The rise of the new unyoung

Over-65s music fans at WOMAD New Zealand 2015
Music fans over 65 at WOMAD New Zealand 2015: just like normal people

It’s the lot of our lot to figure it out
nobody but us, the oldish,
the unyoung, the new old, can work it out
how to be the age we are
when the age we are and the age we’re in
are doubly strange. In the past
a few individuals survived
to a hundred years or more
but generations didn’t.
The very old were rare
tapped by Her Majesty the Queen
asked for advice—and they all knew a trick
like Marry your childhood sweetheart
or Drink whiskey every day
(they never say, Be the Queen or Have my genes)
and people would listen with respect
and carry their advice away.
As I grew old, old age grew common
it happened so fast
that a whole cohort was caught by surprise
so we flounder around
explaining ourselves and sharing our tales
shocked to recall our grandparents’ ways
their stillness, their rarity
their ancient-seemingness
the last of a geriatric elite.
Look around you now
and meet the new old everywhere
so many that even we are aghast.

MP3 recording of this poem

Middle age

Middle aged person shaking a towel on a beach
The new middle age for the lucky ones: travelling, active, and pretty darned healthy

Middle age” became a thing
when I was middle aged
a snorty phrase
as if that dazzling time of life
is a nothing, not even a noun
but a joining-word
a tottery bridge between youth
and the ghoulish land of old.
By now I should be getting meals on wheels
but something strange has happened
the middle ages stretch and stretch
the line of demarcation
has become a DMZ
wider ever wider the buffer zone expands
of age without labels, age without clues.
I’m old by the old arithmetic
but not by the new biology.
I planned to write a simple bio
(as in you live and then you die-oh)
but hey I’m still alive
and my bio is inflating
it’s a trilogy—tetralogy—pentalogy
and I wonder if this miracle of life
will ever end.

MP3 recording of the poem

Poem, audio and photo by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0. Please share freely, with a link to this page.

Teenager reclassified

Sepia photo of 21 year old youth offtering a sherry to a 16 year old girl in party dress
Teenage wickedness: about to accept a small glass of sherry, or not

Teens” were coined when I was a teen
meaning those who were not-quite-human
I was mean to my mother
but otherwise failed
to make the grade
as a juvenile delinquent:
no motorbikes no intercourse
no sherry or Pimms or beer
no losing of the hat and gloves
just insolence
and flirting and kissing and staying out late
and gruesome fantasies
and a foggy fact of murder
lurking in the park.
Three years later I woke up
biochemically transformed
and mystified:
why had I despised
this mother who was pretty good
better than most in fact
this extraordinary woman
whose only crimes
were vividness and charm?
And I uttered an alien phrase:
“Good morning, Mother.”
She was startled. “You have changed.”
Overnight I was an adult.
That was now to be my state, my fate.

MP3 recording of this poem

Please comment if you can’t access this recording

Poem by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0. Photo (c)  David & Celia Taylor family archives

My crush on death


I was busting to share my great idea:
I had a crush on death.
“I can hardly wait to die!”
Celia was horrified, so I explained.
I could see it all. I would die young
a hero mauled by lions and after that
I would explore the jungle of death!
It was a great idea, don’t you agree?

Meantime some actual deaths were history
but most were in detective books.
Murder was a puzzle, amusing until the day
they sat me down for a chat so weird
that the air got squashed and I had to faint or cry
but I didn’t know which so I shook
and the blood sank into my feet.
I was fourteen when I found out
that a real life murder isn’t entertaining
and it isn’t a puzzle because everyone knows
who done it
and murderers can be girls
fresh out of your own classroom
girls you tried to be nice to
but in your heart you do not like
they’re not your sort of person.

That’s when you learn that murder hurts
everyone, even the public who go feral
with theories and fear
even the murderers who had been
so vain about their work
and you learn that every teenage girl
must be prised away, sliced away
from her best friend
in case they kill their mothers too.

That’s when I learned to feel guilty
for not seeing what was under my nose
for only writing twice to Juliet in jail
guilty for not saving her, guilty for retreating
when our mothers tried to make us friends
guilty for not liking her model horses
guilty that our IQs were not a bond
guilty for not feeling as guilty as I should
because it was all my fault.

The Principal decreed that nobody
should talk about the murder.
I learned that life is not a book
and that was how I lost my crush on death.
Someone set me free from guilt at fifty:
only then was I allowed to talk and talk
and talk and talk and cry.

MP3 recording of this poem

Poem by Rachel McAlpine, CC BY 2.0, image from Christchurch Public Library.

