Poet Maggie Smith On How To 'Keep Moving' : Life Kit In her most recent book, poet Maggie Smith compiled notes to self, and says that writing them was her way of 'trying on' hope.

How Poet Maggie Smith 'Tried On' Hope To Keep Moving Forward

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This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Kat Chow.


CHOW: I've been thinking a lot about what it means to live through this pandemic. So much is happening in the world, our country right now. Most of us have seen our daily routines drastically altered, and this might, in some ways, make our own lives seem stagnant. How do we form hope, and how do we hold on to it? How do we keep moving?


CHOW: I posed this to the poet Maggie Smith, whose new book asks just these questions.

MAGGIE SMITH: I wrote "Keep Moving" during my darkest, sort of most unsure time. And then, unbeknownst to me, it was published during a year where I think we're all sort of wandering in the dark, feeling along the wall for the light switch (laughter) and needing to draw on those best parts of ourselves, you know, our resilience and courage, in order to get from Day 1 to Day 2 to Day 3.

CHOW: In "Keep Moving," Smith compiled a series of essays along with a collection of motivational phrases, or notes to self as she's called them. She says it was her way of trying on hope.

SMITH: Even though it didn't fit well - like, it was scratchy and oversized. And I hated it, and I couldn't wait to take it off because I just felt bad. And sometimes we just kind of want to luxuriate in how bad we feel. And it just feels so unnatural to try to feel better and to talk ourselves into feeling better. But it started to work. The more I told myself it was going to be OK and the more I put myself into that mindset as a daily practice, I saw a difference.

CHOW: In this episode of LIFE KIT, a conversation with Maggie Smith about how to try on our own hope and keep going in hard times.


CHOW: Maggie, I first became familiar with your work in 2016, shortly after the Pulse nightclub shooting. And your poem "Good Bones," it circulated the Internet, and it felt like such a beacon. You know, it was hope in this compact, hundred-and-something words. Could you read "Good Bones" for LIFE KIT listeners?

SMITH: I'd be happy to read it. This is "Good Bones."


SMITH: (Reading) Life is short, though I keep this from my children. Life is short, and I've shortened mine in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways, a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways I'll keep from my children. The world is at least 50% terrible, and that's a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children. For every bird, there is a stone thrown at a bird. For every loved child, a child broken, bagged, sunk in a lake. Life is short, and the world is at least half terrible. And for every kind stranger, there is one who would break you, though I keep this from my children. I am trying to sell them the world. Any decent Realtor walking you through a real [expletive]-hole chirps on about good bones. This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.


CHOW: I love that poem so much, especially the line, I'm trying to sell them the world. I just think it says so much. What do you think makes "Good Bones" so everlasting?

SMITH: You know, I wrote this poem in a coffee shop - in a Starbucks, actually, near my house in the summer of 2015, just thinking about how hard it is to be a parent in the 21st century and how I can't quite explain the world to my kids because I don't quite understand it myself. There are things I can't wrap my head around. Why can't I go into their school and drop them off and see the art hanging in their classrooms? - because there have been so many school shootings that parents are no longer allowed in the building unsupervised because it's too many random adults.

So there are just so many things that I don't understand as a parent. And thinking about that is really what drove me to write the poem. And then - you're right - it was published coincidentally online the week of the Pulse nightclub shooting. And so that's when the poem went viral. And since then, I've joked that it's a disaster barometer because whenever something terrible happens, my social media mentions go up because people start sharing this poem widely. And I don't know exactly what it is, but it's - what I've been told and what it seems to me to be is a recognition of how bad things can be, but at the same time, a recognition that we can and must do better by our children and by the next generation and the next generation.

I've heard that it's - sometimes people consider it a pessimistic poem. And I think it's an optimistic poem. But it's not a Pollyanna poem. It's not a poem that says, everything's great; keep going. It's a poem that says, things are really difficult, but - or even things are really difficult and really beautiful, and we can - we have a responsibility to do something to make this world a better place.

CHOW: Certainly. And I think that actually is also a perfect setup to describe your newest book, "Keep Moving," which is both a collection of comfort in my eyes, but also very realistic. And I think you've described this book as a collection of notes to self. Can you talk more about the process of writing these notes to self?

SMITH: Yeah. So when my marriage ended, I was really struggling, to be honest. I was just thinking, OK, who am I now? I think that's, in some ways, what makes hard times hard is our identity takes a hit. And I think we're all kind of facing that because of the pandemic. Who am I now? You know, there was an Annie Dillard quote that's one of my favorites, which is, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." And so when our days are not spent the way that they once were, then our lives are not what they once were. And then who are we? And so I sort of had a little bit of an identity crisis. I just thought like, OK, what now?

And so the notes to self for me were, how do I get myself up out of that sort of deep well of each day and get myself to level ground, not get myself to the mountaintop. You know, realistic expectations are good (laughter). But how do I get to a place where I feel good enough to function? And so I would just tell myself a little bit of a kinder story about my life every day. And I found that these little self-pep talks, over time, did two surprising things for me once they started to work.

