In the Affirmative

It seems like these days, even when I’m not looking for a “how to survive the grief of divorce” book, they find me. First there was the Duchess Goldblatt book. Now, Maggie Smith’s Keep Moving. (That’s Maggie Smith the poet, best known for her viral poem “Good Bones,” not Maggie Smith the actor).

A few years ago, I made a habit of starting each day reading poetry. During the pandemic, it fell by the wayside, partly because I get my poetry from the library and there isn’t much in digital, partly because I didn’t have the concentration for it. But I’ve been missing poetry. So recently, when I saw the audiobook of Keep Moving on my library site, I decided to give it a try, despite my deep suspicion of the type of poem that would go viral on social media.

Imagine my surprise when I found this was not a poetry collection, but a memoir/self-help hybrid that includes short personal essays interspersed with “notes to self” that she originally (shades of Duchess Goldblatt) tweeted every day in the wake of her divorce. Each of these little affirmations ends with the phrase, “Keep moving.”

I almost gave up on it when I realized this. I am not an affirmation person, you’ll be amazed to learn. Stuff like this strikes me as pretty much nonsense:

But we cannot rely purely on thoughts; we must translate thoughts into words and eventually into actions in order to manifest our intentions. This means we have to be very careful with our words, choosing to speak only those which work towards our benefit and cultivate our highest good. Affirmations help purify our thoughts and restructure the dynamic of our brains so that we truly begin to think nothing is impossible.

— “35 Affirmations That Will Change Your Life,” by Dr. Carmen Harra

(At least she admits repeating the words isn’t enough by itself). Affirmations too often seem to try to deny the painful parts of life rather than deal with them, as if we could erase suffering from our lives if only our thoughts are “pure” enough.

Smith’s tweets, though, are not really like that. She does not say shit like “my potential to succeed is infinite.” Like Duchess Goldblatt’s, these tweets still weren’t really my thing, but they don’t deny the pain of the end of her marriage. Instead, they are part of how she deals with that pain, reminding herself that even in the midst of grief, there is love, and beauty, and things to be grateful for. And isn’t that just what I’ve been doing?

Many of these “notes to self,” in fact, felt like reminders of things I have been learning:

Be thankful for your wounds, as strange as this sounds; the ways you’ve been hurt and the ways you’ve faltered make you useful to other people. Keep moving.

You can’t make someone else love you, or keep their promises, or forgive you. But you can choose to love, to keep your promises, to forgive. Keep moving.

If I hadn’t been learning these things myself in the last few months, I think I might have found them smarmy. Instead, I found it helpful to hear these lessons coming back to me in someone else’s voice, framed a bit differently from how I would have. (And also maybe a little smarmy). Kind of like when my therapist says “What I’m hearing is. . .” It’s another book that made me feel less alone in what I’m going through.

In an interview, Smith described her Twitter notes as “trying on hope.” This book is full of hope, and doesn’t pretend it’s easy (just look in the mirror, click your heels three times, and say “I’m good enough”). Smith hopes it will help people struggling with pandemic isolation, and I think it might.

Let’s face it: I, too, should be trying on hope. Negative thinking is my default, and it’s why (or because) I got stuck in depression. Those ruts are deep and my brain likes to coast along in them. I need to hack some new paths through my mental undergrowth.

My sister likes affirmations and positive sayings, and she sent me a great collection of Christmas presents on this theme, including a pretty book called Find Your Mantra. I flipped it open to a page that said “Dream Big.” Oh sure, I thought, that’s not me. But why not? I have to reimagine my future now. Why start by limiting what I allow myself to imagine and want? One of the most helpful ideas in Smith’s book, for me, was her point that the future was always empty. You just thought those side-by-side rockers on the porch were guaranteed by your marriage, but you could never be sure. “The only difference now,” she writes, “is that imagining [the future] isn’t a group project.” That is, as she says, both frightening and liberating. I’ve started randomly opening the mantra book every few days and trying on what I find for size. Trying on hope. Sometimes, it fits.

I also requested a couple of physical book poetry collections from the library, which I picked up yesterday, and signed up for the poem a day emails from Poets.org and the Poetry Foundation. Because I do miss reading poetry.

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5 Responses to In the Affirmative

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I too am skeptical and wary of ‘affirmations,’ but you are right that those tweets have a different quality to them than the kind of pablum I associate with too many self-help books. I guess it makes sense that the writer of “Good Bones” would do better than that! I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project recently and … hmmm. It is not affirmations, exactly, but it is definitely not poetry either. It is better than I thought it would be. Maybe it’s like what you say about Smith’s tweets: if you’ve been thinking in those directions already, even a commonplace that is well expressed can carry some weight. It can be helpful just to hear someone say it.

    I love your image of hacking a path through the undergrowth. I hope you can do this – actually, I feel pretty sure you can. This post seems like a hack!

  2. lauratfrey says:

    I am also allergic to affirmations. Stuart Smalley from SNL always comes to mind. Or these days, Instagram poetry… but I probably haven’t found the right one!

  3. Kaetrin says:

    The thought of affirmations gives me hives. When I was a teen, my mum got massively into them and for a time she basically spoke in affirmation. It was maddening. I’d try tell her something she did not want to hear or discuss and she’d ask “is that true for you?” or “do you trust me?” (over and over again until I gave up!) and it seemed like we never had an actual conversation. Thankfully that phase didn’t last forever.
    It seems the affirmations that work for you are more personal and specific and messages to yourself rather than to the world (not “name it and claim it”) – your kind make sense to me but I must admit the word “affirmations” still gives me the willies! LOL

  4. merriank says:

    I feel the same about the affirmation/wellness drive. I do think remembering to be thankful helps me stay present and less catastrophising both about my now and any future that’s out there. I also think that thankfulness can burden one with the denial of pain and grief and loss so there is a sweet spot that needs to be found. Feeling that you aren’t alone in an experience and seeing others survive is very powerful I believe. The sense of solidarity that comes from this means we are not carrying ourselves onwards, alone. The loneliness of suffering is a great burden apart from the thing causing us sorrow. I’m glad you are talking to your internet friends, we are real

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