I was so confident in our relationship before Burning Man.
We had been warned, of course, about the fights we would have about nothing, about how the dehydration would make everything seem worse, about how we would lash out and get annoyed with each other.
But I didn’t believe it. Not we, the ones who are always “so cute” and everyone’s “favorite couple.” We’re the ones who never fight, who have great communication, never get jealous and have zero trust issues.
Piece of cake, right?
Wrong. The bickering started before we even left Reno. “Do you know how to use the hose?” Illich asked me as I held the water hose to fill up one of the giant water barrels we had rented for the RV. “Sure! Just turn the little knob,” I told him.
A minute later, I waited too long, didn’t realize the knob only turn the other way to close, and water gushed all over the floor of the RV.
“What are you doing?” He berated me. “It’s just water,” I shot back. “God, I’m sorry.” And I stormed out of the RV.
We made up an hour later, chalking it up to the fact that we hadn’t been drinking enough water. And then we started bickering again.
The next three days were like that, with us making up and exploring the Playa with wonder, then getting in a fight about something stupid.
It turns out our little relationship issues had always been there. They were like the Jurassic Park dinosaurs, stalking the perimeter of our lush but safe little relationship, testing the fence for weaknesses.
The real world, with its comforts, manageable schedule, and cell phone service (“Sorry! Running late!”) was like an electrified fence. But once it came down, those argument dinosaurs stormed inside our perfect little world and wreaked havoc. (Wow, I just used an elaborate Jurassic Park metaphor, but go with me here.)
Oh, I wanted so much from Burning Man. (As evidenced by my long list of reasons why I knew I would love it.) I downloaded the app, meticulously went through the entire event listing and added every single thing that sounded mildly interesting to my Google calendar.
Turkish coffee and AcroYoga and an Alternative Energy Tour and being a lamplighter and the Bedouin Oil Bath and cocktails and couple’s erotic massage and Buddhist chanting and donut holes and Disco and Pisco night and fresh squeezed lemonade and How to Be a Feminist in the Bedroom and LCD Soundsystem and TEDx.
All of them. Every single one. I hadn’t even added in my favorite DJs yet. I thought if I carefully planned my visit like I had planned my trip to Bali, I could check all the interesting things off my list and leave feeling like I had truly “done” Burning Man.
What a tourist I was.
Even if I had found a magic pill that kept me from sleeping all week (Maybe acid?) I couldn’t have done all these magical things. I was going to have to make choices.
But I also had to make choices according not just to time constraints, but other people. As supportive as my boyfriend was, he would choose Robot Heart over Turkish coffee any sunrise of the week. And I often found myself being pulled along by the hand to something else really cool that I hadn’t known about, or being invited on an art car, or biking down the road and having someone shove a sangria in my hand.
Which of course I turned down because I had someplace to be.
So no, we really could not afford to waste one moment fighting. We just couldn’t! To fight was to squander this precious gift that we had been given and what a tragedy that would be.
Which only intensified the fights, because of the high stakes involved.
Is this the Mountain High Enough? The Valley Low Enough?
“I know that I still love you,” Illich told me as we sat side by side, staring at the three-story-high Embrace sculpture that glowed in the black desert night. “Even when we are fighting, I love you and I never doubt us.”
I needed this reassurance. But couldn’t you love someone and them not be right for you? I had never had these thoughts before, and yet here they were, those fucking relationship dinosaurs ripping a swath through my heretofore perfect confidence in the utter rightness of our relationship.
A couple hours before, we had come home from the yoga class I had dragged us to, and realized we were running late to the big sunset wedding, the one we had so been looking forward to. I was sure that if we were late, the wedding art car would pull away into the deep playa and we would never find it.
I pulled on my outfit, and then tapped my foot as Illich carefully applied his face makeup. “We have to go,” I told him, and he agreed, choosing a white pot of powder to apply painstakingly to the bridge of his nose.
“Now.” I pulled him out the door as he retied his silk skirt and we boarded our bicycles. His skirt immediately got caught in the gears, and I felt to my knees ripping it out and handing the ends to him to tuck into his skirt. Then I hopped on my bike and took off. The sun was disappearing behind the mountains. Sunset was almost over.
Illich lagged behind the whole way, and I grew increasingly irritated with him as we fought through the sands pits on our way to the Embrace. Why was he cycling so slow? Finally he yelled, “Stop!” and I pulled up short and circled back.
“I lost my phone,” he told me, as he buckled his hip bag back on, which apparently had fallen off far behind us, which was why he was cycling so slow. There was nothing to be done now about it. It could be anywhere, buried underneath a sand pile anywhere between the deep Playa and the Esplanade. We cycled on, but couldn’t find the wedding bus. Without service, we couldn’t text someone and ask, or look up the Facebook invitation. We circled around other weddings that wasn’t the one we were looking for.
Finally, we stopped, giving up. We were frustrated with each other. I tried to give a peace offering. “Do you want to check out the Orgy Dome?” I asked him. He shook his head, scanning the horizon with a look of despair. Then he perked up. “Look, there it is!” Far away from us the Heart Pheonix bus, silver and white, sailed across the Playa. We took off again and pulled up alongside it, swept up by the beauty and joy. The bride and groom looked out at all the bikes surrounding the bus, framed by the heart with wings, waving. It reminded me of the wedding ship from Little Mermaid that set sail at sunset, but more beautiful.
The bride was perfection, the vows were both heartfelt and funny. We danced and talked with our friends, and then our argument crept back up, and we had to hide ourselves away before people saw us fighting. That’s how we came to be sitting in front of the Embrace, trying to figure out a way past this. Whatever this was.
Illich agreed that he needed to be less of a perfectionist and communicate right away when he needed something from me. I agreed that I needed to be kinder and more patient. We made up, but the Playa wasn’t done testing us yet.
Illich was still upset about losing his phone, with all the pictures he had taken. I wanted him to forget about it and just enjoy Burning Man. After all, how could I party with him moping around all the time? I stormed around our RV, saying, “What’s the point?”
But I was just as bad. I kept dragging us from thing to thing, and it often didn’t work out. Events weren’t on time, or the guide was wrong, or the person doing it hadn’t shown up, or I had read the time or place wrong. I was frustrated that my planning wasn’t working. I was trying to hard, being so organized!
Illich was frustrated too—two out of his three DJ sets hand’t worked out because of the rain or other technical difficulties. He had prepared so thoroughly, and had been left hanging.
One morning I showed up for a yoga class, and found it had been replaced with some bullshit stretching class. I wanted my yoga, goddamnit. Thankfully, the stretching teacher turned it over to the original instructor after a half hour. We went through our asanas and at the end, he talked about how in yoga, sometimes you come with expectations and goals. Like, “I want to get into crow pose.” But you need to let go of those expectations and the goal and desire to reach perfection, and inhabit the space you are in at that moment. Just be there, where you are.
And then it clicked. I had been grasping, holding onto what I thought Burning Man should be. I needed to stop caring about the outcome, and just receive what was being given to me in that moment. I needed to stop having expectations.
Things got easier after that. When I opened my hand to receive gifts, they started arriving at unexpected moments from unexpected places and people. When the original plan didn’t work out, it opened up space for something better to arrive. Instead of planning out our night, we went out with an old friend and two new ones, and just wandered from place to place, taking in the music. We discovered new DJs, and didn’t fuss when a stage was playing music we didn’t like. We laughed uncontrollably and shrieked and clambered aboard art cars and had one of the best nights ever.
As dawn approached, Illich and I took our bikes out to Robot Heart car, but found ourselves walking away from it toward the rising sun at the edge of the Playa. We sat down by ourselves in the middle of the dust, and as the blood red orb lifted from the horizon, Illich finally let go of his phone. He realized that he didn’t need it or the pictures to appreciate the beauty in front of us, or to have a good time. He released it, and embraced me. Yes, this had been hard. But we had learned something about ourselves and our relationships.
It would all be okay.
Then he turned and said, “Oh, there goes our camp’s art car!” We sprinted toward it and climbed aboard it. “Dude, I got your phone!” a friend called from the back.
We knew then for sure that The Playa is like a fickle but wise god. She (or he) tests you, takes things away from you, presents you with opportunities and snatches others away. She wants to see that you can relax your grip on life and reality. When you do, she’ll show you that everything is OK.
We weren’t the only ones who this happened to. A woman, a stranger to us, broke her leg on the second day of Burning Man and had to go to Reno to get it fixed. Her friends convinced her to come back to the Playa and have a good time anyway.
The next night after Illich got his phone back, we went back to Robot Heart and danced to Lee Burridge’s set as the sky brightened. We heard cheering, turned around, and saw that woman in a wheelchair being lofted in the air in time to the music. The whole crowd gathered around her cheering. She was so overcome with emotion she sobbed with joy and gratitude. (Burridge was so distracted that he started trainwrecking his next mix. He fixed it up and laughed about it.)
The Playa at Burning Man isn’t just about nature testing you with its dust storms and heat. It’s also about the 65,000 people who conjure up magic at every moment. It’s the woman who gave us grilled cheese sandwiches as we sobbed outside of the temple. The guy who cycled around the deep Playa with a cooler full of cold beverages to hand out to thirsty burners. The person who found Illich’s phone and gave it to our camp. The six people who hoisted a wheelchair up in the air in time to the music.
I know the Playa isn’t the real world—it’s 65,000 self-selecting people who seek spirituality and commit to generosity for just one week. But one week in the desert brought home a hundred yoga teachings for me. And I hope I can apply this lesson in the real world:
That if I open my grip, I can receive. If I drop my expectations, I can get more than I ever imagined.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard