In 2016, poet Ross Gay set out to document a delight each day for a year. Shortly after he completed the resulting essay collection, The Book of Delights, his friend asked him if he planned to continue his practice. Recognizing delight’s potential endlessness, Gay decided to turn his yearlong exercise into a lifelong project.
Five years later, he began The Book of (More) Delights, demonstrating that the sources of delight are indeed limitless—and that they multiply when attended to and shared. For Gay, delight serves as evidence of our interconnectedness, and it is inextricable from the fact of our mortality. With characteristic humor and grace, he chronicles his everyday encounters with delight, from the fleeting sweetnesses of strangers to the startling beauty of the falsetto to the unexpected joys of aging.
In a recent episode of Life As It Is, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, and Insight Meditation Society cofounder and teacher Sharon Salzberg sat down with Gay to talk about the relationship between delight and impermanence, how he understands faith, and how delight has restructured how he pays attention.
James Shaheen (JS): The last time we spoke, you had just published a book on joy. How do you think about the difference between joy and delight?
Ross Gay (RG): I’m starting to feel like among the definitions for delight is something like the pleasant evidence of our connection. It’s occasional—a hummingbird lands very close to you, and you feel delight. But joy feels like it’s always there, and you can enter into it.
In a way, joy feels like the connection itself, and delight feels like the little bells—the little reminders that, oh yeah, there’s this fundamental connection here. So that’s how I think of it: delight is more occasional; joy is more ever-present and waiting.
“Delight is more occasional; joy is more ever-present and waiting.”
JS: In your practice of noticing delight, you write that you’re not being optimistic; you’re just paying attention. Do you think delight has shaped or restructured how you pay attention?
RG: Absolutely. I feel like just by doing this practice, I’ve built a kind of reservoir of things that now I know delight me. Instead of just, “Oh, that’s happening,” it’s like, “Oh yeah, this is another thing that I love.” I find myself arguing with the notion of delight as optimistic in part because in this practice, I don’t mean to diminish the fullness and complexity of life.
What I mean to do is attend very fully. And in attending very fully, I’m also attending to what is astonishingly beautiful. I’m not looking at the bright side of things; I’m just trying to look at everything.
JS: Right. Often what you’re fully attentive to is what we might otherwise take for granted, and in your work, the everyday becomes unfamiliar and new. You describe this as being “perpetually wonderstruck.” Can you say more about the relationship between wonder and delight?
RG: It might be the case that while I’m doing this practice, I’m alert in a certain kind of way to what’s going to delight me. It’s starting with a question: I wonder. I wonder what’s going to delight me. And I wonder too if that experience of not knowing what’s going to delight you prepares the ground of not knowing. In a way, the vocation is to not know. Maybe there’s a first knowing, which is like, “Something’s probably going to delight me,” but the not knowing is like, “I don’t know what it is.” That practice of not being sure feels connected to wonder, which to me feels like a fundamental unknowing.
It’s an opening question: What do we love in common? What is beautiful? What is given to me? These are questions that can bring us closer to one another and help us acknowledge our connection, which then further makes that connection possible. They grow [the connection] that they witness.
JS: You’ve said that the most interesting thing about us as humans is that we die and we change. How do you see our mortality as an occasion for joy?
RG: There’s something really moving about walking down the street and seeing whoever is walking toward me and being like, “Oh, yeah, you too will die. We’re both going to be dead.” It’s an interesting ground to operate on, where there’s a shared fleetingness of things. If we can get a handle on that and be less afraid and more curious, it also seems to me to be another ground of sharing: to be witnesses of how fleeting this whole thing is. It offers a possibility for a different kind of generosity.
This also comes back to the fact that we are not one thing. We are many things, and in fact, we are many things in the process of becoming many more things. And that feels to me like a kind of faith—a kind of faith that also inclines me to feel tender toward someone when I can hold that, oh yeah, we’re changing. I don’t know what I’m going to be tomorrow or next week. But I also don’t know what anyone else or anything else is going to be tomorrow or next week. And although it’s a kind of groundlessness, it also feels like a potential for sweetness.
Sharon Salzberg: You write that delight can be occasioned by faith—faith in each other and our capacity for “radiant, unpredictable, sloppy, mycelial, transgressive care.” So how do you understand faith?
RG: This feels like a lesson for me regularly, and maybe it’s part of the practice of delight. To write a delight every day requires a kind of faith that there will be a delight every day, which I think comes from practice. The faith actually follows the practice—the practice has provided the evidence that you can have faith. Maybe faith and delight arrive together. They have a connection to one another.
In one essay in the book, my friend Kate’s cat gets lost. Every time I see a sign on a telephone pole that says “Lost Cat,” I’m like, “Oh, man, that’s a bummer. You’re never going to see your cat again.” In a way, I have faith in a certain kind of universe, and my faith in that universe compels me to contribute to that universe, which is to say that when I say, “Oh, bummer,” I’m not looking around for anyone’s cat. And if my friend’s cat gets lost, I’m not helping them out. I’ve been an asshole on account of that.
My friend Kate, on the other hand, has faith in this other kind of cat-rescuing universe. It’s a beautiful story, actually. Her cat got lost, she put up signs, and at dawn, when she went to the place where her cat got lost, which is behind a strip mall in a murky, swampy area, there were people out there calling her cat’s name. And she got her cat back.
That’s the kind of faith that she gave me. But I needed a reason to have that faith. Often, these things are given to us by other people. Someone has to teach you that when you put signs up, people will actually try to take care of you.
Listen to the full conversation at tricycle.org/podcast.