This post concludes the three part "trilogy" if you will, about my experiences at Burning Man 2017. Part one was a letter that I'd written to my camp mates shortly afterwards, and can be found here
. Part two, in long story format, may be found here
The Temple - photo by Dan Harmon
So now it is Thursday evening... And I'm going to go to the Temple
I needed to wait a few days, before I got up the nerve for this. One does not simply, after a five year journey trying to get to the thing, just flippantly go on out there, all casual about it. I mean... this is it. Five years ago, my world was shattered when my mom passed away. And then, for the first time, I heard about Burning Man. And I heard about the Temple, and what it meant to the people who went there. And I got the spark of an idea, that that's where I needed to go. That I needed to put a picture of her in there. Somehow. Someday. And now, five years later... here I am. I am standing at Center Camp, facing the road to the Temple, with some pictures of my mother in my backpack. A picture of Benny, too. My beloved cat of ten years, who had died along the way.
This year's theme for Burning Man was called, "Radical Ritual." I didn't even know that at first, when I set out in the car with my friend to Black Rock City. Or at least, maybe the significance of that phrase hadn't yet sunk in. And yet, how appropriate... For as the week progressed, as I became more and more Opened Up, as I discovered the Sound, as I stood in the desert laughing and crying at beauty, as I remembered how to feel Awe again, as I learned how to Change my Story, and set my burdens down, and rediscover the best Me inside of me, that I had lost touch with for so long... I realized, isn't that exactly what all of this has been, all along, in its way? This whole five years? The most radical ritual of all, that I could ever do... Mom deserved nothing less. And in the process, I have been rediscovering and healing myself. I think she would be proud.
And now I am finally standing here... And I am ready.
I was even clean for it, too. After five days of Becoming One with the dust, and not having anything that people back in the Default World would reasonably call a "shower", you tend to get a little bit grody. But, as I wrote about previously, I have just had my magical meteor-kissed, sky-diver blessed, grilled cheese sandwich laden Charlie the Unicorn early morning sunrise dance party, and everything else last night besides, and I am ready for this, boy howdy! I know that today is the Day. Today needs to be Temple Day. So, ok, Radical Ritual go!
What do we do first?
Well, I figured, in circumstances such as these, one might ritualistically wash one's body first. Much as, last night, I had already been washing my soul. So it was, that after hearing about it, and after five days of searching for it, I did finally manage to find the Trans-Foam-ation camp. And, after some extremely interesting, informative, and moving speeches by some Trans speakers, (I will say that, even as a gay man, it also opened my eyes up to some new perspectives that I hadn't had before), and, after yet another DJ'ed party, consisting of myself and a couple hundred other buck naked people, men/women/both/other, all dancing and laughing and lathering each other up, as cheering volunteers overhead sprayed us all down with soap and water, I found myself feeling entirely refreshed and rejuvenated in every possible way!
I mean really... I come back here now, and it's like, how do you people stand it, with your old boring, stodgy, solitary, non-educational, non-rave dance party showers? It's just entirely uncivilized!
So now it's Thursday evening, and I am at my home camp, Camp Fur. It is the Golden Hour, as the Sun has just set behind the high Black Rock mountains in the distance. It is cool now, and it will still be a soft, orange-red twilight out, for quite some time. Voices call out from all over the city, as they always do, every day at this moment. Howling at the parting sun. For this brief moment, Coyotes all of them, every one.
I could make a beeline to the Temple at this point, from my home camp coordinates of 7:30 and A on the map. But from the moment I got here, I knew that that's not how we do. We must perform our radical ritual. With all seriousness now, and solemnity, I bike down the arc of Awe street... (Yes.. thank you Space Coyote. You even put my camp here on Awe street. I get it. That was pretty good...
) I bike down the arc of Awe street, all the way to Center Camp, with pictures of Mom and Benny in my backpack.. And now I am staring down the big main street all the way out to the Man... and the Temple beyond.
The lanterns along the street have all been lit by now, high up on their posts. They are beautiful, on any night. But now, as my heart is starting to race, and the goosebumps raise on my arms, as I think about the import of where I am, and what I am about to finally do, they are majestic, and ominous.. It's like... to a point, you can't believe
that you're actually here.. That such a place as this, that this idea
, that you once read about, so long ago, actually exists. But you are. And it does.
