Hope & Healing Podcast


Maggie Smith on the Healing Power of Poetry


Maggie Smith is one of the most popular and acclaimed American poets, with numerous poetry anthologies and a memoir to her name. Maggie is perhaps best known for “Good Bones”, a poem that has been read on network television, at Lincoln Center by Meryl Streep, and in a thousand memes distributed all over the internet. She sits down for an interview about mental health and the written word with Children’s Center Executive Director Matthew Butte, who has long been inspired by the power and potential of poetry.

Episode Transcript

[00:00:10] Speaker A: From the Children’s Centre in Vancouver, Washington, this is hope and healing. I’m Matthew Butte, executive director of Children’s Centre and your host.

We make this podcast in order to bring you hopeful stories and to introduce you to people who inspire hope. They’ve inspired a lot of hope in me and among people here at Children’s center, and I hope you feel the same.

I happen to be inspired by poetry.

I find a lot of hope and healing in it. Poetry gives words to emotions and experiences I struggle to name when I’m discouraged. Just the right poem can lift my spirits when my mind is distracted and troubled. Memorizing poetry helps calm it and bring focus.

These and other gifts of poetry are why I wanted to have a poet on the podcast.

Maggie Smith is an award winning poet based in Bexley, Ohio, near Columbus, and she’s one of the more acclaimed and popular poets writing today. Maggie is the author of four full length poetry collections as well as the best selling memoir, you could make this place beautiful, which I really loved. I’m going to mention passages from it in this episode.

Perhaps Maggie’s best known poem is Good Bones, which really went viral. You may have received it in an email, seen it read on network television, might have heard Meryl Streep read it at the Lincoln center in New York.

If poetry can have a rock star, she is it. Here is the poet herself, Maggie Smith reading good Bones.

[00:01:46] Speaker B: 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 shithole chirps on about good bones. This place could be beautiful, right?

You could make this place beautiful.

[00:02:48] Speaker A: I spoke with Maggie Smith over Zoom from our home in Ohio.

Well, hello, Maggie. Thank you so much for joining us on our podcast, hope and healing. It’s such a privilege to meet you. And as I was saying earlier, I’ve told everyone I know that I get the privilege of meeting you today. So thank you for giving us some of your time.

[00:03:11] Speaker B: Oh, no, it’s a joy to be here. Thanks for having me.

[00:03:14] Speaker A: Any meeting on Zoom? I’m, of course, here with my English cup of tea. How about you, Maggie? Do you have a drink with you?

[00:03:22] Speaker B: I also have a cup of tea.

[00:03:23] Speaker A: I like this. This is a really good start. So I think a lot of us have this image of a poet and a poet’s life. Can I just run this vision of a poet by you and see if.

[00:03:36] Speaker B: It fits the job description?

[00:03:38] Speaker A: Job description. So you live in a cabin in the woods. Of course.

Often it’s windy, rainy.

You’re sat by the fire. You don’t realize that the fire is going out because you’re so inspired. You don’t even know you’re getting cold. You’re there with, of course, your leather journal and fountain pen, struck by inspiration. Is that how this poetry thing works?

[00:04:02] Speaker B: Okay, I’m going to tell you something funny. I was writing a little bit before this.

I do write longhand, so it was actually a little yellow notebook and a regular old fine point pen.

And I don’t have a working fireplace, which I bemoan because I do love a cabin in the woods with a working fireplace when I can get it.

So I had on Netflix streaming my favorite wintertime show called, I think it’s called crackling Birchwood fire in HD. I’m not kidding.

My kids make fun of me. They come home from school around three in the afternoon, and I’m sitting in front of the television fire that’s crackling and popping with a dog kind of napping beside me, working. So it’s like the suburban version of the poet life you imagine.

[00:05:05] Speaker A: That’s very cool.

[00:05:06] Speaker B: Yeah.

[00:05:06] Speaker A: So it’s not too far off, really.

[00:05:08] Speaker B: There’s something there.

[00:05:09] Speaker A: I like it.

[00:05:10] Speaker B: Yes.

[00:05:10] Speaker A: I love it.

So you just described some of the circumstances in which you like to write. You’re doing that this morning. Are there other circumstances? Does the environment have to be a certain way?

