Teachers and former People magazine reporters Mary Esselman and Elizabeth Veléz have been best friends since Mary became Elizabeth’s teaching assistant at Georgetown University 30 years ago (wow, 30 years–how did that happen?).
Pop culture junkies and poetry lovers, they’ve relied on both to help them through life’s challenges, from romantic heartbreak to work/life angst to long-term love. Their fourth book of pop-literary therapy, How Did This Happen? Poems for the Not So Young Anymore, helps readers cope with the indignities of growing “older” (let’s say anything over 25) as women, in a culture that worships Instagrammed youth and beauty. Here they discuss why they wrote the book and how women can rise proud and strong against the stigma of “aging while female.”
Elizabeth: So Mary, the book really started when you’d just hit your 40s and felt kind of sideswiped by unexpected physical changes– like feeling really anxious and not sleeping well.
Mary: Right, I was 46, and I’d just gotten married at 39, moved to a small town for my husband’s job, and had a baby (with serious health issues) at 41. So I’d finally adjusted to all of that when I started waking up at night with my heart pounding, feeling hot, then cold, and thinking, what the hell? And my periods started getting weird – one month nothing, then a gusher out of nowhere. Thank god you’re 17 years ahead of me, and I’d been with you when you’d had hot flashes and massive periods
Elizabeth: Oh yeah, thank god I’m so old and was such a hot flashing massive bleeder.
Mary: Ha, well, you know, I was scared. I was like, is this normal or am I dying or what? I remember calling the doctor and having the advice nurse call me back kind of chuckling like, “Oh, honey, that’s just perimenopause, don’t worry about it, this can go on for up to ten years, and you just learn to ride it out.”
Elizabeth: See, it was different for me. By the time we started working on the book it’d been eight years since menopause. I remember it more as incidental annoyances, less a huge thing in my life. I remember teaching an Introduction to Women’s Studies, a class of 15 boys and 15 girls. I was wearing a skirt and looked down, and there was blood streaming down my legs. For me I was past that “oh dear, I have a spot on the back of my dress, I’m so embarrassed” kind of thing from adolescence into our 20s and 30s. It was very uncomfortable, but at the same time it seemed funny to be in a Women’s Studies class dripping with blood. The women in class noticed immediately, and as soon as class was over, they came up and surrounded me, and I just felt their love and support. So it’s different when you’re not alone.
Mary: Right, and for me just knowing that other women have the same things happening to them, just having their company, funny stories, honest understanding – it helps so much, whether it’s you or Frances McDormand, or a great poem or Amy Schumer’s “Last F*ckable Day” skit.
Elizabeth: Exactly, and our book tries to give women that kind of company – the funny, sad, inspiring and true. The first sections deal with what you first experienced, the physical surprises, but for me the issue has always been about mortality. The older you get – and I’m 71 and a half now – the more you know you have a terminal disease, and it’s called “being old.” So for me part of this book is looking for the solace we find in poetry–the way poetry comforts and teaches us about simply being mortal, being human.
Mary: Right. As we say in the Introduction, we’re tackling both the cosmetic AND the cosmic issues of growing up and older. I was freaked out by my chin hairs and jowls and changing body in my late 40s, so there was that stuff – how do you still feel like “you,” when you don’t look like the old “you”? If you care too much about that, are you self-absorbed, shallow, as in Amy Poehler’s “Plastic Surgery Haiku”? Or can we acknowledge that women have it tough in our culture –that we actually suffer for aging both professionally and personally?
Elizabeth: Yes, look, aging in this culture is incredibly difficult. We quote Nora Ephron from her classic book on feeling bad about her neck as she grew older. But the fact is, I don’t hate my neck. And I want to figure out as women how NOT to hate these parts of our bodies that are changing. It’s so important to understand that aging, looking different, this transformation does not have to be a negative, terrible experience. I look at pictures of myself in my 20s and 30s, and it sort of breaks my heart. The experience most of us had in our 20s and 30s of hating our hair or hating our bodies, and if you look back, we were beautiful and we never knew it or believed it. I like the way I look now way more than in my 50s, and probably it’s because back then I was really fussing about the signs of aging. Now I think that if you’re good inside, you’ll look good. Maybe it seems silly and reductive, but I do believe it.
Mary: Hey, it works for me. I’d rather try to do good in the world than worry about the harsh sunlight showing off my beard and moustache.
Elizabeth: You know, Deborah Landau’s “Solitaire” perfectly gets at the range of physical and existential issues of growing older as a woman. You go from thinking there’s no “girl” left in you, so you should retinol, exfoliate, whatever, to thinking OMG, menopause, cancer, the ABCs of my fear. You go from this first knowledge of “aging” to what that ultimately means: “O tumble-rush of days we cannot catch.“
Mary: Yes, these poets express things we can’t quite say in our own words, but when we hear them, we just know – YES. That’s IT, that’s how I feel.
Elizabeth: Right, we are saying loudly and clearly with this book that when you wake with your heart pounding, when you know for a fact that your time is short – poetry can help.
Mary: Even Beyoncé, young as she is, used poetry to help her craft Lemonade, which is in many ways about growing older as a woman, coming to terms with who you are in relationships, who you are as a mother, and as your mother’s daughter. And we found inspiration in that same poet, Warsan Shire. That’s what’s so powerful about poetry – we recognize ourselves in it, whether we’re superstars or perimenopausal insomniacs.
Elizabeth: Of course we’ll all experience aging differently, depending on where we are in our lives. We don’t want to make our own experiences universal. Across race and class and circumstance we’ll experience all of these feelings differently.
Mary: Yes, and I know a lot of women who have become their best selves as they’ve aged. Out of bad marriages, into new jobs, new civic advocacy, proudly taking care of themselves and speaking truth to power. Reminds me of that fabulous Lucille Clifton poem in our Defiance section, “there is a girl inside,” and also reminds me of Marge Piercy’s “to be of use.”
Elizabeth: For Clifton, that poem is about resisting the idea that we become “old” when the culture says we are. NO, she says, and it’s important to her – the girl in her is alive and well; she has broken “through gray hairs/ into blossom,” and the world should be “wild/ with the damn wonder of it.” For me the most important stages in the book are Grit and Grace, where we figure out how to live with the knowledge we have, as full grown women.
Mary: Yes, I love those sections because ultimately that’s where we are now, both of us, despite our age difference. We are willing to grit it out, our fears and uncertainties, because we now also recognize and love our strength, our courage, our joy in little daily things. There’s this newish sense of “anything is possible,” despite or maybe because of time. We know things now; we’re experienced, we can shrug off what’s stupid and take on what matters. Cathi Hanauer calls it being “chronologically gifted,” which is a funny way of not saying “older and wiser.”
Elizabeth: Exactly, like the Frank O’Hara poem, “Today,” the joy we get just from quotidian daily things.I have to work at that joy sometimes and maybe all of us do. And that’s why we offer some poems that point that out the pleasure we get from waking up to our senses.
Mary: Right, all of those poems about food in Grit! Biscuits and lemon meringue pie and pastries. Kind of funny.
Elizabeth: Yes, and in Grace the poems about warmth and light, wind and water – the grace of being in the world, lucky to be right here right now, as Ada Limón says.
Mary: Absolutely. And Grace Paley actually ends the Grace section, ends the entire book, with the same kind of lovely but strong acceptance, in her poem “Here.” It’s not passive – I see it as activist, revolutionary acceptance of herself as a woman (like Alicia Keys, like Lena Dunham, only ever so slightly “older”) who asks “how did this happen?” and who can answer truthfully, “well that’s exactly who I wanted to be.”
Elizabeth: May we all get there on our good days.
Mary: Amen, sister.
Giveaway: Friend for the Ride is giving away a copy of How Did This Happen? Poems for the Not So Young Anymore to two lucky winners. For chance to win, please enter a comment by June 15. Thanks!
And thank you, Mary and Elizabeth, of your wonderful collection of poems and for your graceful and insightful take on aging!