘Bella, you have accomplished so much and are so ambitious, and yet you cannot overcome simple things like losing your temper and biting your nails.’ Then she handed me a small candy and pulled me away saying something in Malayalam. Love, Bella.”
Brandy: That’s some big stuff, like figuring out that some of the more simple things are harder. I also love that Amma had candy, because it’s like what person on this planet is not trying to give our children candy? I love that part.
Dena: Yeah, she gave everybody candy, not just the children, everybody got an Amma candy.
Brandy: Was somebody like, “Oh, is this gluten-free? Has this been processed on a plant with almonds and peanuts?” Our food thing in America is hilarious to me.
Brandy: What things surprised you about being in India that are better than you thought they would be, like amazing surprises? Then also surprises that were frustrating or a challenge?
Dena: How well the trip went, I guess was a surprise. Right before we left, of course I started having a lot of doubts and fears, and like oh my gosh, what am I doing? Of course, what if something terrible happens to us or to one of our daughters? There’s just so much fear about the world and about being in foreign places. One of the big messages that was so wonderful that we found out, because it’s not in the headlines, it’s not in the news, people are so kind all over the world. I think too, this was partly the magic of having children along. I had traveled as a solo woman a lot in my 20s. There were dynamics that happened as a female solo traveler that I think caused some of the worries I had. I had none of that traveling with my family. Children build bridges the world over, people love children. Everywhere we went people were just so kind and inviting and, “Do you want to come home and stay with us? Why don’t you join us for a meal. Did you know about this secret place that’s so incredible? Did you know this rare ceremony is happening?” We just got so much love and tips and wonderfulness all along the way. I guess that was a surprise, because when we left, I mean I did not know at all what it would be like. I just had this surrendered thing of like, of course if it’s terrible, we can always leave, we can always change our plans. It was just one wonderful after another. I almost named the book Just In Time, because it seemed like everywhere we arrived, we heard, “You’re just in time. Amma’s here giving out hugs, or this 5000-year-old annual parade happens tomorrow. The Dalai Lama is greeting people in the courtyard of his house today.”
Brandy: That’s like a thing that happens?
Dena: I mean it hadn’t happened for 12 years, but it happened when we got there. I don’t know.
Brandy: You are made of magic.
Dena: Yes, that’s right.
Brandy: Okay, so what was that like?
Dena: Greeting the Dalai Lama was incredible, because – so I’m a Buddhist. I love the Dalai Lama, I just think he’s a treasure on earth. I mean, do you want me to read you the little passage about it?
Brandy: Sure, I’d love it.
Dena: In case listeners don’t know, so the Dalai Lama lives in India, because he’s actually an exiled refugee from Tibet. Tibet has one of the longest going refugee crisis in the world, because China invaded Tibet in the late ’50s and tried to stop Buddhism there. Of course Tibetan Buddhism is a very incredible cultural and spiritual tradition, and so thousands and thousands of Tibetans have left Tibet in order to have religious freedom. They’ve crossed the Himalayas on foot and in very dangerous situations and arrived in India. India has let any Tibetan that shows up at the border – India will take in and allow to stay in India, which is just really beautiful.
Brandy: Kind of like our country. (SARCASM)
Dena: Yes, exactly, kind of like our country. When the Dalai Lama landed a refugee in India in 1959, India gave him a home and space to set up monasteries for the monks and nuns who lost theirs and even a Tibetan government in exile. That’s all in Dharamsala, India in the Himalayas, and is a center of Tibetan culture and religion now. We were there and we found out that the Dalai Lama was hosting a little meet and greet in the courtyard of his house. We signed up and we went, so I’ll just read you a little bit. “The morning of the event, my alarm went off at 6 AM and by 6:30 we joined the rapidly increasing line in front of the Dalai Lama’s residence. The Indian government was committed to his safety, so it took two and a half hours to get through security. We were guided into a courtyard and told to wait. The courtyard grew more crowded as the hours wore on, and the din of excited voices resounded off the flagstones. Bella and Sophia lost their patience. Our lack of breakfast was a serious oversight. This was the one place in all of India without a chai stand. At 9 AM we arranged ourselves into groups of 20 or so people by country. Indians here, Israelis there, Americans there, and that took another hour. Now Bella had her “feed me or I will hurt you” face, and even my blood sugar was hitting the pavement. I thought maybe seeing His Holiness in person is not such a big deal anyway. We could go get breakfast and still have a lovely day.”
