The poet Ross Gay undertook a year of writing, each day, about a delight he had observed that day, and published it as The Book of Delights. If you wrote down the things you observe about your day each evening as it ends, what would the resulting volume be about? Worry? Gratitude, as suggested by an upcoming workshop led by UUCPA member Susan Plass? Complaints? Nature? Happiness? Plans? . . . And what shape does this focus give the rest of your life?
Worship leader: Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern
Special music: Veronika Agranov-Dafoe, piano
Centering Words Pandemic, Lynn Ungar
Reading Ross Gay, preface, The Book of Delights
Sermon Your Daily Book Amy Morgenstern
Ross Gay, a poet whose words we’ve heard in our service before, turned essayist to write his Book of Delights. He wrote almost 365, of which 102 are in this book. The delights he discovers and shares range widely. Carrying a tomato seedling through an airport and a flight home, and the responses it evokes from airline staff, other passengers, and people passing him in the terminal. The reckless use of “air quotes” by a friend. The process of pulling up bindweed. And, probably my favorite, lessons he learns about the state of feeling annoyed. All of these afford him delight, and his delight, like his smile in his author photo, is contagious.
Contagious in a good way.
Here in a time of contagion, Gay’s reflections remind me that we can be contagious to ourselves. For good and for ill, our present self passes on its experiences to our future self. What we notice, what we lift up in our own awareness, infects our whole day, the next day, and, proceeding day by day, our lives.
As Gay observes, the more we study something, the more there may be of it to study. What we record, for ourselves or others, we begin to notice more, amplifying its presence for us.
Even if we aren’t poets or essayists or even journal-jotters, there are things we amplify by our attention and other things that wither because we don’t notice them. It is as if we each do keep a nightly journal. We each have a book we write. The ways we reflect on the day just past, the things we remember and dwell upon as we lie in bed–these affect the day to come. They hone our radar.
Gay honed his delight radar. What radar are we each honing by what we notice, what we tell others?
What do you notice as you reflect on your day? Do you list the things you didn’t do that you’ll have to do tomorrow? Do you look back on the best moments you’ve had, like a sweet conversation with a two-year-old or the first sip of coffee? Do you remember all the mistakes you made and torment yourself by playing them over and over in your mind?
In this time of isolation, when self-talk is such a big percentage of our conversation, what we say to ourselves is even more important than usual. You’re locked in a small space. I’m addressing right now, especially, those among us who live alone. What kind of roommate are you? Do you notice small gifts for which you offer thanks, or do you only speak up when your roommate leaves the dishes overnight? Are you kind to yourself and appreciative of yourself? Because your roommate deserves that.
It’s important to observe the bad parts of our lives as well as the good. I’ll come back to that. But for a moment, first, let’s notice that what we notice, we give more presence and power. We amplify it.
In a class planned for March 29 that I hope will still be offered, Susan P. will lead a group in the practice of gratitude writing. She writes, “It is easy to take the good things and people in our lives for granted; but taking time to give thanks for them can help us develop a greater appreciation for the good in our lives, which in turn may improve our relationships and our sense of well-being.” Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at UC-Davis, has led research teams in tracking people as they cultivate gratitude through a gratitude journal. He reports that even three weeks of cultivating gratitude has astonishing results: physical, psychological, and social.
in the study exhibit]
• Stronger immune systems [We could use those right now! They’re]
• Less bothered by aches and pains
• [Have] lower blood pressure
• Exercise more and take better care of their health [and]
• Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
[than the control group.]
Psychological [changes are]
• Higher levels of positive emotions
• More alert, alive, and awake
• More joy and pleasure
• More optimism and happiness
[And just a few weeks into cultivating gratitude, people in the study reported these]
• More helpful, generous, and compassionate
• More forgiving
• More outgoing [; and]
• Feel[ing] less lonely and isolated.
(Robert Emmons, “Why Gratitude Is Good,” https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good, published November 16, 2010; accessed March 15, 2020)
Emmons only writes about physical, psychological, and social effects; he doesn’t say “spiritual.” That’s our department. But gratitude is a spiritual gift and, like bindweed, persistently grows and sends off shoots of other gifts. Maybe that is why the Psalms are such an enduring part of Jewish and Christian scriptures. Over and over, they enjoin their readers, their singers, to give thanks and praise. Living without gratitude is like refusing good food when it is spread before you. As the prophet Isaiah urges,
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
And then, he says,
You shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
(Isaiah 55:1-2, 12, New Revised Standard Version)
Now, as I said, it’s not all sweetness and light. One of the things I admire and appreciate about Ross Gay’s book is that he doesn’t shy away from pain, or make delight a whitewash that he paints over oppression. It’s all there, mixed together, as it is in all of our lives. And with the hard stuff as with the joyful, what we notice, we notice more. This can have an amplifying effect that gets us nowhere good. But it can also shed a light on things that, like bindweed, are growing underground and need to be rooted up and exposed.
For example: When I was in college, I had a favorite topic of conversation: how much work I had to do. How long the next essay was, how little sleep I was going to get, how stressed out I was. I wasn’t alone. In any group of students, it was an easy topic of conversation, if not a particularly interesting one. One person would begin and the rest of us would chime in: “Tell me about it!” Then a friend simply observed that I talked a lot about how much work I had to do and how stressed out I was. It made me wonder: was this what I wanted to amplify in my life? Was I blowing off steam, or just building up more stress? Realizing that it was the latter, I started to catch myself when I got going on that litany. He was my journal, my “complaint journal,” reflecting to me the things I’d been giving the most attention so that I could decide to give them less.
