In the summer, I like to read two books at a time: A good novel for the beach or bedtime, and something I call my “morning book.” The latter is a book I read in the early hours with my coffee, when the house is still asleep; a book that can be easily dogeared for the next morning and sets the tone for the rest of my day. Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights is a perfect morning book.
Ross Gay —author of four volumes of poetry, including Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude—made a pact with himself on his 42nd birthday: For the entire year, he would write one short essay a day (“essayettes,” he calls them) about something that delighted him. The result of this daily discipline is this collection of 102 mini-essays with names like “The Do-Over,” “Tomato on Board,” and “Babies. Seriously.”
The motivation behind the book, Gay says, was to focus his attention on “feeling moved, alive and connected.” The practice of paying attention to delight is an exercise in being present to the world around you. Self-admittedly prone to melancholy, he doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects like grief, racism, and challenging relationships. But writing a daily delight essay was “a way to build up his joy muscle,” while still holding space for the less joyful feelings.
Gay is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food and joy project, and the way he writes about gardening and nature is a delight in and of itself. In the essay “Praying Mantis” he describes a farm of flowers: “You can only imagine the galaxies of bugs soaring above them, whirling and diving, butterflies and bees and dragonflies and ladybugs, and the birds come to feast on them, a whole wild and perfectly orchestrated symphony of pollination and predation.”
Another area of delight is what he calls “unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers,” like a high-five from a college student in a cafe, or an amusing exchange with a waitress. In my own search for daily delights, it was the people around me I noticed the most: A dad standing outside the gymnastics center putting his daughter’s hair in a ponytail, the hair tie in his teeth, carefully smoothing out the bumps with his palm, or an older couple walking down my street eating ice cream cones.
Now that I am on the lookout for delight, I am painfully aware of what prevented me from experiencing it in the past: impatience. In order to experience delight, Gay writes, you need to slow down. You need to “linger, lollygaggle, putter, mosey.” You need to be interested. You need to ask questions. A few weeks ago, I barely made eye contact with the cashier at 7-11. Yesterday, we had a ten minute conversation about parachute pants.
The Book of Delights is an invitation to awaken to the world around you, to celebrate the beauty in the mundane, and to be delighted by the serendipitous interactions with the people who cross your path.