My Turn: A quarantine case for delight

For the Monitor
Published: 4/12/2020 6:30:04 AM

Is it okay to find delight in our fractured world? Is joy a luxury, a privilege?

Poet Ross Gay answers that question, posed by Krista Tippett during an interview aired during an “On Being” podcast: “That’s just dumb,” he says. Joy, he argues, derives from our connection as human beings, all of us living with the knowledge of mortality. When we understand that we’re part of a larger life, a life as big as a forest, with its timeless cycles, the possibility of tenderness arises, making joy available.

Gay said, “Our capacity for joy, despite and through . . . the fact that we’re all gonna die and that things are going wrong all the time, is also something that joins us together. It’s leveling, in a way.” He spent his 44th year writing The Book of Delights, a compilation of daily essays exploring the delight he finds in the world. He deliberately sought joy.

Tippett’s interview of Gay took place last year. Does Gay’s answer still count in the face of the coronavirus and its mounting death toll and economic disarray? Can we find delight in a world rocked by a pandemic?

My answer is as emphatic as Gay’s. Yes. Delight and joy hide everywhere, even in darkness. This morning is gray and raw and as I click through headlines of online newspapers and my Twitter feed I find more than enough to dismay me.

But there are also delights. Videos of people creating music together. Videos of people in cities across the world taking time every evening to stand on balconies and clap for frontline health care and safety workers saving lives. Memes that bring humor to our collective worry and disorientation. A tweet from a woman who lends her dog to an elderly neighbor who lives alone.

If I look away from my computer screen there are even more riches. A robin sings from a branch of the red-budded maple outside my window and the pair of finches nesting in the spruce take a break from their work to sit on a branch. The front yard of my neighbor who died decades ago is carpeted with the crocuses she planted even more decades before. Neighbors on the other side of the brook that draws the boundary of my back yard have three new calves, which means fresh, raw milk for me to make yogurt and cheese and butter.

Of course, my delight doesn’t diminish the pain of those who’ve lost loved ones and livelihoods because of the pandemic. I know the deep and disorienting grief that settles over everything when death craters a hole in what was a happy life. I don’t know the anxiety of living on the edge of a financial cliff, or at the bottom of the cliff, but I do understand that people in those positions are there more for reasons of luck and access to resources connected to gender or class or skin color than due to anything having to do with individual worthiness. That doesn’t mean there isn’t the possibility of snatches of delight even in lives weighted with difficulty.

Still, sometimes life is harder than anyone could manage and access to positive emotions vanishes. But my joy doesn’t make anyone’s hard time worse.

For those of us who can find something worth celebrating in this new life there’s nothing wrong with embracing that. Dwelling only in despair gets us nowhere. In fact research says that identifying and being grateful for what’s good in our lives is strongly associated with greater happiness. Gratitude leads to positive emotions and improves our health. Meaningful relationships and satisfying work do the same.

So what role does delight have at a time when there’s more to worry about than to be thankful for? When relationships are strained by distance or too much closeness, and satisfying work is suddenly unavailable to millions of people?

Looking for small moments of delight slows us down and connects us with appreciation for something we might have blown past – the first yellow buds on the forsythia bush by the tube when we go out in the morning to fetch the paper, as full of bad news as it will be. April sun on our skin that’s much warmer than the sun even a week ago as we walk into the grocery store, mask on and alcohol wipes in hand along with a shopping list.

None of this is to suggest that everyone needs to buck up and grit their teeth through this difficult time. There are real struggles that many of us have never faced before – loss of income; working and tending to children at the same time, in the same space; imposed distance from elderly and failing family members; being sick or caring for someone sick with COVID-19.

But even among hardships there are moments worth smiling about and looking for them can only make us feel better. Glimpses of beauty, whether a bluebird flitting past on a morning walk or the smile on a child’s face, call to us to be present. By acknowledging delight and joy, no matter how fleeting, we are connecting with where we are right at that moment. Paying attention to something good.

We don’t know how long we’ll need to live with physical distance between us and a barrage of discouraging news, but we do know at some point this will pass. Looking for bits of delight and joy during this time has the possibility of making a positive difference while we navigate all the difficulties we face.

(Grace Mattern is a poet and writer who lives in Northwood.)

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