Updated: 4 days ago
Photo: nearing sunset on the dunes, Mesquite Flat, Death Valley, Dec 2018.
The desert book I am reading right now (because I am never not reading a desert book) is Nevada by Imogen Binnie, and within the first forty pages I already feel both thoroughly rebuked and thoroughly seen for wanting anything to do with T. E. Lawrence - dead white man worship is a function of patriarchy. But fuck that conversation right now - as well as - she does have this feeling for a moment though of what it would be like not to be tied to Steph, to their apartment, to her job, but then she thinks: that's some straight dude bullshit, the self-sufficient loner. She felt liberated for a second, though.
And that's still my model of joy - to be a loner dead white man. Probably more gay than not but definitely closeted. In my girly heart of hearts I can think of nothing more liberating.
More on Nevada later. First Lawrence.
The first time I saw Lawrence of Arabia must've been in Shriver Hall at Hopkins, or maybe the Charles Theatre in Station North, sometime in 2016 or 17. Did I see it alone? Was it a humid late spring outside? With friends? Who did I turn to and speak with afterwards? I only remember Sherif Ali striding through the columns of the new and fallen Damascus, flitting between shadow and bright moonlight and then - wrapped back into his black robes - gone for the last time. After such a long journey, after the sands had soaked up so much blood between them - that was the end of Sherif and Lawrence.
The sadder realization I had this time is that Lawrence never loved Sherif, not really. Lawrence loves nothing but the idea of himself and can therefore hate nothing more than his real self. Diane (in Bojack) said there is no real self or idea(l) self, only what you do. Real/ideal tangles it all up and you're wrong both ways. Judging only by actions is an appealing and efficient solution, though I can't swallow it whole. I guess I never concerned myself with goodness before I met Bryant because 1) we are in a time of war and 2) worrying about goodness so clearly causes unhappiness and 3) facts are stories too - thanks Joan. We operate on Joan's desert morality, and in a desert the well is everything.
The last time I saw Lawrence I already knew that many goodbyes were coming. This time it's been years and years since I've seen my friends. Édouard Levé said 14 (or 15, or 16 - I don't know now because I can't get back to his Paris Review essay through the paywall) years old will always be the middle of my life, no matter how long I live (which was to 42). I said I felt that to Bryant and he laughed - "how could you possibly? You literally cannot!" - and I sank to the floor laughing as well. But I say it now that I think the middle of Lawrence's and Sherif's and so many other people's lives will always be their campaign in the desert. I - and many others - have understood our lives to be Hero's Journeys, at odds with life as is, with its boredoms and the (sometimes) opposition force of The American Dream, but there are all the days and days pretending to be whole afterwards, where forever you are running towards and away from the desert, and there is only the desert for you, and even Frodo had to sail away, which maybe is poetic suicide, which is exactly what Levé did.
So for Omar Sharif the middle was his time as Sherif Ali (although we loved him as Dr. Zhivago as well), and for Jack and Ennis the middle was Brokeback Mountain, and for physicist Ibrahim Cissé the middle was the undergrad experiment he did on ellipsoid packing using m&m's. Only when I'm writing do I not mind so much where my middle might be. The thesis may be that we are mistaken in our postmodern yearning for desert escapes, but we do it anyway, the best we can, for a few days at a time, all the while obsessed with the water we carry and the way home. The adventures of the past are borne out by some of those in the present, surely, but not as adventures - no Bedu loves the desert - they dream of gardens instead - while who I am in the film is one of those invisible women - faceless or voiceless or dead or worse - shut back home in England. I exited the 4-hour trance of Lawrence into an evening spread of white families in tie dye eating pizza on a sidewalk patio situation - I felt so incredulous that I am closer to that world than to Lawrence's - always have and always will - even though inside myself I feel the sky.
