DeMott Lecture 2020: Ross Gay
AUGUST 27, 2020
Ross Gay gave the 2020 DeMott Lecture, introduced by Assistant Professor of English Shayla Lawson. Learn more about Ross Gay and read the transcript »
Ross Gay gave the 2020 DeMott Lecture, introduced by Assistant Professor of English Shayla Lawson. Learn more about Ross Gay and read the transcript »
Delight? Not the first word that comes to mind in this troubled time. But this year’s Convocation address, by President Biddy Martin, and the 15th annual DeMott Lecture a few days after, by poet Ross Gay, author of The Book of Delights, delivered delight in all kinds of unexpected ways.
Like so many things now, the format was virtual, the juxtapositions difficult. Citing the “ravages of COVID-19” in her Convocation address, and “the massive protests that have forced a reckoning with anti-Black racism,” Martin said that assigning Gay’s book to all incoming first-year students could have been a misfire: “There were times this summer when I wondered whether a book called The Book of Delights would seem fitting at this moment….”
But Gay, she said, doesn’t take delight lightly. The poet, who writes about racism in his book, “actually makes sorrow delight’s enabling condition,” said Martin. (She recommends his poem about Eric Garner.) And already this semester, Martin has seen students create delight where they could. She noted the new “pandemic ritual” of sitting in Adirondack chairs on the Quad in big, physically distanced circles, and when someone new arrives, they go from circle to circle, introducing themselves.
For The Book of Delights, Gay gave himself the task of writing a half hour each day for one year, to notice what gave him joy. Gay teaches at Indiana University, and in his book, he marvels about fireflies and cardinals, a high-five from a stranger, a song, and a thousand other small, resonant things.
In the lecture, moderated by Assistant Professor of English Shayla Lawson, Gay spoke of his hopes for the book’s impact. It had to do with noticing and honoring kindness. “There should be an Encyclopedia of All the Ways We Kindly Call to Talk to Each Other,” he said, “a companion to the Encyclopedia of All the Ways We Kindly Give to Each Other. … That's a good thing to do with your time in Amherst, it seems to me.”
On Sunday, August 23 President Biddy Martin welcomed first-year students and awarded honorary degrees to faculty members during a virtual version of the traditional Convocation ceremony.
- Good evening, everyone. A special welcome to new students and faculty. But this year, because this event is virtual, I'm also delighted to be able to welcome all students, staff, families, alumni, and trustees who decided to join us. Welcome to all of you.
- We begin as always with the conferral of honorary degrees. It is our custom at Amherst to award a Master of Arts degree to faculty members who have reached the rank of full professor and are not themselves graduates of the college. The custom derives largely from a desire to pay tribute to their distinction as teachers and scholars. And we hope that also helps keep them close and keep them engaged for their lifetimes to the college. Earlier this week, our provost and dean of the faculty presented the hood and diploma to this year's honorary degree recipient, we have just one this year, Jeffers Engelhardt, who is professor of music.
- Professor Engelhardt is an ethnomusicologist and is affiliated with programs in Film and Media Studies, and European studies, as well as the Five College certificate in ethnomusicology. Jeffers Engelhardt is the author of several books on the relationship between music and religion. Jeffers, I'm so sorry I'm not able to make this pronouncement to you in person, but by virtue of the authority vested in me by the board of trustees of Amherst College, I confer upon you the degree Master of Arts, honoris causa, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. Congratulations to Jeffers.
- I'm pleased now to introduce the Amherst choral society, which will be performing “Three Gifts” with words and music by Lisa Smith Van der Linden, a member of the class of 1989. This recording was created by our extraordinary choral director, Dr. Arianne Abela, and Choral Society members from the classes of 1957 through 2023. They joined their voices from separate locations all over the world. This is a beautiful collaboration and a treat that was made possible by amazing sound and video engineers. And now “Three Gifts.”
♪ Whose woods these are I think I know ♪ ♪ These woods belong to me ♪ ♪ That line of mountains, all the sky I see ♪ ♪ Thank you, Amherst, for three places you've given me ♪ ♪ A place right here, a place for roots ♪ ♪ A growing place, a greening place ♪ ♪ A warmness when it's cold ♪ ♪ A second place I'll go someday ♪ ♪ A place awaiting me ♪ ♪ A line of mountains I can see from here that someday ♪ ♪ I will climb and maybe from their heights ♪ ♪ I'll see another line ♪ ♪ And then above me, all the sky ♪ ♪ A limitless expanse ♪ ♪ Where I will stretch my mind and soul like wings and fly ♪ ♪ Three gifts will last me till I die ♪ ♪ These gifts of woods, and mountains, and sky ♪
- Many thanks to Arianne Abela and the Choral Society.
