Structural Integrity: How It Feels to Choose Burning Man and (Nearly) Blow Up Your Life

So far as I see, I can tell this story three ways.

 

Way 1:

Last year, I almost incinerated my graduate school education on the altar of Burning Man.

 

Way 2:

Last year, Burning Man cost me $15,000.

 

Way 3

Last year, I followed my heart and nearly upended my life.

 

Here’s what happened: entering my third and final year of grad school, I lied on an official Leave of Absence form about where I would be during the first three weeks of the semester. I lied because I was co-leading a 70-person theme camp. I lied because my hunger for community outstripped my commitment to honesty.

When I returned to the grid after the Burn, I pitched into a month-long disciplinary process for defrauding the university of wages. They’d been paying me to teach classes for those first three weeks, which I’d arranged for a colleague to cover. The administrators involved, though very upset, were humane. They shielded me from the University’s Big Disciplinary Processes, working out punishment within our department, among themselves: probation and suspension of my teaching fellowship. It was on me to pay for fall semester out of pocket. Though they could have, they didn’t expel me.

I am not the first person—and I’m certain I won’t be the last—whose decision to go to the playa shakes loose and reorders everything. I know that I’m far from alone feeling torn between seemingly irreconcilable values because I love Burning Man. I’m not the only one who, in choosing the dust, wild dancing, and El wire, has paid a price.

*

“The Fool,” Quest said, tapping the card, “is about following your heart. Even when it doesn’t make sense. It’s important for you to stay in touch with what your heart is telling you. Which can be a risky, as you can see.”

A young man in a flowing, flower-strewn tunic pinched a white rose between thumb and forefinger. In his other hand, he gripped a staff with a comically small bundle tied to its end. The youth’s face is turned up towards the sun as he walks, lightly, dreamily, obliviously, right off the edge of a cliff.

On Saturday afternoon of build week, when outrageous winds whipped the playa and drove our setup crew to shelter in a 40-foot trailer, I’d asked my campmate Quest to lay me a tarot spread. I wanted guidance for my upcoming year of graduate school, the final leg of an uncomfortable, challenging, and solitary journey I’d undertaken in Columbus, Ohio. I wanted to do my third and final year right, which is to say with grace and integrity. I looked again at the spread. The Fool was in the spot indicating “the way forward.”

*

Last February, I returned to my college alma mater to run a weekend workshop on ethical storytelling. As an opening gambit, I asked the students to define integrity. When we shared out, one student volunteered the concept of structural integrity. I was delighted. As a writer, I love leveraging tangible explanations to grasp abstract concepts.

“The ability of an item to hold together under a load, including its own weight, resisting breakage or bending.” So says Wikipedia about structural integrity. As it applies to us humans, I believe structural integrity consists of two things—individual and the relational conduct. Staying centered in integrity means pursuing the people and experiences that make you feel the most alive, the most seen and valued, and, subsequently, the most nourished. From this place, we are far better citizens of the world. But structural integrity also means being impeccable with your word, showing up all the times and in all the ways you said that you would. It means bearing, with grace, whatever load it is you promised you’d carry.

But at almost every turn, we’re pressured to choose. Our head or our heart. Our job or our life. Our partnership or our autonomy. Our commitment to self or our commitment to others.

My case of Burning Man vs. grad school has compelled me to reflect on these dichotomies for the whole of this past year. I’ve thought and I’ve felt, prostrated and atoned, gotten real familiar with the inside of the doghouse, and rolled up my sleeves to dig myself out of a self-made, rather deep pit. Through it all, I’ve striven to answer one basic question:

What does it take to feel whole?

After months of musing, I’ve landed here: true integrity—integral, integrated integrity—isn’t possible unless it’s enacted in its individual and its relational forms. Another way to think about it: if you only honor only your heart, or, decide to follow solely your head, you’ll feel unsettled by your choices at best. At worst, you might hasten your own massive structural cave in. Or, you might walk yourself right off a cliff.

After opening their lives up to Burning Man, so many people chafe against this painful tension. Pilgrims are called to the desert where they discover what it is to feel free and radically generous. They tap and are then shocked by their own vast ability to love. Then, they return home to a life that demands they shrink down, Visqueen off, brick over, or sweep under integral (See what I did there? #WordChoice) parts of themselves.

The nature of Burning Man, and the philosophies that underpin it, wake us up rudely to the sharp insistence that we split ourselves. Before, when we were half asleep and a little numbed out, splitting was doable, bearable. But now, goddamn—

It hurts.

*

“Allie, I really just don’t understand how you think you can do it. After you graduate, you’ll have to get a job. Certainly you won’t have accrued enough vacation days by August to take a week off. Unless you live way, way, waaaaaay off-the-grid, you definitely won’t be able to go to Burning Man next year.”

