It took me a few years after my first burning man to realize that ‘home’ ain’t out on the playa.
Nope, Black Rock isn’t my home.
It’s my launch pad.
My home is in here, it’s in Brooklyn, it’s wherever I happen to find myself (these days, mostly it’s ‘in here’ and in Brooklyn).
In 1998, I planned a vacation to San Francisco over Labor Day, to stay with someone I didn’t know that well (we’re close friends these days). We’d only met recently – we had both been invited to participate on a panel by a mutual friend of ours.
The panel was discussing the formation of a traveling art and performance event.
“But, we already have something kind of like that,” one of the San
Franciscans on the panel said. “It’s called Burning Man.”
I’d seen the website. I’d been looking at post-burning-man reflections on the Internet for a few years at that point. September was always a painful month for me – I’d sit at work and think ‘they’re all there right now.’ And then I’d go to work one day, surf some websites, look at some photographs, and drive myself crazy all over again.
It was time to get my ass out there somehow.
And so it was, right before my flight to California, I called my new friend there and said, “Hey, do you want to go to Burning Man while I’m out there?”
The answer was yes. And so I frantically repacked my bags – a MUCH larger suitcase, a few more sparkly things. And there we were, starstruck, intoxicated, dehydrated and for the most part, totally unprepared out there on the playa for the first time.
I remember sitting out there, halfway between the city and the superlasered goa rave, thinking “you know, if the aliens ever come to take us away, no doubt they’ll stop here. And just think, they’ll have a sampling of some of the finest human beings in existence.”
I spent a week wandering the streets of San Francisco after that – I spent an entire day with a guy I’d met on the bus who’d asked me for the time, met a group of people I partied with all night long and half of the next day, and missed my flight back to New York.
“But it’s my birthday,” I said and for some odd reason, the folks at American Airlines actually cared and put me on a red-eye bound for home, free of charge.
I got back to New York at 7am. I dropped off my dusty suitcase, showered and changed, and proceeded to start a new job. I drank twelve cups of coffee that day.
I eventually lost that hell of a job, started a freelance career, and drove to Burning Man, all the way from Brooklyn, that following year.
We made our own camp that year – it was small, and nearly everyone in it had some sort of massive, way-out-on-the-playa art project.
Except me. I haven’t ever had an art project out there.
I spent the majority of my time walking around the city since most of my campmates weren’t ever around – meeting people, gawking at art, shaking my groove thang, flirting with cute boys and (god forbid), taking pictures of those that allowed it.
And I had an amazing time. I learned a lot out there on my launching pad, met some amazing people and a guy who knew how to use a vibrator, and brought it all home (except the vibrator, unfortunately).
The following year, After a few weeks on the road (eating bad road food, waiting for one of us to get out of jail in New Orleans, visiting Graceland, showering in Sedona), I worked and camped at Supersnail, due to one of those synchronicities in 1999 that brings people together in Black Rock. I was a photo scout. My responsibility to the camp was to go out on my bike every day, socialize, and bring a few back to be photographed.
The perfect playa job for me. I felt useful for a while Last year, I was part of a camp, too (drove again, while I was at it),
although I could never figure out my responsibility at camp. I again spent a lot of time riding around, meeting people, exploring. this time, I also brought my partner to the event. It was a totally different experience, but I have to say that last year was without a doubt the best yet.
There was a lot to being able to just exist with him – there he was, at the event for the first time – not starstruck and useless like I was the first time I ever arrived in Black Rock City (like that wannabe rock star getting off a supernatural Greyhound and into the real light of day), but completely understanding of the thing this is. Someone who understood its ‘purpose’, understood why I was there, and wanted more than anything to share this experience with me. The type of guy to velcro an ashtray to his boy scout belt (the type of guy to pack velcro, even). To say I was impressed is an understatement.
To say I didn’t fall in love with him twice as much is also an
understatement. Yeah, traditional… Ah well, what can you do…
(And here I’d (slightly) wracked myself into a state of worry beforehand – that perhaps he would be in need of, say, an experience I wasn’t prepared to handle, and that the perhaps necessary emotional and educational experience would, for lack of a better term, ‘harsh my mellow’ . Turns out, however, we were in the same place. It was one of many reasons last year was so spectacular for me. )
So the ride home, albeit cramped, was bliss – I’d launched off again, ready for another year of living, and having passed a profound relationship test with someone I’d always been sure was a soul-mate of mine. Whatever it is this year, bring it on, I’m ready. Or, at least I thought I was.
We got home on September 9th.
A day of hanging out at the house passed, sweeping up playa dust and telling stories to our neighbors, before it was finally time for me to hop on my (still-dust-encrusted) bike and head into Manhattan to return to work.
My boyfriend’s mother called from the middle of nowhere upstate, watching the morning news.
“Some wacko just flew a plane into the world trade center.”
I dropped my bike in the hallway and ran to the roof to look out over the East River at the World Trade Center towers. And obviously, we all know what happened next.
Welcome the hell home. Oh, and happy birthday, while you’re at it.
Insert here a few weeks of the most profound shellshock I’ve ever experienced.
I thought back to the previous three weeks of my life, and I got through it. I thought about how I’d remained unharmed, how my home, and my loved ones, were all safe. How I’d just spent three weeks of my life back out on the launching pad, learning some new lessons about how to take off, and what to do when I land.
I used to worry about the fact that I’m not much of a ‘playa participant’ – that my experiences out there are always focused on the (not so) random serendipities, the seeking out of synchronicities, that they’re not focused on a camp, or an art project, or a performance. That I have nothing large to impress people with artistically, am not skilled with power tools, would rather go half-naked than wear a costume, and can barely figure out how to turn on the generator.
You know what? Sue me.
I come home with a lot and besides – without someone on the dance floor, it really isn’t a party. I take off out there, and I land on two feet when I come back down. I am amazed by art, I am overwhelmed by kindness, I am constantly surprised to find myself in yet another synchronious event – all the time. And I use the word ‘profound’ maybe entirely too often in everyday life.
Burning Man is not a yearly event for me. It’s a celebration of another year of life well-lived, or at least a good earnest attempt. It’s a time for me to relax and enjoy having trust and faith in people. To be reminded if my faith has slipped even just a little. To be amazed by the generosity and artistic accomplishments of my fellow human beings, to appreciate gorgeous naked bodies and extraordinary costumes, and get a tan on my boobs.
So yeah, there was a whole lotta ugliness here when I got back. Enough to make me wish, for a bit, I’d never taken off from the launch pad. Enough to shake the foundations of my faith more than a little.
But, I’ve learned to deal with the laws of gravity, at least for now. At least until that spaceship comes and grabs that sample of humanity – and perhaps thinks better of us as a species because of it.
What goes up does come down eventually. And that ain’t always a bad thing, despite painful and too-close-for-comfort arguments to the contrary.
Remember your freedoms, and use the ones you can while you’ve got a ‘now’ to use them in.
Yeah sure, I stumbled a bit when I landed, but I still made it down on two feet, never having lost my faith entirely in things like beauty, creativity, kindness, ingenuity, and serendipity.
So if I’m out there in a sarong, topless and completely costume-free, doing nothing more than sitting by the side having a drink and tapping my toe to the beat, don’t hold it against me.
I’m just getting ready to take off again.
And I think you’re beautiful.