Last week I gave a sermon entitled, How Can I Be Joyful When Everything is Awful? In it, I highlighted a book of essays by Ross Gay entitled The Book of Delights. He made a simple, even obvious practice of noticing things to be delighted in, and writing a mini essay every day about something that delighted him. I’ll post the sermon here, or somewhere, later. But I’ve been dipping into this practice myself, in place of my Gratitude practice (3 things I’m grateful for each day). Gratitude implies reciprocal obligation, but Delight requires nothing but presence, and for that reason I love it. So I thought I would also make a practice of sharing some of my delight here, so that you can find yours too.
Most people don’t like spiders. They fascinate me. I think jumping spiders are adorable (and I once adopted one), and orb weavers are queens. Last month I noticed a web in my bushes that looked like an upside-down, 2-layer parachute. I posted it on Facebook and a naturalist friend of mine told me it was the web of a Bowl-and-Doily Spider. They catch prey in the “bowl” and lie in wait in the “doily” underneath. Damn, that’s cool! Anything that builds things is cool, even if I do a crazy dance after smacking into them while hiking.
This morning, I went for my simple half-mile walk around the block with Bandit, after skipping several days. It’s been hard to get up (allergies? grief?). There were spiderwebs everywhere in the wild places along the road, gem-studded with sparkling dew snagging rainbows from the slanting rains of the early morning sun. I am struck by how often my delights are contained in this 12-minute morning walk, and how much I struggle to do it, despite that.
I didn’t want to walk this morning. But I’m trying to make a habit of it. Bandit and I are grieving our old dog Rascal, and it’s been really good for both of us to get up early and get out of the house and roam.
So I walked. I didn’t notice the morning mist (one of my favorite things) until we were coming up the hill and saw the slanting rays of the just-up sun in dappled rays through the trees, shining on the road.
A few days ago, we caught a lavender-orange sunrise. The world is different in predawn. If you routinely miss it, I recommend exploring it.
This month, I’ve added painting to the morning routine I started last month, which consists of waking at 5:30 (ok 6:00 a lot of the time), reading something meaningful, meditating, walking with Bandit, writing affirmations, journaling. I did daily painting in the past and it was deeply meaningful to me, and I felt like I needed more regular art in my life. My plan for this month was to do 4 series of bookmarks in a rainbow, one each: Tennessee Wildflowers, Insects, Birds, Scenery. Maybe sea life. Maybe… I had other ideas. So that’s what I did yesterday.
But I’ve been thinking about my nature journal too, and missing it, and I thought painting shouldn’t be a this-month thing, it should be part of the mix all the time. So I nature journaled.
I am astounded that I can walk the same route over and over again, half residential, half a wild little winding road through the trees, and find a different delight every morning. I use my Seek app to identify plants. I putter and let Bandit sniff around. It’s not about exercise, it’s about being present. Tiny joys are worth rolling out of bed at 5:30 (I’m trying to get to 5:30) and meeting gratitude on the wild winding road. I think, if I lived in the middle of a city, that there would be little joys to find on a different kind of wild winding road.
If there weren’t, maybe I could plant some.
Try getting up early. Getting up at an hour YOU choose rather than the hour dictated by wherever you have to be is empowering. You start to find everyday delights. Your caffeinated beverage of choice even tastes better if you have some time to sit and savor it rather than choking it down as you rush out the door. If you need inspiration, check out Hal Elrond’s Miracle Morning.
I wish you exquisite moments and gentle gratitude.
My World Literature professor gave us an assignment to write a haiku based on a photograph. I’ll be honest, I’ve always sort of hated haiku, because it always felt like an elementary school poetry to me. But age has brought me full circle to appreciate the brevity of words, and I loved this assignment so much, and I have so many photos I adore, that I couldn’t just do one. So here are a few drawn from my extensive photo library (all photos taken by me).
Beautiful dog glowing
In the late-afternoon sunshine
Is how I will remember you
My dog Rascal is 19 1/2 years old, and can’t walk anymore. We only have a short time left with him, but this is how I will always remember him, enjoying the sunshine and surveying his yard.