[00:05:23] Speaker B: No, not at all. And if parenting has done anything for me, it has made me much less precious about my writing environment and writing time, because it’s really catch as catch can. So when the kids go off to school, I walk the dog, and then if I’m not too embroiled in emails, I write a little bit, or I might get an idea walking the dog, and then I will type a few little notes into my iPhone in the notes function to email myself for later.

I might be working late at night if I can’t sleep, or I might go to bed at nine and actually sleep through the night. So I don’t have a schedule, and I don’t have a place I need to be. I really try to be one of those people who can kind of raise my antenna up wherever I am and just sort of pay attention and notice and listen and hope that I can tune in, even in a kind of hectic circumstance, if I’m lucky.

[00:06:26] Speaker A: How did poetry become such a big part of your life?

[00:06:31] Speaker B: Oh, well, I mean, I sort of facetiously joke that it’s the only thing I’m good at, so it’s easy to allow something to be the big part of the pie chart when it’s the thing you’re good at.

But I think maybe more than that, or at least equal to that, is it’s the thing I enjoy most, really.

It’s the thing that makes me feel closest to myself.

I feel more like myself when I’m writing than when I’m doing just about anything.

And so during times in my life where I feel like I’m getting a little too far afield, or I’m having a difficult time, or things are hectic or stressful or sad or just feel impossible somehow, writing, even when it’s not good, even when it’s not coming naturally and I’m not really pleased with what I’m producing, just the act of it brings me kind of back home to myself, in a way.

[00:07:30] Speaker A: The title of our podcast, hope and healing, how does poetry, and then perhaps writing generally foster that healing? And you indicate it kind of brings you home?

How does it do that?

[00:07:42] Speaker B: Yeah, I’m going to get the quote wrong, but there’s this terrific Eudora Welty quote that’s something like, I like the feeling of confronting an experience and resolving it as art.

I say that all the time, and yet I never get it quite right. It sort of always lives half wrong in my head, but the idea is always clear in my mind, which is there’s something really satisfying, if not healing, about taking something difficult that I’m grappling with or puzzling over and giving it a form, and also physically removing it from my head, where it’s swirling amorphously and sort of living in that kind of fun house mirror way that hard things do, where they get sort of distorted in our minds and they refuse to be set down. And something about giving it a form, whether it’s a paragraph or a poem, helps me see it as its real size and not its actual size. I think it’s really perspective lending for me. And it also does that kind of miraculous thing that I think even journaling can do for us, even if we are not writing for potential publication, is just removing something from our minds and getting it onto a piece of paper or into our computer.

Having even just that little bit of distance from the thought, the feeling, the worry is incredibly useful. And I think that there’s research that bears that out, that it is helpful and therapeutic in a way.

[00:09:31] Speaker A: But I remember my school days of poetry, and they weren’t fun.

And it’s so sad because it’s such a gift. What would you say to those folks that might be interested in either reading and or writing poetry? And they haven’t done it since they were in high school.

[00:09:48] Speaker B: I’m a poet, so my kids have grown up in a house with a poet. It’s the only thing they’ve ever known that I’ve done right. And even my own kids are like, poetry at school is abysmal because it’s often. It’s teaching to a test. They have to say what the thing means. They have to decode it in some way. So it’s sort of presented in school like a riddle to be solved, which automatically puts the reader sort of beyond the locked gate, as if the poem is this sort of like, lush garden, and then there’s this locked gate, and then we are all standing on the outside of it, like, what’s happening? I don’t have the key. I don’t understand the metaphor. I don’t understand the form or whatever the case may be.

And primarily, at least, what’s often being taught in school are not living poets. So if you’re 14, 1516 years old, and the only poetry you’re reading is Shakespeare and maybe Wordsworth or Whitman or Dickinson, all terrific poets, but it doesn’t sound like you. It doesn’t sound anything like the way you would express some of those feelings and emotions and circumstances. And it seems tricky and difficult and hard. And so, I mean, often when I’m working with young people and I do, we don’t talk about meaning.

It’s not about what the poem means. Frankly, if you asked me what my poems mean, I would have a hard time telling you. If you asked me what some of my favorite poems to read mean, quote unquote, mean, I would have a hard time telling you, but I would have a very easy time telling you what the concerns are, what the themes are, and I would have an easy time telling you what I love about them and what I notice the writer doing in them. And so we really approach poetry. When I’m teaching or talking to young people about writing with just, like, what do you like? What do you notice? What are the pleasures of the language? How does it appeal to your senses? What does it remind you of in your own life? What does this poem make you want to write about yourself? Like, what does it inspire in you? And I think all of those inroads are more interesting than what is the author really trying to say, or what does it mean? Those are both off putting and intimidating questions. So I think many of us as adults who were taught poetry in that way, as students, need a sort of reintroduction and perhaps a re education that is a little kinder and a little bit more about what we notice and enjoy and a little bit less about solving some sort of riddle in a poem.

[00:12:36] Speaker A: You quoted Emily Dickinson at the opening of your memoir. I am out with lanterns, looking for myself, and I’m curious, what are your lanterns?

[00:12:48] Speaker B: Oh, what are the lights that I see by poetry is probably certainly one of them. I mean, if I think that’s such a good question. No one has asked me that. If I think about what things sort of light my life up and then might be sort of wayfinding in that way, certainly writing is one of them. And creativity in general, just the ability to make something from nothing, and probably community would be the other. And that would be the sort of large umbrella term for parenting, like being a mom, being a daughter, being a sister, being a friend, being a neighbor, being a teacher and a mentor. Like, all the ways that I can connect to other people.

And maybe it’s not an accident that I also think those are the two sort of parts of my life, or two ways I can be most useful in the world. You know, if you can find ways to be useful in the world, I think that’s good for your mental health. And for me, the ways that I feel most of service in my life are as a writer and as a community member, as a family member, thinking.

[00:14:12] Speaker A: Of those two lights, those lanterns. And you said here, I think it was early on in the book, I’ve had to move into and through the darkness to find the beauty. How did you have the courage to do that, Maggie? It takes a great deal of courage, I think, to write this book and be so open.

[00:14:28] Speaker B: Well, thank you for that. It doesn’t actually take any courage to be in darkness. The darkness just arrives. Right.

I think the moving through it is the tricky part.

I think often darkness, whether literal or figurative, encourages stasis. Right. Like, I can’t see my way, so I’ll just stay still.

Perhaps it’s best not to move, lest I trip, fall, or upend something.

And I think going through difficult times in life, it can often feel paralyzing, frankly. But in fact, stillness is not really an option.

I mean, for me, it’s not possible when I’m having a terrible day or month or year to be still. I have people who depend on me.

I have work that needs to get done. I have laundry that needs to get done. I have children who need apples cut and help on their math worksheets. And so really, stillness is not an option. It’s just not.

It’s not an option for me.

Certainly writing a memoir is sort of a crash course in invulnerability and courage. But living it, it doesn’t feel that way at all. It just sort of feels like, this is what we must do.

[00:15:57] Speaker A: You’re very open about experience of depression and anxiety, and you say postpartum depression. So after Violet was born, birthday on Monday, I saw in your email this.

[00:16:09] Speaker B: Morning, the subscription email.

[00:16:10] Speaker A: So happy birthday, Violet, for Monday.

[00:16:13] Speaker B: We made it. We made it.

[00:16:14] Speaker A: We made it. Good job.

And you say postpartum depression broke over me like a colossal wave almost immediately after Violet was born, though I didn’t call it by its name and I didn’t treat it. It’s hard to treat what you can’t or won’t name. And this is a topic I think that still is not talked about enough, for sure. And so grateful that you’re doing so. And I’m curious, why didn’t you, or why couldn’t you name it?

[00:16:41] Speaker B: I’m not quite sure what the block was at the time, but I think having then experienced it again when my son was born, I knew it. I recognized it the second time and thought, oh, I gutted this out the first time without help. And I know that’s not going to work for me this time. So I recognized it the second time. It felt familiar to me. I think what was so bewildering to me the first time was I wasn’t expecting it.

The talk around childbirth doesn’t do women any favors.

The talk about bringing home your bundle of joy doesn’t necessarily anticipate what it might be like to have a colicky child or a sleepless child or to have postpartum depression or anxiety. And so I think you’re right. I think we don’t talk enough about it.

