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Delight, according to poet Ross Gay, is underrated: its very existence, the multiplicity of delights present in the world, the noticing and celebrating of said delights. (For what it’s worth, I agree with him.)

Between his 42nd and 43rd birthdays, Gay decided to capture as many delights as possible, and spin them out into a series of “essayettes.” The result, The Book of Delights, is a kaleidoscopic collection of joy–an accumulation of blessings that, piled up, create a larger enchantment.

I interviewed Ross via email for Shelf Awareness after reading The Book of Delights – the paragraph above is the first part of my review. His answers to my questions, not surprisingly, were a delight, so I wanted to share them with you. (And I highly recommend the book itself, which came out last week.)

KNG: Tell us about the inspiration for The Book of Delights.

RG: I was–this is not a joke–walking back to the castle I was staying in for the month of June in Umbria, at an artists’ residency. I was delighted, and acknowledged it. I was like, “Oh, this is really delightful!” It might have been the wildflowers at my feet swooning with bees, or the fig trees (unripe) everywhere, or the way Erykah Badu singing in your headphones usually makes things more delightful. Or the castle, I guess.

But I think catching myself in delight that day made me think it would be interesting and challenging and fun to do every day for a year. It was close to my birthday, so that was an easy form: birthday to birthday. And, too, the fact that I am always hungry, like deeply hungry, for writing about and thinking about and theorizing about and singing about that which I love.

How did you decide which delights to capture and expound upon? (You note that stacking delights is itself a delight, but at the same time, you cant write about them all!)

Today, outside my window, is what looks like a weird kind of poppy shrub–a cardinal just flipped by, and there goes her fella–which amazes and delights me, you know, because it’s January and, thank god, very cold outside, much too cold for a poppybush to be growing, whatever a poppybush is.

Then I realized I’d chucked a couple clementine peels out of the car when I was coming home from the store, and the way they landed behind the bald shrub, and from this distance, makes it look as though they are flowers on the tree, as though they are a poppybush, which they are. And one of those cardinals is so bright, looking right into this window from across the street, that he looks like a red light bulb. I mean, I don’t know. There is, along with all else, so much to delight upon, the way I see it.

I remember trying to write about things that really delighted me, but they just kind of spun out as essayettes and didn’t go anywhere. So probably I needed the delight to take me somewhere, which could mean associative wandering, or musical wandering, or digging really hard on a thing. But I guess the delights needed to offer a certain amount of puzzlement in addition to delight. They often had to make me ask why a thing delights me, which often took me far from delight–often took me nowhere I would have anticipated.

You talk about delight, and the noticing of it, as a muscle that can be strengthened, or a radar that grows more sensitive over time. Tell us about about the process of finding more delight as you went along.

I think I was prepared for a kind of scarcity of delight. To need to be scouring my life for delight to write these essayettes. And then, as I turned it on, it was like this is what Im doing, attending to my delight.

I found, with that attention, that I am often kind of delighted. And often delighted by things I didn’t realize delighted me. And that is a gift–to be like, “Oh, shoot, I love that jade plant that my student gave to me and I have spent all these years never realizing how much I love it!” Or, “I love that candy because it reminds me of my father, who could be so ridiculously sweet to us.” To do that again and again. But it took me giving myself the task of attending to and articulating the experience of delight to myself to realize that. Because, the truth is, my inclination has been kind of melancholic plus.

Delight, or at least the public celebration of it, has often been denied to black people in the U.S. Can you talk about writing a book of black delight. Daily as air?”

I think there’s a very clear desire (and industry) by some to crush the experience, or to imagine the experience, of black people into, simply, suffering and pain. Like if it isn’t pain, it isn’t black. If it isn’t about pain or reacting to or resisting pain, it isn’t black. Something like that. That’s bullsh*t, and it’s poisonous, all around. (Black pain as a salable product, a good, that’s familiar, huh?)

I’m interested in the full, weird, complex, surprising, tender humanity of my life, our lives. Which includes delight. (And I recommend Kevin Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet.)

Theres a perception that delight, joy or playfulness arent serious, or that celebrating them forces people to ignore the harsher realities of life. But your collection draws together the dark and the light, and takes joy and pleasure seriously. Were you consciously trying to strike that balance or was it more organic?

