Giving in to Astonishment: Scenes from Burning Man's American Dream
I'll be making this available as author-read audio; if you are interested please email me at michaelgarfield at gmail dot com
“The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn’t, you’ve got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you… [Visionaries, leaders, and heroes]’ve moved out of the society that would have protected them, and into the dark forest, into the world of fire, of original experience.
Original experience has not been interpreted for you, and so you’ve got to work out your life for yourself. Either you can take it or you can’t. You don’t have to go far off the interpreted path to find yourself in very difficult situations. The courage to face the trials and to bring a whole new body of possibilities into the field of interpreted experience for other people to experience – that is the hero’s deed.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, pp 48-49
“The function of ritual is to pitch you out, not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p106
i) Thursday morning while getting coffee from a Hawaiian grower, my partner and I meet a student from UC Davis who is photographing male fashion here for her graduate thesis. She’s building a case for this event as a kind of male wardrobe skunkworks, a rare place where men are afforded the options that might get them ridiculed at home, to explore their male feminine for perhaps the first time. She grabs and Polaroids us, me in my girlfriend’s borrowed (stolen) skirt.
Sure enough, later that day I’m recovering from a brutal paddling at the hands of our neighbors, The 7 Deadly Sins Lounge … my payment for a “Flaming Blue Fuck” shot, as decided by spinning a wheel (I got the pricey and appropriate “Lust”). Sitting tenderly on my amazingly sore ass, I’m approached by a powerfully queer fellow, in clown makeup and a chest-waisted day-glo yellow suspendered tutu emblazoned with a smiley face.
He asks, “Are you wearing a SKIRT?”
I look down in mock surprise. “Yes...”
smirks, cocks his head to one side, and puts his hands on his hips,
looking at me with joke puzzlement. “Isn’t that a little bit GAY?”
ii) Thursday evening, I attend a discussion at Entheon Village led by psychonaut-chemist-hero couple Drs. Ann & Alex “Sasha” Shulgin, the pair responsible for popularizing MDMA as a therapeutic substance and pioneering the synthesis of thousands of other psychoactive molecules in their home LAB (“Large Animal Bioassay” – a joke acronym for their daring and rigorous self-testing).
In a compassionate description of the insane (“interesting”) United States legal morass surrounding mind-altering chemistry, Sasha Shulgin, the sage octogenarian, regales our overflowing tent with a core contradiction: The US classifies DMT as a Schedule I substance, something with no known medical or therapeutic value, in spite of government-funded research to the contrary, over a decade old – a chemical that is illegal to transport in any fashion from one place to another.
The only problem: DMT is manufactured by every animal brain, as well as a wide range of plants. “Which means,” remarks Shulgin, “that the judge, the prosecutors, and everyone in the courtroom, is transporting it from one place to another.”
He chuckles with remarkable aplomb, considering the decades of persecution he and his family of researchers have suffered at the hands of an authority who remains unwilling to understand either the scientific or social import of his life’s work.
Probably the most experienced and rigorous molecular voyagers alive, a pair who have accidentally spawned innumerable subcultures and liberated countless new mental states into awareness, the Shulgins are unquestionably quite comfortable with the paradoxes of life – paradoxes that bare themselves in every moment of the Burn: in snippets of conversation and through incongruous luminous apparel, in the fantastic weirdness of the so-called “Mutant Vehicles” that litter the playa, and in the awe-inspiring view at night of this incredible extraterrestrial metropolis that blossomed forth from an alkaline lake bed last week and will be gone in another, scattered back into garages and closets the world over, incubating until next summer.
“Things are coming to life around you all the time. There is a life pouring into the world, and it pours from an inexhaustible source.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p272
iii) Sometime midday on Tuesday I’m stopped by a pleasant young British man who asks me for sunscreen.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” he says, “but you’re the only person I’ve seen who’s as pale as I am, and…”
He tells me it's his second time here, that he had to return since he didn’t “relax into it” until the fifth day of his first year. “I just didn’t get over being AMAZED by everything until it was almost over. Everywhere I went, it was, ‘Oooh, tits!,’ or ‘Oooh, blinky!’”
It’s a commonly reported impression from these frothing shores of unrelenting creative surplus. I can’t make it twenty-four hours without at least a few similar discussions of sensory and emotional overload. There are workshops, NECESSARY workshops, on how to keep your outside-world romantic relationships from flying to pieces in the sensual centrifuge – or failing that, hundreds of bars, mixers, and dancefloors expressly for rebounding.
Some camps gift earplugs to those who can’t find rest amidst the clock saturating “oontz oontz” of 300-watt theme camp audio systems banging from every direction. (I had surprisingly little trouble with this, excepting the one afternoon my neighbors to the South played Don MacLean’s “American Pie” on repeat for over an hour – and another night when I awoke from my stolen midnight hour-nap to a pandemonium pile-up of throbs stomping on each other, screams, megaphone drunkenness, I swear the tilting roar of a DRAGON, temporarily cast into the half-asleep pit of helpless blurred aural hell from which neither waking nor dreaming could offer any relief – a condition I later described as “Putting the ‘bed’ in Bedlam.”)
Hourly or more I am reminded of comedian Joe Rogan’s account of his first DMT experience, during which he met a transcendent alien being who urged him through the trip’s unimaginable gorgeous painful intensity by saying, “Don’t give in to astonishment.” As prepared as I feel after years of anticipatory reading, documentary research, and incessant questioning of those friends who had gone before me, this has become my mantra for the week. Determined and even eager to take everything in stride (or perhaps more appropriately, in the cyclic gait of playa bike pedaling, frequently caught in thigh-burning tire chews through dust drifts before sweet release onto clean and easy straightaways), the moments come when my exuberance simply can’t hold as a strategy, my intentions and agendas buckle under the mass of the senses, and in my sobriety I fade into the periphery of an experience too large for my skinbound social constructs to hold.
In these seer-less glimpses through Burning Man’s unembarrassed literal luminous ether and into/as plain transparent being, an offering from no one to no one, the unconcerned and unquestioning blossom of sound and color and feeling, this dearly-held dictum is gone without regret or even remembrance. I am learning the lesson breathed by the multitudes before and alongside me: I don’t “give in” to astonishment because I AM astonishment, whatever else I thought I was and I will think I will be. In the rapture of exultant community, my brightened little person self, no thicker than flame or smoke, is silently, wordlessly singing: "I am Burning Man, I am Burning Man.”
“You couldn’t relate at all to something in which you did not somehow participate. That’s why the idea of God as the Absolute Other is a ridiculous idea. There could be no relationship to the Absolute Other.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p227
iv) Against all cautions not to bring a strained relationship to Burning Man unless I'm ready to feel it split apart in a meteoric fireball ... I did, and lost a two-year tread against our ratcheting complexity after the intensity of a partners’ heart-opening yoga session tore me down the middle. Eight hours later, wandering alone through the chilled black pre-dawn Wednesday morning, wings spread to lift a heart heavy from the hanging medallion of “newly-single,” I turn a corner and am unwittingly and suddenly in line to be seated at the nostalgic Red Eye Diner, lifted chrome and all from the roadside of some false Norman Rockwell memory.
Behind me beams a tower of a man, ruddy cheeks and sideburns between the khaki coat and hat of the Burn’s Rangers – a volunteer peacekeeping team, now nearly 300 strong, patrolling the playa so police don’t have to – a kind of desert-clad jedi elite revered by the many and (apparently) feared by those few who lack the discernment to distinguish their Ranger SUVs from external law enforcement (a.k.a. “The Man”…a confusing handle, out here). Here is a Bigfoot of a man, whose friendliness is menacing from simple size, loud and wide (and, he tells me almost immediately, high on cocaine).
