This fall the maples were as late catching fire as I can remember. By the time they lit, the black walnuts, always the first to go anyway, had dropped their leaves. Everyone said it was because it was too wet, or too cool, or too whatever. I can never quite remember what are supposed to be the optimal conditions for orange and red maple leaves.
It was a season of synchronicity. While I waited for the maples, the UN released a report on the state of climate change and the natural environment, urging the world to action and telling whoever was listening that by 2040 we could expect violent climactic events. As if the wildfires in California, the tsunamis throughout the Pacific, the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico and Houston weren’t violent enough to count.
While all this information was settling in, while I was pushing the despair that threatened to the edges of consciousness, a friend sent me a poem from Edward Harkness. It begins “There’s no word for it so far, the word / for what it means to be in love with you / in our sinking world.”
All the while the days were getting darker, both literally and figuratively. And I found myself asking, with Rebecca Solnit, “What does it mean to hope as the darkness gathers around us?” I don’t just mean the darkness of white supremacy, once more unleashed on America by Donald Trump and his followers, though, yes, that, too. But the darkness of denial, the darkness of hurtling toward the edge of our existence as a species, the darkness of annihilation and the sweet anesthetic of forgetfulness that even the most woke of us seem to drink in like mist on a foggy morning.
With darkened days, it certainly is easier to fall into sleep at an early hour and to lay long abed, wrapped in the covers than to place one’s feet on the icy floor and stare into the reality of a bleak and frozen world.
Bleak and frozen the world does seem. White supremacy, war, environmental exploitation, the assault on women’s bodies, retractions of the full humanity of queer persons, persons of color, non-human persons. What is the opposite of personification? That’s the process I mean.
None of these forces is new, none suddenly or inexplicably upon us. All have a history, a reality that precedes this one. Rather, it is we, or some of us, that are changing. Though I wish I could say I had woken a long time ago, I am a part of this “we” that is waking now. Though it is truer to say that we are in a state of half-waking, as if drawn out of our dreams, shocked partially alert by the cold gust against our faces. But only partially, still struggling to hold onto the fantastical world of sleep, where all seemed not just fine but lovely. And all while others fight to wake from their nightmares, only to wake and find those monsters haunting their realities.
We are living in a time of apocalypse, in the real meaning of the word. A time of unveiling and revelation, when the scrim that concealed reality is lifted, and we have the chance to see the world as it is really is. We have the chance, too, to see ourselves and one another as we really are. The vision is grimmer and more frightening than we had imagined. And there are only so many of us who want or choose to see. So many others who stubbornly close their eyes, as if reality will cease to be something unpleasant or challenging if only they squint hard enough.
Let’s be clear, though. It isn’t reality that has changed. It is our sight. Or, to be clearer still, the sight of some of us.
A dear friend, a black man, once said to me when I expressed outrage at some example of outrageous racism, “You know, I find that people of color are never surprised by racism.” He was so calm, so matter of fact. He had seen this sort of thing too many times for it to shock.
If some of us are waking up to the darkness, we also have to wake up to the knowledge, the painful knowledge, that people of color in particular, and all marginalized people have always known this world we now find ourselves in.
Still, I return to the maples and their lateness, just one new-to-me signpost of Reality, one more burning bush calling me back to the Truth. And the truth, as the UN tells me, and my own eyes confirm, is that we have to ask when, not if the last maple will drop its fiery leaf on this land that I love so much.
What words are there for what it means to be in love with this shatteringly beautiful life as the world sinks around us?
This same fall I am living with multiple losses, multiple opportunities to see the world. Joseph has left the monastic community. My rock, in so many ways. He has left, and for reasons that, whether I think them good or not—and I don’t think them particularly good—are his, as is the decision. And he has made it. And now he is there and not here. And I am here. And reality is…well, reality is still itself. My fears, longings, and hopes have not departed, nor have they changed much.
Part of the reality I live with is that, without Joseph, I still choose to stay. My choice isn’t painless. But it isn’t difficult, either. I don’t choose to stay because I love monastic life, though I do love it. I don’t choose to stay because I feel that somehow God has ordained it for me. I don’t believe in that kind of God. I choose to stay because this is who I am. I am a monk. And not just any monk, but a monk here, in this place, on this land, in this moment of history.
I stay because I cannot do otherwise.
For the first time in my life, a story comes to me. I am walking by the River when a familiar sadness and yearning begin to rise from my belly into my chest. Joseph has been gone for nearly two months now, and it’s been almost as long since I made my request for life profession. I begin to wonder if I may have made a mistake. I know the life I’m saying “yes” to, but what of that other life? What of the life that will never be lived, at least not on this plane? What of the father, the husband, the lover I still long to be?
