By Jessica DuLong, CNN
(CNN) — Poet Maggie Smith was watching the clouds through an airplane window on a flight between book tour events when it occurred to her what her new memoir is truly about: “not letting myself stay small anymore.”
The bestseller “You Could Make This Place Beautiful” chronicles her divorce but also tackles common family terrain, including miscarriage, the division of domestic labor, the isolation of child rearing, and losing and finding oneself.
For a long time, Smith “made decisions, mostly for others, based on fear.” Lately, she’s decided to let her “braver self” do the talking. The universe, she’s found, seems to be rewarding her courage, showing her she’s on the right path, just as it did in 2016 when her viral poem “Good Bones,” about holding onto hope in the midst of dark moments, was dubbed “the official poem of 2016” by what was then Public Radio International.
Readers reach out in signing lines and through multiplatform messages to tell her how much her frank and contemplative wisdom through experience has helped them.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: You have said that writing about your divorce has turned you into “a divorce whisperer.” How so?
Maggie Smith: Writing a memoir is a real crash course in courage and vulnerability, but even before this book came out — ever since the release of “Keep Moving” — people have been sliding into my DMs to tell me about their divorce, pregnancy loss and struggles with single parenting. What these subjects all have in common is that we don’t talk enough about them, in part because they are devalued as “women’s issues” when, really, these are family issues.
Readers come to me with details of their own stories, telling me they feel seen. That connection is what first-person life writing makes possible. Being a divorce whisperer feels like a privilege.
CNN: What advice do you give?
Smith: I try to offer love and solidarity. I tell people that things will get better. It will probably always be painful, but the pain will not always be as acute. If someone is going through a breakup, I tell them to remember that they predated, and have outlasted, the relationship. The same goes for any big upheaval. You predated your job. You predated that scary diagnosis and look at you, you outlasted it! It helps to remember who we were before whatever trouble or big seismic shift and who we are now, in the aftermath.
When my marriage ended, I found myself gravitating toward music I had listened to in the ‘90s — Dinosaur Jr., the Sundays, the Cure, Liz Phair. I think I was trying to reboot myself to my factory settings so I could remember who I was in the before times. You know, press the button, and the screen goes blank before the restart.
No matter what the loss is, reconnecting with your core self, outside of the context of the loss, can help you feel whole again.
CNN: You use the image of nesting dolls to describe how our identities change. How do you conceive of the different selves that you have been over time?
Smith: I think we carry all the earlier iterations of who we’ve been inside ourselves. As I grow and change, I don’t feel like I’m replacing me from last year, or me from the year before. Like a tree’s rings, I have got all the earlier nested versions of myself folded in here.
I’ve realized recently, it’s not enough to just carry all these previous selves — we must listen to and honor them. Someone pointed out to me that there’s something tender and maternal in the notion of carrying all your previous selves inside your body. Part of my reset has been to ask: What did my younger selves want? What were my expectations for myself? What were my core values? Then I look at the answers, like drafts, against the version of me I am now. That juxtaposition helps me reconnect with that young person full of hope, with a sense of possibility for the future and clarity about who I was and how I wanted to move in the world.
CNN: How has parenting affected your sense of identity?
Smith: Becoming a mother can be a beautiful, incredibly humbling erase of ego. Like standing at the ocean, you feel so small and completely insignificant in some ways and yet also such a part of everything. But first-time parenting is also obliterating. It is the biggest existential shift I’ve ever experienced, and I lost myself for a good long time.
Writing this book has helped me reexamine what it means to be “good.” And the answer is gendered. Women are culturally rewarded for being self-sacrificing, accommodating, flexible, and not demanding or wanting too much. I had taken my templates for “wife” and “mother” from my family of origin.
While in my mind I was incredibly progressive and feminist, I parented the way I had been parented and expected from my husband what I saw my dad doing. I don’t want either my son or my daughter to think of women as service providers in the home or that men are the ones who go off to work and are less involved in their children’s lives.
Saying over and over that women are equal gets undercut if they see Mom packing every lunch, baking every treat, volunteering at the school, doing all the drop-offs, and going to all the appointments. What they see in their home matters more than what we tell them about what is possible.
Recently, I got a message from a male physician saying that reading my book prompted him to talk to his wife about the division of labor in their home, what her dreams and goals are, and how he can better support her. This book prompting that conversation was not on my bingo card!
I love the idea that this memoir can be instructive for people before they get to the point where they’re burnt out, resentful and have forgotten who they are because of their responsibilities as caregivers and spouses.
CNN: What has helped you find balance?
Smith: Now that my marriage has ended, I’m reclaiming the space to do the job that I love without needing permission or asking forgiveness. I did my last two book tours over Zoom because of the pandemic, so my kids have become accustomed to having 24/7-keycard access to Mom.
Going on the road to book events has given me the chance to tell them how much my work means to me — that I find it fulfilling and it gives me a sense of purpose. I want my kids to know this because I want them to get those things from whatever they choose to do.
Leaning into my friendships also helps me remember who I am outside of being a parent and a writer. Spending time with someone you were in Brownies with as a first grader is such a beautiful reminder that you’re still you. You still have that light at your core — that little, tiny nesting doll at the very center of everything.
Maybe you worried you lost it because of work or moves or lost relationships. Especially in middle age, your body isn’t what it used to be, your mind isn’t what it used to be, and nothing is what it used to be. Then you see someone who knew you when you were 8 or 14 or 22, and you’re right back in it with them. There’s still that core kindness between the two of you, showing you that part of you has been here the whole time.
CNN: How have you learned to cope with loss while living in a place full of reminders?
Smith: I still live in the house where my ex-husband and I began raising our kids. This city is filled with grief landmines, nostalgia landmines, landmines of memory. I’ll open a cookbook, and his handwriting is in the margins. There’s no place I can go here where there isn’t a reminder of something that came before.
The trick is to make new memories through having positive experiences in those same places. Every day I live in this house with my kids, just the three of us. We’re doing new things, having new dance parties, trying new recipes. Surviving the divorce is sort of like walking the coals. We came through it, and now ours is a happy home. We’ve got a sign up on the wall with Tom Waits lyrics: “If there’s love in a house, it’s a palace for sure.” Our home feels less haunted the more I live here my way, as myself — allowing myself to take up more space.
Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn, New York-based journalist, book collaborator, writing 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.”
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.