He fishes around in shirt pockets and hands me this year’s commemorative patch, ranger-generated quasi-official swag: Old Glory in photographic negative, the Man tastefully figured over blue and black stripes. It’s the first machine-stitched example I’ve ever seen of the optical effect by which staring at a surface or pattern leaves an identical phototracer image on the retina in opposite colors.
The patch, beyond being the most professional item I’ve been gifted so far this week, tickles me with its playfulness: Its maker not only assumes recipients to have specific knowledge of visual illusions (a safe bet, here), but seems to have woven in a veiled statement on the participatory nature of the American Dream itself, a reminder that our experience exists not only or even primarily in our symbolic objects but emerges only through our active engagement. That is to say, although maybe I’m merely projecting, this modest gift elegantly contains the coherent transmission of a profound perspective on this entire thing, its place in our larger culture and reality as a whole. And it may have taught me more than the many wonderful but nonspecific gifts I’ve received out here about what Burning Man IS, in all of its simultaneous saturnine silliness.
Perhaps that is why I am drawn so powerfully to this place and these people, that cocktail of play and gravity. Then again, this place is huge, and I am regularly reminded by testimony and experience that a person finds what they attract, here, what they want or need but certainly what they ARE, or are BECOMING. This is all an intensified reminder that we get what we are looking for (whether or not we realize that we are looking for it, or that we are even looking at all). The myriad energies and impulses of Burning Man are a zodiac, deeper than any exploration except by (and as) the whole beyond any sum. Like life in “the default world,” we can only know the vastness of being through immanent examples, discrete forms and experiences and we see only what we are – what, through our evolutionary psychic and cognitive reasoning, our bodyminds decide to pass up into conscious awareness – whatever patterns with which, out of a deep history of functional necessity, our being decides to vibrate in synchrony...what we, in this harmonic unison, tacitly conspire to bring into being with our very attention. (Talk about “radical participation!”)
And so I have begun to reevaluate everything that “happens to me” here as something that I only see or feel because I AM it, that I TOUCH as external to me but KNOW to reflect deeper truths of identity than I may be willing to admit. (“MAY be,” because the fire of this place tends to burn away such limited identities and plunge one – willingly or not – into new and wider self-conceptions, as if we are all here to bathe ourselves in it of the people we ordinarily pretend to be and discover the clean newness of some more and less human “being” underneath.)
All of this is a mild cause for concern when, after waiting in line for maybe half an hour, the Ranger and I are finally seated in a cramped corner of the diner (one booth, one table, four bar stools, ten square feet of kitchen) only to be immediately made to wait again for shift change. As our French-speaking staff disappear behind a curtain to their campsites and leave us unceremoniously with each other’s impatient indignance, and one minute pulls and stretches into twenty or more, I scan the amusing deconstructed menu. Leave it to the French: a dozen half-intelligible synonymous entries for grilled cheese, poking fun at both menu lingo and my own illusion of choice.
Shoulder-to-shoulder with an increasingly upset and noisy ape-man in dress of authority, I smile and nod at the swelling aggression. Here is a man who believes he is owed something, professing an injustice to the other diners, his voice hoarse and boxy, unaware or unconcerned about the obvious distress his protest is catalyzing in a small crowd doing its best to be agreeable and easygoing. It says, after all, for Christ’s sake, in the pamphlet they hand you upon entry, that you are not ENTITLED gifts. To receive them, when given, with humility, and to not complain about it otherwise.
Here is a man who, in his defense, has for nine consecutive years put himself in trying and frequent service of a community of questionable decisions (While in line, he told me how, in 2006, one attendee executed a double forward flip off the Man’s elevated platform, landing perfectly erect but dislocating his ankle, crumpling to the ground where he lay moaning while other people scrambled over him unaware or uncaring). Here is a man who does in fact deserve the gratitude (or at least open appreciation) of that community, but he’s acting like a petulant child in flagrant non-acknowledgement of this city’s core principles, pounding the counter insisting on his idea of a good time and splashing scowls on everyone around him.
the cookstaff returns and we are served, half of his free sandwich is
redistributed to someone else who has been waiting to his other side,
and in an outrage he throws his own half-eaten piece on the dirty
ground, stomping out cursing before a wake of awkward silent relief.