Before my mom's college roommate and best friend in her whole life moved away from the Bay, she left me a box of paperback Existentialists. I am grateful for that too-early introduction to that whole circle, and seeing Lawrence again I thought of a line I'd forgotten in Camus' Exile and the Kingdom. I found it online - Since the beginning, on the dry earth of this measureless land scraped to the bone, a few men ceaselessly made their way, possessing nothing but serving no one, the destitute and free lords of a strange kingdom. And that's the life all Westernized women want until they see Nomadland. I had forgotten that the quote comes from the short story "The Adulterous Woman", so-called not because of her acts of adultery but because of her desire to disappear into the Sahara - as though for Westernized people all acts of betrayal - to the family unit, to country - as well as to decolonization, to humanity - begin with yearning for the desert.
Dec 31 2020
I'm trying to decide whether a work of fiction or creative nonfiction would be the best to begin with. Anyway, the fiction would be very poorly disguised. A girl returns home from college to see herself in the bathroom mirror of her childhood - the ceiling is too textured, the carpet too damp, the frames on the walls all hung too low. The top of the fridge is too close to within reach. There she is, in precisely the same frame, with precisely the same limits in her mind's eye, none the wiser, only more sighted, and therefore the sorrow is able now to be named as well as its source.
We begin with her coming back. We begin with the smell. We begin with the fear of the patch of mold by her window and the fear of the twin mirrors in the middle of the night. The fear eats at me - does it mean I brought them back from Taiwan? Was I the vector after all of something near microscopic despite my bleaching and sunning and freezing and demented agony?
What can you give people that others cannot? You can give them Bi Gan in words. Jia Zhangke on a page of English. So it goes. I do not know of women Chinese-American authors who have ever done such a thing. Think of banyan and a January morning in Southern Mongolia and kissing someone goodbye at the Greyhound terminal in Philadelphia one cold spring and you will have it.
Reading Terminal Market. I think I remember now. A sudden industrial outcropping from Chinatown - the word formica comes to mind although I do not know what it means - and the chairs piled up in the snow in Manhattan Chinatown. A snow barricade of sorts in the pay-to-park lot.
Other things you return to - but even though you pass through the adventures with Bryant they do not feel ventured - they feel only checked off of a list. When you were traveling alone or with silent others it did not feel that way... I need to relearn how to look through the alleys full of snow to find the cathedral.
If my relationship with Nathan was just a little more fantastical. He was missing two fingers. I felt like I had nowhere else to go. Suddenly in a relationship, I'd forgotten all about the potential of being alone and surviving nonetheless.
Begin in the train on new years day, waiting to brush your teeth. See your grandmother. None of the stories make sense in your mind. Dive into the story of your grandmother then. Find the story of the postmaster waiting in there somewhere. End with being shaken awake in the Beijing airport by someone thinking you were about to miss your flight to Ulaanbaatar.
Begin by kissing Alan goodbye.
Begin in a pie shop pretending to have a highly agitated adult conversation on the phone with Nathan, hoping for the attentions of the workers there.
Begin in the narrow blue room overlooking the frozen Han river.
Begin in the mirror. A story of religion and obsession. Of waking and dreaming. The hospital in gray traffic. The sad pink satin of Kunqun opera in Suzhou one January.
A chronicle of that relationship is in order. I think I can do it now.
Sanity becoming intermittent, like a sudden stretch of intact Great Wall, detached again.
Jan 2nd 2021
You saw your father again today - somehow he seemed even older. There is more darkness delineating his teeth again. In my mind's eye they are all still young, still in their thirties and I'm still wearing peter pan collars and the burnt orange pinafore.
Finished watching Burning and appreciated the feeling much more than before. It satiated something in me as soldiers in the desert lusting for plums. It also made me see its genius, which is greater than what I could conjure up for a retelling of Nathan's story. Visual storytelling is very different from verbal, however. The film could move suddenly from our protagonist typing in Haemi's room to Ben in his bathroom, whereas to do so in fiction and claim the transition into fiction would seem too arbitrary.
Coffeehouse culture. Cooking pasta while listening to music. These are things that are Western and therefore imbued with prestige. We don't do this sort of thing. We don't listen to music like that while cooking in our own homes. We don't cook Italian in our own homes, not like that.
Jun 27 2022
It's been long enough - time to publish this post. I'll begin here.
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
It has been difficult to write, as though the sea-morning has gotten caught in the small bones of my hand like it was caught in the plankton trawl three summers ago. Jason said that he can create better now, now that he has regained his left hand. Before this he had always thought “maybe I’ll never be that writer / musician / artist I dreamed I’d be, maybe I’m not cut out for it.” Now he thinks “let’s find out.” As we spoke, me facing South and him facing North, baby pink carnation petals swirled in the slow pull of the lake between us. The only place I had seen carnations so pink was on the lapels of docents and pamphleteers at church doors at my door.
When I woke today at 6:30 I already knew the heat would be extreme. I knew by the molten light falling on the wooden balcony beams and flat roofs of my neighbours' homes. Going down the stairs I marveled at whose legs those were - beautiful and brown under white short shorts. Then later I looked at my browned arms and felt they were already dead, baked by the Sonoran sun but still attached to a first-person POV, reaching and scratching and typing out words. I felt scrambled in the whites of my eyes.
I am reading Bolano again and feeling at once sorrow at womanhood, self-compassion for dysthymia, and blue for lost time. There 2666 sat on my top shelf beneath a sentient hat and yet I feared to read it. I feared it would tell me I was not good enough, which it certainly does - the turns of phrase I come across once in a week come across once every paragraph in his writing. All along of course I have been harvesting good phrases from others - most recently from Kaavya who said of the lake as we rounded the bend of Lake Shore Drive - it's like seeing a lover/beloved for the first time after some time apart - how will they look today? What are they wearing? Is their hair different?
Maayan's cake for Micah tasted like the renewable tub of chocolate frosting I sneaked from Erica again and again in our shared kitchen with the skylight. This is not speaking poorly of Maayan's cake, rather it is speaking to the folding of years.
The way Bolano wrote of the wind skittering across Santa Teresa, trying on underwear hung on laundry lines, flipping through pages of books left on park benches, is akin to how Bryant writes with delight of things in the world that deserve delight and wonder. Sometimes Bryant's eyes are the color of flesh inside of a grape.
Thought: is all pure math in fact physical theory? The process of axiomatization – building an edifice – on the assumption of things like arithmetic, which is a theory... skim milk off the surface of the world. The patina the postcard acquires as it travels the globe.
Lake Michigan and the Canal Street Drawbridge and Ping Tom Memorial Park have been my loves in this year of Our Lord 2020. Remember the vines of Chinatown - I told myself in 2018. Remember the brittle sticks of crimson incense held upright in the tab of a Pepsi can. Passing by and not looking straight at the red roses, I know very well the lives within those low houses. Bathrooms with plastic basins to wash our feet in.
Also in 2018 I wrote: Even now during our angel hours I will do anything for you but wait! I think I was waiting for James. Are our angel hours also over? Bryant sat on my bed and showed me images of Baal, Moloch, seraphim.
And I wrote: Do you remember yourself of the dark stern hair? Classical music plays somewhere far away in Ray's quiet car, dark and silent as tar. I do recall her now - my hair is again silent as tar.
Into the south bend between the Point and 57th St Beach drifted a sailboat that looked like a hallucination. I said so out loud and the family below us on the rocks looked back at me. Jason agreed. He said it looked like a photo that would hang above the toilet in a bathroom in a diner in a New England beach town.
Upon reflection I begin to dislike the way I write - but it is inherited from writers I admire, Bolano not excepted - where I end sentences or paragraphs as though the wind is evening out into a great basin (now in flames out West). But we are not! We are not going to leave the urban rivulets of China and sweep over the -'stans and open upon a magnificent plain of sand. In this pattern of writing I also find the pattern of my life, where it is too difficult to close things so I leave the task to others. I have no concluding remarks. I will never end! If I write a book it shall be like 2666 or Being and Time, incomplete and my Estate must figure out what to do with the matter.
Photo: looking east off Promontory Point, Chicago, summer 2017.