The weather, which during the evenings so far had been very calm, also agrees that this is a momentous occasion, and would be an awesome time to become super dramatic. Cause I'm standing there, at the start of the road about to begin my trek, and all of a sudden the wind picks up out of nowhere, and is blowing dust all around, and covering everything out to the horizon in a blurry red-ish haze, the lamp lights leading the way, and it's just... FUCKING AWESOME... because of how amazing it looks, and, it's also fucking terrifying
, because I'm literally about to be trying to go out there to 'bury' my mother, and it picks that moment to go, "Yeah? Well I think you'd totally better having a fucking sandstorm for that walk, that'd be good mood lighting for it, right?!"
It fucking was...
So I go on out there into this, my dust mask fitted, my goggles on. I get to the Man first, and I pause, pay my respects to him. I find the Tree of Sorrow sculpture, and brush my hand along the cover of its book, the seed of my first awakening here. And then I continue on down the road to the Temple...
Again, every other night, I have avoided it so far. If ever I accidentally found myself steering too close, I would startle and veer away from it. But now I am ready. And it's lights are getting brighter and brighter on the horizon as I approach.
And then, all of a sudden, as I am about half way there... the wind dies down. And it is calm again. I keep on going, and as I get closer, more and more details are starting to resolve. From far away, the temple had always looked very ornate, and intricate. But now, as I get up close, I can start to see how simple it really is. It's just... very basic beams, stacked together in a complex pattern, but, apart from that, it almost seems plain. I'm actually almost a little disappointed. (And mad at myself for this.) But still, the bubble is burst for a minute. It's just a place. It's just a thing that some people have built. It is calm here, though. Quiet. Peaceful. There are many people here milling about, in quiet hushed tones.
I lived in New York City during 9/11. I was there that day. And, I remember the memorial gatherings afterwards. Places where people would come to leave pictures and mementos of their lost loved ones. I myself was very fortunate to have not lost anyone that I knew personally then. But still, it was impossible not to be caught up in the emotions of those places. You grieve and cry with everyone. You want to hold, you want to comfort, everyone. I recognize that this is one of those places. Back then though, in New York, the wound was so immediate and raw, and everyone was in the thick of it. Here, the emotions on display are a little more diverse. There is a lot of crying going around, yes. And everyone is subdued and solemn. But, there is quiet talking going on, as well. Even occasionally some soft laughter here and there. And some, it looks like, just peaceful communing. It makes sense. Here, everyone's situations could be entirely different. My own mother, for example, had been gone five years now, it's not like this just happened to me yesterday.
I start exploring the building, looking for a possible place to put Mom and Benny. I've got a pen with me, too. I want to write.. something for them. But, I still wasn't sure what yet. And every square inch of surface that I can see is just covered with pictures and messages. I start to get caught up a little bit in the banality of my task, to physically find a place to put some paper. I'm getting a little bit frustrated. I shouldn't have waited so long to come here. There's nowhere to put them. I just want to freaking put them here, can't there be a space for me here somewhere too? And I start thinking back to Mom, and Benny, and how they died, and much pain mom was in, and how so fucking unfair it was in both cases, and how much I fucking love them, and miss them, and need them and why aren't they here anymore??
And I've come to stand in the central chamber as I'm thinking all of this, stewing about all of this... And there is young man there, sitting on the floor, in a couple of concentric rings of other people. And he's got a guitar. And, he suddenly starts playing, and softly singing a song that I recognize, by Leonard Cohen...
Now, I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah...
And it is beautiful... and it just reaches into my soul... and I start to sing along softly at the chorus, as do many other people... But before I can even get through the first Hallelujah, I suddenly start just bawling my eyes out crying, tears streaming down my face, choking on the words as I'm trying to sing hall-e- lu-lu-luuuu *sob* jah...
And I'm crying as I'm singing this song, and other people are crying, and other people have long been crying before me, and someone from behind me gently places their hand on me and rubs my shoulder, and we all
of us, not just me, we all
need a place to put our fucking pieces of paper in here, and it's ok
, we will
, we're here, we made it, we can let go, and we're all in this together, and we're all singing this beautiful song, and I am not alone...
I have a good cry. I cry for a long time. I just let all of it out. And it's ok. It is good. This is where I'm supposed to do that. This is where we all came to do that. The simple beams of temple converge in the central chamber to form an intricate "chimney" in the middle high above, open to space, like it's already funneling all of our emotions up into the ether.
Eventually I stop, and am calm. It's time to go outside for a minute, pick a clear spot to sit down, and write my messages on the pictures for Mom and Benny. I don't have pictures of the messages that I wrote on, because by this time as I'd written previously, I'd lost my cell phone. But here are the photos that I'd used. The two of mom, I taped up together to each other, side by side:
On the one of me with her as an adult, It wrote:
Mama, I love you. I miss you. I wish you were still here. I'm sorry for how you went. But, I'm finally ok now. I'm going to be ok.