It’s a mistake to imagine that what is brutal or awful is the only thing worth talking about. Primarily because the brutal and the awful and the harsh are not the only thing.

I mean, what is the world in which the only thing worth talking about or thinking about or meditating on or studying, the only thing worthy of our fullest attention, is that which sucks? What are the results of thinking and counseling that joy–which, in my opinion, comes from the realization that we are utterly interdependent, we are utterly connected (part of that connection being that we all die)–is not worth studying? F*ck that.

I want to study the zillion ways we care for each other so that I can get better at caring. I want to study the ways we collaborate, the ways we interdepend, whether we acknowledge it or not, which we damn well better do.

Do you have advice for readers who may be inspired to start their own delight-noticing projects, or write about their delights?

I’m not that good for advice, but I will say there was something useful to me about dailiness, about making writing these delights a practice. I also think having a little time constraint was useful for me; it helped me to think in a looser, non-precious way. I loved writing them by hand, too–that helps me to think more bodily, which I think is more delightful, frankly. And then you can have these notebooks full of meditations on things that have delighted you–how lucky!

I originally conducted this interview and reviewed this book for Shelf Awareness, where both pieces appeared last week. 

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Katie ww run selfie trail

This is what we used to say to my dad, when he came in from mowing the lawn or an afternoon walking the golf course. In West Texas, you can do both for a good chunk of the year, and while it’s often warm (or hot) enough to break a sweat, this was something different. Sometimes I could smell the lawn fertilizer or the musty scent of dried leaves, but often it was simply the outdoors: earthy, fresh, dusty, a distinct contrast to the clean interior smells of our house.

For as long as I’ve lived in Boston, I have commuted by a combination of public transit and walking, so I have to – and like to – get outside multiple times on any given day. But since I’ve become a walker and then a runner, I get outside much more often, for longer stretches, in nearly all kinds of weather and at all times of day.

Whether it’s the river trail or the Commonwealth Ave mall, or a long, rambling stroll through the streets of Cambridge, I go outside as often as I can, to feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my face, to observe the particularities of the changing seasons. I go to move, to take breaks, to run errands, to ride a bike, to meet friends: to refresh myself by being out in the big wide world.

Of course, I often break a sweat, especially when I’m running or riding. But sometimes, when I come back inside, it’s not quite sweat I smell. It’s something different, more earthy, in my hair or on my clothes. I realized the other day what it was: sometimes I just smell like outside. And I am so happy about that.

 

still book stack table ranunculus flower

So far this month, I’ve been flipping through old favorites and diving deep into new books. Here’s the latest roundup:

I’ll Be There For You: The One About Friends, Kelsey Miller
I’m a longtime Friends fan, though I came to it late. I blew through this smart, well-researched, loving look at the origin, history and cultural impact of one of my favorite shows. Miller adores the show, but she’s not afraid to question its more difficult parts. Fascinating and so much fun.

Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength, April Yamasaki
Sarah Bessey chose this book to kick off a yearlong challenge to read spiritual formation books by people of color. My go-tos in this genre are all white women, so I appreciated the nudge. Yamasaki is wise and thoughtful. Lots of her advice is common sense – but we all need a reminder sometimes.

What Now?, Ann Patchett
I love Patchett’s essays and some of her novels (and Parnassus, the Nashville bookstore she founded). This quick read is based on her commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. Warmhearted, wise advice for college grads and anyone who’s ever wondered about their winding path (which I bet is most of us).

Wishtree, Katherine Applegate
I picked up this slim middle-grade novel at Porter Square Books. It’s narrated by Red, a red oak tree who serves as the neighborhood “wishtree” – people tie wishes to its branches. When a young, lonely girl moves in next door, Red becomes determined to help her find a friend. A sweet story with gorgeous illustrations (and I loved Bongo the crow).

Belong to Me, Marisa de los Santos
After rereading Love Walked In last month, I turned back to this sequel-of-sorts, which finds Cornelia in the suburbs, struggling with new challenges. This book is full of warmth and vivid detail and characters I want to be friends with – even Piper, Cornelia’s neighbor, who is hard to like at first, but I’ve come to adore her. So many good and true lines.

Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, Sarah Bessey
Reading Four Gifts (see above) spurred me to (finally) pick up Sarah’s second book, on her struggles with church and faith and how she found her way back. I love the sorting metaphor, and it feels particularly apt right now as I am between churches. Her words on community and grief and calling are so good.

The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce is back for a 10th adventure, involving a human finger found in her sister’s wedding cake and a couple of mysterious deaths (naturally). I like this series, though I think it’s struggling a bit lately. Really fun escapist British mystery.

Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace, Christie Purifoy
Christie is a gardener, a writer and an Internet friend of mine. This, her second book, examines the places she’s lived and loved (each chapter has a different tree motif) and her efforts to care for them. So much here about loss, grief, joy, transition, community and how we shape and are shaped by our places. I loved it. To review for Shelf Awareness(out March 12).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

Why I still go to church

On Sunday morning, I put on a striped dress, brewed a travel mug full of spicy black tea, and got in my car to drive to church.

This is not so different from what I’ve done for the past eight (or 35) years, except that my destination is different, and varied, these days.

I have been a part of several church communities in my adult life, and mostly, once I found them, I have plunged in, swift and sure. I visited Highland as a college student, and several months of Wednesday night meals in the fellowship hall, a cappella singing and welcoming faces convinced me that it was where I belonged. I stayed there for six years, singing on the praise team and joining a small group, walking through more than half my twenties with people who are still family to me.

On my first Sunday in Oxford, 15 years ago last month, jet-lagged and overwhelmed and excited, I walked into St Aldates. I fell in love at once and forever with the joyful music, the ancient liturgy read with fresh eyes, the vibrant international community and the way they welcomed me: a stranger, an American, a young woman just learning to question so many things.

Nearly nine years ago, my husband and I walked into Brookline three days after we arrived in Boston, exhausted and grubby from a cross-country move. We found welcome there too, and music, and later, a place to serve. (Eventually I found another quiet, anchoring community on weekday mornings at Mem Church, where I still show up as often as possible.)

Last September, for reasons that I won’t go into here, we lost our footing at Brookline, at least for now. And I have felt, perhaps not surprisingly, unmoored.

I grew up in church, almost literally. My parents and sister and I spent countless Sunday mornings sitting in the pews of a handful of Baptist churches scattered across Texas. When I go back for Christmas or a long weekend, I join my parents in the same sanctuary they’ve frequented since I was eight years old. There are unnumbered Sunday nights and Wednesday nights in there too, hot meals eaten around folding tables off plastic trays, mornings studying the Bible and evenings singing with the youth group, learning so many songs and Bible verses I still know by heart.

Even when I am mad at the church, I crave church. I need to be among the people of God, to hear the words I have heard my entire life: words of grace and love and redemption, the hope (however slight) that God is working, making all things new. Like most people, I picked up a few messages from my childhood religious experience that I don’t want to carry around any more. Like a lot of us, I have spent time raging at church people who have gotten church wrong. More recently, I have hurt and been hurt in ways I’m still struggling with. I believe we are called, ultimately, toward reconciliation, and I also understand that it is not instant, and not guaranteed.

Since last fall, I have spent Sunday mornings all over the place: eating brunch in a friend’s spacious dining room, or watching another friend’s little boy run around the soccer field. Sometimes I’ve slept late and headed right for the river trail, or walked with my husband to a restaurant in our neighborhood. Some weekends, I’ve traveled or entertained guests, taking a break from a place and a rhythm that had come to cause me pain.

But on some Sundays, still, I go to church.

I go because I need to hear the words: The Lord be with you. Christ is risen. The body of Christ, broken for you. I go because I need to say the words out loud: And also with you. Christ is risen indeed. Forgive us our trespasses. For thine is the kingdom. I go because I need to sing, not only alone but as part of a community: Be Thou my vision. Holy, holy, holy. Alleluia. 

I wrestle and question. I doubt and grieve. Sometimes I stay silent, and sometimes I cry. I have come to believe I need all of that, and that church is a place where that can happen. I am not sure yet when or if I’ll find a new community to call mine. I am not ready, yet, to decide one way or another.

