“Should I go to grad school?”: Some advice to folks figuring it out.

Dumelang, folks! My efforts to devote more time to this site in the new year have so far come to naught, but January isn’t quite over yet. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few months about my experience in graduate school with a view to what advice I have for others who might be considering a similar path. While this article draws heavily from my own personal experience pursuing a history Ph. D., I think it a lot of it might apply more broadly. So, without further ado, here are five tips that I think would have helped me discern and prepare back in 2014 and 2015 when I was wrestling with the prospect of a grad degree.

Tip No. 1: Take some time to think about what you want to do (1 year +). This is my number one regret. The semester I graduated from William and Mary, I was thrilled to line up a service year position through my church in Winston-Salem, N.C. That job, working mostly in the toddler classroom of a school serving kids with a variety of developmental needs, remains to this day the best job I ever had. Sure, I was paid only a tiny stipend and had a lot of trouble in my life that year (totally unrelated to the job), but every day coming into work I was absolutely sure that I was doing something unambiguously good and unambiguously necessary. It wasn’t specialized work (not the stuff I was doing; I wasn’t a teacher) and it had nothing to do with history, but it was intellectually stimulating. It demanded both compassion and the best of my problem-solving ability.

Part of the reason I elected to go that route had to do with discernment. I knew graduating was a big step and like a lot of people I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was interested in deepening my faith and hoped that in the context of a religious community I would make better decisions. I was considering seminary too.

I didn’t give myself nearly enough time. My job in North Carolina ended in June of 2015, and by August I was in East Lansing. Those milestones on my C.V. are misleading if taken on their own, however. I had to make the decision to apply to graduate schools a lot earlier: it was in October 2014, just five months after graduating, that I started narrowing down my list of potential Ph. D. programs, in December that I finished all my applications, in February when I got accepted to Michigan State. The deadline to commit to M.S.U. came around on Tax Day, April 15th, 2015. In other words, my year of discernment wasn’t actually a year of discernment; it was almost entirely occupied with the Ph. D. admissions process.

While I would still say my service year taught me many important lessons, it was hard to process them when I was already so firmly down the conveyor belt to graduate school. If I were to do it over, I would have found a way to stick around in Winston-Salem for another year, to test my resolve to re-enter the academic fray. I don’t think one year is enough time even if you are of a truly scholarly temperament.

The first public talk I ever gave in South Africa!

Tip No. 2: Consider your values. Let’s get this out of the way while it’s still pretty early: grad school sucks. My suspicion is that this is true no matter what field you choose, and no matter where you go, to some extent. This isn’t to say that it’s going to be non-stop misery (if it is, you really shouldn’t stick it out; see tip no. 5), but as with any intensive training program, the good memories are going to be the parts that least feel like grad school. You’ll remember things like your first conference paper that went really well, your first time doing research in the field, or the first time you got accepted to a peer-reviewed journal. In other words, the times when you were taken seriously and affirmed as a practitioner of whatever it is you’re going to school for.

Grad school can enable some wonderful things, but pretty much any way you slice it you’re talking about a lot of work. Work means reading books about things you love, true, but it also means navigating the potentially byzantine requirements of your program, or, if you have an assistantship, having to grave seventy-five borderline incoherent undergraduate essays in the course of a weekend. It’s not attractive stuff. Add to that the fact that you’re at the bottom of a very complex and stress-inducing academic pecking order. You’ll constantly be confronted with your own ignorance even about things you thought you knew well, which is exciting sometimes and sometimes very, very, stressful.

I have never worked harder than the year I was dealing with my comprehensive exams. I didn’t give up, and I ended up passing and getting the dissertation research fellowship of my dreams—eventually—but it came at the cost of my mental and physical health. I had panic attacks regularly. I kept a horrendous diet and gained weight. I put off getting medical care for a minor but very painful complaint for fear of falling behind on my comps lists, even though I had quality health insurance through my school (not a guarantee everywhere, by the way!). So yeah, I won the victory. But it came at a steep cost.