Dena: “I was about to give up and suggest leaving, when Bella called out, ‘There he is.’ His Holiness the Dalai Lama came strolling into the courtyard from his house looking like he stepped off the cover of Time magazine. He went to each group and he stood with them while a professional photographer took pictures. Our group crowded together ready for our moment. Sophia and I kneeled in front and I held a white satin scarf, which is a traditional Tibetan offering, in my hands. Suddenly the skirts of his burgundy robes were in front of me. My eyes followed the line of his robes until I gazed into his face. His full-hearted smile, something happened. There are not exact words to describe it, but this image comes to mind. An enormous meteor crashing to earth in a Siberian forest. The force of the meteor strike is so great that mammoth trees instantly fall in a vast circle around it flattened by the impact. The Dalai Lama’s infinite unconditional love for all of us was the meteor and I was a tree flattened by the impact. He looked into my eyes, ‘Tashi delek,’ I stuttered, the traditional Tibetan greeting holding up the satin scarf. He took my hand in his and asked, ‘How are you?’ I felt the expanse of his love wash through me, beyond me, filling all the space in the universe and answered him by bursting into tears. I knew in that moment that the Buddhist words, the vows, the poetry about love and compassion were not pat slogans, not pretty sayings. Infinite love is real and I witnessed it fully present in a living, breathing human.
Brandy: Oh man, how do you read that and not cry again? I would be bawling reading that again. I’ve had obviously not that moment, but moments that are exactly how you beautifully described the meteor. To recall it, does it bring up the same emotions for you?
Dena: Well, I’m on a book tour, so –
Brandy: “I’m totally disconnected from my feelings at this moment. “
Dena: No, but I’ve read that like three times in the last week to an audience, and I almost cried … Well at my Chico event, because that was my hometown, so all my friends and people that I was their midwife with all their little children came. When I read that, I looked out in the audience and everybody in the front row was red-faced and tears down their face. I was just like, “Oh, maybe my book isn’t bad.”
Brandy: See, this is what I love. This is the thing about being an artist and being a writer, is that your book is published, you have a room full of people who have gathered to hear you speak and you’re still like, “Is it good?”
Dena: I know.
Brandy: At the end of the day, that’s always the thing that we come back to.
Dena: Right, so I’m getting used to not crying when I read anymore, because yeah, the more you do it, it’s starting to get more routine.
Brandy: I think it’s going to take more than three times for me, because even as I’m editing my book to turn in the final manuscript, there are the places that I always cry in it. It makes me feel like I think I’m on to something. If I’m crying on the 20th, 30th time I’ve read this, then maybe it’s still there and maybe it’s not just complete shit. It could also be that I have a flaw in my personality, so we’ll find out.
Dena: No, it’s hitting a nerve that’s real. I cry all the time, I mean, I cry a lot. I’ve cried all through this book publishing. I cried a lot in India, so to me when you cry I mean, it just feels so good to let those tears flow. It just shows that you’ve actually connected with something very true and that’s beautiful.
Brandy: Yeah, it’s true. And there’s times too when I’m editing this podcast when I’ve had these conversations with people, and I’ll find myself crying and laughing at the same spots, even though … You can imagine with editing this, it’s a lot of listening to the same thing bit by bit by bit, coming back bit by bit by bit. If it’s still – after being with something so intimately – if I still cry and I laugh, I think, “We have something good here.” It’s a good barometer for, “I think this is good stuff.’ What was one of the challenges that you didn’t expect to have that you did have? Or did you not have any? I’m looking at you feeling like maybe you’re going to tell me, “We didn’t have any challenges.”
Dena: Are you kidding? My marriage imploded.
Dena: I don’t want to give that away too much, you have to read the book.
Brandy: You are so smart.
Dena: There was a crazy dramatic reckoning in my marriage. We had to rearrange how we were doing things between my beloved and wonderful husband, and myself.
Brandy: Give us something, give us a morsel. Does it have to do with hot Indian women?
Dena: No, not at all.
Brandy: I knew it wouldn’t, I just had to ask.
Dena: Indian women are not like that, it’s traditional families there.
Brandy: Right, but they’re beautiful and they have little hand things and the belly dancing. I was just imagining … I always go to inappropriate.
Dena: Belly dancing is not Indian.
Brandy: Oh shit.
