The Sun’s Sy Safransky on aging gratefully

portrait of Sy Safransky by The Sun’s photo editor, Rachel J. Elliott

When applied to aging, the word “gracefully” doesn’t sit well with writer and editor Sy Safransky, who turned 71 a few days before we met him earlier this year in Los Angeles.  He was in town for a conference of writers and editors, visiting from his long-standing perch in Chapel Hill, otorth Carolina, where, in 1974, he founded the gem of a monthly magazine called The Sun, long ad-free and chock full of humanity.

It’s impossible to simply summarize this publication, which is what makes it great. Each issue follows the same arc: a meaty one-on-one interview with someone who isn’t famous, in the conventional sense of the word, but who is expert in their field; essays, poems, true and short stories follow that punctuate the themes set in that opener; contributions are solicited, too, from readers, who are asked to riff on teaser prompts, like “Swimming” and “The Sofa.”)  The photos are black and white and haunting. Oh, and did I mention, no ads? (Not like “ad-free” public radio, either.  This publication is reader supported.)

As a long-time fan-it’s the only magazine I subscribe to, much less regularly devour-I had a suspicion Safransky would offer wise insights into the subject of aging.  Tales of every stage of the human condition seep into the pages from time to time from a variety of contributors, but this topic inserts itself often.  (Case in point: this storyProvolone by Joseph Bathanti, just about undid me.)

Yet, I found myself a bit tentative (as I rarely am when meeting someone new) when he agreed to our encounter.  Safransky has a reputation for being brusque.  Why, I wondered, did he event accept my invitation to talk about such an amorphous subject for such a tiny audience?

Born and raised in my hometown of Brooklyn New York, he started his career as a newspaper journalist, but realized early on, as his life twisted and turned, that he preferred to write about internal changes like longing, and loneliness– addressing, as he said, what’s happening out in the world by “taking note of what’s happening inside.” He got out of the daily grind that most of us take years, if ever, to escape.

Putting words on paper, he told us, helps him sort through and understand his role in the world.  But as he spoke off the cuff in a corner of the hotel where he was staying, he didn’t need a pen and paper to articulate his particular wisdom about aging.  For one thing, the idea that we shirk from the word “old” when describing ourselves.  “If people wait to be called old until they’re feeble,” he said, “then feeble becomes equated with old. Why not call yourself old when you’re moving around doing things?”

IMG_3993He also took issue with the notion of growing old gracefully.  Listen to our chat to hear why.  And if you haven’t read The Sun, check out an issue or two.  Its textured beauty is hard to encapsulate (which is why it’s so good,) but one reader has summed it up nicely: It is to print, says Pat Mullaney, what Prairie Home Companion is to radio: “quietly revolutionary, selectively anachronistic, unfashionably idealistic.” Isn’t that we should all aspire to be, now, and as we grow older?