by Maggie Smith
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.
This poem by Ohioan poet Maggie Smith was published recently in Waxwing Literary Journal. "Good Bones" then flashed across Twitter, reader to reader. Here was a poem that acknowledged risk yet expressed gritty, guarded optimism about life. How we needed this, reeling, tumbling, weeping through waves of terrorist attacks and violent shootings.
Smith's poem echoed the unspoken fear I felt twenty-seven years ago, when my eldest child was born. I remember looking at my tiny newborn infant, her head cradled in my palm, her small body resting half the length of my forearm, and thinking, Dear heavens, what have I done. I had brought innocent life into the world. But into a world of opportunity and love, or darkness, without hope of joy? This was 1989 and long shadows fell across history. In my work overseas I had experienced tremors of global unrest and growing sectarian violence and terrorism. Home in America, we had yet to experience 9/11. Today, fundamentalist intolerance and terror are at levels that threaten to choke out the quieter voices of peace. Everything is "at least half terrible" as Smith writes, "and that's a conservative estimate."
What tore up my gut all those years ago was feeling forced to question the essential goodness of the world. The moral rightness of bringing children into a world of certain risk and chaos. What "gift" do we bestow upon our children at their birth to protect them? There is no invincibility shield.
The secret, as Smith shares, is that life is delicious. The gift we bestow is joy. To pursue pleasure in a thousand risky ways. At every turn we may be disappointed, scammed, a victim, grow ill. Yet the good and the bad and the ugly are entwined together. Risk, mortality, and the joy of being alive. It must be enough to believe each child might find a good life in the midst of a world in crushing disarray. Each child brings the potential of change.
Maggie Smith's poem ends on promise. It ain't much, but things can be done. This, this is how we build the world. Lift it up and fix it, again and again. Not only for ourselves, but for the future.
Good. Good bones.