Power and Premise
I should be writing about Ukraine. But I can’t.
Thousands are, of course. And I am glad, if exhausted – wringing horror from each piece and sluicing it through my heart.
But they aren’t saying what I would say if I could.
They, especially Ezra Klein, who is an intellectual symphony and whose podcast I love, are rummaging around in Putin’s war trying to find something to explain the butcher’s butchery.
They’ve found things like humiliation, the kind that sucks on the tail of hubris and then eats up the world.
They’ve found a woo woo ‘Russianness’, expressed only as empire.
They’ve found maniacal narcissism and its crazed ‘history-has-chosen-me-so-I-can-with-impunity-make-stuff-up-to-tell-my-people’.
They’ve found 1000 years of fear of invasion and its theory of ‘historical realism’ which has nothing to do with being realistic, but rather with the strategic self-interest of competitive powers.
And when you tilt your head just so and gird your non-binary loins, you can get a bit fascinated by these theories applied to this entirely non-theoretical, empty-eyed man.
And you can recognise that inside Putin’s pathology there is a premise and a concomitant pristine logic driving his actions. All irrational acts are rational inside the premise of the actor. Understand the logic of the illogical and you have a way to negotiate. So understanding Putin’s premise that ‘transcendent Russianness requires empire’ may help us make a truce in the end. Glory be if so.
But no one in Kyiv or Bucha or Borodyanka, Mariupol or Odesa is scratching their heads to figure out the fine points of Putin’s internal logic or egomania or delusions of mythical Russianness or concocted threat of invasion or structural fulfilment of historical realism.
They die. They flee. They stay. They weep. They fight.
So I cannot write about Ukraine. It is too big, too much a thing of unspeakable suffering.
I can pray and send light to whoever can move this genocidist into a face-saving ‘I’ve-won-so we’ll-leave-now’ goodbye.
I can hold a reasonable, hopeful breath as Ukraine’s mission-style, individual-initiative, think-for-yourself approach to fighting outwits and befuddles Russia’s command-and-control, don’t-think, indoctrinated fighters so consistently that Russia is now losing, unimaginable even three weeks ago. And I can give thanks for the allied giving.
But most of all I can write fervourously about the unarguable gravity of an inaccurate premise. War, I assert, begins there.
So before war even murmurs, we can mine for, sweep for, probe and palpate for, find, confront and replace inaccurate premises in leaders, especially those yet to be crowned. We can nurture independent thinking, universally. That may take more intellectual and emotional maturity and stamina than anyone with any power to make it happen can summon. It may be, in fact, that the wholly self-serving nature of the consequences of large-scale political inaccurate premises precludes any such search, and certainly any such ultimate abandonment of them.
But if humans can think afresh, and I know that we can; and if, therefore, humans can move from intractable positions, and I know that we can, it is not half-witted to work for ‘premise literacy’ as a way to prevent war, to advance civilization.
But that is not all. We will need simultaneously to raze childhood humiliation so that false-premise-promoter monsters can’t emerge. A big job. Too big most would say.
It is also, I realise, unpopular during right-now torture to call for some-day change. But the notion that right-now suffering warrants only right-now strategy is dangerous. Even as we supply drones and grenade launchers, Stingers and Javelins with their equally valuable CLUs, even as we send resuscitators, sterile needles and cannulas, even as we harbour refugees, we can also turn our fine minds to facing and intercepting the inaccurate premises and their humiliated, hubristic prey who walk among us.
We can herald a future age of independent thinking that can spot an inaccurate premise before it advances an inch.
We owe both to the magnificence that is Ukraine, that is humanity.
Where You're Standing
Some afternoons I drive to particular beauties and stand, or walk, or sit. I see things. Most by now are familiar, welcome because they sit next to the day before, unstartled. The breeze may not be the same, isn’t of course at all. Nor the sky, now ’all in a rush with richness’. Things familiar are always strangers in fact. But we cluster them, entreating them to behave as we need if peace is what we need and we do.