Tiny jeweled bird
Hovers to look me in the eye
Gift of her attention
I am fascinated with hummingbirds. They are so bold, zooming loudly across the yard, and hovering in front of me, as if demanding to know what my intentions are, then flickering away to sit in a branch and wait to see if I’m going to refill the feeder.
Rumble of hoofbeats
Noble creatures come at my call
Bringing their hearts to mine.
There is nothing in the world that sends chills down my spine like the sound of hoof beats echoing across the valley as my horses charge toward me for their dinner. Sometimes, I think they run just for my enjoyment.
Still waters ruffled
Rhythmic dip of my paddle
Peaces flows into me.
This is from City Lake in Coookeville, where I love to paddle because the waters are so calm and it’s filled with wildlife. It does not matter how stressed I am, when I get on the water all the knots fall out of my muscles and I reconnect with nature and myself.
All the world unfolds
This is a photo I took at Stone Door overlook in Grundy County, of my son. In particular I love waterfalls and overlooks, and I am so thankful that Tennessee is full of both of them. Our state and national parks are places I can go to find myself again when I have chased my tail enough times to get lost.
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound of fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go lie Dow where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come to the peace of the wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
— Wendell Berry
On Saturday I went alone for a paddle on the Falling Water River, whose stillness seems complete and belies its name. I was in no hurry. I had no one to keep up with, no particular destination or goal, other than presence. The water was so slow-moving as to almost seem stagnant, its surface covered in the fluffy pollen of some tree, which pollen was also dancing in the air, lending the scene a dreamy quality.
Being on a kayak and unhurried, you are somehow at once connected to earth, water, and sky, the denizens of all three within your notice. As I paddled, deliberately seeking out the pretty little painted turtles stunning themselves on the exposed branches of half-submurged trees, a leviathan paddled past me beneath the surface, its ridged shell recalling ancient things, its slow movements making me hold my paddle to watch him for a long moment. Further on, a monstrous carp that seemed half the length of my boat curved among the sun-shadowed river weeds below me.
If I’m honest, I spent far too much time trying to photograph the stately blue herons whose fishing I was disrupting, and not enough time just admiring them. Again and again, they would watch me as I pulled up my paddle and drifted slowly by,
trying not to bother them, but also trying to photograph their pterodactyl-like takeoff as they winged upriver ahead of me. The kingfishers skittered their in-flight songs as the drifted from tree to tree, and families of geese watched me warily, concerned parents herding their fuzzy children away from the neon orange intruder.
The Falling Water is a suburban sort of river, not at all wide where I put in, lined with manicured, sloping lawns on either side. It was a Saturday, so there was no illusion that I was really alone with nature, with almost-unnoticed background music of traffic and lawn mowers. And yet, I actually saw no human as I paddled practically through their back yards. This is one of the things I love best about rivers and streams. The edges of the water were not as impeccably manicured as the lawns were, trees allowed to grow as they will, dipping roots in the nourishing muddy silt, arching branches delicately reflected in the placid water. Were I to wander on foot through these close-clipped greenways to get a better look at a bird, someone would surely call the police, but the river belongs to everyone, and no one, and only itself.
It belongs to that whitetail doe who paused and lifted her dripping muzzle to regard me, before turning a flashing tail and bounding up an embankment. It belongs to the flurry of swallowtails flitting across the narrow waterway, gracing mud puddles with gossamer yellow wings like flowers born one moment, to vanish the next. It belongs to the half-ounce titmouse who, when I was once again on land, darted past me on swift wings to go about her business of bug-hunting for a brood that was well hidden in the knot of a tree right next to the pier, peering around the rough bark to see if I was still interested in her activities. It belongs to the leviathan turtle and the indignant heron. Their scatter at my approach reminds me: even if I owned one of these houses and paddled here every day (wouldn’t that be a meditation practice!), I would still be a guest and must always be respectful and polite.
My eyes snapped open at 6:18 this morning. I’d considered, last night, maybe I’ll get up early and try for some sunrise photography. Then I thought, nah, it’s after 11 and I probably won’t get up. But I got up. I glanced at the slate blue light coming in my predawn window, then checked my phone, when is sunrise? 6:52.