We don’t have discussions enough beforehand to say, hey, here are some symptoms.

I wasn’t crying all the time. And in my mind I thought well, depression seems like sadness. I was irritable. And actually, it was the same with my son. I was anxious, nervous. It sort of manifested more as a kind of irritability and anxiety and hyper focus than it did as what I would think of as depression, quote unquote depression. I didn’t necessarily feel sad.

I felt a little blank and a little despondent for a while. And then I just went into sort of fix it mode. And I think I was just a miserable human being to be around. And so when I have the symptoms again, of course, I knew enough to do a little bit more research. And I thought, oh, actually, sometimes postpartum depression and general depression can manifest as anger, as irritability, as anxiety, as sleeplessness. It’s not necessarily the sort of classic image of someone in the fetal position crying on a sofa, unable to get out of bed. I was very high functioning. I was just miserable.

And so I think it would behoove us to have more conversations about all the different ways these things can manifest, because it doesn’t always look like we think it might. And then if it shows up in a cloak, we don’t think to look for things may go untreated that really do need. That we need support for.

[00:19:19] Speaker A: It really is hard to name or something that you don’t recognize, doesn’t look like you thought it should have. There’s this statement that really, when I read it. Well, there are many heartbreaking statements, Maggie, in your work and this bit, and I’m not sure what it was, but during this time, you said what spark I was supposed to feel each day, or feel each day in waking up. And then there’s a few other things. And this is the bit that really got me. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe you can. How sad the kettle sounded when I removed it from the flame. How it whined before it grew quiet, went silent.

[00:19:59] Speaker B: We’re having our tea right now, so you know the sound of the kettle, and then that thing that happens when you take it off the flame and it kind of, like, peters out and does that little whistle. And I remember thinking, that sounds sad to me. That’s probably reflective of my own feelings right now. When you’re having a beautiful day, everything looks. You’re seeing through that lens. So you can walk outside on a day that you’re feeling really bright and full and happy. And you see that lens. You see the world through that lens, so you hear the birds through the lens of your happiness. You see the clouds through the lens of your happiness. And when you’re depressed and anxious and down and feeling trapped or confused, the things that you perceive in your life take on those colors.

Even just the innocent kettles who did not ask to be brought into that.

[00:20:57] Speaker A: Description, that lens, it colors everything it does and distorts.

[00:21:05] Speaker B: And I think that’s what we often don’t think about is, like, when you’re depressed, you think you’re seeing the world as it is, and in fact, you’re seeing the world through a distorted lens and finding ways to sort of change the lens. That’s the key.

[00:21:28] Speaker A: And I think of what you were saying earlier around community, how important it is for us to be in community so that other people can maybe see that in us to tell us something is wrong. He needs some help. What struck me, too, is that this year and all that you were going through, that the land of poems felt impossibly far away.

No poetry for a year. Was that just not writing it? Did you read poetry? It was just all.

[00:21:57] Speaker B: I am always reading poetry. So I certainly read that year. It’s the longest block of time I’ve ever gone without writing a poem was the first year of her life. And I mean, there are lots of factors there, but what a relief, because after a certain amount of time, I thought, well, maybe I just don’t do that anymore. Like, maybe the spell has been broken and I’ve wrung myself completely dry of poems and they won’t come back.

And I was just so relieved when they finally started showing up again and.

[00:22:35] Speaker A: They finally arrived with first four. Maggie, is that something you’re kind enough to read for us? Thank you so much.

[00:22:42] Speaker B: Of course, yes. This is the poem that finally arrived after a year of no poems. And it was really inspired from. It was inspired by walking around a park in our neighborhood with my infant daughter strapped to me in this sort of front load baby carrier and trying to show her around a bit this world we just brought her to first fall.

I’m your guide here. In the evening dark morning streets, I point and name. Look. The sycamores, their modeled paint by number bark. Look, the leaves rusting and crisping at the edges. I walk through Schiller park with you on my chest. Stars smolder well into daylight. Look, the pond, the ducks, the dogs paddling after their prized sticks. Fall is when the only things you know, because I’ve named them begin to end. Soon I’ll have another season to offer you. Frost soft on the window and a porthole side there, ICE sleeving the bare gray branches.