Whatever code of Ranger honor binds him to his duty and service remains
a mystery to me. Oh, but it takes one to know one; this is my
world, and if this disconcertingly seismic rambunctious caprice isn’t
Michael, then it is a facet of whatever bigger thing or self I am.
vi) I’m standing in line in San Francisco at an AT&T store waiting to bicker (no, please let’s not bicker, let this be easy) with the desk staff about getting my broken cell phone replaced. There are bright colors and big video screens, multi-lingual clientele and strange sensations ... and here, on the first day after hitching my ride out of Burning Man, back in “the matrix,” I’m feeling the first anticipated round of nostalgia for that hallucinatory desert home world, trying to imagine that this air-conditioned orange and blue spectacle is some especially subtle and ironic art installation, that I’m relieved to be momentarily in from the wind and dust, that making it to the counter to get a new phone is some strange game and a trip-within-a-trip commentary on what we as a culture neglect to notice or appreciate about the ever loving gift of our own created technicolor lives.
Meanwhile, outside, just a scatter of strange pastel city blocks from my feet, the great blue roiling Pacific Ocean, Oh God, and I don’t mind being in here because you can take the burner out of Black Rock City, but...
And I do my best to commit myself moment to moment, in every meeting and in the carriage of my body, to bringing the love I found out in that abominable gorgeous bliss wasteland (totally UNwasted, a sleeping primordial landscape entirely appreciated to the fullest possible human extent) back here into this internally-combusting modern urban beauty-mess. It’s a real blessing to follow up my first burn with this vagabonding, new voyages in unfamiliar places, realms not completely alien but rife with gambits (Of the people I know out here, who will let me sleep on their couch? Can I find an open laundromat on Labor Day? Did my friends in Colorado pull through for me and find me temp work out here like they said they could? Can I carry all of this heavy stuff around every day for the next two weeks?)
vii) And now, sitting without pants in “The Washing Well,” the heaven-sent open-on-Labor-Day laundromat, money belt tucked under my boxers and feeling like a proper vagabond in my last clean shirt. (Colored by Hawaiian red clay, it reads “Do It In The Dirt" ... ironically, I left it in the bag all week at Burning Man.)
Whatever a “proper vagabond” is I don’t know – but here is my notion of such a person: traveling at a deliberate pace, sharing and receiving, learning and using humility, keeping my eyes and ears wide open to experience what Allyson Grey in her lecture at Pantheogenesis Temple a few days ago called “life as a synaesthetic symphony,” tuning in to the quiet voices and intuitive whispering – which is how I found this laundromat in the first place, by taking an urging left instead of a silent right on my way out of the phone store (where nothing is free again, apparently – some art installation!)
This same suggestive silence led me into eager conversation with a specific man ("Talk to him!") at Pantheogenesis a few days ago about Daniel Pinchbeck’s recent lecture there – how we seem on the brink of a collective awakening to psychic energy and engineering, akin to the 18th century threshold between fearful awe of lightning and an electrified industrial revolution. Instances of so-called synchronicity seem by all sensitive accounts to be on the rise, drawing us toward an inevitable reckoning between our current mechanisms and a world of more vivid and obvious structuring, simultaneity of cause and effect, free information, living language, playful inexplicability, trust and instantaneous response that will challenge our very notions of the separation between inner and outer, question and answer, the strange (to us) overlay of our linear living experience and the inescapable knowledge of the at-onceness of all time and all-hereness of space.
One of Daniel’s examples came from one Burner who had declared his desire for a fig, and THE NEXT THING that happened? Someone walked by with a basket of figs and offered him one. My new friend tells me how he had lost his coat two days earlier in another camp and found it, after Daniel’s rant on synchronicity, sitting in the corner of the temple, waiting for him like the world knew he’d find it there.