On the picture of her smiling at me and holding me as a baby, I drew a circle around where she's reaching out her finger to me and I'm grabbing it, and I drew a heart there, with an arrow pointing to the circle.
Here is the picture I used for Benny - The first one I ever took of him, in 2004 when I found him in a tree, and brought him home:
On his picture I wrote:
Always wants to be in my lap. Rides around on my shoulders. Loves belly rubs. Plays fetch!
Benny Benniwei Benvolio the Third. Found in a tree, Memorial Day 2004. Taken by a brain tumor, 2014. My heart. My soul. My familiar.
My baby, you were a miracle sent to me from heaven. You loved me unconditionally for ten years. You nuzzled me with your dying breath. I will always love you. I will never forget you.
Then I take them back in the temple, back to the central chamber, and I find a space for them together, near the floor on one of the inner chevrons, that raises up kind of alter like. I can sit here on the floor next to them. And it is good.
I sit here for awhile, and just watch and listen to other people. I feel connected to all of them. I see such pain in so many of them. And such compassion in everyone. I see some people cry, and look at their faces, and I don't even know what or who it is that they lost, but I can see how much they are hurting, and it makes me cry all over again, not even for mom or Benny at all, but just for them, and whatever it is they are going through.
Then I turn back to mom and Benny, and look at them... and now I do cry for them again. But, it's different this time, than it's ever been... This time I'm not crying anymore out of the hurt or terror of losing them. I'm not thinking about mom in the hospital for once, and all her cries of pain. I'm not thinking of Benny suddenly losing his eyesight over a period of weeks and losing control of his bladder... nor the doctor's sad face, when she told me the mri had found an inoperable tumor...
No. Now... I am just thinking of all the love that I have ever felt for them, and them for me, and all the good times that we had together. And I finally brought them here. And they will be ok now. And I will be ok now. And I am telling them that I love them. And I am saying goodbye. I am sitting on the floor, and I'm sobbing a peaceful, cathartic sob as I think all of this.
And then, I feel another hand on my shoulder, squeezing me. And I look behind me, and it's this young pretty blond woman. And she is from New Zealand. And her name was Zinny.
And she opens her arms to me, offering an embrace, and I just collapse into her, and she holds me, and comforts me, as she lets me cry it out, with my head on her shoulder. And pretty quickly like that, I am comforted, and my shaking abates, and I am totally at peace. We get to talking, and we share our stories. She had come back here tonight, to visit with her father a little bit, who's picture he had put here on a previous night. She's totally peaceful and serene as she tells her story. There isn't a tear in her eye today at all. Just warmth, and love. Happiness, even. She tells me the story of her father. Her family was from Russia. And they lived by Chernobyl, when that happened. And she had only shortly been born beforehand. And she said that her father gave up everything, his whole life, everything that he knew, to get them out of there, and to take them to New Zealand, so that she, his daughter, could live and have a happy life. And, she said that her father had never quite adjusted to his new home. Never really fit in. But, he did it anyway. For, he loved Zinny so unconditionally, that she was always more important to him than any of that.
There is a smile on her face as she tell me all this, especially that last. Again, there is no pain there. She cried her eyes out already the other day. Today there is no cry... only love.
I am very moved by her story, and I tell her so. And then I tell her the story of my mother. And I tell her that my mom had Lupus, and was very sick at various points, throughout her life. But, she never let it get to her, never moped, never let it slow her down. She was always very active, had many hobbies, made friends easily, was the kindest most loving person, and the strongest woman I ever knew. And I told Zinny how my mom taught me, from very early on, that you cannot control the cards that you are dealt in this life... But, that is not important. What is important... is what you do with them. And, how that affected me very greatly. That has always been one of the core things in my life, that has made me who I am. Zinny smiles and says my mom sounds wonderful, and she must have loved me very much. I thank her and say she was, she did.
A procession of about 30 people or so has now just filed into the room, all hand in hand, and they start softly singing some songs together. Some I recognize. I ask Zinny if maybe she would like to get up and join them with me? She thanks me politely, but says not, she'd rather just stay there and visit with her dad for a little while longer. So we hug, and I thank her for everything, and we part ways...
Now I am standing in the central chamber, hand in hand with the ring of people that have come in quietly singing. Then we are all there, just quietly meditating for awhile. And then finally, the woman who has been in charge of the procession leads us out again, and we all file out in a single line, about 30 of us, all still hand in hand. She leads us outside the temple, and I wonder where we are going. What is going to happen next?
