An excerpt from The Rumpus Book Club‘s November selection,
Inciting Joy by Ross Gay
forthcoming from Algonquin Books on October 25, 2022
Excerpt from Ross Gay’s INCITING JOY, pp. 1-10
I have had the good fortune in the past several years, since shortly after the publication of my third book of poems, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and probably again with my book of essays, The Book of Delights, to have had numerous and sustained conversations about joy. These conversations might begin during question-and-answer sessions, in interviews, or even in the book signing line. I’ll never forget a woman at a reading in a public library in April of 2016 in Claremont, California—one of those weird, beautifully ugly sixties California buildings; it was a rancher of a library, maybe with some faux stone on the front, maybe white brick—I suspect she was in her late sixties or early seventies. And as she asked me to inscribe Catalog, she was crying, just a little, not very able to talk. And she said, quietly, wiping her face, “I didn’t know you could write about joy.”
Or another time, this one from an undergrad at a reading I was giving, who about midway through a Q&A said something along the lines of “I have always been told that you can’t write about joy because it’s not serious.” And a professor at another school asked, as much for the benefit of his students as it was a challenge, though that might be giving him the benefit of the doubt, which I’m practicing doing more of: “When all of this is going on”—he held his hands up as though to imply war; famine; people all over the world in cages or concentration camps, some of them children; disease; sorrow immense and imperturbable; it only getting worse and worse and worse (dude had big hands)—“why would you write about joy?”
The implication, of course, is that joy does not have anything to do with everything in that guy’s big hands. Or even that joy is the opposite of what’s in there. Which I guess is a reasonable notion, given how joy is often imagined to be the result of organizing our closets and bookshelves or getting the new Tesla or winning the big game or acing the test or getting a promotion or getting our dishes sparkling clean. Given that joy is often imagined as the result of some accomplishment or acquisition— something nice you get out there and do; something nice you go get yourself. Joy, the thinking goes, is that room at the top of a flight of stairs that, upon entering, washes you with clean air and glad music and comfy furniture and gentle warmth emanating from the white pine floors, suffused with light pouring in from the enormous windows with a sweet window seat where you can read a happy book. The joy room, the thinking goes, is snug with every good and nice and cozy thing.
Oh, too, this is very important: this sanctuary of joy has a very strong lock (think Tom and Jerry, ten or fifteen latches and deadbolts and chains and the rest) for when heartbreak— which, it should be noted, usually lives in the filthy back corner of the back room of the basement, where the stone walls are always wet and flickering with roaches and the drain with the furry green stuff crawling from it never all the way screws down—gets loose and comes sniffing around the keyhole, throttling the door, trying to get in. Perhaps in the form of your father dead or your mother despondent or your cousin who shot herself in the chest or your buddy stabbed to death or your dutiful and troubled mind or the most beautiful ballplayer you ever coached at last let off the machine or your child who won’t forgive you or you can’t get your medicine or your beloved doggie’s cough won’t stop or the forest you love has been logged or the school shut down or they poisoned the water again or they put a highway through again or another species gone or it’s raining in Greenland or, or, or, or, or, or, or, or, or, or . . .
You get my point. It is a kid’s fantasy (by which we grownups seem as seduced as plenty of kids) to imagine any emotion discreet from any other. But it strikes me as a particularly dangerous fantasy—by which I also mean it is sad, so goddamn sad—that because we often think of joy as meaning “without pain,” or “without sorrow”—which, to reiterate, our consumer culture has us believing is a state of being that we could buy—not only is it sometimes considered “unserious” or frivolous to talk about joy (i.e. But there’s so much pain in the world!), but this definition also suggests that someone might be able to live without—or maybe a more accurate phrase is free of—heartbreak or sorrow. Which I’m pretty sure you only get to do if you have no relationships, love nothing, are a sociopath, and maybe, if you’re enlightened. I don’t know about you, but I check none of these boxes.
But what happens if joy is not separate from pain? What if joy and pain are fundamentally tangled up with one another? Or even more to the point, what if joy is not only entangled with pain, or suffering, or sorrow, but is also what emerges from how we care for each other through those things? What if joy, instead of refuge or relief from heartbreak, is what effloresces from us as we help each other carry our heartbreaks? Which is to say, what if joy needs sorrow, or what Zadie Smith in her essay “Joy” calls “the intolerable,” for its existence?
