Week Three’s lecture is about wonder and delight. It features poems by Mary Oliver, Dorothea Tanning, lucille clifton, Maggie Smith, Robert Frost, and one poem and 3 delight essays by Ross Gay.
Invitation / Mary Oliver
Oh do you have time
for just a while
out of your busy
and important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle
to se who can sing
the highest note
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air
as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude-
believe us, they say
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in this broken world.
I beg of you,
do notwalk by
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.
When I first read this poem, sometime in 2017, it made me say, Yes!, then, Huh?, then How? I was trying to figure out what the it in the last few lines refers to: It could mean something. It could mean everything. It could be what Rilke meant when he wrote/you must change your life. I was skeptical of the idea that pausing to look at one group of birds would change my life. Back then, I wasn’t really into birds. And, I was wary of big epiphanies — that one moment that would change everything. But now, 5 years later, I’ve come to realize that the it is not one thing, not one moment. It is the act of noticing one thing, then noticing another and another and another. Pausing to attend, letting the world in, witnessing it, being open to it, becoming dazzled by it. Getting in the habit of being in wonder of it.
Wonder can mean a lot of things: awe, astonishment, surprise, devotion, uncertainty, to be in a state of not knowing or not-yet-knowing, mystery. All of these involve a willingness to be open to something beyond yourself and your perspective. To be moved — startled, surprised, bewildered, enchanted — by something you’re noticing and then allowing that something to change you. Next week we’ll talk about that transformation in terms of curiosity and a desire to learn and connect. This week, we’ll talk about it in terms of delight — to find and be transformed by those moments, experiences, encounters that please you and bring you joy, and that, if you let them, might make you want to use more exclamation points and call out, “Oh!” in gratitude and delight. That might inspire you to declare, but maybe just in your head, your love for a bird or a bee or a place. And that might lead you to point exuberantly towards the woods at that bird, right there! or to stop or lean your head way back to take in the very top of a massive cottonwood tree.
note: Want to read more enthusiastic poems? Check out Mr. Exclamation Point himself, Walt Whitman and his poem, among others, Song of the Open Road.
When I started to notice the trees near the gorge — the oaks that welcomed me, or the ones that leaned in and whispered to each other, or the ones that stretched above me, their gnarled limbs sprawling across the sky — I began searching for poems, hoping to find some guidance in my own efforts to notice and describe them as I ran by. This is one of the first poems I found:
Woman Waving to Trees/ Dorothea Tanning
Not that anyone would
notice it at first.
I have taken to marveling
at the trees in our park.
One thing I can tell you:
they are beautiful
and they know it.
They are also tired,
hundreds of years
stuck in one spot—
When I am under them,
they feel my gaze,
watch me wave my foolish
hand, and envy the joy
of being a moving target.
Loungers on the benches
begin to notice.
One to another,
“Well, you see all kinds…”
Most of them sit looking
down at nothing as if there
was truly nothing else to
look at until there is
that woman waving up
to the branching boughs
of these old trees. Raise your
heads, pals, look high,
you may see more than
you ever thought possible,
up where something might
be waving back, to tell her
she has seen the marvelous.
Raise your/heads, pals, look high — I love this line. It reminds me of another poem I recently read about walking and poetry: “Poets and walkers look up more often than other people.”
question: How often do you look up? What do you notice?
Some delightful things I’ve noticed when looking up (and written about in my running log):
- streaks of clouds in the sky — a blanket of thin, shredded fluff, a tattered veil
- a plane flying through the sky, circling like a shark
- 3 massive cottonwood trees in my neighborhood
- squirrels’ nests
- a turkey vulture, its wings stretched wide, gracefully riding a thermal
- the sun illuminating the tops of trees
- down in the gorge, people on the path high above, looking small and far away
Raise your heads, pals also make me think of this week’s readings from Ross Gay. I imagine it as a gesture similar to pointing out a delight to others, or saying, Look! In “Delight #65: Found Things,” Gay wonders about the connection between experiencing delight and sharing it with others, tentatively concluding: “our delight grows as we share it.”
In an interview about the book, he says even more about this connection: “one of the things that I learned is that, sharing, for me, sharing, noticing what delights me, and then naming it, recognizing it, and then sharing it, is a kind of profound way of connecting. To be like, I love, look at this, look at this that I love. Maybe it’s a beckoning, even. It’s definitely a reaching and it’s a way of probably being like, do you love this too? We might love this thing together.”
question: When was the last time you shared a delight with a stranger?
“Delight #65: Found Things” is part of Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. In his preface he writes: “One day last July feeling delighted and compelled to both wonder about and share that delight, I decided that it might feel nice, even useful, to write a daily essay about something delightful.” So he decided for a year, from one birthday to the next, to find a delight each day and write about it. He ended up writing 102 Delights, including Delight #65: Found Things, Delight #19: The Irrepressible: The Gratitude, and Delight #84: Fireflies.
Gay’s description in Delight #19 of his know-it-all dad smiling as he declares the impossibility of bumblebees being able to fly even as one flies past him, makes me think of a few lines from lucille clifton’s poem “All Praises”: Praise impossible things….Praise the presence among us/of the unfenced is.
The delight of impossible things, things that we don’t yet, or might never, understand fully. That don’t make sense. Those wonderful, strange, magical, unruly things that are always more than our language can contain. That can leave us speechless, confused, amazed, delighted.
I’m not sure that this counts as an impossible thing, but one of the delightful, improbable things I’ve encountered while out by the gorge, was a big wild turkey running very fast and a smaller one trying to keep up. My description comes from a log entry dated October 21, 2019:
I could write about the many leaves that had fallen in the wind and rain and were littering the path or how it felt like it was still raining with all the water dropping from the trees or the strange quality of the light–dark at first, then a slow spread, then sunshine–or seeing the forest floor a few times or turning around at the trestle and racing the cars crawling their way through the four way stop or actually enjoying running into the stiff wind, a big grin on my face or stopping, at the end, to study the ravine and being able to clearly see the wrought iron fence. I could, but all I really want to mention are the two turkeys I saw crossing Edmund Boulevard as I walked home through my neighborhood. The one in front was running fast, bobbing its head, while the second, smaller one tried to keep up. Did you know that turkeys could run fast? I didn’t. As I watched them run away I thought that seeing them run so quickly, with their graceful legs and awkward heads, was all I needed today.
Note: I looked it up, which is something I like to do with my wonder, and found a source that says wild turkeys can run 12 mph! That’s a 5 minute mile. Wow!
In addition to the impossible, I find much delight in the ridiculous. I enjoy looking out for the ridiculous and making note of it in my running log, like the group of 20 bikers on the trail all dressed up like Santa, the couple who jump rope up the steep hill by the locks and dam no. 1, the squirrel who was so surprised to see me on the trail that it did a back flip in its haste to get away, the older biker wearing the brim of a straw hat around her bike helmet, and perhaps one of my favorite ridiculous performers: the singing, no-hands-on-the handlebars biker. I wrote this in a log entry on june 23, 2020:
…about halfway through our walk, we saw a man biking, nearing the top of a hill, just past the welcoming oaks. He was singing loudly–what was he singing? a show tune or a love song or something like that–and had his hands resting on his knees while he was biking. He looked calm and chill and unworried about the fact that he was about to bike down a hill without having his hands on the handlebars. He looked rather ridiculous but his embracing of this ridiculousness was wonderful and delightful and brought me some joy. Usually I would judge this behavior as reckless, but he was so relaxed and ridiculous that all I could do was marvel at it. I wasn’t the only one. About a minute later, I heard some other people talking excitedly about him too.
question: What ridiculous performances have you experienced while moving outside?
It’s important to note that my noticing of this biker was only a few months into the pandemic and less than a month after George Floyd was murdered — a scary, uncertain, terribly difficult time around the country and here in Minneapolis. Indeed, moments of delight or ridiculousness or joy take place in the midst of suffering and struggle in a “broken world” as Mary Oliver describes in the poem with which I opened this lecture: “believe us, they say/it is a serious thing/just to be alive/on this fresh morning/in this broken world.” The finding and sharing of delight is not an escape from the breaking and broken world — although it might be a pause, a moment to float just above — but a form of resistance, the start of a transformation, a shift in orientation from despair and hopelessness to possibility and wonder.
In a poem written before The Book of Delights, Gay describes this resistance:
Sorrow Is Not My Name/ Ross Gay
—after Gwendolyn Brooks
No matter the pull toward brink. No
matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.
There is a time for everything. Look,
just this morning a vulture
nodded his red, grizzled head at me,
and I looked at him, admiring
the sickle of his beak.
Then the wind kicked up, and,
after arranging that good suit of feathers
he up and took off.