The upshot here is this: if you don’t dominate grad school, it will dominate you. Go in knowing what you value, what kind of lifestyle you want to have and aware of the lines you don’t want to cross in pursuit of a degree. If you forget who you are and why you’re there, it’s easy to slip into the gaping maw of burnout. Keep grad school and your own self worth as far away from each other as you possibly can. Don’t concede an inch. If you hate the kind of person it’s turning you into, step back: assess what you value. Breaking into academia is like trying to be an actor in L.A.: if you define yourself by your tally of successes and failures, you’re not going to last long.

Tip No. 3: Don’t pay for it.  I realize this isn’t an option for everybody, but within my field, reputable Ph. D. programs fully fund the people they admit for a period of years. I was doubly lucky in that I got accepted directly into a Ph. D. program without needing to obtain (and pay for) an M.A. first. Granted, I did get my B.A. in history, and I wrote a thesis in undergrad; I’m not sure M.S.U. would have accepted me if I had majored in something else.

I will say this though: I’m not sure how I would have coped over the past four years if I’d had the additional stress of taking out loans on my mind. With the academic job market as difficult as it is, I chose M.S.U. in part because I didn’t want to end up in debt for a degree that might not result in a career.

Definitely explore your options for getting the degree you want while spending as little money as possible. When you get accepted to schools, really do your homework on the funding packages they’re offering you. Also, remember to factor in cost of living. Anyone who reads my poetry knows I have a love-hate relationship with the state of Michigan, but one thing that’s really great about going to school in East Lansing is the low, low, low cost of living, particularly for housing. If I had entered a Ph. D. program in a big East or West Coast city, I wouldn’t have to deal with the angst of being stuck in the Midwest, and probably would have been offered more money. But the extra thousand dollars or so would not have offset the astronomical expense of living in those cities. I don’t feel nearly as squeezed at M.S.U. as I would at other schools, and that’s a non-trivial thing.

Me on my first day of graduate school: bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and hopelessly naive.

Tip No. 4: Cultivate your village. This goes back to tip no. 2, and it’s crucial to keeping yourself sane. It’s almost impossible to succeed in grad school without a set of people to fall back on and encourage you through the gauntlet. I am blessed with a wonderful network of people from high school, college, and beyond (in addition to my family) who have provided this support consistently and with aplomb. I am eternally, eternally grateful to them and often think that the part of my dissertation I look most forward to writing is the acknowledgements. They remind you (and you’ll need the reminding quite a bit, if you’re like me) that the stakes aren’t as high as you think they are, that there’s life beyond campus. That you are valuable, regardless of anything you might do or fail to do in pursuit of a graduate degree.

While it’s definitely beneficial to have people in your immediate grad cohort you can vent with, who understand exactly what you’re going through, it’s just as important to keep in contact with people who don’t have anything to do with your chosen field. It can be hard to maintain relationships like that, of course, especially as the golden years of college fade further and further into the distance, but it’s worth the effort. Not only is it important to get away from the tunnel vision school stress tends to induce, but talking to people far removed from your situation can also grant you an important sense of perspective.

If this account of grad school sounds overly negative, remember that all paths you might choose to take have their own trials and tribulations. No, grad school isn’t fun, but if you want to be a historian, being a historian is great fun, and that’s where the road ends up. You might get jealous of some of your friends on the outside, but you might also realize how much you would hate their career path. Grad school entails a lot of uncertainty, for sure, but would you trade that uncertainty in for consistent boredom? I can complain about Michigan until the sun falls into the sea, but grad school lets me go to South Africa too, which more than makes up for it in my book. Not everyone has that. Which is a great segue into tip no. 5:

Tip No. 5: Remember that life is long. Speaking as someone who’s reached the ripe old age of twenty-six, the thread that’s bedevilled me through the first three years of graduate school was a lack of perspective. Take the question that started this: should I go to grad school? A logical but problematic reading of that question would presume that graduate school is either a “good thing” or a “bad thing” for every person: is grad school “right for me”? I’m here to tell you that you can’t work out in advance what your experience is going to be like. It’s for the long haul—if you do an M.A./Ph. D. combo, you’ll be in for almost a decade—and you’re guaranteed to have some of the greatest ups and downs you’ve ever experienced.

