A shaman named Rafiki gave me my playa name. He dropped it into my lap, a casual jewel, and then ducked away. It was a tiny and huge moment all at once. It happened, and then it was over. I swung in its wake, letting the shape of the name settle around me like a cloak.
Going into the experience of Burning Man, I had been curious about playa names, wanting to hear their origin stories. I was delighted when folks I met introduced themselves as “Laser Wolf” “Huggles” and “Gummi Bear”. How did one get a playa name? I asked. Could you name yourself or did it come from some sort of elder? Could your friends make it up or did it have to descend in some kind of epic moment of glory?
There were contrasting opinions on how one could get a name. Some Burners seemed to have some kind of metric that made a “legitimate” playa name. Others staunchly asserted that your playa name could come from anywhere — you could make it up, someone else could, you could trek out to one of several naming events or naming camps or ask a stranger to name you. Your name could change from year to year; you could accumulate several and use whichever one suited you at the time.
I talked about playa names a lot with my friends Puck and Artichoke. Puck had named both himself and Artichoke at their first burn the previous year. Their names suited them. Puck had the gleeful, playful and mischievous nature of a Shakespearean sprite, and Artichoke had a layered and earthy personality, with ever more tenderness and softness the closer you got to her core. The three of us loved to talk about names. What could Jon’s name be? Did the name Rufio really suit Brad, or might something sweeter be better? Jama (his actual last name) seemed like a playa name already, did he need another one?
The topic of Jon’s name was a regular discussion between the three of us. Puck was determined for the good part of the week that the name Apollo was perfect for Jon. “Think about it. Apollo is the god of sun and light consciousness and rationality. Jon is Apollo because he places such a high value on consciousness and rationality.” We all agreed that Jon needed an epic, mythological name. His tall stature, broad and muscular shoulders and sweetly serious personality suggested such. Jon exuded a sense of wise caring, masculine tenderness and deep trustworthiness. The name had to reflect that. A name with history and gravity. A name with weight.
“Hephaestus?” I suggested. “Too obscure.” said Puck. “I just feel that Apollo is too common in pop culture.” I countered. “It makes me think of Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks.” Puck wasn’t sure we should let pop culture references get in the way of a name choice. We agreed to try Apollo out with Jon and see if it stuck.
I was named on a Thursday. I began introducing myself by my new name on Friday morning. By Saturday night it was swimming easily around me, comfortably slipping out of my mouth when I reached out to hug new people. It was gathering its own life, its own texture, meaning and repetition. People would hear my name, look at me anew and nod, saying “Yes, I can see that.” I felt something new growing in and around me, a quality that had been named in me that now took up space as a verbal cue, reference and reminder. I was becoming my name.
Saturday night was the night of the Man Burn. Tens of thousands of beings gathered in the inner playa to watch this act of beautiful destruction, to see the flames crawl up and devour the towering wooden figure. The night of the Man Burn was the most dizzying and electric combination of hours and timelessness I have ever experienced. In the course of the night two new names emerged, one for Jon and one for Jama. Whether they stick for future years or not doesn’t matter. They were names for the night, from the night. They rose up out of the playa, out of our playing, our dancing, our living.
Jon became Atlas in the moment that he stepped under a giant metal globe and began pushing it for the climbers that were threaded up and through its many triangular windows. His large back and narrow waist, his arms strong and upstretched, his willingness to give his effort to the others for their enjoyment and weightlessness; all of these aspects together emitted the image of the Greek Titan. A Titan! Yes. Jon was most certainly a Titan. A demi-god, holding a great weight, shouldering a most precious responsibility. Puck and Artichoke nodded their agreement. Jon was Atlas.
The topic of Jama’s playa name barely came up during the week. He was a solo wanderer, often times venturing out onto the playa on his own. The few nights I went out with him in a group he was often bringing up the back, moving in an unhurried and deliberate way. He seemed to stay with his experience slowly, carefully and yet lightly. When he did speak it was usually quiet — a caring word to someone, a thoughtful observation or a subtle joke. Throughout the week his movements grew from the angular walk of a tall, serious engineer to the more leisurely canter of someone discovering how to dance. It broke my heart right open to see him move with more and more freedom.
Jama was my buddy on Burn night. We were in a large group and we all wanted to stick together. I asked him to stay with me, make sure I didn’t get lost from the others. He nodded silently. He took my hand.
Puck and Artichoke and I were climbing up a wooden structure with several small platforms when Jama’s name came to me. I scrambled up, turned around and whispered it to Artichoke. She was delighted. She shared it with Puck. He wasn’t sure. And then the broad figure of Jama swung itself up onto the platform with us. We hadn’t even known he was behind us. I turned to him, said, I’ve thought of a name for you. I held it out to him. What do you think?
No hesitation. Yes. he said.
When we climbed down off the platform, we called the group together to do a head count. Holding one another’s waists, smiling faces lit up by the rainbow of lights circling our torsos, I shared Jama’s name with the group. We found Jama’s playa name! I said. His name is Presence. Because he is constantly reminding us to stay present. Artichoke’s sweet voice broke in. And because he’s a gift! Everyone laughed. I smiled up at the tall and open-faced Presence. He looked calmly and surely back at me.
Sometimes names are for the namers. Whether or not Jon identified with the name Atlas or Jama thought of himself as Presence for longer than that night, it was their gift to me to allow me to name them. In naming them, they became more full and alive to me. Their qualities magnified and my love and appreciation for them expanded. Jon was suddenly knit with archetypal story and Jama embodied a staggering quality of heart.
When Rafiki named me, he lit that spark in me. The spark that can see to the core of others and love their light. It was already present in me; Rafiki simply gave it a concrete verbal vibration. He made me see it and feel it in myself. He made me own it, introduce myself as such, preach it. Once I got my name, I became a namer.
Rafiki named me Angel Eyes. Meaning “one who can see angels”. After he named me, I saw more and more and more in my midst. The playa was glowing with them. Atlas. Artichoke. Puck. Presence. Beating Heart. Rufio. Aisha. Songbird. Peter Pan. Sasha. Socrates. Nibs. Huggles. Gonzo. Gummi Bear.
by Angel Eyes