Delights for All, Please

Photo by James Harnois

In an essay I wrote for the latest issue of Trail Runner, I collected some of my thoughts on anxiety, running, motherhood, COVID-19 and the cultivation of small delights in our daily lives. I looked forward to sharing this essay with others in hopes that it might bring comfort during challenging times. (Also, so as not to bury the lede too deep … I’m pregnant!)

But between the time that I originally wrote this piece (six weeks ago) and now, the story of Ahmaud Arbery going out for a jog and being gunned down by two white men made (long overdue) national headlines. It is impossible for me not to reread my own essay through the lens of white privilege. How simple it has always been for me, even as a woman, to go for a carefree jog. Finding joy, exhilaration and a sense of calm on a run—whether in the mountains or around a neighborhood—should be a gift available to all.

But it isn’t.

I drew a lot of inspiration from other writers and thinkers in my essay, in particular the poet Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, from which I even partially borrowed my headline. (And thanks to my good friend Daniel for gifting this book to me in the first place!) In returning to his book this past week with different eyes, so many passages struck me. Mostly what I want to do here is elevate his voice, rather than use more of my own, to reflect further on the work that lies ahead for all of us, as a society.

Much like the essay I wrote for Trail Runner, his book is fundamentally drenched in the small and profound joys of everyday life—fig trees, rambunctious birds in the backyard, homemade guacamole, childhood memories of singing with friends, witnessing a smirk of self-forgiveness on the face of a stranger who accidentally opens his umbrella inside a bakery. Yet, too, Gay’s book touches on racism throughout. (“I’m trying to remember the last day I haven’t been reminded of the inconceivable violence black people have endured in this country,” he writes.)

In the essay, “Still Processing,” Gay describes the tendency of popular culture and media to “make blackness appear to be inextricable from suffering … which is clever as hell if your goal is obscuring the efforts, the systems, historical and ongoing, to ruin black people. Clever as hell if your goal is to make appear natural what is, in fact, by design. And the delight? You have been reading a book of delights written by a black person. A book of black delight. Daily as air.”

In another essay, “The Negreeting” (his coined term for black people nodding to one another in public), Gay writes, “If you’re black in this country you’re presumed guilty. Or, to come back to [my friend] Abdel, who’s a schoolteacher and thinks a lot about children, you’re not allowed to be innocent. The eyes and heart of a nation are not avoidable things. The imagination of a country is not an avoidable thing. And the negreeting, back home, where we are mostly never seen, is a way of witnessing each other’s innocence–a way of saying, ‘I see your innocence.'”

Once, when a black man seated near Gay in a Thai restaurant doesn’t acknowledge him despite Gay “making futile slightly pleadingly negreeting eyes at him,” Gay reflects on those he perceives as making the choice not to “negreet”: “Maybe he’s going a step further. Maybe he’s imagining a world—this one a street in Bloomington, Indiana—where his unions are not based on deprivation and terror. Not a huddling together. Maybe he’s refusing the premise of our un-innocence entirely and so feels no need to negreet. And in this way proclaims our innocence. Maybe.”

That’s the world—the one devoid of deprivation, terror and the presumed guilt of POCs—that I, too, hope this child of ours might someday inherit. Not the one in which Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and Botham Jean and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and so many countless other innocent black people are murdered. (And those responsible so rarely held accountable for their crimes.)

Not the world in which our own president incites such racism at every turn, reinforcing the problematic stereotypes that allow so many crimes against POCs to go excused.

As I’ve been struggling to put this blog post together all this evening, the tiny human inside of me has been furiously kicking away inside my belly. (Delight!) I’m glad they are riled up, too.

Hope is a beginning, but of course it’s not enough. Like so many others, I don’t just want to dream; I want to actively work toward a future version of our society in which a carefree run outdoors is a delight available to all.

Do you want this, too? A few places to start:

Finally, continue to revel in the delights, big and small, that do exist in our daily lives. It is easier to take action when your heart is full than when it is broken. Per Gay’s essay in The Book of Delights for this day, May 13: “And if I think I’m in a hurry, or think I ought to be, and quickly walk by to peek at the [garden] beds, the teeny bindweed sprouts will sing out to me. ‘Stay in the garden! Stay in the garden!’ And I often oblige, despite my obligations, getting back on my hands and knees, my thumb and forefinger caressing the emergent things free, all of us rooting around for the light.”