Four years ago, something unusual happened to Maggie Smith: One of her poems went viral. “Good Bones,” published after the 2016 election — and the same week as the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub — captured the human yearning to see good amid brokenness and ruin. “Life is short and the world/ is at least half terrible,” the poem declares, and yet it arrives, by its end, at a note of tentative hope: “This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.” The poem’s unsentimental optimism resonated with thousands, leading Public Radio International to name it “the official poem of 2016.”
With her new book, “Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change,” Smith again delivers just the right words at just the right time, inspiring hope in a time of collective gloom. This elegantly bound compendium of meditations and essays speaks so resonantly to the hardships of 2020 that it’s hard to believe it took shape before the pandemic, and in response to a far more private upheaval: the ending of Smith’s 19-year marriage.
In late 2018, as her life unraveled and she struggled to eat or get out of bed, Smith kept wondering, “What now?” One morning, a glimmer of an answer came to her. She captured it in writing and posted it on social media: “Do not be stilled by anger or grief. Burn them both and use that fuel to keep moving. Look up at the clouds and tip your head way back so the roofs of the houses disappear. Keep moving.”
Since then, Smith has written an encouraging note-to-self every day, each one ending with the same mantra. She has dedicated herself to this task even when optimism has been hard to muster. “What kept me going was the idea that hope begets hope, and that practicing hope and courage on a daily basis might help me arrive at that better place,” she describes in one of the lyrical essays woven throughout the book. Between these prose pieces appear Smith’s daily affirmations, extended like life rafts to anyone feeling adrift — which in this moment, of course, is all of us.
Smith, who describes herself as a “recovering pessimist,” is no Pollyanna. She understands the draw of cynicism, and that summoning positivity can be hard work. “Keep Moving” is an inspirational book for those unsold on inspirational books, self-help for those leery of self-help. Smith steers clear of the saccharine, offering comfort as only a poet can: through metaphors that feel fresh and genuine.
In difficult times, Smith shows, metaphor can offer new ways of orienting ourselves to hardship. In the first of the book’s three parts, “Revision,” she compares shaping a disrupted life to shaping a piece of writing. “To revise means, literally, ‘to look at again,’ to re-envision,” she explains. Sometimes, she reminds us, “dismantling has to happen before you can build. As you look at the mess of life’s pieces and parts around you, trust that the materials you need are there. Start sorting.”
In the following section, “Resilience,” Smith connects healing after loss to kintsugi, the traditional Japanese art of mending broken ceramics with precious metals. The cracks themselves become part of the pottery’s beauty and complexity. Likewise, even our wounds, Smith suggests, contain a generative power: “Let change — even traumatic upheaval — remind you that anything is possible. When the dark cloud of chaos hangs over you, let possibility be the silver lining.”
Many of us, six months into the pandemic, are weary of searching for silver linings. After all, sometimes a dark cloud is just dark, no matter how you look at it. Part of the appeal of Smith’s vision is that it allows for this darkness, encouraging us not to deny it, but to learn from it.
The book’s final section, “Transformation,” captures this idea through a powerful central image. Smith recalls her wonder at learning, while reading a book on metamorphosis to her children, that a caterpillar doesn’t just change shape inside its chrysalis: it dissolves and liquefies, radically re-creating itself. This discovery inspires meditations, such as this one, on the creative possibilities of dissolution: “You are the same person you were before this grief, and yet you have been transformed by it. … Let yourself be changed, and trust that change is not erasure.”
We find ourselves, mid-pandemic, in a state of profound metamorphosis, all of us hunkering down in our cocoons, groping toward an unclear future, understanding, collectively, that our world will never be the same when we emerge. “Keep Moving” is a shining reminder to learn all we can from this moment, rebuilding ourselves in the darkness so that we may come out wiser, kinder, and stronger on the other side.
Nicole Graev Lipson is an essayist and journalist in Brookline. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleGLipson.