I am a nomad, and thus I am free to be where I want to be. Once a year, for one magical week, there is only one place where I want to be, and that is Burning Man.
Writing about one’s personal experience of Burning Man is daunting. The week is a maelstrom of impressions and adventures, most of which make absolutely no sense out of the context of Black Rock City. I could spend months describing the spinning hyper-symmetrical cube-thing that works as a calendar, the view from the top of Anubis, the sight of a thousand naked butts wiggling in unison as the naked bike ride cuts through the desert, the black semi-sentient dust-bunnies growing in your sinuses or the warm feeling of love spreading through your belly as you become the recipient of yet another random act of kindness from one of your fellow burners. But these are direct experiences best discovered first-hand. Just listing them would be dull. Instead, I will focus on a few things that differentiated this burn from my previous three.
The Black Rock Cock
Imagine that you walk far into the desert, late at night. You can still see the distant lights of the city and hear the soft thumping of bass from a handful of dance parties, but out here, you are quite alone. The wind suddenly strengthens. The lights are all gone and the bass is drowned out by the howling dust storm that came from nowhere. You get on your bike and head in the direction that you think you last saw the city, but it doesn’t take long before you realize that you are entirely lost. You can barely see your hand in front of you. How long will the storm last? There is no telling. It could be hours. If only you hadn’t forgotten your dust-mask and goggles! The dust is making it hard to breathe. You’re in trouble. All you want to do is crouch down and hide your face from the dust, but your handful of glow sticks won’t be enough to keep an errant art car from running you over.
The wind lightens up for a few seconds, but it is enough to reveal two blinking red lights in the distance. You stumble towards it and find a large squat wooden structure, chest high and eight foot by eight foot, shaped like a Tetris T. On the white wood are several large paintings of cocks and you realize that the shape is not of a Tetris T but a cock, lying down. You walk around it and find that at the top of the cock, there is an opening. You crouch down and crawl through the silver-lined shaft with blinking white EL-wire into the balls (ballroom?), lined with dark fur. In the ceiling, white lights blink softly, like stars in the night sky.
You’re safe. The winds cannot touch you here in this warm and cosy cock. There is even a blanket to keep you warm. As you snuggle into it you discovered a journal hidden beneath it. You turn on your headlight and start reading, realizing that you are not the first to have sought shelter in this mysterious cock box.
Doing my bit
Burning Man is created by the voluntary participation of its residents. In previous years, I’ve often felt guilty for not bringing more to the event. I do a few volunteering shifts as a lamplighter or a barista at Center Camp, but on the grand scheme of things, I have been too much of a passive observer. That changed this year as I helped bring art to the deep playa in the form of the Black Rock Cock, an eight by eight foot warming hut in the shape of a large cock, far out in the deep playa.
Don, my cowboy friend from Long Beach, came up with the idea and built it together with Dick and Jeff, two friends we made in Palm Springs when I was last in the US for my birthday. While those three did all the manly lifting and building, Jamison (of Los Angeles), Sylvia (old friend from London) and I decorated the inside with fur, silver fabric, lights and carpets.
The response from the public was overwhelmingly awesome. I spent a whole night sitting in the ballroom and watch people’s reactions, not telling them that I was involved in the construction. Everyone loved it, and I heard several stories of people escaping bad storms by seeking shelter in the cock as well as several stories of people coming there to find some privacy. I would not be surprised if a baby was conceived in there.
All this made me feel very proud of having brought something new and creative to the playa. A big thank you to Don for including me in the project as well as the rest of the BRC crew.
A couple of weeks before I left for Burning Man, my grandmother, Alice, passed away. It was expected after a relatively short period of sickness, but it still hurt.
The Temple is the spiritual centre of Burning Man. This is where citizens bring the memories of their loved ones to both honour and say farewell to them. I wasn’t able to attend the funeral of my grandmother, but I said goodbye in my own way by leaving her photo at the Temple.
On Sunday evening, the Temple burnt during a silent vigil. Just before the burn started, the Black Rock City choir sang a few hymns, and one of them brought back memories from when my grandmother sang at our small country church in Kånna, Sweden. That, even more than the burn itself, was the cathartic goodbye that I needed. It was beautiful beyond words.
My grandmother died a natural death at old age after a full and good life. It is sad, but it is not tragic. Unfortunately, I also brought with me the memories of a young man who should not have left this earth so early. His name was Josh, and he took his own life after a long battle with mental illness. His mother and sister have impressed me greatly by raising awareness of mental illness and break the stigma attached to suicide by talking openly about the incident and partaking in events such as the ‘Out of the Darkness’ charity walk, organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Knowing that Josh loved Burning Man as much as I do, I asked his mother and sister if I could do for Josh what I wish someone will do for me when I die, namely bring his memory to the Temple. They sent me a beautiful collage of Josh along with a favourite poem, and I brought both to the Temple.
The night after the Temple burnt, I got an unexpected opportunity to further honour Josh. Burning Man had officially ended by then and most people had left the city, but I remained for one more night. Cycling around the half-abandoned city, I came across a wooden structure of the Golden Gate Bridge at the site of the Man. Turns out that a man whose son jumped off the bridge has erected and burnt a symbol of the bridge every year since then in his son’s memory. When it was time for this unscheduled burn to start, the artist asked if someone felt moved to start the fire. I stepped forward and explained that I carried the memory of another suicide victim, and thus I got to light the memorial in Josh’s name. Serendipity had led me to exactly the place where I needed to be, and as I held the torch to the diesel-soaked wood, I said a few words to both Josh and his family.
Occupy the Imagination: Modern Nomadic Lifestyles
The busy Center Camp staged a speaker series called ‘Occupy the Imagination’. Think of it as Burning Man’s answer to the TED talks, only much smaller. I had the pleasure of giving a talk on modern nomadic living, my first public speech on the topic. I recorded it, and though I cringe at seeing myself talk, I’ve included it below.
Burning Man 2012 in Pictures
These are my favourite photos from this year, some courtesy of Jamison Goei.
I have to give a shout out to a few amazing people who made my burn possible. First and foremost, Don Kendrick deserves a standing ovation for tirelessly keeping our motorhome functioning despite the destructive powers of the three other residents of the motorhome, Jamison, Sylvia and I. We could not do it without you, and neither would we want to.
Jamison brought the party to the motorhome with a never-ending stream of great music, bitchy one-liners that had me on the floor laughing and a parade of random people picked up from the playa. He also brought the fur and interior cosy to the Black Rock Cock!
Sylvia was our surprise houseguest when, after riding up with us, she found out that her designated tent had blown away. Never has there been such a fortunate accident as Sylvia was a radiant reactor of positive energy in the RV. She absolutely made my burn this year, and I’m already planning to kidnap her for next year. (Dixie, awesome to meet you too! Take care of each other!)
Dick and Jeff, who Don and I met in Palm Spring six months ago, were indispensable in the construction of the Black Rock Cock, and credit for the beautifully painted cocks on the outside goes to them.
Finally, I made a new friend on the playa this year. Ian, I had a blast every time I ran into you and I hope to see you in the magical land of Oz soon.