My recent pursuit began quite simply. I was walking the dog on a snowy afternoon, listening to essayist and poet Ross Gay on a This American Life episode themed “Delight,” a theme that the host admitted was paradoxically timed. This was mid-January, when our pandemic life and grey skies were all but eternal fixtures. Suddenly, I began laughing out loud.
Ross Gay was narrating an essay from his Book of Delights about the time he took a tomato seedling on a cross-country flight. Almost everyone he passed in the airport brightened. The flight attendant referred to the leafy sprout as “my tomato” at least five times—how’s my tomato? You haven’t lost my tomato, have you?—She even upgraded him to an emergency row with an open seat so “my little tomato” could have some room to breathe.
At that revelation, I felt it: delight. It was in Ross Gay’s voice, his near-audible smile, a cultivated curiosity. Pure delight. Maybe it was the Michigan winter warming. Maybe it was recent hope for a COVID-19 vaccine. Maybe it was just cozy boots sifting through the freshly fallen snow. But there I was, leash in my gloved right hand, biodegradable doggy poop bag swinging in my left, delighting. In a season full of loss, rampant division, fear of the next virus spike—I welcomed this delight, a kind of lightness.
Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest. My yoke is easy and my burden is light. This verse from the gospel of Matthew is one that always baffles me. Given the ongoing weight of injustice in this world, the simple reality of our daily failings and my own pervasive sense of duty, ‘my yoke’ often feels anything but easy. And Jesus spoke these words after threatening a few Galilean towns with a descent into Hades, which doesn’t feel particularly light.
But I thought—maybe—leaning into delight would be a prudent path forward, at least a way to catch a glimpse of this de-lightness. So for the past month and a half I have quite unoriginally copied Ross Gay—and likely thousands of others—in keeping a journal of delights, small and large.
With my first few entries, I began to worry that I had succumbed to a fairly insidious consumerism in which things brought all my delights: a life-changing BlendTec blender found cheap on Facebook Marketplace, a Patagonia sweater (also Marketplace), perfect-fitting pants, Ben & Jerry’s, thin-cut bacon, the soft click, tic, click of my MacBook keys.
My list then gained a bit more nuance: a Valentine’s day-themed trail sign about a giraffe’s left ventricle being larger so it can pump blood all the way up its neck. The comfort of my well-worn wool shoes, the gnocchi at that one restaurant in Philly (a pre-pandemic memory), our dog sighing so loudly you’d think she pays the rent.
And then there was freshly baked homemade bread with honey, a clean sink, the right song for the right moment, coconut water from a fresh coconut (again, pre-pandemic). A mango with a Parakeet. The spotted begonias in our living room, how they always resist growing in a straight line. The beautiful inefficiency of that.
I found to be true what has undoubtedly already been scientifically proven: that when you pay attention, you notice things. As I cultivated an awareness of delights, delight appeared everywhere.
But these delights, I found, were also surrounded by what I will call not-delights, like pulling up the metal tab on the Morton salt container with a fingernail or stepping in the dog poop that melted with the snow. Or failing to pick up said dog poop the day before.
And sometimes delights are buried in the middle of something absolutely horrible. Delights, Ross Gay points out, are often just a cliff edge away from terror, like “a village […] in the Philippines where, a few years back, a typhoon had leveled most everything. Salvaged from the wreckage, stacked in the gazebo that had survived, were all the doors.”
The novelist Zadie Smith writes that this intersection of terror, pain, and delight is where we might occasionally stumble into joy, which—we imagine—is what we are truly seeking. Delight is almost inseparable from suffering. Smith describes a moment of joy that appeared to her quite unexpectedly. She came to the sudden realization while on a trip to Auschwitz with her partner that she had—after a winding road of mirages—found real love. She writes:
I was so surprised by its arrival, so unprepared, that on the day it arrived I had already arranged for us to visit the Holocaust museum at Auschwitz. You were holding my feet on the train to the bus that would take us there. We were heading toward all that makes life intolerable, feeling the only thing that makes it worthwhile. That was joy.
Delight sneaks up on us in the middle of all that is intolerable, breaking in through despair. Two years ago, I encountered this category of unexpected delight at Detroit’s Birwood Wall. The Birwood wall, or ‘America’s Berlin Wall,’ is located in Detroit’s northwest corner. A foot thick and six feet high, it was erected in 1941 so that a white housing development could be built a quarter mile from a black neighborhood. The Federal Housing Administration denied a loan for the white-only development because it was too close to the existing black neighborhood. The white developers built a six-foot-tall, one-foot thick, half-mile-long concrete barrier to signify that their new white residents would not mix with their black neighbors. They received the loan.
