When Betsy Met Sally: Two ‘It Girls’ Face The Material World

I am not worthy. That’s what I was thinking throughout my lunch with Sally Kempton and Betsy Carter, two of the most impressive women I know. One, Betsy, is a longtime friend; the other, Sally, a long-lost friend who, until just about the day of that lunch, had been known for two decades as Swami Durgananda.

I am not worthy. You know the reference, right-from Wayne’s World ? It’s that climactic moment when Wayne and Garth are finally ushered into the presence of their ultimate rock-god idol, Alice Cooper, and fall to their knees, salaaming backward and chanting: “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” I’ve always liked that moment: It was comic, yes, but moments of genuine humility are rare in the movies, rare in life. I still recall how impressed I was when I read in Kipling’s Kim the way Hindus would offer help by saying, “Allow me to acquire merit,” by assisting you. Well, allow me to acquire merit by praising Sally and Betsy and calling your attention to books they’ve recently published. Betsy’s is a memoir called Nothing to Fall Back On , which manages to pull off the near-impossible feat of being very funny and deeply moving, often within the same sentence. Sally’s (which is published under her monastic name, Swami Durgananda) is called The Heart of Meditation , a work of remarkable clarity, both practical and deeply philosophical, that reflects her nearly three decades of study and teaching in the Siddha Yoga tradition.

While, at first glance, they might seem radically different (no chanting in Betsy’s book, no juicy magazine-world dish in Sally’s), it occurred to me that both are, in their own ways, the response of two incredibly smart, incredibly strong women to the question of being and suffering.

But the occasion for the lunch that brought the three of us together was not suffering, but a kind of celebration-Betsy and I welcoming Sally back into the material world. She was leaving the Saraswati monastic order, in which she had divided her time between ashrams on the East and West Coasts, and would be living as a civilian, so to speak, although she’d be continuing her teaching mission and her spiritual vocation.

This was big news, in my mental world, anyway-so much so that I first had trouble absorbing it when Betsy told me. She had featured an article about Sally by Sara Davidson in her magazine about a year ago, but had yet to meet her. I’d known Sally a bit-she’d preceded me at Dan Wolf’s Village Voice and Harold Hayes’ Esquire -back when she was the literary “It Girl” of the early 70’s. There was a brief marriage to a Hollywood producer; it was all very Last Tycoon . (Someone should persuade her to do a memoir.) But I didn’t get to know her as well as I’d have liked before she entered the ashram. And I’d only seen her twice in the quarter-century or so since she’d shocked tout New York-including her father, Murray Kempton ( my guru, so to speak)-by abandoning an already brilliant career as writer and feminist for the orange robes, chanting and chastity of an ashram in the Catskills run by a swami known as Muktananda, who wore cool-looking shades with his shaven head and radiated a charismatic, almost Jaggeresque vibe.

I know this because I visited Sally a year or so into her Muktananda phase-everyone was calling it a phase, but the phase hasn’t ended. (Although maybe one phase of the phase has.)

But I remember driving up to the old Catskills resort hotel that was serving as the ashram, arriving breathlessly just in time for the mantra-granting ceremony-and immediately getting busted, so to speak.

Sally had said that if I was lucky, Muktananda might hit me with his peacock-feather wand and give me shaktipat (a kind of jump-start to spiritual ecstasy), or at least a mantra to take home and meditate with.

But as soon as my girlfriend and I rushed in and took our seats, we were politely but firmly pulled up and sent to separate sides of the room: Men and women never sat together at these ceremonies.

Luckily, we were allowed to continue participating in the ceremony, because I had the experience of being bopped on the head with the big feather wand and being given the whispered mantra of the order by Muktananda: Om Namah Shivaya .

Siddha Yoga places great emphasis on chanting that mantra-which means, roughly, “I bow to the divinity within myself.” I’ve found that chanting the mantra out loud (when I can’t be overheard-at a deserted beach, say) can be a powerful experience, although I never felt like I broke through to the realm of loving ecstasy that Sally said one could achieve with a little more discipline than I had.

