So far as I see, I can tell this story three ways.
Last year, I almost incinerated my graduate school education on the altar of Burning Man.
Last year, Burning Man cost me $15,000.
Last year, I followed my heart and nearly upended my life.
Here’s what happened: entering my third and final year of grad school, I lied on an official Leave of Absence form about where I would be during the first three weeks of the semester. I lied because I was co-leading a 70-person theme camp. I lied because my hunger for community outstripped my commitment to honesty.
When I returned to the grid after the Burn, I pitched into a month-long disciplinary process for defrauding the university of wages. They’d been paying me to teach classes for those first three weeks, which I’d arranged for a colleague to cover. The administrators involved, though very upset, were humane. They shielded me from the University’s Big Disciplinary Processes, working out punishment within our department, among themselves: probation and suspension of my teaching fellowship. It was on me to pay for fall semester out of pocket. Though they could have, they didn’t expel me.
I am not the first person—and I’m certain I won’t be the last—whose decision to go to the playa shakes loose and reorders everything. I know that I’m far from alone feeling torn between seemingly irreconcilable values because I love Burning Man. I’m not the only one who, in choosing the dust, wild dancing, and El wire, has paid a price.
“The Fool,” Quest said, tapping the card, “is about following your heart. Even when it doesn’t make sense. It’s important for you to stay in touch with what your heart is telling you. Which can be a risky, as you can see.”
A young man in a flowing, flower-strewn tunic pinched a white rose between thumb and forefinger. In his other hand, he gripped a staff with a comically small bundle tied to its end. The youth’s face is turned up towards the sun as he walks, lightly, dreamily, obliviously, right off the edge of a cliff.
On Saturday afternoon of build week, when outrageous winds whipped the playa and drove our setup crew to shelter in a 40-foot trailer, I’d asked my campmate Quest to lay me a tarot spread. I wanted guidance for my upcoming year of graduate school, the final leg of an uncomfortable, challenging, and solitary journey I’d undertaken in Columbus, Ohio. I wanted to do my third and final year right, which is to say with grace and integrity. I looked again at the spread. The Fool was in the spot indicating “the way forward.”
Last February, I returned to my college alma mater to run a weekend workshop on ethical storytelling. As an opening gambit, I asked the students to define integrity. When we shared out, one student volunteered the concept of structural integrity. I was delighted. As a writer, I love leveraging tangible explanations to grasp abstract concepts.
“The ability of an item to hold together under a load, including its own weight, resisting breakage or bending.” So says Wikipedia about structural integrity. As it applies to us humans, I believe structural integrity consists of two things—individual and the relational conduct. Staying centered in integrity means pursuing the people and experiences that make you feel the most alive, the most seen and valued, and, subsequently, the most nourished. From this place, we are far better citizens of the world. But structural integrity also means being impeccable with your word, showing up all the times and in all the ways you said that you would. It means bearing, with grace, whatever load it is you promised you’d carry.
But at almost every turn, we’re pressured to choose. Our head or our heart. Our job or our life. Our partnership or our autonomy. Our commitment to self or our commitment to others.
My case of Burning Man vs. grad school has compelled me to reflect on these dichotomies for the whole of this past year. I’ve thought and I’ve felt, prostrated and atoned, gotten real familiar with the inside of the doghouse, and rolled up my sleeves to dig myself out of a self-made, rather deep pit. Through it all, I’ve striven to answer one basic question:
What does it take to feel whole?
After months of musing, I’ve landed here: true integrity—integral, integrated integrity—isn’t possible unless it’s enacted in its individual and its relational forms. Another way to think about it: if you only honor only your heart, or, decide to follow solely your head, you’ll feel unsettled by your choices at best. At worst, you might hasten your own massive structural cave in. Or, you might walk yourself right off a cliff.
After opening their lives up to Burning Man, so many people chafe against this painful tension. Pilgrims are called to the desert where they discover what it is to feel free and radically generous. They tap and are then shocked by their own vast ability to love. Then, they return home to a life that demands they shrink down, Visqueen off, brick over, or sweep under integral (See what I did there? #WordChoice) parts of themselves.
The nature of Burning Man, and the philosophies that underpin it, wake us up rudely to the sharp insistence that we split ourselves. Before, when we were half asleep and a little numbed out, splitting was doable, bearable. But now, goddamn—
“Allie, I really just don’t understand how you think you can do it. After you graduate, you’ll have to get a job. Certainly you won’t have accrued enough vacation days by August to take a week off. Unless you live way, way, waaaaaay off-the-grid, you definitely won’t be able to go to Burning Man next year.”
The moment the director of my graduate program said this—as I sat meekly in her office hours this time last year to offer one more mea culpa after the disciplinary proceedings had ended—that was the instant my Burn died. You know the moment: when business as usual collides at top speed with one of the eternal, prevailing truths that Burning Man showed you…and fucking steamrolls it.
You are not free to be whole.
That’s what my director’s comment implied. But I knew her assessment was incorrect. Seventy thousand Burners a year press pause on their lives for a week plus, some of whom lead very on-the-grid lives—all the trial attorneys, medical residents, tech workers, and Grover Norquist are testament to that.
In the moments following her pronouncement, I felt immensely disheartened. The belief that you must fracture yourself in order to live is not one I share. I suspect that anyone with whom Burning Man resonates feels the same.
It was in that moment that I realized fracturing myself is the thing that scares me the most. Apportioning myself into tiny, pill-sized pieces terrifies me because this parceling gives birth to a bestiary of bad things: abuse, addiction, adultery, bigotry, bullying, carelessness, dishonesty, selfishness, shame.
In this world, a dizzying amount is up for debate. But here’s one thing that isn’t: when we violate our own innate and beautiful structures, we fuck up our lives up in weird ways.
I’d argue the reason we fracture, the reason we lie, boils down to stigma. We become terrified to show ourselves, so great is our fear that we’ll be judged, and, in short order, rejected. Fired, broken up with, disowned. What’s more, we panic that we’ll be mistaken for someone we’re not because of someone else’s idea of the thing that we are—
Burning Man? That drug-addled, week-long desert orgy? You GO to that?
And so, we suppress. We sneak around. We flat out lie. We twist the truth.
Last year’s Leave of Absence had three boxes to check: medical emergency, medical care of a family member, academic conference of 3-5 days. I wish there had been a fourth box that said this:
My graduate studies are deeply important to me and are helping me become who I want to be…but so does this other thing in Nevada that takes me temporarily away from them. What can I say? I’m human.
In the absence of that box, I chose to lie.
The truth is that the truth is double, dichotomous. I’m proud and ashamed of what I did. I’m proud that I followed my heart, even though it didn’t make sense. I’m ashamed that in doing it, I knowingly lied.
I’m telling this story now, though it’s still kind of scary to share, in pursuit of living whole. This is me trying to stick to my dusty-ass guns while also taking responsibility for fucking up. My attempt at structural integrity.
After finishing grad school, I moved back to the Bay Area in May, degree proudly in hand. After some hustle, I was contracted to work for an organization I’ve had a fat-bordering-on-morbidly-obese crush on since 2013. When I accepted the job, I wrote that I’d be available to work all summer…except for the last two weeks of August, when I’d be You Know Where. The project manager wrote back:
We all laughed when we read your Burning Man plans—half of us will be there as well—not a lot happening in the office that week!
When I read the email, I leapt up from my desk, ripped off my shirt, and roared like Ronaldo after scoring a goal.
(Top Photo: “Believe” by Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg [Photo by Philip Volkers])