I come upon a downed maple, laying across the path. Its furrowed bark reminds me of a river. I sit astride it, one foot on the path before, one foot on the path after. Then I lay back, lift my feet onto the maple’s trunk, and stare up at the bare trees swaying against the clear blue of the sky. I stay that way for what seems like a long time. A line comes into my mind: “It snowed the day I left the Monastery.” I sit up, slide off the river of maple, and continue my walk. And when I get back to the Monastery, the life I am not choosing asserts itself.
It snowed the day I left the Monastery. It was a gentle snow, the kind that almost caresses the ground, riming the golden mats of last year’s grass in the meadow running down to the tree line. That’s the image that always comes to me when I read about the Israelites gathering manna in the wilderness. I suppose those flakes and that view were a kind of sustenance in the wilderness that was those first months after leaving. Though I had to store up and mete out, like that widow Elijah visited, those images and memories. The miracle was that they never quite ran out, just faded a bit until they were replaced with new images, new warmth, as the days lengthened into spring and summer and on through fall, until another winter fell in another place, with new flakes on new hills.
I couldn’t have left in spring, the garden bursting with bulbs I’d planned the previous fall, knowing even as I nestled each tulip and crocus and daffodil into its earthen bed that I would never see them sprout and bloom. If I had seen that all that sweat and hope burgeoning forth, a miracle each one, it would have made the heartache that much greater. No matter how many springs had followed how many falls, no matter how many bulbs I had seen break through the nearly frozen ground to sway in the chilly breezes of March and April, I still knew no greater proof of God than a tulip. Knowing, as I had come to, the biology of it all only deepened my awe. Those papery casings on those fleshy lumps, pointy almost to sharpness at the end, putting down their hairy roots into the cooling earth below. The way they not only tolerated, but needed the cold of winter just as they needed the dry baking heat of July. If only I have could have learned to love my own seasons in their time, loved the intensity of them, not as a distraction from clarity, but as the intensity of reality itself, unfiltered.
If even one snowdrop had raised its grassy throat to the sun that February morning when I left the Monastery, I would have faltered. But the land once again embraced me. The kiss of the snow on my red cheeks, the steel grey of the River, nearly blue in the winter months. A silent benediction.
I sat that morning with the old oak tree, feeling as I did the night my grandmother died, Christmas Eve three years before. Her mouth stretched wide, more moan than grimace, as her breathing grew ragged. It was as if her whole being were opening wider and wider, her mouth both womb and tomb, all need, all space. As the world waited to celebrate Jesus’ birth, I sat waiting for my grandmother’s, not sad exactly, but awash with my own need, that old craving to be freed from myself. Just so the old oak stretched out her cracked arms that morning, beckoning me closer and letting me go. Free.
I made my way up 87, past Albany and Saratoga Springs and onto the smaller routes of Vermont, 149 opening out onto 4, then the sharp turn left onto 30 and north in the winding hills along Lake Bomoseen. Then that moment around Hubbardton where the view of the mountains, purple, blue and white, and the rolling golden hills opens and you can breathe again.
That first night, I stayed with Tom and Charlotte in the large sunny guestroom where I’d stayed that weekend that everything changed. They’d offered me the room for as long as I wanted, but despite my anticipation of the pain and grief to come, I knew I needed to be alone. St. David’s, the church I was to take, had a small but lovely rectory waiting for me, della Robbia blue facing with large clear windows and inside, wide pine floors. Small as the house might have been to some, used as I was to a 10 x 13 foot cell, the house’s empty rooms called to me. They frightened me, too. And so, I knew, with that old mixture of desire and fear, that warm as Tom and Charlotte’s home was, I needed to enter the emptiness of my own.
I decided not to keep the name Aidan, much as I had grown used to it. It was always more aspirational than reflective of my sense of self. That was one of the real reasons I chose to leave.
The name never quite fit. It means “little fire” in Irish. When I chose it—or, when, as I thought at the time, it chose me—that sense of small burning gave voice to the way I saw myself living into vowed monastic life. I had always been a raging or towering light, fiery, impulsive, with the sort of passion and, at times, anger that boiled over quickly and then subsided in foamy clouds. Half fire, half air. That’s how I was born.
Therapy connected me with the watery realms of emotion, and the monastery with the stabilizing ground of earth. Before I joined Holy Cross, I’d always wanted to burn as brightly as I could. When I chose the name Aidan at my first profession, I was signaling, to myself most of all, that I was different. I hoped that in turning down my own flame, I could finally be a person among persons, wonderfully, simply ordinary. I could reassure myself that I didn’t need to be a raging fire. Instead, I could do my small bit, a little light in my time and place.
