How Did This Happen?

Poems for the Not So Young Anymore


By Mary D. Esselman

By Elizabeth Ash Velez

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From the bestselling authors of The Hell with Love, a fierce, funny, touching collection that takes the sting out of “aging while female.”



Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever's writing it says it's great to be old. It's great to be wise and sage and mellow; it's great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life. I can't stand people who say things like this.


This book is for every woman who has faced "OMG, how did this happen?" moments of aging, from ego-gutting recognitions (your mother's face stares out from your previously reliable bathroom mirror) to nerve-shredding indignities (there are few hours in life less agreeable than those dedicated to the ceremony known as a mammogram—except the ones dedicated to the colonoscopy). And worse.

This is forty and then some. This is aging: something that happens to other people, until it happens to you. That gray hair. Those apple cheeks puddling into jowls. To bother with vanity or (pretend to) ignore it? The pap smear scare. Cold sweat at the doctor's and hot flashes at night. Issues cosmetic and cosmic—but wait, how did this happen?

Five minutes ago, give or take a decade, we were thirty-somethings, flexing our way through dating and heartbreak and work drama, building careers and planning weddings, running marathons and swaddling babies—and now? You, who used to flinch at the sight of the grisly Dansko women in the Whole Foods parking lot, you, who blithely sprinted past the walking wounded on the track at the gym—here you are now, Birkenstock-shod in the supplements section, straining to read the ingredients labels, or post knee surgery in the Yoga for Healing class, hoarding blankets and vigilantly guarding your spot from pesky latecomers.

It simply cannot be. And yet somehow here we are, discovering the fight-or-flight hell that is "aging while female," a vexing side effect of what writer Olivia Laing calls the "perpetual, harrowing, nonconsensual beauty pageant of femininity." We struggle to transition from freaked-out to fabulous but find ourselves caught between revulsion and pride, fear and fortitude, the need to appear "professional" and "attractive" and the desire to resist social norms that equate "professional and attractive" with "young and hot."

Let's face it: getting from the shock (is that my face?!) to the awe (Viola Davis on the red carpet) of growing older requires emotional grace, intellectual grit, an expert dermatologist, and the company of true friends. Even then there's no guarantee you'll move from "I feel bad about my neck!" to "I'm an iconic badass!" But chances are you'll find equanimity, even joy, on your journey.

We can't provide the expert dermatologist, but we can offer a way to cultivate that grace, grit, and camaraderie, through a book that does for aging what we did for heartbreak in The Hell with Love: Poems to Mend a Broken Heart: guide, amuse, and comfort women who are going through a major life change—this time the natural but often deeply disruptive process of growing older. Through poetry—yes, hilarious, fierce poetry, from Gwendolyn Brooks to Amy Poehler—you'll find commiseration and inspiration to carry you through pivotal phases of aging:


(When you don't recognize yourself in the mirror)


(When you realize aging is a thing)


(When you think you can make it all go away)


(When you realize you can't even)


(When you find a way to live with yourself)


(When you find a way to live in the world)

So many of us experience aging alone, unprepared and unwilling to face it, from that first sneak attack to many dark nights of the soul. Despite our cheerful Facebook feeds, we're confused and embarrassed, grieving what's lost, afraid of what's to come, and unsure of how to move forward. (Try to get all that across in an emoji.) We'll take you through this journey together, in company that's safe and wise, funny and supportive.

And who, you may ask, are "we," daring to accompany you through aging, mixing our words with those of poetic geniuses like Lucille Clifton, Sylvia Plath, and Ada Limón? We're Mary, fifty-four, and Elizabeth, seventy-one, longtime best friends who love literature (we're both teachers) and pop culture (both former People magazine reporters) and who for the past thirty years have helped each other make sense of the world, one poem or Broad City episode at a time.

When late motherhood and right-on-time perimenopause collided for Mary, she searched in vain for a book or website that would "get" what she was going through, something that faced aging head-on, with smarts, humor, irony, and cold, hard truth. Nothing that screamed MENOPAUSE, INFIRMITY, DEATH, but nothing delusional about the wonders of decrepitude: "Oh, the fragrant wisdom of old age, musty with self-knowledge, I inhale it with gusto!" No. All she wanted was something relatable and real, not Ten Top Tips for Tip-Top Aging, not Look At My Gorgeous Over-40 Ass books by ex-models and celebrities. Where, oh where was her Are You There God? It's Me, Perimenopausal Margaret?

