Unchained Melody: Learning how to be old

By Melody Thomas

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Getting old – the unavoidable side effect of a long life. But why is it always thought of so negatively? Melody Thomas investigates how we can change the way we think about aging and learn to embrace each new year. 

Last year I witnessed something wonderful on a stage. I was at Show Ponies, a poetry showcase like you’ve never seen, created by beautiful genius Freya Daly Sadgrove (who has an awesome new show coming up – tickets here!). The premise is simple: poets are pop stars now. They take to the stage and perform their works with verve and gusto, wearing spectacular costumes, accompanied by beats and live musicians, with lights, choreography, smoke, glitter and backup dancers. Show Ponies has performed sell-out shows at Verb Festival, Featherston Booktown and Brisbane Writers Festival, with fingers crossed – many more to come (there’s a little 16-minute doco about the show and its creator here, if you’re curious). 

Basically, Show Ponies is more fun than anyone should have at a literary event. Every iteration contains several show-stopping performances, some of which crack your heart open and leave you a puddle on the floor, where others stir your spirit till your follicles stand upright or leave you clutching at your sides with laughter.

But the one I want to talk about was by poet, novelist, and playwright Rachel McAlpine.

Imagine: A backdrop of stacked bookshelves adorned by fairy lights, emitting an orange glow. The audience waits quietly as four women take to the stage. They wear matching skirts of voluminous, floor-length tulle, and tops to suit their personalities: one glitters in a sequined butterfly, another is resplendent in puff-sleeved shirt with a corset overtop. There is a patterned crop top, with a sweet belly showing beneath. They’re stunning. They completely command the room. And they’re old.

Isn’t it funny how that seems like a bad word: old. For a moment I wavered over it. Should I call them grandmothers instead? (Somehow more acceptable, though possibly incorrect). Or soften the effect by writing old-er? (Older than whom? Me? You?)

But McAlpine is 83. Her white-haired dancers are called the Crow’s Feet. The poem, How To Be Old, a gleeful celebration of ageing. To use another word would be so beside the point it’s walked off stage and right out the door.

The women take their places. McAlpine, in the corset and flouncy sleeves, is centre-stage. Her dancers are to one side. McAlpine recites:

You can’t be old
without being young
for a very—long—time.

The dancers move in a slow, strange fashion, both comedic and beautiful. They sway and skip, holding their arms slightly aloft, like prancing ponies. With a dramatic flourish they hoist their skirts and flash their legs. The audience roars.

The Show Ponies audience is younger than is typical at your usual literary event, but not young enough that we’re impervious to concern about ageing. I’d hazard a guess that most of us are in our late 20s to mid-40s, and have all felt it coming for us: the sore backs on waking (so soon?!), the wiry silver hairs appearing, and the fine lines about the eyes and mouths. We’ve heard ourselves speaking with the voices of our parents, looked back at photos where, at the time they were taken, we considered ourselves hideous, but now see only beauty and obnoxious amounts of collagen.

All of us, but especially those of us socialised as women, have heard how ageing will render us invisible. Old ladies have told me about giving up trying to order coffee because the barista simply cannot see them. How they’re ignored at dinners and parties. How they pinball down the pavement off a succession of careless elbows.

I can feel this invisibility tingling in my fingertips and tongue, causing me to parade and gesticulate, to project my voice ever louder, in a misguided attempt to stall my impending erasure. 

It’s frightening. I don’t want to be invisible. I want to effect change.

I want to matter.

At Show Ponies, McAlpine and her Crow’s Feet are far from invisible. They take up space. They command attention. And they do so with a, wholehearted sense of joy.

It’s true that some old people lose
the ability to enthuse.
They refuse. They recuse.
That’s not being old! That’s being sad.
Or grumpy. (Grumpy, grumpy, grumpy.)

Their joy is contagious. My friends and I clutch at our hearts, eyes sparkling with happy tears, near-drunk on the exuberance and merriment of the women on stage. In an instant, old age has gone from a curse we all must bear eventually, to a gift we might be lucky enough to inherit.

I don’t know how she’s done it! Perhaps she simply understands the allure of being told you can’t have something. Theirs is an exclusive club, which none of us have a hope of joining unless we manage to live for a very—long—time.

Rather than reassuring us that we’ll get there in time, McAlpine takes a different tack: she mocks us, putting on a childish voice that’s meant to represent us, in our newfound eagerness to be old: “Mummy, Daddy, when are we going to get there?”

