Chronic Illness

What Poetry Can Teach Us About Getting Old

A new collection of poetry aims to help readers cultivate grace, grit, and camaraderie while facing the shock, and eventual awe, of the most terminal condition of them all.

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When writer Mary D. Esselman was in her mid-forties, her body began “conking out in completely unexpected ways.” Despite being a runner and a healthy eater, she was now waking up at 2 a.m., hot and anxious with a racing heart (perimenopause). After working out one day, she lost central vision in her left eye (central serous retinopathy). Then her fingers began going numb and turning blue in the cold (Raynaud’s syndrome). As soon as she pinned down one symptom, another seemed to spring up.

“I started to have high blood pressure readings when I would go to the doctor — mostly because I was starting to get freaked out about going to the doctor,” says Esselman.

The cover of How Did This Happen?

The common denominator among her constellation of ailments? A terribly ordinary condition called “growing older” — a condition she felt completely sideswiped by. Although some of Esselman’s symptoms affect younger people, too, she felt like her body was suddenly revealing its expiration date. When she turned to her trusty bookshelves for comfort, she found that they were sorely lacking. She didn’t want “Ten Top Tips For Tip-Top Aging” or “Look At My Gorgeous Over-40 Ass,” nor did she want anything that “screamed menopause, infirmity, death,” says Esselman. She wanted something relatable and real, a “Are You There God? It’s Me, Perimenopausal Margaret.” So Esselman, now 54, and her fellow writer and friend Elizabeth Ash Vélez, joined forces to create How Did This Happen? Poems for the Not So Young Anymore, a wise, funny, and fierce collection that functions as a dose of literary therapy and a how-to book for growing “older” (which, in our youth-obsessed culture, means any age over 25). It is their fourth book of literary therapy. Previous collections dealt with the challenges of romantic heartbreak and work/life angst.

Out this month, the new anthology guides readers through six stages of aging: Insult, Injury, Defiance, Dread, Grit, and Grace. Along the way, it wrestles with both the cosmetic and cosmic issues of growing older — from Amy Poehler’s biting “Plastic Surgery Haiku” to Grace Paley realizing she’s become the old woman she wanted to be.  

Esselman and Vélez spoke with Folks about how poetry can help us face the second wave of standardized tests (cholesterol, blood sugar, MRIs), shrug off the things that don’t matter, and find the courage to forge ahead — even when we’re wearing orthopedic clogs.

In the book you point out that when we go to the doctor, we often feel oddly embarrassed or somehow to blame for things falling apart. Where do you think that embarrassment comes from?

Elizabeth: I think it comes from this culture that says that once you get in your fifties and sixties, you are invisible, and I think there’s shame that comes along with that.

Mary: Sometimes I think about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hillary Clinton, and Angela Merkel, and I think, “Did they go through any of this stuff? And if so, where did they talk about it?”

Elizabeth: They have to keep quiet about it. They’re not allowed to talk about it.

Mary: And that brings that shame on me. Like, nobody else must have any problems, and so I think, “What’s wrong with me? I am such a baby.” Or, “I’m so self-absorbed. I have this symptom and I’m going to the doctor. I’m sorry, doctor. I’m sure this is nothing, doctor, because I’m really healthy because I run 10Ks.” And it’s this whole explanation and apology. It’s ridiculous.

Are you trying to push back against that silence and shame with this book?

Mary: That experience was part of the impetus for the book. I was seeking some consolation, affirmation, motivation. I looked at some clinical books on menopause and they helped me gain some knowledge. But they still had this sort of cheerful tone and the doctors on the covers are all lipsticked and perfect looking, and I’m not. Then there was this other book by Erica Jong [author of Fear of Flying]. The cover photo was this yellowing, crumpling, brown flower and I just thought, “Shit no.” This can’t be all there is to help us get through, especially at a time when Lena Dunham is putting her body out there and the “Broad City” girls are just putting it out there.

Elizabeth, since you’re 17 years older than Mary, you’re past the initial shock of “aging while female.” How did that influence the perspective you brought to the book?

Elizabeth:  For me, the issue is coming to terms with mortality, and the way in which you choose to live your life even while that is happening. I’m 71 years old. Let’s face it, I have a terminal disease, and it’s called “being old.” I am going to die. I will probably not live to 110. I sit in meetings sometimes at Georgetown [where she teaches in the Women’s Studies Program], and they’ll say, “We’re going to talk about our twenty-year plan,” and I’m like, “Ooh, I’m leaving this meeting.”

I’m 71 years old. Let’s face it, I have a terminal disease, and it’s called “being old.”

I feel healthy, but I know that age starts to take things away from us. At the same time, I feel like it brings some things to us as well. For all the medical ills, there is still this great pleasure in being alive in the moment. That’s a pleasure that as we age we don’t want to lose. We need to hang on to that and sometimes that’s hard to do.

Growing older and illness seem to be similarly stigmatized. Why do you think our culture has such a narrow and unrealistic view of age and health?

Elizabeth: I think any indication that one is old is associated with ill health. If you limp, if you don’t get around as easily as you once did, then people think that there’s something wrong with you. As a culture, it’s very hard for us to see beyond the physical.

Mary: The stigma also comes from a fear that there’s something contagious about it: “That person’s skin looks wrinkly. Oh my god, is that gonna happen to me? Oh my god, get away from me.” You know?

You also included two poems that exemplify that disgusted — and disgusting — attitude: A section from Horace’s “Epodes” (“… The sweat and nasty smell get worse all over / her wrinkled body …”) and a poem by François Villon (“… They aren’t thighs now but sticks / Speckled all over like sausages”).

Mary:   We put those in to show that if we measure ourselves as just our body — whether it’s truly ill health or just cosmetic signs of aging — we will be taken down. In contrast, what I love about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Pied Beauty,” is the idea that aging can be beautiful: “Glory be to God for dappled things … All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled …” I don’t mean it to sound all hokey, but that really touches me and gives me a moment of pause and perspective.

Elizabeth:  If you look at the last poem in the book, Grace Paley’s “Here,” she says her face is “nicely mapped.” What a lovely way to talk about the lines on our faces. When my mother was in her late seventies, she would say to me, “I don’t look like an old woman, do I?” I would say, “No, mom. No. You don’t.” I’m 71 and I bet I do look like an old woman, and it’s okay.

What is it about poetry that makes it such a good companion during difficult times?

Mary: There is something about the economy of language that a poem offers — like a little bud vase instead of a huge, overwhelming bouquet. It’s tiny and small and beautiful and it can touch a part of you that feels really broken. It’s almost like a physical touch. If you’re taking care of someone and you put your hand on them, that’s how poetry feels to me.

It’s like a bell ringing and you feel that resonance inside, and you think, “That’s right. That’s it,” and you feel better. You feel more human, more spiritual, more connected, more comforted, and more ready to go on than you did before.

[Poetry] is like a bell ringing and you feel that resonance inside, and you think, “That’s right. That’s it.”

Elizabeth:  There are ways in which, yes, just being in one of these poems gives you a way to sort of see the beauty around you. There is also a lot of work being done around medicine and poetry, and research indicates that there is a healing component. Similar to music, blood pressure is lowered when you are immersed in a poem.

I also imagined some of these poems as armor, like you could have a poem in your pocket to help protect you when you went in for a medical test or procedure.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. “At Fifty” by Eric Rawson is a raw and funny poem about a colonoscopy. When our agent read that poem, she was like, “Hmm, I don’t know.” But we’re like, we need to laugh about some of this and get a little distance. That’s necessary too. I’m undergoing another colonoscopy this summer, so I know having one is not like, “Yes!”

Mary: These poets articulate something for you, so you feel like you’ve got your battle companions with you. I don’t want to get too literal with it, but I did just have a friend who got called back for a second mammogram. They had seen a shadow and she was really nervous. When she got out of there, she was a puddle of cold sweat and rubbery muscles, because it was okay — she was okay. I said, “All right. I’m sending you this Jo McDougall poem, ‘Mammogram.’”

How do you find your way to an acceptance of aging and keep up your appetite for life while also dealing with mammograms, bone density tests, CT scans, and the dreaded “scope up your ass” that Rawson describes?

Elizabeth: What I would say, and I feel like I’m going to sound like something out of AARP magazine, but I do believe that more than anything, it’s about being engaged with things that you love, and obviously, people that you love.

I’m also going to say something that you won’t see in AARP magazine — and that nobody will say. People say over and over, “If I regret anything, I regret that I worked so hard and that I didn’t spend as much time as I should have with my family and kids.” My advice: don’t listen to those people. If I have regrets, it’s that I haven’t worked hard enough. There are still things I want to do in the world — I want to write more poems and do other kinds of writing — that take time and space that I need to be able to give myself.

Mary: Poems like Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love,” which is about meeting yourself in the mirror and then going on to feast on your own life, have helped me regain some appetite. Finding resonance in, not just poetry, but literature and friends — and seeing that my lived experience isn’t that different from someone else’s has been really helpful.

And the way some poets can put in order and give shape and beauty to things that seem unwieldy and frightening has been so helpful — like in the incredible Clive James’ poem, “Japanese Maple.” He was fatally ill when he wrote it and he’s looking out from his sickbed at this tree. The way he creates beauty out of that is so calming to me.

Mary Esselman and Elizabeth Velez.

In many of these poems, I get the sense that aging is only for the brave. But if you’re lucky enough to keep living, you have to keep aging. So how do those of us who aren’t so brave find the courage?

Elizabeth: I would say that living is pretty much only for the brave. Living is aging, and living is dying — that’s Bob Dylan, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” This courage comes. It accumulates. Some of us get off easy into our thirties and forties; some of us don’t. We both have friends who have recovered from breast cancer and other kinds of cancer. The courage that it takes to be in this world and to face these things, it’s for the brave, it’s for the courageous, and so is life. It starts from the beginning, I think.

Mary: Courage is hard to come by and it’s not static. You’re going to go up and down. It’s not like you’re all of the sudden going to become Hillary Clinton running for office or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But, like in the Rita Dove poem, “Dawn Revisited,” you might imagine waking up with a second chance and someone’s making biscuits. And you just have to get out of bed, and you just have to go downstairs and see who’s making breakfast, and you just have to take a bite. We try to offer little invitations forward in the book.

Elizabeth: We know there are days when you won’t get out of bed. I think that’s something else that poetry acknowledges. Emily Dickinson talks about walking when picking up our feet feels like lead. We know those days, and then we know there are days when we see those possibilities and we’re dying to eat those biscuits.

You can purchase a copy of How Did This Happen? on Amazon here.

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