Marta Szabo, author and codirector of Authentic Writing, describes her introduction to chanting in this excerpt from her memoir, The Imposters.
In front of Natvar on the floor was a shiny wooden rectangular box with a short keyboard—black and white keys like on a small piano. On the other side of the masking-tape aisle sat Mark cross-legged in front of an oblong drum, the kind with two circles of stretched leather on either side and a hollow egg of wood in between.
Anjani, in her quiet cotton clothes, had handed me a white laminated card when I entered. I set it beside me on the floor. Natvar began to play the strange instrument in front of him, his left hand pumping its bellows, his right hand playing the black and white keys. The instrument had a haunting, plaintive sound, more like an organ than a piano. Mark began to gently tap the drum in rhythm. Delia, the woman with the stud in her nose, picked up a tambourine.
Mark was a regular, like me, but I had started to notice that he was almost always there when I arrived, helping Natvar in the little office off the lobby. And now here he was, playing the drum. I felt a nudge of jealousy that he was perhaps closer to Natvar than I was. Natvar was always so enthusiastic and responsive when I was around that it was hard for me to imagine that he might prefer Mark. But Mark was one of the people who visited Baba and joined in the conversations about how great the last weekend had been up in the Catskills. Maybe he'd been around Natvar's school longer than I’d realized.
Mark was a couple of years older than me, in his mid-twenties, a boy with a sweet, wide face, round, pale-lashed blue eyes, and a blonde head that was already half-bald. It didn't make him look older. The first time I'd seen him after class a few months ago, lounging on the couch with his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, I had thought, “He’s gay.” It was in his casual, fluid body, his sometimes half-closed eyes and lazy, easy smile. And I noticed his wide feet with their strong high arches. Sometimes as he sat on the floor or couch he'd absent-mindedly point them into curved white-socked parentheses. He was a dancer, he said without pride, studying with Merce Cunningham.
When I saw the people around me picking up their white laminated cards, I did the same. There was a column of words on the left in a foreign language and a column on the right, the English translation. People began singing the foreign-language words. I liked the melody. It moved fast, and I liked Mark's spirited drumming and Delia's rustling tambourine.
The song reminded me of the Hungarian songs that my father sang in the car. Every time he drove he launched into these songs. I didn’t remember a time when I didn’t know his songs well enough to sing with him. He told me what each song was about—a soldier returning from the war, a pretty girl, a mother with nine daughters—and I sang, mimicking the words he strung together, not knowing when one word ended and the next began, but it didn't matter. I loved the fast songs and disliked the slow, sad ones in minor keys that my father thought were so beautiful.
That night at Natvar's, not knowing the melody or the strange words people were effortlessly singing, my eyes strayed over to the English translation and while everyone sang the hearty chant around me, I read that.
It was a prayer sung to the guru by the devotee. It spoke of how the devotee was incomplete, only partially alive, like an unlit flame. It asked the guru to “kindle my heart with your flame”—jump-start me. The song said that I contained everything I longed for inside of me, but I just needed the guru's special touch to unlock that secret chamber and release all the power that had been stored up inside of me, waiting to come out. And that the only reason the guru existed was to help those who reached out to him, to light them up and bring them fully alive.
I read the words silently, the music soaring around me. The words described how I felt better than any words I'd ever read before. I'd been in New York now for nine months and nothing had happened the way it was supposed to. I had nothing to show for it—no new love to obliterate Jeffrey, no passion for a project, no hoards of friends calling me, no parties to go to. I had strung together the people I knew, stretching them into a fabric of friendship, but I knew it couldn't hold much weight. I had quit my job to write, but those pathetic little things I wrote did not convince me that I was a real writer, a real artist. I was probably just another vapid dilettante.
And the feeling of despair went back much further—all the way back to when I was 12 and had lost my super powers, overnight it seemed. Suddenly, I could no longer effortlessly make friends and be at the center of things. Suddenly, every word I thought of to say was wrong and it was as if an invisible hand pressed against my mouth, forcing me to the sidelines. I struggled there, sure I did not belong there, but I could not leave. Instead I watched other people succeed—have friends, do things they loved, have faith in themselves as filmmakers or writers or painters or ceramicists—while it seemed that all I did was try to write and fail, try to make friends and fail.
But the song said I had something special and powerful inside of me. It sounded right. I did have something inside of me. I could feel it. And it was true that I did not know how to bring it out. Nothing and no one had ever said that to me before with so much conviction. This song knew how I felt. It reached out to me as if I were a member of a secret, underground society of people who had something so deep and important inside of them that it could only be given expression through very special means. For you, the song said, there is only one answer.
Excerpted from The Imposters by Marta Szabo. Copyright © 2013 by Marta Szabo.