Although published in 2019, Ross Gay’s autobiographical “The Book of Delights” is an important reminder of how impactful reflection can be in 2021. As we transition to a new year after such a harsh 2020, I thought it would be meaningful to take in the joy of a fresh start, a beginning that with the push of uncertainty from the pandemic, can help us live every moment to its fullest.
Gay begins the book with the opening line: “One day last July, feeling delighted and compelled to both wonder about and share that delight, I decided that it might be nice, even useful, to write a daily essay about something delightful.”
The concept behind “The Book of Delights” is quite simple, although the consistency of writing daily may be more difficult. With that in mind, I thought it would be more effective to break down my first small delights of 2021 into three parts inspired by quotes from “The Book of Delights.”
1. New Year’s
“Because it is rude not to acknowledge your delights, I’d tell them that though they might not become essayists, they were still important, and I was grateful to them. Which is to say, I felt my life to be more full of delight.”
You know that sweet moment of being in-between dreams before you’re awake and after you’ve tumbled out of unconsciousness? The first day of the new year is always like that for me. It’s a golden hour, a state of subconscious intuition — not quite defined yet, but a seamless stretch of hope for the spectacular arrival of the unknown.
The new year has never struck me as a dramatic, life-changing time. If anything, Jan. 1 is like any other day, continuous with yesterday and tomorrow. Of course, this year was different. 2020 showed us how to rise to the occasion, how to miss what we once thought was normal and how to feed our minds with endless spirals of thought during quarantine.
The first delight of the year was my own breath, taking in everything that had happened: COVID-19, BLM protests, the election — the yearning for a better future. That day, I looked at the milky, winter blue sky and its ember-like glow of the unseen setting sun behind the clouds. I looked at the sky and just felt. I appreciated the moment as I ached for more — and thought about the gratefulness of delight.
Like a dream, the moment has nearly faded from my memory. Intangible as it is physically, I can still vaguely remember the stillness of my own breath despite what was to come — the quiet, quirky calm of newness.
“Because in trying to articulate what, perhaps, joy is, it has occurred to me that among other things — the trees and the mushrooms have shown me this — joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away.”
Just create something, I told myself.
And so, I wrote down my delight: Isn’t it beautiful above the clouds, a perfect moment of bliss, one touch closer to the sky, one touch further from the Earth?
I see the red of the sun — only a glimpse, a sliver of her wraith. There’s a sea between us. Still, I stare her down because it is here in the sky that we are equals.
It’s the second delight of 2021: the beauty of being able to fly. Because of COVID-19, travel has become a cautionary tale, an action that causes much anxiety. It is difficult to stay six feet apart when you have the middle seat. Although I took every precaution — wearing double masks, keeping my distance throughout security and boarding — there was never a moment throughout my flight that I didn’t worry about the risk I was putting myself and others at.
Even so, I shoved my worries aside to appreciate the ride and find joy in the moment. In “The Book of Delights,” Gay begins to unravel a rhythm in the way he views life. Day-by-day, he wrote down these fractions of passing time and found that although they weren’t even the big life-changing moments, they were actually the true reason he got up every morning.
Flying is a sacred form of travel, not only because of its efficiency but also because it provides the opportunity to strike up a conversation with a stranger, the only thing you have in common being that you’ll depart and arrive in the same places. United by one path and one moment of living between sky and Earth, the second delight of 2021 has strengthened Gay’s perspective that there is a pattern to his delights, as his perspective from “The Book of Delights” has melded with my own.
“Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is—and if we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that?
“For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation. What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?”
Perhaps the human brain is wired to seek out patterns that connect random moments together, planting the seed that somehow, life is worth something — that we are here for a reason, that we matter to the universe despite our repetitive damage.
To find joy in our sorrows, Gay suggests that we share them with one another. It is the act of sharing that can stimulate delight. Perhaps it’s also the wiring of the brain that makes us want to feel connected to other human beings and experience joy.
Driving through the city, taking in the towering buildings with twinkling lights, the Columbia river glimmering under the stars and the surrounding Cascade mountains in the distance, I found myself reflecting on Gay’s words about sorrow as joy.
2020 proved to be a lot of sorrow and joy, motivating people to spark conversations about race, health care and mental health — to name a few. 2021 continues to show how vulnerable we truly are, and why it’s crucial for us to feel connected, despite our physical distance.
As I drove through Portland, making stops for errands, I found that love and the craving for connection as I talked to the grocery store clerk, the person at the bank waiting for the ATM, the cashier through the drive-thru. Each and every one of them had something to say, and I listened.
Not every word they spoke was important or even all that fascinating, but their determination to see me as someone to speak with — to share their temporary thoughts on the moment, on their life circumstances while waiting for the ATM or while giving the incorrect change — redeemed my own loss for joy in the midst of sorrow.
Because while I may never see those strangers again, I drove my way home, the city gleaming with similar stories and places, and felt the love for faces I had forgotten — the life around me. We were all people going through hardships, inconsequential as they may be, and the desire to share those hardships with a stranger made us feel less alone — closer.
“The Book of Delights” has reset my perspective on New Year’s and its automatic beginnings, showing me that without sacrifice, delight is already there for us to discover. There is no need to force happiness, for if we were to accept the small moments, we would be teeming with boundless jubilance — a reason to keep rising, to take every day as a new beginning — a reason to live fully and completely.