Last spring and summer, I went through quite a hard time. In April, I caught an upper respiratory infection which for some reason sent me spiraling into a state of chronic migraine. I recovered from the infection, but the migraines remained. They were constant, and I was miserable. A few weeks later, I went through a breakup. It was not a great time for heartbreak, but heartbreak came for me nonetheless.
I get vestibular migraines, a type of migraine that combines classic symptoms with vestibular symptoms like vertigo, hearing loss, and ringing in my ears. In those early days last spring, I had constant motion sickness, loud noises hurt, and I would regularly find myself pausing for agonizing moments halfway through sentences as basic words had become suddenly unfindable.
It was such a striking contrast, the natural world awakening as I lay in my room feeling dizzy and sad. The sun, wind, and leaves casting kaleidoscope patterns on the grass, the heron standing at the edge of the pond on my walks in the cemetery by my house.
I thought a lot about gratitude last summer. There’s lots of evidence that gratitude practices improve happiness and can be powerful salves against anxiety and depression. I know they’re not meant to be, but gratitude interventions always feel a little blaming to me. It can feel out of touch, when you’re in pain and you’re supposed to be grateful for a blue sky or a flower or not having gotten a paper cut when you opened your latest colossal medical bill.
I was thinking a lot about gratitude a year ago partly because I was suffering. Maybe it’s some innate survival strategy that when our lives are full of sorrow, we reach out for reasons to get through it. All I know is that every day I thought about the weather, my plants, and the people who were there for me, helping me through. Yet, I always had this impression that I wasn’t grateful enough; maybe it felt like if I were doing gratitude right, I wouldn’t have been so unhappy.
Then I was introduced to the poet Ross Gay and his work on “delights,” and it felt like a fantastic alternate framing to gratitude. Gay wrote a book called The Book of Delights where he kept a daily record of the “ordinary wonders” in his life. I started thinking about the “delights” in my life, and sometime in the winter I began keeping a list of delights.
Noticing delights worked for me. It felt like there was more room for contradiction; something could be a delight while also reminding me of a sad time, or making me miss someone. I didn’t feel like it was dishonest to write something down as a delight even if, overall, I felt bad that day or that moment.
Here is the list of delights I developed. Note that this list is by no means exhaustive, it’s just the delights I felt like writing down. Since I tended to add thematically similar delights in clusters, I’ve put this list in a random order to add variety.
- The sound of the woods at night
- Rushing to catch a subway that’s currently boarding and making eye contact with the driver and the driver nodding to say, “I see you and I’ll wait”
- Nibbling the outside of a carrot until just the round core remains
- Eating frozen raspberries as they melt
- Toddlers with tiny noses and huge bright eyes and Oreo crumbs all over their chins
- Starting the dishwasher, and its gentle rumble in the background as I go off to do other things
- The rush of warm air as I step off a cold platform into a warm subway car
- The moment when I start eating something and realize I’m really hungry
- The sound of small rocks tumbling against each other as a wave pulls away from the shore
- Leaves turned inside out before a storm
- Stylish hats and the people who wear them
- Sneezing in public and a stranger saying, “bless you” without pretense or hesitation
- Eating ice cream on a hot day as it melts
- Picking up a small child and the moment they wrap their arms and legs around me like a little monkey
- Making knowing eye contact with a friend when something funny happens
- Singing along with live music
- Huge trees, the kind that are straight and wide and very very tall
- Coming in from the rain and putting on dry socks
- A new leaf uncurling, before it’s even taken on all its greenness
- Finding the spot for a puzzle piece, especially if I’m on a roll and place a bunch of pieces right in a row
- Walking into my room to find the cat all stretched out on my bed waiting for me to come back
- The perfect clementine
- Fresh cherries
- Opening a window on a hot night and letting a cool breeze into my bedroom
- Really tight hugs from my mom standing up so my arms are the perfect height to be over her arms
- When a dog gets on the couch next to me and carefully arranges themself to make sure that when they lay down their body is against me
- Waking up to the sound of rain
- Managing to deliver a really dry joke with a perfectly serious demeanor
- My parents’ dog getting the zoomies and running from bedroom to bedroom jumping up onto the beds and then bolting out again
- The pattern of rain-streaked windows cast by the streetlights onto the walls of my bedroom at night
- Thunder and lightning
- Pets lying in patches of sunlight
- Getting to the next platform when transferring subway lines and seeing that the next train is 1 or 2 minutes away
- Looking at the night sky with a friend and seeing a shooting star and exclaiming and realizing my friend is exclaiming too and we both saw it
- The soft fluffy fur on a dog’s neck, like puppy fur even if the dog isn’t a puppy
- A dragonfly or butterfly landing on me
- Fog on asphalt after it rains
- My parents’ dog play bowing at me
- Pulling clumps of hair and fuzz off of my sleep socks when I put them on at the end of the day
- Dried apricots
- Dark clouds approaching
- Being surrounded by the smell of new wood
- The bows of violins and violas swaying and dipping in perfect synchrony in an orchestra
The same things come up over and over in my list of delights. I am frequently delighted by rain, pets, and fruit. This I knew. I wouldn’t have guessed that public transportation would be such a frequent theme, though. I think there’s something about randomness that creates opportunities for delight. It’s not delightful to get into your car and immediately head towards your destination because that’s a guarantee, but it is delightful to arrive perfectly in time to catch a train. Does this delight outweigh the frustration of just barely missing a train? I’m not sure.
Getting lucky with randomness comes up in other places, too, like in the delight about seeing a shooting star with a friend, or a dragonfly landing on me. Not always having access to something contributes to its delightfulness.
I gained momentum working on this list over time, so many of the delights were added this spring or summer, and summertime is definitely a theme in many of these items.
Here’s a treemap showing the different topics of the delights, split into groups and subgroups:
I was struck by how little people come up in the list. People bring a huge amount of joy to my life, but it’s difficult to distill social interactions into moments of delight. Delight is about the unpredictable; love and connection are things we build gradually over time. Then we can certainly delight in those relationships, but the specific delights are hard to put into words.
One thing I found myself wondering throughout this project is whether delight is distinct from relief. If you’re missing your keys and running around your house looking for them and finally find them, is there delight in that or just relief? Is delight about something being better than expected? In that case, it’s arguably not delightful to find your keys because you probably weren’t expecting to lose them in the first place. I tried not to include items that were strictly relieving, but items like stepping off a cold platform into a warm subway car mix relief with delight.
Mostly, this project made me think about the multiplicity of feelings. I started feeling better throughout the past year. I found treatments to manage the migraines, and heartbreak doesn’t last forever, and it didn’t. As I healed, the delights lost some of their melancholy. I found myself more and more able to be surprised by good things. Perhaps the delights went from being comforting to being truly enchanting.
I think sadness has a place in almost everything happy. Fresh cherries remind me of a summer years ago when I was very lonely. One cannot chase a dog playfully from room to room without remembering all the dogs one has loved before. I have been mesmerized by synchronous violin and viola bows while also worrying the concert has hours yet to go. Sweet things are often bittersweet.
This project on delights has worked for me to notice the world, and notice how the world makes me feel, contradictions and all. I hope you can see with openness and clarity those delights around you, and all the other feelings, too.