Author Ross Gay’s daily dollops of prose became a bestseller and triggered notable flashes of fine writing in a series of workshops at Calvert Library directed by New Bay Books publisher Sandra Olivetti Martin.
Workshops that concluded Nov. 1 explored Gay’s The Book of Delights, selected by Maryland Humanities as the One Book title for 2021. The One Book initiative aims to bring together people via the shared experience of a single book.
Gay’s great (and marketable) idea was finding a delight each day (or most days) in everyday life. In passages ranging from 100 words to several pages, Gay, an English professor at Indiana University, often veers into matters of race and culture and whatever else moves pen to notebook on a given day.
His work exemplifies the focus and discipline needed to write, which workshop participants embraced in turning out their own delights.
Sherrod Sturrock, one of the participants, said the book was "exactly the nudge I needed to start writing again."
When she was director of the Calvert Marine Museum, Sturrock wrote every day — memos, grants, annual reports and what she referred to as "technical, dry, concise, forceful, but not creative" writing.
"Then along comes this invitation from Sandra to participate in the workshop. I found it stimulating, thought-provoking, and revealing — this last relating both to my own experience of writing delights, and in hearing the contributions of the others in the group. It was, and continues to be, a meaningful experience that I am very thankful for," she said.
The group plans to continue, possibly branching out to a wider focus.
Here are a few of the delights we’re proud of.
Latin jazz. Live.
After months of isolation, a tonic for the soul. The room fills with like-minded, masked fellow travelers longing for that moment of transportation to another realm. The horns, a tenor sax and trombone, begin a sexy duet, twining the melody together before wrenching it apart — a lover’s quarrel. The piano flits above like some otherworldly sprite sprinkling magic over the horns. Rumbling a running commentary, the stand-up bass provides a bottom to this floating conversation, while the drummer beats out the rhythm, holding the meandering music together. We nod and bop and tap our toes in collective response.
I have a terrible sense of direction. It’s so bad, when I think I should go left, I turn right because I’m always wrong… But that doesn’t stop me from questioning my husband (who has an unerring directional sense) about ‘shouldn’t he turn left here? Or isn’t it that way?’ which always causes a small fissure because I HAVE NO SENSE OF DIRECTION. You know? Anyway, today was a lovely fall afternoon that beckoned us out of doors. We decided to go to the Arboretum, and I vowed to keep my mouth shut and my GPS off. Well, long story short, we ended up very far from where we intended to go, without a single peep from me. (So proud of myself.) ‘Why not,’ I asked, ‘go to the Art in Bloom Gallery I’ve been wanting to visit?’ Shortly, we arrived at the gallery run by one Amy Grant, wise woman with a keen eye for local art. As it happened, there was a gallery talk by one of the featured artists, so we stayed. Helen Mirkil, an artist/poet, had created a series of paintings called Bird Song. Hearing her talk about her inspiration for the works and her process as an artist was fascinating. But for me the delight was the fact that my husband was totally engaged and pleased with the afternoon. “I was right to get lost” he crowed, “look at what a good time we had. Serendipity!” Gotta love it, right?
A gorgeous fall day on the water with family. What could be better? My sister and I packed a cooler. And she, her husband, and I met her daughter, son-in-law (the designated captain) and son for an afternoon of boating. The day was fine with a blue sky that stretched on forever: the sun warm, the wind calm, water birds festooning the scene and the fish leaping from water that sparkled like dancing diamonds. We anchored and waded ashore on a protected barrier island for a lazy afternoon of swimming, gritty peanut butter sandwiches, and leisurely beach walks. Then packed up to head back for our appointed hour. Puzzled, Eric said “This gas gauge shows almost empty, but that’s impossible. They always give it to you full. It’s broken.”
