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Glimmers of Delight

J.B. Priestly had few misgivings about his public image as aninveterate grumbler. The renowned British writer, essayist, and playwright, who was born 100 years ago on Sept. 13, took a seemingly perverse pride in his grumbling abilities. He played the role with relish, describing his own sagging face, weighty underlip, and rumbling voice as the ideal ``grumbling outfit.''But behind the surly facade was a man quietly appreciative of the quirky and commonplace. ``Delight,'' a book Priestly wrote in 1949 as ``my apology, my bit of penitence, for having grumbled so much,'' is a string of a hundred or so short essays about moments that delighted him - some impish, some innocent.He talks of the delight in renting a furnished house for the holidays and ``rummaging through other people's books and music,'' or ``giving advice, especially when I am in no position to give it and hardly know what I am talking about,'' or simply lying in bed ``cosily reading about foul weather when equally foul weather is beating hard against the windows.''Priestly captures these effervescent moments full-bodied, letting their mirth bubble into the reader's imagination. He laughs irreverently at people's sense of self importance, his own included. ``Like you, I am always delighted to declare my tastes, prejudices, preferences,'' he writes. ``And probably like you too, I hide this delight behind an appearance of awful solemnity. I never look graver and more weighty than at these moments. `No,' I say, as if sentencing somebody to death. `I don't care for fried tomatoes.' ''His pokes at pompousness are tempered by the freshness he brings to familiar scenes, such as the moment of reaching a ship's deck in the early morning. ``During the night everything has been remade for you,'' he writes. ``The open parts of the ship, the sea itself, even the morning, have just come back from the laundry. The scrubbed planks glisten and the brasses blaze in a new morning of Creation. The winking and hissing sea has just been invented.''These private delights, published amid public grumbles, Priestly hoped would bring ``a glimmer of that delight which has so often possessed me, but perhaps too frequently in secret.'' In tribute to Priestly on his birthday, Monitor writers offer a handful of their own delights.

ON a quiet June evening, two friends and I were driving back to campus from the Big Steer. It was the last week of the last year I spent in rural Minnesota; my thoughts filled with the specter of having to grow up.

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I was disenchanted enough to know college couldn't last forever, but young enough to feel melodramatic about it. I yearned to shore up the memories of my adolescence, to catalog my experiences and keep them in a bottle. I sought closure.

I wasn't finding it. With theses complete and diplomas in the bag, most of my classmates and I were already looking to load up the microwaves and Macintoshes and drive into the sunset. Finality is hard to ponder when the whole future lies ahead.

So my friends and I opted for a night on the town instead of deep thought. That usually meant the Big Steer. We ate a bit and talked some, until the sun set and we felt like going home. I tried to act as if four years had elevated me above missing a fast-food joint and climbed back in the car.

There aren't many street lamps in Northfield, nor many streets; the stars had full play in the big black Midwestern sky as we sped between cornfields along the deserted highway.

I don't remember who saw the lights first, but all of a sudden we braked hard, pulled over, and scrambled out. Above us loomed the aurora borealis, the northern lights.

The lights shimmered in luminous blues, greens, and reds. Streams of color constantly shifted as if by an unseen brush stroke, lengthening or thickening. I'd studied physics and understood the gist of what was going on up there in the ionosphere. That the display was without hidden purpose made it no less wonderful.

Though the northern lights were common this far north, until then they had eluded me. Maybe I had been too busy studying or playing, combing through the past or forecasting the future. But at that moment, I was held rapt in the now.

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Instead of closure, I had found light, and in that delight.

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