Elizabeth weighed in: "A little wine every night, a little Celexa every morning, and Valium as needed—oh, and Toni Morrison every day." And while drug-phobic Mary rejected booze and meds, she did find solace and strength in Elizabeth's doses of pop-literary therapy, from Margaret Atwood to Samantha Bee. And so: this book was born, a poetic how-to for women growing older, rooted in the wisdom of great thinkers and writers.

We aim to weave together our cultural experience of aging with poems that can help us cope. Because what's so different, really, between Emily Dickinson's steely truth telling and Amy Schumer's brilliant feminism, or Dorothy Parker's devastating wit and Lena Dunham's unapologetic frankness? They all evince an attitude toward aging, a female point of view that celebrates the Grace Paley–meets–Melissa McCarthy approach: "We are here, we exist, we are beautiful and gross and human; we grow up, and we grow old, and so what?"

One reason Schumer has struck such a chord with women of all ages is that she speaks truth to the power of sexism in our culture. We can all laugh at Schumer, Tina Fey, and Patricia Arquette sending Julia Louis-Dreyfus up the river after celebrating her last "fuckable" day (in the now classic sketch) because we know it's true: after "a certain age," women become invisible in our culture—unless they avail themselves of the subterfuge that writer Jennifer Weiner lamented in a New York Times op-ed: "How do you preach the gospel of body positivity when you're breathless from your Spanx? How can you tell your girls that inner beauty matters when you're texting them the message from your aesthetician's chair?" As Weiner said of the pressure to age pretty, "It's sexist, and depressing, and expensive, costly in terms of both money and time."

And that's where this book comes in, a guide for when you don't have the time, money, or comedic company of Schumer's merry menoposse. A poem is free therapy you can access anytime, like a prayer or a song. The best poems, the ones that stick with you, console you when you're grieving and steel you when you're scared—they "get" you, your weirdness and fears and inside jokes, just like a best friend, and they won't walk away when you lash out or melt down. Pick up these poems when you wake, sweating, at two a.m. and can't get back to sleep—you'll find them wide awake with you, cursing the dark, making you laugh, and maybe even soothing you back to slumber. Or let these poems rile you into righteous action, whether it's "leaning in" harder or letting go sooner—whatever moves you toward living life on your own terms.

Ultimately, that's what this book is about—crafting a life that you choose, despite the challenges of midlife and beyond. As we grow older in a culture of constant self-scrutiny and social snark, let's destigmatize aging by talking about it (and living it) without embarrassment and dread, without shame or self-loathing. Let's build on a moment when attitudes toward "aging while female" just may be changing: from Beyoncé to the Notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), Amanda Peet to Ava DuVernay, Emma Watson to Emma Thompson, Shonda Rhimes to Sonia Sotomayor… to Oprah and beyond (we can hardly stop ourselves)—smart, powerful women are already rejecting and subverting cultural norms around growing up and growing older.

We want to join our voices with theirs, and add the resonance of poetry, which endures when trends have come and gone. Great poetry—funny and tender, piercing and true—can help us face both the insults to the flesh and the injuries to the soul that come with growing older. As we've done for each other, we'll accompany you through it all, from a state of shock and frustration 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 we will be who we want to be, and poetry can help us see and remember that. Amid all the craziness of our lives, poetry offers what Robert Frost called "a momentary stay against confusion"; it cuts through the noise and stays with you, so that no matter the "how did this happen?" moment, you feel grounded, supported, not alone.

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.

Someday Taylor Swift and her squad will see that first gray hair or have that scare at the ob-gyn, and then they, too, like millions of the rest of us, will feel better thanks to poems like Margaret Atwood's "Solstice Poem, iv":

My daughter crackles paper, blows

on the tree to make it live, festoons

herself with silver.

So far she has no use

for gifts.

What can I give her,

what armor, invincible

sword or magic trick, when that year comes?

How can I teach her

some way of being human

that won't destroy her?

I would like to tell her, Love

is enough, I would like to say,

Find shelter in another skin.

I would like to say, Dance

and be happy. Instead I will say

in my crone's voice, Be

ruthless when you have to, tell

the truth when you can,

when you can see it.

Iron talismans, and ugly, but

more loyal than mirrors.

It's so funny because it doesn't matter what you do… there are days where you're just feeling it and other days where you look at yourself and say, "Oh my god, who is that old woman in the store window? Oh my god, it's me!"


Mary never thought she'd care about "growing old." Through her twenties and thirties she worked out, ate right, slept decently. Surely staying healthy and fit would carry her through, and the rest was vanity. A few wrinkles, meh, no big deal. What mattered was doing good work, changing the world, being kind.