Even this one heart, this one insignificant heart, calls out for, beats hard for peace please where none is, where souls walk on stilts to see light. Even this one small and fairly old heart stares out into the calmest possible moment where nothing at all aches or dies, and longs for power to shake love back into the fragments of lives that used to be whole but now are fleeing or falling or pinned in one long unhushable cry. You know what I mean. We are all there in some importunate part of our knowing these days.
But these walks, this sitting, this standing I do must also be allowed. I must be allowed. To see right here the sweet unpredictable simply perfect only-once things in the distance as if they had been choreographed, rehearsed, placed just so, eager for me to arrive, to gasp, to give thanks, to lean on the fence and worship.
 From ‘Spring’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins
I answered this question recently:
‘Do you experience getting older?’
Sara Hart was interviewing me for ‘Prime Spark’, her inspiring project championing women over 55.
You may think her question is obvious: we are getting older so of course we experience it. What’s so interesting about that?
It is a courageous act truly to experience getting older. Mostly we notice and run. So the question stopped me. I thought about it. It was big.
Yes, I said to Sara, I do experience getting older. And most importantly I now experience, and love, getting old.
By 76 ‘older’ is a euphemism. By 76 we get to be old. Finally. And hooray. I have, since I was 26, wanted to be an old woman one day. I didn’t want the oppression that comes with it, but I wanted it. This was partly because I was told at 26 that I would be dead in 6 weeks (long story). But mostly my wanting to be old came from the assumption that I could by then be, by definition, a wellspring of experience and could be of even more use because of it. I also knew that I would get to make connections between and among huge overlapping territories of knowledge that require that experience.
I know that ‘life experience’ has a kind of cliché non-cachet about it. But to me life experience is a resplendent, rapturous thing, a kind of live and blooming universe of offerings, always moving, always updating, refreshing, expanding. So I feel entirely blessed that all of that finally gets to be my moment-to-moment context. To me 76 years of experience is more than wonderful. It is wondrous. And only old people get to know it.
Equally, of course, the oppression of old people, of old women in particular, is completely un-wondrous. Even at 60 I began to realise that other people were now seeing a wrinkled face when they looked at me. And I imagined, probably correctly, their darting, silent assumptions about old women and, in that moment, about me! By the time I reached 70, I started feeling self conscious at the gym, like an ‘allowed other’ rather than an embraced member. No one was behaving differently. They were still very friendly of course. But I knew they were also now seeing me as old, as something they most likely were lifting weights and rowing like maniacs to avoid. ‘Old at the gym’ is a kind of oxymoron.
This gym example may sound trivial, but it is one of hundreds of daily manifestations of this monstrous fact: the group identity of ‘old’ is, in our society, the only identity whose oppression everyone absolutely will experience. Not all people will become female or Black or gay or non-binary or poor or Uyghur or wage earners. But we all will become old. (Unless, of course, we die fist, which has its own downsides.)
My favourite moment of challenging female age-related oppression was in a masterclass I was leading for the female editors, including the editor-In-chief, of a top fashion magazine. At one point I asked them to break into ‘Thinking Pairs’ and listen with generative attention to each other as they thought about the following question for five uninterrupted minutes each:
‘If you and the world knew that wrinkles are beautiful,
what would change for you and the world?’
There was a buzz in the room, and when they came back, many said in one way or another that such an assumption would change their lives, that it would liberate them truly to be themselves. And then the editor-in-chief said, ‘If I and the world knew that wrinkles are beautiful, this magazine would go out of business.’
I learned again in that moment that the oppression of older and old women is a highly strategised, calculated and bottom-line-supported force in the world.
So I think that, although the purpose of all oppression is to deplete and discourage, we as old women can hold onto our power by being proud – thrilled in fact – to be old. We can honour and love every sign of age. And we can become activists. ‘Prime Spark’ is for me one very welcome form of age-celebrating activism.
So while confronting age oppression both in the world and inside of me, I feel with each year of life more in awe of, more rapturously grateful for every minute of thinking, of loving, of working, observing, writing, learning, challenging – and of, in every sense, singing.
I feel gratitude to people like Sara in the world for being one part of the pallet of dignity that makes this possible for me.