This blog post is part of my ongoing effort to capture personal reading notes for poetry collections and other books. Far from official reviews, these posts represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text. Scroll down for ta list of quotes, reviews and links.
I don’t remember when I purchased Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, but at some point in 2020, I decided to hold on reading it ’til January 2021: I wanted it to be the book I read to welcome in the new year. But don’t worry. This is not the part where I Pollyanna the expectations we have for 2021.
While Gay’s collection of micro essays (what he calls “essayettes”) is about finding delight and even though the delight finding takes place in the midst of shitty things going on in the world, The Book of Delights is not about finding delight in the face of adversity/difficulties. It’s not a turn-that-frown-upside-down manifesto. It’s not a plea to look-on-the-bright-sides. And thank goodness.
I don’t put much faith in silver linings.
Why I wanted to open my 2021 with The Book of Delights had nothing to do with starting the year with an attempt at greater positivity. Instead, I made it my first read of the year because I adore elevating the mundane to the sacred — turning an item/observation/thought into a kind of offering — and I wanted to see how Gay may accomplish it again and again. And that type of attention does fit what I want from 2021: to be more present throughout my day. So I turned to this collection of essayettes as a portfolio for One Way to Do That.
I’d worried so much in 2020, I had to practice a kind of presence that was something like an interrogation of what wasn’t. “Carolee,” I’d ask myself, “Is this [insert anxious story I’d told myself] happening right now?” If the answer was no (it was always no), my job was to breathe and center myself in the breath as a stand in for what actually was happening in that moment vs. in the unsettling scenarios I’d been imagining.
For 2021, I’m hoping to practice a slightly more evolved kind of presence, similar to what Gay describes in a Writer’s Digest interview, “What is the practice of looking slowly and intensely at our lives? What we often will find is that there’s tons of remarkable stuff happening in our midst, and if we look up from whatever it is that’s distracting us, which sometimes is inside our heads, then it’s everywhere. In a certain way, it’s just describing what I see.”
I was also interested in The Book of Delights because, as many of you know, I’m enamored with other writers’ processes, most notably those that include a daily practice. I’ve written some of my best work in month long poem-a-day writing challenges, but Gay keeps up with his (almost) daily delights for a full year. I don’t think I’m capable of sustaining any habit that long, though it doesn’t stop me from trying.
In recent months, for example, I’ve tried daily meditation (which I’m managing only a couple times a week) and a daily list of gratitude (which I’m managing just a few times a month). And a few days before the new year, I decided that midday daily walks were the answer to some of my most pressing complaints: a shamefully low working-from-home step count, a long work day that (uninterrupted) seemed like one grotesque stretch of time gobbling up all the oxygen and lack of time outside the house.
So I put on my calendar a lunch meeting, which I have been using daily, yes daily (so far!), to walk.
Since it’s winter and I hate hate HATE the cold, I am having to force myself to complete these 30-minute outings. While wandering the neighborhood, I listen to books on Audible, hoping to trick myself into actually enjoying the walks. Currently, their only delight is writing about them now. I’m not kidding, but I guess that’s ok. It does seem, for Gay, that formulation of the text is a good part of the fun.
In this way, Gay’s daily practice does seem to me inextricably linked to the practice of poetry and to how we pay attention and to how observations or appearances (of language or deer or geese) are delightful precisely because they invite us into something. And once we’re in, we get to play as long as we like.
If this kind of playful attention isn’t unique to writers then may we at least get some credit for writing them down.
Since there’s no frame of reference for size in the photo below, let me help: it’s a googly eye the size of a saucer. A pair of them appeared on my lawn at some point in November. Can you see me reflected in the retina as I lean over to take the picture?
The googly eye is, of course, just garbage. But I haven’t picked it up or thrown it away. Here’s why: when I first spotted them, I was a little creeped out and decided someone put them there as some kind of message. “We’re watching.” I left them at first to say I wasn’t intimidated. And then I invented a story line in which some serial killer put them on lawns and when the person who lived there removed them it meant it was their time to die.
Clearly, I’ve watched too much TV. And clearly, I’ve failed in the stay-in-the-moment-with-what’s-happening-now department.
Being such a writing process nerd, I was intrigued by the rules Gay established for the delights project (daily or almost daily, write by hand and draft quickly), and I love what the effort seemed to have offered beyond some really great material for a book:
- Be teachable. / “It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle” (xii).
- Trust the process. / “So today I’m recalling the utility, the need, of my own essayettes to emerge from such dailiness, and in that way to be a practice of witnessing one’s delight, of being in and with one’s delight, daily, which actually requires vigilance. It also requires faith that delight will be with you daily, that you needn’t hoard it. No scarcity of delight” (108).
- Remember the communal tradition of poetry (think: around the fire). / “using her index finger and thumb to zoom into its luminous neck, smiling and looking at it, smiling and looking at me looking at it, me smiling and looking at her looking at it, which is simply called sharing what we love, what we find beautiful, which is an ethics” (128).
