I’ve come to Burning Man to shave my head. The night they burn The Man will be exactly one year to the day since my husband and I separated. I need to mark this anniversary in the true spirit of Burning Man. I need to burn it up. To take this dream of our family, and set fire to it and watch it burn until the ashes blow away. Then I will come freshly shorn into my new life, reborn. Well, that’s the metaphor at least. It relates to the Wicker Man of pagan practice that I have to guess burning The Man is based on -the image of setting fire to the dried stalks of last years crop and returning the ashes to the soil to fertilize next years growth. It’s this image that is driving me, a suburban soccer mom of 42 with an admittedly fringe theatrical past, to take the pretty radical step of shaving my head. No wimp about radical steps, I’ve also come to Burning Man for the first time with a man I’ve had all of three dates with and will now spend six days in a van on an alkali salt flat that makes Death Valley look lush. “Let it burn, baby.”
In the world of Black Rock City we are bad Bedouins, my new paramour and I. Our pathetic camp with its ramshackle shade structure is the laughingstock of Serious and Faith, the intersecting streets that make up our block. The saving grace is that we are there in his Toyota van so shelter is just a sliding door away. As it turns out all we need at Burning Man is a bed. Or a futon, in this case. We’re “The Lovers” of the Tarot and we most definitely are Major Arcana. I am enjoying my second sexual adolescence in a way that only a newly single person can. “All of the know how and none of the inhibitions.” Which I realize could be a motto for the whole Burning Man event. The occasional pause in our sex marathon is filled with surreal forays into Black Rock City, the playa and the vast desert beyond – “The Wholly Other.” As it turns out, Burning Man is the perfect place to go when you’re in the pink cloud of new romance. It’s all about love and everybody wants to get some of that juju on them. It’s also the perfect honeymoon destination. As a friend of mine said to me there, while slurping whipped cream, fudge and sprinkles off of his wife’s breasts at the “Nipple Dip” stand, “Me and the Mrs. wouldn’t think of vacationing anywhere else.”
Before I left for the journey I started working on my shrine. It was to be a mini-version of the artist David Best’s Temple of Honor (burned on the Sunday after the Saturday night burning of The Man) made up of the postcards we sent out as announcements when our daughter was born. We had them printed in bulk in a batch of 500 and since we’d originally sent out about 75 I figured the 400 or so that I had left should do me. Unfortunately, I had only decided to go to Burning Man ten days before the event and I was completely stymied by the control freak’s trifecta challenge of packing every supply you could possibly need in the desert, finding sexy and creative costumes and creating an art piece of some significance to burn. Finally I had to say, “Fuck it,” to something and it was my ridiculously ambitious shrine. Instead I took the postcards and figured I’d just let the spirit move me.
Burning Man is a place where everyone is long lost family, friend and loved one. One night we venture out only to be met by a dust storm on the playa. We find the nearest camp and drop our bikes in the growing pile at the front of the oasis and enter. Walking down a narrow hallway draped in glowing nylon we push our way past the heavy curtains into a large dome room where everyone greets us with shouts of, “Happy Birthday,” “Surprise,” and “We’re so glad you’re here.” They hug us and we are merged into a large circle surrounding an accordion player who leads us in several rounds of Irish drinking songs and a mock wedding which involves toe sucking as a part of the rites. Being at Burning Man is almost a challenge to how intimate you can be with strangers. It’s an experiment in going deep fast with people you’ve never met before. I decide to take up this gauntlet by writing the most intimate memories I can of my marriage on the back of the postcards and asking people in the Center Café Saturday afternoon if they would take one and burn it that night. Some say “no,” but most agree and the profundity of the discussion that ensues is at the level of conversation I would have with my oldest friend. I am swept up in the fantasy of what it would be like if the real world could be like this and abruptly, everyday starts to feel like it really is my birthday.
