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Burning Man
Annie Lalla

Burning Man… most have barely heard of it, many are intrigued, few are brave enough to go.  If this is your first encounter with the phenomenon of Burning Man, welcome.  If you’re already an avid fan, welcome home.

One could describe this convergence of people and imagination as an art festival.  But that’s like saying the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground.  You really have no idea until you see it, feel it, live it.

Every year, a select group of people gather in the Nevada desert for one reason and one reason alone…to play.  What kind of play?  Every kind imaginable: emotional, intellectual, spiritual, sexual, physical and metaphysical.
How to describe such an eclectic happening?  Let me instead expose to you the emotional aftermath of a ‘Burner’, and if you’re willing to sidestep your assumptions and walk with me through a reverie…maybe, just maybe you’ll taste a fraction of the wonder by proxy.

 It’s Wednesday after the Burn, I’m sitting at my desk wading through work mail and wondering what the sky looks like right now. The office is quiet and preoccupied -as am I.

What is this place we call the real world?  It doesn’t seem real to me.  It feels strange like my morning elevator ride with a haughty colleague devoid of conversation.  Distant and unspeaking, we pretended the silence wasn’t awkward.  But for me it was painful -a shard of glass in my flesh.  I tried to connect, but there was no port for my ship to dock.

How different my interactions were just a few days ago at Burning Man…every encounter a forum for connection, each glance an invitation to approach.  Eyes were magnets, words were bridges and touch was glue.  On the playa even shared stillness is rich with intimacy.  Isn’t it strange how silence can be both a sword and a salve?

At work people were asking cursory questions, typical post vacation chit chat:  “Where did you go?”  “What did you do?”  “Did you have fun?”  “Did you make any friends?”   How to answer them?  Either I offer short statements that satisfy the questions’ basic requirements OR I tell the truth…with deep unravelings entailing poetry and theatre, song, drama and renderings of emotional epiphanies, intellectual vistas and spiritual journeys. 
How much truth do they want, I wonder.  How much truth can they hold?  I crumple under the task of representing-in-words the magic of my experience and answer, “It was great. I had the most wonderful time.”  Everything I utter seems an understatement.  They smile and I smile, and though I’ve no idea how to help them understand my recent escapade –I decide to try.
For one week I left this planet and traveled to an alien land.  Ambassador and adventurer, I discovered a whole new dimension of reality where imagination was the backdrop of everyday experience and love the substrate.  Magic infused all matter, light was our mantra, color a prayer and hope and fear became a story that told itself again and again until every mind sparkled in resonance.  Consciousness was palpable in the air and all encounters felt laden with meaning and knowledge.  You didn’t ‘make friends’ here; you found mirrors in the deep unflinching eyes of others.  You became soul mates with all your future and past selves.  You danced with demons and cultivated courage.  Here you could invite your fears in for tea.

A week long love affair with your own ideas, a wonderland more outlandish than Alice imagined, a stroll through an amusement park whose rides serve existential twists and turns. This is a reckoning like no other.  It’s a futuristic world, where cutting edge emotional technology is unleashed unabashed…a place where pioneers of the species’ psyche congregate and trade secrets.  Whatever humans are evolving into, this is where those mutants are spawned.  It’s not pretend.  Nothing here is pretend.  That’s what people on the outside do not understand.   Every art piece, service, statement, performance is hyper-real, holographic and meant at every level that meaning can roost.  Here, reality is manufactured on the fly.  Nowhere else can you conjure truth-as-you-go as readily as at Burning Man, where raw materials are free and available at every corner.

This is a place where the unexpected, implausible and seemingly impractical is accepted as baseline.  How else could you write the following true story, mean every single word and have 40 000 ‘burners’ genuinely believe you?
dancing astronaut

“The sky is smeared with clouds and my feet -weary with dance-ache for rest.  a passing magic carpet takes me over to the sauna where a fairy nymph washes my feet and teaches me to spin fire.  she suggests i take the pirate ship to heaven’s chandelier and offer scented blessings at the belgium waffle.  space virgins accost me on stilts and bid me follow them to monkey chant.  i find myself lost and found at the corner of 3:30 and hope, where a pin-on third nipple is offered in exchange for water.  naked red man in bowler hat points his umbrella in my direction and a swarm of glowing insects intersect our path.  a phone booth looms ahead, signed “talk to god”.  i do, and find him slightly less comedic than i’d hoped.  on board an exquisite glowing seahorse, i am ushered towards a giant virus from war of the worlds.  i climb up-side it’s dna to gaze out at two simultaneous full moons.  the flaming serpent mother raises her metallic head and roars fire into the night. cupcakes whiz by in tandem, escorted in neon by a fallen star.  i pass a luminous brain claiming to think hitherto unthought thoughts.  nearby a eye-crowned pyramid winks knowingly.  through the fog a temple rises and the winds of reverence animate my skin.  I pray to a roving praying mantis that he stop for me -my journey home is long and my wings are tired.”

