Category Archives: Guest Blogger

Sharman Apt Russell: On Turning Seventy

[BB note:  When I returned to the U.S. in 2001, after spending five years in Africa, I chose to live in northern New Mexico. It was love at first sight for me – the vast sky, open terrain, and adobe architecture, so reminiscent of my beloved Mali, West Africa. But this was before Google was born, so (I confess now) I hadn’t done my homework. I’d assumed that the sage brush and cacti scattered everywhere meant year-round warm weather, which I so prefer (wrong). I’d also assumed there’d be job opportunities waiting for me (even more wrong).

Jobs in Taos, NM, were hard to come by then – unless you wanted to work at WalMart or the local hospital – or the University of New Mexico branch there. Teaching English and Creative Writing at the university appealed to me. But I soon learned that my B.A. with honors from Columbia was insufficient. I’d need to pursue, at considerable expense, at least a master’s degree to be considered for hiring as an adjunct.

Having little choice, that’s what I did. I attended Antioch University – Los Angeles’ two-year low-residency program and earned an MFA in Creative Writing in June 2007. Sharman Apt Russell, the author of more than a dozen books, was one of my Antioch mentors, and we’ve remained friends since. I count my decisions to teach at UNM, to earn an MFA at Antioch, and to get to know Sharman among the best decisions of my life. 

Sharman will be turning seventy years old this summer. Here she shares her thoughts for us as she approaches this significant milestone:]

Sharman Apt Russell on a recent hike near her home in New Mexico

I have never given much psychic weight to the Big O birthdays, not 30 or 40 or 50 or even 60. (Turning 65 and becoming eligible for Medicare was another matter.) But my upcoming 70th birthday this summer is different. It feels a little heavy.

It feels like a door. On the other side of that door are changes, and changes are almost always unsettling. A decade ago, I retired from a full time teaching job but continued part time as a mentoring faculty in a low-residency MFA writing program. I suspect that  I should soon retire from that, too. I suspect my students want and need someone younger. Perhaps that’s internalized ageism. Or just the truth.

I won’t, of course, be retiring from my creative work as a writer. No, no, no! (Imagine me yelling now with my hands gripping the door jamb.) Admittedly, the publishing world might also want someone younger. Someone with a big social media platform and a more presentable author’s photo.

Too bad, I say.

On the other side of that door are more doctor appointments, both for me and my partner. More waiting rooms. More checking my phone for books I didn’t remember to download. More learning about parts of the human body I never knew existed.

More memorials. More death and a heightened awareness of my death speeding toward me as if that were the most natural thing in the world—which, I remind myself, it is. Death is an uncomfortable subject unless you are with friends for whom this equally seems like the next bus stop. Maybe not the very, very next one. But there’s a definite sense of terminus. End of the line. This can actually produce some animated discussion.

 At a recent women’s group, one of these friends said how privileged she felt to have been given this “complete life experience,” from birth to old age. She was not saying that she was glad to be alive but that she was glad to have grown old. She was not being sentimental about growing old. In the last five years of our woman’s group, three of us have been widowed and others have suffered through terrible griefs and illnesses. Even so, my friend felt privileged to be witness to and part of this cycle.

On the other side of that door is that kind of courage. Over and over in those doctor appointments, people get bad news and respond stoically.  In any waiting room, I might expect to hear sudden sobbing or, at the least, loud petulance. Instead, we sit quietly and read our phones.

Leonard Cohen called being in your seventies the “foothills” of old age. In my case, walking these foothills still feels pleasant—another good hike. I am lucky to still be able to exercise and travel. I still have ambitions. My goal for my seventies is to become a commercially successful science fiction writer. A paperback writer. Exactly like the Beatles song! “Paperbaaack wriiiii-ter….” 

I want to do as much camping as possible in the beautiful  American West where I live. I want to return to the study of Jungian psychology and inch a bit further toward individuation—that more harmonious connection between my conscious and unconscious mind. Part of this work is to accept the grace and authority of living my own unique life. Which is so much harder than it sounds. I want to be a better wife, mother, and friend. I want what I have always wanted: to be madly in love with the world.

I have a lot of plans, and I haven’t even turned seventy yet. 

As an ending to this piece, I want to say “Thank you, Bonnie!” for hosting this space and for giving me this space. Honoring the wisdom of older women was a wonderful idea and a bold venture.

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Please visit Sharman’s links to learn more about her life and her books: