Buffeted by fear, contagion, civic rage, and a crumbling democracy, I am beginning to feel a little crazy to still be happy, to still find absurd delight in small wonders. It could be denial. My husband recounts the latest dire news; I tell him about a cute thing the dog did. A friend urges me to read an intense, shocking investigative piece; I, who have lost the ability to be shocked, send back a lyrical essay about trees.
It is easy for fretting to take over, and when tension and a sense of impending doom become chronic, joy needs a permission slip. Even Ross Gay—a poet and essayist whose Book of Delights made me even more determined to seize a few of my own—notes a cultural resistance, an insistence that delight and his new subject, joy, are frivolously lightweight.
“How can a Black man write about flowers at a time like this?” demanded a White woman at one of his readings, entirely missing the deeper subtexts in his work. He sighed and let it pass, but what he wanted to say was, “You need to grow up if you think it’s not always a time like this. And you need to shut up if you think you know what this Black man, or anyone, ought to be writing now.”
Because there is nothing we are hungrier for than joy.
A garden, Gay writes in Inciting Joy (just released) “shows us no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you earn or stash or hoard or bunker up, no matter even your fleet of spaceships, you will never be self-sufficient or independent. Because nothing living is.”
His introduction makes his argument, though Gay is not the arguing type; his method is to seduce us with Whitmanesque catalogs of rich, textured experience we all share. Still, the intro makes the key distinction: “It is a kid’s fantasy (by which we grown-ups seem as seduced as plenty of kids) to imagine any emotion discreet from any other,” he writes. “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’”—we think we can keep them separate. We try to lock up our joy in a little room, contain it in stuff or sex or money, and more to the point, lock sorrow away from it. No wonder we end up thinking of that artificially detached sort of joy as frivolous.
Gay’s point is that “joy and pain are fundamentally tangled up with one another.” What if, he says, joy is what bubbles forth when “we help each other carry our heartbreak?” To know that, though, we have to invite sorrow in. “I’m suggesting we make sorrow some tea from the lemon balm in the garden,” he writes. “We let sorrow wash up and take some of our clothes.” We welcome it with open (not crossed) arms. And once we stop resisting sorrow, guess what? We no longer resist or brush aside joy.
My favorite passages are Gay’s warm, loose odes to hanging out, a way of being with others that is utterly relaxed, purposeless, and never a waste of time. I come to adore his friends and his mom (but not his wife, and why is she so absent?). He writes so eloquently about hanging out, I wind up feeling it is the secret I have been missing all along.
Continuing in this mood, he describes the times music can pull you out of your chair, and how you all together go free. White Catholic schoolgirls raised in the seventies do not jump up and go free. At least, my friends and I did not, and the girls who looked free were drunk or high, had to be, to feel even half of free. Only now do I dance freely, too old to worry. But those years of self-consciousness were a waste of time.
Sometimes Gay’s joyous Whitmanesque lists are too rich, I catch myself thinking with pressed lips. And then I remember that impatience is one of joy’s enemies; that skimming and dismissing someone else’s joys is plain mean.
Perversely, though, I like him best when he is pissed.
He defends covers—the way musicians and writers imitate and cite and allude and repeat—from critics’ bored or scathing dismissal: “We are perpetually covering, we are ever citational, it is called thinking, it is called learning, it is called making, it is called being a creature with, it is our only choice. Nonpossessive undeclared citationality, which I’m gonna go out on a limb here and just call life.”
He also cheerfully trashes a project to genetically modify plants so they will photosynthesize more efficiently. “You couldn’t make it up,” he remarks. “Under the cover of progress, the guise even of care, we would sometimes do anything—blast reflective particles into the atmosphere to cool the earth; build a better bee; genetically modify seed rather than preserving all the seed we’ve been given; put duct tape on photo-goddamned-synthesis—to refuse the perfect generosity of the earth.”
Outrage bursts again when he notes that someone might pounce on him for writing about gardening, because it might be seen as a privilege. It should not be a privilege, he slams back. Capitalism imposes “a precarity that is not natural.” Soon we will begin to see clean air and water as privileges, free time and good schools and a decent job and health care and not being abused or exposed to toxins as privileges, when they should be the norm.
Gay can get away with a bit of preaching because he is the kind of guy who would forgive you, and because he is so damned funny. Honest, too, and able to move from universal to particular in a flash. Worried about the whole world, he offers a small personal example of exasperation: the writing workshop. “Curiosity flies out the window as the class becomes a kind of poesy mob,” he notes, with everybody offering “fixes” to someone’s piece. “I think it needs that, or, and this one drives me all the way up the wall, I really want a little more of this or that or the other. Like you’re asking garcon for more Parmesan on your spaghetti.”
To fix is not only to correct, he points out. “It also means ‘to kill.’” Or “‘to pin down or stick a pin through or hold in place,’” another way to kill. In his opinion (and would you not rather be his student?) art is unfixable, alive, meant to unmoor us and cause us to question what we thought we knew.
Finally, on page 149, he addresses my private angst (and everybody else’s) by confronting the countless ways the planet is dying. All those reasons we should walk around with black armbands, speaking quietly, waiting for life and beauty to end. Or maybe, he finishes, “as a way of extending and cherishing the meantime,” we might set aside the mistakes of the past and “instead cultivate together a little bit of what might keep us.” Like care, and love, and the joy that is not frivolous after all, but the most reliable way to survive, stay sane, and draw close in times of sorrow.
Because joy and sorrow are both part of the same thing.
As a kid, Ross broke down sobbing once, and his dad, reared to be A Man, shot him a look of disgust and snapped, “Are you kidding me?” The boy learned to hold back tears and cover sadness with rigid stoicism, even a little macho swagger. And then he unlearned, so he could be a whole human being.
Now he notices things he could not see before. “Grieving, alert to connection, luminous with it, is never only one person’s experience,” he observes. Grieving “connects to all of grief, and to all grievers.” When we join each other in grieving, “we fall apart into one another” instead of collapsing.
We live afraid of the next sorrow, and we long for joy, and we insist they are mutually exclusive. We forget how much of life is a bittersweet mixture. How sorrow and joy are never as far apart as we hope. How joy is not comic relief but necessity.
Ross Gay will read from his work November 7 at 7 p.m. at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, as part of the St. Louis County Library author series.