You know, I've said that it was kind of like trying on hope every day, even though it didn't fit well. Like, it was scratchy and oversized, and I hated it. And I couldn't wait to take it off...

CHOW: (Laughter).

SMITH: ...Because I just felt bad. And sometimes we just kind of want to luxuriate in how bad we feel. And it just feels so unnatural to try to feel better and to talk ourselves into feeling better.

But it started to work. The more I told myself it was going to be OK and the more I put myself into that mindset as a daily practice, I saw a difference. And then because I was sharing them on social media, I also had the benefit of having other people who were going through their own, what-now crises saying, oh, my gosh, I really needed this to get through the next three hours. And that sense of community and sort of shared purpose really helped lift me out of my own deep hole at that time, too.

CHOW: I can imagine that having sort of this community around you also just helped you keep going. And I suppose I'm wondering - you wrote this book before any knowledge of the pandemic, clearly. And how has the pandemic and this isolation shifted, if at all, how you view this book and what message you think or hope others might be able to take from it?

SMITH: Well, I think right now we're sort of all in that what-now mindset because of the pandemic. Our lives six months ago, a year ago, they don't look like they look now. And we don't really know what the next six months will bring. I think we're all feeling very hopeful that we're on the cusp of maybe getting some normalcy back, but we're not quite there yet. And so I wrote "Keep Moving" during my darkest, sort of most unsure time. And then, unbeknownst to me, it was published during a year where I think we're all sort of wandering in the dark, feeling along the wall for the light switch (laughter) and needing to draw on those best parts of ourselves, our resilience and courage, in order to get from Day 1 to Day 2 to Day 3. I mean, we've been living like this for almost a year.

CHOW: Yeah, it's amazing to think about that.

SMITH: And time is so distorted. Yeah. I mean, time is so distorted, it's hard to believe we've been enduring this for this long. But I think endurance is part of it. And having a daily practice of trying to put yourself in a different mindset is part of this. And so in some ways, I think the timing of the book was just right because we are all needing a little dose of courage and hope. And in other ways, I'm finding myself returning to some of these notes to self this year. You know, I may have written it when I was in the middle of my divorce and feeling really sad and unsure because of that situation, but I'm finding some of those notes to self really applicable to what I'm feeling and going through now nearly two years later because I'm single parenting two children who are doing hybrid school. And we're all, you know, social distancing, and we can't hug our family members. And we can't travel, and work doesn't look like it used to. And so - and life is difficult just in different ways.


CHOW: Certainly. And there's just so much grief. And this reminds me of something that you actually wrote. You basically wrote, you're not betraying your grief by feeling joy. You are not being graded, and you do not receive extra credit for being miserable a hundred percent of the time. I loved this. And, you know, it feels like such a hard thing to allow joy. I mean, especially - there are very real things happening in this country and this world right now. I don't want to minimize that at all. And I don't think it's possible to. But sometimes it feels as though there is just so much. What compelled you to write this and specifically emphasize this message?

SMITH: I think joy is so important. I mean, for me, it's not just enough to survive or endure. Like, we have to live. This life is a one-off for all we know (laughter). That's how I live it. And that's - I have to assume this is all I get. And so, you know, again, I need to wring the most out of every day that I can. And not every day is going to be a joy fest. I think we need to be realistic. There are real difficulties that we're - that each of us is facing. Some of us are facing ones that others of us cannot fathom. There is a lot of suffering and a lot of grief and a lot of loss right now. But I don't think that that crowds out all room to experience joy or even just a little relief or a little peace of mind. I think we need to - you know, sometimes we just need to claw our way back to that because it's important.

And I think - you know, especially as a parent, it would be a lot easier, I think, for me to go into the well and allow that to be my mindset two years ago and now if I also didn't have to shepherd two people through this experience, which is what I have to do. I'm still trying to sell them the world. They know a lot more than they did when I wrote that poem. But I'm still in charge. Right? I'm the camp counselor. I'm the tour guide. So what happens when the tour guide can't get off the couch and thinks everything is terrible? Nothing good. So it's important as a human, but also as a parent, to be able to find those sort of cracks where the light can get in so that we're living our lives and not just enduring the day to get to the next one.

CHOW: Yeah. This also reminds me of something that you wrote about hope being imaginative, which I thought really lovely, where you wrote that hope allows us to envision what might be ahead even when we can't see anything. And I think that - I mean, especially right now, but in general in life, it's so hard to know how our circumstances will be different. I can't even imagine a reality where I get to see my friends or family or, you know, hug someone who isn't living in my household right now. It feels so luxurious (laughter).

SMITH: I know (laughter).

CHOW: But how are you personally imagining a way forward? And then, also, how do you think others might be able to do that?

