Image of hands with palms up and yellow flowers peaking through

the sleeve


Dear friends,

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 shaking.

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 aimless wanderer.

“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 changed everything.

We are glad to share with you, and gladder to hear from you at [email protected].  

Beir bua

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound

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.


This Week at The On Being Project

Our Latest Episode

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On Being with Krista Tippett
Jericho Brown
Small Truths and Other Surprises

The magnetic 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner who reminds us to look and listen closer, and to bear witness to the complexity of the human experience.

Listen on:
Apple Podcasts
Google Podcasts
Our Website

Poetry Unbound

Ada Limón
Wonder Woman

On living with invisible pain and finding superhero strength in bodies and myth.

Gregory Pardlo
Wishing Well

How being open to unexpected conversations in a city can change us. 

Listen on:
Apple Podcasts
Google Podcasts
Our Website



Image of people at the end of a tunnel; portrait image of Padraig

O Tuama; image of a small flower sprouting

Here are a few pieces to accompany your listening this week:

Listen/Read |
Foreday in the Morning by Jericho Brown
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 largest truth.”

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 MakeEvent (Oct. 5-9)
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.

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The On Being Project
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