Burning Man isn’t just about mass communal engagements, its real magic lies in the unpredictable power it wields over the subjectivity of each participant.  The playa is a synergized school where everything is a teacher and everyone a student.  Revelation lurks in all directions.  Here are two random lessons that managed to find me:

Holding on & Letting Go

One last time I strolled around the temple letting its stillness sink into my bones.  Tonight they would burn this castle, freeing the wishes inscribed on its wooden walls.  I found a seat beside a young violinist and let her music echo through me.  Over to my right a volunteer sculptress carved a single reed -finishing touches on the temple garden.  She didn’t see me…so focused she was on her task.  I watched her shave the wood with careful strokes, each movement deliberate and smooth. Her face was taut with concentration. This church-of-loss would be set afire in a few hours, and yet the love and skill she brought to her work seemed unshaken by this pending truth. 
It was at that moment the essence of burning man first crystallized for me.  It didn’t matter whether the temple would burn or not, she was doing her best regardless.  And what’s more, these reeds were so many and so small, no one else would ever notice them.  But she knew then something I was only beginning to realize: everything we do is for ourselves; her own knowing was enough. 
On some level we know all things are ephemeral, they die or disappear eventually -yet we pour our energy, our love and our hopes into them.  The temple and everything at burning man was a caricature of this truth.  The bigger and more profound the art, the more emphatic this statement.  “Holding on and letting go -at the same time,”  this was the my lesson.
Everywhere and at different levels this message asserted itself with the haunting self-similarity of a fractal.  People you meet on the playa once and for all and never again, transform your life forever.  Artworks that take thousands of dollars, hundreds of man hours and steadfast resolve, exist for less than a week then vanish in smoke…but each one leaves an indelible mark on your poetic memory. 
You are brought face to face with an idea some native tribes take for granted, an idea not accommodated in our language:  there are no ‘things’ only ‘processes’.  Nouns are frozen verbs -no moon, but mooning. 
My lady carver placed her last reed amongst the others and turned away satisfied.  She mounted her bike and rode home across the desert. I watched her disappear in a cloud of dust.  She never even knew she was my teacher.

What you think and feel - you are
”I used to have glasses just like that” she said pointing at my heart shaped shades edged with diamonds.  “To work; I would wear them to work” she shrugged in nonchalance.  Her claims suggested that what I was sporting as costume wear she pulled off as mainstream fashion. 
“Wow”, I responded, “That’s quite brave.”  I meant what I said. 
She was sparkling, her eyes glossy with softness.  I could tell she wanted to talk; something about me reminded her of herself.
“You are so beautifu,l” she smiled, calling her nearby friend to back up her claim.  They nodded in admiration and I let their eyes move across my body.  I was wearing an electric rainbow dress that fit perfectly, and I noticed how I much like to be noticed.
I also saw her clearly, she was a fairy too, but her face was worn with age.  Deep wrinkles edged her eyes and lips with tanned skin that had seen too much sun.  We talked about her life in San Francisco, my longing to live there, and finally she asked me how old I was.
“32,” I smiled, knowing I looked younger.  “What about you?”
“23,” she replied with a girlish curtsey.
“23!” I laughed my eyes wide with disbelief. There was no way this lady was younger than I, and the ease with which she held her statement left me stunned. 

Looking directly into my eyes with knowing delicacy, she said, “You don’t believe me?  Perhaps if you were on drugs you would be able to see the truth.”  I felt a wave of shame ripple through me.  Why had I laughed?  My reaction had been laced with mockery.  Her still dignified smile reflected the subtle ridicule in my response.

This lady was 23 years old and who was I to question her.  My disbelief had come from a place of elitism, the arrogance of youth.  She was wise, but I was young, and on some unspoken level I was wielding this most precious of human commodities. 
I suspect the only reason one ever induces a hierarchy, is out of fear.  What in the world could I have been afraid of?  Aging?, mortality?  Ah, death -the mother of all fears.  Once I realized this, I no longer saw her wrinkled skin, her muted eyes or spotted hands…I saw a gorgeous 23 year old bristling with life.  It became clear who she wanted to be was who she was.  And then I met myself in her.  We recognized each other in that instant and collapsed in a hug of long lost sisters.

Burning Man, my favorite playground, best party on the planet, more magic per square foot than any place I’ve ever been…in your eyes, every sparkle tells a story. 
 © Annie Lalla June 2007

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