“My hunch is that joy is an ember for our precursor to wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity. And that that solidarity might incite further joy… My hunch is that joy, emerging from our common sorrow… might draw us together.”
In Ross Gay’s brilliant book Inciting Joy, he makes clear that sorrow and joy are not two distinct emotions that can be quarantined. Instead of running from one’s sorrow, his work suggests that the emotion instead becomes a part of our routines; “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 onto for fifteen years for just this occasion. And we drape our murdered buddy’s scarf… over sorrow’s shoulders, to warm them up some.” We must take care of and nurture this sorrow. The experience of joy is formed from our common sorrow. This book focuses on both what incites joy and what joy incites— an exploration into the practices, the rituals, and the habits that make this type of joy available, which he then processes through the consequences of it.
In order to first create a picture of what makes up the joyful emotion, Gay begins the book through fourteen incitements of the emotion. In the introduction, however, he acknowledges how incomplete this list is. These incitements of joy are death, gardening, time, skateboarding, laughter, losing your phone, the orchard, pickup basketball, the (song) cover, school, dancing, grief/falling apart, and gratitude. This wide range of incitements of joy means that each reader can potentially relate to one or more practices. Some incitements, like laughter and gratitude, are universal. Others more closely resemble sorrow, like death and grief. In the second incitement, death, called Through My Tears I Saw, Gay explores what he healed by taking care of his father while he was dying from cancer. In order to achieve joy, we must acknowledge the ever present sorrow in our lives. Sorrow serves as a constant teacher. Both the death and grief incitements were painful to read, but Gay advocates for an achievement of full humanity through facing this sorrow.
My two favorite incitements of joy to read about were laughter and pickup basketball. The sixth incitement, laughter, is called “Baby, This Might Be You.” It opens with an anecdote about how his friend Dave pointed out that Gay looks like he’s dying while he’s laughing. Gay confronts this theme of dying from laughter when he writes about attempts to police laughter: “Remember how they policed our laughter at school? How at football practice? How at church?… Because they know laughter is a contagion, those who laugh are its vectors, and one of laughter’s qualities is that it can draw us together by reminding us of the breath we share. Which also reminds us, or can–especially when we fall off our chairs, when we gasp for air how we sometimes do–of the dying we share. Which is a pretty big thing to share, when you think about it.” Laughter itself resembles death. By sharing laughter, we are reminding ourselves of our common death. This common death is no small thing to share. In this incitement, Gay also writes lovingly of his mother’s laugh, and he asserts that he could write a whole book about it called My Mother’s Laughter. He also describes how his father gets his family to laugh wildly from the grave. They make jokes about him, like how much he snored or the way in which he drank his wine, that make them share this joy.
Next, pickup basketball, the ninth incitement, is entitled Insurgent Hoop. He incorporates a description of John Edgar Wideman’s Hoop Roots, which was published a hundred years after Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks because Wideman believes basketball to be the soul of the nation. Gay acknowledges the anti-colonial nature of pickup basketball: by being able to shout “I got next!” between each game, pickup basketball does not abide the settler. Gay describes, “Pick-up is an elsewhere, I’m saying, whose logics–by which I really mean practices, grown up with and by Black people (though not exclusively, don’t misunderstand me)–refuse ownership and the owners, refuse settling and the settler, refuse the very conditions by which we became Black (or White, or whatever) in the first place, because those conditions are the end of our time here on earth.” The claims reveal the radical nature of pickup basketball, which exists in an elsewhere. He acknowledges the influence of fellow Black players on the game itself. He also declares that the game refuses the very conditions in which one becomes Black. This elsewhere liberates players and spectators, creating a world separate from the settlers and the owners. To Gay, pickup basketball is inherently anti-colonial.
In the first chapter of this book, Gay describes people’s reactions to his work, including his poetry. One woman in her late sixties or early seventies came up to Gay at a reading and crying and barely able to speak said, “I didn’t know you could write about joy.” At another reading, an undergraduate student came up to Gay and told him, “I have always been told that you can’t write about joy because it’s not serious.” Gay’s choice of topic is inherently radical. It is practically unheard of to find a book dedicated to practicing joy. Thus, in its singularity, this book inspired me to reflect on what makes me joyful in my own life. While I resonated with many incitements Gay writes about, I also had many others to add to my list. Reading this book inspires a fresh appreciation or gratitude for life, one that both comforts sorrow and celebrates joy.