I waved them away. Weirdos.
Half a century later, I was the weirdo.
A desire to sing about God led me to a yoga studio, to experience kirtan, a Hindu-inspired devotional service. My desire had sprung from Sundays at Second Baptist Church. Soloists who caught the spirit transformed the congregation into a swaying-clapping throng of worshipers. But the hymns were written in English, and the underlying theology in the words often set my mind to debating. Or the poetry caused me to search my purse for a scrap of paper on which to scribble phrases that might end up in a future essay. There were no such distractions with Sanskrit chants, which I’d been introduced to while on retreat.
When Victor, a musician friend, invited me to a kirtan for which he played guitar and sang, I accepted. I journeyed from church sanctuary to yoga studio, from wooden pew to folding chair, from English to Sanscrit. My voice at first uncertain, I grew more confident with every chant. “Hare Krishna. Hare Krishna. Krishna Krishna. Hare Hare.”
The studio filled, but I remained the only person in my row … the only black person in the room. I suspected a connection, but turned away from suspicion, toward the seduction of Krishna. “Hare Rama. Hare Rama. Rama Rama. Hare Hare.”
Borne on air currents sweetened with incense, the voice of Jeri, the kirtan leader, shimmered in flirtation, beckoned, cajoled. We praised the goddess of art and creativity. “He Saraswati.” The goddess of prosperity and wealth. “He Maha Lakshmi.” The goddess of transformation and death. “He Mata Kali.” I greeted them like a child. “Jagatambe Jai Jai Ma. Jagatambe Jai Jai Ma.” They smothered me with kisses.
Latecomers trickled in. A couple grabbed seats at the opposite end of my row. The man separated two chairs from the row, cutting calves from the herd. The action was meaningless … had nothing to do with me … but my chest tightened.
In the next call-and-response, Jeri keened the call. Victor led the response, slowly enough for me to pick up pronunciations. Ohm terrra. Two-terra. Two-ray. So-hah. Syllables popped from my throat like I was the drum. “Ohm terrra. Two-terra.” My bobbing head punctuated the beats as I rocked from side to side. “Two-ray. So-hah.” Victor’s fingers blurred across the guitar strings. The chant sped up, its rhythm captured my feet. “Ohm terrra. Two-terra. Two-ray. So-hah.” I stomped, bounced, clapped. Drums and guitar pumped adoration into my lungs. “Ohm terrra. Two-terra. Two-ray. So-hah.” I welcomed oblivion. Shatter me. Blast the shards to the winds. I wasn’t singing any more, only sputtering guttural noises, desperate for Tara to take me, my voice giving out for lack of breath, and as the percussionist pounded a final thunderclap, Victor swung his guitar over his head and mimed smashing it onto the stage. Praise God!
Jeri smiled demurely. “We’ll slow it down a bit, so you can drive home safely.”
She rose from her seat at the harmonium to kneel on the floor, a row of crystal bowls in front of her. She swiped a wooden stick around their rims and began the closing chant, which she had written. It was in English, but by that point, language was irrelevant. After rounds of “Peace across the land and in the deep blue sea,” a longing for peace trickled down my cheeks in rivulets. My voice shook. I could only mouth the final words. A deep tone from the largest crystal bowl lingered … faded … faded …
The musicians bowed to us. I lowered my head. “Namaste.”
Victor stood, “We’re going to end with a traditional greeting to honor the light in each of us. Choose a partner and stand facing each other.”
Still in a fog, I rose from my chair, and it was whisked away. The room shuffled, as chairs disappeared. There was a milling around, the chatter of voices, the slip and pad of bare feet. Pairs sprouted along the walls and in the corners. Twos grew into fours and sixes that eddied around the room, filling in the empty spaces. The figures were ghostly, floating in incense clouds and the halflight of setting sun. When the mingling slowed to a standstill, and the chatter faded to murmer, and the choosing complete––I was alone in the center of the room.
Stiff as rigor mortis.
This did not happen.
Of course it happened.
I should have seen it coming.
Stupid, stupid woman. To be seduced by the possibility of love in a room full of white people was as reckless as mooning over a married man.
God was here. God had let me down.
I wanted to run, but fleeing would only draw attention. The only thing that would save me from succumbing to humiliation was the invisibility that had caused it. That, and hatred. My eyes narrowed to slits, cheeks flushed hot, I coiled, ready to savage this roomful of devotees. My hands curved into claws to tear bloody stripes across the backs they’d turned on me, claws to rip all those pink feet from their shocked ankles––feet that walked away from me and danced to the beat of God’s lying heart.
Jeri’s voice surprised my hatred. “You two pair up.”
A lone woman on the far side of the room started toward me. Malice retreated down into my gut, letting my eyeslits open in welcome.
Just get through it, Dawn.
Face to face with our partners, we formed two concentric circles. Those on the inside faced out, those on the outside faced in. Music began, we sang a verse, then the outer circle shifted to the right. I faced another partner. We chanted to each other and bowed. Singing into those other eyes, I was looking into the faces of innocence. Unspoiled. Pure of motive. Every one of them.
Soon enough the exercise was over. Regulars burst into chatty groups, and still I expected someone to offer an outstretched hand in welcome. None did.
I wandered over to thank Victor, who was dismantling his equipment. I hoped he hadn’t noticed me unchosen in the middle of the room, and I also hoped he had. I hoped Jeri had noticed and would say comforting words to me. Hoped she’d say, I can’t believe these stupid people. I wanted to tell them their kirtan was great. I wanted to tell them it was awful. I waved at Victor, mouthed thank you, and waited to catch Jeri’s eye. She was talking with an acquaintance … and then another.
It didn’t matter. They’d only reassure me it didn’t have anything to do with race. I didn’t want to be reassured.
I was rickety, nailed together with mismatched emotions. Betrayed, uplifted, embarrassed, abandoned, transcendent. All that love for God. None left for me. I walked away.
Meditation in the Woods