On his 42nd birthday, award-winning poet Ross Gay embarked upon a yearlong “delight practice.” This involved sitting down for 30 minutes each day to write about whatever moved him to feel joy. He soon discovered that the practice, in addition to being fun, helped attune him to small wonders in his world that he had been missing.
“It’s a mistake to imagine that what is brutal or awful is the only thing worth talking about,” notes Gay, the author of three poetry collections and a cofounding editor of an online sports magazine. “Primarily because the brutal and the awful and the harsh are not the only things. I mean, what is the world in which the only thing worth talking about or thinking about or meditating on or studying — the only thing worthy of our fullest attention — is that which sucks?”
Gay’s practice led to The Book of Delights, a series of “essayettes” describing his various daily joys: the high-five of a stranger in a coffee shop, the reclamation of the word “bombing” to describe biking fast down a hill, the pleasing disruption of being a black man expressing delight in a world that usually associates blackness with suffering.
Most surprisingly, the Indiana University professor and board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard learned that delight and joy required not avoiding the difficult but embracing it. Gay’s book shows that unconditional love for everyday life isn’t only possible — it’s a pleasure.
Experience Life | Can you define delight?
Ross Gay | Not really. It’s a feeling, and I’ll think, That’s delightful. And then I’m like, What is that? What made that delightful? What was so fun about the project was to notice, Oh, that thing brings me pleasure. That thing makes me want to tell my neighbor, “Hey, check that out.”
EL | Did you face any difficulties in writing about delight?
RG | Because I was mostly sitting down to write about something that delighted me, there weren’t a lot of impediments. Yet it’s still kind of a chore, to every day say what you love. We’re not encouraged to sit down and focus on what delights us. Often, we’re encouraged to say what we hate.
EL | What did you learn from that year?
RG | After it was done, I started to realize that my real question is joy. I think joy happens when the luminosity of our interconnectedness is being revealed — our deep, abiding, total interconnectedness. That understanding is my curiosity. How can I deepen that understanding, that belief, and that awareness that we’re all connected?
EL | Are delight and gratitude related?
RG | I feel like real gratitude — not the happy, commercialized gratitude industry, which is as much a potential brutality as anything else — has to do with the profound generosity of the earth allowing us to be here for any time at all.
When I think about the foundations of our gratitude, I think it’s when we realize on the shortest day of the year, Oh, the days are going to get longer now. Or when we realize that the rain has come, or when the rain has stopped. These deep cycles come from this understanding that we are not alien from each other or from the earth. We are the earth.
So, when I think of gratitude, true gratitude, I think of those things. I think if there’s enough rain, then Thank you. Thank you, you know?
EL | Did this delight practice change your relationship to yourself?
RG | Often what it is to be a person in our culture is to not like ourselves very much. And, in doing this project, I got to think hard about how we might be more tender with ourselves — how one can see oneself as a child in the midst of being a person. By witnessing moments of softness in myself, I feel like I became more attuned to my desire for softness in myself.
EL | Can delight be an antidote to consumerism?
RG | Yes! That’s one of the things that’s so exciting to me. When I think about delight, I’m inclined to say to my neighbor, “You see that?” Or “Can you believe that?” Or swooning on some flower that smells good and then someone walks by, and you’re like, “You’ve got to smell this flower.”
Delight makes me want to share, and anything that makes us want to share is, I think, a deep disruption to capitalism. If I share my delight, I might also be inclined to be like, “You need my car? Take it.” Or, “Oh, you don’t have a place to stay? Stay here.”
EL | The Book of Delights doesn’t shy away from the difficult: the violence of racism, the death of friends. Can you talk about this choice?
RG | Whenever I’m talking about delight, I’m also, in some way, referencing its absence. One does not negate the other. To me, that feels like being a grown person, you know? Many things exist at the same time, and that’s just how it is.
But I do feel like it’s a practice, to be in the midst of the persistent difficulties and brutalities and still be able to witness, or pay attention to, the fact that a cardinal just flew by, or that the flowers are up in the garden.
EL | You’ve helped run a public garden in the town where you live and teach. What’s the delight in this for you?
RG | The community orchard that I’ve worked with was started by Amy Countryman. Her catch phrase is “Free Fruit for All.” So, sharing food — sharing period — gathering, working together in care, dreaming about how to feed each other, blackberries, pawpaws, pears, and figs are all interesting to me. They all make me want to be alive.
EL | What do you say to someone who believes delight is frivolous?
RG | I think I would be like, “Yeah, there is plenty of awful, but at the same time, my friend just made me a loaf of bread, and I am not going to diminish that generosity by pretending it’s not a fundamental part of my life.”
I’m convinced, too, that we grow what we study, and I want to study sharing. I want to study giving things away. I want to study friendship and generosity and tenderness and love. All of which are utterly serious. And utterly rigorous.
The crucial thing is being able to remember that the reason we’re angry or we’re hurting is because something we love is being hurt. To me, this doesn’t negate the hurting. What it does is remind me that it’s absolutely necessary to defend what we love.
And to yell about it.