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?

Want more Rust Belt writing, book reviews, author interviews, writing advice, essays, guest posts, and more? Follow me here. Thanks!Ā 

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

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19 thoughts on “Reading rn …

    1. Happy Chinese New Year, Lani! Hope you’ve celebrated in style!

      And thanks for being here and for your kind kudos! Ross Gay is a masterful essayist. This book has regular-length essays and his The Book of Delights is flash essays–depending on how you like ’em. Through much of his work, the gist is joy. In his intro to this book, he talks about meeting with teachers and students and readers at readings and visits around the country–and of the many comments he gets. MFA students for example will often say: I didn’t know I could write about joy. Not to say that Gay’s work is syrupy or surface-y, all at–never. But I think it’s a terrible misconception young people have that they think they can only write about the painful aspects of life.

      In fact, I judged an essay contest last year for MFA students, and out of the 50 or so essays a large portion (15, maybe 20) were dead grandmother stories. Clearly someone tells young people to write the most painful thing that’s happened to you. When you’re 20, that’s often a dead grandparent.

      And Gay writes about his father’s death, but it’s also an essay about many, many other things–including joy in sharing and helping with those final days.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I remember when I first was getting into lit mags and was surprised when I read a funny story. I loved it so much, I hunted down the author and remarked how it was a breath of fresh air because essays are all too often depressing. Maybe I told you about this already? In any case, your experience judging is amusing to say the least. Sorry for the late reply. Thanks, Rebecca!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, YES! Bring on all the funny essays. The secret, I think, is that funny essays are hard to write. Depressing essays are easier–since we all have practice writing depressing essays starting in high school (middle school if we’re precocious).

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Larry! Ross Gay is the most Catholic of non-Catholic writers I know. (Perhaps he was raised Catholic or had some influence along those lines in his childhood, I don’t know.) That fact that he doesn’t write about organized religion but his writing involves so much reflection (and redemption, I think) leads me to believe that we all have much more in common across the religious/secular divide than we might think. I hope you’re well, my friend, and I appreciate you being here!

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  1. Hi Rebecca, as always, I love reading your take on the book you’ve read. You introduced me to Ross before, I’ve read The Book of Delights: Essays and enjoyed it so much. I bought it on my Kindle, and kind of wish it was a hardcover book instead so I could re-read it sitting outside in my garden. It did help keep me walking on my treadmill though. Hmm. Maybe I should order this one in hardcover!?
    I clicked over to read your pandemic post about your hands. Very raw feelings we all were having, I hope the heartwarming, handshaking touches are returning for you in your life.
    As for me, I’ve been reading Dan Antion’s Dreamer Alliance series. Before that, I read about brain health and fasting like a girl. I’m all over the board when it comes to reading I guess!
    I hope you’re meeting fun new connections on your January blog fun. I know you won’t forget your old blogging buddy pals šŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re one of the original blogging buddies. I could never forget you, Shelley–or the wildlife you’re always featuring so beautifully in your photos!

      I adore The Book of Delights, because Gay packs so much meaning into those tiny little essays–a wonder. This latest book, the essays are longer, so maybe a whole treadmill walk’s worth. The one I’m reading right now has me lol-ing. It’s an essay about laughter–the kind of laughter that looks like crying, the kind that gets you in the “throes.” He says when he mom laughs that hard, she looks like “a leaking sack of delight.” His mom must love that kind of characterization, right? So funny.

      And thank you for reading my pandemic-era essay inspired by that Gay poem. Oh, the handshakes. You know, at my Catholic parish, the handshakes have not come back. At the exchange of peace, we all turn to our neighbors and do a little wave, or a peace sign, and say “peace be with you,” as we always did. But this Midwestern girl of German extraction misses a firm handshake. Of course, I get a little squeeze from the family that belongs to me. But I do miss the handshakes with friends and neighbors in the pew!

      As for your current reads–don’t you love a series that just sucks you in?! And you’re so good about your health-reads, too. I know we’ve talked about intermittant fasting before. And I think I told you about that Alzheimer’s physician and researcher I interviewed for work–he said he believes A. and dementia are sicknesses of the body that affect the mind. Speaking of…and of reading, with your dementia expertise, I wonder if you’d like to be a beta reader for my novel manuscript. I’ll email you! No worries if you’re too busy, just an idea!

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      1. Aw, and I could never forget you either! Thank you for our blogging friendship šŸ™‚

        I think I resemble that leaking sack of delight when I get to that level of laughing. It’s quite cathartic in many ways. I really need to read that book, I could use a good cry and laugh.

        IMHO I think that what happened to the gatherings at church and the connections with our fellow peeps are right up there as the worst parts of this whole pandemic.

        Yes, I love a series that sucks me in. I’m forever a sucker in reading books that teach me stuff I’m interested in. Yes, I remember that physician, they would love the Brain Energy book by Christopher M. Palmer, MD…that’s exactly what he thinks and it all starts with our mitochondria. It’s a fascinating read. So was the Fast Like A Girl by Dr. Mindy Pelz. I wish I would’ve had a book like that growing up, during childrearing years, and before menopause. Oh, well, I gave the book to my daughters, hopefully they’ll find some benefit.

        Yes, I’d love to be a beta reader for your novel manuscript. You have my email :-)!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I started the Book of Delights, and wished I’d known Ross Gay was at IU when I was an undergrad in Bloomington. I left the book not because it wasn’t engaging, but because it got me out and looking for my own delights. Thank you for reminding me of a thread I’m still slowly spiraling back to šŸ™‚

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  3. Lizzy, I’m so glad that #bloganuary brought you here! I just followed your blog, so I can see which of this month’s posts spurred you on to write.

    Oh wow, you were at Bloomington–very cool. They have some wonderful programs. I have yet to meet Ross Gay in person, but I would think your reaction to The Book of Delights would delight him! That you took his lead and went in search of your own little moments of joy. That’s what inspiring words do for us, right?!

    Looking forward to checking out your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually, I’ve been following you for years (I had to go back and look – since 2018!), but have gone through a few iterations of name (and naturally, life) changes in that time, which I would not expect anyone who also to keep track of šŸ™‚

      I’ll have to go check out your pandemic post based on Shelley’s comment.

      I loved my time in Bloomington – I discovered a program I wasn’t looking for and had never heard of, recreational therapy, that has ended up weaving into more layers of my story than I ever expected. And you are so right about the delight of learning how another carried some little ‘me-spark’ forward in their own way!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ack! Sorry! You’re the horseback rider. I remember your voice. Just your profile pic and blog looked different. I’ll be reading more of your blog–am interested to learn more about your work with recreational therapy, and of course your adorable dog.

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