Updated June 9, 2021
I recall absolutely nothing about the book, Centering, in Pottery, Poetry and the Person, by MC Richards whose blue cover (I think) was already worn from my mauling and caressing it throughout these last semesters of college. I only knew it was my bible.
Be Here Now, by Ram Das, was also assigned to us at the University of Wisconsin Dance Department as “required reading” by our new guest artist-in-residence, Bob Beswick, from the Alvin Nicolai Dance Company. Bob exuded elitism, speaking in a distinctly “eastern seaboard,” educated accent, and he gifted us yoga, meditation, pranayama and all kinds of "esoteric" things. I was both intimidated and intrigued by him. He was with we dancers for a semester in 1972.
Sitting in lotus position performing “alternate nostril breathing,” Nadi Shodanan; on the hard wood floors of the historic, Lathrop Hall, we were soon performing asana and "simply sitting ", day after day. I was driven mad by this newness and out-of-the box fun. Journaling daily, I poured my heart through my pen’s stroke, my every thought and feeling, mostly scribing my secret love and desire for this blue-eyed, mostly out-of-reach man, along with my inspirations from yoga practice. Each day, I sat cross-legged, a tad ridged, seated tall and earnest, somewhat to impress him, and hoping also to reach some kind of enlightenment. Peeking around the room I realized I may not be the only co-ed with a huge crush on our new dance teacher. We students were mesmerized by Mr Beswick, and suddenly dance technique class was an exciting prospect every day instead of a chore.
Little did I know as I sat on the floor, the practice and study of yoga was to become more than a class at the University, and would grow to become a major influence in my life. Little did I suspect I’d go on to teach almost 22,000 classes, and take as many, ... all over the world.
Little do I imagine I’d actually meet Ram Das at one of his appearances in Hollywood, as well as the star of his book, Bhaghavan Das, right in my own living room in Madison, Wisconsin, 40 years later, as he sipped a beer, and a 20-year-old, (he eventually married,) sat adoringly at his feet. Das’dread locks were precariously piled high on his balding head appearing as old as my diploma. The heavy old mess hung by what appeared to be a single grey hair. He held court from his corner on a stuffed chair swathed in robes and adorned in ancient beads. I was not impressed. Hours earlier I attended his kirtan at a local yoga studio, and I swear I heard him saying weird made-up things as he chanted. It seemed he was faking it, but I really didn't know, it was just an instinct. A yoga teacher once declared that anyone who takes on a spiritual name is one of two kinds; enlightened, or a crook.
Claudia Melrose was bigger than life: real, fresh and empowering, and was our next guest teacher, and artist-in-residence, in 1973, also sent by the Nicolai’s Dance Theater Company. She became our absolute heroine, and a big relief after Bob’s machismo and arrogance, and particularly after he ran off with a willowy red head from our class at the end of his stay. We Modern Dance students would follow Claudia into the fires of an erupting volcano if she asked us to. She too was tall and lanky, like Bob, yet she wore a messy mass of long natural brown frizzy hair. In a few short weeks, she had us eating mantras out of her palms.
Our bodies were stretched, our creativity challenged, and the choreography grew to new artist heights each and every day as we moved across the floors of the practice studio, and eventually onto the stage of the (pre) Margaret D’Oubler Theater the fall and summer of 1973.
“Mantra is charged with a special vibration,” Claudia tells us, our eyes wide and breath abated. “Each of you will receive your own personal, secret mantra to use in your meditations. You can never ever tell this mantra to your friends.” We totally understood.
We dancers lined up with our cash to receive the special mantra, direct from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi-to-the-stars, and to the Beatles for god-sakes. Even at 21 years old, I knew I wouldl never ever slip and tell anyone my word, my seed sound, my vibration. My little lean body quivered in excitement to be initiated into the secret society of Transcendental Meditation; TM.
One-by-one we came forward and sat on a folding chair. Claudia bent over us, her fragrant hair dusting our cheeks, and whispered our $35.00 mantra into our ears. My secret sound journeys deep into the cerebral cortex; down, down, to my Pineal Gland where it was planted, glowing like a spiritual radium seed doctors plant into the scrotum of old men with prostate cancer. I knew my life was forever changed. I now had my personal precious mantra.
“I’m…I’m…I am I am I am I am I’m I’m I’m I’m… it buzzed like a bee deep at the center of my gooey grey matter, vibrating me into a higher being with every I’M.
Months went by. We meditated daily. Sometimes my friends and I climbed up onto the stage of the Memorial Union Ballroom and sat cross-legged, meditating as the “less enlightened” student body shuffled in and out.
It worked. Twenty minutes, day and night, and I began to feel relaxed, centered, and part of an elite artistic society with an infusion of the spiritual. TM was changing me!
Now we all knew how hard it was for 20-something females to keep a secret. Eventually, at a party in a cool “off-campus” apartment; the kind that smells of granola and adolescent body odor, adorned with leafy green plants, succulents, and sprouting avocado seeds in every windowsill; a gaggle of we skinny, bell-bottomed woman with leg hair and bare feet found ourselves once more dancing creatively on the living room floor.
My girlfriends and I are drinking a little bit of beer, (maybe it is tea,) laughing and moving wildly to Van Morrison’s Moon Dance, and culminating to Aretha Franklin’s, Respect; finally giggling ourselves into a pile on the dusty couch. Inevitably, the subject of our secret mantra came around.
“Aren’t you curious about what the other mantras are?” We guiltily speak out loud.. “Awe, come-on… We can share just ours can’t we?” One of us utters.
“After all, we're best friends, … and the semester is over… We don’t have to tell anyone else.”
The thrill of the forbidden delivered chills and excitement into the skin and the heart, and one of us yelled out loud, and screamed. “I'M!”
Silence and shock follow: “I’m” …(pause) “What is yours…?”
We are each sobered. Wait, that’s my special mantra…
We’ve been duped by our goddess princess, guru, master, and leader, Claudia.
“Do you think everyone has exactly the same mantra? We weakly speculate.
“Yea probably.” We concurred.
Phyllis Popper, whose apartment we gathered in this night, claimed she knews one other person who told her their mantra, and "it was different," she claimed, defending our innocence and TM’s integrity. Whew, at least there are two…
The months flew by, and Claudia was replaced by yet another guest teacher; Al Wondar. He was the teacher who introduced us to the Yoga “Sun Salutations.” We learned to breathe with each movement and practiced outdoors often in a circle, that magical summer.
After graduation I moved back east, and after living at home briefly I landed an apartment in NYC. IN about a year I was off to San Francisco, In another two years I moved to Los Angeles and got swept up with the In crowd of the moment. This friends is another chapter entirely.
I was living back in NYC after an intoxicating, exhilarating and exhausting 18 months in Hollywood, and rented an apartment on 69th St and Central Park West. Somehow I managed to take up the high life right where I left off in L.A., Out of the gate I had a short 3-month affair with Al Pacino. Al took me to plays and gifted me acting books, fabulous Italian dinners, afternoon movies and a play by Gorky One day he squired me to Brooklyn, or the Bronx, in his blue BMW, to pick fresh basil out of a friend's backyard.
The climactic romantic experience with Al happened one night, on my cement steps on 69th street. I confessed to him I didn't really understand Shakespeare and he decided to perform Richard III for me at 3 am under the moonlight. He did a soliloquy and another scene playing multiple roles. I sat there in a trance. It was like a dream and still seems like a dream 40 years later. We had dinners at Sal Anthony, and the Gingerman restaurants and many other sweet places. I was on top of the world, sort-of.
I procured passes to shows at Saturday Night Live, and was palling around with one of their talent scouts, Barbara Burns, getting VIP seats at many music events. I once took my mother to the studio at Rockefeller Center to meet the SNL cast backstage, passing up a night of dancing at a private club I was invited to by Al and Robert De Niro. I sent two of my girlfriends instead. It was fun to see my mom sitting in a room with Bill Murray. She had no idea what a coveted moment that would have been for anyone, let alone a 56-yr-old housewife from New Jersey.
Spring delivered Hunter S. Thompson back into my life. One phone call and he was at my apartment, staying with me - supposedly editing, The Great Shark Hunt, but mostly cavorting with me and my 21 yr-old roommate, and creating all kind of havoc, both at my place and at the Gramercy Park Hotel where we spent half our time. It was a wild few weeks. Hunter held court sporting a platinum blonde, shoulder length wig and bright pink lipstick, wearing operating room fatigues we lifted from my roommate. People begged to visit and meet the Gonzo journalist, and he usually had them fleeing in fear and shock shortly after they arrived.
Ten miles over the Hudson River my parents resided in a little apartment in a Dutch community; Prospect Park, New Jersey, where a decade earlier I played with my Barbie Dolls. I felt thousands of miles from them now, spending nights with movie stars, attending parties all over the city, and partying hard with Hunter and his ever-present entourage at every hotspot in NYC. It was the spring of 1979.
Suddenly, all this raucous fun stops when he meets his next love at a party we were attending after an SNL show. I didn't know it for certain, but I could feel it. Coming back from a restroom, I passed the elevator and saw them side-by-side as the doors slid apart. I saw pig faces grunting and snorting like plastic masks instead of their real faces. They were as stunned as I was to catch them sneaking off into the night. I was in over my head, and in denial. I caught the next elevator, screaming, crying and chasing them. This was the lowest point in my life, no doubt.
Now I'm walking the streets of NYC in a grey fog looking down at the gum-stained sidewalks, tears dropping onto the pavement. I was pumping frozen yogurt in my Cinderella day job, and lived the A-list high life in NYC at night. Now I am crying and calling to a man running off with another woman. I appeared to friends and acquaintances to be winning, and I was losing.
Months earlier Al let me down easy, telling me I was "way too young for him" and should settle into myself, and maybe even consider therapy. He suggested I was being used by my so-called friends in Hollywood and to stick closer to my roots. He said to really be a great actress I should buckle down and get in touch with all the familial feelings instead of running around with people who were already famous.
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, my writing, travel, and adventure guru over the last year; my lover and crazy companion dumped me for a younger woman; a Saturday Night Live assistant to John Belushi. I was devastated. I was driven insane with jealousy. I felt the burn of this vile emotion, this heartbreak, this betrayal with every cell in my body.
I ran back to my parents apartment, feeling devastated, broken and defeated. Sitting at the kitchen table of their home, I cried uncontrollably for hours and hours, days maybe, to their horror and despair. I was wailing from a broken-open heart, and I couldn't stop. “Help me. “Please help me,” I keep repeating as I witnessed their tears, and anguished faces.
“Dar maybe we should take you to a hospital…” They suggest in their sadness. “What can we do Dar?”
For the first time they didn't blame me for my despair. I never heard dad spurt out.
Dar, I told you so ...I told you these men, and these phony people would hurt you. You should have stayed here and gone to the school up the hill, at Paterson State , and studied to be a school teacher…”
No, I hear none of the statements used on me every other time I called crying, exhausted, and broke.
I’ve burned up two years in Hollywood and NYC, and am no closer to being a working actress than the day I ran across Sunset Blvd with the wind in my sails. I was a soap opera day player, was photographed by famous photographers, and my feet were not on the ground. I had famous and infamous lovers, and grand movie-star-studded moments, and here I sat, slumped over the familiar Formica table; broken completely.
Eventually I called a former boyfriend, who was well into another relationship, after I'd broken his heart by running rampant with Thompson. I asked him humbly to please help me. He always had a heart for me. He agreed to pay for a month in the Siddha Yoga Dham ashram, in the Catskills.
“It’ll be good for you baby…” He added. “You need to go inside for a while. There’s lots of shakti up there.” One of his former girlfriends, Sally Kempton, was a devotee of Baba’s named Swami Durga. I think he gives me $400. for a month in residence. Swami Muktananda here I come.
I lived in the ashram dorm with about 8 beds for the first month. I was with the program. There’s no booze, cocaine or sex here. The celebrities came and went. I was a good ashram resident following all the rules. I woke at 3:30 am each day to the conch shell. I made my way to the huge, dimly lit, blue Meditation Hall to meditate an hour. From the blue hall, we all gathered to chant the Guru Gita day after day as the sun rose. At about 6:30 am breakfast was served; a porridge piled with yeast flakes, sliced onions and exotic Indian herbs which eventually exuded from everyone's armpits. The early hours were a strain though, and often I’d sneak back to the dorm room, which was mostly empty during the afternoons, while most performed their assigned work. I climbed up to the upper bunk and collapsed in exhaustion.
More than once I experienced an eerie out-of-body experience. It is hard to describe it, but resembled many I’ve had in other places during my younger years. A feeling of gravity overcomes me and pins me to the bed as a “lighter body” rises. It was scary, to say the least.
One afternoon I’m engulfed with the odor of cigar smoke and muffled sounds coming from just below my bunk. My lighter body looked over the side of the bed and saw four men sitting on the floor, playing cards and smoking cigars. They were drinking and laughing, and it was all muffled and other worldly. One of these bearded, dirty characters looked up and laughed, pointing at me. He said mockingly, “Why aren’t you doing your GURU SEVA?” They all laughed. These “men” were ragged and rough, and in my room! As I stared at them, they continued to mock me. I finally realized they were each slightly transparent. My body was frozen. I saw and heard and smelled ghosts! I was petrified.
Suddenly the door to my room opened a crack, and (I swear to God) a 3-inch Baba Muktananda walked in and waved them away. They dissolved into thin air. His miniature self looked up at me, turned, and left the room. Yea…
This happened more than once; same theme, ruffians, mocking transparent men, lowlifes, repugnant cigar smoke. I’m finally driven to approach Malti, Baba’s translator, and requested I tell him what I was experiencing.
Baba listened, nodding, and waved the peacock feather telling me through Malti to ignore the hungry ghost world. “They can’t hurt you, they have no power.” She translated. “Ignore them and meditate,” She concluded. Baba hit me with the feather and waved me away.
I found out that this ashram site, this hotel and grounds, was once a brothel, and gambling center.
I never experienced an out-of-body experience again of this nature; and yet I did experience weird hallucinations, two of which I will describe here.
In the Cafeteria, there were pictures of Hindu Gods hung along the walls, as well as many photos of Baba Muktananda and his own guru, Swami Nityananda Baba (whom I’ve dream about many times years earlier.) One day, as I ate my pungent porridge, I looked up, and the photos were alive. Baba was waving at me, winking. The deities were dancing, their jewels glistening. I was sure I was truly insane, or the porridge was spiked, or both. I laughed uncontrollably staring into the orange delicious slop, afraid to look up or see a wink or dance out of the corner of my eye. The long tables were full of porridge-eating asham residents, and here I was laughing hysterically at my bowl just like a for real insane person. My heart felt full of ecstasy, joy, and bliss. I couldn't muffle the laughter as hard as I tried, which made it worse. Weird explosive sounds emanated from me. I was red in the face and embarrassed but could not stop it. Upon talking to other devotees, I discovered, with astonishment, they too had similar dining hall experiences, and other strange encounters with “Shakti”.
My second spiritual experience, if you can call it this, occurred during a 24-hour chant of Om Namah Shivaya on some special Hindu holiday. All night we chanted this mantra; women on one side of the Hall, and men on the other, in a “call and response” style where the women chant it and then the men chant it; and it goes back and forth like a volley ball of sound and vibration. It was an awesome experience.
Suddenly, I was lifted away right out of the hall and transported to another planet, or location. I heard the chanting in the background, but was walking around in a glorious, heavenly light-filled place surrounded by deities who were bluish in color, covered in flowers and glowing. It was heavenly, fragrant, and peaceful..
I asked “Where am I?
One deity, who in retrospect might have been Krishna himself, told me I was in Siddha Loka. I repeated, “Siddha Loka Land?” again laughing and giddy with this wild weird journey, I continued, “You mean like Hollywood-Land?”
“Kind of,“ The kind, blue-faced bejeweled man-woman god responded with a smile… I walked amongst elephants and be-jeweled women on this odd exit to another dimiension for too short a time.
The next day I headed to the resident library and looked up “Siddha Loka” and sure the fuck enough, it was a place where myths said all the gods reside in a more refined light-body, bluish-colored state.
Eventually, inevitably, I met a very cute guy and moved into a farm in the Catskills slightly off the ashram grounds. These chilly fall days I worked each day de-thorning roses, praying for a miracle, and attending satsang each night. I remained somewhat un-hinged, depressed, and leaning on yet another lover at the farmhouse.
Philip Meese was making a documentary about Baba Muktananda and followed him around the country filming his satsangs (gatherings and teachings of Kashmir Shivaism.) Philip was 24 yrs young; tall, a privileged wasp raised in wealthy Connecticut. He was gorgeous with dreamy blue eyes and long legs. His crystal clear blue eyes sometimes teared up when we talked about what I had been through. He had a big crush on me, and me him. He also had a girlfriend, 23, with long chestnut hair who was a classical pianist and visited regularly. Philip and I had an affair, but now slightly outside of our “celibacy only" requirement at the ashram.
We enjoyed thrilling taboo sex; outdoors, on logs, in fields, barns, and across his editing table on top of the outtakes of Baba footage, sometimes finishing up just as his real girlfriend drove up smiling widely and running into his arms. My hurt hung with me like a skin I could not shed.
They say ashram life is akin to a pressure cooker, distilling and breaking down ones’ issues. It gets hot and uncomfortable, and eventually one surrenders to truths and grows; burning up karma and samskaras (flaws). I was in the pressure cooker. We each were.
