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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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


18 thoughts on “Sharman Apt Russell: On Turning Seventy”

  1. Shaman sounds like a special person. I hope she is able to overcome her apparent fear of aging. Hopefully, we can choose how we leave this world and enter the next.

  2. Lovely. From the perspective of 82, I am so happy to hear voices from those who are “in the foothills”. Come on up! There’s a lot to be discovered up here!

  3. BonnieDear—I loved reading these accounts, both yours and Sharman’s. I can tell she has been a good person to know. There are some friends like that (you’re one for me), who I can say as I teeter toward death, as we all do, I’m glad I lived long enough to be good friends with you for more than your time in Taos.

    And I would like to add this to the pot: The day before I turned seventy, almost two years ago now, I woke up with the realization that I had less to lose (less time to lose it was more like it) and more to risk (everything!). It was liberating, an epiphany of sorts. It’s a time of letting go instead of acquiring, although I still like to acquire knowledge and insight—and friends, if they’re easygoing.

    1. Oh, I’d forgotten you’ve already passed through the door marked “70,” BeDear! (You’ll always be early sixties to me! 🙂 ) Care to write a guest blog before my WOWs reach the end of their road?

  4. Wow, it’s like she was in my head writing!
    Beautiful I would love to share it on my page as so many of my friends are in this position now.

  5. So inspiring, la Bonnie! Calling the seventies the “foothills” of old age is accurate, Gary says. (I just told him, he is 77). I will get Sharman’s books. Muchas gracias!

  6. Dear, dear Bonnie, how I always love reading « WOW ». Your friend Sharman sounds like someone I too would like and enjoy hiking with in the beautiful Southwest.
    As for her reaching age 70 and feeling like she’s in the « foothills » of old age, I say wait until you reach the top of the mountain and you know you’re now going downhill to the inevitable day you say « goodbye” to precious life. At 82, I’m there and still enjoying the « hike ». I think the secret is good friends, new projects,
    reaching out, when you can, to help others and just being in love with life!

    1. Yes, dear Sher — There does come a point where the view from your particular mountain top is lovely — when you’re looking OUT, but not DOWN! I think that’s where I am right now. 🙂 I like your “secret” recipe. Gracias.

  7. It IS a privilege to live. I have experienced quite a few deaths. Of friends and family. Despite some of them being very ill and in pain, each one strove to fight the fight for that extra one day.
    Age is only an issue when it prevents us from achieving something.
    Embracing our age and the fact that we got to live till this point, is what we all should strive for, in my humble opinion, and to strive to be madly in love with the world’s beauty. Its still there. One just has to know where to find it.
    Thank you Sharman and thank you dear Bonnie.

  8. Dear Bon,
    Sharman Apt Russell, born the same year as I, has much to teach us about growing old. Her wisdom and strong spirit are palpable in all she says. I particularly responded to her friend who understands she is fortunate to have the opportunity to grow old. I often think about the many men around my age who were denied that same opportunity. I also really liked the idea of working ” to accept the grace and authority of living my own unique life.” It’s a profound thought and beautifully expressed. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Dearest Paul — Now I know how old you are! 🙂 I’m so glad this post by Sharman resonated with you. Yes, that’s one of the wonderful things about turning that corner (or opening that door) into the 70’s — learning to accept the authority of living our own unique lives. — LU, BB xx

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