I’ve been reading Ross Gay’s new essay collection, A Book of Delights and I can’t recommend it enough. Gay decided to start writing a small essay about some delight every day for a year, starting on his birthday. This collection is the result.
Gay lives in Bloomington and teaches at IU, so of course, I love trying to figure out which spots in Bloomington he’s talking about. Which bakery? The one on the corner of the square where my dissertation writing group used to meet up? One of my own favorite delights is reading stories and essays that are set in familiar places. “Ah, yes, I’ve been there,” I say to myself and feel like I am in a very exclusive club. Or that the author and I have connected in a whole different way. This is part of what places do. We have both been there and now we are linked together.
This book was such an amazing idea, I decided I wanted to try it, too. So not only am I reading one essay per day, but then I’m writing one of my own. I started a few days after my own birthday. My essays are not as good as Gay’s. But I like what he says in the introduction about the practice of delight. If you are looking for a delight every day, you get better at it. Delights become easier to see. Your life becomes more delightful.
I try to pick a theme for every year in January (at least I do when I remember). This year’s theme is joy. “How are you going to do that?” a friend asked. I stumbled through an answer. Really I had no idea. I just felt that after meditating daily for over two years, I had finally carved out enough room to make joy more visible. But delight and joy are cousins, so this is how I’m adding more joy to my year. I am seeking delight. I am marking it out, day by day. Word by word. As a practice it is, well, delightful.
What I love about Gay’s essays so far (I’ve only read eight) is how embodied they are. Delight is, after all, a bodily thing. Sometimes it seems that joy and delight live in the realm of the abstract. Delight is a babbling creek or a fluffy cloud or a flower growing out of a curb. They are disembodied. And certainly, I guess some delights are. But they are all filtered through our bodies.
Gay does describe a flower growing out of a curb. But in that essay, he also talks about his friend Don, who was murdered and who he misses. He talks about sweating and touch. In other essays, he talks about being black and a man and cisgender and tall. He moves through the world in a specific body. His delights are specific. His delights are his. I find this delightful. I am trying to think about what it means for my own delights. How are my own delights deeply embodied?
Here’s an example. Gay writes about the delight of being touched by strangers. A high-five. A waitress who puts her hand on her shoulder. A garbage collector in Italy who slaps his bicep. He acknowledges these are his delights, conditioned by the body he occupies. As a white, ciswoman, I feel differently about the touch of strangers. I feel differently about touch altogether.
On the other hand, I find Midwestern weather small talk delightful. I didn’t when I was young. I thought talking about the weather was so predictable and boring. But now I love it just because of that. When a stranger on the street or in a store comments on the weather, it feels like a kind of love and respect. My humanity and worthiness are affirmed every time an old man says, “Nice to finally see the sun, isn’t it?” Yes. Yes, of course, it is. It is delightful.