Maggie Smith discovers a future filled with promise

Andy Downing
Maggie Smith with her Boston Terrier, the finest of all canine breeds

Maggie Smith said that the global upheaval of 2020 has introduced a fresh sense of perspective, allowing her to appreciate even the ways she was able to grieve amid her 2018 divorce, a painful personal loss that served as a germinating seed for her new collection,Keep Moving, out today (Tuesday, Oct. 6).

“I feel very fortunate that when I was going through my hardest year personally, I was still able to hug people and go out for drinks and see bands and get on an airplane,” the poet and essayist said from her Bexley backyard during an early October interview. “I’ve thought a lot about people who are grieving now, and how that’s compounded by COVID, like not being able to go to a funeral or see someone in the hospital, or going through a divorce, having a sick child, losing your job, being furloughed all of those things that are happening to people right now and are absolutely compounded by the inability to just go and be with people who will make you feel better.”

Indeed, the omnipresence of the coronavirus has given additional heft to many of the life lessons that fillKeep Moving, which intersperses personal essays about overcoming grief and reclaiming happiness from the wreckage with pages of short affirmations that function as guideposts along the way. This fresh weight is felt from the opening page, on which Smith and her young daughter discuss death, a subject that feels somehow more tangible, more immediate living in the midst of a global pandemic.

“The questions keep coming: Will we miss each other when we’re dead? Will we even know we’re dead? When will it happen? Will we feel it?” Smith writes of her daughter’s interrogation. “‘Life is long— a long book,’ I told her, ‘and you’re only on the first chapter. Who wants to ruin a book by worrying about the end the whole time?’”

Keep Moving, in turn, lingers more on the present and on Smith’s efforts to recenter joy in the midst of her depression, a process that plays out in the collected affirmations that make up the meat of the book, most of which are culled from daily Twitter posts the writer started making in October 2018, around the time her marriage was more fully unraveling.

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“I think I knew [the affirmations] to be true even though, practically speaking, I wasn’t in that space yet,” Smith said. “So there was sort of an element of fake it till you make it, where you tell yourself that it’s going to be OK even when it didn’t feel like it would. … I think I just got to a point where I was such a mix of angry, scared and sad — none of which feel good in the body — and I had two kids I had to be brave for, who I didn’t want to see me curled in the fetal position, so it really became a way of me pep-talking myself into being present and being functional as a parent, above all things. What surprised me is that, over time, I thought positively enough that it started kind of working on me, and it became this magical thing.”

These daily affirmations, which Smith refers to as “notes to self,” shifted slightly in tone and intent over the course of a calendar year, a passage of time reflected in the seasonality of the essays, which linger early on subjects such as fall decay and gradually move toward a spring renewal. Earlier contemplations, for instance, are shot through with references to anger, an emotion that subsides with time. “Remember putting on your glasses for the first time: suddenly, the trees had individual leaves; the moon had defined edges. Try to see through that clear lens — everything as it is, not blurred or diffused by grief or anger. Look around you and marvel,” Smith writes in one early entry.

“If I were to do a search-and-find in a Word doc for the word ‘anger,’ it would come up so often in those first five or six months, and then it would stop showing up. And then there’s sort of a lift,” said Smith, adding that these “notes to self” gradually became more communal, outward looking “notes to you,” a tonal shift reflecting the internal healing that had taken place, as well as the sense of responsibility she felt toward the supportive Twitter community that formed around the concept in the course of that year. “I started needing [the affirmations] personally less, but I still felt a need for them on Twitter, if that makes sense.”

These accumulated expressions, along with the accompanying essays, are among the more personal, revealing admissions released by the writer, who said that the narrative voice afforded by poetry had always allowed a degree of remove from even the most intimate subjects.

“I didn’t realize how much I counted on at least the illusion of aesthetic distance between myself and the speaker in a poem, which lets me write about a lot of vulnerable things and still feel like I’m kind of standing behind the speaker, like I’ve got some cover,” Smith said. “Writing essays and memoirs is totally different, and that sort of exposure still feels strange. At the same time, it feels good, and it feels like it might be useful right now. … It’s easy to feel like you’re the only one going through a struggle and everybody has it together, because that’s what we’re all projecting [on social media].”

After about a year of making daily Twitter posts, Smith started giving herself weekends off from the task, embracing the time to make pancakes for her children or to admire the morning skies with a good cup of coffee in hand. After a while, she would post only a couple of times a week, maybe even just revisiting older writings that felt newly relevant. And then eventually she stopped posting new affirmations altogether, accepting that the concept, like most things, had run its course.

Regardless, the lessons absorbed throughout the social media exchange have shifted something deep within Smith, who now describes herself as “a recovering pessimist.” It’s a newly optimistic mindset that reveals itself in the book’s final pages as Smith reflects back on one of her past poems, “Future,” in which she writes that the future is empty, “a waiting cup” to be filled as we throttle headlong into an unknown landscape. Now, she writes near the close ofKeep Moving, “I could say it in another way: the future is full of nothing but possibility.”

“It’s funny, I remember thinking when my marriage ended that the future felt so uncertain, as if it hadn’t been all along, which makes me laugh,” Smith said. “It’s no more uncertain now than it was then. The variables are different, sure, but the idea that having a certain partner or a certain job or living in a certain place somehow guarantees those things continuing… I think we sort of project our present self into the future, and we copy/paste, copy/paste, copy/paste it ad infinitum into the future and just assume we’re going to be able to keep this thing going, and that doesn’t always work.

“I think what happened [with my divorce] is for the best, but it was alarming to look at the future and not know what is coming next for me. But I guess the way I look at it now is that five years ago I would not have predicted all of the best and worst things that have happened to me in the last five years. I couldn’t have foreseen any of this, good or bad. So if I can project that into the future, I know there are going to be things that have happened, both bad and wonderful, that I can’t conceive of. And that doesn’t really scare me because I’m OK now — even if me from five years ago wouldn’t have known it — and I’m reasonably sure I’ll be fine in another five years.”