Inciting joy with Ross Gay (Transcript)

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The TED Interview
Inciting joy with Ross Gay
November 3, 2022

[00:00:00] Steven Johnson:
Welcome to the TED Interview. I'm your host, Steven Johnson. On this show, we have a lot of guests who explore new frontiers: frontiers of viral detection, or the cosmos. This week's guest has made joy and delight the object of his exploration. Poet and essayish Ross Gay has turned that exploration into a practice of identifying and sharing those joys with the rest of us.

The delight of smiles when you take a tiny tomato plant onto a plane. Delight at the scene of a barefoot woman stopped in the middle of the road to move a turtle out of harm's way. Delight of the smell of lilies in the air, delights even in the most difficult of times.

[00:00:50] Ross Gay:
Ending the Estrangement.

from my mother's sadness, which was,
to me, unbearable, until,
it felt to me
not like what I thought it felt like
to her, and so felt inside myself—like death,
like dying, which I would almost
have rather done, though adding to her sadness
would rather die than do—
but, by sitting still, like what, in fact, it was—
a form of gratitude
which when last it came
drifted like a meadow lit by torches
of cardinal flower, one of whose crimson blooms,
when a hummingbird hovered nearby,
I slipped into my mouth
thereby coaxing the bird
to scrawl on my tongue
its heart's frenzy, its fleet
nectar-questing song,
with whom, with you, dear mother,
I now sing along.

[00:01:50] Steven Johnson:
That was “Ending the Estrangemen” from Ross's 2015 book, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, his 2019 The Book of Delights landed in many people's hands, right as the first wave of COVID swept through the country, making it a New York Times bestseller. His newest collection of essays, Inciting Joy, just hit bookstores.

Ross has won the Penn American Literary Jean Stein Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. He's also a teacher at Indiana University. Ross Gay on delight and the practice of delight. That's next on the TED interview.


[00:02:43] Steven Johnson:
Ross Gay, welcome to the TED Interview.

[00:02:46] Ross Gay:
Thank you. Glad to be here with you.

[00:02:48] Steven Johnson:
There's so much wonderful stuff in that piece, Ending the Estrangement. Using that as a, as a kind of a case study, how does a poem like that come into the world?

[00:02:57] Ross Gay:
Yeah, great question. One, I think I was trying, and in this book, which is called Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, but also in, in kind of, I think it's just one of my questions. I was trying to sort of, in a way come to terms with sorrow, actually, and come to terms and try to understand what, what has been, what is my fear of the sorrow, not only of myself, but of other people.

And that was one of my questions, and I think, um, to me that's an interesting poem because in a, it, it feels like one of my poems in a way because of the attention to syntax and stuff, but it also feels like a different kind of poem than most of the poems in this book, because most of the poems in this book kind of stream down the page. And this poem, it’s so intentionally kind of, um, hesitant. The line breaks are kind of jarring, and they, they kind of reverse themselves periodically and they make you take a lot of breaths at places where maybe you don't quite anticipate. And I think part of what I was trying to do with that poem is to, um, enact in some way the labor of coming to terms with one's mother's sorrow, which is also one's own sorrow, as a kind of evidence of gratitude. Which is not easily come to, you know? It takes, it takes some syntactic, uh, acrobatics.

[00:04:26] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. Well, I mean, I was gonna ask about that. There's that wonderful moment in the, in, in the poem where it kind of turns to gratitude at the end of that line.

[00:04:34] Ross Gay:

[00:04:34] Steven Johnson:
And it, as you said, it's part of a collection called The Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. One of the things I was thinking about is I was reading through particularly the essay books, but also some of those poems is, like, this fascination with finding that place of gratitude or that place of delight and joy. Um, were you always like that? Like did, was that something you grew into?

[00:04:58] Ross Gay:
Yeah, I, I just don't know. I try to, because you know, you could imagine that other people have asked me that, um, because of what I write about. Um, and I, I don't know for sure the answer to that, to that. Um, but I, I can say for sure that those, those aspirations and practices, by which I mean like a gratitude practice or a delights practice or studying joy are among other things, at least also a way to sort of, um, contend with, um, trouble in my mind. You know, which is a long way of saying that it's, it's definitely not just natural for me to be like, you know, um, delighted. I'll put it like that. Yeah.

[00:05:54] Steven Johnson:
I think one of the things that's so infectious in a good way… One shouldn't describe things as being positively infectious in the age of COVID probably, but that, that when you read this, you, you can read people writing about how to have a practice that brings more gratitude into your life or brings more joy into your life in a kind of self-help way. Clearly that the, the work you're doing in, in writing these poems or in writing these essays is, is part of your practice for experiencing joy and delight.

[00:06:25] Ross Gay:
Yeah. Yeah.

[00:06:25] Steven Johnson:
That the, that the words are actually conjuring up those, those feelings in you. And I'm just curious, like, do you think that that is a property or a quality that you share with a lot of other poets, or do you think that that's something that, that you do in, in a more distinctive way?

[00:06:42] Ross Gay:
That's a great, yeah, it's a great question, and partly, I want to talk about it like as a, like a poet poet. Like, I wanna say that one of the things that I'm drawn to poetry for, and one of the things maybe you were drawn to poetry as a kid for, and why maybe you're more drawn to it now, is that to me poetry is like a profoundly embodied form, and partly because the line to me indicates the breath.

Which makes a poem a body, which makes it one of the bazillion things that disappears, um, that, that is evidence of our, um, impermanence, you know? And poems, among the things that they do is they, they show us how to breathe. You know, they, whether or not you're reading it out loud, there's still some, even if you're just breathing in your brain, you know, poems are kind of coaching us up on how to breathe.

So in a, in a way, I wanna sort of say like, ah, I think we're all kind of doing that, right? We're all kind of doing that. That being said, um, I think, um, in these de—in the delights and the joy, I say, um. there’s explicitly a kind of practice, right? And it's, and it's a, the book is a kind of inquiry. Um, and among those inquiries, it's like, what, what would it feel like if I do this for a year, you know?

[00:07:54] Steven Johnson:

[00:07:54] Ross Gay:
Um, the Joy Book is a kind of inquiry about what happens when we, um, when we are in the midst of joy and when we're practicing things that foment or incite joy. What happens from that? So it has these different things, whereas the, like the poems, I would say that the poems have less intention in a certain kind of way. Maybe, maybe, maybe I'm not positive about that. So next time, next time we talk, I'm gonna think that over, you know?

[00:08:25] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. When did you start to read poetry, and did you almost instantly start to write it? Or was there a gap between those two?

[00:08:31] Ross Gay:
Yeah, I, I listened to music hard as a kid. Yeah. So I'll say that, first of all, um, and I listened to it, and I memorized it. And so like, I was deep in lyrics with like, you know, Tracy Chapman and, um, Public Enemy and De La Soul, and you know, on and on and on and on and on. Um, Pink Floyd, you know.

[00:08:50] Steven Johnson:

[00:08:51] Ross Gay:
I was just like, and all of which, you know, frankly I think, um, appealed to me and still really appealed to me. You know, it's like, have helped me to think actually.

Um, but I didn't start reading poems or anything really. As a kid, I read, like, comic books, Power Man and Iron Fist. Um, but I didn't start reading until college, and I, as I recall, I was, um, given, um, I was required to do a presentation on the poet Amiri Baraka. Um, and I read a couple of his poems, particularly this one poem called “An Agony. As Now.” I’ll never be able to get to the bottom of it, but, and it's sort of amazing to me to think that when I was like 19 or something, it was this poem, which is profoundly mysterious, but also has the line, something like, early in the poem, “I'm inside some, someone that hates me” or “I'm inside something that hates me.” Something like that. Like articulated something so profound that I had no idea how to articulate. Um, it's kind of moving to me, but anyway, I, um, then I started writing poems.

[00:10:00] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. Do you get a kind of a first draft in sitting down to write it the first time? Or do you have a bunch of fragments that are floating around for weeks or months and you start stitching them together?

[00:10:10] Ross Gay:
Yeah, it can happen a handful of ways. It can periodically, it'll happen where a draft comes, you know, periodically.

Um, always it happens that the first draft is, like, a first of many drafts—many, many drafts. Um, I'm sort of a, you know, like my beloved friend and teacher, Gerald Stern toward the end of his, um, you know, he's, he's 97 now.

[00:10:35] Steven Johnson:
Oh my gosh.

[00:10:35] Ross Gay:
And he's not, he's not a big reviser. I don't, I don't think he's like, fiddling around like I am, like on the, the syntax and seeing what that third line is doing in relation to that 29th line and blah, blah, blah, blah. Like on and on and on and on.

But I, um, also wanted to say that my poems, sometimes they do, like you said, like there's sort of fragments that are kind of floating around and those fragments sometimes will be like, “Oh, that fragment is actually been waiting for this little right moment of poem,” or something like that.

And sometimes like the title poem of this book, a lot of it, it was, it's a kind of collage, um, poem in a way. So it's, a lot of it is several poems that didn't quite make it as standalone poems that became like little components of this longer poem. And then there's also a poem in, in this book called, “Spoon”, and that's a long poem and it's a poem that I had a draft of for two years. And it was a short little poem about, you know, um, a spoon. And then at some point, it was really a sort of poem, a very sort of quiet elegy for my, uh, our friend Don Belton, who was murdered. Um, and then the, the poem just broke open two years later, you know, into a poem that is long and is now like a five or six-page poem that really, you know, gets into our relationship and, and other things.

[00:12:07] Steven Johnson:
I think that's one of the things that is true of, of books in general, and I don't write poetry, but I do write nonfiction books, and there's a kind of almost optical illusion that is created when you write a book where the person reading it feels like, oh, these are all the thoughts that are captured in the brain of Ross Gay or Steven Johnson any moment, like I'm just reading them, outputting their thoughts to me.

[00:12:30] Ross Gay:
Yeah. Yeah. Yes.

[00:12:31] Steven Johnson:
When in fact, in reality, a book is, like, all these thoughts that you had separately over a five-year period or a 10-year period that you kind of packaged up together in some way.

[00:12:41] Ross Gay:
Yeah. Right.

[00:12:42] Steven Johnson:
And, and I think that creates a kind of illusion in the head of the reader that when they actually meet you, they're like, well, “You don't have any of these ideas accessible to you.”

[00:12:49] Ross Gay:
Absolutely. And to me, it's like, so yeah. The part of the, to me, the most interesting writing that I do and the most interesting writing that I think I probably read most often is writing that it's very clearly, um, like the artifact of a process of thinking and a process. Process of discovering what one thinks for a period of time.

Which hopefully, um, I mean, not hopefully, but maybe, hopefully by the next thing, if they're lucky enough to write a next thing, will be different because we actually change. So in a certain kind of way, a book is, a book is evidence actually of a kind of change being put into place, arrived at through labor, which we call often revision, re-seeing things, um, not to be stopped, not to be settled at. You know, if we die, you know, whatever, that's the end of it. But if we write another thing, I mean, I hope if I write another thing, it will be clear that the thinking has carried on, you know?

[00:13:49] Steven Johnson:

[00:13:49] Ross Gay:
Um, which is a kind of, you know, like, as I hope I understand, for all the people I ever encounter, the thinking will carry on.

[00:13:57] Steven Johnson:
So can you tell us the backstory behind the Book of Delights?

[00:14:00] Ross Gay:
I was, I mean, it really, I was just walking and this, this is kinda ridiculous, but I was walking from a, having an espresso down in downtown Umberto Dei in Italy, in Umb—

[00:14:14] Steven Johnson:
Oh, it sounds so good, doesn't it?

[00:14:14] Ross Gay:
I know, it's very nice. It's very nice. I'm walking up a hill, you know, back to this castle ‘cause I'm in like an artist residency paid for, you know, getting my food. Delicious food.

Um, there's, you know, whatever, it was a moment of profound delight. I was like, “Ah,” and I noticed it. Um, and I thought, “Oh, I should write a little essay about this, like, kind of lovely moment, you know, The bees were all over and the linden trees, I think, smelled just incredible.”

And then very quickly there was the, the guidance or the voice or the instruction to do it every day for a year. Write an essay about something that delights you every day for a year, um, and like that. And it was convenient because it was very close to my birthday. and I gave myself these constraints. One was to do it every day, which I didn't quite do, ‘cause I'm not that guy. And, and the second thing was, um, to write them quickly.

So I gave myself a timer, write them in 30 minutes, draft them in 30 minutes. But, and the third one was to write them by hand. Um, and so over the course of a year, you know, I probably piled up at the end, maybe not quite 300 essays. Um, and then we whittled it down to 140 that felt viable, and then down to 102 that remained in the boat.

[00:15:36] Steven Johnson:
That's an amazing story. How much… one, one thing I've always been really interested in is the connection between walking and thinking and creativity. I'd heard a little bit of that story and just reading the history of that book and, and, you know, It does strike me as not being surprising that those ideas come into your mind while you're afoot.

[00:15:56] Ross Gay:
Yeah. Well, walking is very fortuitous. Being afoot is fortuitous. Um, and uh, it's funny because I, I just finished a second Book of Delights. It's been five years, and I sort of was like, “Oh, I should do this every five years and see what happens.” Um, and so many of the delights actually happen while I'm on foot, you know, and I happen to be like, walking around a lot and less traveling like, you know, on airplanes, um, during the writing of this.

But I do think there's something, um, maybe it's the body in motion, maybe it's motion itself that does something for thinking. Sleeping is also really important to my creative process, like really important. I, I figure more things out in dreams than I could even begin to enumerate.

[00:16:48] Steven Johnson:
And do you remember them long enough to have them be meaningful?

[00:16:50] Ross Gay:
Oh yeah. All the time. All the time, huh? Anyone who's near me when I wake up, they're like, “Get ready.”

[00:17:00] Steven Johnson:
I find it's, I get older that I'm more and more amazed by dreams that they just… It is this very strange aspect of our experience of being human, that we spend a certain amount of time that can, at some point seem like years, depending on the dream, every, every night in this crazy surrealist space. And then we wake up and get a coffee and read the paper and go to work and do all the things that are structured.

[00:17:23] Ross Gay:
I know.

[00:17:26] Steven Johnson:
But I find that I talk about it, because no one wants to hear about anybody else's dreams, do you?

[00:17:31] Ross Gay:
I do. I do. Yeah. So you can call me. Yes. And I'll never, just so you know, I'm never, I'm, I'm not, I'm never gonna tell you what they mean. I'm just gonna listen.

[00:17:39] Steven Johnson:
Well, I think that's, you know, I think that's part of what we were talking about originally about poetry, is that like, part of the point is that they don't have a singular meaning.

[00:17:46] Ross Gay:
Right, yeah, totally. Totally. It's like, it's funny because I try to, I try to approach poems like this, you know, and I think that like one of the hazards of being a teacher and a teacher of like writing and stuff or art is that, that a lot of our inclination is to start correcting, quote-unquote, you know? Cor-correct critique.

Um, and I tried to keep myself and also the folks who I get to be in classes with, um, trying our best to just describe things, and dreams, I feel like, are the same way. Like there's something just really useful, beautiful, useful, fun, weird about just describing the dream, you know? And even to hear someone say, “Wait, likee, you were walking backwards the whole time?”

And you're like “Oh yeah, I was, I was walking backwards all time.” You know, and just, and then, then the thing can avail itself to you, however it means to you, you know, and I don't have to be like, “Well, clearly you're going back in time and…” It's just like, “No, this is your poem. This is actually your poem.”


[00:19:02] Steven Johnson:
So the Book of Delights came out in 2019.

[00:19:06] Ross Gay:

[00:19:07] Steven Johnson:
And since then some things have happened.

[00:19:11] Ross Gay:
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:19:22] Steven Johnson:
And, and I, I'm curious, just what, you know, having lived three years where human connection was so rare and, and difficult because of the pandemic and, our trips to castles in Italy were curtailed—

[00:19:28] Ross Gay:

[00:19:28] Steven Johnson:
What was your sense of people engaging with this material in, in the middle of, of COVID times? Did that, did that have a special resonance, do you think?

[00:19:36] Ross Gay:
It did, You know, a lot of people thought that it came out, um, you know, after it did. Like a lot, it, it arrived to a lot of people in the midst of, of things being shut down and, and this kind of, um, separation, um, happened.

And so that was very interesting, to witness people responding to it and in a way maybe being taken care of, um, by this book that's a practice of like attending to what you love and, to me, what's interesting about the book is that there's always, you know, like, I was sort of trying to think about this, like maybe there's like eight, eight essays in the book really sort of free of something kind of devastating on the, either in the middle of it or on the edges of it.

So it's a book to me, and the practice is actually about attending to what delights you in the midst of, you know, everything, everything else. Which is always the case. Everything else is always the case too. And you know, it's funny because sometimes I think people understandably want just to be delighted. I just wanna be delighted.

[00:20:42] Steven Johnson:

[00:20:43] Ross Gay:
But, but that's actually not my, uh, I'm glad for delight. I'm interested in it clear—curiously, but I'm actually more interested in how we articulate what we love in the midst of trouble.

[00:20:52] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. Have you found a lot of people who have taken up this practice of writing their own books of delight?

[00:21:00] Ross Gay:
Oh yeah.

[00:21:00] Steven Johnson:
Sweet. Sweeping the nation?

[00:21:01] Ross Gay:
It’s sort of like that. It's like any of the things that you can kind of daily do. And you know, I didn't know this when I was doing it, um, or when I started doing it. Um, but I have found that, like, other people are like, “Oh yeah, I want to do it.” It's just like, “Oh, I'm gonna do this too.”

Or, “I kind of wanna do this.” Or like, “I'm having my class do this.” You know, someone just emailed me from a school somewhere and they're like, “Yeah, this is, we're having the class do delights, you know, for this month or something. And so good. It's amazing.” And then you see 'em, you know, and oh, the other thing that's like a lucky—I actually have a delight about this in the new book, is that the book is, um, the, um, result of being the beneficiary of, of all kinds of delights. Many of those delights being like people sharing stuff with me, people giving me like a little tomato plant to take on an airplane, or you know, this kid giving me a high five at a coffee shop, you know, out of, out of nowhere or all these…

It's the result of sort of this kind of like, again and again, a certain kind of sharing, whether it's the sharing of like human creatures or like birds or, or trees or whatever. Those things became this book, and people will send me, like, these really beautiful little things, you know, that the book made them think of or you know, they send me their own delights.

[00:22:18] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. Is that— I just get a lot of email spam. That's so delightful. You know, we have the poem we were talking about the hummingbird and you, you mentioned, you know, gardens and nature and trees. That's something that comes up again and again and, and this, this connection between kind of tending to, to beauty and tending to trees and, and gardens.

You're a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard. Um, I, and I, there's a, there's a famous study, I can't remember where it was from, about looking back on their life and describing where they found the most, I think it was happiness, not necessarily joy, but yeah. You know, one of the things that came up is things that take long periods of time, of kind of cultivation, um, that at the time sometimes aren't even that fun, but, over time you really come to savor them.

And gardens were, like, very high on that list, you know?

[00:23:07] Ross Gay:

[00:23:08] Steven Johnson:
There’s a lot of drudgery, a lot of stuff you have to do, but like reflecting back on it, it seems like one of life's great pleasures. That seems like a, a theme that runs through a lot of your work. Is that right?

[00:23:18] Ross Gay:
For sure. For sure. And also the way that gardens—to use your word—are actually, they infect us to share. They, they command us in a way to share what we have extra, share what we have more of.

You know, if you have a, anything growing good, you have too much of it. This orchard project is such a beautiful example of that. Um, in part because we're talking about the sharing, this project, um, gardens are always the case on a micro-scale. This orchard project was the case on a macro scale. It would never have come into being without all of this collaboration.

And there were like literally thousands of people, some of whose names I know, some of whom I, um, eat dinner with. Not, not, you know, frequently. Um, some of whom I'll never meet because they just clicked “Yes” on like some kind of voting to get some grant or something… but all of these people contributed to build this thing that was only an idea.

