Whenever I am disillusioned with something, or no longer having fun, I tell myself “Everything is a learning experience.”
That’s how I have managed to cope with heartbreak and loss, embarrassment and shame, feeling out of place and ostracized, and everything in between.
This year at Burning Man, that was my mantra.
I am well versed in the perils of expectation and well aware that the Playa can provide both ecstasy and misery, sometimes back to back. Last year, I rode through the week on a cloud, only coming to a crashing halt when my campmates (new friends with whom I had bonded deeply) and I packed up to leave. We adventured in tight little cells and streamed through the crowds screaming “Orgasm!” in unison at the top of our lungs (the theme was Fertility, after all.) We miraculously found just the right places, huddled together with our crew, bladders full of piss and hearts full of bliss.
This year fell flat in comparison. I felt so far away from that candy-coated cloud I had navigated through the desert in 2012. I felt alone, disheartened and disconnected from most of my campmates and the sea of drugs that they were swimming in with joy and abandon. It was a tripper’s paradise and this year I turned down the Kool-Aid.
But then, I know the perils of comparison too. I adjusted my perspective, repeated my mantra and looked for the beauty in the breakdown.
What made this year different and why? This year’s theme, Cargo Cult, seemed to reflect a need to reevaluate our relationships—to the material world, to each other and to the larger community. Despite my disillusionment, I knew there were lessons to translate into my life back home (yes, I do call California home, and no, I don’t refer to it as the “default world.”)
On the cusp of my 27th birthday, having spent a large majority of my teens and twenties high on various substances, I had decided to clean up my act. I made my intentions clear to friends and received mixed responses. Before we left for the desert, one of my significantly younger campmates made the comment, “If you are sober, you are doing Burning Man wrong.”
Looking back, I might have taken this as a signal to camp somewhere else. Yet, I spent months helping to plan this camp; I had even written the application that granted us theme-camp status. I volunteered several months back to go early and hold down the fort. I was, albeit warily, invested. So I resigned myself to residence in this 50’ x 100’ rectangle with frontage on a street aptly named “False Idol.” And I thought, “I don’t belong here.”
There was a camp nearby called “Pink Mammoth” that played what sounded like the same horrible House track repeated incessantly throughout the week. There was also a giant pink mammoth in my living room and it screamed repeatedly, “I am too old for this shit.”
I did manage to have some good, clean fun throughout the week, attending workshops at Sacred Spaces and bonding with a few of my more mellow campmates. A small group of us headed to the “Gayborhood” one night and danced to bad pop atop a rickety structure, a mass of sweaty sexed up men grinding beneath us, certainly a highlight.
I made the requisite visit to the Temple, by far the most moving experience of my whole Burn, leaving things behind that desperately needed to go up in flames. Mostly, I looked forward to cuddling up with my boyfriend and my dog, debriefing with my parents and friends on my wavelength back home.
Even the burn of the Man felt like a spectacle more than a ritual, and I watched the Temple burn from the Exodus line as we scrambled to escape before the coming rain. At the end of the week, our camp had finally united under one cause—none of us wanted to get stuck in Black Rock City.
Getting out was a clusterf*ck, and the roads were strewn with gear that had been hastily strapped to the vehicles of burnt Burners in a rush to flee the scene. We were almost killed by a U.F.O that flew off of somebody’s RV, narrowly missing my windshield and taking out my driver’s side mirror. This pretty much re-sealed an already sealed deal for me, that being, “I am not doing this again next year.”
The whole learning experience was a bittersweet farewell—to friends I no longer had much in common with, to the instant gratification of drugs, to the city itself. The wonderful thing about endings is that they give birth to new beginnings. I was mourning a loss, yet developing a novel kind of strength.
For the first time in years, I am centered in myself. Coming back home, I am in possession of a deep inner assurance that I am following the right path for me, into a place of healing and calm that was lacking in my life for a very long time. You can find pretty much anything on the Playa if you know where to look, but some things are more readily available than others.
For example, if you are looking for the biggest party in the world, open your eyes and presto!
For healing and calm, you might have to look a little harder.
You might have to look inside.
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Assistant Ed: Kristina Peterson/Ed: Bryonie Wise