Anyway, after the ceremony was over, Sally came up to us and (referring to the mixed-sex contretemps we had created) kind of winked and said, “Busted, huh, Ron?” I don’t know-I felt the wisecracking tone was a way of saying that she was still the same Sally with the same sharp sense of humor, despite the orange robes.

Still, she’d given up a lot of worldly good fortune-and pain as well, I imagine-and I thought it took a lot of guts to make the leap and persist in it. I saw her one more time in her robes, a few years ago at a reunion of Village Voice people following Dan Wolf’s death. I thought it was impressive that she’d left the ashram to come, that that part of her life with all of us misfits was still a part of her life.

A year or so later, she wrote me a lovely note about something I’d written about her father, Murray, and eventually we got in touch.* And after I read about her in Betsy’s magazine, I suggested that the next time she was at the East Coast ashram, she, Betsy and I should get together for lunch; we set a date just before Sally’s departure for the West Coast.

Anyway, I was on the phone to Betsy making arrangements, when Betsy said something like, “You know Sally’s leaving the ashram.” And I said, “I know she’s going to the West Coast.” And Betsy said, “No, she’s leaving the ashram -as in, living in our world.”

I was filled with questions about what this meant.

Meanwhile, I had a feeling that Betsy Carter could tell her a bit about living in our suffering world. Betsy is sort of Exhibit A of the kind of bad things that happen to good people in the miserable material world. And Exhibit A of how to persist through it all with her humor, her spirit, her integrity, grace and generosity intact. (I know I owe much of my sanity in the miserable material world to her steadfast friendship.)

The best way to sum up just how bizarre the run of misfortune, bad luck and near-tragedy Betsy’s life had become might be to recall one amazing scene in her memoir that is, for me, the nightmare-comic high point (or low point). It’s the scene in her shrink’s office, when her shrink at the time said something so comically awful, yet so deadly serious, that it may take the prize for shrink stories even in the shrink-ridden culture of N.Y.C.

This was at a point when Betsy’s professional life was full of achievement. She’d been one of the first women senior editors at Newsweek and the first woman editorial director of Esquire , which is where we first met in the mid-80’s. I found her a terrifically insightful and far-sighted editor, and we bonded over our mutual love for really, really, really sad country songs. I thought I was kind of an aficionado by then, but she earned my undying respect by introducing me to Emmylou Harris’ stone-cold-killer sad song, “Boulder to Birmingham”-you know, that cheerful little ditty Emmylou wrote about taking a plane out West to Death Valley, where she watched them burn the dead body of her great love, Gram Parsons, the genius country-rock auteur. Once you’ve heard that song, it casts a profound, malign spell over your life; its dark beauty is still devastating to me.

And speaking of malign spells, despite further impressive professional accomplishments-she founded the much-admired New York Woman magazine, which captured the spirit of the city for five years before some clueless male suits, who didn’t get what a unique creation it was, pulled the plug-Betsy’s personal life was turning into something like a sad country song, with new verses being added with scary regularity. A terrible taxi accident in that deathtrap Park Avenue tunnel that required extensive reconstructive surgery; her husband of 17 years announcing that he was leaving her because he was gay; her magazine canceled; her beloved country house destroyed by fire; breast cancer-you name it. Not all at the same time, and there were some high points as well, including meeting and marrying her second husband, the fiercely smart and funny editor Gary Hoenig.

But through all the bad parts, she maintained an absolutely astonishing ability to persist, to surmount one tragedy and crisis after another with courage and a dark, absurdist yet liberating sense of humor-as well as a lack of self-pity that I attribute to her inner strength, and to the fact that her parents were both refugees from Hitler’s Germany (which gave her, perhaps, a perspective on her own misfortunes). Still, even Betsy with her astonishing resilience was, I believe, profoundly challenged by that moment in her shrink’s office. It’s clear that her shrink had, well, just not been as resilient , shall we say, as Betsy.

