What could be a more mindful practice than a gratitude journal —taking it one step further to chronicle what delights you.
Poet and writer Ross Gay did it for an entire year. Every day, beginning on his 42nd birthday in 2016 and concluding the day he turned 43, the Indiana University professor wrote a short essay — anywhere from a few paragraphs to five pages — on something that delighted him. Nicknames, hummingbirds, high-fives from strangers and the laughing snort, which he calls “among the most emphatic evidences of delight.”
Some 102 of his most lyrical essays came together in a soul-stirring 2019 collection, “The Book of Delights,” Gay’s follow-up to “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” which won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle award for poetry. To take on “Delights,” Gay gave himself a few rules: Write daily, by hand and quickly. At first, he wasn’t sure he’d have enough material — how attentive can one possibly be? — but one month in, delights were flowing faster than he could write with his lavender Le Pen (another delight).
“When you notice that you’ve been delighted, suddenly the world is more full of delights,” Gay says, calling from his home in Bloomington. And sharing those delights follows naturally. “If I see something really beautiful, my inclination is to say ‘Look at that.’ I think that’s a lot of our inclinations.”
There’s the delight of a flower unexpectedly growing from a crack in the sidewalk — and the delight of shared experiences, too: a mother and child struggling to carry a shopping bag, each gripping a handle when one or the other could manage the burden just fine solo. Or a pink-cheeked toddler tottering down an airplane aisle, reducing adults to babbling, peek-a-boo-playing goofs.
This book is not all sunshine and roses, though. Gay explores our interdependence around collective loss, grief and pain. This was written pre-pandemic, of course, but reading it in 2020 reminds us of the importance of looking for delights in times of darkness and uncertainty. In the Bay Area, that might be take-out cocktails. An extra dog walk through the park. Sidewalk messages of hope scrawled in chalk.
In his essay on “Joy Is Such a Human Madness,” Gay dissects the etymology (another delight) of the word de-light, which conveys both “of light” and “without light.” Everyone he’s ever met has experienced some kind of personal suffering. “What if we joined our sorrows,” he writes at the end. “Is that joy?”
“When I think of an adult joy,” he says now, “it carries with it the understanding of profound sorrow and loss and change. I think of the ways in which you and I carry those things together and our fundamental interconnectedness — I feel that the me starts to feel less.” Less alone.
How true this feels now, as the global pandemic and the acts of kindness it engendered continue to unite us. The spontaneous cheering for health care workers from city balconies. Stuffed animals placed on front porches and in windows for neighborhood teddy bear hunts in San Jose and Oakland. The short plays a Berkeley theater commissioned for families to perform at home.
Since his teaching life went online this spring, Gay has spent his off hours readying his greenhouse for planting much like the many Bay Area gardeners who flocked to nurseries when they reopened last month. He grows produce for his family and fruit for local pantries through the Bloomington Community Orchard, a nonprofit food justice and joy project he helped found.
There’s that word again: joy. Perhaps more than anything else, “The Book of Delights” is packed with delights of the natural world, from fireflies and fig cuttings to birds flying through airport terminals. Whether you’re a home gardener or a Mount Tam forest bather, there’s no denying the power of nature.
“I think there’s something grounding about witnessing the redbuds and the dogwoods and the dandelions arriving in the midst of our own crises,” Gay says. “Something grounding to witness the Earth’s cycles carrying on. Some reminder of the kindness, the generosity of the Earth.”
5 BAY AREA DELIGHTS INSPIRED BY “THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS”
Kombucha: Sipping homemade kombucha from a midcentury water glass delights Gay. You, of course, can drink yours however you like. Berkeley’s Boochman Kombucha, for example, offers its lineup, from spicy mango to locally sourced organic Hachiya persimmon, via taproom pickup or delivery throughout the Bay Area. https://boochman.com
Botan Rice Candy: This soft, chewy, citrus-flavored candy has an outer layer of edible rice paper that dissolves in the mouth. That thrilled Gay and his brother growing up “more even than the free sticker inside.” Available at Asian markets and some Target stores.
Veggie burger: Gay talks about the delights of a handmade veggie burger, preferably made with six ingredients or less, served on a superb roll. We can’t confirm the number of ingredients, but we’ll suggest the tasty organic burgers (and bottomless pickles) at Super Duper in Los Gatos, Concord, San Jose and Emeryville. Open for pickup and delivery. www.superduperburgers.com
Bobbleheads: Gay loves a bobblehead toy’s way of “maniacally agreeing to everything.” How about the new Governor Gavin Newsom bobblehead? The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum will donate $5 from every Newsom Bobblehead sold to the Protect The Heroes fund. There’s also a Dr. Anthony Fauci bobblehead. https://store.bobbleheadhall.com
Gardening: It’s officially summer. Bay Area nurseries and garden centers have reopened with strict social distancing. So get inspired by Gay’s “green, green thumb” and plant your favorite produce, trees and flowers. Check out Lafayette’s Orchard Nursery or San Jose’s Almaden Valley Nursery.