Just like that. And to boot,
there are, on this planet alone, something like two
million naturally occurring sweet things,
some with names so generous as to kick
the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon,
stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks
at the market. Think of that. The long night,
the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me
on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah.
But look; my niece is running through a field
calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel
and at the end of my block is a basketball court.
I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.
This last line about green and spring is a reference to Gwendolyn Brook’s powerful poem, “To the Young Who Want to Die” and her ending lines:
You need not die today.
Stay here–through pout or pain or peskyness.
Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.
Graves grow no green that you can use.
Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring.
This is what Aimee Nezhukumatathil means when she says that she always lets the wonder win:
It’s there. A grief is there. Sadness and rage is always there. And then the wonder wins. I make sure the wonder wins. And definitely there are harder days than others, but that’s where the practice is. I try with all my might to make the wonder win by the end of the day.
Letting the wonder win, noticing the delight in the midst of a broken/breaking world, can be difficult, but it can get easier as we practice it. In the preface to The Book of Delights, Gay suggests that his almost daily practice of noticing and then writing about a delight enabled him to develop a delight muscle. I love this idea of creating a practice to build up our delight muscle so that we can find and experience more delight!
With that in mind, here are 2 exercises I’ve experimented with while moving by the gorge to help build up my delight muscle.
One: Let’s begin with bees
One day, you encounter a tiny gnome village set up on the boulevard in front of a neighbor’s house. You are delighted. Now you always look for gnomes and find them everywhere–in the stumps of dead trees, below bushes, hidden in hostas. You want to make more room for these types of delight.
You are at the lake and overhear a kid call out jubilantly, “I just saw a fish! A Northern Pike! Right there! Right there!” Such wonderful enthusiasm. You are tired of cynicism and swallowing your joy. You want to be more like this boy.
from Let’s Not Begin/ Maggie Smith
If I list everything I love
about the world, and if the list
is long and heavy enough,
I can lift it over and over—
repetitions, they’re called, reps—
to keep my heart on, to keep
the dirt off. Let’s begin
with bees, and the hum,
and the honey singing
on my tongue, and the child
sleeping at last, and, and, and—
Step One || Make a list
Make a list of what you love. This list can be general, including every thing you love in the world, or specific, focused on what you love about a particular place, like the Mississippi River Gorge. This list can include BIG things–a city, a poet, a philosophy, or little things–the curve of a retaining wall, the shade of blue of the water. Compose this list while moving outside.
Step Two || Keep adding to the list
You can add on to one big list, watching it grow taller every day, or create a series of lists that, when combined, stretch wider and wider. Add new items as you experience joy in your encounters with things you love.
Do not worry that your list will become too long or unruly. As the list expands, so does your capacity to love and experience joy.
Step Three || Be excessively enthusiastic with the list
In your list—and any recitations of your list—use lots of exclamation points and Ohs or Os or even Ahs! Do this without shame or irony.
Bonus || Make joy for others
Hang some wind chimes that sing a whole tone scale. Hide some gnomes in your front yard. Make the joy you’ve found available to others.
Two: A Dust of Snow
Your back hurts. It has been hurting off and on all winter. You are worried, wondering what might be wrong. Then you remember the wedge of geese flying overhead on your walk earlier today and you forget about your back. You want to find more ways to forget.
You are walking on the boulevard across from the gorge and you notice three wild turkeys in a neighbor’s yard. You watch them for a minute, standing there, unbothered by your presence, and think, “this is it, this is the thing I want to remember about today, these three wild turkeys hanging out in someone’s yard.” You want to find more things like these turkeys to notice and remember.
Dust of Snow/ Robert Frost
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
Step One || Go outside
Walk around the neighborhood or head to the gorge.
Step Two || Pay attention
Do not listen to your headphones.
Step Three || Encounter something that delights you
Do not search for the delight. Let it find you. It might take some practice–being outside regularly and paying attention to the world– but it will find you.
Step Five || Delight in it for a while
Stand still. Stare hard. Listen up. Breathe. Absorb the details of the delight.
Step Six || Remember the delight
Write a description of the delight in your notebook or on your log so that you can remember it and rely on it later.
Step Seven || Repeat steps 1-6 regularly
Practice being found by delight and remembering it. It might take weeks or months or years but it will get easier to remember joy and forget worry.
question: How will you let the wonder win today? What delights will find you?