At the same time, if you’re in your twenties like me, you’re probably in for a wild ride no matter what you do. It’s hard for me sometimes to figure out how much of the crap I’ve gone through in grad school has actually been because of grad school and how much of it’s just part of growing up.

Again, if you go, don’t let grad school define you. Even when you’re feeling most stressed, there’s always room for grace: get lost in the woods, strike up a random conversation, get involved in a community organization. Take it one step at a time, one week at a time, one day at a time, and you’ll be surprised how far you can get. If you pay attention to how much you’re learning in life rather than just in school, even if you end up working in a totally unrelated field, those years won’t go to waste. They haven’t for me.

Not everybody should go to graduate school; I’m a firm believer in that. If you can see a clear path to a career you love right now, without a graduate degree, don’t waste any time thinking about it. But if, when your soul is at its most calm, you find yourself longing for something that requires a degree, it’s unlikely that anything else you might do can scratch that particular itch. That’s when you realize it’s not just a desire but a vocation; it calls out to you in the middle of the night, even when you wish it would shut up.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk. Leave a comment if you’re considering graduate school and have additional questions, or if you’ve taken the plunge and have a different perspective to share

but too many times we skip over
the things we really don’t much enjoy.
i would rather be anywhere else, yes,
but life is happening in this library
even this late at night—comedies and
tragedies are being written, maybe
even my own—the sweet and sad thing
is that professors don’t really do their
writing in places like this.

i will—inshallah, inshallah, inshallah—
as i was saying—what i’m trying
to say is i will graduate from this.
i don’t know what it will be like,
but it won’t be like this. 

NEW ARTICLE: “Oh, how specific!”: Explaining your (obscure?) topic this holiday season

Howdy everyone!  It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me on this side of the blog, but I’m happy to announce that I have a new article up in The Activist History Review. It’s a short piece about the perils graduate students face in answering questions from friends, family, and acquaintances about what exactly they’re working on.  

I hope to publish more stuff about graduate life in the future.  As I move further towards the dissertation phase of my career, the distance allows me to be more fair and even-handed in my representations.  Later this spring I’m planning on writing something about comprehensive exams.

If you have a topic you’d like to see me address on here, I’d love to hear about it.  What’s your favorite elevator speech encounter.  How do you think graduate students with highly, er, “specialized” topics should navigate the holidays?  Let me know in a comment; your feedback is really helpful!

Have a wonderful festive season!

NEW POEM: dimondale friday afternoon (et intravit israel), in a New Journal!

Hey all!

I have a new poem out, but it’s not here! It’s been published in a journal of poetry and literature called Vessel.  It’s spearheaded by Mike Breger, a friend of mine from high school now in graduate school at Stanford University.  You can read my poem here, alongside all the other excellent contents of Vessel, issue 1.  I’m really impressed with the final product, and I wish Mike all the best with Vessel.  Long may she sail.

sirach 43:8


having walked sixteen miles into the grey abyss of november
across sycamore creek bottomlands, then turning wrong and

finding pockets of the city where streets are not even paved
and where the houses match the streets,

i startled some deer as the night gathered;
i always like it, where else will i

ever be taken for a wolf? leaves upset and blurry kicking,
white flags and a buck in profile, five points melted

into the grainy woods beyond, you know how, no
noises past our little discourse there.


i always thought of you on walks like this
when the shadows used to get long and catch me

like your face still would, if i saw it,
but i will not have that calamity. i told a certain one not once

but many times that i would lie in the middle of richmond road
for you—to demonstrate what, you might well ask—and i would

say it’s all i could do to keep from exploding then and there—
the weight of events would catch such fire, oh,

if i ever saw you in that way. and it still is, probably,
but i think about you less, all by the great manna of being busy.

if i ever saw you again, i would confess my love to the
soil i was buried in, bruising my wrists on the mahogany,

gesticulating. but i am increasing wonderfully in my changing here,
you know, even in a land i hate.