Dena: They are doing Bollywood dancing, but it was just our dynamics and how … All right, so I wanted to get away from all the scheduling, the planning, the driving. I got away from a lot of that, but surprise, surprise, who was booking all the trains, making sure we always had a place to stay, thinking ahead about where we were, and would there be anything to eat come two hours from now when it would be dinner time, details like that? Who was always the one thinking ahead, always planning those things out, always making sure all of that happened? Can you guess?
Brandy: So you’re saying that when you go to India, you don’t leave behind doing the unseen work of motherhood?
Dena: That’s correct.
Brandy: Oh funny.
Dena: Wherever you go, there you are. So it was a fantastic opportunity for Adam and I to really have a reckoning. Okay, I guess I’ll give away a little bit, but right at the end of the book, right before the end of the book, I leave Adam and I take my oldest daughter and we travel separately for a few weeks.
Brandy: Oh wow.
Dena: Yeah, we took a break.
Brandy: I love the realism of you do this thing, you go to India and yet the same issues at home follow you there.
Dena: And I was going to leave all that out of the book originally, because I was like, “Oh, I can’t put that in the book, it’s too raw, it’s too personal.” I just thought that was all way too much to put in this book. I wanted to focus on how wonderful India is and how wonderful travel is. I thought I’d end the book right before that happened, because that wasn’t till the end of our trip. We had six-and-a-half months of trip before that. I thought, “Well I could just end the book right there.” Then as I started writing the book and how the emotional labor of women and the gender dynamics and my observing Indian culture where extended families live together and there’s pretty much zero homes where there’s only one woman in the house. There’s always an auntie, an in-law, a sister, or hired help like live in cooks, maids and nannies.
Brandy: Oh my god.
Dena: You don’t see a woman alone in a house and I just had this huge aha again about the emotional labor of motherhood in America and how unsustainable it is. Then all my feelings bubbled up about my marriage and the things that I had been doing for years without really considering how to change it in a lasting way. All of that bubbled up and it wove itself into the whole narrative. I couldn’t just end the story before that happened. This was a miracle, because my husband went on a meditation retreat for a week. It was right where I was in the writing and getting to the really hard stuff between him and myself. He left town for a week, which just gave me the head space to just dive in and write from the deep recesses of my heart, and not worrying about facing him when I walk out of the office.
Dena: I wrote the whole thing. I wrote 60 pages while he was gone and I handed it to my editor. I was like, “I don’t know if I’ll keep this in the book, but what do you think of this?” She handed it back to me she goes, “This is the best writing in the entire book. This you have to keep.” When Adam came back from his meditation retreat all relaxed and happy and calm, I sat him down and I said, “Darling, so I did this thing while you were gone.” He’s like, “What?” I said, “You see, I had this breakthrough that by writing about our problems, we give the readers permission to have problems, be imperfect, be totally flawed, not have perfect marriages, and still do something totally amazing like take your family to India for a month.”
Brandy: Thank you, and I love you. Yes.
Dena: I had him read all that material and give me his feedback on it, which was really hard to hear and made it also very interesting, because strangely his memory of the events and of all of it were different from mine.
Brandy: Isn’t that always how it is? It’s like birth too, birth stories. Everybody has a different story.
Brandy: These things that we’re talking about and that you experienced, so many of us are so in the thick of motherhood that we don’t even know that it’s happening. I mean, I got a message from a woman who listened to – I think it was maybe my first episode where we talk about the things that you sacrifice for motherhood and a lot about marriage – she said, “I had to just sit in a parking lot and process this, because I’ve felt this way for eight years, but I’ve never known that I felt this way.” I think it’s helpful when those of us who maybe have thought about it longer are articulate about it, can put into words some of the things that people don’t even know that they’re feeling.
Brandy: Thank you for doing that.
Brandy: This is totally a random question, but digestive-wise – I watch shows like the “Amazing Race” and “Survivor” where people are in a totally different country, and I’m always thinking, “Their stomach has to be off for a little bit.” When you guys were traveling, did it take you a little bit to get your digestion on track, or are you guys … Is that not even a thing?
Dena: It’s a classic thing. In India, it’s very classic to get stomach issues, because the food and the bacteria, everything is so different. If you are going to India you do need to be very careful. There are certain don’ts that you absolutely have to stand by. I mean, you don’t drink the water, you only drink bottled water, or boiled water. Yeah, I mean that’s part of travel, any adventurous travel. You’re going to get stomach trouble and then you’re going to get better. We all went through our little bouts of travelers tummies for sure.
Brandy: Okay, so digestion and finding bathrooms, is that a character in your story?