Alternative M4a recording

If you only knew

Light through a doorway on a dark night
Light through a doorway on a dark night

Mother (as we called her then) had lost her friend
her dear friend Verity had died
and Celia was sad. Three days later
in the dead of night she had a visitation.
Verity stood at the end of her bed
laughing and laughing and laughing
and shining with delight.
Celia was enraged. “How dare you laugh
when we are weeping?
How dare you laugh when you are dead?”
and Verity said, “Because it’s all so simple!
If you only knew! It’s wonderful!
Dying is simple and death is fine!”

MP3 recording of this poem

Poem and photo by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0

Alternative recording: m4a

Three score years and ten

Celia Taylor relaxing on a mountain top in climbing gear.
Celia on a mountain. I think that’s the Franz Josef Glacier behind her, but please set me straight.

That’s enough said Celia our mother.
The Bible says
that three score years and ten
is our fair share of life, our span.
Always pick your quotes with care
and share with care, and that’s the one
she chose to share with me.
“Don’t let me be a burden, she said
I cannot will not shall not be a burden to you dear
I’ll walk out the door on my own two feet
I’ll leave before I start to leak
and burble and dribble and reek.
At the age of 70 I will be more
than a faint allusion to my self
I will still be my very self itself.
Let that be the age at which
I’ll peak, I’ll be complete.
Later I’d have nothing more to give
I’d be a taker a breaker a faker
my eyes would fail, my legs would fall
and worst of all my wit would crawl.
No no no I’ll die intact
never a burden, always a star.
This is my desire, dear daughter,
so listen with both ears.
When I’m three score years and ten
take me to the Franz Josef Glacier
and leave me there and turn your back.
When you turn around at last
I’m gone, I’m done, I’m down a crevasse
one last fling and I’m off your backs
I won’t be a bother to you any more
I’ll slip through a crack, I won’t be back.”

I didn’t drag her to the ice
nor did I have to hide my eyes
while she squeezed down a chimney
to the Hades of her choice.
My mother died on time at 70
yes, on New Year’s Day
in a common or garden hospital bed
and she was a burden to herself by then
and the glacier shrivelled year by year.
Who can plan their death in detail
decades in advance?

Pick your confidants with care
certain ears for certain truths.
Celia picked me when I was twelve
to hear her truth about dying.
Safe, for no-one believed me.
Sad, for it was sad.
Cruel, for her truth was heavy.
True, but only for Celia, and who knew why?

Audio file (mp3)

PS This is a true experience of mine, and a strange one. Thank goodness Celia didn’t make me promise to help her exit early from her life: that would have been a heavy load. She just expressed a strong desire and I felt more privileged than pressured. I wonder whether you have ever been in a similar situation. Maybe this post reminds you of something in your own life…

Alternative audio file (m4a) if you couldn’t access the first one

Photo from the Taylor family archives, poem and recording by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0. That means please do share and reblog, but always name me as writer.

How old is old enough?

Photo of three middle-aged women in the 1950s
Our Grandmother Mim on the right with her sisters Cos and Bim: all middle aged, but perceived as old

Everyone knows it’s best to be young—
or do they? Even a three-year-old knows how
to summon the ultimate insult
to crush a woman in power, a woman of influence
and so when our grandmother Mim
popped little Penny safe on the sideboard
away from the Hoover and away from fun
for at least one awful minute
our little sister knew precisely what to do:
you fan the furnace of your rage and scream,
you’re an extremely old woman and you look it!
So there!” Those words should break her bones
drop her sobbing to the carpet
fuel five ice creams and twenty sorries
so reasoned Penny
from her vast experience of life.
But no, this time the magic curse
was powerless and worse,
she’s cracked a joke it seems.

Mim roars with laughter
and forever after signs her letters
(there were many letters, it was a time of ink
and blotters and postmen riding bikes)
she signs them with a chuckle and a flourish:
“Yours sincerely, An Extremely Old Woman.”
It seems old age can be benign
for anthroposophists—or maybe just for Mim
who was frequently amused.
A three-year-old is old enough
to mimic ageist attitudes.
A woman in her prime is old enough
to find the label of “extremely old”
incongruous and comical and true.

Audio file (mp3)

This is the first recorded instance of ageism in our family, and its goodnatured rejection by our amazing grandmother Mim. Our other grandparents might otherwise have given us a generic impression of the old old as not so sprightly, but Mim was the antidote. Did ageism rear its head in your family, I wonder, and if so, how…

Alternative audio file (m4a) in case the first one doesn’t work for you

Photo from the Taylor family archives, poem and recording by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0. That means please do share and reblog, but always name me as writer.