The other residents in the woods at the farm included a self-proclaimed witch who fried chicken hearts and gizzards stinking up the entire house to we vegetarians’ horror; and a tall elegant aristocrat, a Rothschild, who became a friend and confident of mine because we shared so many people in common from L.A. and Aspen, where she resided. This “home” was a strange brew to say the least; particularly when Philips’ girlfriend spent the weekend.
On Halloween, Philip and I stood side-by-side and walked down the aisle towards Baba’s infamous peacock feather. Baba looked up at us and paused. I knew he knew down to my core, and I projected all kinds of shame and guilt into the moment. Baba grunted indifferently and waved us on.
Dad and mom decided to come up to the Catskill mountains to find out about this “cult” their daughter was now involved in. I was both excited to show them around and hopeful somehow, they might receive shaktipat, the energy transmitted to begin their process of “enlightenment.”
Dot and Cor arrived, (who knows how,) at the farmhouse with paper maps in hand. They sat down meekly in the large, drafty, sparsely furnished living room; awkward, nervous, and genuinely concerned about their daughter who was now in her late 20’s. Dad made a comment; “Gosh, a person could roller-skate in this living room here it’s so big.” I was embarrassed in front of Philip whose father was a powerful, world-traveling CEO who never visited. Philip tried to explain his documentary to them. My parents had no idea what he was talking about, and Philip realized this immediately and slipped away. We had plans to get over to the evening program.
Mom, Dad, me and Philip made our way to the festive ashram hall where about 700 to 800 people stood in wait for Baba's entrance, and perhaps a glance from their beloved Muktananda. I gave dad and mom fruit for the satsang line. Mom refused to take part. Dad took a mango, or a papaya, I can’t remember. I held a few de-thorned roses. Dad was wearing his worn plaid work shirt, K-mart pants, and continued to mispronounce Baba’s name as “Baabu.”
I intructed dad to kneel and bow, and to hand the guru the fruit when the time came. Dad looked at me and was resigned that his daughter was actually now really off her rocker; and because he’d do anything for me, he is with this program; as always, no matter what. Mom remained somewhere along the back wall, seated, biting her lip, I was sure.
Suddenly and un-expectedly Baba enters a side door and surprised everyone. He was in full orange robes, black slippers, and walked along with his entourage. Suddenly he stopped and turned slowly in our direction against the back wall. He walked towards my dad. He stopped and stared at him. The entire crowd was breathless. The huge hall was wall-to-wall with people able to live endlessly the “ashram life” due to their trust funds or good luck in life. Any eye contact or attention; positive or negative, from the guru was regarded as an incredible blessing. Baba lifted his arm and pointed to my dad and broke into a huge smile as if greeting an old friend. “Bro, slap me five” was the body language and tenor of the moment. He threw back his head and uttered “AH!” nodding and laughing and smiling right at my dad.
I was flabbergasted. All eyes were on this rare interaction. Dad looked at me and said, “Does he want something?” I explained it was a great blessing. Dad dismissed the entire thing. Baba turned away as quickly as he addressed my daddy; and continued more seriously down the throngs of people, looking at no one.
Side-by-side, my father and I walked down the aisle, a far different aisle most dad’s usually walk with their daughters. We finally got to the guru’s feet and dad bowed down and offered the mango/papaya. Baba whacked him over and over and over with his long peacock feather, taking more time than with anyone else. This whacking was also considered a coveted experience. Dad was “in” here, and it was very strange. It was strange for a lifetime. Decades later dad still refers to my time with BABU as a “phase I’ve outgrown, …thank god.” "That Baabu seemed like a nice guy though..." He once said.
On the last day of my father’s life, 40-something years later, the hospice people took him on a stretcher out of my living room where my son and I had been taking care of him for 5 months. They placed sunglasses on his face and sat him up. He looks like a movie star, or a jazz musician, out in the June sunshine. He gave me a high-five as they took him. At 5 am the next morning, my son and I got the call. It was time to go to the hospice center. We arrived and saw our dear “POP” in bed, on his side, and taking his final breaths.
I sat around for hours asking for a sign that he is still available in spirit.
My son and I returned home. Across the entrance to our tiny humble apartment lay a perfectly intact glorious peacock feather.
Over the years we each have spotted wild peacocks on the anniversary of my dad’s passing, or feathers...
What a strange, mysterious life this is.
Om Namah Shivaya!