On the night of the burn, the energy follows the fire. There’s literally a buzz as the playa starts to fill with people. Snap, crackle, pop. I’m dancing on the party bus of the camp we have ingratiated ourselves with and a Native American shaman asks if I want a cleansing before the burn. Oh, yes I do. That is exactly what the doctor ordered for this gay soon-to-be divorcee. I’m gunning for the spiritual enema of a lifetime and miraculously, I get it. The memories feel drug induced even though I was as sober as a nun. Through the haze of memory comes the image of him fanning a smudge stick with a turkey feather and telling me to stamp my feet and tell Mother Earth how grateful I am. I lift up my arms and cry my gratitude to the sky. With this, my kundalini opens like a dam burst and I’m a live conduit of energy from earth to heaven. At the same time they raise the neon outlined arms of The Man to indicate the bonfire is about to commence and a cry goes up in the crowd. The metaphorical burn that I had envisioned is fulfilling my wildest imaginings. I am a house afire.
Then they burn The Man. Eight stories of wood, canvas, and sheetrock goes up in a blaze perfectly engineered for spectacle. Some of the most spectacular being the 100 foot high smoke devils that are formed by the convection of the intense heat. They break off from the pyre and tornado their way out across the desert. A chorus line of the gods. Though many feel compelled, I’m not into pressing closer and jumping the fire. I’m spent and now I need the dreamtime. I’ve got information to receive from on high and this should be one interesting round of shut eye for me tonight. We do a little dance, make a little love and call it a night.
My sleep takes me on a battering journey. I have the visage of a chemo patient. My hair is unevenly shorn leaving me looking like a concentration camp victim. I have a cold sore on my lip and my skin looks all mottled. This is what I remember upon waking on Sunday morning. And I’m still going to do it. I’m still going to shave my head today. I start talking about it as soon as my companion is awake. “I’m scared”, I tell him. “What are you scared of?” he asks. “That you won’t find me attractive.” “Well, yeah!” he snorts and I crack up. “Which will give me all the information I need, won’t it?” I reply. “It sure will,” he says and gently kisses my hairline.
We head off for our morning coffee and chai at The Center Café and run into a girlfriend of ours who we have been seeking for the last five days. It’s a fantastic reunion and we all know that we will be together for the Temple Burn tonight and that they will both shave my head. I’m super-focused on getting it done. I don’t even want to talk. Just shave. Thank God someone is taking pictures. I’m so numb to the process and focused on the outcome I have to rely on photographs to help me to create in retrospect an emotional arc that matches the intensely ritualistic quality of the act. Everyone gets in on the action, taking turns with the clippers and leaving me to shave the front half with a disposable razor (referred to in head shaving parlance as “Bic-ing it down”) until a dust storm comes and I can no longer see myself in the mirror. The women take shelter in the van while my lover heads off to a party and like a feature spread from some goddess magazine we finish the job.
I no longer fulfill anyone’s image of what I should look like. When my hair grows out it will be grey or silver or salt and pepper, I’m not sure. I’ve not seen my true color for fifteen years and I look forward to finding out. All I see when I look in the mirror is the me that I’ve always known, only more fully seated in my experience. My hair color will make me look older but not old. There’s an elegance to inhabiting myself in this new way. As confident as I feel, I’m still hooked-in enough to be astounded when my husband doesn’t see this change. I’m coming to terms with the understanding that he probably never will and once again I understand what a gift there is for me in this ending. The answer to a question I’ve only just seen burned within me, “Who am I living my life for?”
I kept my hair. I gathered it all in a baggie (so that it wouldn’t fall into the hands of my enemies.) I’m a big proponent of “leave no trace” but of course I couldn’t catch it all. I love the thought of my hair being swept to the shoreline of the winter lake that will come with the rains, and embedding in the mud of the playa with the rest of the MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) that sneaks past the diligence of this year’s clean up crew. Feathery relics of a life I left behind, frozen in the shoreline of a dried up lake in the Black Rock desert.
I’m still trying to figure out what to do with this handful of hair.
Maybe I’ll burn it.