If it sounds like I’m advocating for sorrow, nope. Besides, sorrow (unlike joy, apparently) doesn’t need an advocate. Given as, to quote the visionary blind man Pozzo in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, we’re born “astride a grave,” i.e. we and everyone and everything we love will one day (maybe today!) die, I think sorrow’s gonna be just fine. Like Gwendolyn Brooks says about death (one of sorrow’s chauffeurs), it’s “just down the street; is most obliging neighbor; / can meet you any moment.” Or as the Jackson Five sing, not in the voice of sorrow but kinda: “I’ll Be There.”
But what I am advocating, and adamantly so, is that rather than quarantining ourselves or running from sorrow, rather than warring with sorrow, we lay down our swords and invite sorrow in. I’m suggesting we make sorrow some tea from the lemon balm in the garden. We let sorrow wash up and take some of our clothes. We give sorrow our dad’s slippers that we’ve hung on to for fifteen years for just this occasion. And we drape our murdered buddy’s scarf, still smelling of nag champa, over sorrow’s shoulders, to warm them up some. We wedge some wood in the fire. As we’re refilling their tea we notice sorrow is drinking from a mug given to us by someone we’ve hurt.
We ask sorrow about themselves, and we scooch closer to hear. We eventually decide to invite a small group of friends over for a potluck, because we want sorrow to meet them. Sorrow says, “Maybe more than just your closest friends?” So we add to the list a couple acquaintances from work, the supermarket. We put our mechanic on the list, our chiropractor, and the neighbors we wave at but not much more than that. And when sorrow asks, “What about that guy . . .” of someone you really don’t like, after thinking how’d sorrow know that, you say, “I hate that dude.” Sorrow says, “Better invite him too.” “Damn, okay,” you say. Looking over your shoulder as you’re growing the invite list, sorrow nudges you in the arm and says, “Maybe just invite anyone with some sorrow to bring along? Couldn’t be too many people. Besides,” sorrow says, looking around at your little house, “this is a good-sized place.”
So we open it up: Bring a dish and bring your sorrows. We prepare a few staples, with which sorrow helps. A keen eye, sorrow has, for the tenderest leaves of dandelion, and the volunteer mustards frilling the edge of the compost pile. Easy, too, your sorrow, with kneading and shaping up the sourdough. Your sorrow even roots around in the antique cabinet you never look in anymore for how bad it hurts and pulls out your mother’s handmade placemats, quilted and embroidered with everyone’s initials. “Let’s use these,” sorrow says, clapping them together to get the dust out.
And when guests start showing up, just as your sorrow is pulling the loaves of bread from the oven and you’re dressing the salad, at first it’s just a few people, nodding and smiling shyly when you wave them in—“This is the place, yup”—and then a few more ring the doorbell, and then they start coming in two and threes and squads and families so you just keep the door open, front and back, because they are coming in droves, walking up the hill toward the house on the north, and coming through the woods from the south, and the house is already too full, way too full, you think, but squooshes in, and it somehow never quite fills up, bringing their dish and their sorrows, some of them obviously old pros at the potluck, looking for a place to put their dish (these ones even bring their own plate and utensils) with an index card with the ingredients, if it has nuts or gluten or dairy, and some guests with just a box of cookies or a bag of chips or a two-liter they got at Kroger on the way over, and some of course forget the goodies but at this potluck no one forgets their sorrows, which they introduce to each other, you can just barely hear it over how loud it is.
“I’d like you to meet my sorrow!” we holler to each other, dipping the flatbread into the hummus. Or eating the kimchi with our fingers because the forks are long gone. “Good to meet you,” we shout, smiling and nodding at the sorrow, who also smiles and nods, and half shrugs and raises their eyebrows. “This is mine,” we yell, pulling the spoon from the dal we’re eating to point to our sorrow, who takes a bite of the lentils and laughs. “Well done, sorrow!” Everyone jostles that sorrow, and he leans up against who he came with. And around those oatmeal-raisin chocolate chip cookies gathers a gaggle of guests and their sorrows giggling and pretending to fight over the last cookie before one of the sorrows breaks it into ten pieces and they all take their bite from sorrow’s hand, moaning like a choir.
