It’s rare to find something that is exactly what it says it is. Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights is a delight. Delightful. Delight full. Delight filled. I smiled so much reading this book. It felt like sitting in spring sunshine after a long cold winter dark.
Ross Gay, the poet and author of this collection of essays, set himself a task, a practice. Starting on his 42nd birthday, he would write about a delight every day for a year, draft them quickly and write them by hand.
I rememberthe book drift through my awareness. It popped up in Brain Pickings, and I’d see sections quoted in some of the poetry blogs I follow. I loved the joy and the generosity in them.
I thought I was going to read one a day, after breakfast before I started work, a simple read for my jittery attention shot pandemic brain.
I read the whole damn book in two days.
Writing is always an invitation, a way of sharing. This is how I see the world. Come sit by me for a while. The essays invite you into Ross Gay’s delights, into his world and invite you to consider your own, to pay attention, to cultivate delight.
One of my favourite questions I’ve been asked is a simple one. What is it like to be you right now? Gay’s essays are luminous with this, an embodied aliveness, rooted in who he is, noticing delight, and what that means for him as a black man in America.
They shine with tenderness, the quiet act of choosing to notice beauty, in every day ordinary life, in a complex and difficult world. They’re wry with humour and so generous. There’s a blend of memoir, biography and reflection that I love in writing, similar to why I love Maggie Nelson’s work. The anticipation of a vegan donut, the community garden he works in, the satisfaction of pulling up bindweed.
Woven through his observations is a point he makes in Joy is Such a Human Madness
“And given as I am writing a book of delights, and I am ultimately interested in joy, I am curious about the relationship between pleasure and delight… I will pause here to offer a false etymology: de-light suggests both “of light” and “without light.” And both of them concurrently is what I’m talking about. What I think I’m talking about. Being of and without at once. Or: joy”
A few sections from my favourites:
I’m sitting at a café in Detroit where in the door window is the sign with the commands NO SOLICITING / NO LOITERING stacked like an anvil. I have a fiscal relationship with this establishment, which I developed by buying a coffee and which makes me a patron. And so even though I subtly dozed in the late afternoon sun pouring in under the awning, the two bucks spent protects me, at least temporarily, from the designation of loiterer, though the dozing, if done long enough, or ostentatiously enough, or with enough delight, might transgress me over.
The Webster’s definition of loiter reads thus: ‘to stand or wait around idly without apparent purpose,’ and ‘to travel indolently with frequent pauses.’”
Among the synonyms for this behavior are linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygaggle, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey. Any one of these words, in the wrong frame of mind, might be considered a critique or, when nouned, an epithet (‘Lollygagger!’ or ‘Loafer!’).”
Is “lollygag” a Minnesota thing? Because my mom says that all the time.
Indeed, lollygag was one of the words my mom would use to cajole us while jingling her keys when she was waiting on us, which, judging from the visceral response I had while writing that memory, must’ve been not quite infrequent. All of these words to me imply having a nice day. They imply having the best day. They also imply being unproductive. Which leads to being, even if only temporarily, nonconsumptive, and this is a crime in America, and more explicitly criminal depending upon any number of quickly apprehended visual cues.
For instance, the darker your skin, the more likely you are to be ‘loitering.’ Though a Patagonia jacket could do some work to disrupt that perception.
A Patagonia jacket, colorful pants, Tretorn sneakers with short socks, an Ivy League ball cap, and a thick book not the Bible, and you’re almost golden. Almost. (There is a Venn diagram someone might design, several of them, that will make visual our constant internal negotiation toward safety, and like the best comedy it will make us laugh hard before saying, ‘Lord.’)
It occurs to me that laughter and loitering are kissing cousins, as both bespeak an interruption of production and consumption. And it’s probably for this reason that I have been among groups of nonwhite people laughing hard who have been shushed — in a Qdoba in Bloomington, in a bar in Fishtown, in the Harvard Club at Harvard. The shushing, perhaps, reminds how threatening to the order are our bodies in nonproductive, nonconsumptive delight.
The moment of laughter not only makes consumption impossible (you might choke) but if the laugh is hard enough, if the talk is just right, food or drink might fly from your mouth, if not — and this hurts — your nose. And if your body is supposed to be one of the consumables, if it has been, if it is, one of the consumables around which so many ideas of production and consumption have been structured in this country, well, there you go…”
Joy is Such a Human Madness
“Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be. She said, ‘What if we joined our wildernesses together?’ Sit with that for a minute. That the body, the life, might carry a wilderness, an unexplored territory, and that yours and mine might somewhere, somehow, meet. Might, even, join.
And what if the wilderness — perhaps the densest wild in there — thickets, bogs, swamps, uncrossable ravines and rivers (have I made the metaphor clear?) — is our sorrow? Or, to use Smith’s term, the ‘intolerable.’ It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness?
Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that?
For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: What if that is joy?”
I mentioned this last week, but it’s worth mentioning again. Krista Tippett did a gorgeous interview with Ross Gay which brought me so much joy.