Editor’s Note: Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based journalist, ghostwriter, book coach and the author of “Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift” and “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America.”
Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” made the rounds again on social media amid the post-election vote-tallying limbo that fanned the fires of Americans’ already heightened anxiety. This came as no surprise to Smith, whose remarkable ability to recognize darkness while tenaciously holding onto hope is embodied in the 17 lines of free verse. She has taken to calling the poem “a disaster barometer” because it resurfaces whenever “people need to process, or need consolation or reassurance.”
Written in the voice of a mother struggling to explain the world’s contradictions to her young children, “Good Bones” first went viral after the contentious 2016 election and was dubbed “the official poem of 2016” by Public Radio International at a time when many news outlets genuinely wondered whether that year had earned the title “Worst Year Ever.”
It turns out 2016 had nothing on 2020.
When Smith began writing her new book, “Keep Moving,” she had no idea how much the world would be suffering by the time it came out. She composed the book’s meditations and short essays for herself, one Twitter post at a time, while confronting the end of her 18-year marriage. Her “notes to self” have resonated deeply with many of us struggling to grieve our own mid-pandemic losses.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
CNN: What have you heard from readers about how the book has connected with them during this time?
Maggie Smith: The headspace I was in when I wrote this book is, frankly, the same headspace a lot of us are in because we don’t recognize our lives anymore and we don’t know what’s coming. Many of us have experienced real losses because of the pandemic – lost lives, job loss, suffering relationships, career paths that are suddenly uncertain, or we have children at home learning while we’re trying to manage everything else.
The center of the Venn diagram where uncertainty, grief, anger, sadness and confusion overlap is a very dark place. We need to draw upon the best parts of ourselves to get through this: our resilience, courage and belief in what is possible. I think the book is reaching people in that way.
CNN: What practices have you discovered that might help people move forward?
Smith: One is making time every day to do something that makes you feel like your core self. For me, that’s writing. For others, it’s meditation, yoga, spiritual practice, running, weight lifting, singing, painting. Do whatever helps you create what I describe as a snow globe moment, when everything outside is just stilled and you can be alone with yourself in a way that feels safe, healthy, generative.
Another is gratitude. I asked people on Twitter recently to tell me one good thing that happened to them during the day. After reading and responding to those comments all day, I got my first full night’s sleep in months. I don’t think that’s an accident; letting all good stuff wash over you is really important.
Paying attention helps, too. Poetry has trained me how to notice. It’s difficult to stay down when you take a walk and notice light filtering through leaves. Does it solve your problem? No. But it can lift you out of the basement of where you are. Maybe it gets you to the first floor so you can function.
CNN: Can you talk a bit about what you refer to as “beauty emergencies”?
Smith: These days we often wind up anxiously refreshing the news. Every new bit of negativity becomes like one of those dog shock collars. It’s just so jarring. We’re not getting: “Breaking News: Sun Filtering through Leaves in an Amazing Way on South Roosevelt Avenue.”
We typically think of an emergency as a problem, but the word stems from “emergent,” which just means “happening now.” A beauty emergency is something wonderful that you have to look at right away because it’s fleeting. If you wait five minutes, a pink sky’s not going to be pink anymore. We need to train ourselves to think about emergency in a different way, and show up for the good stuff, too.
CNN: How do we get from surviving to thriving amid adversity?
Smith: My friend, the poet Dana Levin, said something recently about healing versus endurance. Healing is the ideal, right? We want to be better. But endurance suggests something different, which is not that we get over the thing. Instead, we learn how to carry it better. Realistic expectations are important. No daily practice is going to make everything OK. But it can make things a little better. And that might help you be more functional, or more yourself.
CNN: How does suffering connect us to one another?
Smith: The whole world is suffering through this pandemic right now. But it’s also true that the whole world is working toward fixing a single problem. Now, all of our collective imagination, wisdom and innovation is being funneled toward solving this. I find this sense of unity really comforting. Consider what gains we will make on the empathy continuum because of this shared experience.
CNN: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Audre Lorde’s declaration that “poetry is not a luxury.” Poetry is often dismissed as ethereal, fringe or indulgent. How do the arts and culture help us weather difficulty?
Smith: We’re all leaning heavily on the arts right now, especially because we are separated. Even people who would probably vote against art funding are watching Netflix. They probably have art hanging in their homes. What has gotten me through this year is buying way too many records, listening to so much music, watching good films and writing and reading a ton. We do sometimes think the arts are a luxury and, unfortunately, they are often funded as a luxury. But to me, they’re essential. Making art is a human endeavor that connects us to other people. The arts light you up even if you don’t speak the language. I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t value, fund or make those connections possible for people.
CNN: How is your conversion to a “recovering pessimist” going? Is there hope for the rest of us?
Smith: I used to think that optimism was weak and sort of silly because people who were smart could see the world for what it was. Now I see optimism and vulnerability as signs of strength. It takes courage to see the good when things are hard – when the dark is yelling so loud and taking up so much space.
There’s a kind of privilege in pessimism because if things are really going poorly and you are in survival mode, you can’t afford to be pessimistic. “Keep Moving” is me trying to tell myself a kinder story about what is possible.
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In the beginning, I was trying on hope every day. It felt terrible – itchy, scratchy, oversized. I couldn’t wait to take it off. It was so uncomfortable trying to be hopeful when things felt miserable. But I found that the act of trying – of looking for something to feel positive about – made a difference over time. I proved to myself that I could be an optimist.
The world is terrible. And the world is wonderful. Right? It’s both.