Because that day, as Betsy describes it in Nothing to Fall Back On , the shrink-who had never before alluded to the occult-told Betsy the following: “Given all the things that have happened to you in the past few years, it’s made me seriously think that you have lived a past life …. I suspect that in your other life you were an evil person. I think you did a lot of very bad things and now you’re being repaid for them in this lifetime. Betsy, I want you to consider this. I want you to think about having an exorcism . It’s the only way you can put a stop to this. I know somebody who can help you.” (My italics.)

I recall Betsy recounting it to me in her characteristic amused, deadpan tone (which makes her memoir so appealing). Somehow it didn’t completely surprise me, although I was outraged on her behalf. I’ve often felt that my role in Betsy’s life has been to get outraged on her behalf at people who say awful or thoughtless things to her because they mistake her look of Jane-Austen-heroine radiant innocence for mere niceness, and feel they can get away with saying things they wouldn’t to someone less gentle. I remember fuming about the shrink-exorcist moment for weeks-no, years: Your shrink told you to get an exorcist!!! Your shrink!! You’re paying her for this advice!?!

Welcome to New York City, Sally Kempton; welcome to the material world. We can use some help.

And you know, if anyone can help, maybe she can. A couple months after the three of us had lunch, I received from the Syda Foundation in South Fallsburg, N.Y. (home of the East Coast ashram), a copy of Sally’s book, The Heart of Meditation , which came with impressive testimonial blurbs from people like Peter Matthiessen (a.k.a. Muryo Roshi-who knew?). It was a beautiful, large-format paperback, skillfully designed, written with great clarity and impressive historical scholarship, and accompanied by some surprising quotes in the margins from spiritual writers. I say “surprising” because she includes Western as well as Eastern mystics. The one that knocked me out was from the 13th-century visionary, Meister Eckhart: “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye. One seeing, one knowing, one love.”

One love! Is it possible this is where that brilliant, underrated 20th-century mystic Bob Marley got “One Love”?

But I digress. I decided to arrange an interview with Sally and a couple days before that, I attended a book-signing arranged by the Syda Foundation.

It was there that Sally, in a little talk, said something that finally made meditation make sense to me. I’ve always been jealous of people who had the facility or the patience to do meditation. I’d never been able to quiet the chatter of thoughts, desires and recriminations forever circulating in my head to get to that place of unmediated bliss that meditators say they have access to. What Sally said is this: “Meditation capability is in all of us, it’s hard-wired, it’s a bandwidth we can all access if we train ourselves to.”

But there’s the problem for me: That training requires you to sit still, physically and mentally. Alone with your thoughts, allowing them eventually to quiet down. My problem is that I’ve basically dedicated my life to avoiding being alone with my thoughts. Reading, music, TV, radio, now the web-something’s always on. Even the one quasi-spiritual discipline I do practice, tai chi, I tend to do with the TV on. This causes deep horror in spiritual people-but hey, I like multi-tasking media absorption. I think it’s the karma of our age, the sea we swim in. And I’d always attributed my failure to achieve bliss through meditation to the fact that some people were naturally talented, and I just wasn’t.

In her book-signing talk, Sally led the audience through a brief meditative exercise, and I found myself sitting next to Barbara Epstein, the formidably intelligent co-editor of The New York Review of Books , longtime companion of Murray Kempton and loyal supporter of Sally (although, like me, not exactly the type who finds transcendence in meditation). We had been talking about how well-made Sally’s book was, the clarity and seriousness of the prose, but Ms. Epstein confessed that she, too, had trouble getting to that meditative place. We were tough nuts to crack, and I’m not sure either of us got there in the abbreviated eyes-closed exercise Sally put everyone through-although I think we did feel better and more relaxed afterward.