Then one day, somewhere around age forty-two, she happened to touch her chin. What the—she went to the mirror—was that a hair? A spiky black hair growing out of her chin? Repelled but fascinated, she flicked it with her thumb and watched it spring back, perky, pointy, and smug.

En garde. Game on. "Old" was coming for her, one hormonal jab at a time, and what was she going to do about it?

But wait a minute, this couldn't be. Mary had just gotten married at thirty-nine, had a baby at forty-one. Couldn't she rest on this Desitin-stained plateau for a while? Wasn't it enough to be slack bellied and sleep deprived, trying to maintain some semblance of a career? Did this growing-old stuff have to start now, too?

Let's face it: most of us think we're fine with "aging," until some random, superficial thing freaks us out. Separately, you can handle each little insult: pluck the rude hair, hide the gray, pretend your yoga pants are office appropriate. But collectively, these physical changes take a toll on your psyche. You feel the shock—a glancing blow, at first—of not quite looking like you any longer, the sting of realizing others see you differently now, too.

It's a sneak attack, this aging thing, and that's what these first poems are all about—that dawning awareness and disbelief, that prickle of fear, those creeping indignities you try to ignore.

And why should we care about the cosmetic changes of aging? Women should be able to look how they look at any age. Our choice, our identity, our power. Right? If only. Instead, as Sarah Silverman reveals in her tweet turned poem "42 AND Female," we're expected to apologize for daring to be women who (gasp) grow older. Horrifying! Look away!

Okay, so it's a sexist culture, and as Toni Morrison says, physical beauty is one of the "most destructive ideas in the history of human thought." We know we should reject the demand to "age pretty." Let's age smart and strong! We're full-grown women, dammit. Why, oh why, then, do we fret over crow's-feet and muffin tops? Why that trickle of cold sweat when we realize our bodies really are changing all over again, seemingly beyond our control?

Perhaps because there's comfort and familiarity in our "same as I've always looked" youngish selves. We survived the natural disasters of puberty and the bad haircuts of our twenties. Finally we're at home in our skin and confident out in the world—until suddenly we find ourselves, like the speaker in Ariwara No Narihira's "That It Is a Road," going down a road we "never expected" to take so soon.

Even if we strive to be as proudly defiant as Sarah Silverman, the truth is, deep down we feel a bit sad, a bit confused, and a bit embarrassed to admit it. Women often don't talk to one another about these feelings, and there's no What to Expect When You're Not Really Expecting to Get Older (But Then It Happens Anyway).

Too often we're stuck in our own heads, noticing little signs of decrepitude and quietly panicking, like the woman in Deborah Landau's "Solitaire," for whom a summer trip to the pool becomes a frantic meditation on mortality. It's only the "midsummer" of her life, she tells herself. She's not yet "on the oxygen tank." She still has sex twice a week. (You know you're getting older when sex becomes just another item on a list proving you're not yet dead.)

But as she watches the "lithe girls poolside," the woman's fears unspool: she wants to "hold on awhile," if she can only figure out how: "If I retinol. If I marathon. / If I Vitamin C. If I crimson // my lips and streakish my hair. / If I wax. Exfoliate. Copulate." But it's too late, she knows. All the cosmetic fixes in the world won't save her from the catastrophes she sees lying in wait: "If a tremor, menopause. Cancer. ALS. / These are the ABCs of my fear."

Exactly. With that first shock of recognition—wow, I look just like the frowzy old moms I used to see at the pool when I was a teenager—comes a cold stab of "oh my god, THIS is how it happens, and what house of horrors lies ahead?"

We feel those moments early in our awareness of aging, but then somehow we recover, repress our dread, and move on in the "tumble-rush of days we cannot catch." The shock of aging recedes until the next little reminder kicks us in the gut, as in Faith Shearin's "Being Called Ma'am." The woman in the poem feels good at forty ("Don't my jeans still fit? Can't I see / without glasses if I just hold the book a little farther // from my face?"), until the college boys with "faces like unused maps" call her ma'am, "that word their mothers taught them." Suddenly she sees the distance between "the woman they see and the one / of my imagination." Suddenly she feels "sexless" and "heavy as silence."

Undeniably, this hurts, when we start to feel unseen, undesirable, unheard. At first it's just a curious observation. In our minds we're still just our lovable selves, looking out at the world through the same eyes we've always had, expecting, perhaps, the same glances we used to get, the same frisson of potential attraction—or at least just friendly recognition. We make eye contact, smile, and… the other person walks right by. Ouch. What's going on here? Have we lost our currency—society values youthful beauty (especially in women)—already? Yes, banish the thought—it's unfeminist and offensive, but come on, how many women have thought it, with a mixture of rueful embarrassment and righteous indignation?

There's no getting around the societal truth that as women grow older, everything around sex starts to get a little weird (as if it's all made such great sense before). We may start to question our own desirability, feeling insecure and resentful at the same time. We may start to notice our own sleepy libido, like the speaker in Chana Bloch's very funny "Tired Sex," who catches herself "yawning" during the act, likening herself to "the sparrow the cat / keeps batting around." Sex can be great as we age, sure, yeah, absolutely… and at times it can be just one more thing to do before sorting the laundry. But we can't let it lapse, can't stop initiating, participating in, and (we can't believe we're even saying this), actually enjoying it because then it might be true—maybe we really are sexless ghosts, the "ma'ams" of the world. So we keep the pressure on ourselves to look and feel "sexy," and god forbid we talk about any of it unless we're just joking around.

It is easier, after all, to speak playfully about our changing selves than to reveal the dark abyss of our worry. Tina Fey cracks us up with her Bossypants description of "aging naturally":

At a certain point, your body wants to be disgusting. While your teens and twenties were about identifying and emphasizing your "best features," your late thirties and forties are about fighting back decay. You pluck your patchy beard daily. Your big toe may start to turn jauntily inward. Overnight you may grow one long, straight white pubic hair.

And Samantha Bee admits, "I'd prefer to stay 43 forever—but that's not likely to happen. Things are going to sag, things are going to get crepey, some of us (I'm not saying who) are going to grow mysterious catlike whiskers out of weird places (deal with it)." Like them, the woman in Jennifer Tonge's "Self-Portrait at 38" tries to keep things light and funny as she observes her not-exactly-a-work-of-art body.

Sylvia Plath, on the other hand, scares us straight to the Botox doc with her poem about a mirror who lords his power over an aging woman. "I am not cruel, only truthful," the mirror purrs as he delivers his devastating critique of her appearance:


  • "This wondrous, salty, poignant, witty poetry collection is an invitation to all us women of a certain age to get real about Life after Babedom. In my loooooong experience, whenever the times in my life are a changing, nothing makes me feel quite as deeply understood and accompanied than a good poem. So please: Read! Laugh! Cringe! and Carry On!"—Martha Woodroof, author of Small Blessings
  • "After all the eye creams and diets and the miscarriage and the 3 A.M. terrors, we will at least and forever have poems. This gorgeous, hilarious, heartbreaking and wise roadmap to becoming the Women whose Roots are Showing, feels like stumbling into that secret Facebook group you always dreamed of: where your very best friends are all waiting for you brandishing poems of pain and laughter, and admonishing you to 'tell the truth if you can.' And thanks to Mary and Elizabeth, you'll find that you can."—Dahlia Lithwick, Senior Editor, Slate
  • "Any anthology of poems must answer the question "so what?" Why this gathering of poems about . . . meerkats, ghost towns, salt and pepper shakers, New Jersey diners? How Did This Happen? Poems for the Not So Young Anymore answers the question in spades, reminding us at every turn that we are mortal, aging, and not alone. Just as moving and entertaining as the curated poems (contributors range from Euripides to Sharon Olds, Emily Dickinson to Ada Limón, Shakespeare to Rita Dove) are the Introduction and contextualizing prose passages by the editors themselves, whose moxie, stand-up humor, pop-cultural savvy, authenticity, and humanity shine forth with forthright, intelligent consolation on every page. This is a book for women (and men!) of all ages."—Lisa Russ Spaar, Professor of English and Creative Writing, University of Virginia
  • "This is the book I didn't even know I needed-until I found myself crying within the first few pages. 'Growing up' and 'growing older' can feel lonely-thinking no one else feels the same way or experiences the same losses and hopes and fears. In these poems, and in the hilarious, touching commentary accompanying them, I found solace and joy. How Did This Happen is not your mother's anthology. It is a fierce, funny, guided meditation, set in poetry, through the insult, grit and grace of aging; a thinking woman's guide to growing older. This is a book to love, now and for the months and years to come."—Andrea Seabrook, NPR

On Sale
Apr 4, 2017
Page Count
256 pages

Mary D. Esselman

About the Author

Mary D. Esselman is a freelance writer and teacher currently working for the University of Virginia’s Women’s Center.

Elizabeth Ash Velez is the academic coordinator of the Community Scholars Program and professor of feminist theory at Georgetown University.

Learn more about this author