On attending to what we love in the midst of what we do not love, training ourselves to be witnesses, and, of course, joy, delight, and gratitude.
Intimate conversations with our greatest heart-centered minds.
Ross Gay has made it a daily practice to search out joy and delight in even life’s hardest moments. And he’s discovered that there’s actually not much search involved: it’s just there. Another daily practice: to express gratitude for all that is. All of it. Even the stuff we’d prefer not to be experiencing. If this sounds impossible or unrealistic or just too Pollyanna-ish, know that he does not shy away from suffering. In fact, to his mind, suffering and joy are inseparable. So in addition to the birdsong and the bobbleheads and the trees taller than you and the helping each other cross the street there’s climate change, bigotry, misogyny, death, fear, and so on; it’s all on the page.
And what pages these are! Unbounded reverence for the natural world, and a dogged celebration of humanity. And such exuberance for language. The sound of each syllable ringing through: the rhythm, the cadence, the twinkle, the mischief, the glory. An essayist and a poet, Ross wants you to feel. He’s not telling you what to feel, rather providing the fodder for heart-shifting awakenings. Or at least, it’s been that way with me.
I first came upon Ross’ work via this video collaboration with Bon Iver and felt every cell in my body light up. This titular poem from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is to-the-marrow glorious. I won’t say more because I hope you’ll listen to it. After I did, I read everything he’s written, making up for all the years I’d somehow missed out on his work.
Ross is the author of four books of poetry: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His first collection of essays, The Book of Delights is a New York Times bestseller. His latest collection, Inciting Joy, has landed on countless Best Books of the Year lists. He teaches at Indiana University Bloomington. Shortly after moving to Indiana, he became involved in the Bloomington Community Orchard free-fruit-for all food justice and joy project which is one of many super cool things about how he’s chosen to live his life.
Something about Ross’ unrepentant, unashamed embrace of the tenderest moments of life, no matter how small or silly, whilst never losing touch with the hideousness moves me deeply. I believe his words have the power to heal.
Next Week: An excerpt from Maria Rodale’s new memoir on her shamanic journeys into gardening. You’ll never look at mugwort the same way!
There's so much research now about intergenerational trauma. Do you think there’s also intergenerational joy?
100%. I printed a little broadside called Epigenetic Joy because people only talk about epigenetic or intergenerational trauma. But it seems to me that if we do embody those sorts of generational things—and that makes sense to me—that it wouldn't only be the trauma, it would also be the care, and the tenderness, and the love.
I was recently thinking about this talking to my aunt, who's ninety-six; her people came north from Mississippi. I was thinking about how it's in the midst of what is traumatic, or what is brutal, where the most radical examples of care exist. The survival itself is evidence of a kind of resounding care for who people do not yet know. For those of us who were not yet born. I like to think of it like that.
That’s beautiful. Do you feel like you inherited joy?
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