It was then that Ms. Epstein made an exciting disclosure of her own about my late guru-in the sense of life-long inspiration-Murray Kempton. Two of his now-out-of-print collections, Rebellions, Perversities and Main Events and Part of Our Time , will be brought back into print-the first by Public Affairs Press, and the second under The New York Review of Books’ publishing imprint. And even more exciting: Ms. Epstein’s been going through what she estimates as 12,000 of Kempton’s newspaper columns and magazine articles that have yet to be bound in hardcover, with a view toward another collection. Readers may recall how, in my discussion of the Columbia Journalism School controversy ( The Observer , Aug. 26, 2002), I closed by saying that reading the complete works of Murray Kempton might do well as a sublime substitute for journalism school itself. Allow me to acquire merit by suggesting that some journalism school or other academic press could justify its existence by putting all of the 12,000 columns between hard covers. The wisdom in his columns transcends their temporal origins. (In her own way, that’s what Sally is seeking as well.) Murray’s great memoir was called Part of Our Time , but this ultimate collection of our greatest journalist-indeed, one of the greatest pure writers of the century-could be called All of Our Time . Anyway, it was fascinating to see the different worlds that came together at Sally Kempton’s book-signing.

Meanwhile, I met Sally a few days later for a more formal interview at the same Indian restaurant where we met with Betsy. It was Diwan on East 48th Street-a place that turned out to specialize in dishes with Kashmiri spices. At my suggestion, she ordered the lamb with “Kashmiri tree bark spices,” which I thought would be appropriate; I learned from her book that the version of Eastern meditative tradition she had become part of was an esoteric Kashmiri variety: Kashmir Shaivism. The big difference, she explained, was that unlike many strains of Eastern spirituality, which tend to believe that the real world is illusion, maya , etc., and that the goal of spiritual discipline is, in effect, to leave it behind for another realm of bliss, Kashmir Shaivism believes that the real world is holy , part of the same fabric of being as the realms of bliss, but with perhaps more static in its bandwidth, you might say.

One of the first things I asked Sally was what it was like making the transition to living outside the ashram. What was the most surprising thing? She laughed and said, “The prices!” She laughed a lot during the interview, particularly when I told her about doing tai chi in front of the tube.

“I’m afraid I can’t endorse that, Ron,” she said, in a deadpan that reminded me of Betsy Carter’s. I recalled something Sally had said to Sara Davidson in Betsy’s magazine: how she’d come to realize and accept that her irony was part of who she was and didn’t need to be discarded for a spiritual life. As Barbara Epstein observed, Sally’s just as sharp as she ever was. She’s also remarkably calm, level-headed and down-to-earth. She’s still an avid reader; we discussed the Tolstoy versus Dostoevsky question and what it said about your choice. (We both agreed the Big D talks too much about spirituality, while the

Big T embodies it.)

She tolerated with good-natured humor my metaphysical questionings: “O.K., if everything is a creation and a part of a universal consciousness, what created that universal consciousness?” I asked. “How do you get something from nothing?” It was the oldest metaphysical question in the book, and she tolerantly suggested that it was a mystery we might never solve.

And she made me very envious of her meditative experiences, which she describes as stemming from an original “implosion” that she experienced in the presence of Swami Muktananda, and her subsequent travel in spiritual realms of gold since then. She suggested that I could overcome my meditation block by attending a two-day, eight-hour-a-day “intensive” that would be led by Muktananda’s successor, Gurumayi. The eight hours a day of being alone with my thoughts seemed too forbidding a challenge to me, but Sally herself is teaching both half-day and full-day workshops soon (Saturday, Oct. 26, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 2, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; call 873-8030), and I might just give it a serious try. It’s not like my life couldn’t use a little more serenity and bliss.

Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out what it was that Betsy and Sally had in common, if they had a common source of strength in their approach to suffering. One thing might be that a sense of humor gets the last laugh on suffering and persists beyond bliss. I remember a newspaper writer interviewing me about Betsy when her book first came out in August, trying to get to what it was that allowed her to go on, to persist through so many misfortunes, to somehow manage to radiate a kind of spiritual loveliness to others despite it all. I speculated that it had to do with her sense of humor, which can be extremely dark, absurd and, in some way, spiritually profound. Maybe not profound in the same way as Kashmir Shaivism, but profound in some genuine, perhaps more Kafkaesque way.

Anyway, there’s one thing I know about these two impressive women, their remarkable strengths and compassion:

I am not worthy.