And the idea was this little catchphrase that my friend Amy Countryman had: “Free fruit for all.” People were like, “Oh, that sounds cool. That sounds cool. Let me chip into that.” And so now there's an orchard, and you know, the apple trees are doing pretty good. So if you came to Bloomington, you could go in there. There's not a lock on the gate. You could just go in there. Right around now, those apples are coming on, and just go have a couple apples, you know, or, or, or, you know, get yourself a bowl of apples.

[00:24:37] Steven Johnson:
All right. I'm, I'm getting on a plane right now. So, I, I wanna make sure we, we turn to your new book, Inciting Joy.

[00:24:46] Ross Gay:

[00:24:47] Steven Johnson:
Um, and I, I, I'd love for you to read another passage for us, um, which is from the opening essay, which, which is in many ways about the kind of intertwined nature of joy and sorrow.

[00:25:00] Ross Gay:
As you sort of describe, um, sort of explains one of the reasons why I'm writing the book, which was I would not infrequently have people wonder if joy is, um, serious, if it's a serious subject of inquiry. And the way I think of joy is I think of the luminousness that comes be, comes from us together when we care for each other through our sorrows, which we all have different sorrows, but we all sorrow and it's always relevant and perhaps more relevant the more acute our sorrow is.

It strikes me as a particularly dangerous fantasy, by which I also mean it is sad, so goddamn said, that because we often think of joy as meaning, quote “without pain” or quote “without sorrow”, which to reiterate, our consumer culture has us believing is a state of being that we could buy. Not only is it sometimes considered unserious or frivolous to talk about joy, i.e. but there's so much pain in the world.

But this definition also suggests that someone might be able to live without, or maybe a more accurate phrase is, “free of heartbreak or sorrow”, which I'm pretty sure you only get to do if you have no relationships, love nothing, or a sociopath. And maybe if you're enlightened. I don't know about you, but I check none of these boxes.

[00:26:26] Steven Johnson:
Or you’re a sociopath. You know, I mean, I, just as an aside, the hearing you read both the poem and that passage is, you know, one of the things that's I think others have remarked about your work that's so great is the parentheticals. And the digressions. You know, you gotta be in the middle of a sentence, and then it goes off. It's like, “Hold on. I will finish that thought, but I need to take you on this little journey here for a while, then I'm gonna come back to it.” It reminds me of something that things that happened in the book of Delights itself, in the sense that you're like, you're going to do something. You have some job. You have to get to the parking lot to pick up your car.

[00:27:00] Ross Gay:
Yeah, yeah.

[00:27:00] Steven Johnson:
But you stumble across something along the way. And that's where that little moment of inspiration comes.

[00:27:05] Ross Gay:
Oh yeah.

[00:27:06] Steven Johnson:
It's, I think it's really elegant the way it's actually in the syntax of the, of the poems and the writing.

[00:27:11] Ross Gay:
Good. Yeah. Yeah. I'm trying to always sort of figure out how syntactically, formally, et cetera, um, I can get closer to a reader in a way, you know?

Yeah. Like, I wanna, I'm try, I'm curious about the thing of like, you know, when you're in a good conversation, you have to like, touch someone's forearm and be like, “Hang on, you have to know this thing or the rest of this isn't gonna make any sense”, you know?

[00:27:36] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. Yeah. To the topic of, of sorrow. It's very powerful in, in the way the book is set up ‘cause you h ave this opening meditation on the relationship between joy and sorrow. And you have this kind of imagined kind of dinner party where everybody brings their sorrows.

[00:27:53] Ross Gay:
Potluck. Potluck.

[00:27:54] Steven Johnson:
Potluck. Yeah. Potluck of sorrow. Um, but then it's followed by the opening essays is about your father getting sick and, and ultimately dying, and it's just an incredibly powerful essay. Um, as an author talking to another author, like, “I've never written anything that intimate”, um.

[00:28:12] Ross Gay:
Um, Yeah.

[00:28:12] Steven Johnson:
And I, I'm just curious what that feels like when you go through it.