- Convocation is a treasured ritual at Amherst. It usually takes place, as you can probably see, in Johnson Chapel, and always on the evening before classes begin. It's a rather formal affair usually. It's meant to celebrate the start of your academic work at Amherst. The faculty is typically in their academic regalia, which is always a colorful display of the gowns and hoods associated with the universities where they did their doctoral work. The faculty sits in the pews in the front and the center of the chapel, and you, first-year students and transfer students, take your seats usually around the faculty and in the balcony. We're always treated to the beautiful voices of the Choral Society, the virtual version of which you just heard. Tonight, we have made the occasion available to families and alumni, to all students who may have wished to join. Nevertheless, I will direct my comments as I usually do primarily to new students. All the while, I'm going to be pretending that somewhere, just outside this window I'm looking out of, and up the hill toward the chapel, I can see you seated in pews around the assembly of Amherst's remarkable professors.
- For your first-year reading, we sent you Ross Gay's Book of Delights this summer. And I know from interacting with some of you today, that at least some of you have also read it. For those of you who are not first-year students and not transfer students, Ross Gay is a prize-winning poet, an essayist, a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, a gardener, an avid gardener. Shortly before his 42nd birthday, he gave himself the task of writing about an experience of delight every day for an entire year, just one delight a day. He required of himself that he write these short essays by hand all in one sitting. I favored the selection of this book because I love poetry, including his —maybe some of you know his poem about Eric Garner; I recommend it.I love poetic language. I love the combination in his essays of the vernacular with the poetic and the reflective. I love all the subordinate clauses and parenthetical comments he makes, interrupting his sentences and exposing us to the way he thinks. He shows how important digression can be. It's easy to love his keen observations and his vivid descriptions of what delights him and to have such simple gestures of friendship and caring, which are often his focus, brought to the fore.
- I'm also fascinated by the way he connects delight with sorrow and that's going to be a bit of my focus tonight. He actually makes sorrow delight's enabling condition. No genuine joy or delight without facing what Zadie Smith calls the intolerable, what Rilke called the terrible, and Ross Gay cites them both. No joy without the ability to look reality in the eye, including the reality of our own mortality. In his angrier essays, Ross Gay shows us the awful consequences of denial, especially the denial of our interdependence. I value tremendously the short essays in which he reveals his anger about the racism that he himself experiences, but also the systemic racism that he and every other Black person battles. In a piece called "Still Processing," he writes of the commodification of Black suffering. He writes specifically about a TV series, created to exploit what he calls, "the train wreck of Whitney Houston's and Bobby Brown's marriage." What it does, he says, in every single decision that had to be made about how to exploit their family life is equate Blackness with suffering and suffering with Blackness.
- At the end of that essay, he asks the reader, "And the delight? The delight," he says, "is that you have been reading a book of delights written by a Black person, a book of Black delight. Daily as air." We chose the book many months ago before the ravages of COVID-19 had become apparent, before the many more killings of Black people at the hands of police. And before the massive protests that have forced a reckoning with anti-Black racism and its centrality to systems and institutions that have justice and equality as their stated ideals. There were times this summer when I wondered whether a book called The Book of Delights would seem fitting at this moment if you only looked at the title or the cover. I was curious about its appeal. I hope you have, or that you will, read in it and make use of it. It shows us, in so many different ways, the rewards of noticing and reflecting on our delights and their sources in our interdependence.
- I have experienced a number of delights, since you began arriving just over a week ago, meeting some of you as you waited in line at the arrival site, after testing, staying connected over the next few days by phone and text with a couple of you, receiving a note from one of you studying remotely, asking for opportunities to get to know me and for me to get to know you, learning of the excitement you feel about the courses you chose and the faculty advisors with whom you've already spoken, hearing from you that after quarantine, you developed a pattern of sitting in Adirondack chairs on the quad in big circles, talking, and that when someone new arrived on campus, they would go from circle to circle, introducing themselves. Who would not have loved word of your friendliness toward one another, and your development of your own ways of being together, your own pandemic-driven rituals?
