book of delights, indeed
there’s a little book in my stack of books to read, and it’s titled quite honestly, without the usual hyperboles and obscurities that sometimes find their way into titles. the book of delights: essays is its name. unadorned. not hiding its purpose. in most anyone else’s hands it might be too saccharine by doubles. but it’s in the hands of ross gay. and he’s a poet, and someone i wish i could spend a long afternoon with. or a semester. in one of the classes he teaches at indiana university.
professor gay might be one of the most ebullient hearts i’ve read in a very long time. in true poet fashion he sees what most miss. he writes longhand in pen (he tells us, in a line i underlined, that susan sontag once said somewhere something about how “any technology that slows us down in our writing rather than speeding us up is the one we ought to use”), and, pen in hand, he notices everything from a church marquee to his predilection for licking driblets of coffee off the edge of his cup. somehow, deep in the landscape of each and every something he notices, he finds room to wend to a place that explodes into joy, or take-your-breath-away revelation about the quirks of being human.
the book of delights is a collection of one-a-day “essayettes,” anywhere from a paragraph to five pages, written from one august-first birthday to the next. professor gay tells us that one delightful day in the month of july a couple years back he decided to write a daily essay about something delightful. he wrote 102. his book (published this month from algonquin) has been called “a joy explosion.” that, from lidia yuknavitch, author of the misfit’s manifesto, no less.
before i pluck out a few things that shimmered for me — and hopefully for you — you should know a few things about the poet-professor. mostly this (at least for now): one of his collections of poetry, catalog of unabashed gratitude, (2015) was the winner of the national book critics circle award, and a finalist for the national book award in poetry in 2015. in his day job, he’s the director of creative writing at indiana. oh, to be a student in bloomington. oh, and he’s a gardener, plucks plenty of wisdoms in the patch of earth he tends.
in fact, catalog of unabashed gratitude has been described as “a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. that is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.” (i’ve already added it to my reading list…)
but here’s the passage from book of delights i wanted to bring to the table today, because in a world sodden with sorrows, every shimmering shard of gentle goodness is a necessary daily multivitamin for me.
listen to this from an essay titled, “the sanctity of trains” (and then we’ll consider it):
I suppose I could spend time theorizing how it is that people are not bad to each other. But that’s really not the point. The point is that in almost every instance of our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking – holding doors open, 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.
“an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking….”
“this caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise — always.”
that stopped me in my tracks — both of those bursting-out truths. made me begin an inventory of caretaking, one worth making a communal effort.
–how my husband literally never fails to say thank you for dinner. even if all i did was slurp into a pot a tupperware vat of leftover chicken noodle soup that my beloved down-the-alley neighbor sarah left on our doorstep.
–how my cross-the-street neighbor ran out in the ice and cold to hand-deliver half a box of “ugly” produce — all organic, but too bumped-up to be sold at the store or something. coulda fooled me. those sweet potatoes and zucchini — on a cold winter’s day — were perfect to me.
–how the lady in the parking lot let me go first. how the whole line at the checkout stepped aside to let the woman, clearly in a hurry, with an armload of stuff, go ahead of all of us.
–how my mom shuffles up the walk every tuesday with her blue plastic cooler filled with zip-lock bags of ingredients (a cup of rice, an already-chopped onion) and various cans and a package of meat. because tuesdays have been grammy tuesday for the last 26 years (the night she cooks for us, sits down to eat with us), and she can’t imagine a week without tuesdays.
what ross gay is getting at, though, are the nearly invisible caretakings, the ones hardwired, perhaps, into our DNA. the ones that sometimes rise up into heroic proportion — make us run into the street if someone’s been hurt, or we’ve heard a loud thud or a crash. but more often than not, they’re the gentle empathies — the instinctive “otherness” — that propels us to not always and only be out for ourselves. they’re the random acts of kindness that, collectively, quietly, weave heart into the fabric of the nitty-gritty everyday.
and they matter. more than we often realize.
because ross gay made me pause to consider the nearly invisible art of taking care of each other — strangers, and friends, and dearly loved ones, besides — i’m going to keep watch. and work a little bit harder to do my fair share.
what caretakings have caught you unaware, and melted your heart for even one nearly invisible moment?
Oh my good THANK YOU…. exactly the book I am looking for for a friend ( & must pick up for my self also)
April 18 will be another Holy Thursday sedar Dinner that Fr John will do at the Standard Club…. I know it is difficult right before Passover but hope you & the family can make it…. BTW just saw Leaps of Faiths & your Will was brilliant ! So wonderful to see the little guy & then the young man❤️
Be well Judy Aiello
Sent from my iPhone
oh, goodness, that is good to know well ahead of time about the holy thursday seder. i am going to try to make that happen.
i admit my heart did melt at sweet will in “leaps of faith.” he’s quite a thinker, that will…..
i think you will love the book of delights. i hope so….
I stepped onto an up escalator at a shopping mall. Ahead of me was a very elderly couple. As we ascended, he reached over and gently took her hand.
beautiful. EXACTLY the sort of quiet care-taking we’re looking for, gathering to invigorate our hearts. xoxox
and, PS dear paula, thank you soooo sooooo much for coming to the merton talk. what a total treat to have you walk up and say, “i’m one of your chairs!!!!!!” my heart just about jumped out of my chest….
Words (food) for the soul!!! Just lovely!! Thank you for sharing your “word food” with us!!! Louise
you are SOOOOOOOO welcome! i am so delighted that my “little book report” has been so warmly embraced.
Wait…what did I miss about Willie??
A super sweet kindness I remember was last Spring, after Tom’s diagnosis. I was having a rough day at work, had forgotten my lunch; we had been running between doctors appointments and my soul was a mess. Dear friend Courtney happened to check in by text and realized I was deep in the weeds. Not long after, her car pulled up in front of work, both her boys in the backseat, and she handed off a paper sack lunch, lovingly made, complete with paper napkin with “We love you, Nan” written on it. ❤️
You are the queen of the thoughtful action, an angel to do many of us, near and far. Bless you.
I think the chairs should take a road trip to meet Prof Gay!!
oh, dear gracious!!!!! that is PRECISELY the sort of loving — it literally makes my knees go weak, it’s so beautiful.
one aspect of it, one wisdom in being on the lookout for it, is that when we see it there is a marvelous copycat effect: we tuck it into our own repertoire, and dispense as needed. it’s as if in seeing it, we learn, we stretch. i think i remember seeing a picture of that sack-lunch-with-love, back in the day when i scrolled through facebook.
i think the chairs have so many road trips to take. we need a bus. a big flower-power-painted bus. preferably one with a megaphone so we can holler out the windows, passing words of kindness. (which reminds me of the mitzvah mobile my friend yehuda used to drive through the gold coast!!!!!) (you KNOW i do not have the nerve to actually do that, but it’s sort of amusing to think about…..)
big hug from my table to yours. xoxox
Oh bam, even though I’m now afar I totally dig the hippie road trip bus idea! What a spectacular happening of pure love!
Also I’ll have to add Prof Gay to my long reading list (thanks for all you’ve added to my list!)
Oh, to go anywhere with the chairs in a hippie bus, with crocheted flower seats… Sign me up!
I want to read Ross Gay now and have put his name on my reading list.
I so agree with these words:
“. . . in a world sodden with sorrows, every shimmering shard of gentle goodness is a necessary daily multivitamin for me.”
Thank you for being a mighty multivitamin, today and every day! xoxo
oh, sweet angel, bless YOU much! see you on the groovy bus! (with macrame window shades???)