i will admit that when it was really getting dark
after willard avenue; when i had to cross the cemetery

i did feel pangs, the air no longer breathing for a while
as i made steady for aurelius and mt. hope, stifled moonlight

making cobblestones of the leaf litter. suddenly the dead rose
and i was back downtown bawling my eyes out like no one could see,

canned rihanna piping down empty streets like it usually did,
sure before the supreme deity of the universe that i

was the most unfairly killed of all prophets,
the most cruelly beaten down, here in nineveh

where nothing green can thrive. and then a new voice:
but oh, robin, it was three years ago,

oh, oh, oh, look what has been
made to grow here in nineveh.


slain demons flash in the dark like phantom limbs:
oh, i am not used to their absence.

do you remember hitting that deer on penn? how hopeless
in that moment all you felt? or the bullet-pointed

ypsilanti sleet on the day you felt it was all over?
and a hundred-odd mundane evasions of company of people

you might have let in on the squalor of davis avenue? the night,
driving one back home down collins—i think in the first month

of this adventure—boring her and yourself talking about moravians
and deciding you would do best to forget them all? the calm

bitterness of twenty thousand hours walking shoeless
through the rain down from the m.l.k. bridge—no,

you will never forget. but what will we do now
in victory and freedom? oh, robin, oh;

i wish you would see
what has grown in nineveh.

dimondale highway


i don’t know what it is about dimondale
that makes me feel so far away;

i don’t know if it’s the fall wind blowing me
across these long dusks that reminds me of places

i barely ever was, the tygart valley, say, or
bee hill road. it is like hiding in a fold of

the universal garment, like an addendum
shrunk down of the wide emptiness

stretching north to the manistee, where
you can see a blinking yellow five miles

ahead of getting there. but in dimondale i
can walk the world from end to end in a couple

of hours and be satisfied,
having seen everything.


oh, they say there is life outside of windsor
charter township—south africa, say,

they like soccer a lot more. but why
would you want there to be?

dead possums and winter wheat and sky:
these three categories

are the whole of
creation: nothing lives

that is not one
of these.

twenty-nine verses for chipia


now that i’m here, what
is there really to say? i
can hardly presume

to write about a
place so holy to my best
friend: i cannot go

dedicating a
poem so inadequate;
i am ignorant

of the narrowest
jot of this small place
with its rocks and tree

roots spread like melting
wax over a thousand boulders—
the holy of holies

desires no lines
on its own behalf, being
perfected in se.

twenty-six years of
sedimented memories and
learning how to be

who he is. and i
have been a decade in his
mind; only now with

eyes uncovered, can
i see its grounds and waters,
the noise of its limbs

and its shining like
mercury in the thrall of
a blue dancing moon

at once gentler and
more convicting than any
foreign monument.


the best feeling in the
world is to be given
what you did not seek

as i was, my friend,
last night and this whole week; i
had no foreknowledge,

surely, eleven
years ago that i would be
drunk with you on the

blue-black night, the eye
of God in cool late august
brightness lighting up

ossipee and the
mountains like a photograph
negative, all greens

now spiritous and
ashen to see, a cleansing
vapor to feel in

new lungs for new men,
reborn for as long as we
refuse the land and

its inevitable
ruin; its roads to greater
roads and greater roads,

its soft damnation
of choices. here, a decade
having passed, we watched

midnight come and go
talking about people we knew
and how a war

might be conducted
here with small craft: to each war
lord a small island

from which to conduct
their fleet, fantasies of far
youth spent menacing

foes and taxing the
peasants to revolution
with fallen branches.

out in deep water
the loons hunt and your darkness
must be so humid

with memory, as
august passes everywhere
to fall, evergreen

waif, the one who is
always dying every year.
it has been a great

momentous thing, you
know, to have these eleven
years with no end yet

in sight.

wisdom 7:12


it costs so much to understand
just a little of this world,

some part you slipped a paper under
and a glass, a spider on the face of

infinity, for what feels like the price
of life itself. i know i lay awake

for months in agony memorizing
the contents of the cage they prepared

for it, peering gravely into corners
knowing they would ask about

details when the time came
to make my account, provided our

hairy little friend still lived
and the house didn’t burn

and the sky unfallen,
et cetera.


