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.


The theology of hell

Rev. David Taylor on horseback with toddler in front.
Rev. David Taylor on horseback with toddler Jill, in the Chatham Islands, c. 1938.

I was worried. I was seven
and Daddy (as we called him then)
was tucking me into bed.
I was worried about hell.
I was worried I would go to hell.

I had done something pretty bad
maybe told a lie or nicked a coin
from the Craven A tin in his study
so I asked him, “Will I go to hell
or will I go to heaven?”
Not a chatterbox, he always thought
before he spoke.
You could see him thinking
with his eyeballs and his mouth.
He said, “I’m not sure there is a hell
because God is love and God is kind
He doesn’t want to hurt us
but if by chance there is a hell, I’m sure
that only a few, a very, very, very few
would be sent to hell, and only after
doing something very bad indeed.”
“Like what?” I asked, still worried.
Was I one of the very few? Quite likely.
Again he pondered. Then he said, “I think
that they would have to kill another person,
on purpose, and not feel sorry afterwards.”
He was a vicar, and he knew.
He gave me a goodnight kiss
and left me wild with joy: I wouldn’t go to hell!
I knew for sure and certain
I would never kill a person
at least not on purpose and even if I did
I would certainly be sorry—
so I wouldn’t go to hell.

Audio file (mp3)

Thank goodness my father recognised my distress. How easily a parent can miss the gravity of a child’s question, when they can easily seem so absurd! Has that happened to you, I wonder, either as a parent or a child? We felt safe with our gentle Daddy on the case.

Alternative audio file (m4a) in case you can’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.


When Aunty Lesley died

Dark-eyed beauty Aunty Lesley, bridesmaid at Celia's wedding. From a painting by Lesley Evans.
Dark-eyed beauty Aunty Lesley, bridesmaid at Celia’s wedding. From a painting by Lesley Evans.

When Aunty Lesley died of tuberculosis
she was thirty and I was only three.
I have no memories of Aunty Lesley
I have no memories at all from little me
only the mythology of tragic death embedded
but now I think of Celia giving birth
in the deep midwinter to daughter number five
and four days later
her lovely sister dies
only a hundred miles away.
Celia can’t help, she can’t attend the funeral
her duty is to David
in an icy mountain vicarage
swarming with kids already.
We were told the story of the dark-eyed aunt
and her husband Captain Jack in the RNZAF
and the motherless child she left behind
as cute as Sailor Girl
and the kind cousin who took the baby in
when Jack went back to the war.
Later we heard of quarrels over open windows
as if that would have cured TB
but it helps to have someone to blame
someone to drive away and not forgive
when you lose your only sister.
The fact was there. The fact of death
skimmed across the shallows of my child mind
along with the hurts of the plaiting of plaits
or a skinned knee
a short hurt that might or might not
ever occur again.
I had no scale of terribleness
and never imagined my mother’s lonely pain.
That death was just a fairy tale, far away and veiled
a tale she muffled for her daughters
while she gave us sister after sister
a sister for every season for every reason
while her bones surely wept and wailed
and with a broken heart she managed to be brave.

Audio track (mp3)

It’s only recently that I have started to imagine how terrible this must have been for our mother, to lose her only sister, and to be so close and yet out of reach. The pain was worse because she wanted desperately to adopt her niece, but with five daughters of her own already that was not a realistic option. What does death mean to a little child, when it’s somebody else’s mother who dies, not your own?

Portrait of my aunt from a painting of my parents’ wedding, by Lesley Evans, my sister. Lesley was the baby who was born four days after Aunty Lesley died. Poem and recording by me, Rachel McAlpine. Feel free to repost and otherwise share, with attribution. 

Alternative audio track (m4a)



Once we were special

6 girls in plaits, slacks and hand-knitted jerseys
6 girls in plaits, slacks and hand-knitted jerseys

Once we were special because we were six
six little girls all dressed the same
all funny and noisy and naughty and cute.
Now we are special because we are
six old women all blessed the same
all talky and thinky and lucky and winky
and still THANK YOU GOD alive and thriving
in our seventies and eighties.
How do I dare even think those words
when frailty is overdue
and death is knocking at the house next door?
Before you even read this page
one of the sisters may be dead
but what would I write instead?
Meantime being lively at our stage
in this time of the plentiful unyoung
is not so special, it’s almost a norm
for some lucky ones born in the olden days
of food in the garden and school that was free
and no need for words like “organic”
and two complementary lifestyle rules:
be kind and have adventures.

PS I never know which lines in a poem really work with readers. I only know which lines work for me. Would like to know what you started thinking about…

Image and poem and voice by Rachel McAlpine, CC BY 2.0: that means please do share them, but always attribute them to me. Thanks!

Why does that page look so white?

Scary poem surrounded by wasted space
Scary poem surrounded by wasted space

Why does that page look so white?
Why is it only half full?
You don’t like poems and fair enough
you take in an eyeful of words
and then the words stop short
making space on the right, your space
making time on the right, time for your mind
to wander, so you float away
to your brother rowing across Cook Strait
or your mother who never went to church
or a film you saw the other day.
That’s good, feel free
that’s why the lines are chopped
that’s what white space is for.
This is a single runaway non-poem.
I’m seventy-eight, that’s not very old
but it’s getting late
so I’m rushing at this like a bull at a gate.
So much living done and dusted
none of it ordinary, all of it ordinary
some of it wanting to turn into a story
all of it mine and all of it yours.
I could be arcane, I could be smart
I could crochet the strings of your heart
I could be clever, I could be wise
douse my words in splendour and surprise
but now that I’m staring at my own demise
I’m in a rush to beat the deadline.
So read it aloud in a lonely room
or read it with friends in a Long Song huddle
or read in peace to somebody dear
who has to be fed mushy food with a spoon
and here’s the deal
I’ll stop talking to myself
and talk to you.

I see this (partly) as a poem about how to read a poem, for people who don’t like poetry. I wonder what you think about this?

Image and poem and voice by Rachel McAlpine, CC BY 2.0: that means feel free to share them, but always attribute them to me. Thanks!

Long Song Of The Unyoung

Cartoon of worried people looking at an old person with walking sticks

What’s it all about?

This is the story of you, as you are now
or as you will be one day: unyoung.
It looks like the story of me
as I tackle the shock of me being old right now
and watch the spooky movie of me getting even older
sliding every day towards the ranks of the oldest old
as I windsurf over the silver wave and on to the golden tide
of the super-old and stay there barrelling on and on
until I flip and tumble off, in other words I die.
It looks like the story of me as I think
about what that means for now today this minute
and for the future. But no, I’m not the subject
and this is not a memoir. This is the story of you.

About the Long Song Of The Unyoung

I’ve launched into a read-aloud book about ageing, ranging from childhood experiences to the labours of Hercules and my boot camp for the bonus years. I want it to speak directly to your fears and hopes and happies, if you are aware that you have joined the ranks of the unyoung, or will do so one day. And yes, it’s in loose verse so it looks funny but I promise it will be very easy to understand. Not your enigmatic, intellectual poetry but more like the words to a song: a long song, but a simple song, romping along at quite a pace.

The bits I post on my blog will not be in order, so you won’t get the story or the structure of the eventual book. But you’ll get the flavour, and each part will make sense on its own.

Text and terrible drawing by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0. Share freely, please do, as long as you say I’m the writer.