When I first read Ross Gay’s book of lyric essays, “The Book of Delights,” I was in a coffee shop. It was a Saturday morning (delight), in a sunny corner (delight), at a shared table with strangers who seemed friendly, but kept to themselves (delight). It was February 2019, shortly after Gay joined the Washington Post’s Ron Charles for our Life of a Poet series at Hill Center.
When I re-read his “The Book of Delights,” it was April 2020 under stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic. In the midst of all this uncertainty, fear and stress, I gravitated towards this book again.
Recreating delight at home
Gay spent one year writing a new “essayette” each day, centered around a certain delight. In the preface, explaining this project, he writes that delight came more easily each day: “The more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.”
So, I decided to study delight. Gay provided the framework, now it was time to put my studies into practice.
Coffee in a handcrafted mug
My first experiment in delight naturally started with my morning coffee. Instead of blearily choosing from my random assortment of mugs, I specifically chose the most beautiful mug I own.
My mug was made by Camilla Ascher, which I bought at Pottery on the Hill 2019. There is something inherently delightful about coffee in a handcrafted mug. It’s a personal connection to someone else’s hands, time and care, first thing in the morning.
A socially distanced walk
In his third essay, Gay realizes that he always follows the same route in his neighborhood. “What compels us into such grooves, such patterns?” So, on my walk to the grocery store, I decided to take a new path.
I veered onto a street I’d somehow never wandered down and saw a beautiful cherry blossom tree shedding its petals in the wind. I observed new houses, and even “met” a new cat friend in one window.
My randomness became not-so-random when I crossed streets and turned corners to keep the distance between myself and others on their walks. As we stayed six feet apart, I thought about how there is no chance for what Gay calls “pleasant physical interactions with strangers,” in his essay “The High-Five from Strangers, etc.”
Interactions with strangers is a delight that comes up several times in “The Book of Delights.” Gay notes that these interactions are all delightful because of the unexpected kindness.
On my walk, I realized that I was experiencing a new form of kindness. We were taking care of each other by crossing the street, pausing and let someone go by, and wearing our masks.
By the time Gay was several months into his project of writing about new delights every day, he had accumulated a stockpile of delights for future essays. Delights he’d scrawled in the margins to save for an undelightful day.
The problem is he never got to a day when he couldn’t find a delight. Instead, his delights multiplied. So, in sticking to the purpose of his project to find delight every day, he wrote “Stacking Delights” to clean out his hoard.
To finish out my own project, my day of delight, I’m going to stack my delights, too. Here is a non-exhaustive list of delights I found when I started looking for them:
- The sound of my neighbor singing next door
- Video chatting with my family (but mostly with their pets)
- Good lighting
- The smell of cookies in the oven
- An old song I hadn’t heard in awhile
- A postcard from a friend
I was very receptive to Gay’s work the first time because he, too, loves sunlight, coffee shops, and chance encounters with strangers. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel reading the book a second time under these new conditions. I thought I’d only feel regret for the places I couldn’t go and the people I couldn’t see.
However, he helped me recreate these little moments of delight at home, teaching me how to flex my “delight muscle,” as he refers to it.
“The Book of Delights” is a perfect read for this time because Gay doesn’t shy away from the bad in order to celebrate the good. His essays include references to racism, violence, death, and fear. Gay shows, however, that delight is a conscious act amongst it all.
While so many people are at home, internet “challenges” such as the push-up challenge seem to be everywhere. Well, this is the Delight Challenge! Read “The Book of Delights” and take inspiration from Gay’s quest to seek out delight, at home. You can order “The Book of Delights” for pick up or delivery from our friends at East City Books.
Laura Green is the Programming Assistant at Hill Center.