The first time you see something die, you won’t know. It might come back.

I’m desperate for you to love the world because I brought you here.

[00:24:13] Speaker A: How did the poem arrive after that one year?

[00:24:17] Speaker B: You know, I think it was really because what I was doing with my sleepless, colicky child and myself, I think I was soothing us both by taking these long walks because she would only sleep if she was attached to my body.

And so to get her a nap, I would walk her around the park and sort of like a tour guide when someone arrives in a new place, which is exactly what happens when a child is born, right? Like, welcome to the world. You’ve arrived in this new place.

I would talk to her even though there was no way she was understanding any of it, and sort of give her language and like, okay, there’s a tulip tree. That’s a dog, that’s a stick. That’s a pond. That’s a statue.

And I think that the sort of list of images really came from those walks and then those sort of sad moments. Standing at the kitchen window, looking out at the frozen landscape and kind of breathing a little window to see out with my warm breath and feeling a bit trapped, feeling a bit trapped by circumstance.

And then the last sentence of the poem is really the sort of thesis statement, if a poem can have a thesis statement, which is, I’m desperate for you to love the world because I brought you here. It’s the sort of idea of, like, I hope you’re okay with this. I hope you see the beauty I see. I know it’s not all beautiful. There are going to be some hard bits here, too. But I hope you’re okay with being brought to this place. And frankly, also the sort of other side of that is like, I hope this world earns you.

[00:26:00] Speaker A: Yeah.

I mean, when I first read it, it felt hopeful.

[00:26:05] Speaker B: Yeah.

It’s funny, I think that idea, that general idea of the world is a beautiful place, or at least a place with beautiful potential.

And I hope you find it that way for yourself.

Is something that comes up in my poems again and again and again. And I think that’s probably true of all writers, is that we have this.

Even if we have a kind of wide range of material, I think all of us often have sort of, like, pet themes or paths that are sort of very much trod through the field and are always there because we’ve paced them over and over. And for me, kind of squaring the beauty and terror of the world and the fact that I’ve brought two human beings to all of that. That’s been the thing that seems to be cropping up again and again for me.

[00:27:08] Speaker A: Are you okay if we talk a little bit about good bones, the beloved poem by millions, translated into lots of different languages. And you wrote this, I believe, in a coffee shop on a legal pad. Not in a cabin in the woods, but at a coffee shop somewhere. Did you know when you wrote that? Yeah, this is really good.

[00:27:31] Speaker B: No, I mean, it’s one of the fastest poems I’ve ever written. I tend to write multiple drafts of poems. I mean, it’s sometimes over years and years and years, but usually over at least weeks or months.

And good bones was really a kind of one off that got one to two slight revisions, just like a couple of words came out. But pretty much within 20 minutes, that poem was written as is. And so naturally, I didn’t trust it.

This must be absolute rubbish.

[00:28:04] Speaker A: A couple more years, then it’s going to be okay.

[00:28:07] Speaker B: Yeah, this is no good. So I remember actually sending it, and I think I actually posted the email on my substac at one point when I sent the first draft to the writer that I send all of my poems to pretty much for feedback. And I sent this to her, and I was kind of like, I don’t know what this is. See what you think.

I really didn’t have any high hopes for it. And frankly, the one thing that made it stand out to me from my other poems was how swiftly it arrived, which, if anything, made me less sure about it. Not more sure, but given the opportunity to revise it, I just kept looking at it and I just tweaked a couple of tiny things. And then I thought, I don’t know how it will be received in the world, but for me, it’s done. It feels like it’s doing the work it came to do. That doesn’t mean I think I thought it was my best poem. I didn’t. I still don’t think it’s my quote unquote best poem. It’s not my favorite poem of mine, but I felt like it was ready to kick it out of the nest.

[00:29:19] Speaker A: So if good bones isn’t your favorite poem, I feel like I really have to ask you.

[00:29:24] Speaker B: Oh, no, this is a trick.

[00:29:25] Speaker A: That’s right. Am I allowed to ask you that question?

