Partway through Ross Gay’s The Book of (More) Delights—a year’s worth of short essays on quotidian pleasures, reprising a project from 2019—the author finds himself on a coffee shop porch, the first to arrive for a meeting. The latecomer sends an apology text, and Gay taps out a five-word reply.
“No sweat take your time, though what I really meant was No sweat take your sweet time. Bump into a friend. Take a call. Get down on your hands and knees and smell the hyacinths. I’m grateful you’re late.”
The anecdote is from the book’s 48th entry, bracketed by the first (“My Birthday, Again”) and 81st (“My Birthday, Again”), and that morning’s delight is the gift of time. Gay, who lives and teaches in Bloomington, Indiana, proves himself to be an ever-buoyant observer, floating from one appreciation to another: a pair of students discussing the slang term Gucci, or lunch at a “not quite but almost disheveled place that had the feeling of someone’s house.” But in this particular essay, he admits that everybody has limits. In a parenthetical aside—as if careful not to dampen the book’s joy—he recounts an interminable spell in a doctor’s waiting room. A Jerry Springer type was on TV; fluorescent lighting cast a sickly pall. “I walked my early ass out of there,” he writes. “Nothing’s always anything, I guess I’m trying to say.”
Gay is in the car, headed to the airport for the South Dakota Festival of Books, when he picks up my call. His voice sounds much like his writing: bright and warm, not exactly confessional but certainly unguarded. Our conversation, bridging a distance of some 780 miles, summons a line in his three-day wellness diary, below, about a gas station clerk’s “alienation device.” How does Gay, with so apt a description of a smartphone, navigate this technological age for himself? “My alienation device only does phone calls and texts,” he says. That means, in lieu of a palm-size screen, he likely has one of his notebooks in hand. Days begin not with a mindless scroll but with a download of sunshine. I bring up how these routines sound like prescriptions from modern-day wellness experts: morning pages à la Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, sunlight upon waking as the Huberman Lab would recommend. Gay more or less sidesteps any association with the broader wellness set, as suggested by his diary. A one-word entry—”Nap.”—marks a rest for both his head and his pen. A workout after tagine-making gets no further elaboration. “Exercise, it’s part of my regular life,” he says. “But the fabric and the depth, the deep care, is in the community.”
That much is clear as the author’s days unfold. Surplus vegetables circulate among neighbors; he cooks welcome-home black beans for his partner, Stephanie; a friend even supplies loaner shorts. (That’s what happens when two men share a similar build—Gay is a lanky 6’4”—and one of them is so prepared with just-in-case clothes that he’s able to lend a pal some essentials.) Wellness in this way is about these “matrices of care,” says Gay, who, in sharing this worldview, brings readers into this larger network. There’s care in the noticing—the book’s near-daily writing practice is a timed 30 minutes in longhand—and in the refining. By the time of publication, the essays are “really, really, really revised,” he says, to “get to the kernel of the question.”
Where are we going and how do we get there? Such reflections bubble up with a book that touches on gratitude and aging, but in practical terms Gay often finds himself turned around. “My phone doesn’t do that,” he says of his Google Maps–less existence, “so I have this blessed opportunity all the time to be asking for directions.” Recently it was an older lady’s turn to get him sorted. “I was just noticing how beautifully this woman did this,” the author says, recalling how she periodically closed her eyes in concentration. “She was very thoughtful, and then she went over three times to make sure I had it right.”
Friday, September 8
5:30 a.m.: I drive home early, in silence, as I have become fond of doing these past few years, from one of the loveliest readings I’ve given in a long time, in the restored Alhambra theater in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where bell hooks is from. That makes me a lucky person. It is also, for me, lucky to be driving as the sun comes up. Along the way I pull into a gas station, where I make it into the bathroom, just, and needing a little bit of help with directions, I ask the clerk if they sell maps, who at first kind of brusquely says no, but then maybe realizing she was brusque, and probably that I needed help, I don’t know if I made a face or something, but she changes course and pulls up where I am going on her alienation device and, bless her, does her damndest to make sure I can get where I am trying to go, which I do. I share a very nice smile and wave with a crew who, from the stiff looks of it, has been driving a little while. When I get back to Bloomington, though I should probably just take a nap because I’m a bit underslept, I decide to get a coffee, and the barista tells me about her new dog. She beams to me, I should say, and refers to the doggie as my snugglebuddy.