She laughs, then scolds us: “Simmer down. Have a banana.”

I die.

The internet tells me a person copes better with ageing when they see themselves as a subject rather than an object.

This is especially difficult for women, who are objectified by society for most of their lives, and so naturally internalise the message that their worth is tied to their physical appearance. A self-objectifying person is someone made complicit in their own devaluing. They view themselves from the outside in, as if an invisible camera were documenting their every move. From this position, it’s impossible not to feel dismay when the object – our very body – begins to lose value.

A subject is someone whose idea of self is formed from the inside out. This person understands the many ways in which they may continue to contribute. They derive joy from doing things that make them feel good, from connection to those they love, from the rich and sparkling layers of their interiority. Through this lens, change is almost always a good thing, and the shedding of superficial distractions like sexual attention and external validation might even provide relief. As Kristin Scott Thomas said in her menopause monologue in Fleabag: “… Yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get f***ing hot and no one cares, but then you’re free, no longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person.”

Perhaps this is why McAlpine and her Crow’s Feet are so breathtaking. Because they are free! They are subjects, not objects: they don’t need our approval. Sure, they enjoy our applause, feed off it even, as all performers do, but it won’t make or break them. They have lives that glitter with the riches of human connection. They have their unique joys and pursuits. After this show, they will return to their gardens and bush walks and reading, their writing and ocean swims and grandbabies, and they will continue to revel in the wonders of old age. 

And if we want it, all of that could be ours, too. 

So there it is.
If you want to be old one day—
and you do, you know you do—
you want serenity
you want sagacity
you want old friends
you want photographs and knick-knacks

you want to be
a family tree
If you want to be old, you can—
by staying alive
for years and years and years and years
hanging in there for your reward:
old age.

What I’m reading

Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet

I’ve been going through one of those horrible reading phases where nothing you pick up grabs you, so you end up reading the first few chapters of a dozen novels, getting more and more desperate by the day. It’s surprising to me that, after all that, it was this book that broke through: one of those quiet stories where nothing much happens.

Gil is a kind, very wealthy and brokenhearted man, who walks from New York to his new home in Arizona after a breakup. But this journey barely features: the story focusing instead on the relationship which unfolds between Gil and his neighbours, a small family who slowly take him into their fold.

While there are enough potential dramas and disasters percolating around its edges to make the story compelling, none of them ever really surface, which lead one NYT Review of Books letter-writer to call it “dishopian” rather than dystopian. This is probably why I liked it so much. In a world gone a bit mad, Dinosaurs – with its focus on quiet kindnesses and the healing power of community – is a balm.

What I’m cooking

Beetroot and dill with creme fraiche and walnuts, from Community: Salad Recipes from Arthur Street Kitchen, by Hetty McKinnon

I love a good salad. Yes, a leafy green with a classic dressing, but more so – something with colour, bite and heft: a salad that’s a meal in its own right. This is why Hetty McKinnon’s Community is one of my favourite cookbooks of all time (as well as Neighbourhood, which she released a couple of years later).

The recipes are divided by key ingredients: root vegetables, brassicas, fungi, cereals, legumes etc, and I’m yet to make one I don’t adore. A current obsession with dill has this recipe back in rotation, think of it like a potato salad but more delicious, creamy and sweet, with the brightness of dill and crunch of walnuts.

Other favourites include: Roasted Beetroot with Caramelised Turnips, Edamame Beans and Wasabi Mayonnaise (mind blowing with fish, especially tuna or kingfish); Spiced Sweet Potato, Puy Lentils and Rocket with Honey-Roasted Walnuts; Roasted Cauliflower and Caper Vinaigrette and Lemon-Parsley Pangrattato and Balsamic Brussels Sprouts and Puy Lentils with Parmesan and Mint. If they sound good to you, get the book! You won’t regret it.

What I’m watching

Please Like Me (on Netflix)

I don’t usually have time to binge watch, but a recent stomach bug had me in bed for three days and I managed to put away a few seasons of Australian comedy-drama Please Like Me. It’s one of those shows you devour even though the characters are somewhat intolerable; because they’re funny, because, though they often fail, they are trying, and because – despite your best intentions – you end up rooting for them.

It’s also queer, and very real about sex and relationships in your 20s, in a way that’s both slightly triggering and also ruthlessly funny (see also: depictions of mental health). Special shout out to Debra Lawrence, aka Pippa Ross from Home and Away, who plays the main character Josh’s hilarious, full-on bipolar Mum.


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