soon i was full of heaviness and
walking in trenches, discerning

narrow ways through kind loam.
i was driven into desert places

by my heaviness and thought my soul lost
on a poor wager; i thought of

callaway and the start i almost made
there, and my grief deepened

until it seemed i could go nowhere
but stay and learn the rocks inside

the dry kloof, but i
was wrong about that.


there is so much to learn in this world
but not much to understand, not much

that’s worth trying to, is what i mean;
in any case, you don’t need to know much

to finish well in this life:

only mostly the love of God
and the faith to take one step

a thousand thousand times.

todd lake departure

to lie here on this old pillow
listening to the endless calling

of the night to the night
the tent like a pimple on the face

of the mountain her calling
to the sky, drops all night

from broad leaves, the war
poetry of bullfrogs and owls,

the pacific verses of insects
and the haze of the unseen:

lying here on this pillow
i am transfixed like one dying

on the conviction, full of mud
and sweat, that this is what

i must have more of; caroline
there next to me, invincible,

i walked beside her through
the black green corridor of the

dark, pores electric with the
sound of her words:

behold what you are;
may you become what you receive

where i wish you to be: just here,
anointed in spring water before

a congregation of newts and pubescent frogs,
learned in the land to

which you surrendered many times:
learned just in slow and simple things,

no longer in thrall of arcana.

fragments for leaving emery


all according to
plan—including the driving
rain up Storey to

Low Street to Parker
and the train station, poncho
riding up and soaking

shorts et cetera
(my bus tickets a second
time) now gliding past

marshes soaked with tide
and the bajareque, the
rain having yielded.


still unclear on what
all the rain means—this perfect
symmetry of storms:

maybe limina,
maybe chance, but i hope i
do not lapse wholly.


how can i describe
the night yesterday? i had
many disturbed dreams

despite the pure calm
of the night (or half night; i
went to bed at just

9:30, when the
margin of the sky was
still strawberry white.


i spoke to Mary
Theotokos in the dark
chapel, knowing eyes

and kind, then saw the
last lovely steam of a long
day evaporate.


i hope the dreams were
frustrated footfalls of some
enemies leaving.

the medicine of silence


you are here for not
twelve hours and you say “i
want to write a book

about silence”: this
is not appropriate, it’s
not in the spirit.


This post is out of character for the poetry part of this site, because it’s in prose. But I feel moved, having just returned from a five day silent retreat, to share a little about my experience with others. I can honestly say that the time I spent at Emery House, a monastic retreat house about an hour north of Boston, was one of the most meaningful events of my life.

I write this with quite a bit of trepidation, knowing full well how paradoxical—absurd, even—it seems to be writing about silence. Obviously it would seem that the best way to “learn” about silence is just to shut up, so why spend a whole week just doing that? The question is legitimate. When you think of silence primarily as the absence of something (speech, conversation, interaction, connection), it doesn’t sound like something worth celebrating. What’s more, in an age and generation where so much ordinary social contact is mediated through devices and digital communication where talking isn’t even necessary, it may seem even less clear why it would be good to seek out silence. Surely, in this alienated age, the thing to be thirsting for is real communication, no? Even as we speak to one another less and less, we grow more and more distracted.


I want to be very upfront with people who don’t know me personally: I’m a Christian and Emery House is run by the monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), an order of celibate monks in the Anglican (as opposed to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox) tradition. The experience of silence that I’ll be talking about here is therefore indelibly shaped by my particular faith (as well as the individual questions I embarked on this retreat with the intention of asking God).

At the same time, almost every religion on the planet that I’m aware of incorporates some kind of contemplative, meditative, or mystical component (some of which, like yoga and mindfulness, are practiced in some decidedly secular spheres). Even without acknowledging a higher power behind it all, it’s easy to lose oneself in silent contemplation of a starry night on a purely intellectual level. Rarely, even in that case, are the emotions and the deeper parts of the soul left untouched. My point is that no matter what you believe, silence probably has something to teach you. But I am getting ahead of myself.

“In the early morning hour,
just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
and take a drink of water.
She asked, ‘Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth.’
He says, ‘There’s nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
to sunlight.’
This is how Hallaj said, ‘I am God,’
and told the truth!”


One of the first things you learn on a silent retreat is that silence is more than not talking, a negative condition of the world. Within the first twenty-four hours of shutting up (I’m a very talkative person in my everyday life), your other senses become heightened. Because you aren’t thinking of things you need to say to people and have no expectation of people speaking to you, you become more and more deeply attuned to the sights and sounds and smells of the world around you.

of course silence is not merely absence
for it is never the same
i am learning that silence sounds different the longer
it is kept:

it’s 10:41
and the only word i’ve said
today is “so,” so

the medicine of
silence perhaps is starting
to help me arrive.


In the course of the week I was at Emery House, the only time I ever spoke (aside from a couple words a day by mistake) was during worship services, which were held four times a day (morning prayer at 7:30, the eucharist (holy communion) at 12:00, evening prayer at 6:00, and compline (night prayer) at 8:00. The services, all derived from scripture and the ancient words of Christian liturgies, involved a lot of chanting and a cappella singing, since there was no musical accompaniment in the simple Emery House chapel. Even when you were speaking, then, you had to concentrate on following the music, pausing when the monks paused (quite often), and not raising your voice above those of others. It seems intimidating when I describe it in the abstract, but because I was already fairly familiar with these services, I was able to get to a place where it was really exhilarating.

My voice, freed from the obligation to constantly respond to social stimuli, became an instrument almost solely to be used for communication with God. Besides worship and meals, the only things I had to do during the day were read, write, and take long walks. In the afternoons, I took long walks with books I was reading for fun (Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read). Without my phone, on walks I was forced to really look around me, taking in the different plants, the winding of the road and the sound of unseen snakes and frogs darting off into the grass at its sides. Ultimately I will admit that it was a much more difficult task to tame the stubborn restlessness of my mind, which usually has access to a phone to slake its curiosity about the world. In lieu of reading and scrolling and looking things up, I found myself becoming more and more attuned to the richness of individual moments and scenes. The woods, after all, are alive with God’s creatures going about their business, paying you little to no mind, particularly if you stay still. Before long, my sandals started coming off. New tactile thrills awaited my soles: dirt and mud and pine needles and and spiny dry grass and roots between my toes. It’s a risky matter, walking barefoot, but in my unhurried and well-cared for state of soul, it felt like a calling:

thinking about big
things so often depends on
small things, how they grow,

how a man can walk
barefoot through deep woods, reckless
as children are, free

to pepper God with
questions: bird calls and rustles
and mushrooms, a faith

that does not ask “what
about ticks?” going around
in boots, gravely:

faith worthy because
never worthy, safe because
never safe, Christ’s own.


Because of the silence, for five days I was able to exist at Emery House not as anyone’s friend nor as anyone’s son or relative. No one at the monastery knew I was in graduate school, no one knew about my experiences in South Africa or anywhere else. But unlike the anonymity of everyday life, I was under precisely zero pressure to impress upon people the kind of person I was. Beyond the need to conform to the minimum requirements of life at the monastery, the performative aspect of daily life was gone; at the same time, I was living profoundly unselfishly. I wasn’t thinking about pursuing my own fulfilment; instead I was focused, through the books on prayer I spent the mornings reading, on quieting my own mind in order to inwardly digest the word of God.

life is wondering
whether God is paying for
a meal: you’re anxious

until you see that
the bill is seven million
dollars; then you know

“The ‘righteous man’ is one who is learning more and more his own weakness, and is turning more and more to God, so that God is more and more free to carry out His will in him.”
—James O. S. Huntington, O.H.C.

This wasn’t my first introduction to the idea of contemplative prayer as a path to spiritual growth. But I can’t deny that before my retreat I did regard injunctions to “be still and know that I am God” with some suspicion. Part of the problem for me, looking back, was an idea—strongly rebutted in the books I read during my mornings—that prayer was a matter of thinking hard enough, of concentrating hard enough on whatever it was I wanted to focus on in order to hear the “still small voice” of God coming through, like a faraway radio transmission.

