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Stay Open to Delight
Even when you're exhausted and skeptical.
Planet #3 (1965) by Helen Lundeberg
Yesterday, I drove a neighbor (who is now a friend) to an all-day Pollinator Workshop, which she suggested we both attend because we both like to garden. On the ride there she asked me what I’d been up to lately, and I described everything I’m juggling right now, which is a lot: two newsletters, two books, two teenagers, two houseguests in October, plus pottery, voice lessons, guitar. The list feels endless.
“I’m behind on writing, of course,” I said. “And honestly, I’m not even good at most of the things I’m doing right now. But I am enjoying myself.”
“Did you know the word dilettante comes from the verb ‘to delight’?” my friend asked. “As in, to delight in many things at once.”
“Yeah! People get so hung up on mastery, when all that really matters is delight.”
I guess it’s pretty obvious why this neighbor has become my friend.
And even though I was pretty skeptical about the workshop — eight hours talking about pollinator plants?! — I ended up loving it, because the person who ran it, Debbie Roos, is a true dilettante in the best sense of the word. She went to school to study agriculture but then slowly got into sustainability and pollinators and gardening and educating the public.
But that’s not what mattered. I mean, lots of people like pollinators these days, which is why this eight-hour-long workshop had 150 people in it.
What mattered was her DELIGHT.
She started the workshop by talking about bugs for maybe an hour or more, which honestly would’ve sounded terrible to me if I’d heard about it beforehand. But she had these beautiful close-up photos she’d taken of caterpillars and spiders and bees. And then she explained what each little motherfucker likes to eat and where it builds a nest and its odd habits and turn ons and dietary restrictions.
“Here’s one of my favorite spiders, the Lynx Spider, and sure, she’s eating one of my favorite bees,” she said. “But everybody gets eaten eventually.”
Next she moved on to her favorite plants and how the best natives feed an enormous diversity of pollen-spreading bugs. And after that, she talked about her favorite color combinations and her favorite gardening tasks and her favorite times of day to look at her favorite bugs and favorite plants. Roos was all about favorites. She gave us a list of her favorite 25 native pollinators, but then she said that maybe it would’ve been better to have a list of 50. And then she kind of trailed off, possibly because she couldn’t stop thinking about which favorite plants would go on that list.
Delight. Like the Karner Blue Butterfly, you don’t see it close up as much anymore. But when you do, it’s infectious, particularly when what the delighted person is trying to share, even more than information, is DELIGHT ITSELF.
At one point, Roos showed us a video of a caterpillar eating a leaf. There was no real reason for this, she said. She just wanted to point out how it started in the same spot and ate out a quick little curve of leaf, the way you’d eat corn off the cob. “He’s just so methodical,” she gushed. “I could watch this all day.”
Notice how she’s basically talking about being present and meditating — meditating on caterpillars but also meditating on delight. When she watched that caterpillar, she made herself completely present to its strange little adventure that day, but she also paid close attention to how much delight she felt about that adventure, and she encouraged that delight, built on it, believed in it, celebrated it, and then SHARED IT WITH 150 PEOPLE.
And that’s how an eight-hour workshop on pollinators, which really should’ve been excruciatingly dull, became an eight-hour-long exploration of delight itself. It got that way not because there was an entomologist or a botanist at the wheel (although of course there are many delighted specialists and experts and academics in the world, too) but because there was a thoroughly delighted dilettante up there.
“I’m not an expert, so I’m not sure why any of you are here!” Roos joked. But by then it was obvious why we’d be there. By trusting herself and allowing herself to be guided by her own delight, she shared with us the best photos, the best details, the best jokes, and the most entertaining bits of information. And her delight made us want to be increasingly educated, increasingly delighted bug and plant lovers, too.
Delight is a strong word. How easy is it to feel delight on the average day?
Not that easy. But right now, I’m committed to staying open in spite of my overpacked schedule, my skepticism, my exhaustion, and my resistance to hassles. I’m staying open to my long-standing passions like writing and singing, sure, but I’m also trying to stay open to mild interests and new experiences that aren’t my cup of tea at all.
What this means, from day to day, is that I’m committed to showing up for things that feel mostly pointless. And I’m committed to looking for delight there, even when I have a bad attitude or I really don’t care that much.
Yesterday was particularly hard because I woke up at 4 am thinking some very negative thoughts. Then I (somewhat foolishly) decided I should write about these negative thoughts, even though I had committed to this all-day workshop. So not only was I skeptical at the start of this workshop, I was also very tired.
But that’s how powerful someone else’s delight can be. It can burn straight through your negativity and your exhaustion. I know that sounds like upbeat bullshit, but it’s true. Being around people who love love love a thing and aren’t afraid to show it is so good for you. So it’s essential that grumpy motherfuckers like you and me place ourselves in the path of possible delight. Just like the American snout butterfly, who places herself on a heap of native mountain mint, we need to feed on delight as often as we can. It forms us into a more hopeful shape.
And look, when I write about staying open — prying open your heart and mind, refusing to return to your oldest, most fearful stories about yourself and the world —this is part of what I mean. Staying open isn’t an analytical act and it’s not about trying to be positive or cheerful, either. It’s not a preemptive decision that some experience will definitely be valuable. It’s merely a choice to try new things, to see new things, to notice what’s there. It’s a choice to tolerate new things without shutting yourself off from them. It’s a commitment to letting the world come in and change you.
Before I left for the workshop, I said to my husband, “I can’t believe I signed up to do this thing. It’ll probably be completely torturous and unbearable.”
He just looked at me like Yes. Obviously.
“Well, if it’s awful,” I said, “at least its awfulness will be kind of funny and interesting.”
That’s staying open to delight, in a weird way. If the workshop was completely shitty, I was committed to delighting in exactly how shitty it was.
This improved my attitude without me trying to be positive (which never works). I was committed to reality: committed to noticing what was there, and committed to finding something engaging about it, even if I was only engaged by its SUCKINESS.
Staying open is kind of like being a bug, in other words. You just bump around looking for food all day. When you bump into a plant that can’t feed you, you don’t judge it. You don’t blame yourself for fucking up. You stay open and you set off in search of more delight. You expect the worst and the best. You live in joyful hope of being fed again.
Reality is full of surprises when you’re open to it. So stay open and look for delight. And when you find it, relish it. Meditate on it. Celebrate it.
That’s how you become a true dilettante.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! Send your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s an extremely nice review of Ask Polly that I have to share because I love it so much. TALK ABOUT DELIGHT! Vaibhav Munjal is delighted *and* delightful. And here’s that link to Debbie Roos’ delightful bug photos again. Now go have a delightful weekend!