The playa was rough and even with my flashlight it was too dark to see the bumps in front of my wheels. Every jolt was a surprise, and instead of relaxing into the ride it made me stare at the ground even harder, as though I could pierce the darkness by concentrating.
That’s how I almost missed the flaming altar, and the cluster of people around it. I nearly biked right into them. They were whispering to each other and nearly missed me too: one of a million near collisions that happen at Burning Man every day, averted at the last minute as I veered off to the east and hit my breaks, coming to a bumpy stop.
I turned and shone my flashlight on their backs. There were maybe seven people huddled around an altar with a small flame, and behind them were three large towers. Maybe climbable. Either they’d appeared out of nowhere, or I had.
I love the deep playa. I love it when something appears there, like a dream. I was going deeper tonight. All the way in. But first … I wanted to see what I’d nearly knocked over, concentrating on the darkness so much I’d missed the light.
The sign on the towers said this was the “Pillars of Wisdom.” Okay. I remember something about this. There was an early Christian hermit. Saint … saint … St. Somebody, who built pillars through the Middle East as spots for contemplation. These are probably not what his pillars looked like, but it’s a nice conceit. There is writing on the pillars – graffiti in markers of every size and shape. I can either get closer to read it or cluster around the first, hear what they’re whispering at the altar.
I decide to listen before I look.
The altar is filled with little glass or plastic beads, and the flame hovers around them … it’s a neat effect. Four people there are having a conversation about something their camp-mates did wrong today. One person at the altar is explaining what this place is about to two others.
“First,” he says, “you take this paper,” and he hands each of them an onion thin sheet of paper and a pen. When he sees me there, he hands me one too. “And then you write something down on it, something you want to tell the divine. And then you toss it on the flame. Then you open your mind and climb into one of the towers, or walk around them if they’re full, until you hear what God has to say to you. And when you hear that, you take a marker and write it on the tower.”
They take their papers and stare at them. What do any of us have to say to God, anyway? It’s funny, we go through our lives wishing we could give the creator of the universe a piece of our mind … but when asked to put it in a bullet point, we blank. We don’t so much want to talk to God as we want to howl at him, to hold up our lives to the creator and wail.
My two companions on this journey are hesitating. They have no idea. Leaning down over the paper, so no one else can see, I write the confession of failure that has haunted me for most of my life … the standard I have never lived up to. “I’m sorry,” I begin, and end two sentences later. I fold the paper up. I hold it over the fire. It catches immediately, and is gone in an instant.
The facilitator nods to me and I turn and begin walking clockwise around the towers. I know this is supposed to be quiet contemplation, but I can’t help holding my flashlight out and seeing what other people have written: what they thought the divine was saying to them in the dark.
“Don’t be afraid to try new things!”
“It will be all right!”
“Forgiveness is good for the soul.”
Really? We listen for the voice of God, and we think he speaks in clichés? Is God supposed to be writing a self-help book? Is this honestly the best we can do? If it is, we’re in trouble. If we think this is how the voice of the universe speaks, we’re a community that doesn’t understand the first thing about spirituality no matter how much yoga we do in the morning. I walk around the three pillars of wisdom, shaking my head.
Having had these thoughts, there’s no way I’m going to be open to the divine voice now. I chose to be a critic rather than a prophet. I step back to the fire, and see that one of the people who got paper with me is finally writing something down. She’s a tall, thin, brunette, and when she holds her paper out to the fire it, too, disappears with a flash.
But instead of walking towards the pillars, she walks away from them, back towards Black Rock City. I watch her go until she stops, almost out of sight, to fiddle with her pack; then I turn back to the fire. I run my hand through it. I wish someone here had had something profound to say.
Next to me, a monster with a swirling black and white face steps up to the fire.
I jolt. The small crowds jumps, half-shouts. The monster looks around at us, and then back at the fire. It takes us all a moment, in the darkness, to realize that this is a mask. A very good mask that fits perfectly on a costume. It was … shocking. It was … I can see now … the girl who just walked away. She stepped out in the darkness and took a mask out of her pack, put it on, and came back. I don’t think she meant to scare the hell out of us – but my God she did.
Slowly, people go back to their whispered conversations. Suddenly, I get an idea. I slip away from the altar, back to my bike. I’ve left my own pack next to it. In the darkness … working without a flashlight … I pull out my own mask, the one I was given just this morning. It’s an old, beaten up, rubber thing, a skeleton face in a helmet. It fits perfectly. I slip it on. Count to 10, and walk back to the fire, standing next to the girl in her mask.
Apparently one mask was shocking and terrifying. A second is old hat.
Except that she … mask girl … is paying attention. She leans closer. “Are you supposed to be a demon?” she whispers.
“I don’t know. This face was a gift.”
She nods, thinking that over. “I worked on mine for months,” she says. I nod back. The fire is eerie on both our false eyes.
I get an idea. An inspiration. “I’m headed out to deep playa,” I say. “Come with me. I’ll bet you … I’m absolutely certain … that we’ll bump into somebody else with a mask. There’s a horde of demons out there, waiting for us. I can feel it. We’ll walk away from the Pillars of Wisdom, head out into deep playa, and find a whole city of the damned.”
The fire crackles.
“Wow,” she says. “That’s awesome.” She looks ahead, as though she could see into the darkness. “But … I’m here with friends. They’re over there,” she points vaguely. “At that sculpture thing. And we really want to all be at the temple at midnight, to see the monkey chant. I don’t think …” She lets that trail off.
I nod. “Of course,” I say. The wind picks up. We both shiver. The fire flickers. I won’t be able to do it myself. If I go out to deep playa on my own, I won’t find any more masks.
“You could come with us.”
I shake my false head. I have to go deep tonight.
I put my hands over the fire and then turn around. Walk back to my bike. I aim it out towards 12 o’clock and pedal, thinking that the Pillars of Wisdom have it all wrong. The divine doesn’t speak to us in words and sentences. It doesn’t care about prayers and poetry. The only words it knows are “yes” and “no.” It speaks to us in dreams and comets, in calls to action and faces suddenly appearing out of the darkness.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com
“The Demon’s Face” is a fictionalized account of a real moment.