If I thought that was photographic destiny, I was wrong. Bandit and I packed up in the van and I headed up Spencer mountain, hoping for a vantage point to overlook the pretty farmland below, lit by a sky-blue-pink sunrise. Instead, it rained a little, and the sky was an undulating grey, and three minutes to sunrise there was no hint that I was even going to see the sun. My confused dog was looking at me with deep concern.
We ducked down a road or two marked “Dead End”, hoping for a view off the mountain anyway, for future reference and more attractive mornings, but mostly what we saw was a lot of trailers and some country that would’ve done Deliverance proud, and teaser glimpses of distant registers of mountains (there wasn’t even a decent mist this morning!) through trees silent, gray, and shorn of leaves. Bandit put his paw on my arm. “Fine,” I said, “we’ll go home. I want to look at one more thing.”
I’d seen a blip on my kayaking app that said you could put in at Spencer City Lake, a place I hadn’t known existed before that. I thought I’d check that out for more future reference and as a potential place to put the kayak in, before we headed home. The road was in fairly poor repair, ending in gravel-mud that looked like the denizens of Spencer had used it for mudding (driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle through wet mud). The put-in for the lake was gravel, not a bad spot to put a kayak in, but it didn’t look like there was much to see on a paddle. I may try it for a quiet drift some time anyway.
There was a gaggle of Canada geese not far from my van as I grabbed my camera and hopped out. Maybe, I thought, I can at least get a few wildlife shots. My wildlife lens, a 75-300 mm for you photography geeks, is okay but really woefully inadequate for wildlife photography. At least, it’s not the $9000 camera-dwarfing zoom that I’d really love to try out some day. I don’t expect to ever actually buy one unless I somehow strike it rich on a picture I take with this one. The geese were uncooperative, paddling to the other side of the lake with honky geese-chuckles. They’re awfully shy, I thought, remembering the noisy, gregarious flocks that shat all over my elementary school playground with little to no regard for the small, equally noisy humans who coinnhabited it twice a day, sliding on goose guano while trying to play hopscotch.
Bandit bee lined out of the van for a pile of leaves and promptly did his business. Ohhh, I thought. That explained his look of concern. Poor dude, I rushed him out of the house in the dark and into the van before he’d even had a chance to let his bowels wake up.
Once that was taken care of, since there was no one around, I unhooked his leash and let him explore. I must say, it is a glorious thing to have a dog who will come when he is called, that I can trust him to enjoy himself in the woods. He zigzagged from smell to smell, and I wondered if he was searching for other dogs or small, interesting, furry thing smells. There was a trail up the bank and around the lake, and I thought, what the heck, let’s stretch our legs. Maybe I’ll even get a critter to take a picture of.
Sometimes, when you are looking for The Photo (or, really, anything else), you forget to just be present. I found nothing photo-worthy at 6:53 a.m. today, but there will be snapshots in my mind. Bandit, still not really awake but joyfully exploring the smells in the woods. I heard a noise and stopped in my tracks, looking up. The tall cedars above me nodded their heads at one another, discussing the gray dawn, perhaps, making delightful creaking noises that called to mind other forests, other evergreens. I stood dwarfed by them, admiring them, for several minutes. No photo could hold them, or their voices. I walked on to a different edge of the lake and stood, listening to the lap of waves against a reed-forested shore. A kingfisher called in the distance, teasing: I’ve never been able to get a satisfactory shot of a kingfisher. I never saw him, but by now, I had come back to the present and it didn’t matter. Bandit gazed over the water with me, and eventually, we made our way back along the little trail to the canoe ramp. The geese called excitedly to one another and I knew they were going to take off, but my camera settings weren’t ready for flight speed and I missed that, too. I have’t looked at the pictures yet but I think the only photo I’ll probably bother with is an abstract one of the reed patterns in the water, distorted reflections dancing on the surface. I don’t mind. There are other mornings and this one reminded me how exquisite quiet mornings can be, in full living color or in grayscale.