"I am large, I contain multitudes." - Walt Whitman.
But here’s the thing, Walt. Sometimes I’m tired of my multitudes.
In her beautiful memoir You Could Make This Place Beautiful, Maggie Smith (“not the Dame, the other one,” as per her Twitter bio) reflects on the betrayal, rage, disorientation and loss she experienced when she discovered her husband’s affair and realized her vision of the ideal marriage and family was unraveling.
I couldn’t help thinking of Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux’s work (February 2023’s FMUS Digest) as I read You Could Make This Place Beautiful. Like Ernaux, Smith plumbs her experience to paint a vivid and often searing picture of marriage, divorce, motherhood, and her life as a writer. As a poet, her style is more lyrical and less clinical than Ernaux’s, but I found it similarly unadorned and intimate, with an equal talent for the telling detail of everyday life. Unlike Ernaux, Smith addresses her readers directly (“Reader, tell me: When one person out-earns another in a marriage, is an imbalance of power inevitable?”) She will keep certain things for herself, she warns us. In particular, she leaves out sexuality and desire, topics that Ernaux explores in depth.
Vivid images and themes recur in You Could Make This Place Beautiful: the pinecone her husband brings back from a business trip to give their son, but that turns out to have been gathered on a walk with his lover; foreshadowing or how we always knew, in retrospect; betrayal and its knock-on effects; the sheer physical and mental exhaustion of motherhood (“I just needed to find a free half hour so I could cry”); the questions people keep asking her, mostly to reassure themselves (“Do you think the divorce made your kids more resilient?”, “But you don’t regret the marriage, right? Because otherwise you wouldn’t have the children.”); the compulsion to rewind the tape of life to a time before the pain, before her husband’s affair, before her books were published, before the children were born, before her marriage, before meeting her husband, before grad school… “But back to where? Where was it safe?”
Smith became known to a wide audience in 2016 with her poem “Good Bones”:
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
fifty percent 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.
It’s a devastating piece, brutally honest and yet containing hope for her children, the hope that all parents must hang on to, to sell them the world.
If Smith’s marriage were a play or a TV series, what would the opening scene be? Ever the writer, she tries on different options, including the moment she discovers the pinecone, or her sessions in the marriage counselor’s office. For my part, I would choose this scene, after Smith publishes “Good Bones” to broad acclaim:
This Wasn’t the Deal
One night, lying next to me in bed, my husband told me I was famous. He said it quietly in the dark. In his inflection, I heard sadness. I heard you’re not the same anymore, you’re gone somehow.
“I’m not famous, I said. I just wrote a famous poem.” It wasn’t the same thing.
I said it as a kind of apology, as reassurance, because I felt like I’d been accused of something. In my inflection, I hoped he’d hear I’m the same, I’m just me, I’m right here.
A year later, Smith’s poem features in a key scene of the primetime TV series Madam Secretary, actress Meryl Streep reads it at the Academy of American Poets’ annual gala in New York City, and Smith’s third book of poetry, also entitled Good Bones, is published. By then, Smith is traveling more, going to readings, book fairs and writing workshops. The “deal” Smith and her husband had slipped into after their two children were born—with Smith writing from their home in Ohio while managing her own schedule, the household and the children, and her husband working (and traveling) as an attorney—becomes increasingly strained. Smith feels little emotional support and growing reproach from her husband. A familiar catch-22 situation develops: he is the main earner, and yet she cannot get a foothold to change that balance of power, despite her increasing notoriety:
When I got good news related to my writing—a publication, a grant, an invitation—I sensed him wince inwardly. So I stopped sharing good news. I made myself small, folded myself up origami tight. I canceled or declined upcoming events: See, I’ll do anything to make this marriage work. I gave up income and professional opportunities, but those sacrifices didn’t save my marriage.
We were both busy, probably spread too thin, needing things from our lives—and from one another—that we weren’t getting. I agreed that something needed to give. I disagreed that the something needed to be my work. In turn, me.
What would I have done to save my marriage? I would have abandoned myself, and I did, for a time. I would have done it for longer if he’d let me.
Smith’s husband isn’t the only one who believes what she does is of lesser value.
After I returned from California, in a meeting in my lawyer’s office—my lawyer and I on one side of the conference table, my husband and his on the other—my husband’s lawyer used air quotes when she talked about my work.
When you were “working,” she said.
Smith is 46, but I suspect this situation and those feelings resonate with women of all generations around the world. They certainly did with me. When I left my first husband over 30 years ago, it was because he was not proud of me, because I sensed he felt threatened by my then-nascent career. (He soon proceeded to prove that by punching me in the face, sending me to the emergency room). Smith’s husband isn’t physically violent, but he gives her the silent treatment. That is perhaps what is most shocking reading Smith after reading Ernaux (82): how little has changed in heterosexual marriage across generations.
I saw myself and my husband as different—more progressive, more equal in our household, both with graduate degrees, both respected in our fields—but were we? The division of labor in our home told a different story. I was angry at myself, and more than a little ashamed, that I allowed this to happen, and that I had unwittingly modeled to Violet and Rhett what women’s work was—the baking of class Valentine’s treats, the pairing of socks, the buying and wrapping of gifts, the packing of school lunches and camp snacks, the applying of sunscreen. Caregiving.
Abandoning oneself is a punishing and absurd requirement—one that, in the end, Smith and many other women cannot and do not want to meet.
Smith doesn’t downplay the impact of the divorce on her children, and of their father’s absence in their lives. Her son Rhett, six years old at the time, tells her as she tries to comfort him at bedtime: “I know, I know. I have a mom who loves me, and I have a dad who loves me. But I don’t have a family.” Oof. Her ex-husband asks their daughter Violet to help pack his dishes as he prepares to move 500 miles away on the girl’s 12th birthday. He drops off the kids at her house after Christmas with a box of stamped postcards for them to be his “pen pals,” sending Smith in a fit of rage she struggles to hide. Rhett again, as she sheds tears: “Don’t be sad, Mom. Don’t be scared. Put your glasses on. I love you.”
Times are hard for months on end. Smith weathers protracted divorce litigation, home schooling during COVID, cracked teeth, dramatic weight loss, a sudden arrhythmia, loss of her health insurance, and serious money worries. She realizes she has a hard time letting go of the ghost of her marriage and relationship, but she can’t afford therapy. She grieves and ruminates. Does she suffer, she wonders, from what writer Elissa Altman described in her own mother as an “inability to metabolize disappointment”?
Slowly, better times begin to shine through. Smith’s children do well in school, and her friends and family rally around her. Her neighbors bring her food when they realize she'll be spending Christmas without her kids for the first time. She learns to fix the lawnmower. She still wakes up with nightmares of death and disaster, but less often. She continues to publish with great success (Keep Moving, Goldenrod), finds a new love “who’s happy to see me, who smiles when I walk into a room, who can be happy with me and for me” (an admittedly low bar that she is ashamed to admit is now her standard). She gets tattoos of her favorite flowers and starts running.
In an interview earlier this year in the Chicago Review of Books, Smith says she is aware of the cultural bias against “mommy poems.” When they focus on quotidian or intimate themes, literary works by women and especially mothers are often dismissed as unimportant, inconsequential. That was certainly a main line of attack by male critics against Ernaux’s writing. Smith’s short inspirational messages, tweeted out during the pandemic and collected in Keep Moving, could also be set aside as mere self-help (and I’m not into self-help books). But Smith’s prose is so economical and unsentimental, so honest and “un-woo,” they are more like American haikus.
Let go of the idea that things could have happened differently, as if this life is a Choose Your Own Adventure book and you simply turned to the wrong page. You did the best you could with what you knew—and felt—at the time. Now do better, knowing more.
Smith is not religious, but early in You Could Make This Place Beautiful, she expresses the wish that her memoir can be an offering—a torma in Tibetan—a sweet cake you feed a don, a demon, to thank it for causing you the pain that woke you up and made you change. She hopes this torma can provide reassurance and hope. She has clearly succeeded, as evidenced by her readers' response. If you have been through divorce, death or other types of loss and trauma, as so many of us have been, especially recently, I think you will find comfort in its poignant and arresting reflections.
I’ll leave you with a saying by Austrian poet Rilke that Smith taped on her home office window: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
Let’s keep going, and let’s make this place beautiful.