The Journey to Self

Kristin Thomas at the Man Base yesterday
Kristin Thomas at the Man Base yesterday

There are only a few boxes, a few outlines of shapes, out at the Man Base just now. Plywood sheets are being carried to and fro, two by fours are being cut to length, and the big Man’s legs are lying comfortably horizontal on the ground.

We know, of course, that there will be a Man this year. Another big Man of giant proportions. Apparently gone are the days when the Man was the same size every year, built by the same Man Krewe.

But after that, figuring out exactly what the scene around the Man will look like is difficult, as the descriptions are vague, we guess intentionally so:

“This year a funhouse at the center of our carnival will contemplate the puzzle of self-consciousness. Many kinds of masks and mirrors will line the corridors and chambers of this interactive maze. Here people will confront a shuffled deck of selves: the me they want to be (but aren’t), the me they repudiate (but are), the me they can’t imagine (but might be).”

So what we know for sure is that there will be a maze around the Man, and you’ll have to make your way through it as you confront your “shuffled deck of selves.”

But what kind of maze will it be? And what metaphors will you draw as you perhaps loop around and around the same section of the puzzle, looking for a way forward, but repeating the same mistakes?

Burning Man is an organization, a large and growing one, so when it faces a problem, it does what many other large organizations do: it calls for meetings. Many meetings.

And it was at one of these meetings that the path of the organization and the path of an individual collided, in one of those meaningful coincidences for which Burning Man has earned its reputation for synchronicity. “I know how to design mazes,” Kristin Thomas said softly, maybe a bit awkwardly, at that fateful meeting about the maze.

Here's where the Man will eventually stand, but it'll take some doing to get there
Here’s where the Man will eventually stand, but it’ll take some doing to get there

And so it was that a woman who was on her first day on the job as production assistant filled a need completely separate from the job for which she had been hired. And you can trace the path that brought her to that room, with Larry Harvey and other major organizational personages, because of a crush that she had on a boy back when they were in fourth grade. And maybe also because she had found a path to the person that she wanted to be, rather than the person other people thought she should be.

Kristin Thomas grew up in Michigan suburbs, where people went to church every week (she eventually stopped going, and was considered a heathen because of it).

In high school, she was both a nerd and extremely self conscious about being a nerd. She didn’t fit in. “I was an awkward, awkward teen,” she said yesterday as she sat in the shade of a plywood sheet out in the middle of the desert.

And on her first day on the job with Burning Man, those feelings came flooding back. “I met them all and I found myself getting that kind of high-school anxiety again. … Like when I went to sit in the commissary, where would I sit? I stood there looking, where are the cool kids?” But then she relaxed, because she realized that she was with her tribe. “We were all the dorks. We’re not the cool kids.”

Kristin left her comfortable but confining life in Michigan and went to college at the University of Colorado in Boulder. And she realized along the way that she could re-invent herself, “shed the layers of not me,” as she put it.

"We're not the cool kids," Kristin Thomas says
“We’re not the cool kids,” Kristin Thomas says

A few years ago, Larry Harvey his own self was doing his yearly meeting with members of the media who were attending the Burning Man event. Now, we hesitate to cast aspersions on the group, because we used to be one of them, but honestly, some of the questions they posed were, to be kind, lame. It was clear they hadn’t been paying attention. They needed someone to explain Burning Man in a nice neat little package. But this wasn’t the time or place. The event was roaring all around them. The answers were out there, not in here in with the cameras and the notebooks.

But Harvey turned their questions into an opportunity to talk about some of the things that he had been thinking about recently. He had turned 60, and he said he had become less self-conscious, less concerned about what people thought of him, and more concerned about how Burning Man would go forward. In other words, he cared less about what people thought of him now, and maybe he had become more concerned about what they’d think of him in the future.

Kristin was fortunate enough to have made a similar realization as she moved through college into adulthood. She stopped trying to be the person other people wanted her to be, and she cared less that she wasn’t fulfilling other people’s expectations. “You know how they say that you should pay attention to the things you are doing when you are procrastinating,?” she asked. She started doing that.

She came to her first Burning Man fourteen years ago. Suddenly she was surrounded by people who were wearing the kinds of things that she loved, that she thought it was only she who thought they were cool and interesting and expressive. And now she was in a place where everyone was wearing them. And in that moment she found a calling. Eventually she started her Mythica Clothing company, and she took a part-time job with Burning Man to help put together the money to bring her dreams to life.

Eva hauled around some boards at the Man site
Eva hauled around some boards at the Man site

But what about the meeting and the maze? How did it happen that she had just the right answer to a question that she didn’t know was coming?

“Oh, I had a crush on a boy in the fourth grade,” she laughed. “And he liked mazes. So I liked mazes, too. I bought books and began studying them.” Ever since then, she’d drawn maze-like doodles, and so when Burning Man needed a design for a maze, she drew one that everyone loved. No further meetings were needed.

And you’ll be making your way through one of her mazes, one that’s been polished and refined and made sufficiently challenging, when you make your journey of discovery at the base of the Man this year.

Just try not to keep making the same mistakes. And try not to listen to people telling you where they think you should go. You’ll never get anywhere.

Makeout Queen shaking it up behind the bar
Makeout Queen shaking it up behind the bar

In other news, Makeout Queen hosted her fabulous Manhattans party at the Black Rock Saloon last night. People turned out in all kinds of finery – skin-tight dresses, sparkly jewelry, feathery boas. And you should have seen what the women were wearing!

Ok, not all the guys were dressed as women: There were a good number of formal shirts, tuxedo jackets and spats. Overall, though, it was a magnificent-looking crew. Even after a back-breaking day in the very hot sun, this group cleans up well.

And a few more pics from Man Base yesterday:

Jay was moving the wood around
Jay was moving the wood around
The wind kicked up the dust as the afternoon wore on
The wind kicked up the dust as the afternoon wore on
Wood, wood and more wood
Wood, wood and more wood


About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

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