Those words were spoken with great assurance and authority. We zipped up and down the intercoastal taking turns at the wheel. At one point, slowing to a stop to marvel at a pod of dolphins arching through the water in synchronized pairs. Then, without warning, the engine sputtered, coughed, and died. We were literally out of gas without a paddle in the middle of nowhere. There was some “stupid it was to ignore what’s right in front of your eyes” and comments about the perils of being overly optimistic, but a celled SOS quelled the grumbling with the promise of eventual rescue. We sat in the quiet of bird call, distant engines, lapping waves and watched as the sun sank ineluctably toward the horizon blazing a brilliant distraction. As dusk descended – Hallelujah! – a boat approached and slowed. Gas and apologies were exchanged. The engine roared to life, and we headed for the dock, giddy with relief. What a delight – a good story of an adventure with a happy ending.
Janice Lynch Schuster
On a day like this, in the afternoon when a cup of coffee is so close I can smell it (and sense too the sleepless night time I will face should I succumb), I decide to take a walk as a way to escape the stress of work, the blinding white of my computer screen, the stiffness of sitting in a chair close in to my monitor and my notes. All of that is behind me as I open the door, surrounded for a moment by falling acorns and mockernuts — the former never seem to hit me, but break apart on our driveway where they sound like popcorn bursting underfoot. The latter, so improbably green and large, are perfect for kicking down the long driveway and into the yard.
I walk too quickly for what my arthritic knees can tolerate, but I persist. It is warm for October and the sun feels like it might burn, but then comes the blessed shade of my woodsy neighborhood and the shadows of trees like pencil sketches across the asphalt. Songbirds are still in flight and seem to sound from everywhere. I pass neighbors who agree that it is too fine a day for indoors, or who are walking their dogs. Cars pass me too quickly. My goal is a mile, and I make it in good time, but that is not the point. The point is that rounding the corner from the bright sun into the cool, humidity-free breeze of October, I could feel the seasons change. Shift, the wind tells me, shift.
Nerves and Newness
When I was a little girl I would disrupt the entire bus stop with my school refusal. I never wanted to leave my mother and sisters for the small 3-room building where I attended kindergarten--who would want to leave the pleasures of home for the dusty, chalky, mustiness of kindergarten? Once there and near my friend Chuckie Schneider, my partner in science experiments large and small, I was content, but getting me there took enormous energy and anger and anxiety.
I thought of myself when I sent my own six children off to school. Chad was 4 when he started kindergarten and he would have preferred to stay home with Alyson, who was almost 4.
“Why should I go? I can count to 100, I can speak English, I know how to read, and I have friends,” he said, his ability to argue always undoing me.
I thought of Chad this morning when a friend told me his brother was anxious about starting a new endeavor--he’s going to become a massage therapist, which means starting school yet again. College behind him, he is looking for a career and this seems like a good fit. But not today, when it is all nerves and newness, worry and wondering what to wear. It is so hard to delight in what is coming when you cannot get through the moment at hand. Then it can help to remember that everyone has bouts of nerves and newness--no matter where we’re coming from, whether we are four or forty.
Confident Construction Chatter
What a delight to hear the playful banter of men completing a home project. A team of three neighbors challenging each other to think and work in a different way while respecting each others varied experience; the former construction worker with all the proper tools, the experienced older jack of all trades, and the young yet fearless apprentice.
There was careful regard in sharing ideas while completing the task at hand. What about this? I hear what you’re saying. Explain that one again. You could do it that way or you may want to consider this. The joking, the teasing, the laughter in process of a job well done.
Play-Doh, pig noses, seahorses, and clown fish. Watermelon smoothies with sugared rim glasses. Cheers.
The fine art of furnishing a secret blanket fort: flowers, dishes, lamp, and more pillows, please.
Picnic on the beach complete with tomatoes. Yuck, who eats tomatoes at a beach picnic? She does.
Sandcastles with feather flags. Cool Bay water up to our knees. Yes, get your dress wet.
Walking and talking to the dog. Because we are girls.
Swinging with toes pointed skyward.
Clown noses. No spiders, please.
Babysitting a girlfriend’s little one on a day that daycare was not open. “I wish you could come to my daycare,“ was a ringing endorsement.
The conversation the other night triggered a distant memory. For a fifth grade writing assignment, I had submitted a long list of things that gave me delight. I can’t remember any of them. In fact, I’m having a hard time thinking up things that delight me now. Well, I do remember one thing. I wrote that I loved the smell of sheets that had just come off the clothesline in our backyard and I loved the feel of those sheets after my mother had ironed them and put them on my bed. What delight! Somehow, iron-free sheets coming out of the dryer just don’t cut it, especially when I’m the one putting them in and taking them out of the dryer and then putting them back on the bed.
