I’ve written about it before, but so has Garry Shandling, and he did it better, I think. A near death experience is the easiest way to become a Buddhist, at least, that’s how it worked out for me. I guess I’d say that confronting and then bypassing your own mortality is both a permission slip to never take anything too seriously ever again and a life sentence to a classroom that takes the same pop quiz over and over—a classroom in which you’re the only person who’s been keeping up with the reading. It’s been a difficult time to be one of the people who knows what the dark side of the moon looks like, while millions of people around me are experiencing similar lunar shadows for the first time.
In preparation for the new year, I’ve been re-reading Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey, which is about navigating a cursed year from start to finish, a book full of weirdness and grief and some indulgent fever dreams—all deeply relevant. Near the end of the book, as she prepares to exit the year of the Monkey following Trump’s inauguration at the end of January 2017, she remarks: “This is what I know – Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. My dog, who was dead in 1957, is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow.”
Four years later, another cursed year ends in a cursed holiday: the President made sure to take a big shit on it for all of us, too, which was inevitable, I suppose. A few days before Christmas I filled a thermos with Vietnamese coffee and took a meandering cruise to a liquor store on the edge of town, a Cormac McCarthy-esque vision quest in which I passed both idyllic figure skaters and a hobo tent camp in the same riverside park. A familiar feel-good cut came on the radio, George Harrison’s performance of “My Sweet Lord” from the Live in Japan album—a cut I discovered during the back half of an Acoustic Storm episode on a similarly foggy December morning ten years prior—and for the first time in a long time, it absolutely failed to lift my spirits. Get it together, you hapless fuck, I said to myself. Nobody likes a sad hippie.
On the solstice, there was a conjunction of two planets not seen since the 1200s, a phenomenon said to be the original “Christmas Star”. I couldn’t see it because it was cloudy, but a trusted confidante and expert on the wonders of the spheres sent me photos from his vantage point in California. On Twitter, people bickered pedantically about whether or not we were really entering the Age of Aquarius, attempting to out-New-Age each other with their nuanced understanding of the Zodiac. It’s a new chapter either way, I thought, as it pissed rain, and I’ll take it. I felt a strange energy. It’s the planets, I thought. It’s got to be.
Christmas Eve I received a strange text message from a number I didn’t recognize. “This is Tim. I’m out in front of your building. I’ve delivered your package. Merry Christmas. Goodbye.” Donning my mask and shoving my taser in my coat pocket in case Tim turned out to be a mugger, I descended the steps of my building and found he had vanished, but had left behind a package from the Seattle Church of Satan. Opening it, I discovered my Californian astronomer friend had sent me my very own copy of the just released Desert Oracle, Vol. 1, which was to my delight full of all the magic I’d hoped it could be. I hadn’t been able to buy it for myself yet, and the generosity of expedited Christmas Eve delivery of this sacred text seemed auspicious to me. Going to bed that night, I read the first chapter, in which Ken Layne laid out his tips for surviving getting lost in the desert. His bulleted list of pointers ended with this advice: “And finally, if all else fails and your time is at hand, know that most people relax at the end. Find a place to sit down, in the shade, if there’s any shade. None of us live forever. And not enough of us get the time to sit alone in the quiet wilderness and contemplate our own existence and our place in the world.”
On Christmas Day proper, my furnace broke sometime in the witching hour. When I awoke it was a balmy fifty degrees in my apartment and -10 outside, so I put on three sweaters, boiled a lot of coffee, wound my hair up in a crown of hot rollers and had dark thoughts about The Little Match Girl. I’ve spent Christmases alone before; as the child of deeply dysfunctional divorced people, I make it a point to avoid human contact on most major federal holidays and I rather prefer it that way, to be honest. I’d intended to make a Christmas dinner, but since I was using my oven to heat my apartment while the super tinkered with my furnace, I couldn’t summon the verve. A suicide bomber knocked out most of the phone service in Tennessee and the news barely made a blip on the global radar. What’s a suicide bombing on top of everything else, the press seemed to be saying. Don’t overthink it, I thought to myself. Just make a cheese plate and sulk in your jammies and try again tomorrow.
“On the feast of St. Stephen’s, a famine for millions of Americans as President fails to sign COVID relief bill,” was one maudlin Boxing Day tweet from an exhausted political reporter who’d had to cancel their vacation to cover the President’s latest episodes of wanton cruelty. I determined to make it a better day, and put the dried up end of a baguette into my coat pocket and went to the park to feed the ducks. But the -10 temperatures of Christmas Day had frozen the pond solid and the ducks had fled town. Or perhaps they’d gotten evicted. I balled up hunks of bread and tossed them to squirrels who didn’t trust me. They hid behind a gingko tree and waited until I’d walked several feet away to approach the crumbles.
That evening, I logged onto a Discord server and from our respective apartments, my brother and I watched a TV show about a pair of sisters who are determined to have gastric bypass surgery. Watching TV with my brother never fails to cheer me up, even though we both tend to favor bleaker fare like reality programming and true crime documentaries. We like watching TV and talking shit about it. Our shared love of the idiot box goes back to our latchkey years in the heyday of Jerry Springer, a time before streaming when parents could gauge your how far you’d gotten on your homework by assessing how warm the top of the Zenith was to the touch when they walked in the front door from work. Afterward, I made Christmas dinner one day late: a bougie shepherd’s pie with wine soaked porcini mushrooms and fat waxy green beans and spicy fried potato puffs on top. For dessert I made an upside-down caramel apple spice cake, and when I flipped the cake over onto its plate all its caramelized apple wedges fanned out like an art deco sunburst. Just enjoy this dinner, you idiot, I told myself. You can’t fix everything. It isn’t all up to you. As I ate I thought about the sisters and their understandably fucked up relationship with food and how they pronounced it “sodie pop” just like I used to when I was a kid.
On Sunday I made coffee and cleaned and had a croissant and read an article in Foreign Affairs about how nations end that honestly should have come with a suicide hotline number attached to its final paragraph. My French app sent me a rude push notification: “How do you say procrastination in French?” Later, after a long internal debate about throwing my phone down an open sewer, I took a heroic bong rip and watched the ultra-HD remaster of Lawrence of Arabia, a film in which every single shot is framed like a fucking painting. On a big screen TV, the 4KHD remaster of Lawrence of Arabia pulsates with such vivid resolution that you can see an individual grain of sand ripple across the broad side of a dune, you can see Omar Sharif materialize out of a wall of aquamarine desert sky like a spilled drop of ink, you can see the sun glow like a hot coal against the crashing seafoam on the beaches of Aqaba, you can see the tiled and gilded spires of Cairo gleam with the colors of a peak summer garden. Lawrence of Arabia while stoned is nothing short of a spiritual experience.
There is a scene late in the film in which a young man dies in dry quicksand during a windstorm in the Sinai desert. It is a harrowing moment: he stumbles, he tries to pull himself free, he’s sucked under. Gales of sand whip across the gap he fell into and he is literally visible one moment and subsumed by the desert the next. The storm is so fierce that it sweeps the land clean immediately and all evidence of his existence is gone in a single gust of wind. Something about it felt like a metaphor for this year: horrors on horrors, cycles of news and nature obliterating each other in turn, our memories like sand, incapable of holding to the shape of one trauma for too long before another one overtakes it.
It goes this way for the fictional Lawrence, too. The first half of the film is the travelogue of a romantic desert dreamer, the second part is his realization that living in the desert requires a type of surrender that few can muster. There is of course very prescient commentary about tribalism and colonialism and Syria itself, but there’s something else there, too, a simpler thing—a thing about the desire to remain an unaffected observer of history and in the course of its unfolding becoming so affected that you no longer know who you are. Lawrence is lured to the desert by its alien topography and its skies full of diamond-chip stars. He is driven from the desert by the madness induced when one tries to forge an unsustainable destiny on a landscape that has no need for them. He is at some moments accepted and even robed by the Arab tribes he befriends, but in the end he is still only a stranger in a strange land, stuffed back into his ill-fitting western garb, an outsider who must return from whence he came, even though he left that place because he was sure he’d fit in better somewhere else. The look of dejection he offers in the final shot is obscured by a dust-covered windshield and just at the moment you realize that you felt that way once too, the scene cuts to black. THE END, it reads, in letters ten feet tall.