I have been grateful, in this city, to find welcome in every church I have visited so far: with screens and folding chairs in a community center, or the box pews and crimson-covered hymnals at Memorial Church. My heart tugs at the mixture of old hymns and more recent praise music at a church I’ve visited in the Fenway, and my soul relaxes into the rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer in almost every place.

While I believe God is present throughout the world, I also know that, for me, one place to find God is church. So I keep going, keep seeking, keep wiping away tears. I keep doing my best to show up, when I can. I keep listening to the words I know so well, and saying the words I am given to say: Good morning. Peace be with you. Help us, Lord. Thank you. Amen. 

19 new recipes in 2019.

carrot ginger soup bowl strawberries table

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, these days. But I am always looking for ways to add a little more joy to the everyday, especially during the winter. So I floated an idea by my husband recently: how about we try 19 new recipes in 2019?

I know myself, and it’s super easy for me to rotate between the same half-dozen meals (or, in the winter, the same few standby soups). And while there’s nothing wrong with huevos on a Monday night after boot camp, a big pot of simmering tomato soup, or tacos (always tacos), I could always use a little meal inspiration – and a few more veggies – in my life.

Nineteen recipes seems doable: an average of one or two per month, a way to interrupt or spice up the usual pattern without hijacking it altogether. There’s usually at least one recipe in each month’s Real Simple that I want to try, and I have a dozen cookbooks I hardly ever use. I’m hoping this goal will push me to do a bit of experimenting – maybe even find a new favorite or two.

We started off with a simple chicken adobo recipe (from Real Simple, naturally), then dipped back into Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (an old favorite) to try sweet potato-and-spinach quesadillas. With guacamole, of course.

The verdict in both cases? So far, so good. I’ll check back later in the year.

How do you find new recipes to try? Any tips?

winter berries trail January bare branches

A few years ago – around the same time, I think – Anne Bogel and I both discovered Barbara Brown Taylor’s brilliant question: what is saving your life now?

I made it the subject of my Morning Prayers talk at Harvard, two springs ago, and Anne has made it a tradition to host a linkup in midwinter, to invite people to share the small but vital things that are keeping them sane, healthy and whole. Today is that day: we’re halfway through winter (technically), though spring is a long way off here in the Northeast.

I shared my list of winter pleasures last week, but this is a little different: the small daily things that are bringing a burst of joy or simply getting me through. In the dark, cold season, there’s something to be said for celebrating not only the delights but the lifelines, and some things that are both.

As we head into February, I’m relying on two kinds of lifesavers: the building blocks of healthy routines, and the tiny, almost-too-small-to-mention stuff that either catches me by surprise or simply makes a slight but vital difference. The list below includes both. Here they are:

  • Black spicy tea (I have a few different blends) in my favorite purple travel mug, every morning.
  • The leggy paperwhites in my kitchen, which are bursting with blooms this week.
  • Sunrises out the kitchen window, especially on blazing bright mornings.
  • Making travel plans. (Clicking “buy” on the Amtrak or flight site can be very satisfying.)
  • Texts from a friend who’s spending the semester in Germany: travel updates and our usual lifesaving check-ins.
  • Chai. Always, always chai. And the smiles from my people at Darwin’s.
  • Lots and lots of water, all day, every day.
  • Vitamin D pills + my happy lamp + all the sunshine I can find.
  • Daffodils for my desk, flame-bright tulips, velvety roses and good cheer from my florist.
  • Dropping by the Boston Public Library on my way home from work.
  • The two Buff wraps (one head, one neck) that I wear when I’m running.
  • My Wonder Woman playlist.
  • Running on the river trail, under open skies.
  • When I can’t get out there: quick lunchtime runs through Back Bay or along the Esplanade.
  • Hauling my laptop into the conference room at work as often as I can: plants, sunshine and an excuse to move.
  • Midday snack or lunch runs to the tiny Trader Joe’s around the corner. (Dark chocolate peanut butter cups, am I right?)
  • Wearing real shoes instead of snow boots as often as possible. (Related: keeping a pair of flats at the office.)
  • Fleece-lined tights, every day.
  • Morning Prayers, which has finally started back up again.
  • Laughing with my coworkers about whatever we can find to enjoy or joke about.
  • Doing the NYTimes crossword with my husband, sometimes while munching on Girl Scout cookies.
  • Our twinkling Christmas tree (yes, it’s still up).
  • Tackling a sinkful of dirty dishes.
  • Tangy clementines, tart pomegranate seeds, out-of-season but delicious raspberries.
  • Burt’s Bees lip balm: in my purse, in my pocket, on my nightstand.
  • Tiny moments of human connection, either experienced or observed: a smile at Mem Church, two friends riding the T and chatting, a friendly barista or trolley operator or librarian. These things matter.

What’s saving your life this winter? (U.S. friends: are you surviving the polar vortex?) And any tips for making the best of this season, while we wait for spring?

Ivey book slippers twinkle lights

January has been unpredictable, weather-wise: frigid, icy, blustery, mild, wet, sunshiny. As always, the books are getting me through. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Island of Sea Women, Lisa See
The women of Jeju, an island off the south coast of Korea, traditionally made their living as haenyeo, deep-sea divers. See explores the island’s matriarchal culture and the powerful changes wrought by the 20th century (wars, occupation, new technologies) through the story of two haenyeo, Kim Young-sook and Han Mi-ja. Young-sook recounts their childhood friendship, their years of diving together and the heart-wrenching losses they suffered. Really well done; See is prolific but I hadn’t read her before. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

Christmas on the Island, Jenny Colgan
Colgan returns to the Scottish island of Mure for a Christmas-themed novel. I find Flora and Joel (the main couple) frustrating, but I like Flora’s family, her teacher friend Lorna, and Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor. Entertaining, though not my favorite Colgan.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A Year of Gardening and (Wild)Life, Kate Bradbury
The tiny back garden of Kate Bradbury’s flat in Brighton, England, was covered in decking when she bought it. She set out to revive it: ripping up the decking, planting ground cover and shrubs, finding flowers to attract bees and birds. She writes movingly about her childhood garden memories, the loss of habitat for wildlife in the UK, and her mother’s illness. Keenly observed; slow in places. Took me weeks, but it was lovely. Found, as so many good things are, at Three Lives (in December).

To the Bright Edge of the World, Eowyn Ivey
In 1885, Colonel Allen Forrester heads out into the (mostly) unmapped Alaska Territory with two men, while his wife Sophie must stay behind. Ivey tells their story, and that of the Colonel’s encounters with Alaska and its people, through journal entries and letters. I loved Ivey’s debut, The Snow Child, but loved this one even more. Ivey’s writing is stunning, and I adored Sophie (bright, curious, determined and so human) and the Colonel’s keen eye and compassion.

Mistletoe and Murder, Robin Stevens
Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are spending Christmas (1935) in Cambridge, where, predictably, a murder finds them. Hazel narrates their fifth adventure in this fun British middle-grade series. I find Daisy a bit irritating, but I like Hazel and the mysteries are always good fun. I also liked the deft handling here of race and immigration in the UK – not a new issue but an important one.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Sonia Purnell
Losing her leg in a hunting accident didn’t slow Virginia Hall down: she would go on to become a key force for the Allies in World War II, working undercover in France to coordinate and support the Resistance. Purnell delves deeply into Virginia’s (formerly classified) story to weave a gripping tale of an extraordinary woman. Fascinating, well-researched and cinematic at times. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

This Much Country, Kristin Knight Pace
Reeling from a broken heart, Kristin Knight agreed to spend a winter in Alaska caring for a team of sled dogs. To her own surprise, she fell in love with the dogs and the place, becoming a dog musher and eventually opening her own kennel. She found romantic love again, too. Her memoir is a bit uneven, but the setting is captivating, and there are some wonderful lines. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

Becoming, Michelle Obama
This memoir was on so many “best of 2018” lists (and broke all kinds of publishing records). It’s a wise, warm, thoughtful account of Obama’s childhood on the South Side of Chicago, her experiences at Princeton and beyond, and life as the First Lady. But it’s also more than that: a graceful meditation on how we become ourselves, a plainspoken tribute to all the folks who have supported her, and a call for all of us to keep investing in children who need it. Well written and just so good.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?