When a friend returned from a meditation retreat shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, she told me something her teacher had said: “Every time you inhale, imagine it’s the first breath you’ve ever taken. Every time you exhale, imagine it’s the last breath you’ll ever take.”
Words like that are supposed to grab our attention. They grabbed mine. They reminded me that September 11, in addition to being a personal tragedy for many thousands of people, was also a sobering lesson about the nature of impermanence. I remembered being in The Sun office that morning, following the news on the radio. Someone rushed home to get an old TV. Reception was terrible; the screen was full of snow. We stood there watching anyway. The first tower fell, ghostly and indistinct. Then the second tower fell, and there was just snow.
The unexpectedness of the attacks, the horrific loss of life, and the widespread apprehension about what might happen next reminded people everywhere of what a thin feather separates life and death. In the days that followed, many of us were less likely to take our next breath for granted. Or to take a wife or a husband or a child for granted. Losing a few pounds or winning a stupid argument didn’t matter as much. Strangers were kinder to each other. Instead of saying goodbye with a perfunctory peck on the cheek, lovers kissed.
Here at The Sun, after the initial shock wore off, we considered how to respond. The Sun doesn’t cover current events, not in the traditional sense, but September 11 was an event of archetypal proportion, a clash of worlds. Our October issue had already gone to press, but we were able to add a four-page Sunbeams supplement at the last minute. Then we quickly got to work on the November issue, which was largely devoted to the tragedy and its aftermath. Frankly, I was grateful to have my work to focus on: I was born and raised in New York. Though I moved away thirty years ago, part of me never left.
When we wrapped up the issue, I wasn’t sure what to do next. The country was gearing up for a long and protracted war; anthrax-laced letters were starting to show up in government and media offices; people were afraid. Would our readers still find The Sun relevant? Other editors were concerned, too, perhaps for slightly different reasons. Irony was dead, they worried. Gossip and celebrity worship were finished. “There’s going to be a seismic change,” one magazine editor predicted. “Things that were considered frivolous are going to disappear.”
In retrospect, what really changed? For those most directly affected by the attacks, everything. For others, it’s still hard to say. Some people woke up. Some went right back to sleep. The editor who predicted a “seismic change” in publishing put Brad Pitt on the cover of his December issue and followed it in January with a topless Tom Cruise. The war against al-Qaeda turned into a war against terrorism and then into a war against evil. President Bush’s approval rating soared to more than 80 percent. (I don’t even approve of myself that much.) September 11 became like an inkblot in a Rorschach test, meaning anything anyone wanted it to.
I wanted The Sun to respond to September 11 in a compassionate way. But I’ve wanted every issue of The Sun to be compassionate, because life breaks our hearts; that’s just the way life is. And we learn to open to life in spite of it, or maybe because of it. In the movie Zorba the Greek, Zorba tells a young friend that he’s learned to embrace all of life: the joys, the sorrows, “the full catastrophe.” I’ve always wanted The Sun to be a magazine that embraces the full catastrophe.
The Sun has come a long way since 1974, when I sold the first issues on the street, barefoot, with hair down to my shoulders. The Sun has a wider audience now; I have fewer curls. Yet what was important to me then is still important: putting out a magazine that celebrates the beauty and the sadness of being alive; that reminds us of the inseparability of social and personal change; that encourages us not to slip back into habitual patterns of thinking.
In twenty-eight years, I’ve seen many magazines come and go. That’s one reason I’ve never taken the existence of The Sun for granted. Nor have I ever taken for granted a readership as loyal and passionate as any editor could hope for. In the end, this endeavor depends on our readers. The Sun receives no subsidy from a university or foundation. It isn’t backed by a multinational publishing conglomerate. It doesn’t even carry advertising.
As a reader-supported, nonprofit journal, we turn instead to you once a year and ask you to become a Friend Of The Sun with a tax-deductible donation. The money allows us to do things we might otherwise be unable to afford, such as pay more to writers and photographers; give free subscriptions to hundreds of libraries, prisons, women’s shelters, and hospitals; and meet such unpredictable expenses as increases in postal rates or the printing of the special Sunbeams supplement last October. Reader donations allow us to concentrate on making each issue as alive and truthful as it can be, instead of worrying about staving off creditors. Your support means the world.
For years, I had to ask for help when circumstances were dire, when there wasn’t enough money to pay the printer or the rent. Today, thankfully, I ask not in a spirit of desperation but of invitation. For those who can afford to help, it’s an invitation to participate in the evolution of a magazine that may be needed more than ever. It’s an invitation to help us try to bring a little more awareness and compassion into the world. In a dark time, it’s an invitation to help us keep a fire burning.
Every month, we gather around the fire. We breathe in. We breathe out. We laugh and grieve and give thanks. We tend the fire, and we tend to each other. Perhaps our hearts open a little. And when the hour grows late, and the world is too much to bear, and weariness overcomes us, we take turns staying awake, feeding the flames.
Editor, The Sun
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