An Interview with Barbara Ridley
By CNF Reader C. S. Hadebe
“I don’t believe in denying my age…[It] is indeed a privilege…”
In the words of New York-born writer Gabrielle Zevin: “You don’t choose a book; the book chooses you.” How well do you feel the quote describes your sudden gravitation towards May Sarton’s At Seventy as someone at the cusp of the same age?
Absolutely! It was an amazing moment. As I wrote in the essay, for years, I never really “saw” the books on that shelf of old favorites; they were tucked behind an armchair and served like a background wallpaper. But something made me notice May Sarton’s journal right before my seventieth birthday, and it felt like a true gift.
What inspired you to journal your experiences on “Getting Up There”? Was it the gumption infused by Sarton or something else entirely?
I was reflecting on the joy of backpacking and the need to recognize that I am not as strong as I used to be. As I turned seventy, that morphed into a contemplation on aging and the tension between denial and acceptance in my response. Sarton’s writing dovetailed perfectly with that.
You worked as a nurse for four decades and as a nurse practitioner who specializes in the care of adults with physical disabilities. With all the medical know-how of how the human body declines as it ages and the subject matter of your essay, how did you strike the exquisite balance between humor and the morbid reality of living in an aging body?
I acknowledge the irony of my knowing full well from my clinical training and experience that aging and disability require adaptations, and yet I have a hard time believing that any of that applies to me. I related to my patients with empathy, but there was always a barrier there, a necessary boundary. You can’t do the work if you become over-identified. So my patients’ experiences were “other,” not mine. I had a patient many years ago who had been an avid backpacker but who then became severely disabled by multiple sclerosis. I would tell him about my trips and promise to say “hi” to the mountains for him, so I’ve always been aware of my good fortune. But now I’m forced to recognize that it won’t last forever, and I am trying to process that.
As for the humor, I naturally gravitate toward including some in all my writing and story-telling, even when dealing with heavy topics. My first novel was set in the Holocaust, but I tried to balance the trauma with light touches, which many readers have said they appreciate.
In your essay, you mentioned that “Aging is a privilege; I know that. But eighty? I admit to a twinge of terror. I’m getting up there.” As much as you admit that it has inspired terror, how comforting is it for you to have (and to continue to live) a full life to the point of meeting the dread with grace?
I don’t believe in denying my age and find it sad that so many women feel the need to do so. Aging is indeed a privilege denied to those who die young. But each “landmark” birthday does take an adjustment as the new number seems to carry such a weight of assumptions. Now I am trying to embrace my age with pride, particularly when hiking and otherwise living, as you say, a “full life.” I draw inspiration from elders who continue to lead active lives well into their 80s and even 90s.
You touched on how it took twelve years to complete the novel based on your late mother’s life and escape from the Holocaust. How difficult was the writing process behind this essay, and how long did it take?
This essay flowed out of me pretty quickly over a few weeks, and then it went through three drafts, I believe. This was nothing like the process of writing my first novel when I was struggling to learn how to write fiction, doing all the research for the book, and still working in a demanding job!
There’s the part in your essay where you say: “In the future, they mean”, after Abby and Jen talk about applying the new tricks you taught them. What motivated those words?
What I meant by “in the future” was my realization that my daughter and her friend have (presumably) years and years of hiking ahead of them, and I do not. A fact that I am still struggling to accept. I find the loss of the sense of an unlimited future is one of the most profound losses of aging.
You likened the art of writing to that mountain hiking in a sense that both give gradual rewards to commitment and consistent going. Would you also say that you test the limits of your body as a hiker as much as you push yourself as a writer to always become better at it?
My years of mountain hiking have nourished my resilience and the commitment to persevere which has served me well in my writing, both in the need to constantly revise and improve the prose and to survive the cycles of the submission-and-rejection process. Nowadays, I am not so much pushing the limits of my body as a hiker, but rather trying to maintain what I have as long as possible. But as a writer I am constantly learning and trying to improve.