[00:29:28] Speaker B: I don’t know that I have a favorite, favorite. I mean, I have probably, like, a small grouping of ones that are really special to me.

The first poem in my first book is called Button. That poem is really special to me.

Not because it’s the first poem in my first book, but it’s just. I don’t know, something different happened with that poem that I really love. And probably since then, the ones I feel most attached to are the poems that are really specifically about my own children. So the poems that quote them, for example, the poems that really pull from images or metaphors that they’ve noticed in the world, because in that way, they’re almost collaborative work. Like they’re things that we built together in a way. And again, going back to what I said about writing something your neighbor can’t write, my neighbor could have written good bones. Right? She didn’t. Thank goodness.

[00:30:35] Speaker A: I wrote a bit of a relief she didn’t find it on that legal.

[00:30:37] Speaker B: Right. Right. I could have left it behind in the Starbucks.

But it is a general poem about what it is to be a mother and fear for what the world is becoming and how to sort of explain it to children. But my own kids aren’t in that poem. It’s not very specific to my experience. But there are other poems that my neighbor could not have written because they quote my kids or because they come directly out of experiences that we have had together. And so when I read them at a reading or flip through a book and find them again, it gives me this sort of little snow globe of a moment where I get to remember that time or that conversation. And there’s a sort of privacy and intimacy in some of those poems that make them really special to me.

[00:31:32] Speaker A: It makes sense, too. You were saying earlier that with school and poetry, we had to try and get past that gate and figure out, well, there’s some things we’re never going to figure out because they don’t know those interactions with kiddos. And it just kind of reminds me of that instance, why perhaps we shouldn’t always try and go through a gate. Because you’re never going to get there, perhaps.

[00:31:52] Speaker B: Yeah.

I would hate for someone to not enjoy good bones, for example, because they’re like, they were handed it with the question, what is the author really trying to say? Or what’s the hidden message in the poem? What I would love is for someone to be handed that poem and for them to be asked, what choices do you see the writer making in this poem? And so they could be like, oh, I noticed they use repetition, or I noticed they use metaphor, or I noticed they use punctuation in this way. Or what do you like about the poem? Or what does it make you think about?

I would be much happier with them receiving that with those instructions, as opposed to, here’s a locked gate, hand me the key.

[00:32:38] Speaker A: So what else would you say? Are some things that useful to others with this book?

[00:32:46] Speaker B: It’s funny in some ways, I think it’s absolutely none of my business what other people do with it. Once when writing a book or a poem, it’s sort of like putting a message in a bottle and you send it off to sea and you have no idea where it might wash up and who might find it, and if they might read it or throw it back or find it useful or pass it on to a friend. And in some ways, the thing that keeps me writing is not worrying too much about how it might be useful or what someone else might glean or not glean from it, so that I don’t talk myself out of putting it in the bottle and sending it out to see in the first place. But having said that, what I’m hearing from readers and the mail I’m getting about this book, honestly, I haven’t seen anything quite like it, probably since good bones. I mean, I got a lot of mail about my book, keep moving.

But I think I’m even getting more mail, both paper mail, sometimes sent to my local bookstore. Actually, they email today to say, I have some more to pick up, or emails or DMs on social media. And often they begin with the same sentence, which I find really interesting. And this is the first time I’ve ever reached out to an author like this.

[00:34:13] Speaker A: Wow.

[00:34:13] Speaker B: And so there’s something about this particular book that’s spurring people to reach out directly to me in a way that they haven’t done with other writers. And it probably is something, like I was saying, about the sort of the vulnerability in handing, and like you said, sort of trusting the reader with this information and trusting that they’ll know for themselves what to do with it. And I think what to do with it is going to look different for everyone depending on what their lives look like.

But my big hope, and this isn’t really a usefulness, but my big hope, is that it makes people feel seen and known. And I think that in itself is healing. There’s nothing lonelier than feeling like you’re going through a difficult time and no one else gets it. And so if you read something and you think, oh, this is someone who understands what this feels like, that’s what I’m hoping for, is that people read, you can make this place beautiful and feel seen and known.

[00:35:26] Speaker A: We talked earlier about that time after Violet was born and postpartum depression, land of poetry, far away. But other difficult times you describe in the book, particularly separation from your husband. You’re at the beach, and I wrote poems at the beach because I needed to make something more than sadness. So can you talk more about that?

[00:35:50] Speaker B: Yeah. Thank goodness.

I never really had a writer’s block the way I had the first year that Violet was born. And so even through, really, every difficult thing I’ve ever been through since then, I’ve been able to keep writing through it. I have no idea what that shift was exactly.

It might be that I know myself a little better now, and part of the difficulty of that first year was the bewilderment of being so in the dark about my own mental health and my own circumstances. And so, at least in the years since then, whenever I’ve gone through something difficult, I’ve recognized what it was.

I’ve been able to name it, know it, talk about it, be in therapy about it, talk to friends about it, research it, read about it. I never felt alone in any hard thing I ever went through. And maybe that sort of lack of estrangement from myself is what’s allowed me to write through all of those things. And it has been extremely important. I mean, whether or not I ever shared any of those things with other people and some things I didn’t, some things I just wrote for myself.

It was incredibly important for me to be able to process on paper because I do so much better than I do verbally.

[00:37:18] Speaker A: Is that something you’d encourage other people? I mean, you gave a wonderful list of those supports and things that made it different in that time, which we all need in difficult instances. But would you add the writing piece for you at works? You’re a professional writer. You’re a poet. Would you say, look, everyone just have a go at it, and it will help somehow? It will help your mental health?

[00:37:37] Speaker B: Yes, it absolutely does.

There’s neuroscience behind that.

You can literally rewire the neural pathways in your brain with repeated positive action. So if writing about something helps you process it and makes you feel better, and you make a little appointment to do that with yourself, over time, it actually does help. It’s also clarifying. I think. Sometimes I don’t know what I think until I write it down. And so having written something down and reading it back to myself, I sometimes can say, oh, there it is. It was a swirling tornado of thoughts in my mind. But now that I’ve just written it out in plain English, I have a better grasp of what I’m dealing with here and therefore a better grasp of what I need to do to make myself feel better.

[00:38:39] Speaker A: One of your poems or a poem by someone else or both that you will turn to to give yourself some encouragement, some extra help.

[00:38:49] Speaker B: Probably not my own work. What would that say about oneself? If you’re like, whenever I’m really down, I read my own poems and I’m so comforted by that. That seems like a terribly narcissistic thing to say.

No, actually, I have a few lines from Rilka that live on. I’m looking up, as you can see, that live on a little yellow postit note that I stuck to my office window in 2019 when things seemed impossibly difficult and I reread it constantly and it’s somehow remained stuck to this window all this time, which I’m afraid I have now admitted. I don’t wash my windows, so it’s never come off. And it is.

Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.

[00:39:53] Speaker A: Thank you so much, Maggie. It’s been a delight to see you today.

[00:39:57] Speaker B: Thank you. Oh, for me too. For me too. Lovely having tea with you.

[00:40:01] Speaker A: Likewise. Yes. Well, one day you in Vancouver, Washington, come and I will make you a cup of tea here. It’d be fun to show you around the children’s center.

[00:40:09] Speaker B: It’s a date.

[00:40:12] Speaker A: You can find more of Maggie Smith’s work at a website, Maggie smithpoet.com.

The nine eight eight suicide and crisis lifeline can be reached in the United States by calling or texting nine eight eight. It’s free and available 24/7 Hope and Healing was produced by Jenny Hohisal, John, Mo. Music by concert rock violinist Aaron Meyer. This podcast is presented by Children’s center in Vancouver, Washington. Children’s Center’s mission is to serve children, youth and families through comprehensive community based mental health services.

For more information, visit thechildrencentre.org. I’m Matthew Butte and thank you for listening.

Podcast host Matthew Butte

Meet the Host

"We make this podcast in order to bring you hopeful stories and to introduce you to people who inspire hope. They’ve inspired a lot of hope in me and among people here at Children’s Center and I hope you feel the same."

Hope & Healing with Children's Center is hosted by Executive Director Matthew Butte, produced by John Moe and Jennie Hoheisel, and features original music by Concert Rock Violinist Aaron Meyer. Our mission is to provide honest and positive stories of hope from the world of mental health.


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