It’s not always easy to find delights, even when you’re looking for them, even when you have all the time in the world and nothing else to do but look for delights. The worst thing about not finding delights is you feel guilty. What sort of a person, you start to ask, can find no delight in this vast and infinitely varied world?
I should explain: I have started looking for daily delights. I was inspired by the African-American poet and gardener Ross Gay, who published A Book of Delights. He set himself the task of noticing and recording one thing a day that caused him delight, be that delight deep or shallow, profound or ephemeral. Being delighted is an active skill: you have to train yourself to see it and recognize it, the way a game ranger learns to see birds, or doctors recognize symptoms. He started on his 42nd birthday and gave himself the challenge to keep it up for a year.
Some of his joys are encounters with other people, or with cities or art or moments of sensual pleasure; many are moments he experiences working with plants and flowers, running his hands through soil. I have never been a gardener, but reading his writing about the joys of growing things makes me think I’ve been missing out.
He explains that his quest for delights wasn’t a flight from politics and climate and ill-health and the news, but rather a way of exercising his capacity for delight despite those things. Seeing delight doesn’t mean that you stop seeing injustice, say; it just means that you also see delight. Joy is not something separate and distinct from sorrow, Ross Gay says. They are part of the same whole. They are each other at different points on the same timeline, encountered from different directions, and each helps us appreciate the other more.
This sounded pretty good, and rather than be like the internet and try to think up arguments for why it might be wrong, I decided to try it myself. I also took his lead in deciding to make my delights public, because, as he writes in his prologue, “I learnt this year that delight grows – like love – when it is shared.”
So each day for the past little while I’ve been actively noticing things that cause me delight, and writing one a day on my website, and I don’t know if it has meant anything to anyone else but it has meant something to me. A specific smell, say, which before would just have been a pleasant smell now becomes something I pause over, delight over. The pleasure deepens, and like a candle it illuminates the air. It becomes a moment of presence, and moments of presence cast a kind of halo on the moments around them.
The other day, in a delight that never even made it onto the list, I looked from my apartment and noticed the morning sun casting a yellow light on a building across the square that precisely and gorgeously rhymed with the yellow of a passing bus below. It’s a sight I must have seen often through these past two months but never noticed before. Orienting yourself towards delight makes you a better noticer.
But today I’ve been struggling to find my delight. As I write this I’m in my third airport of a long day, and while I don’t loathe airports the way others do, still I wouldn’t say they add keenness or savour to life, especially too many of them in a row. I’ve been on the prowl for sights or sensations or encounters, remorselessly noticing, but delight is elusive.
I’ve spent a day without breathing real air or touching the ground or having unmediated access to the sky or seeing, I think, a single person doing something they genuinely want to be doing, and that is not a human way of being. I don’t have to find delight today, and I don’t have to write it down – one of the rules I made for myself when I started this is that finding delight shouldn’t be a chore or a burden or a source of guilt – but to find delight here would feel like a victory for life over anti-life.
And then just an hour ago I saw something I’ve never seen in an airport before. “Souvenir from Rome!” said a sign, and behind it, in a weird, improbable row, were packets of tomato seeds. Tomato seeds!
The tomatoes on the packet were very red and their little leaves were green. You could see sun in those tomatoes, you could taste their juice on your fingers. You could imagine the green unfurling buds and imagine the smell of the soil after you watered them in the evening after a hot day.
I don’t have a garden, not yet, but I have a packet of tomato seeds in my pocket, and when I touch them I think of a time when I will make something grow, and go down on my hands and knees in the dirt to tend to it, and how it will taste of the world and all the world’s joys and simple delights.
Delights anchor you to the present – they help you be here, now – but sometimes the present needs a little help for the future.
The Times, 29 January 2020