Sometimes noticing the negative things like injustice, cruelty, unkindness, inequality is what we need in order to address and uproot them. Another friend of mine grew up with a brother whose treatment of her was borderline abusive: dismissing whatever she said; critically assessing her clothes, her looks, her friends. She knows this now; she didn’t know it while she was growing up with it. She just absorbed it. Then, one day, she casually remarked to a new acquaintance that she and her brother weren’t close. The acquaintance said, “Oh yes, I’ve noticed that he puts you down constantly.” And with that simple honing of the radar, she began to notice that yes, he put her down constantly. Their lack of closeness was not just a fact of siblinghood or a mysterious lack in their lives. It resulted directly from his belittling and insulting. Once she knew that, she could notice when it happened. Once she noticed, she could speak up: “Hey, that was mean.” She says they didn’t become the best of friends after that, but things definitely improved, and she no longer dreads time spent with her brother.
Sometimes it takes a shift in attention, or a little bit of work, to become aware of things that go on all the time. After all, the human mind is very adept at relegating to the background things that happen frequently, whether they are nasty comments from a sibling or the beauty of the dawn chorus. Practices of attention, such as Gay’s daily “essayettes” or a gratitude journal, disrupt this tendency and help us to notice what has slipped beneath notice. Just this week, when I was making notes for this sermon, my daughter observed, a propos of nothing, “You know what’s great about being a little kid?” (meaning, much younger than her own 13 years): “Everything is exciting-er.” When you get older, she observed, “It’s boring.” (I’m sharing this with her permission.)
She is right. One of the fun things (and exhausting things) about being with very young children is that everything is exciting to them. Try to take a walk with a toddler and you will walk agonizingly slowly, not because their legs are short but because they want to stop and look at everything. Ants! Crunchy leaves! Dog poop! It’s all so exciting!
And I realized, as I turned over my daughter’s words, there is no reason for this world ever to get boring. It is as full of marvels as ever, things we don’t know, things that we don’t understand, and it will be until the day we die. It’s just that as we get older, we have to make an effort where it was once effortless. Ants? Been there, seen those. But read E. O. Wilson’s works on ants, or for that matter, just devote ten solid minutes to watching ants, the way little kids do, and your boredom will fall away. Ants will get “exciting-er.” And there are galaxies and inner worlds we have never seen before. We just have to clear away the ho-hum from our perception.
In these times, when there’s an awful lot of ho-hum, we can choose to notice things that the existence of this virus illuminates.
How would it be to notice your body? What it can do, its signs of health? I imagine you’re already noticing every cough and ache, the way I am. Take your temperature and wash your hands, but also notice:
That you can stroke a cat’s fur, hear the rumble in his chest, see the jewels in the depths of his eyes.
That your shoulders are strong to push yourself in your wheelchair.
That you can take a deep breath, feel it fill you right down to your belly, without an ache or a wheeze.
That if there are aches and wheezes, you can wrap your arms around someone you love . . . (maybe yourself!)
That you are alive, your heart beating, your brain humming.
How would it be to notice the people who are important to you, now that you can’t visit them? To call to mind what you appreciate about them, and maybe even to call and tell them. Or just call them, bring them close in a way that sometimes they’re not even close when you’re in the same room together.
Can we make this an occasion for the kind of awareness that amplifies gratitude, delight, joy? Even though the occasion is not a happy one?
This is an apt season for it: the time of Lent in the Christian tradition, when Christians spiritually prepare themselves for the death and resurrection of Christ, notably by giving up a pleasure or luxury, and also through practices such as prayer and contemplation. The Unitarian Universalist minister Kendyl Gibbons writes:
Once upon a time, the season of Lent was about necessity. It was about the time of year when the stored harvest was pretty well used up, before anything much was growing in the early spring. It was a time of want, and hardship. A time, perhaps, of temptation, when you might want to eat the grain that was stored for seed, or the animals that would soon give birth to the next generation. It was a time of self-restraint, when it was better for the community as a whole if the rich and privileged did not indulge themselves when the poor could not. It was a time of recognizing the connection between human behavior and the creative, generative forces of the earth and the universe, that could only function in cooperation – of acknowledging the interdependent web of all existence, and what it required from us in order for abundance to happen again in time. It [wasn’t] sacrificing an arbitrary pleasure in order to give god a cheap thrill; it started out as a reverent acknowledgement of sacred necessity, of the role played by self-restraint in the service of both the common good and the web of life. (shared on Facebook, 3/14/20, and used by permission)
Even our sacrifices can be an occasion for joy: to be able to save lives by the sacrifice of some of our freedom and some of our pleasures. What if your daily book was: what I gave up today, and why? Or, things I did today that I wouldn’t have done if not for this forced break from my usual activities, like that jigsaw puzzle that’s been in the closet or that movie I’d forgotten? Or, three people I appreciate whom I want to stay healthy and alive, and what I love about them? Or just a simple gratitude journal?
In this time of contagion, the awareness we hone will grow and spread within us and around us. May our awareness bring delight, and may our daily book help us to grow in love.
In the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha we know as “the Buddha” is just one Buddha of many enlightened beings. There is at least one per era, and there will be more to come. So as we extinguish our chalice, let us take with us the wisdom shared by the Vietnamese monk, scholar, and community leader Thich Nhat Hanh:
“It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the earth.”