That story is not the delight. Quite the opposite.
The delight? Only a few short years following the construction of the wall, white residents of the new housing division were incentivized by federal subsidies and their own fears of their hard-working black neighbors to move to the suburbs, and the African Americans soon moved in on both sides of the wall, cultivated gardens, forged a life. The wall became a jungle gym for children and a canvas for creative artists.
I’ve often wondered why that wall still stretches through this neighborhood today, why its sad legacy hasn’t been demolished. Then I had one delightful thought: given the average cost of a white picket fence is about $2,000, and residents living around the Birwood wall have this very solid, vintage and weather-resistant barrier that keeps their dogs in at no cost, the wall appears to have become—well—useful. And decorated with murals and paintings—beautiful.
Could this be, as infinitesimally small as it is, a delight perched on the cliff-edge of pain? A small justice emerging from a sea of terror?
Delights like these help us imagine a different world. A better world, where the arc of justice enters as an unstoppable force. And that imagination is sorely needed, because we live in a place where this wall’s legacy is still alive and well. In 2014, the Detroit-adjacent, majority-white city of Grosse Pointe Park (household income, $112,000) piled a literal wall of snow blocking access to a majority-Black East Side Detroit neighborhood (household income, $28,000). This snowpile (then a shed, then a broken water main) symbolizes many less visible walls: because African Americans were denied loans and access to housing for the same reasons that this concrete wall was built, African American families have one-tenth the wealth of white families today, which meant African American families were the primary victims of sub-prime lending in 2008. Instead of a universal agreement on reparations, they were blamed for fiscal irresponsibility.
None of these are delights. All definitive not-delights. And yet, delight sneaks up in unexpected places. Delights function as signposts for who we could be as a people, a nation, a society, if we just opened our eyes. Delights could heal our concrete inequalities, just as young artists reimagined the Birwood wall.
Allow me to engage in one last imaginative delight. One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Detroit was the bullet-proof windows present in places like gas stations, banks, and even at the Popeyes fast food counter: one inch of bullet-proof glass. It looked like a militarized version of something you’d find in the police station of Detroit’s Third precinct.
And now, mid-pandemic, you will find in most suburban grocery stories, thick sheets of plexiglass between cashier and client. In some particularly safety-conscious places, you will find a receptionist completely enclosed in thick plexiglass. And you will also find, in the not-so-far reaches of the internet, people complaining about these ‘unnecessary precautions.’
What if, (what if!) we realize that—after the pandemic and the health risks subside—those plexiglass barriers are not normal, are not natural, and in our post-pandemic fervor to restore some old comforts, like speaking face-to-face without barriers, we realize we don’t want barriers anywhere, not in the suburbs, not in our cities, not between our cities and our suburbs?
Wouldn’t that be a delight? A delight carved out from terror? What if our delights and our not-delights had the capacity to unite us, turning our walls into jungle gyms and our concrete into canvas?
I know this sounds crazy. But crazy is not far from delight. Not many verses before Jesus speaks of smiting Galilean towns and offering a ‘light yoke,’ he responds to John the Baptist, who had asked if Jesus was the one true Messiah the Jews were waiting for to set this world right. Jesus replies: go see for yourself.
Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. And if anyone is not offended because of me, they are blessed.
Or with some creative liberty, we might say, “delighted.” That those who are not offended by this upside-down world, they will delight.
It turns out that those for whom the yoke will be light are those who delight in these actions of restoring justice: extending and receiving medical care for the sick, painting a wall, offering life to the dead, demanding justice, bringing good news to the poor. Those are the ones gifted with delight.
If by some grace of God, we realize that we as a unified people do not like barriers of any kind and pledge to transform them, we fashion delight from terror. A lighter yoke. We commit to find hope in the face of pain, and to declare that terror will pass. Delight points to a more perfect world—call it a new creation—for those who aren’t offended by its absurdity.
And for those who see it: they will be delighted.
Until then, of course, we content ourselves with the occasional delight: the fresh-glazed donut, baggy sweatpants, a misshapen house plant, a mural on a concrete wall.