Was I more open to my surroundings back then or is it that my modern day surroundings aren’t as delightful? Or is it that I could indulge in delights because my mother took on so many of our family’s daily cares? A few years back I wrote a poem. It was called “I am the maker of lists”. It was a list of my “to do” lists. I think maybe I need this Book of Delights or to start one of my own. I think I’ll try.
The world is gray. Gray water, gray land, gray trees, gray clouds scudding across the sky. From my perch on the bank above Puget Sound, I see and hear the small but furious waves roll upon the beach. Gray waves topped by white foam and a constant, undulating hum as the water hits the shingle, driven there by the same south wind herding the clouds. The salty scent of the sea permeates. Three seagulls flap by. One of them caws six times, its cry rising above the clamor of the waves. Slowly, slowly, the faintest strip of rose ripens along the top of the cloud bank, then a delicate patch of robin’s egg blue appears between the clouds. Morning is here.
My Closet Is Small
My closet is small. Therefore, every fall, I pack away my shorts and t-shirts and replace them with jeans and turtlenecks. In the spring, it’s just the opposite. I enjoy this ritual so much I’d likely do it even if I had the luxury of a large walk-in closet. I’m always surprised—delighted, really—by some article of clothing I had forgotten in the space of six months. Wellies lined with felt. A scratchy woolen sweater from Ireland, probably too heavy for our mild winters. Christmas socks. Lots of Christmas socks, in fact.
Today, I’m thrilled to rediscover sweatpants with pockets.
And are we ever more connected than when we write for another person's reading? Or read another person's writing? Really, it's intimate. It's as intimate as making love, giving birth, or holding the hand of someone as they die. It's the deepest, most meaningful connection.
I used to tell students, "If you want to stand in their shoes, see into their souls, know their hearts and minds, you have to use their diaries and letters as your primary resource." Of course, I was talking about people who lived 300 years ago, but I guess it's true of our contemporaries, too. And I have been drawn to that level of intimacy my entire life.
Dotty Holcomb Doherty
“Go to slot 5,” the landfill recycling manager said. Backing into the space between Metals and Cardboard Only, near Paper, I parked and began to toss all that has plagued me. The large bent metal box that held old sports t-shirts, now donated. Two giant yard-waste paper bags filled with shredded documents — a decade of tax forms and receipts, medical and bank statements, anything with a social security number on it. Stacks of cardboard inserts from liquor boxes we have now filled with books. An ancient nonworking iPad to the Electronics bin. The catharsis is palpable, my body lifting as I drive away. The best part of moving is this lightening of the load, turning the no-longer-needed into something else. Driving home, the car’s odometer turned to 141516, another delight as I have a thing for number patterns. And as I turned onto Aris T Allen, I saw the silhouettes of the resident black vultures, two to a lamp post above the highway. Their presence helped assuage my sadness at seeing the mangled deer carcass on I-97. From running free to flying, that deer would now become birds. The world turns, and this becomes that.
Norma Allen Lesser
In the morning I move from the bedroom to the room with morning music and light. The tree outside the window is still bright green and protects me from the view outside. I remember when that tree was a mere skinny stick in the ground. After a few seasons there was young fragile baby green leaves, then strong bold teenaged leaves. Now I think my tree has stopped growing tall, the leaves are robust but in a few weeks they will turn yellow, then brown and be gone. In a few weeks, human time, in universe time merely a nano second. And through the thin brown branches, my view will return.
In Georgetown Hospital’s cold holding area, I was waiting to be called for my MRI test, when a kindly orderly came by and offered me a toasty, snuggable blanket, straight out of a warming cabinet. What a sensual delight! We got to talking and when I learned that he was from Liberia, I mentioned my trip to Africa. It opened up a door to an excellent conversation in which we shared our awe and excitement about the wonders of Egypt. Emmanual then started telling me about some of his adventures in the Middle East, when the radiologist showed up to escort me to the Imaging room. WelI, I was quite put-out at the interruption, sorry our chat had to end! What started out as a long, boring wait in a chilly, uncomfortable space, turned out to be a delight!
