A Late Start

It is a Tuesday and some community members have already driven off to give talks; Nathan and Jake are cutting wood by the garden. In the strange, unseasonably warm weather, I turn and walk away from them into the forest, past the piled cords of wood, which I don’t suppose will be needed today, past the frog pond where in late summer Omar and Ali, wielding their bright nets, trenchantly dragged me by the hand through the mud. Dead leaves now float there like aging lily pads, liver-spotted and dulling. I walk under the maple tree that a few days ago rose like a siren outside my window, a shock of red, now after a hailstorm depleted, its adequate brown bones exposed behind a thinning cover of color. The trail is papered over by leaves, wet from dew and rotting, making it slick, while the highest ones, still bonded to their trees, are lit up overhead, a vaulted, incandescent ceiling. Surely I am not the first to compare a forest on a fall morning to a cathedral, with all its shapes and lights.
 
Tree roots curve over the dirt path, creating a staircase and secure footing on the slippery trail. I rely on them. Though one can see farther now than one could in summer, when the forest was lush and thick with green, this recent thinning out, this wearying of the forest, has littered the trail with autumn’s debris, making the trail harder to see, so I keep veering off course, into the brush. Luckily though, now, in this later season, I can see my destinations through sparser branches; I have learned at least how to keep certain things in my sights. I hike up.
 
I am getting a late start—it is already mid-morning—for my hermitage day. You see, when it came time to leave, to go be alone and pray, when there was all this waiting for me out here, the gem-blue sky and the autumn scenes and freedom from daily routines, there was a sudden urge to take care of all of the mundane tasks I’d been avoiding. Had to empty the wastebasket, organize the Tupperware cabinet, return that email from two months ago from a person I haven’t seen in seven years. (You might understand: The Tupperware really had become a situation.) But, though late, I am now on my way.
 
The leaves, too damp, don’t crunch. One small creature darts, making the forest briefly twitch. Then, again, it is still. Very little wind. Footsteps resound on the wooden stairs. The door is never locked.
 

 
I have been to the hermitage twice before and twice have been transformed. To tell you the truth, I come here for repair. I am damaged. I get lost.
 
I set down my books, sit in a chair in the corner, look around. Inside it smells of incense and stove fire. The bed is neatly made. The kettle is set to go. Nothing here directing you. Cobwebs glisten between the screen and the window pane, and at first, there is the vague feeling of boredom. Too dark. Too still. Thoughts of “Here we go again” or “Do I have to? But that passes.
 
When it is time, I rise from the chair and approach the ladder. The ladder is maybe my favorite part about the hermitage. I could write an entire essay about that ladder. For now, though, it will suffice to say that I climb, and it is a bit precarious, a bit of a struggle, slightly awkward and troublesome, because I’m carrying my rosary and the ladder is creaking and I’m afraid of slipping and falling off. At the top, I’m on my knees, crawling (more creaking), and the connection with the place where I entered, the room below, feels tenuous, because the only thing connecting me to it is that ladder, an ancient tree.
 
I crouch in the dark, high cave, on the soft, red carpet, and approach the tiny altar, behind which a small window looks out over the trees. The view is mostly obscured by a stained-glass cross and a picture of Jesus. One does not climb into this loft for the scenery. I light a candle, a stick of incense. The smoke curls softly up.
 
And then, there it is again, the feeling of having gotten too late a start, maybe too late a start in all of this, having spent too much time getting and spending, laying waste my powers. The feeling of shyness: I can only kneel; I can only look. The silence teaches me that it’s okay: My powers, without this, were never much to begin with, and so I begin again anew, and am on my way.