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How Did This Happen? Poems For the Not So Young Anymore

How Did This Happen? Poems For the Not So Young Anymore
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Mary Esselman (54) and Elizabeth Vélez (71), professors and former People magazine reporters who 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 themselves 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, which is 100 in Kylie Jenner years) as women, in a culture that worships Instagrammed youth and beauty.

They aim to destigmatize aging, to help women talk about it without embarrassment and dread, without shame or self-loathing. On the one hand, who cares about aging? We’re strong, fabulous women who don’t need to dwell on the passing of years (and their wear and tear). We’re full stride into our professional lives, finally becoming who we’ve worked hard to be. On the other hand, it’s tough to transition from “young” to “older” women, whether we want to admit it or not. (As Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford notes in “Feud,” there are only three types of roles for female actors: ingénue, mother, or gorgon.)

They say “hell, no” to the cultural stereotypes of “aging while female,” and hell, yes, to full grown, badass women from Viola Davis to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Emma Thompson to Oprah, who model bold, mature acceptance–and exceptionalism—in the face of aging. They want to join our voices with theirs, and add the resonance of poetry, which endures when trends have come and gone. So they put together a collection of poems, from Amy Poehler to Rita Dove, that correspond to the six stages of growing older as a woman, from Insult and Injury to Grit and Grace. Accompanying each stage is friendly advice from them, to help you “get” the poems and connect them to your everyday life. They help you move from a state of fear and frustration, like the speaker’s in Deborah Landau’s “Solitaire”:

If I retinol. If I marathon.

If I Vitamin C. If I crimson

my lips and streakish my hair.

If I wax. Exfoliate.….

If the brakes don’t work.

If the pesticides won’t wash off.

If the seventh floor pushes a brick

Out the window and it lands on my head.

If a tremor, menopause. Cancer. ALS

These are the ABC’s of my fear.

To a feeling of peace and acceptance, as in Grace Paley’s “Here”:

Here I am in the garden laughing

An old woman with heavy breasts

And a nicely mapped face.

How did this happen

Well that’s who I wanted to be.

Age is coming for us all, but the hell with “feeling bad about your neck” a la the great Nora Ephron, we will be who we want to be, and poetry can help us see and remember that. Poet Jane Hirshfield says it best:

Poems are turned to in the great transition of a life, when we are at sea amid changes too vast to feel in any way the master of. One of the things poems do is demonstrate that you aren’t alone – that other human beings have been here before, and have found a way to sustain aliveness, to find beauty within the conditions of grief. And this allows you to go on.



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