- Learn more and talk more about our shared humanity. / “Because in trying to articulate what, perhaps, oy is, it has occurred to me that among other things … joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life” (163).
After flinging an arm across the seat next to him to save a tomato plant from toppling over, Gay writes that the motion is “one of my very favorite gestures in the encyclopedia of human gestures” (214). I agree that it belongs on a “best of” human behavior list. And yes, so delightful. In response to potential impact, our instinct is to buffer the one next to us, the other.
… which brings me back to the googly eye on my lawn and another fascinating human gesture: making stories to explain the world. That’s another kind of buffer, isn’t it? Again, I don’t mean anything close to a silver lining. And I don’t mean for our fabrication to imply any kind of lie; instead, by fabrication I mean the act of creating.
The stories we tell ourselves can be raw and true and hard. But the telling is itself a buffer, something — in Gay’s case a daily delight — that fills some of the space between us and the crash. It braces us for impact.
READING NOTES –>
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay (2019, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill/Workman)
Excerpts I want to remember and revisit:
- “the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything” (11).
- “I grabbed the bucket, trimmed the cuttings into sticks, potted them in the plastic bag, and set them on the counter, where they sat like promises. Little converters. Little dreams of coming back into bloom. And how we might carry that with us wherever we go” (37).
- “to suggest that the flower kissing, the moving so close to another living and breathing thing’s breath … will in fact kill you with delight, will annihilate you with delight, will end the life you had previously led before kneeling here and breathing the breathing thing’s breath, and the lily will resurrect you, too, your lips and nose lit with gold dust, your face and fingers smelling faintly all day of where they’ve been, amen” (71).
- “However the dumb and sad moratorium on the pretty arrived, the lavender infinity scarf Danni made with her hands, and that I am wearing as I write this, represents one small gesture of many in the moratorium on the moratorium. The scarf is a soft and endless exteriorization of a shifting interior. I want to be softer, I’m trying to say” (93).
- “I noticed the block of sidewalk I stood on had carved into it ‘REPENT OR BURN’ in the zaggy script of a zealot. (I should know.) And I delighted imagining the slight erosion our skater, with his pink and purple glee, made of the zealot’s curse. And, too, the slight erosion was I, admiring him steadfast like this, all the herons in my chest whacking unrepentantly into the sky” (119).
- “There was a racket blasting from that thicket like the most rambunctious playground you’ve ever heard, and getting closer, looking inside, I saw maybe one hundred birds hopping around in this enormous temporary nest, sharing a song I never would’ve heard and been struck dumb with glee by had I had my shit more together” (123).
- “The point is that in almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking. Holding open doors. Offering elbows at crosswalks. Letting someone else go first. Helping with the heavy bags. Reaching what’s too high, or what’s been dropped. Pulling someone back to their feet. Stopping at the car wreck, at the struck dog. The alternating merge, also known as the zipper. This caretaking is our default mode and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise. Always” (135).
- “I was so flabbergasted by the endurance of love and delight incited by this child… that I found myself, despite the very engrossing book I was reading about something horrible, laughing out loud and babbling with them and convinced again of something deeply good in us” (153).
Where some of the essays from this collection live online:
What others have said:
- from Brain Pickings: “… yearlong experiment in learning to notice, amid a world that so readily gives us reasons to despair, the daily wellsprings of delight. … What emerges is not a ledger of delights passively logged but a radiant lens actively searching for and magnifying them. … Page after page, small joy after small joy, one is reminded — almost with the shock of having forgotten — that delights are strewn about this world like quiet, inappreciable dew-drops, waiting for the sunshine of our attention to turn them into gold.”
- from Orion Magazine: “‘Meditative’ is often code for passé or tedious, but The Book of Delights’ musings are neither. Gay’s essays sparkle with charm, wit, and laugh-out-loud funny bits jostling cheek and jowl against eschatological explorations and philosophical concerns. No matter the emotional timbre, Gay’s thoughts unfurl with a lush beauty, delighting the terror of the writing and reading alike.”
- from Porter House Review: “The essays in The Book of Delights braid this childlike awe with mature commentary, rendering even commonalities such as pawn shops and animal scat as opportunities to extol our connections and reevaluate what we elevate and denigrate. … To read Gay is to feel adored by Gay. He encourages our wildest behaviors, our kindest behaviors, and sees the dancing in all we do. His sentiments wind, wild as vines or hands in love, around the human body, a maypole celebrated at every angle. Marvelous how we move, and move each other.”
- from The Seattle Times: “The generosity Gay greets the world with doesn’t come off as blindly optimistic or naive. It feels hard-earned. As often as he’s finding delight in gardens, pop music and interactions with strangers, he’s reflecting on the loss of loved ones, institutional racism and toxic masculinity.”
- from Brevity: “The Book of Delights is about how everyone lives on a knife edge between life and death, beauty and horror. … Discussing everything from gardening to race relations, the book’s underlying premise is that connecting with others—particularly in a world rife with division—is central to living a full and happy life.”
Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!