[00:28:16] Ross Gay:
You know, it's like one of these things, you know, when I, when I write about stuff, I'm writing about things that I'm curious about I just don't under—don’t quite understand. And in a way, I wanted to sort of like, as I've been trying to do, my dad died in 2004, so it's like, um, but as, as every time, I'm with my mother and we say, “Seems like yesterday, you know, that we were going through all this shit.”

Um, and, um, I, I was sort of trying to sort of both revisit actually what happened, but also come to better understand, like, what was happening, you know, what was happening as in the process of him dying. And in the process of me being with him. In the process of me and my mother being together and, you know, all of these, um, you know, the things that happen when your beloved whatever dies over the course of five or six months, you know?

And, and, and in this case, like my dad, we are super close in a complicated way. Like, you know, um, we, we really had a kind of, we had a difficult time with each other. We loved the shit out of each other, but we had a hard time with each other. And my mother thinks it’s ‘cause, ‘cause we're alike. Both stubborn and, you know, opinionated and everything.

But, um, who knows what it was. But there was some incredible balm to the fact that in the last five months of his life, I was able to move in and just sort of, without like being like, “Hey, that was”—without even talking about anything, just be hanging out and just be driving him to his radiation treatment. Or just be taking him to whatever. Yeah.

[00:30:01] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. Well, before you go, um, I, I thought it would be appropriate, um, for you to just share your latest delight. What is some, you know, kind of moment of small joy from the last few days for you? Can you give us a, a description of what it was like?

[00:30:21] Ross Gay:
Um, so it's funny because when you said that, um, I quickly like started stacking them. [stacking noises].

[00:30:27] Steven Johnson:
You’re a delight machine.

[00:30:29] Ross Gay:
I know, I know. And it sometimes, this actually stumps me when I'm like, uh. But today I'm thinking, well, I was just on the road, um, um, at a kind of independent bookseller conference, the fact that in independent bookstores, let me just say that. Delight.

[00:30:44] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. Right.

[00:30:45] Ross Gay:
Um, and to be around, um, all of these people who are just like in love with books. And who are like, that's what they care about, you know? And to have these conversations with people who are just like, you know, they're batty for books. And, and I am too. So that was, I was there, had all of these beautiful conversations. Um, when I was walking through the airport and I'm just like making a point, like if I have layovers, I'm gonna like move around and like stretch and like, you know.

[00:31:09] Steven Johnson:
Right, right.

[00:31:10] Ross Gay:
Take care of my hip placers. And, um, this kid, like, you know, young man, I don't know, maybe he was 30, and he was looking all around and I saw that, “Oh, he had dropped his little headphones or something.” And I just saw them, and I didn't ask him. I didn't know what he was doing. I picked them up, and I handed them to him and his smile, like his smile and it was relief, and he was sort of like laughing at himself ‘cause he realized, he was like crawling on the floor looking for something and he was like, “I was never gonna find that.”

[00:31:39] Steven Johnson:
He was, he was like halfway through side two of, uh, you know, The Wall by Pink Floyd. And he needed to finish it. Find out what happened.

[00:31:46] Ross Gay:
I know! He had to hear it in stereo. Yeah. It was in stereo. He needed that, that thing. Yeah, totally.

[00:31:52] Steven Johnson:
Well, I mean, Ross, I think you're the only person who could find as much delight in an airport. Um, but that is, is beautiful. And you know, thanks for bringing so much, uh, joy and delight to the show. We've just loved having you on. It's been really fun.

[00:32:04] Ross Gay:
Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, it's really fun. A good, generous conversation. I appreciate it.

[00:32:11] Steven Johnson:
That's it for the show today. The TED interview is part of the TED Audio Collective. This episode was produced by our managing producer, Wilson Sayre and mixed by Erica Huang. Jimmy Gutierrez is our story editor. Fact-checking by Kate Wilson. Farrah Desgranges is our project manager, and Dan O'Donnell is our executive producer.

Special thanks to Constanza Gallardo, Michelle Quinn, Anna Phelan, and Rithu Jagannath. I'm your host, Steven Johnson. For more info on my other projects, including my latest book, Extra Life, which is about to come out in a young reader edition, you can follow me on Twitter at @stevenbjohnson, or sign up for my substack newsletter: Adjacent Possible.