Delight is Essential: On Reading Ross Gay in Terrible Times
Sara Franklin on the Magic of Ross Gay in Terrible Times
As the reality of the coronavirus outbreak settled upon us in mid-March, I felt many things: anxious, privileged, uncertain, enraged, lucky, frightened and exhausted. But I did not feel grateful.
The word has long rankled me, though never have I found it as grating as in the first couple weeks of lockdown, and again as the response to George Floyd’s murder has swelled into a rage-fueled global movement. #grateful. Its virtual expression signals a sigh of relief at how easily someone, lifted up by personal and structural privilege, is likely to weather this shitstorm of a pandemic, how they and their own might continue to live untouched by the systems that relentlessly silence and snuff out Black lives.
All that hating—on a word no less—only makes things worse. But in rejecting gratitude as a prevailing wind, what might we cleave to instead?
Enter Ross Gay. His 2019 collection of essayettes, The Book of Delights, first fell into my lap last fall as a gift from a dear friend (delight), and I read it while on a solo reporting trip to the Caribbean island of Vieques (which teemed with delights). I am certain these circumstances magnified my delight in both the reading and the mimicking of Gay’s exercise on noticing, and notating, delight.
The premise of Delights is straightforward: Over the course of a year in which Gay attends to and records delights—always by hand, putting pen to paper—he finds himself both delighted (passively, or by surprise) and (actively) delighting more and more. Imbedded in this simple noticing is the project’s worth, as much as the prose borne of it. My copy of the book—now dog-eared, underlined, and post-ited within an inch of its life—immediately became something of a spiritual buoy for me. In reading Gay’s Delights, I found I was, without having to try very hard, doing exactly what Gay had done himself.
To get us on the same page here, the sorts of delights accounted for in Gay’s book are workaday. A flight attendant calling him “baby!” The pleasure of oiling one’s own flesh after a hot shower! Gold rush apples! The excellent people watching at the laundromat! A nap! A parent’s instinctive arm-thrust across the passenger seat when braking, quick and hard, even if there’s no child in the car! The exclamation point plays a critical role in the book—an (underused) punctuation mark that serves to amplify and excite by its mere presence.
To be delighted is, critically, not at all the same as being grateful. Grateful, says the dictionary (my grandfather’s copy of the Webster’s Third New International edition, to be precise, which sits regally—splayed open—on a wrought-iron stand in our dining room; major source of delight), means “willing or anxious to acknowledge and repay or give thanks for benefits.” Secondary definition: “pleasing by reason of comfort supplied or discomfort alleviated.” The primary synonym listed is pleasant.
Gratitude is defined as a state of “warm and friendly feeling toward a benefactor prompting one to repay a favor.” Nope, definitely not what I’m feeling these days. The pandemic, and the havoc it’s been wreaking, are god-awful. As far as I can tell, there’s no benefactor in sight to thank, aside, perhaps, from my white skin and the costume of privilege it provides.
The use of the word gratitude in context of the ever-deepening catastrophe in which we find ourselves seems, to me, gratuitous; not in that word’s first meaning—“given freely or without recompense,” but its second—“not called for by the circumstances; adopted or asserted without good ground.”
Delight, on the other hand, provides a more graspable—and, I would argue, badly needed—psychic life raft.
Delight is basic, in the best sense of the word: essential, foundational, a starting point. Which is probably why we most commonly use the word in relation to children (This, of course, says as much, if not more, about adults’ ability to delight as it does about children’s innocence; or, if we allow cynicism to creep in, their naivety.). Like most children, my own—three-and-a-half year old twins—spend their days hoovering up stimuli and feeling, well, everything. In an hour, they’re prone to passing through an exhausting, and seemingly exhaustive, array of emotions and embodied reactions to them. Delight, for my children, is the pathway out of whatever’s been temporarily bogging them down—a brawl with their sibling, a knock on the head, the injustice of not being allowed to sit atop the car at the drive-in movie theater. In the midst of their discomfort, something pleasing catches their attention and yanks them into an “ooh ahh” trance; it can be as simple as focusing on catching the drips off a popsicle, or as wondrous as watching a mated pair of cardinals jointly arrive at their nest. My children’s little bodies temporarily quiet, their eyes fix in amazement, rapt, before the squealing—that proof of overflowing delight—begins.
Such wonderstruck moments, which punctuate the ho-hum, have been, for me, key to keeping my head above water during these pandemic months. Because delighting isn’t a mindset but rather a practice of seeing the small, sticky-out bits of light (as Gay elucidates in his discussion of the word’s etymology, delight means, literally, of the light), the word itself is an invitation to notice brightness. Delight’s visibility is always proportionate to the darkness against which it sparks: think fireworks, glowsticks, sparklers, fireflies (the last being one of Gay’s own delights).
For the first few weeks of sheltering-in-place, I kept a notebook, constantly and furiously, to document my delights. I wanted something to turn to if it all became too much, if delight ceased to present itself or if I lost so much heart I became unable to mark it. Among my early entries:
My daughter sits naked on the floor, peeling her labia apart and peering into their folds. “Mama,” she says, running in to where I’m making dinner. “My vagina looks like the tip of a carrot!” In response, I teach her the word for clitoris, a word which, said aloud, sounds exactly like the secreted pleasure it is.
