The first few days are hard. When you open your eyes, blink twice, slightly confused by the strangeness of your familiar surroundings. This isn’t where I’m supposed to be, a voice in your head protests. But it is. Break is over, you are exactly where you are supposed to be, whether you want to be here or not.
I squinted at the light coming from the curtains and thought I saw dust flying in the air. It must have been 7 or 8. For a full 30 seconds I marveled at the spaciousness of the strange tent, before it finally hit me that I’m no longer in the desert. How I can mistake a Westin hotel room for a tent I will never know. I roll around my Heavenly bed for a while and thought how fitting the name is. 100% Egyptian cotton sheets white as snow, not a speck of playa dust on them. I put my head into the feathery down pillow to enjoy the smell of fresh laundry. And silence. For the first time in a week no carefree laughter or thumping EDM beats to wake me up. I was content for a moment before the nostalgia hit. A sudden emptiness knowing that life has snapped back into its normal predictable course. I was sad for another moment, before realizing the fallacy of the declaration. Normalcy and predictability are simply illusions we cling to in order to make sense of the chaos.
Everyone’s been asking the question “how was your first Burning Man?” I’ve replied that it was great, fun, interesting, etcetera etcetera, without much elaboration. The truth is I don’t have any crazy stories to share, nor did I undergo any great transformation. I simply treated it as any other trip, splitting my time between observing and experiencing. I do understand though, why people find it hard to explain. No words or pictures or videos can quite describe the atmosphere, the energy in the air, or the first time you find yourself lost in a white out dust storm.
So I won’t try. But there are a few moments that I’d like to not forget.
During our first camp meeting, I heard for the first time the phrase “you are exactly where you need to be.” Ever since then, I couldn’t get it out of my head. As hard as I try, I often have this fear that I’m doing something wrong. The funny thing is, I’m perfectly happy where I am now, but there’s always this lingering trepidation that some time down the road, I will regret the choices I’m making today. One night, as we rode around the playa looking for the Diplo party, we came across this neon sign:
I was without words.
We make hundreds, thousands, millions of choices in our lifetime. There is no way for us to know whether one of those choices could have led us down a brighter (or righter) path. That, in fact, is the beauty of life. You’ll never live the same moment twice and you’ll never know what lies just around the corner. So wherever I am now, is the only place I can and need to be.
Then there was the day when Vivian and I rode around looking at artsy stuff. It would be the first of many dust storms that week, and the first one I ever encountered. Within seconds we lost sight of everything, and finally gave up riding. As we stood in the middle of the desert in wait, the storm relented for a few seconds, and a bench appeared out of thin air. Next to the bench was a giant old wooden box adorned with a sign that says “write a letter to be sent in 2020.”
We sat and wrote letters to ourselves as the storm raged on. I bestowed some sage words to my future self, then felt silly since surely I would be much wiser in another five years. It didn’t take long for the bench to disappear from view as we pushed forward in the storm. I wonder if I would indeed receive this forgotten letter in five years.
My favorite day, was the day of the man burn. It was my last day on the playa, as I was to head out early for a wedding that night. I packed up my tent in the morning, along with a decent amount of playa dust as souvenir, then savored the last piece of bacon (it may have been four pieces) I was going to have for a while. It was mid afternoon when our group began our adventure. We left our bikes and set out on foot, with no destination in particular. We climbed some letters, played with some strings, and watched the solemn procession of ranger trucks driving towards the temple to pay their respect to fallen officers. There was dancing and singing and I learned two ways to do a cinnamon swirl hug.
We walked until it got cold and dark and I put on my fur coat one last time. The spectacle of the burning man was glorious, but it was running around the fire pit after he had fallen that was truly memorable. We held hands and ran close to the fire until we couldn’t bear the heat anymore, then took a break (and some selfies) before going back to the fire. It’s been three days, and soon I won’t remember the feel of heat so close to my skin and the exhilaration it brought.
Here’s one final moment. I was walking around the outside of the temple when I found a man sitting against the wall. He held two PEZ dispensers in his bands, one of Winnie the Pooh, and one of Piglet. A single drop of tear hung at the tip of his nose. I sat down a few feet away from him, not daring to disturb his reverie. I wanted to know his story, but didn’t think it was appropriate to ask. I never took a picture, but it will be a long time before I forget the image of this man, and stop wondering the story behind Pooh and Piglet.
Daniel Kahneman speaks of the experiencing self and the remembering self, and had this to say:
…the psychological present is said to be about three seconds long; that means that, you know, in a life there are about 600 million of them; in a month, there are about 600,000 — most of them don’t leave a trace. Most of them are completely ignored by the remembering self. And yet, somehow you get the sense that they should count, that what happens during these moments of experience is our life.
I’ve found another main theme of Burning Man for people is to let go. I’ve always had trouble with that. My remembering self is a bit more tyrannical than others, and I’m constantly in a state of nostalgia. I keep my camera close to hand as to keep a few mementos that will later jolt my memory back to life, and sometimes I wonder if I’m trying too hard to hang on to memories that are better forgotten. Thankfully when I look back, I’m always wearing rose colored glasses and find something worth smiling about in the ugliest of memories. Then again, that’s probably why I have trouble letting go.
You hear stories about orgies and parties and drugs and they are all true. You see the gorgeous photos of art cars and installations and they were all there. It’s not for everyone, but it is for anyone who even has the slightest desire. So as somewhat of a skeptic, here I am still basked in the afterglow of the burn, and I can say that I finally get what the fuss is about.