I’d always felt there was something
magical about the lake at dawn,
and though it is neither Halloween
nor Midsummer’s Eve,
as the light begins to lift
a brown heaviness from the earth
on this chill October morning, I catch it:
thick mist whorls float over the water
mesmerizing as an enchantment,
and lit white by a gibbous moon.
I feel like a child in the night
with a tooth under her pillow
who wakes and thinks she glimpses
a tiny whisk of wings.
Quick, Take Photos
t’s done: unpacked, assembled,
and in place, and my cats,
all four, with widened eager eyes,
climb, sniff, claim perches,
bat the dangling ball,
sharpen their claws, and curl up
all over the brand new,
very plush, cream-colored
cat tree playground.
Sandra Olivetti Martin
I was just imagining lunch, late lunch, when our neighbor knocked at our door. She walked in cradling a swaddling blanket against her chest as if it were a baby, or a baby kitty. But the smell that enveloped her set me straight: She was carrying fresh bread, warm bread, whose aroma arouses primal sense and memory receptors. Desire, with its anticipation of satisfaction and comfort, lights up like a pinball machine played by a wizard. Bread is the staff of life. How can keto-dieters deny that desire?
Neighbor Gail and I have been having an affair with bread. We have both fallen for Martin Philip, the King Arthur Flour master baker and author of Breaking Bread, a narrative cook book she and I have shared. French bread is the next challenge. I have ordered the requisite pans from Chicago Metal, and she has prepared his “Poolish,” a two-day process. This is an affair that demands commitment.
“How did I do?” she asks, unwrapping the cotton tea towel she, like I, have substituted for the linen towel our inspiration demands. She thrusts the 14-inch loaf at me and I feel its heft, the crisp of its crunch, the soft inside. My nose, meanwhile, is doing a job on me.
“We will let you know,” I say, as Bill — my lunch partner in our two years of retirement after 46 years of separate lunches — opens his large hands to reveal a fig in one and a roll of goat cheese in the other.
It is the last fig on our tree, a wonder this late in the year, October 11. We have lately recalled my Italian mother’s fondness for goat cheese in olive oil and vinegar spread on good bread. She lived in the era of Wonder Bread, and she would do about anything, including missing a flight, for good bread. We are luckier.
From the Saturday Farmers Market, I have purchased a head of fennel to eat with that fig. I sauté its few slices in proprietary California olive oil. On the counter is a halved red tomato, its bad side discarded, another Farmers Market purchase. I give it a first dip in the bowl of oil and vinegar that belongs to the cheese.
All this — figs, cheese, fennel, tomato, oil and vinegar, plus butter, to let the taste of the bread shine through, and this story — is what Gail’s bread has caused. With a loaf of bread, the world is yours.
Beware of what they call you. Shorty doesn't grow taller. Dimples always will be the cutie not taken seriously. Pumpkin’s s okay this time of year.
I was called Flummoxed Fisherman in columns I wrote. Troubles were many,which I attribute to a hex cast on us in Haiti, by a voodoo priest, after the photographer accompanying me acted badly in the voodoo temple. (A true story involving bottles of rum, live chickens and a vengeful man with no nose.)
Later we broke his spell, temporarily, by dropping a monkey skull in Chesapeake waters and spouting incantations. I have a witness.
But troubles returned. Fishing rods crushed by car tires. Boat engine coughing to a death in sight — but not reach — of breaking fish. Fishless days and months.
Which is why, I believe, that the delight I discovered this morning was more than just a delight. Flipping a chartreuse feathered fly into the ebbing tide, I found reciprocity. What emerged wasn’t a rockfish, a bluefish or any fish that swims hereabouts, but an exotic visitor. A climate refugee?
The specimen, white as milk and round like a saucer, looked up at me while swaying in the water, and I looked at her. Fish don’t have eyelids. but I swear she winked at me, before twitching free and swimming away nonchalantly, leaving behind a delight that in my mind was an omen.
The curse is over.