There was very little of smallness about Saint Aidan’s fire, except in that he kept pointing to God’s greater light. In his day he outshone kings, precisely by way of not outshining them. One day, for example, the king complained to Aidan that he was always selling the horses the king gave him to ride, as a man of his rank was meant to. Aidan explained that he used the money the horses brought to buy people out of slavery and set them free. Then he shamed the king by asking, “Do you really care more about the child of a mare than you do about a child of God?” To quote the gospels, the king didn’t dare to ask him anymore questions.
I suppose I thought that I could allow the earthiness of monastic stability to temper my own fire, to transform it into the fire of humility, like the great Aidan, that I could learn to be happy with less of me, as if less of oneself always means more of God. Call it habit or destiny or identity—I don’t really know—but I could never finally satisfy myself with littleness. Perhaps I have learned to accommodate my sense of the rightness and wrongness of things to the life I have made, but I can’t find much fault with myself for choosing what seems to me a larger flame in a larger life. At least, I can say, I have chosen to burn as brightly as I may, chosen to bear the costs of being on fire, and prayed that, whatever faults and foibles may have guided me might serve as kindling for the blaze.
I came to the Monastery, after all, drawn by the spaciousness of its liturgical and community life and that exhilarating plunge of hillside down to the Hudson. I stayed as long as I did, made a vow, temporary as it turned out to be, because each day I felt more and more truly myself. And when that process of expansion turned to one, first of constriction, and then of contraction, when the container that had allowed for the blossoming of self became the pot that kept the tree a bonsai, I left for what I hoped and feared would be so much space I could drown in it.
Fear strangled me, twisting my gut like a dishrag, at the thought of the wide open world after almost five years of monastic life. Would I drown in all that freedom? Had the muscles you use for choosing and determining atrophied after years of routine and rhythm and rule? Or was my time in the cloister more like high altitude training, the thinness of its oxygen strengthening my heart and lungs to wring each drop of beauty and joy from this brief life?
It was both, of course.
My first night in that blue house, and for a month afterward, I slept on a blow-up mattress against the inside wall of the large back bedroom on the second floor. The limbs of a large old maple cradled the windows of that room, and helped bring the fearsome space of my new life down to a manageable 15 feet square of wide pine floor boards and cool white walls. Those arms held me as I lay staring up at the ceiling, stomach clenched with loneliness, palms sweaty with the fear of more loneliness. I remembered the question of that Al-Anon old timer who asked, when I told her I’d been lonely all day, “Well, did it kill you?” That question, and her creased, waxen face, became a talisman against the other faces and questions leering at me from the darkness. Had I made a mistake? Would the world swallow me up now? Who did I have to turn to now that Bernard and Rob and John were no longer my brothers? And who were those men now, who once were my world? And who was I?
I stay in the Monastery because it’s who I am. But it is also who I choose to be. I choose to be a monk. I choose to allow this land, this place, these people to claim me.
I don’t believe in a God who has laid out all the pieces of a puzzle for me to assemble, if I can muster the wit to do so. No, I believe in a God who is Love itself. In a God who wants me to be me, which is to say in a God who wills for me my own deepest fulfillment, my own becoming.
Would I be happy in that blue house, cradled in the arms of that maple? Perhaps I would, but I don’t think that’s the right question. Happiness is a fleeting and, ultimately, dissatisfying thing. And it’s the trick of Christian discernment to move beyond questions of happiness, to questions of truth, reality, and love, which are ultimately the same thing.
Of course I wonder whether I will be happy in this life I have chosen. Even as I know that yes, I certainly will be happy. I will just as certainly be unhappy. I will be both fulfilled and unfulfilled. Because the choice we make in life is not whether to be totally happy and without pain in one scenario or totally unhappy and suffering in another. No, we choose both the graces and the challenges we will live. Monastic life is no different than any human life in the alloy of its satisfactions and emptinesses.
I have already felt, at times, that the container that once provided so much space to breathe, and so much freedom to play and discover has become a vise to choke and control. Just as the spaciousness that initially drew me to the Monastery has deepened and expanded. The one does not preclude the other, nor rob the other of its depth and meaning. These seeming opposites actually fulfill one another and reveal the deeper strands of unity that undergird this life.
I also choose to stay, because not to choose is to die. To live fully is to be alight, which means to burn and, eventually, to burn out. Like the maple leaves. Never to have burned—that would be intolerable.
