One of my dogs - unabashedly a mutt - has long, golden fur. She also has a propensity to stand outside, on a patio or sidewalk, in the breeze, letting the wind toss her locks behind her like a cape. If you are picturing Jack and Rose on the bow of the Titanic, you are doing it exactly right. We have, over the years, made endless fun of this act. She is unaffected by our mockery.
I'm telling you this because recently, as I walked the dogs, the early-morning was rather blustery, and my usually tied-up, unnecessarily-long hair was loose and whipping into my face, pieces tangling and getting stuck in my mouth. I managed to wrangle dog leash and poop bag to free the hair, tossing it over my shoulder just as I rounded a corner and a different wind hit me in the face. This wind was not a blast, it was firm but gentle, a consistent stream that sent my considerable mane flowing out behind me. And with a clarity, a force undeniable, like golden letters lit up across the sky, I thought
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves
and I thought, this is why the dog likes it, and I thought, don't forget this.
You might assume, and you might be right, that I was primed for this observation because for several days I have been in the throes of Ross Gay's The Book of Delights.
Ross Gay is a poet, one I've admired for many years. He is a teacher, an editor, a nickname-bestower, an uncle, a gardener, a loafer, and a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, described on his website as "a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project." He contains multitudes is what I'm saying. And this book, a collection of essayettes chronicling the author's daily delights, puts those multitudes on brilliant display.
Over the course of a year, from birthday to birthday, Gay attempted to write "a daily essay about something delightful." About midway through, he realized he had been stockpiling ideas, "stacking delights," as he called it. In the essay of that same name (#35), he reminds himself of "the need, of my own essayettes to emerge from such dailiness, and in that way to be a practice of witnessing one's delight, of being in and with one's delight, daily, which actually requires vigilance." Put another way: Gay is reminding us - like Mary Oliver before him - to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves - and to be a witness to that love. Gay is testifying to the delights of his being, some of which will undoubtedly surprise the reader (#72) and others that might confound or convict the reader.
Almost a year ago, I read one of these delights in the Paris Review, "Loitering is Delightful," and like Gay's poetry (his poetic sensibility is infused across these pages, even as they are utterly accessible), the rhythm of this essay drives it forward until you reach the turn, and after the turn, well, you might have to pick up the pieces. Gay considers some synonyms for loitering, some more colorful than others, and concludes the phrase "taking one's time" is the most apt. His argument hits like a blunt force to the sternum, this line a conviction and a righteous celebration all at once:
"for the crime of loitering, the idea of it, is about ownership of one's time, which must be, sometimes, wrested from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is."
There are many such moments, moments where Gay's delight is integrated with a reality that his soft animal body is also a black body, also male, also large. He delights in "unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers" even as he acknowledges that "the pleasant, the delightful, are not universal," and when he's celebrating what he calls the "negreeting," he's also acknowledging the painful past and present that make the negreeting necessary: the fact that "if you're black in this country you're presumed guilty. Or, to come back to Abdel, who's a schoolteacher and thinks a lot about children, you're not allowed to be innocent. The eyes and heart of a nation are not avoidable things. The imagination of a country is not an avoidable thing. And the negreeting, back home, where we are mostly never seen, is a way of witnessing each other's innocence -- a way of saying, 'I see your innocence.'" This and so much more, readers. So much more.
Despite the depth unmistakably present here, the insistent emotion of this book is joy - it is a reckless, effervescent love, and it is contagious. To conclude the passage about witnessing one's delight and the vigilance required, Gay writes,
"It also requires faith that delight will be with you daily, that you needn't hoard it. No scarcity of delight."
That's it. That's the takeaway. There is no scarcity of delight. Mary Oliver would agree: "Whoever you are, no matter how lonely / the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting - / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things."
In several essays, Gay sends his probing mind to excavate the concept of joy, each time recognizing the connection between joy and despair or loss; in "'Joy is Such a Human Madness': The Duff Between Us," he uses the idea of healthy forest soil (duff) to explain:
"...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. If we sink a spoon into that fact, into the duff between us, we will find it teeming. It will look like all the books ever written. It will look like all the nerves in a body. We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that, once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flower and food. Might be joy."
This book is joy, it is light, it is teeming with the difficult and challenging, the charming and the unexpected. Do read it. Read it now for the solace it may bring you during this season; read it again years later to see how much you've changed, to witness the abundance of your delight. And while you're at it, read Ross Gay's poetry: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude and Bringing the Shovel Down. It will not disappoint.
[You can read Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese" here.]