Some new year thoughts on mud and resistance

For Christmas I got a book of short essays by the American poet Ross Gay. It is called The Book of Delights and was Gay’s response to a challenge he set himself – to write a daily essay about something delightful. Since Christmas I have been trying to read one of the short essays each evening and then write a few of my own scribbles about things which brought me delight that day. I am hoping that like Gay reported, this practice helps to develop what he calls a “delight muscle” or “delight radar: the more often you take time to notice, the more moments you experience because you are primed to be on the look-out.  

Today, New Year’s Day, I was delighted to wake to a world turned white with heavy frost and took these photos on a morning walk.

The mud in this part of Devon is rich and red and the track I had been walking on was full of puddles which had frozen over making these beautiful shapes.

Taking the photos and reflecting on the brief moments of delight that it brought me got me thinking more about delight and the way I hoped I would be able to walk through the new year ahead. 

I know a lot of people write gratitude journals, but I was thinking that there is something about recording delight which seems just slightly different to me. I was just thinking how light-full and free the thought of delight is. It is what comes your way as pure gift and unexpected loveliness; for instance, these frozen, muddy puddles that became my own private pop-up art gallery. These patterns will never exist in the world again exactly in these shapes in that particular place. By now, this afternoon, the ice will have melted back to water. They were such a transitory and fleeting delight and one that I don’t think I would have much noticed had I not been walking on my own. And we all have our own ways of finding delight around us – I am not sure how many others walking that quiet track would have stopped to admire the beauty held in the ditches, they probably had their own thing going on, finding delight elsewhere in their own style. 

I think what I am struck by most is how often delight comes our way – unexpected and unplanned for; it is often found in the moments when I am not planning and trying to control every moment of my day. It seems like it is easier to notice life’s gifts of delight when we lessen the grip of our clenched fists on the steering wheel of life for a while. And that is something we have all had less choice about since Covid came on the scene, isn’t it? 

I wonder as well how often is it my own attitude which stops me seeing what is in front of me. My own mixed-up priorities about what a the ‘good life’ constitutes? We’ve all got so much of it all mixed-up haven’t we? As Catrina Davies writes in her brilliant book Homesick, her story of struggle to find housing of her own: “Technology, work, furniture, – they had their place, but their place was a means not an end. It was the same with houses, they were supposed to facilitate living and not be the point and purpose of life.”  A sentence which leads, of course, to philosophy, as well as a longing for a solution to our current housing crisis. As we all make our own, equally valid stab at finding what the purpose of our lives is, I would make just one conjecture. Beginning with Davies premise that the purpose is not merely work, or housing or technology, somehow, I think, it’s purpose must be to simply enjoy delight. To enjoy those unexpected gifts. That which we more often than not witness or enjoy than consume. I am pretty sure that delight resists commodification; that it is more like trees or perhaps saplings, which thrive most readily in wild, untamed ground, outside of the neatly cultivated fields of the capitalist system. Delights are things which come to us often with zero value to the market. 

In fact, I may go so far as to say that to endeavour to develop our “delight radars” can itself be an act of political resistance. Seeking different values. Calling for a refusal of the way our lives, indeed our very value as individuals has become tied to our productivity, Jenny Odell writes about resisting in a way which is rooted in attention to the people and places of one’s local environment. She says:

 “To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means resisting the frame of reference: in this case, a frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship. It means embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of non-verbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal.”

How To Do Nothing p. xvi

 Thinking with this, we see that our priorities can be clear: we can seek out the experience of life, in whatever way we are able to do this (acknowledging the limits we live within). And to do this we need to resist being co-opted by a capitalist value system. Our own minds have been so colonised by it that we sometimes forget to value the free gift of unexpected beauty that quite frequently lands on our path, in the middle of the mud. The revaluing of what is delightful and not efficient or productive: what impact would this have on us and the future of our lives as creatures living within and not alongside the natural world?

And so, to keep these musings short, I finish, saying I am going to keep on trying to develop a stronger “delight muscle” this new year. I will try and remember that not being in control might not always be an awful thing. I am hoping to try on the idea of ‘resisting in place’ in new ways throughout 2021. We’ll see how it goes……

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