- Finally, admiring the truly extraordinary work that all levels of staff have done to prepare for your arrival, to make it possible to have you on campus, and to have you studying remotely, and to move those of you on campus into your residences. Making it possible has taken hundreds and hundreds of people working thousands and thousands of hours, using their imagination, their talent, their craft, their dedication to the importance of undergraduate education. All this work in the midst of a pandemic is an example of our ability to care for one another, or to use Ross Gay's expression: "to hold one another, in the face of shared losses and even risk." And now that you're here, it is our shared responsibility to protect one another and also to invent new ways of experiencing shared joy. I like to think about how trees protect one another, how they feed one another, as some in this audience will know. I like to think about how invisible or unknown that work is to many people. At this moment, how can we not think of trees as forests burn in California, where homes are lost and lives, along with the astonishing redwoods. Ross Gay urges us to think of trees and to remember we are wrong to imagine that forests exist mostly above ground. "The bulk of the tree, the roots," he writes, "are reaching through the earth below. This is where sustenance is shared and forests are kept healthy." And Gay's entire book of essays is devoted to pointing at the invisible ways humans care for one another, until that caring that learning to care, is interrupted by systems of hate and destruction. But back to trees. Ross Gay loves the expression fungal duff, which he tells us is “a healthy forest soil that swirls with the life the dead make.”A fungal duff is a healthy forest soil that swirls with the life that is made by the dead, the life that is made by the dead. "There exists a constant communication," he says, "between the roots and the mycelium, where often the ill or weak or stressed are supported by the strong and surplused." Without ever saying it in so many words, Ross Gay's book offers this up as a model for human caring. I quote him: "Fungal ambulances," he writes, "ferry nitrogen” over from the tree that has extra to the tree that is weak, “Constantly, this tree to that, back to this.” From trees and mushrooms, he says he has learned, and I quote again, that “joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away."
- Now this takes some work, this construction. The great fact of our lives is that our lives and other lives are going away. That our lives are transitory. The great fact of our lives that should unite us, according to Ross Gay, is loss. Life and love are contracts with loss, as someone once told me, much to my dismay at the time. Our ability to live and love in the face of this great fact is an existential project. Gay says, we could call the fact of our going away sorrow, but he suggests we see it as a union, quoting now: "One that once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, must become flower and food, might be joy." I decided to dwell on this particular delight in Gay's book, because it goes to the heart of what he so clearly believes that we cannot have one without the other. No true joy and no genuine connection without honoring our need for one another, without honoring our vulnerability and acknowledging the great fact that we share, with everything and everyone we love, that we are transitory. In another essay, Gay tells us that caring for one another is, however, our default mode. I quote, "We are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle caretaking, holding open doors, offering elbows at crosswalks, letting someone else go first, helping with heavy bags, reaching what is too high or what's been dropped, pulling someone back to their feet, stopping at the car wreck, at the struck dog."
- This caretaking is our default mode, he insists. And I quote him again: "It's always a lie that convinces us to act or to believe otherwise. Always.” It is always a lie that convinces us to believe otherwise. Our job right now, here at Amherst, is caretaking of one another. But I don't want to make it sound as though it's easy. Even if caretaking is our default mode, we have also learned the many lies that get in its way. And more than that, the things that come naturally to us and are good, are not useful in this situation. So what is required of us now against incredible odds, including our perfectly natural and good impulses, that we take for granted, is the ability to stop and think, to raise what we're doing to the level of consciousness, and to resist, or something friendlier, re-route, what we had the impulse to do, are ways of being friendly, of expressing affection, communicating delight, offering support, signaling attraction, and ferrying nutrients to one another, have to take different forms. They require a different approach. In many cases, we have to rely on something other than proximity, other than touch or physical embrace, so we have an opportunity.
