Reframing aging: Focus on Peter Sussman
by Cynthia Overbeck Bix, Photos by Nancy Rubin
Current interests: Writing (especially poetry); photography; social justice, current affairs
Career: Author; journalist, San Francisco Chronicle (29 years)
“I’m a big believer in framing. How you grip something with words is how you perceive it.”
Deeply thoughtful and highly articulate, Peter has spent a lifetime reporting on the news and the people who make it. He continues to be an outspoken advocate for social justice, while taking a philosophical view of his own mobility challenges.
What sustains me
As a journalist, I want to do three things: I want to notice, to understand what it means, and to communicate so that others can share that. Those are core values for me. It starts with curiosity.
These days I do a lot of mentoring. Young journalists and students call me from all over the country about various issues related to journalism. These are issues--such as freedom of information and ethics--that I’ve been involved with over the years. I’ve spoken at some journalism schools. If I find a need, I have to do something about it.
I’ve been very lucky. I don’t think some of the things that have happened to me could have been planned. Sure, you put yourself in the way of things, and hope that they happen, but so much depends on being in the right place at the right time, and knowing the right person. I’m very aware that there are many people in this society who don’t have that advantage. I’m aware of how fortunate I am, and of trying to right that balance as much as possible.
I don’t know if I’m a real activist. If I were, I’d devote my life to activism. I just feel that if there’s an injustice, it needs stating. Sometimes I’ll write about it, sometimes I’ll try to find out what I can do.
I have had projects that straddled the border between activism and journalism, where I was using journalism to uncover injustices. I found that very satisfying—exposing things that needed exposing. You just have to be able to frame it in a way that people can see it.
On creative pursuits
I’ve always loved reading modern poetry. Writing poetry is new for me. Poetry is what I want to write now, rather than prose, because I’m captivated by the way it sets expression free. It just gives you more territory to move in. I’ve written poetry about aging and disability—about pain, and about expressing the inexpressible.
I also find a lot of pleasure in doing photography, which has been one of my longtime pursuits.
On Ashby Village
My wife Pat is one of the original co-founders of Ashby Village. So I’ve been a part of it from the beginning. I help out in various ways. I get ideas all the time, and I take on projects--like arranging readings or exhibitions--that I see as interesting and as helping us grow and change.
On growing older
The frame you put around aging is the way you’re going to live—how you experience it. I value words, and I value thinking. I tend to do with aging what I do with everything else—which is just to strip away the inherited jargon and shape the experience I perceive, whether I’m writing about it or living it.
I’m fascinated by the idea that people’s perceptions of you vary according to what device you use, or whether your hair is grey. For example, I have a wheelchair because I can’t stand a lot. If I go out in my chair, people say, “Oh, have you had a setback?” If I go out with walking poles, people say, “You look great!” Because walking poles are more normal.
As we grow older, we might notice infirmity. But we might also notice that older people are much wiser, in the sense that they’re able to put together more frames of reference. They have a broader vocabulary of experience from which to shape thoughts.
On looking forward
We have no guide in this journey, aside from history, experience, perception, and how we describe it, what we choose to notice.