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What It Takes to Grow Up, What It Means to Have Grown

A poetic antidote to despair by way of delight.

The Marginalian

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Ross Gay

“True adulthood,” Toni Morrison told an orchard of human saplings in her 2004 Wellesley College commencement address, “is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.” Four years later, in her stirring letter to the daughter she never had, Maya Angelou wrote: “I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We find parking spaces and honor our credit cards. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.”

Perhaps the most difficult beauty and the hardest-won glory of true adulthood is the refusal, vehement and countercultural and proud, to relinquish our inner magnolias as we grow older, declining to sacrifice them at the altar-register of a culture that continually robs us of our self-worth and tries to sell it back to us at the price of the latest product.

That is what poet Ross Gay intimates in the one hundredth “essayette” in The Book of Delights (public library) — the inspired yearlong experiment in willfully expanding the everyday capacity for joy and wonder that he undertook on his forty-second birthday, the record of which became one of the most wonderful and wonder-full books of 2019.

In the entry for July 27 (the eve of my own birthday, as it happens), he echoes poet May Sarton’s life-earned observation that “sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination,” and writes under the heading “Grown”:

I suspect it is simply a feature of being an adult, what I will call being grown, or a grown person, to have endured some variety of thorough emotional turmoil, to have made your way to the brink, and, if you’re lucky, to have stepped back from it — if not permanently, then for some time, or time to time. Then it is, too, a kind of grownness by which I see three squares of light on my wall, the shadow of a tree trembling in two of them, and hear the train going by and feel no panic or despair, feel no sense of condemnation or doom or horrible alignment, but simply observe the signs — light and song — for what they are — light and song. And, knowing what I have felt before, and might feel again, feel a sense of relief, which is cousin to, or rather, water to, delight.

Complement this small fragment of the enormously delightful Book of Delights with Alain de Botton on what existential maturity really means and Mary Oliver’s life-affirming, light- and delight-giving poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” then revisit Bill T. Jones’s stunning Universe in Verse performance of Gay’s “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be.”

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This post originally appeared on The Marginalian and was published February 18, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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