Dena: There’s a little bit of it there, not a lot, it’s not a focus. What makes my book a really interesting book about India, is that so many people go to India and come back with horror stories and hated it and it was too hard and it was too dirty and there was too much trash and it was too much tummy trouble. It’s really easy to go there, and we had this really conscious choice that we were going to look beyond that base level of seeing things to see India the way the Indians see it, and to see it as this holy place with this unbroken spiritual traditions for 5000 years. To see beyond those simple things, it’s like a sacrifice, it’s a trade-off.
Brandy: What are one or two things that we could stand to learn from motherhood in India? I know you touched on one of them about not being isolated. What else did you see that was really different?
Dena: Yeah, not being isolated, not having the whole family focus be on the children. I think those are really the two things, and just the way the whole culture is set up. Because it’s an ancient culture, I mean American culture is a very new culture. It’s very focused on productivity and capitalism. That’s why the nuclear family is the family unit. In India, it’s very rare that you will see a nuclear family of just a mom, a dad, and kids. The family is a more extended, and that’s really the ancient style. Like I said, with many relatives living under one roof, and so there isn’t this expectation on a woman to do as many different things all at once. There’s just a more relaxed approach to life in general. The lower expectations and just more contentment with things as they are, which is always a good thing to aspire to.
Brandy: Where do you think that came from? Do you think that’s because it is an ancient culture, and because Buddhism is what it is?
Dena: Hinduism, Buddhism and the rich cultural traditions. There’s a lot that’s just right there that’s just passed down, whereas in the US there’s not as much passed down. A lot of us have rejected where we’ve came from. “I don’t want to be like my mom,” and “I don’t want to do it the way they did it.” Rejecting all that is important for us, but then it’s like, but what do we have? Well, we have jobs and activities, and it’s like well –
Brandy: Then we’re on an island.
Dena: We’re on an island and there’s a loss of a richness. My kids really picked it up, like my kids noticed right away, they’re like, “Mom, even people who look so poor to us seem so content and happy. There’s something they have that we don’t have that’s missing.”
Brandy: Could they put their finger on it?
Dena: They thought it was … It’s tradition and spirituality. In India, spirituality is so infused into daily life. In South India women draw outside their house every day these beautiful chalk mandalas and they put little flower petals. You can’t really imagine, and then there’s a temple in the town. It’s 5000 years old, this huge tower, it’s all carved. It’s a totally poor village, no one has a car. There might be a TV, but there’s this 5000-year-old absolutely gorgeous temple. The temple is not a museum, it’s the town temple, it’s what money can’t buy.
Brandy: Yeah, so what the hell was it like to come back and re-assimilate? Specifically, did you go back to the violin and the dance classes? How were you different when you returned?
Dena: Reverse culture shock is real. So we did not get culture shock when we went, but I totally got culture shock when I came back. It was very hard to come back and to realize okay, I’m back to my to-do lists, I’ve got to sign up for this and that and this. A few different things happened – first of all, I decided to prioritize my peace of mind. We didn’t do as many activities. If the kids wanted to do an activity, they had to talk about it, and they had to really show that they wanted to do it and then I was willing to commit. Of course getting Adam to drive more too, and really making it so that it’s half-and-half.
Brandy: Equal, yeah.
Dena: It’s half-and-half. I’m not doing more than half anymore. If this requires me to do more than half, then it’s not going to happen.
Brandy: That’s a great mantra, yeah.
Dena: Then of course the daughters became teenagers. The girls were at an age where they could bike where they needed to get. If you can get there on bike, you’re going to ride your bike.
Brandy: That’s something that came from going to India and being on bikes there, or seeing no cars?
Dena: Not being on bikes, but, no, just coming back and being like, “Well how can we be less chauffeurs and servants to our children?”
Brandy: Yeah, okay.
Dena: Finding independent transportation, and in our town biking is a big thing, because it’s flat, it’s small, it’s safe, and teenagers bike where they need to go. Starting age 11 or 12 you can bike to school, so there was both intention, there was also surrender that yeah, we’re going back to this lifestyle. There’s not a whole lot we can do about it. We’re not moving to India, we’re going to come back to this life. We have a beautiful life here – we have friends, we have work that’s meaningful, we have schools that we’re very blessed to have for our kids, but just having a little more spaciousness and peace of mind, and just not trying to do as much. Not trying to be everywhere at once. Yeah, prioritize.