And then as she approaches the temple's courtyard fence, she curves to the right in a wide arc, and leads us into what I think is about to become another circle. But instead of going to the end of our line to complete the ring, she comes into about the middle, and proceeds to keep on circling in. So now instead of a ring, we have become a spiral, which is continuing to wind up and tighten in on itself. Finally she spirals into the center and can go no further, and before we know it, we find ourselves hand in hand, wound up into a tight ball of people. It's a little surprising, most of us didn't expect this, and so we stop short and chuckle a little bit at it.
And then the woman leading us looks us all over, smiles, and gives a deep sigh. And then she raises both her arms, and hugs the people closest into her. All the rest of us follow suit, and so now we are a ball of 30 people, packed tightly together, and we are having a huge group hug together... I've never done anything quite like this before, and this is all a group of complete strangers. And yet, I feel such a feeling of relief, and compassion, and safety, and comfort, I collapse into the people around me, and hug them tightly to me. I feel them collapse into me and hug me back. And we are all just there together like that for a few minutes, comforting each other.
And then, the woman raises her head... takes some deep breaths, closes her eyes, and is looking inside of herself somewhere. She is thinking of who she lost... And she starts sobbing, starts bawling openly. And that is more than enough to set all of us off, and now we are all thinking of our lost loved ones, and we are all sobbing and and crying our eyes out. And I'm thinking of mom, and Benny, and I'm crying so hard that I'm shaking, and the people have no idea what I'm crying about, and yet, they do, and so they are holding on to me and comforting me, and I have no idea what the other people are crying about, and yet, I do, and I am holding onto them and comforting them, and so we are all now having a huge group cry...
And then the woman calls out to the sky, "I love you..!"
And it is immediately apparent that, though we don't know who it is, she is saying this to the one she lost. And so now we all start doing it too. We are all holding each other tightly, and calling out to space, "I love you!"
I am calling out Mom, and to Benny.
And then another person in the crowd calls out, "I miss you!"
And then all of us take up the cry together, "I miss you!"
And we are all bawling and shaking and crying our eyes out, and crying out, "I miss you!" "I miss you!"
I wail out, "I miss you so fucking much!" Other people call out other cries, which are then taken up by the crowd, as we each say that thing to our lost people. One person yells out, "I forgive you!" And not all of the crowd, but some do, take up that chant. But, that makes me think. And I think back to mom, and her last three months in the hospital, and all of the things that I made them do to try to save her, because I thought that's what she wanted, because that's what she told me she wanted, she wanted to live. But in the end, it didn't do any good at all, and just brought her more pain and suffering, when instead she could have maybe been at home, more comfortable until the end, with us. And I'm crying so fucking much as I'm thinking this. And I'm thinking about Benny and his brain tumor, and wondering if there was something else I could have done, if I had noticed his symptoms much earlier, if I could have done something differently, would he still be here? And I just scream out at the top of my lungs, "I'M SORRY!!! I'm sorry..."
And oh my god, is the crowd sorry... A whole new wave of shaking courses through us again, and now everyone is crying up to the sky, "I'm sorry! I'M SORRY!!!"
I sob out, "I'm so fucking sorry..."
Finally, after minutes of this... we have all cried ourselves out... and we are all panting and exhausted, and we all hug and collapse into each other again. And we all gently rock each other back and forth, until the last person has stopped shaking.
At last we all release, and the woman indicates we could now part ways. Though she offers to lead some to a different gathering she's going to, if anyone wants. I've had enough though, I am exhausted and am ready to continue on my way. I feel a million pounds lighter though. More so than I've ever felt in years. This whole big ball of hurt that I've been carrying around inside of me for so long is just... gone. Everything feels ok. Mom and Benny are where they need to be now. Surrounded by my love. And surrounded by the love of all of these other people who have come here together, laid to rest in that beautiful place. Everyone feels it. It is in all of our faces. As we smile, and hug, and shake hands one last time, before we all go our separate ways...
It's Friday now. And, the whole world is already very different for me than it was at the beginning of the week. There is a rightness, and correctness, and serenity.
I think back to Zinny, and how she had come back to the temple days later to commune with her dad, and the look of peace and happiness in her face as she talked about him. I like the thought of that, and I want to do that too. I have other adventures throughout the week as well, but I do come back to the temple again, at least each day, for the rest of the week. And every time I go, I return to the central chamber, and sit next to Mom and Benny for a little while, and just quietly think about them. And I do cry a little bit here and there, but now, it's a much happier kind of cry, as all I ever think about now is all of the good memories I had with them, and none of the bad ones and the end anymore.
