At Burning Man Nothing is Sacred. Oh, really?

A couple of words I like to use when I describe Burners to other people are “crazies” and “stinkies”.

Before heading out to BRC last August I noted in my journal that this year I wasn’t going to volunteer, I wasn’t going to create an art installation, I was just going to watch the crazies and be one of them. And one of the greatest things I have always admired about burners is their tolerance – “if you want to be stupid and fall flat on your drunken face, go knock yourself out”. The last thing I expect at Burning Man is for someone to cater to or even yield to my own feelings or personal beliefs.

But this year something happened at the Temple burn that made me think, do I really want to come back again.

This year my return to Black Rock City was the year I would pay tribute to my father at the temple. At my first burn in 2007 I was awed by the simplicity and function of David Best’s Temple of Forgiveness and witnessed for the first time how the Temple burn provides us passage to leave the Black Rock desert after 7 days of pagan rituals, creative pyrotechnics and new age ceremonialism. This year, David’s work returned to the playa and so would I.

The hour leading up to the burn was a familiar drill – get there early, don’t bring your bike, and don’t drink heavily before getting there unless you can hold your piss for the 3 hours it takes the whole thing to finish. I had a good spot, just left of the 12:00 promenade entrance, and sat down about 5 people back from the perimeter. Just to the right of where I was sitting was a bus that I thought was just a typical hippie bus with a party lounge on top. It was parked facing the temple and standing on the second deck were a group of robed people. Hare Krishna on wheels, I figured.

The sun set and the crowd slowly got quieter. Then, a piano somewhere began to play Ave Maria.

Thinking of your father, who passed away when you were young, in the middle of the Black Rock Desert is something you may only do once in your life. It is not something that is rehearsed or thoroughly thought out. You just put yourself there and wonder how it will all finish.

The music was welcomed in my head as I wondered where my dad was and whether he ever knew how much I loved him. The chorus began singing and I realized it was the robed chorus atop the bus next to me. The music was sweet – it wasn’t dramatic and it wasn’t always on key, but it was good. It was close to how I felt and it didn’t need to be anything more. It was one of those things that is created by another burner that, if you come upon it, whether coming out of the blinding dust in your paralyzed movement across the playa or in the intimate moments on the perimeter of a temple burn, makes me forever thankful to not just be a burner but to have somewhat of an understanding of what it really means to be one.

I cried quietly but blissfully inside my head, realizing that I hadn’t come to the Temple to put closure on my father’s death but rather to find him in something. Instead of saying goodbye, I found myself saying over and over, “where are you? I miss you. I love you.” I could feel the tears on my face but knew that nobody would mind. Heck, nobody was even paying any attention to me. It was all about the Temple of Juno and whatever it was that brought each one of us to it.

But tolerance is a wonderful thing and it means that no matter what your experience is at Burning Man, it’s bound to be something different for somebody else. And so we really don’t give a shit when someone writes trash on the walls of our art or plays Free Bird during the silence of the Temple burn (someone said it was DPW, you just gotta love those guys). But when some woman came up to the chorus bus after the song was over and yelled at the top of her lungs, “Fuck your Ave Maria! Your fucking Ave Maria sucks!”, I thought to myself, what has happened to the people of Burning Man?

Some people around me gave a tolerant laugh as if not to let it spoil the moment that SOME of us were in, no MOST of us. And the Ranger who kneeled in front of our section said in a calming but sincere way, “I love you, people”, fulfilling her role to keep the burners from getting out of control but also really meaning it.

I was able to ignore the screamer’s outburst for the next hour just enough so that I could think that the wonderful music that carried over the wide expanse of the playa was in part meant for my dad (as well as for all the others that the temple consoled that night in its burning) and provided a sort of gift to him. My father was buried at sea, without music and without his family present. I am only detailing all this because I want burners to understand what the temple burn means for many us and what the moment is that many of us find ourselves in. I understand tolerance and I will always respect the freedom of choice and that some other burners just don’t like the way that something goes down at Burning Man. But I really have to wonder, what was that woman’s problem? Does she not give a shit about what other’s feel or even the fact that hundreds of days went into building the Temple of Juno and creating the chance for thousands of burners to have their own moment to honor someone or to confront the guilt they feel in someone else’s passing? Did she really not have the ability, or the courage to keep her mouth shut for just that one time so that everybody else could feel really good about where they had arrived on this final day of BM 2012? Or was she just drunk and stupid – one of the crazies.

I had to make a decision – either that woman that tried to ruin my Temple burn is going to change my opinion about Burning Man and Burners or she’s not. I feel strongly that Burning Man is never what it was the year before – it is what we make of it today, in spite of all the confusion, disagreements, and demands of change. If this woman was complaining because she doesn’t think the Temple Burn is what it used to be, well it isn’t. Nothing at Burning Man remains the same. That is what growing up and tolerance is all about.

I would assume that most of us have asked ourselves at one time or another if this year is the last year we will return to Black Rock City. Even if we say yes, we know we can still come back. I asked myself that for the first time after the Temple burn was over, and I didn’t hesitate to answer back – if someone’s behavior is enough to make you give up something which you love so much, then all those trips to the Black Rock Desert over the years have been for nothing.

There is that crazy young rebel somewhere hidden in my past that admires the woman that screamed “Fuck your Ave Maria”. I just wish she hadn’t.

by the Sandman

About the author: Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by participants. Submit your story here.