I stay in the Monastery, at least in part, because of the maples and the hillside and the River. This year, I find, I only love them and this gorgeous land that has claimed me, and this human community in which I am planted, harder. Harder for the impermanence of it all. Harder because it is all sinking. Harder because, when faced with a flood of loss and death and destruction, what other choice is there?
In the face of the AIDS genocide, when the American government colluded in the death of hundreds of thousands mostly queer people, many of them of color or poor as well, the queer community loved one another into a unity we didn’t know before. This is not to say “thank God for AIDS,” but rather, thank God for the inexplicable threads that hold us to life even in the face of certain and inescapable death. Or perhaps hold us because of that death.
At the end of Angels in America, when Prior finally gets his audience with the befuddled angels trying to keep the universe together, he asks, not to be released from the struggle and the pain, but for more life. I do not know a truer prayer.
When faced with the death of those great and fiery sentinels, I only want more. More fire, more beauty, more love, more life. I want to be freed from whatever would hold me back, from my self-consciousness and timidity, from the past, from my fear. I want to dive into the great River, to drown myself in life.
Writer and activist Rebecca Solnit reminds us that hope is always dark. And that that darkness is not only the darkness of the grave, but also of the womb. It’s usually, I find, the darkness of the both the grave and the womb, for as one assumption or love or understanding dies, another emerges, crying and blind though it may be, into the light.
When I wrote “I couldn’t have left in spring, the garden bursting with bulbs I’d planned the previous fall, knowing even as I nestled each tulip and crocus and daffodil into its earthen bed that I would never see them sprout and bloom,” I was writing truth, even as I was writing fiction.
The tulips keep me here—in the Monastery, by the Hudson, in this life—as much as the maples do. And the daffodils, and the iris, and the peonies and roses and lilacs and aster. Over the years I have been here, I have planted so many beautiful flowers, have sweat into the earth, have hoped through the cold and the dark months to see it all break forth from the crusted ground. Every single time, despite knowing that spring will come, and then summer, and then fall, every single time I am astounded at the color, scent, and form of the flowers, at their profusion and their profligacy.
Planting tulips is the greatest act of resistance I know, the surest way to keep hope alive in the darkness of winter and of this moment in our collective history. More so than other plants, which usually come to the garden visibly alive, tulips shame me in my pessimism and draw me into childlike imagination. They look so dead, papery skin flaking off, not even good to roast and eat like a parsnip. You put them into their earthen bed, sprinkle a little desiccated bone and some rotted manure on top of them, and cover them over to pass the winter in what you know will be frozen ground. How could anything survive such conditions?
And then, when your heart hungers most for color and signs of new life, when the frozen months have passed, but you’re still mired in the mud of late March, really more winter than spring, the tiniest green fingers begin to push their way up. It is truly astounding. If you can keep the deer away from them, they just grow and grow and grow, all green, even in the flower, looking like waxy cabbages, until one morning, when you have almost despaired at getting any color out them, you make your rounds in the garden and there’s an edge of deepest purple or red or white lining the green flowers. And you know that, yes, this year, too the tulips will paint the garden like some magical world. And you wonder how you could ever have despaired of their coming back, or of anything really. Faced with such beauty and such abundance, who could despair of anything at all?
No, the tulips haven’t changed the fact that the world, guided by enlightened humankind, is still careening toward the destruction of so much that we hold we dear. They haven’t assured their own survival, nor the maples, either. They haven’t ended white supremacy or the degradation of women and queer people. They haven’t fed the hungry or clothed the naked or freed the prisoners, at least none but me. For they do feed my hunger for beauty and hope. And they clothe my naked soul with wonder. And they free me from the prison of my small-minded despair that discounts the grace that flows in prodigal waves all the time.
Harkness is wrong. There is a word for what it means to be in love with you in this sinking world. The word is “love,” which is never truer than when it contains sorrow and loss and heartache. To love properly, our hearts have to break. That’s the only way there’s enough space in them.
To quote Solnit again: “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” Tulips are my answer to this time of war and darkness and plague, to my own vocational struggles and longings, to this life, which, for all its pain and loss is, at the same time, a time of graced awakening.
The real miracle is to be able, when the forces of death rage all around us, to crave more life, so much life we could drown in it.
A little meta-note here. Although I don’t plan, at the moment, to return to writing weekly, short-format blog posts, I do hope to use this blog to share longer essays I have been working on. I appreciate your feedback, either to content or style. And thanks for reading this far!
 Edward Harkness, “Union Creek in Winter,” Terrain.org: https://www.terrain.org/2017/poetry/letter-to-america-harkness/
 Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark, p. 5.
 Solnit, p. 24.