We bike out of First Camp into the wild lights and sounds of Burn Night, and suddenly there are all sorts of things for me to contend with.
- COSTUME: I’m still wearing Nate’s crazy curly-haired wig, along with a purple Indonesian (I think) shirt, dark sun glasses, a dust mask, a white suit coat with a huge amount of Blue EL Wire attached to it by duct tape, seven or eight necklaces that have been gifted to me over the week (there are a dozen more back in my tent somewhere), white pants, old hiking boots on my feet (along with duct tape), handcrafted Indian messenger bag, and green backpack. A somewhat fragile configuration, to be sure.
- FATIGUE: True, I did sleep twice in the last 24 hours, for a grand total of about 4-5 hours. But I have expended a lot of energy over the course of the last few days, and am seriously sleep deprived. Only the adrenaline is keeping me going.
- BICYCLE: My bike is back at camp (I didn’t think I could make it to the BLD in the dust storm pulling the wheelchariot), so I’m riding one of Big Cock’s bikes and having a hell of a time getting through the sand. I later learn that this is only partly because of the drugs and the fatigue; the other factor is that the wheels on the tire are relatively narrow (BC had originally bought it for Jewel but after a couple of days of getting stuck in the sand, she had smartly borrowed a beach cruiser, which I rode around on all day on Sunday – got to find me one of those…).
- OPERATIONAL ETIQUETTE: Though I’ve spent a lot of time on the playa with my companions over the course of the week, this is the first time we’ve ever been out together on bikes at night. Travelling on the playa at night is a lot like skiing in a group except that the visibility is even worse, the possibilities for a wrong turn are even greater, there are no cell phones, and you never really get to the lift. I manage to get lost once early on, and when they pedal up, Jewel gives me some useful guidance: “if you get lost, stop. We’ll come and find you.”
In any case, I will always remember that night when I hear David Gray singing the second verse of Babylon:
“Saturday I’m running wild
And all the lights are changing red to green
Moving through the crowd I’m pushing
Chemicals all rushing through my bloodstream”
We start from somewhere near Center Camp, heading to the Temple at 12:00. We cruise along the Esplanade, cut into open playa somewhere after the 3:00 – 9:00 road, and pedal pedal pedal. I am concentrating really hard on not falling, not getting stuck in a sand dune, and staying with my group. It is not easy, and it takes up all of my attention…
And then we are there at the Temple, and as we park our bikes I am suddenly overcome with an incredibly wave of emotion as if truly the whole week or maybe my whole life has built furiously and relentlessly to this moment. I reach out to Shoegirl (she is physically closest to me at that moment), desperately laying my hands on her and trying to explain…Jewel comes over to us, has a sense that something is going on and then Big Cock is there too and I’m still trying to explain and I have lost it now, I’m crying and staggering and then we are all sitting on a bench and still I try to explain as we see the beautiful and sad Temple full of all sorts of people and take in its colors and hear its sweet windchimes…
Years before I had ever come to Burning Man, I had read a book written by a Burner that had quoted Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We live entirely by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” This line had resonated with me, had helped me to come to terms with my relentless compulsion to share my stories with others…
But I hadn’t really understood the power of story that I told myself, nor the depth of the pain that it had permanently provided me with. The story I have told myself, over and over again (and very different from the positive story of my life that I try to convince others to subscribe to) is “you don’t belong, you are not welcome, you are not liked, you will never be accepted anywhere, and you will never be loved.” Even as I’ve come to know so many wonderful people and places – and understand, my life has been incredibly blessed – I have managed to hold on to this story of being on the outside looking in, always managing to find a way to see my experiences through this sad and hopeless prism. An old friend of mine once quipped that I had “an incredible ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” when considering my own life.
Most people who know me at all are likely to be shaking their heads in disbelief at all this. Having only known me for a few days, Jewel and Shoegirl certainly seem a bit incredulous as they listen to me try to explain (God, I’m not really even sure what I said) but they are very present and positive and I feel incredibly fortunate to be with them in that moment.
Though in thinking back on it, I’m not sure they really got it either. They were totally kind and caring and beautiful (I’m sure it is killing Jewel to read this particular list of gushy adjectives), but I don’t think they got it because I know I wasn’t able to communicate what I was feeling right then. I mean, it was so great that they kept telling me what a great guy I was, but what I wanted to say was that they didn’t need to tell me all that because I already knew, that I felt it.
I felt accepted. I felt embraced. I felt loved.
It wasn’t just Jewel and Shoe Girl and Big Cock, it wasn’t just my wonderful colleagues/ campmates at the Post Office camp, it wasn’t just my favorite former student Daniel and the Virgin Adam and young Tania and Margaret and the wacky strangers in that art car the previous night and everyone else I had managed to meet in my short time on the playa. It was the whole place and time, and I had just become aware of it in that moment that night right there at the Temple. And it felt so great – and so wholly unexpected – which is partly why I couldn’t explain it clearly and why I kept falling into tears.
Throughout my first trip to Burning Man, I was always in one of two extreme states: I was either fully engaged in being there and doing something and feeling good about being part of Black Rock City (and this was most of the time) or I was despondent, dejected, isolated and wondering what I was doing there. Though the trip was on balance extremely joyous, I had a strong sense of constantly reaching and cloying for a way to be, any possible way to be contributing and appearing to be engaged so that no one would notice that I was in fact unworthy of being there, and by the end of the week I was overcome with a sense of exhaustion and despair, and afterwards it took me days, weeks to get over it all and to really come to terms with the fact that this been a tremendous affirmative experience.
The positive sheen that I finally took away from BRC 2007 had not fit the story that I told myself about my own life, which was part of what made that first Burn so amazing. Still I knew that I had to come back, in large part because there was that inner voice that kept telling me that maybe, just maybe, I really didn’t belong in that community there either and that the joyful memories were just stories that I had overhyped in my mind, erstwhile desert mirages. Though I could not admit it to anyone, I was afraid that this inner voice might be right. I had to come back to find out, and I was prepared for the worst.
Instead, what I found at Burning Man this year was far more magical. Looking back, I see that I experienced it all week wherever I went – on the playa, at my camp, among strangers, with great new friends, everywhere. And finally, in that moment at the Temple, with Jewel and Shoegirl and Big Cock, I got a clear and unfiltered understanding that I felt it and I had wept and wept. I would have loved for that moment to last forever and I have no idea how long we were actually there..
But eventually, with the encouragement of my friends, I go into the Temple. I had intended to have a solemn quiet moment, but instead, I continually run into people whom I am compelled to interact with in the way that I always do, to hand out a postcard and to tell a few stories, a smile, a laugh, a sense of shared experience. Whereas I had felt overbearing just a few days earlier when meeting Jewel and Shoegirl, somehow now I just feel that it is all OK…
EPILOGUE: Riding home with Rick (the Big Cock costume had been put away for another year) I later decided that my new playa name would be Storyboy. This was originally because in my five days on the playa this year I had told a staggering number of stories, even by my own standards. But after writing all this tonight – and believe me, it has taken some time to get it out of my head – I see that there is another aspect to this name that I will hold dear.
Because on the playa that night, I somehow found a new story to tell myself.
 The Burner was named Ethan Watters. The book was called Urban Tribes. Read it.