Brandy: Yeah. Maybe my ending question for you is so you named your book The Buddha Sat Right Here. Is that a moment in the story, or is does that have meaning to you?
Brandy: Will you tell me about that?
Dena: This place is an incredible place to visit, it’s magical. You’re just surrounded by pilgrims from all over the world who are all there to just pray for world peace on the place where the Buddha awakened to enlightenment. There’s lots of little stories and anecdotes in my book, and that’s why I called it The Buddha Sat Right Here. It’s just so amazing, literally there is a spot, there’s a plaque, there’s a tree. It’s like “The Buddha sat right here in 623 BC and awakened to full enlightenment on the full moon in May.”
Brandy: Yeah, NBD – no big deal – that just happened. We have nothing like that.
Dena: We have nothing like that, and people have been bringing flowers and incense and praying there every day since then without a day off, rain or shine. The power of that reverence, the power of that collective devotion, it’s contagious. That’s where my kids first had this sort of like, “Wow, Buddhism.” Well, my daughter was so funny, she was like, “Wow, there’s so many Buddhists in the world besides Dad – my weird hippie dad who’s not like anybody else. Look, there’s thousands of people like him.”
Brandy: I love that. Your husband was probably just like, “Yeah, finally!”
Dena: He was stoked.
Brandy: “Respect me!”
Dena: Yes, yeah, well then she wanted to be taught how to meditate. He was just doing his happy dance.
Brandy: Oh my gosh.
Dena: Always like, “Ugh, Dad,” any time he tried to talk Buddhism at home, “Ugh, Dad.” She’d just turn away, and then when we got to Bodh Gaya, she all of a sudden was very interested. It was just a really beautiful place for us.
Brandy: Okay, so if people are out there listening and they’re going, “I feel like I need to do something like this,” first step?
Dena: Read my book, it’s online.
Dena: The Buddha Sat Right Here, it’s on Amazon. It should be in local bookstores. If it’s not ,you can ask your independent local bookseller to carry it. It’s distributed by Ingram Publisher Services, so it’s available everywhere.
Brandy: What about any social media sites that you’re on. I feel like maybe you’re not on social media, because you’re enlightened?
Dena: Oh no.
Brandy: No? Okay, so you’re normal again.
Dena: Social media can be an enlightening activity.
Brandy: It can.
Dena: No, Dena Moes is D-E-N-A, M-O-E-S, and I’m on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. You can find me there. I’ve published a lot of essays recently about Buddhism, travel in India with kids, essays about spiritual pilgrimage and motherhood. Yeah, you can look me up.
Brandy: What was the first thing you did to make the step towards this trip? Was it booking the tickets?
Dena: My first thing was just tell everybody that I knew that we were going to do it. I felt like it was kind of like quitting smoking that way. If I told everybody I was going to do it and then I didn’t do it, I would look really lame, that would be so embarrassing. I just told everybody we’re doing it.
Brandy: Nice, you were just waiting for them to shame you into doing it. “You said you were going to do it.”
Brandy: Dena, thank you so much for sharing this with us. I am so thrilled about your book. I’m so happy to be a fellow author with you with She Writes, and I know our paths are going to cross, because they already magically did. I feel like everything in your life happens magical, so I’m happy to be part of that as well.
Dena: Thanks for joining the magic train with me, Brandy, it’s been great to be here with you and I appreciate your questions. I can’t wait to get my hands on your book.
Brandy: Oh gosh.
Dena: I know, it’s going to be a long wait, but –
Brandy: It’s not about being enlightened in India, let’s just say there might be a hand-job scene in the book. I mean, it’s real. Let’s just say that. All right, thank you my friend.
Dena: Thank you.
Brandy: Okay, so I’m not trying to make this a self-help workshop, but this possibly helpful question crossed my mind after this episode’s interview. I’m going to ask it here for that one person that maybe it helps. What do you need to change in your marriage or parenting dynamic that you don’t need to go to India to figure out? Is there something that you wish were different? If so, what is one thing that you could do to help change it into something more enjoyable or fair or supportive? Maybe it’s a conversation that you start with somebody. Maybe it’s taking a small action about something. Maybe it’s setting a boundary. Maybe it’s taking away a boundary. Sorry, I’m not trying to be all Brené Brown on you.
Brandy: As always, thanks for listening.
** As always, thank you to Scott Weigel and his band, Seahorse Moon, for providing me with that jaunty intro and outro music. You guy are awesome. Check ’em out on iTunes.