Two recent memoirs explore liberation through spiritual journey and the arts

Perhaps it’s the confessional nature of our culture, but whatever the reason, more memoirs are being published than ever before. And while one could be forgiven for assuming that the increase in quantity doesn’t necessarily mean a similar increase in quality, every memoir I’ve read in the last several years has been involving and enlightening. Maybe that’s just the luck of the draw, but this really does seem to be the Golden Age of nonfiction, including memoir.

Two books that impressed me recently are The Buddha Sat Right Here: A Family Odyssey Through India and Nepal by Dena Moes and Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Men’s Prison by Deborah Tobola.

The Buddha Sat Right Here tells the story of a Northern California nurse-midwife who, with her husband Adam and two young daughters, decides to take a year off to travel across India. Their goal is to get off the “hamster wheel” and experience India’s culture as more than just tourists. While both Dena and Adam were raised Jewish, they’d become practicing Buddhists. Moes became intrigued by the idea of immersing her family in Indian life when she visited her older sister, Amy, a foreign correspondent in New Delhi. So in 2014, they set off on what becomes a spiritual journey, a cultural exploration, and the family odyssey of the title.

What makes Moes’ memoir stand out is the quality of her writing. Her narrative gift makes Buddha read like a fast-paced novel rather than a navel-gazing interior travelogue. It’s a family adventure story that is by turns funny, informative, and heartwarming. It’s a cliché, but you really do feel like you’re on the journey with them, and you never know what is going to happen next because, well, it’s India, a country that contains multitudes in every sense of the word. Moes earned a BA in Literature at Yale before getting an MS in Nursing, and it shows. She is a terrific writer, and this is an absorbing and satisfying memoir.

Hummingbird in Underworld introduces us to Deborah Tobola, who has spent many years teaching in California prisons. She focuses on her experiences at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, which is considered something of a resort among the state’s prisons. Tobola is hired to run the Arts in Corrections program, teaching literature, writing, and theater to the inmates. In an interesting coincidence, she had been born in SLO 45 years earlier when her father worked at the CMC but had led a peripatetic life, going to college in Montana and Arizona and working in Alaska before returning to the Central Coast.

Tobola’s memoir weaves two strands together effectively: her time at CMC and her unusually unsettled upbringing. Her father’s side of the family came from Bohemia (think Czechs), and she was in some ways raised as one of the boys by her father and uncles, a group of opinionated, rough-edged union men. While her two sisters were seen as “pretty girls” and were raised in constrained roles by their beautiful mother, Deb was a bookish, independent, and unorthodox young woman. The men viewed her with a mix of suspicion and grudging respect. Her family life would have made for a compelling memoir on its own, but it works well here as the foundation for her later life as a bohemian and as context for her work teaching prisoners.

Most of us have very little idea of what life is like inside a prison, and Tobola does us a service by showing us the difficulties and dilemmas faced by prisoners and staff alike. We meet a memorable cast of characters in her classes, some of whom have backgrounds that make one wonder why Tobola would risk being in close contact with them. But that’s the heart of the story: Underneath her tough exterior, she has a gifted and inspiring teacher’s idealism and empathy, and she believes that the arts can save one’s soul and free one’s mind, a valuable gift when one’s body is locked up for years, even decades.

Author Bios:

Dena Moes earned a degree in Literature at Yale University in 1991. She worked as an artist with the Living Theatre in New York City for two years before she discovered midwifery. Dena’s passion for woman-centered care during pregnancy and birth brought her back to Yale, where she became a certified nurse-midwife at the age of 26. She opened a home birth service in 2005 but left town every summer for family travel, attending Rainbow Gatherings, Burning Man, and touring the West Coast festival circuit as the Moes Family Band. Dena grew up Reform Jewish in Los Angeles, but in her twenties, she encountered Tibetan Buddhism and immediately felt connected to that path. She has been a student and practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism ever since, under the guidance of teachers in the Nyingma and Kagyu lineages. She is proud to be a part of the American tradition of JuBus [Jewish Buddhists].

Deborah Tobola created a groundbreaking theater program that engaged prisoners isolated from the outside world in the arts and helped them discover their own unique, powerful voices. Tobola is a poet, playwright, and co-author of a children’s book. Her work has earned four Pushcart Prize nominations, three Academy of American Poets awards, and a Children’s Choice Book Award. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and began teaching creative writing and theater in prison in 1992. She is founding artistic director of the Poetic Justice Project, the country’s first theater company created for formerly incarcerated people.


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