 

The moment the director of my graduate program said this—as I sat meekly in her office hours this time last year to offer one more mea culpa after the disciplinary proceedings had ended—that was the instant my Burn died. You know the moment: when business as usual collides at top speed with one of the eternal, prevailing truths that Burning Man showed you…and fucking steamrolls it.

You are not free to be whole.

That’s what my director’s comment implied. But I knew her assessment was incorrect. Seventy thousand Burners a year press pause on their lives for a week plus, some of whom lead very on-the-grid lives—all the trial attorneys, medical residents, tech workers, and Grover Norquist are testament to that.

In the moments following her pronouncement, I felt immensely disheartened. The belief that you must fracture yourself in order to live is not one I share. I suspect that anyone with whom Burning Man resonates feels the same.

It was in that moment that I realized fracturing myself is the thing that scares me the most. Apportioning myself into tiny, pill-sized pieces terrifies me because this parceling gives birth to a bestiary of bad things: abuse, addiction, adultery, bigotry, bullying, carelessness, dishonesty, selfishness, shame.

In this world, a dizzying amount is up for debate. But here’s one thing that isn’t: when we violate our own innate and beautiful structures, we fuck up our lives up in weird ways.

I’d argue the reason we fracture, the reason we lie, boils down to stigma. We become terrified to show ourselves, so great is our fear that we’ll be judged, and, in short order, rejected. Fired, broken up with, disowned. What’s more, we panic that we’ll be mistaken for someone we’re not because of someone else’s idea of the thing that we are—

 

Burning Man? That drug-addled, week-long desert orgy? You GO to that?

 

And so, we suppress. We sneak around. We flat out lie. We twist the truth.

*

Last year’s Leave of Absence had three boxes to check: medical emergency, medical care of a family member, academic conference of 3-5 days. I wish there had been a fourth box that said this:

My graduate studies are deeply important to me and are helping me become who I want to be…but so does this other thing in Nevada that takes me temporarily away from themWhat can I say? I’m human. 

In the absence of that box, I chose to lie.

The truth is that the truth is double, dichotomous. I’m proud and ashamed of what I did. I’m proud that I followed my heart, even though it didn’t make sense. I’m ashamed that in doing it, I knowingly lied.

I’m telling this story now, though it’s still kind of scary to share, in pursuit of living whole. This is me trying to stick to my dusty-ass guns while also taking responsibility for fucking up. My attempt at structural integrity.

*

After finishing grad school, I moved back to the Bay Area in May, degree proudly in hand. After some hustle, I was contracted to work for an organization I’ve had a fat-bordering-on-morbidly-obese crush on since 2013. When I accepted the job, I wrote that I’d be available to work all summer…except for the last two weeks of August, when I’d be You Know Where. The project manager wrote back:

We all laughed when we read your Burning Man plans—half of us will be there as well—not a lot happening in the office that week!

When I read the email, I leapt up from my desk, ripped off my shirt, and roared like Ronaldo after scoring a goal.

 

Whole personhood!

 

IS possible!

 

Fuck YES.

 

 


(Top Photo: “Believe” by Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg [Photo by Philip Volkers])

About the author: Alessandra Wollner

Alessandra Wollner

Alessandra (Allie) Wollner, aka Lotus, is a writer, educator, and community builder. She helps create the theme camp Milk + Honey, and earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Ohio State. Her current project is an essay collection on the interrelation of gender language and power. On playa, when she's not dancing wildly, you can find her writing in her notebook atop a 40-foot trailer, wearing a leopard print onesie, at sunrise. See Allie's work at www.alewollner.com

29 Comments on “Structural Integrity: How It Feels to Choose Burning Man and (Nearly) Blow Up Your Life

  • Ann Kerben says:

    Allie,
    I just read-
    Structural Integrity: How It Feels to Choose Burning Man and (Nearly) Blow Up Your Life- THANK YOU!
    I was on a plane with many going and then returning from Burning Man. When they heard I flew out to hear Stevie Wonder for a few days from FL and I follow music festivals they shared Burning Man experiences with me. I immediately started plotting my “excuses” and trying how not to be judged by others. I also made a profile to begin learning more. Your written words could not have come at a better time. Peace!

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  • Stevie says:

    Thank you, Allie. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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  • Teri says:

    I understand the depth of feeling that you have for Burning Man, I have it too. I loved Burning Man before I ever went. I didn’t know why. I’ve been twice and I still can’t put the why into words that make any sense. The great thing is burners don’t need any words and non-burners will struggle to understand even with words.

    It’s deep, deep inside me. I didn’t go this year, I couldn’t blow my life up, people important to me are depending on me right now, I couldn’t blow it up. Who am I kidding… I’ve mostly chosen not to blow my life up even though I feel the fractures, I’ve almost always done what’s “right”. I’m 59, that’s a long time of denying what burned inside me to do what seems right for everyone else.

    But guess what, I’m going in 2017 and every year I possibly can until I die. I love it. I realized on September 5th, when the live feed went dead and I cried, just how much I missed it and that the fracture was just too big.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings and giving me a place to share mine.

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  • Erika says:

    oh my goodness , thank u for writing this. it’s my 1st burn & I had no idea how it would change me. a couple of BM veterans advised me on my 1st day : don’t have any expectations , u will meet who u need to meet & u will get answers u have been searching for. All of this happened , although many of the ‘answers’ are hurting me now, I cannot wait to return home next year.

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  • Sherif Hashem says:

    “Like Ronaldo after scoring a goal” haha.

    This is fucking brilliant. Thank you.

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  • Star says:

    THANK YOU!! Your writing is beautiful and intimate. On a personal level, the timing on this couldn’t be better. Will be sharing on my FB page.

    Hope to meet you on the playa next year so I can can give you a giant hug!

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  • Leili says:

    So beautifully written and so personal. Thank you for sharing. This year was my first burn and I will do everything I can to be back next year. It was beyond anything I have ever done and experienced!

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  • You are not but one nail in the board of life to experience this, all the other nails in the board of life have experienced this too. Yes it is hard to suffer but we are all doing it, hard is it to find salvation from suffering but we are all trying it as well. The key is to take what you have learned from this experience and use it to help others, instead blaming yourself for your short comings as one of many suffering sentient beings on this planet do. Peace in the Dharma

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  • Alan Apar says:

    What self indulgent crap. You didn’t get yourself in trouble because you loved Burning Man and just had to go – you got yourself in trouble because you couldn’t be honest about it. You were held captive by boxes on a form? Pick up a damn phone.

    You didn’t find any philosophical truths, you just found out that you are still an immature little child. This isn’t because you had a fun escape for a week a year (oh what a sacrifice) but because you don’t have the maturity to accept fun for what it is.

    If this is the state of today’s pseudo-hippies then the 60’s were all for naught.

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    • Noemi says:

      Finally! A comment with some common sense. This person is really selfish and immature. As I was reading her article, I just wanted to say, “GROW THE EFF UP!” She didn’t get in trouble because she went to Burning Man. She’s in trouble because she lied. And Newsflash! Vacations are earned when you show up to work, do the job you’re hired to do, and it well!

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      • Noemi says:

        *do it well. I was so repulsed by this diatribe and the previous responses that I neglected to check my typos.

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      • FB says:

        “Vacations are earned when you show up to work, do the job you’re hired to do, and do it well!”

        It’s fine if time on the playa is a priority, but it’s not fine to sacrifice your other responsibilities when people –especially young people–are counting on you. And it’s naive and unethical to be dishonest to obtain a graduate stipend that you didn’t earn, and then re-frame that dishonesty as a form of integrity.

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    • Burner1111 says:

      Get off the site you ding dong.

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    • sj says:

      That’s a high level of cynicism… I especially liked the part where you jumped to your conclusion of what she got out of BM. You don’t know what she got out of it but I am willing to bet that it was emotionally and mentally positive. I had fun at burning man, but I am also self aware enough to know it can also be a profound experience and can help with some issues that even a therapist can’t. I think part of the point is that it is mentally and emotionally filling but it is seen as eating out of the cookie jar and seen as just ‘fun’.

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  • Rick S. says:

    I read your narrative and do you know what I took from it? You were childish in your selfishness. You put your fun above all else including your own goals. By definition that is childish. You were in trouble for not honoring your commitments. I fear for the students that you teach, and the lessons you give.

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  • FearLess says:

    Easy to spot the comments from people who have never been to Burning man. It’s not just about fun, although it is fun.

    It’s sincerely like coming up from underwater and finally being able to breathe with 60,000 other people doing the same thing. And for the record, I’m nearly 50, don’t drink or take drugs and have been to the burn twice travelling from Australia. If I could be there every year I would. If I could live like that every day, I would.

    Don’t believe me? Go. And then you’ll be qualified to pass judgement.

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    • Champagne says:

      Been to BM 6 times and I, too, am home when there. So…..I was floored by this immature and self- deceptive set of beliefs. One of the ten principals is civic responsibility and it seems that committed burners manage to keep the burn alive through applying the principles all year long.

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  • Sawyer says:

    Growth is hard, creation is messy, and mistakes are educational if we persist. I love how you approached this twice showing different results: Once lacking integrity, resulting in a fractured, messy experience, and once with integrity, resulting in a more whole person. At least that’s what I got from it. So awesome. And regarding the person saying “grow the off up”…. I think that’s exactly what you wrote about… growing up and taking ownership of *your* path.