I eschew shoes (I regret this only when I land on a spiky cow head at the river beach, or step in chicken shit on our back patio).
My son sits with toilet paper twisted into snakes and wrapped around his toes after demanding I paint his nails; fingers blue, toes gold. Afterwards, he sits with arms suspended, wrists cocked just so, letting his nails dangle to dry. An instinctive, gender-bending pose.
I cry, the warm release of tears so frequent and ready these days.
Delight (No exclamation mark).
As the weeks passed and my grip loosened, I noticed I didn’t need the written record to keep me from the quicksand of despair. Delight was abundant. Delight abounds. “Witnessing one’s delight,” Gay writes, “…requires faith that delight will be with you daily, that you needn’t hoard it. No scarcity of delight.”
I stopped writing, but the memories of my delights have stuck: A spotted owl flying overhead on a morning walk! The pink ruffled tip of rhubarb poking up from thawing earth! Tearing up the front yard sod to plant a second vegetable garden! The squat-and-freeze of our laying hens when I go to pet them! My son falling asleep splayed across my body!
Sometimes, despite the perpetual worsening of the situation at large, I find myself so deep in delights that they add up to a day that—though not particularly good when viewed from far enough back (people still dying, unrest still building, desperation still spreading like an unfettered flood)— feels good.
That feeling—the engagement of the senses—is baked into the definition of delight: “a high-wrought state of pleasurable feeling…also: extreme satisfaction.” An archaic sub-definition I like even more: “the power of affording pleasurable emotion or felicity. (See delightful,” whose synonyms include delicious, delectable, luscious… See pleasure.”) Notably, delight points to pleasure, whereas grateful’s is aligned with pleasant. Pleasure is to feel good, whereas pleasant is to observe, at arm’s length, something nice. (The suffix “ant” refers to an observation of a state or a quality, as in “Isn’t this pleasant weather?” The suffix “ure,” on the other hand, means “of action, result, and instrument.” In other words, pleasure relies on the sensorial capacities of the body, while the quality of being pleasant is an abstraction). While to be grateful one must think, to be delighted, one only has to feel.
What Gay trains us to do is allow ourselves to be moved as the agonies of life continually wash over us, be they experienced personally or by way of empathy. Then he picks through the flotsam, finds the shiny thing there in the rubble, and dares to pause for a moment—or three pages—allowing himself to fixate on how it makes him feel. He models how to digress and transgress and, thus, to gulp in the fresh air of pleasure, if only for a moment.
Gay’s notes aren’t relegated to private pleasures, the sort afforded us even in quarantine. He takes us out into the larger world—a world that has, for more nearly three months now, seemed inaccessible to those of us in non-essential roles and following the rules of self-isolation. One of Gay’s greatest delights is pausing the movement of his body in spaces where he can—indeed, wants to—be observed. Taking pleasure in public idling—on café patios, on sidewalks, under trees in parks—is a defiant one for a Black man, for whom such an act is often interpreted as an invitation to be viewed as lazy or, worse yet, baiting violent confrontation. A synonym for loitering, Gay points out, it “taking one’s time.” Not only does this connote a pleasurable slowing down, but a claiming of one’s time as one’s own, a radical stance in our productiveness-driven society, particularly for people of color. Gay relishes in freeing himself of the emotional labor of accommodating, or in any way responding to, others’ perceptions of what the stilling of his body does, or does not, mean.
Gay’s notion of subversive stopping (it calls to mind the Nap Ministry, tagline: “Rest as Resistance”) is of particular use to us all right now as we reckon with questions of meaning and loss, especially as they pertain to race: What do we do with all these bodies stopped permanently—by way of illness and violence—against their will? What do we do with so much pent-up grief and rage? And how might we sit, simultaneously, in pain and pleasure?
Gay’s provocations are not intended to create distance. Rather, he shines light on the inanity, the unnaturalness, of our separation from one another. He notes that delight often comes in “Simply sharing what we love, what we find beautiful, which is an ethics.” In order to share meaningfully, though, we must be more than proximate to one another; we must be intimate. We belong to each other, even when we’re told to stay apart. Witnessing, feeling, this togetherness made manifest is, for Gay, the pinnacle of delight.
And herein lies the magic, and timeliness, of this book: Gay doesn’t ask us to do the cognitive heavy lifting of getting to a place of gratitude, which would require us to work at sense-making, or attempt to square things that, often—and especially these days, it seems—cannot be squared. He never requests that we state or believe things are less awful than they are. He asks only that we notice, and that we feel. He speaks not of transcendence, but rather of earth; of mulch and hickory trees, penises and tongues. He speaks of delight’s intentional wellsprings—a gift, a kiss—and the accidental: One day, while gazing at the neglected brush pile in his backyard, suddenly, hundreds of birds fly up; where, he wonders, would they have rested on their long migratory flight had he bothered to clear the mess away?