SMITH: It's interesting. I think this is why I think of optimism as being hard and vulnerability as being hard instead of soft. You know, I think sometimes we think of, like, a cynical person as a hard person and tough and an optimistic, vulnerable person as a soft person. But I actually think it's quite the opposite because to be optimistic and try to imagine a future that is better than it is now, we're kind of putting ourselves out there and opening up. And that is a brave act. I'm trying not to think too big right now about the future. I'm trying to think in really small, manageable steps. Wow, would I love to see a live concert. Do I think it will happen in 2021? I don't know. But I know it will happen again. And so I think...

CHOW: Right.

SMITH: Trying not to think too much on timetable, which is really difficult - and especially with kids 'cause they want to know when - like, when are things going to happen? I also would love to know when. Structure makes us feel safe. Having expectations...

CHOW: It does.

SMITH: ...Makes us feel safe and secure. And so living in this sort of amorphous, shifting, drifting space that we've all been living in for almost a year and with no clear, demarcated end in sight is really difficult. But we know we're making progress. People we know are getting vaccinated. We see things happening that are going in the right direction. And so I feel hopeful that we're moving in the right direction. I just am trying to be realistic with myself with the speed at which that progress is being made.

CHOW: And that reminds me of what you were saying before when you were quoting Annie Dillard - just so much of our life happens in these small moments. Maggie, I was wondering, for our listeners who are seeking a few steps, maybe three, to keep moving, what do you suggest to them right now?

SMITH: One thing that always helps me is making time each day, even if it's a little bit of time, to do something that makes me feel like me, like my core self, apart from whatever trouble or stress or whatever else is going on in my life. And so for me, that's writing. Sometimes it's running or meditation or yoga. So for whatever that thing is, that makes you feel like you - I like to describe it as kind of a snow globe moment where you can kind of still the outside world and have a little bit of time just with yourself. So if you can make a little bit of time, even if it's 20 minutes in a day, I think that makes a difference.

Another thing that makes a big difference for me is gratitude and not in that kind of sunshine-y, everything's-fine-let's-all-be-thankful-for-everything kind of way, but in a still being able to recognize the things in your life that are positive, even if you're struggling in other aspects of your life. I don't know a way to joy without looking around and naming, maybe out loud or on a piece of paper, things that I'm thankful for. And even if it's my health, my children's health, our house, the fact that we have teachers and guidance counselors who help us through - just whatever that list looks like for you, having that to keep in mind so we don't fall down the rabbit hole of focusing on the negative and forgetting what we still have going for us.

And then the third, I think, is perspective. And that's the tricky one, trying to look at things in a way that is sort of proportionate to their size. So obviously some problems are bigger than others. But sometimes I think our emotional response can be outsized if we're stressed. And so trying to put the problem in context and kind of do a pullback and look at the size of the problem - and if it's a snarky text message or an email, try to imagine yourself in two months thinking back on that thing and see if you can get a better grip on the size of it, not in the present moment, but by kind of fast-forwarding a bit into the year. And I find that helpful, too.

CHOW: That's really great. Thank you.

To wrap up this conversation, I was wondering if you might want to read something from "Keep Moving" that you think would help a listener keep moving.

SMITH: Of course. I just open to the book (laughter). Sometimes that's what I do. You just open the book. And wherever it falls, you're like, oh, that actually applies. And so here's what I opened to, and I think it does.

(Reading) Focus on who you are and what you've built, not who you'd planned on being and what you'd expected to have. Trust that the present moment, however difficult, however different from what you'd imagined, has something to teach you. Keep moving.


SMITH: I do think we have a lot to learn from this time, even if these lessons are hard lessons and maybe ones we wish we could have chosen to learn another way. We don't always get to choose our teachers, but we should listen when they show up.

CHOW: Certainly. Thank you so much, Maggie. This was really lovely.

SMITH: Thanks for having me.


CHOW: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I did an episode recently interviewing poet Tracy K. Smith on grief and family traditions. We've got episodes on how to read more, how to help kids deal with scary things in the news and lots more. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.

And always, here's a completely random tip, this time from listener Noelle LoConte (ph) from Madison, Wis.

NOELLE LOCONTE: I have lived in the upper Midwest most of my life, and I had a few other tips for dealing with cold weather that I didn't hear on your episode about how to be outside and not feel uncomfortable. So here they are. The first one is, Vaseline is an amazing insulator. When we go outside to go skiing or sledding or snowshoeing, we actually play it all over all of our exposed skin. Lotion also helps a ton, so make sure you put tons of lotion on, even on the skin that is going to be covered up by clothes. And the last tip we have is wool socks. Invest in them. Buy tons of them. Wear two at a time if you have to to stay outside. There's no such thing as a bad winter, only bad preparation. I hope that's helpful. Thanks. Bye.

CHOW: Do you have a random tip? Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us a voice memo at likekit@npr.org. This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our digital editor is Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider.

I'm Kat Chow, and I'm going to go try on some new hope now. Thank you for listening.


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