It was St. Theophan the Recluse (a badass name for a nineteenth century Russian saint, if I may say so) who first insisted in my reading on the idea that prayer is not a desperate attempt to establish contact so much as something radically different: a clearing of the mind, an inherently restful act, even. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the Spirit helps us in out weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

It’s true: I don’t know how to pray as I ought, because even when the words come easily, I don’t really understand what’s in my real best interest. And herein lies the true value of silence. Silence (both inward and outward) provides space for us as human beings to recenter ourselves and remember the most important truths about ourselves: that we are children of God, that we are beloved by him (and powerless to change this!), and that separation from these truths is the only thing worth fearing in this life. Centered in this, less fearful and anxious of the world outside, the Holy Spirit finds space to work inside us—and thus it’s really the Holy Spirit and not our own pious selves that prays on our behalf.


Now I am aware that some people reading this might find it indulgent. What I’m describing—an extended holiday from screens and communication in a stunning natural setting—might sound too much like an actual holiday for comfort. Of course, they might say, you felt a deep connection to God and the universe while you were there, but what about after you left? It’s easy to feel holy in a holy place; the tough part is applying it to the everyday frustration of life outside the cloister.

when you are well-fed
and undistracted and shut
up it is easy

to see that life is
God’s great adventure, but this
is a tall order.

i realized tonight during evening prayer that already
God seems to have provided answers to my questions,
but this clarity means nothing if it is not sustained.
not to love, but to keep loving,
not to stop, but to keep stopping,
not to listen, but to keep listening,
that’s the game.

It has already been difficult, in the week or so I’ve been back, to readjust to everyday life. It doesn’t come naturally to recall God as often in a place that isn’t a literal monastery. At the same time, the truths I reacquainted myself with at Emery House remain just as true everywhere. They are helping me, I hope, towards a life of less fear and more confidence (at some point soon I hope to write something about fear and how dangerous it is, but that’s an essay for another time).

I could also write more deeply about the things at Emery House I had more difficulty adjusting to. The practice of eating meals in silence, for example, was hard for me. The food (vegetarian for the whole week I was there, much of it sourced from the monks’ own garden) was absolutely delicious, but the monks eat in haste. Since I was often hungry from my long walks, but also didn’t want to hold anyone up—we prayed both before and after the meal, so it mattered when one finished—I often felt like I had to eat much more quickly than I would like. I’m sure plenty has been written about monastic mealtime practices, and I can understand to a certain extent the desire not to produce an atmosphere of feasting outside of actual feast days, but given how special I felt the food was, it remains somewhat jarring to me. As I re-examine my own relationship with food, perhaps I’ll strike upon some additional insight.

I came to Emery House with a lot of questions that had been burning through my gut over the past few months. I was frustrated because I thought the most important thing I had to do was discern God’s will for me, an arduous process that would involve a lot of thought-intensive, exhausting prayer and reading of the auspices. Thanks to St. Theophan, David Benner (author of Desiring God’s Will, a wonderful little book), and James O. S. Huntington, O.H.C., I came to understand that this was not the best use of my time: no individual decision I might make is more important than living my life in a way that strives to glorify God, a trite phrase that means existing at peace with myself and in the service of those around me.

I have a long, long, long way to go on that count. But a long way is just a bunch of little footsteps, after all.


it is God who waits
for us: awareness is all
that we are lacking

likewise, today was
pure bliss, except for the bird
who shat on my arm

while i was in the
hammock learning about
His presence and love.

light shone through the birch
leaves, obscuring the culprit;
so much for justice


Have you ever been on a silent retreat, or have you ever thought about going on one? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments, particularly if you’ve experienced something similar in a different faith tradition. I’ve always been struck by the profound affinity that exists among the different contemplative traditions of the world, and I’m fascinated to learn more.

Also, if you’d like to see more posts like this in the future (this is something quite new for me!), let me know that too!