I was standing by myself in the center of the crowded room.
Stiff as rigor mortis.
This did not happen. Not here.
Excited about attending a Kirtan for the first time, I crossed a parking lot from my air-conditioned car into an air-conditioned yoga studio. The glass door snugged closed, freeing me from triple-digit heat. I paused to thank every Hindu deity I could imagine for relief from summer’s oppression.
Tucking my shoes into a cubbyhole — a welcome bit of yoga familiarity in a studio that was otherwise new to me — I grabbed a song sheet from a stack on a table and then slipped into the main room. It was filled with folding chairs. I claimed a seat in the front row. A few young women had already unfurled yoga mats and were sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the chairs. Others sprawled on cushions.
Beneath miniature white lights strung in lazy loops across the ceiling, musicians were transforming one corner into a stage, arranging amplifiers, microphones, cords, and instruments. Instruments that Darren, the guitarist, would later introduce like visiting dignitaries. Mridanga, a floor drum of southern India. Tablas, hand drums from the north by way of ancient Arabia. Harmonium, a keyboard originally from England.
Fay, the lead singer, played the harmonium. She directed us to a chant at the bottom of our song sheets. A call and response, Fay sang the call and Darren led the audience response. “Hare Krishna. Hare Krishna. Krishna Krishna. Hare Hare.” My voice at first uncertain. I grew more confident with every verse. “Hare Rama. Hare Rama. Rama Rama. Hare Hare.” Punctuated by the heartbeat of tablas, the chant captivated me, with a promise of ascension — from the chair … from the earth.
The studio filled; our sparse numbers multiplied into a crowd. As a group slipped into the row behind me, their cotton shirts brushed the back of my neck. I remained the only person in my row … the only African-American in the room. I suspected a connection but turned away from suspicion toward the promise of ascension.
Darren leaned into his mic. “If you’re new to Kirtan, don’t worry. Join in. Dance if the music moves you. Soak up the energy.”
I glanced at the typewritten page on my lap, lifted my voice in adoration, and soaked up the energy.
After exalting Lord Krishna, we called on the goddesses. Fay’s soprano shimmered. The divine feminine beckoned. We followed. We appealed to 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 came to them like a child. “Jagatambe Jai Jai Ma. Jagatambe Jai Jai Ma.” They smothered me with kisses.
Incense sweetened the air. Fingers of smoke drifted in ever-shifting directions as latecomers trickled in. A man and woman grabbed chairs at the opposite end of my row and scooted them farther away, as if positioning for a better view, even though the people in front were on the floor. Sitting at one end of a long empty row, I felt like a single person on a teeter-totter.
Sanskrit made me tongue-tied, but the next chant began slowly enough for me to pick up pronunciations. Om terra. Too-terra. Too-ray. So-hah. Syllables popped from my throat — I was the drum. “Om terra. Too-terra.” I rocked from side to side. “Too-ray. So-hah.” The chant sped up. “Om terra. Too-terra. Too-ray. So-hah.” Rhythm captured my feet. “Om terra. Too-terra. Too-ray. So-hah.” I welcomed oblivion. Shatter me. Blast the shards to the winds. I wasn’t singing any longer, 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, Darren swung his guitar over his head and mimed smashing it onto the stage. Praise God!
Fay rose from her seat at the harmonium and knelt on the floor, crystal bowls lined up at her knees. She smiled demurely. “We’ll slow the energy down a bit, so you can drive home safely.” She swiped a wooden stick around the rims of the bowls and began the closing chant. I was disappointed the lyrics were in English, which normally triggered my intellect to spring into analysis and debate. By this point in the evening, though, my mind had surrendered. 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.”
Eyes closed, I waited for my emotions to settle and for the rustle of an audience preparing to leave. But instead of goodnight, thank you for coming, Fay announced, “We’re going to end with a ritual 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. Waves of motion rippled across the room, as chairs and cushions were pushed aside. 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 then sixes, which eddied around the studio, filling in the empty spaces. The figures were ghostly, floating in incense clouds and the half-light of a setting sun. When the mingling slowed to a standstill, and the chatter faded to murmur, and the choosing was 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.
I wanted to run, but fleeing would only draw attention. The only thing that would save me from humiliation was the invisibility that had caused it. That, and hatred. My eyes narrowed to slits, my cheeks flushed hot, I coiled, ready to savage this roomful of devotees. My fists gnarled into witch’s hands with hooked nails to tear bloody stripes across the backs these worshipers had turned on me, 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.
A command from the stage startled my hatred. “You two pair up.”
Fay was spotlighted under the twinkling lights, one hand pointed at a lone woman on the far side of the studio, the other at me. The woman hurried toward me. Malice retreated down into my gut, letting my eye slits open in welcome.
Just get through it, Dawn.
Nose to nose with our partners, we formed two concentric circles. Those on the inside faced out, those on the outside faced in. Music swelled; we sang a verse; the outer circle shifted to the right. I was opposite a different partner. We chanted and bowed. Singing into those other eyes, I was looking into faces of innocence, moonlit orbs that reflected namasté. When the light in me bowed to the light in each of my partners, my personality, with its crown of slights, dissolved. We were unspoiled. We were pure of motive, every one of us.
Soon enough the exercise ended. Regulars exploded out of their reverie into chatty groups, and still I expected someone to offer an outstretched hand in welcome. None did.
I threaded through knots of well-wishers to compliment the musicians. Darren was stuffing cords into a plastic bin. I hoped he hadn’t noticed me un-chosen in the middle of the room, and also hoped he had. We hugged and laughed, my hello, that was wonderful followed by his so glad you were here, thanks for coming. His effervescence seemed an indication he had not noticed. My good cheer, on the other hand, was a nervous habit. Our words swallowed by the surrounding din, I turned away, intending to say hello to Fay. I hoped for a remorseful acknowledgement of the scene she’d witnessed, which would rewind the last hour back to the promise of “Hare Krishna. Krishna. Krishna.” But she was chatting with an acquaintance.
My feet stuck to the floor. Leave? Stay? I was rickety, nailed together with mismatched emotions.
When I opened the door to leave the studio, the summer night seared my face — heat so oppressive it was hard to breathe.