I watch other people in the temple too, and empathize and cry with them... Some of them I approach to hug and comfort, as Zinny had done for me. The Temple, the place I was afraid of for the first half of the week, is now my favorite place in all of Burning Man. I want to be here always. I haven't quite hit upon the notion of becoming a Temple Guardian in future years yet, but that that idea is fast on its way. I have had my cry, and found my peace, and now I am much more ready to explore the temple, and take in everyone else's stories that I find here.
There are, actually, a lot of pictures of Moms. And pets. As with the book at the Tree of Sorrows sculpture by the Man, I gravitate towards these, first. But then I branch out into everything else. As I have worked out my own pain now, I find that I have room within me for empathy and love, for all of them.
One particular one that I came across, and super loved, was this panel of, like, six copies of the same cover page of some magazine, all taped together in two rows of three. And on this cover was a picture of some model, a very pretty woman, sitting in a chair. And the impression that I got... was that this was the person who had died. And the title on the cover page was that this was the "How To" issue of the magazine. And all around the picture of the model, were little blurbs of the magazine text, about what article were in the issue. All kinds of how to stuff. But, it was all little nothing... fluff. Things like.. "How to save money at the supermarket!" And, "How to something something with your makeup!" And, "How to herpa derpa stupid shit!"
And on each one of the panels, the creator of the poster, whoever they were, who put it there for the woman on the cover, had angrily crossed or scribbled out one of the little banalities, in bright red ink, and written next to it things like...
HOW TO INCREASE THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF THE PLANET!!!
HOW TO LOVE UNCONDITIONALLY!!!
And on and on like that. And reading each new panel was like a punch right in the gut. And my eyes are going wide and bugging out of my head, and my hands are balling into fists, and I start shaking a little bit, and in my head I'm going, "Yeah... Yeah! FUCKING YEAH!!! YOU TELL THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS!!!"
I loved that one, it was great.
It is Saturday afternoon, before the Man burns. The sun is still up in the sky, but it is getting cooler. I have come out to the Temple again, sat with mom and Benny, and then done my usual wandering around here. I go outside the temple and just look around outside for a bit. Out towards the Deep Playa, and back towards the City. The sun is starting to get low and red. And I hear the hushed voices inside the temple. And of course, I hear the ever present Sound. And it is here... in this moment... in a flash of inspiration and insight, as I look at the sun, and listen to the Sound, that I suddenly realize what it. The goose bumps raise on my arms, and a ball of adrenaline explodes in my stomach, and I suddenly Know... that the Sound is the Laughter of Coyote, as I have written about earlier. That this is where he lives. This is his Home. And now I have come Home... And I am filled with Love... and Awe... and Peace...
I smile at this thought, as I consider it for a few minutes, and tears well up in my eyes.
Finally, I am about to turn away and start on my way back to camp, so that I can join my friends for the Man burn. But in the last instant, one more thought, and huge wave of emotion, seizes me. I turn back to the temple, find clear beam on the outer edge of it. I grip it with both my hands, wanting to physically feel all the power that is rushing through it, and I rest my forehead on it, just collapsing against it. I feel like I am merging with it. And I close my eyes, and, quietly, start sobbing one last time... I let all of the feelings of the last five years wash over and through me, as I think of mom and Benny. And I start whispering to them, "I brought you here... I BROUGHT you here... I brought you home..." I am like that there, for a few minutes.
When I finally pull away, I look to my right, and there is a young man standing right there next to me, looking at me very intently. Dusty from the desert. With dreadlocks in his hair. His eyes are wet, and he is staring straight into my soul. Normally, before this week, in the Default World, I would have slammed up all of my shields, and been like what the fuck, who are you, get away from me! But here, I raise my arms up, asking for an embrace, and in an instant he has rushed to me, and caught me up in a tight bear hug, and I just completely relax and collapse into him. And he holds me, and rocks me, and I cry openly into his shoulder, and he's soothing me, and in a few moments, I am completely calm again... And when I am calm, then I can feel him
start to tremble slightly, and now he is crying. Any my eyebrows knit together, and my pain is gone, and now I am thinking only of him, and I hug him tightly to me, and rock him back and forth gently, as he collapses into me, sobbing and shaking. I rock him and soothe him, until he is calm again too.. Then we just stand there for a moment, peacefully embraced like that. Then we pull away, and smile tenderly at each other. I pull him in one last time, we share one more brief, tight hug, I kiss him on the cheek, and as we pull away, I place my hand on his heart, and I say, "Thank you."
And I never saw him again. I don't know his name. I do not know his story. He does not know mine. And I will remember him, and thank him, for the rest of my life.
That is what this place is.
[This post is still under construction]