Interested in access to the greatest, single mental decongestant I’ve ever come across?
Subscribe to The Sun.
The Sun came to me a couple years ago, through a mailing list or another that brands one as “progressive,” I think. The initial offer made it clear that it emphasizes “personal writing.” (That set off alarms with me—thanks to our popular culture’s metastatic narcissism, I detest fiction narrated in the first person and am suspicious of anything labeled “memoir.’”) Skeptically, I read on. The monthly magazine’s adopted motto is from Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl:
What is to give light must endure burning.
Its mission statement completed the observation:
To write about ourselves in a way that touches others and reminds them of our connectedness we must be willing—with all our passion, fear, and longing—into the fire.
So, I suspended disbelief—after all, most magazines have an unmistakable objective, from reloading your intellectual cartridges for interpersonal combat, to stoking your boiler for personal indulgence or consumption of one kind or another. (“Shiny!”)
What a pleasant surprise. If forced—at gunpoint,likely—to pigeonhole this rag, I’d go with “independent postgraduate study; see “Human Being 101.” It explores the consciousness of self, unselfconsciously; the destination is us, not me.
Other logistics: It’s nonprofit, sells no advertising, and is edited and published by Sy (nevermore “Seymour!”) Safransky—Son of Abraham, Brooklyn-born and raised—who says he wears round, wire-rimmed glasses because John Lennon did. Assisted by a small but doughty cabal in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, they produce exactly 48 pages per issue, not counting the covers. (Okay; I have to reveal another bias here. I’m a native Northwesterner and therefore, accent-less. Occasioned by Southern literature and personal experience, I have to admit that, almost without exception, I could listen to anyone from the crescent defined by the Carolinas to the Texas border talk all goddamned day. I hear traces of that as I read.) The only colors to be found are in the logo on the front cover and in their “ad” for subscriptions, books or—currently—their sponsored gathering for “personal writers” in Big Sur in October. Featured photographs are all in black and white and are bound by this disclaimer:
A Note on Photographs. Unless otherwise indicated, photographs are independent of writings published in The Sun: photographs do not illustrate incidents ,events, or characters depicted by writers; writings are not intended to describe incidents, events, or characters depicted in photographs.
More simply: “Like everything else you see here, this image is naked; it stands or falls on its own. Make of it what you will.” Free of context, their character is revealed. You will linger over these.
Except for third-person interviews and Mr. Safransky’s occasional Notebook entry, all content is solicited from and submitted by readers. The various departments, in order of presentation:
- Correspondence. My favorite from July, from a woman just down the road a piece:
Honestly, I should be angry with you for all the times you’ve caused me to be late, to ignore phone calls and chores, to miss out on precious sleep, to cry and laugh out loud in public. But instead I find myself feeling grateful for The Sun’s existence. Thank you for feeding my soul.
- The Sun Interview. Last month: “Conversations With a Remarkable Man: Honoring the Late James Hillman.” Hillman, who died last year at 85, was a psychologist who studied under Carl Jung and was critical of many of his profession’s conventions, including its focus on improving the self. This month: “What Ails Us: Gabor Maté Challenges the Way We Think About Chronic Illness,Drug Addiction,and Attention-Deficit Disorder.” Maté, a physician, dedicates himself to the notion that “(a)ttributing our maladies to heredity is simplistic and disempowering…a distraction from the problems of economic inequality, bad schools, and a declining sense of community.” Both are free of any claim that, after your time with the doctor, you’ll be thinner or your bank account, fatter.
- Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories. Couple favorites in the August edition. There’s “Poor Sparrow’s Almanac,” in which “Sparrow” aspires to undo all the damage done by Ben Franklin in his earlier aphorisms of ambition, moderation and thrift—e.g., “Jesus quit his job,” or “Sisyphus was a highly productive worker.” In “Of All The Mothers of the World,” Heather King—self-described “ex-barfly, ex-lawyer, sober alcoholic, and a Catholic convert with three memoirs”–takes the occasion of a “(low-end) foot massage” to meditate on her mother’s decline into dementia and to realize, at 60, the mother she has is, and always was, the perfect one for her.
- Fiction. My biases in short fiction run toward third-person point of view—neutral narrator—and dialogue over narrative. In a phrase: old-fashioned. The Sun chooses from all styles introspective, but I’ve never laid one of their stories aside. They’re about important stuff.
- Poetry. To me, poetry—like The Sun’s photographs—is its own reward. Theirs have gravitas, to be sure, but, unlike in the New Yorker, I don’t find myself looking occasionally at the page behind it to see if I missed something. Last month, Ross Gay spun richly about what he’s learned about living from horses. Steve Kowit used the ruse of Jesus returning to clear up a bad car accident, suffering again at the hands of the law, to best remember his departed black Lab, Raymond.
- The Dog-Eared Page. Here are found staff and reader-suggested “selections…from works that have deepened and broadened our understanding of the human condition.” Last month, an excerpt from “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” by C.G. (yes, “that” Carl) Jung. This month, “The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us,” by the poet Robert Bly. The first six months of the year: January: Rachel Carson; February: Washington Irving; March: J. Krishnamurti; April: Ram Dass (with Steven Levine); May: Wendell Berry; and June: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
- Readers Write, in which the magazine “ask readers to address subjects on which they’re the only authorities.” Readers submit by topic; they’re culled, edited (“…often quite heavily, but contributors have the opportunity to approve or disapprove of editorial changes prior to publication”), and—if lucky—published. This month: “The Internet.” Upcoming: “Going Home;” “Eyes;” “Winging It;” “Skin;” “Breaking the Rules;” and “Bullies.” From whimsical to searing, at no time have I ever felt that I was reading a transcript from an “American Idol” audition.
- Sunbeams, a one-page compendium of quotations “welcomed” from readers, ranging this month from Heraclitus to Harry Truman. (They’re compiled and published as a book,as well.) Always entertaining and thoughtful, they are—often, your eyes will fall on one that knocks you to your knees:
“I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make ‘em sharp. I trade with the boys and skin ‘em and I just beat ‘em every time I can.”
—William Rockefeller, father of John D. Rockefeller
Wow. So, that’s what made this country great.
The damage? Two Hamiltons for 12 issues, with proportionate discounts for multiyear subscriptions.
Is it worth it?
The Sun, with its superb photographs, is the only magazine that I sit down and read as soon as it arrives. It’s full of people like a Globe Theatre; it’s nourishing like a field of pumpkins; it’s like a grandfather who talks to total strangers.
The image above is the cover of The Sun’s July edition. The photographer is Michelle Feileacan, a full-time wedding photographer who lives in Sebastopol with her husband and two sons. She too this photograph of her son, jumping over a hose in their yard in 2008, when he was four years old. Her work can be found online here.