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  • Reaver says:

    Structural Integrity – Ethics – & Decision

    Empirical juxtapositions complicate many moments. The layers and levels of each topographical path require a firm hold of truth of self and a healthy respect of space. Each time that proverbial box does not exist the sacrifice required is the instantaneous acceptance of responsibility and consequence. This is adulthood.

    College taught you well.

    Reaver

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  • B says:

    As one who works in the public school system, I’ve always felt a bit resentful of burning man because of the timing as it takes place during what is in most places the first week of school, voiding the ability of (most) educators to attend. I’ve often wondered what makes it essential for the burn to be held during that particular time, and whether there’s any intentionality in maintaining a time frame that so clearly challenges the attendance of those in certain professions.

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  • Anne says:

    Wow… Good stuff to reflect on. For me my burn did’t start at Burning man – hey I have never been, yet I know exactly what you mean. Although it would be easy if I could boil it down to two weeks a year. What about all the other times, when heart calls and normal life holds you back. I dont want to live shrinken and I dont want to walk out over the cliff either…
    Hopefully comming burner currently looking for balance

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  • Annie Nimmity says:

    Thank you Allie for your post. I am 49 years old. I am, mother, a wife, a business owner, a student. I work arduously throughout the year, aspiring to be a better form of my current self. Each year as I enter my fall semester (returned to college to receive another Bachelors to enter a nursing program) I discuss with my professors my intended week off from school. Most are gracious; they recognize my diligence and my aspirations. I have taken school work with me in the last year or two and study some nights in my tent. This year, however, my professor wasn’t as gracious and indicated to me that by taking the week off, i would start the semester with three zeros due to her insistence that I would be unable to submit late work, etc. Hhhmmm….three zeros or Playa?

    Needless to say, I dropped the class and will start again in the spring semester. The take away: Life is short. There is no guarantee of tomorrow will bring. The fact that I have one week a year to decompress, outweighs the desire to carry through my responsibilities in the default world. I don’t apologize for it. It is a choice I make. It is a choice we ALL make. The world doesn’t stop. What seems as an immature, irresponsible decision, is only for us to make and for us to live with. We are good with it. All 70,000 of us.

    There are no regrets. A week spent at BurningMan gives us such an inexplicable joy. It is a time where we can let our hair down, truly be ourselves, without anyone passing judgment. That one week permeates our souls to sustain us for a year (for a lifetime, actually). There are no guarantees that we will visit the Playa the following year, so if the opportunity presents itself currently, then, (black)rock on.

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  • KT says:

    Thank you for putting into words something I always knew and felt and struggled with. :)

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  • KonaSwimBliss says:

    I attended my first Burning Man in 2016, at age 68, and promptly fell in love with the joyous faces that I saw all around me. I had no real gift to offer but my smile, so made that my gift. I made up a “Smile Sharing” sign to hold up; was stunned at all the love that just flowed my way: people stopped on their bikes to smile, to hug, to connect for a moment and then move on.

    Yes, Burning Man has all that has been discussed above, the sensory overwhelming, adrenalin fueled excitement, visual stimulation, sex, nudity, and raunch, but my take away is the peace, acceptance, and joy that I saw on the faces around me, no matter the body behind the smile.

    Didn’t exactly change my life, but certainly helped clarify my emerging feelings of being blessed and grateful; that at least for a little while, we can let our inner power and creativity out to roam free. Now to bring that back to the default world, in my day to day life, is the next challenge!

    I am retired and old enough not to care so much what people think of my behavior any more; much more concerned with self-respect and yes, integrity.

    Thanks for talking about your struggle and lessons learned.

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    • Quark Man says:

      I was a virgin. Now I’ve fallen in love. Logic has nothing to do with it. Control is impossible. Who would want to anyway? Just go with the flow and see where it leads you.
      …..BTW. I’m a 68 year old scientist.

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  • Rio says:

    Lies are like boomerangs. You throw one out into the world and it will come back and hit you in the head. Some sooner some later.
    Ironic you’re with Milk and Honey. Isn’t that camp based on the original ten “principles”? One of them is not to steal.
    Keep your head down. You don’t know if there are still boomerangs flying around from your actions.

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  • Camper says:

    Thank you sooooo much for this article! You really put into words many of the things I’ve felt and been dealing with since coming back this year. It’s so good to know I’m not the only one.

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  • You’ve said it all, dear, what’s on my mind and what’s the struggle, the turmoil, the conflict within me. Almost nobody understood but I can see heaps of support from even those who disconnected from me after I exposed my being under crisis team. I can say to hell with them but when it’s family it hurts like nothing before. But people are n
    beginning to see and support comes in from everywhere. I’m glad of my decision and I stick to what I believe. Thanks for saying it out for me.

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