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4. Lawrence

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.



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