It goes on like this, growing louder and more raucous and ramshackle, this potluck of sorrows—a lamp gets knocked off the table, a jade plant topples from the mantle, its clay pot splintering into shards that a few people promptly set about cleaning up, then getting the plant repotted. The dog gets stepped on and the cat’s steering clear, looking in from the beech tree out front. It’s not long before someone breaks out the cards in the kitchen, and a few other people rummage the fridge and pantry, wanting to try to make those delicious oatmeal cookies. A few people and their sorrows run out to the garden to grab some cabbages and carrots and give an impromptu sauerkraut workshop.
There are some kids playing wallball in the kitchen, marking up the plaster, and when two of them stumble into each other and knock heads, and they start shoving, then throwing punches, an old woman and her sorrow jump between them and shout out, “Where the hell are your sorrows?!” The kids point with their chins over to the tarot table, and the old woman marches over there, grabs their sorrows by the elbows and shoves them toward the kids, and they seem to work it out. There is a crew with their sorrows by the stove watching the chai and singing Jodeci’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” in perfect four-part harmony, which the dog joins in on. I think I hear it right that a squad with their sorrows standing outside the bathroom is going to make a scooter gang. And a flock of folks with their sorrows, a coven. A newfangled poultice posse is macerating plantain and comfrey from out back with the mortar and pestle. Some elders and youngers are sitting with their sorrows in a circle crafting kites out of the obituary pages of the newspaper.
And another group is sitting on the ground in front of the woodstove, which stays stocked and burning, and they are doing that levitation trick where everyone puts a finger or two under the person, you remember that? Me and my sorrow elbow each other and are like, “Yo, check this out,” and “No way,” because dude isn’t small, like really not small, and neither is his sorrow, who is sitting cross-legged on dude’s chest. And don’t you know, they lift him and his sorrow like they are just about nothing, and dude’s face, which looked kind of somber at first with his eyes closed, just slides into a big surprised smile, and his eyes pop wide open, and after he gasps, he actually cackles up there. I mean, he cackles so hard he cries. Then they kind of drop him and catch him and they are all laughing and crying and the thud skips the record back to the beginning of Sly Stone’s “Family Affair” and the dancing, which has been intermittent, just blasts off, all of us and our sorrows, sweaty, stomping and shaking, tearing it up, the pictures falling off the walls, the books from the shelves, some logs ablaze even spilling from the stove, riotous this care, this carrying, this incitement, this joy.
Now that we’ve defined joy, and concluded it is important, there are two guiding inquiries in this book. First, I mean to investigate what practices, habits, rituals, understandings— you know, the stuff we do and think and believe—make joy more available to us. What in our lives prepares the ground for joy. I mean to try to find out, in other words, what incites joy. And second, I intend to wonder what the feeling of joy makes us do, or how it makes us be. I will wonder how joy makes us act and feel. That’s to say, I wonder what joy incites.
Per the first question—what incites joy?—this book is a profoundly incomplete effort, and though I talk about pickup basketball and skateboarding and school and time and gardening and Luther Vandross’s cover of the Dionne Warwick hit “A House Is Not a Home,” I thought about but didn’t have time to dig all the way into joy and architecture, or joy and sex, or joy and the amateur, or joy and play or memory or foraging or parenting or libraries, etc. I offer them to you.
Per the second question—what does joy incite?—I should say, I have a hunch, and it’s why I think this discussion of joy is so important. My hunch is that joy is an ember for or precursor to wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity. And that that solidarity might incite further joy. Which might incite further solidarity. And on and on. My hunch is that joy, emerging from our common sorrow—which does not necessarily mean we have the same sorrows, but that we, in common, sorrow—might draw us together. It might depolarize us and de-atomize us enough that we can consider what, in common, we love. And though attending to what we hate in common is too often all the rage (and it happens also to be very big business), noticing what we love in common, and studying that, might help us survive. It’s why I think of joy, which gets us to love, as being a practice of survival. And it’s why I’ve written this book.
Excerpted from INCITING JOY: ESSAYS by Ross Gay. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books.
 I think it’s worth noting that part of this practice, too, is identifying—I don’t mean studying; I mean identifying—what does not incite joy, so that, if it’s possible, which it’s not always, we might turn our attention (and practice) elsewhere. In other words, we identify what does not incite joy so that we might better identify what does.