- How do we create a sense of intimacy with others without these things? I keep wondering what the necessary, even if temporary, changes will yield, what lessons might we learn, even for a short period in which wariness of this easily transmitted disease restricts and changes what we can do, what might it yield? What might we learn that will help us, when COVID-19 is no longer a threat? Maybe we'll learn something important about our default modes of approaching one another, or what have become default modes of approaching one another. Maybe we could benefit from slowing down, taking more time to listen and observe, develop a better language for talking with each other about proximity and distance, notice and respect each other's boundaries. Maybe we could learn not to make hasty assumptions about who other people are, forced as we are now to take them in for more of a distance and over a longer period of time. Maybe we could build our confidence in the good will of other people. And their different ways of showing it. We could become better readers of cues and find new ways to provide cues of our caring to others. I noticed when I met students at Keefe last weekend, how important the eyes are, given our masks. When we meet someone we don't know, we can't see or offer a visible smile or a frown. I found myself trying to make my eyes brighten or twinkle more than they would. I don't really know how to do that, but I thought it would be a good thing to try. I wanted to convey the excitement I was feeling at students' arrival. Maybe we'll learn how to recognize more nearly what we actually feel and maybe we'll invent new gestures so that we can ferry over our affection to one another in different ways.
- Now you, new students, have already invented ways of being together and experiencing shared joy: the circles on the quad; the groups of fewer than 10, who you told me today have gone to the farm for sunrises; identifying mid-Westerners who know how to play Euchre and setting up games. You know, given the bombardment of all of our senses on a constant basis by the noise of various media and given the premium placed on visual spectacle and bombast and on winning at all costs, maybe during this period, we'll learn to love quieter pleasures and more creative ones, make our own music, develop your own kinds of communication, your own movements, your own ways of approaching one another in friendship and love.
- Ross Gay's Book of Delights was written and published before COVID-19. But in an essay written this past May, he writes of the need for invention. I'd like to close by reading a passage, a somewhat longish passage, from his essay, which is entitled "The Joy of Caring for Others." And now I quote:
A month or so back, at the beginning of mask-wearing out here in Bloomington, Indiana, I was taking a walk and a friend pulled up in her little Toyota pickup truck. We chatted a bit from a distance (we usually hug, so many friends, so many beloveds we no longer touch, that touching being one of the ways we know each other, a sensorium bereft, and let us figure out how to mourn this properly), and then she told me she was on her way to drop off some masks she’d made for her nephew, who’s about my age, at the jail.
“Here’s an extra,” she said, holding a mask out the window, where it dangled from her finger. It was pretty, kind of floral and quilt-y, and homemade as hell. I reached toward the mask, toward my friend, trying to keep away from her at the same time — both of us a little bit nervous, a little bit scared (I’ve never before noticed that “scared” and “sacred” are so close), making that by-now-familiar I-hope-we-are-not-infecting-each-other face.
That gesture, and the thousands of such gestures these past several weeks I have been a partner in the dance of, the clumsy and beautiful and awkward and elegant and nervous and tender figuring-out-how-to-reach-toward-while-staying-away dance … the wondering how to be close without touching, which is also to say, how to be together in our sorrow, how to be together in our need, our need for one another, which is profound, and good … really, how to hold one another, in these forms and labors of care, some of which we’ve always kind of done, some of which are emergent, we are inventing.
- We here at Amherst will be ferrying life and delight-giving care to one another all semester. And depending on where the surplus may be at any given time, and where the need, please help us identify where the need might be. Be forthcoming about your own needs. Share your surpluses and help ferry delight from this place to that. Everyone matters. Watch out for everyone. Hold your faculty and staff in your minds and in your hearts when you get the urge to go reckless: they are at greater risk than most of you. I, Biddy, in the spirit of Ross Gay, am saying, what if that is joy?
- Thank you very much.
- Before we close, I want to invite the new students to participate in what has become an Amherst tradition. the creation of a word cloud made of your thoughts as you become members of the Amherst community. There's an instruction slide, which I think is visible to new students. These word clouds are made into banners that hang in Keefe campus center and Converse Hall, as a reminder of what resonated with you as you matriculated. I've appreciated the presence of these banners as a lens into how you think and a reminder of the great variety of things that matter to you. I look forward to seeing what your word cloud looks like this year. [slides showing word cloud] Well, I'm enjoying it. I think euchre wins: euchre, love, community, mycelium, love, joy, Adirondack, touching, fungal, where's duff? Golf! Golf, someone's thinking about golf. Well, wonderful as always. I can't wait to see the final version.
And with that, I just want to say again, how enthusiastically we all welcome you, our new students, how much we look forward to seeing what you will do together and being there for you as we hope you'll be there for us. Goodnight.
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