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I dreamt of New York City for years. Not the bright lights — a
monastery. I had heard of some priests in the city, and of all the
priests in all the world, it was this monastery I thought I
would join. It took four years, but I saved up for a week-long visit.
A friend picked me up and dropped me off. “Good luck,” she said.
Within five minutes of being inside the monastery I knew I wasn’t a
fit. Four years of dreaming. Four years of “Oh, I think I’ll become a
priest in New York” in answer to the “What are your plans Pádraig?”
question that everyone was asking me. I worried people saw me as a bit
of a wanderer.
So here I was, in the wreck of surprise and a week felt like a
lifetime. After a few days, I stopped taking part in the activities
the priests arranged; I couldn’t be around them. A friend took an
overnight bus from Vermont and we walked around the city before he
caught the same nightbus home. I got lost on the subway most days. I
walked the city alone. And I kept meandering towards a gay bar. I
hadn’t ever been inside a gay bar alone before. This was early 2001. I
was 25, curious, frightened.
I went in one afternoon. I bought a lemonade. I must have been
I got talking with the man behind the bar — he had an Irish
grandparent. “What’s got you in New York?” he asked. What the hell, I
confessed it all: priesthood; New York City; four years of dreaming;
all broken in an instant; surprise — the bad kind; a whole life in
front of me now; no plans left; everybody was right: I was an
“Have you ever been in love?” he asked.
Nothing had prepared me for his question. Up until that point, I’d
believed such love was neither possible nor permissible. The barman
could see my surprise. He was in no rush. I’m guessing I cried, but I
can’t really remember. He was lovely. I don’t remember going back to
the monastery. I barely remember the rest of the week.
This week, our offerings all land on surprise at one point or
another. In Poetry Unbound, Ada
Limón is on the edge of a city when a young girl in costume
surprises her into strength. And Gregory
Pardlo is in a city when someone approaches him and shocks him
into a surprising encounter. Jericho
Brown speaks, too, of surprise in his On Being
conversation. When he’s writing a poem, he says, he’s looking for
the surprise. “Where am I going to say the thing I don’t expect to
say?” he wonders.
These days, many are unsurprised by the latest atrocity. Not
because they’re callous, but because they’re realistic. A public life
where unnecessary pain is predictable is a grief and a failure.
Searching for surprise in public conversations could sound like a
naïve dream, but isn’t everything fragile when it’s born?
And anyway, such dreams aren’t young, they’re older than horror.
Ignoring them is a nightmare, and we know all about those.
For us, in both our media offerings and in our public life
initiatives, we are hoping to join you in moments where we share
surprise. We hope to curate constructive surprises — ones that support
political awakenings, where prejudices are exposed, where justice
becomes imaginable because of some small, unexpected thing that
We are glad to share with you, and gladder to hear from you at [email protected].
Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry
P.S. — Just so you know “Beir bua” is an Irish sign-off,
my favorite. It translates as something like “bear up!” or “hold
victory.” Mostly, though, I love it because it’s how my dad always
signs his letters.
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Week at The On Being Project
Our Latest Episode
On Being with Krista
“Small Truths and Other
2020 Pulitzer Prize winner who reminds us to look and listen closer,
and to bear witness to the complexity of the human
with invisible pain and finding superhero strength in bodies and myth.
being open to unexpected conversations in a city can change
Here are a few pieces to accompany your listening this
Listen/Read | “Foreday
in the Morning” by Jericho
He says of writing
“I love my mother” in this poem: “The thing the poem needed was a
truth. And it seems a small truth. And yet, in that moment, it was the
Listen | Pádraig Ó Tuama in The World
The Poetry Unbound host
was on the Artist Decoded podcast and NPR’s All Things Considered recently, where he talked about embracing flourishing and
finding companionship in poetry.
Watch | “The
World We Make”
Our friends at the
Center for Healthy Minds are hosting this series with mental health
experts and former On Being guests Dr. Richard Davidson and
His Holiness the Dalai Lama.