WordPress, the lovely content management system that hosts the Rust Belt Girl blog and so many others, is running something called #Bloganuary. Hmm. Not exactly catchy. However, today’s prompt spurred me to write to you, dear followers and readers.
“Who is your favorite author and why?”
Well, we could be here a year, and I hate to choose favorites. But let’s go with the author I’m reading right now, who is certainly among my favorites. If you’ve ever had a friend who knows just the right thing to say when you’re mourning or elated, terribly empty or full to bursting … you know what it’s like to read Ross Gay.
You know, that friend you can sit with in companionable silence (is there anything better for us avid readers?) without any awkwardness. How is it that an author whose business is words exudes a watchful, waiting, respectful quietude? Yet, at the same time, Gay’s words demand to be read–in the chillest come-and-stay-awhile kind of way. The latest book from the Youngstown, Ohio, native, Inciting Joy: Essays, is an open invitation. Yet, let me make clear there is nothing easy about Gay’s work. This is heart-opening-with-a-crowbar stuff, and that takes work on the reader’s part. But if there is a more grace-filled writer alive today I don’t know them. For comparison: think a secular Henri Nouwen (who was, of course, a Catholic priest.) I bet Gay would excel at the Jesuits’ daily examen, just sayin’.
But isn’t that what the best essays do? Examine something of the author’s life? And in our reading, then, our own understanding is enlarged, enlightened. My favorite essay of the book so far is “Through My Tears I Saw (Death: The Second Incitement). It’s my favorite for its subject matter, the author’s father, “an uncomplaining dude if ever there was one” in his last days on earth; and also for Gay’s humor and voice (see: “dude”) when grappling with a subject as difficult as a parent’s death. I’m not spoiling anything to give you a bit of the conclusion of that essay: “It was through my tears I saw my father was a garden.” (And, yes, if you’re wondering: this is a book about joy–creating it, fashioning it out of what you have. Find me someone who doesn’t have pains and sorrows. Joy can be ours, too.)
There’s a lot of gardening, a lot of tending and watering, nurturing, pruning, and surviving in Gay’s work. Read a couple essays and you’ll quickly learn that this is not only metaphorical gardening. The author is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard in Indiana, where he’s a professor and a poet and essayist, and, from the sounds of it, a fairly uncomplaining dude, himself.
One of his poems from a previous book, “Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands,” which begins in a garden, inspired a short essay of mine, “Ode to an Ode about Hands.” Written during the darker days of the pandemic, my essay is about grief. How we tend to it, what we make of grief, is directly related to the joy we feel. (It’s not free is what Gay’s saying, I think, and I agree.)
Are you new to Ross Gay? Where to begin? I think of his The Book of Delights: Essays as the gateway drug. This is the book I gift to family and friends who might not even be big readers. Short essays about absolutely everything (including joy)–there’s a great chance you’ll connect with (and come back to over and over) at least a few. From there, I recommend his Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, an award-winning collection of poems that reviewer Evie Shockley called “shout-outs to the earth’s abundance.” The Ross Gay trinity of poetry, gardening, and basketball wouldn’t be complete without an ode to the hardcourt, which you can find in Be Holding, an epic poem and a “love song” to basketball legend Dr. J.
Now for a couple plugs: Lit Youngstown, my favorite community literary organization, is hosting Gay twice this year. The first is an online reading; the second is the in-person, weekend-long Fall Literary Festival in Northeast Ohio, where Gay will be one of the featured writers. I’ll be at both. Maybe I’ll see you there!
Who’s your favorite author? Who are you reading right now? Are you taking part in #bloganuary? Have you made any fun connections?
And check back here next week, when I will be interviewing John Kropf, author of Color Capital of the World: Growing up with the Legacy of a Crayon Company. You won’t want to miss it!
*header image is the cover of Inciting Joy: Essays by Ross Gay (Algonquin Books, 2022); jacket design by Christopher Moisan