By the end of this conversation, he is offering me the ride to San Francisco I’d been worrying about. These are small requests – not rain dances, not politics by the hyper-democratic mechanism of collective wish-fulfillment. Not YET. But ... I was attending this lecture, and having this conversation, while wearing the one custom shirt I brought to the Burn, the freak-flag betraying my most deeply-held sociopolitical platform, my model for visionary economics, the most hope-inspiring thing I can think to say in the midst of this Malthusian delusion of the United States: “Imagination is our greatest natural resource.”
I end up sharing the RV back to California with five other interesting people, including a fellow illustrator, musician, and concert poster artist who let me stay the night in his second bedroom and wake up to the delicious coincidence that he plays drums for a friend of mine from college, someone whom I haven’t spoken to in years. Eating my breakfast, I muse on the persistent reminders of how miraculous it all is, this experience of one thing leading to another, when I know that REALLY, this is ALL one thing, happening at ONCE. Being surprised, or confused, is our reward for trying to understand this party as it if were a parade.
“Chance, or what might seem to be chance, is the means through which life is realized."
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p203
viii) On my way out to Burning Man, I read The Power of Myth, transcript of a conversation between ur-comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers. Campbell, you may remember, seeded the public consciousness with the idea that myths are not merely the inadequate explanatory schema of ages past, but maps of experience that connect us, when we immerse ourselves in them, to the vaster patterns of humans being and becoming. They teach us how to navigate the parade of our lives, and deepen our sense of belonging in a mysterious but somewhat/somehow sensible universe.
I am in love with Campbell’s ability to weave together the disparate mythologies of cultures the world over, highlighting common contours that converge on the horizon line of our collective unconscious, archetypes as the intermediaries of an organic intelligence alive too deep for our waking awareness to contact directly. But in spite of the rapture I feel when reading Campbell & Moyers’ incredible exchanges on the trans-cultural core form of the dead-and-resurrected savior, or the organismic and embodied origins of deities hidden in our shared evolutionary heritage, or how 13th Century troubadours shook the world apart by inventing and professing for the first time the notion of personal romantic love as a spiritual ideal, my Burning Man experience was most illuminated by their discussion of the mandala...
“In India, I have seen a red ring put around a stone, and then the stone becomes regarded as an incarnation of the mystery. Usually you think of things in practical terms, but you could think of anything in terms of its mystery. For example, this is a watch, but it is also a thing in being. You could put it down, draw a ring around it, and regard it in that dimension. That is the point of what is called ‘consecration.’
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p74
ix) The mandala is a circular map of the world common to every wisdom tradition from the Tibetans to the Navajo. Circular, because of our universal understanding of the circle as a symbol of wholeness, totality...because the heavens above stretch out infinitely beyond the circular boundary of the horizon ... because of lunar cycles and the relationship between the full moon and a full belly or breast or basket. Mythological circles are the containers of everything, and within them everything is organized, the center point representing a still axis or fertile ground of origin (masculine and feminine creative power, respectively), the node around which the rest of the mandala effulges or accretes.
A compass is a mandala. A map of our solar system is one, as well. Understand the map, and you can understand the territory. The reading of a mandala, like the exploration of any metaphor, illuminates a network of meanings, placing them together in a landscape of interrelated significance.
A week into my forays at Burning man, and I’ve finished The Power of Myth, allowed it to percolate in me while I give my attention to the stupendous display of creativity that bombards and invites me from every direction. This is, after all, what Alex Grey has declared “The Freest Place On Earth,” the living example of our western republic’s constitutional freedoms, a place so intentionally permissive that – finally! – the only taboo TRULY IS cruelty to the environment and one’s fellow beings (of course, taboos get broken).
Such open, radical acceptance clears space for an unprecedented array of strange beauties:
...Being swept up in the silent theatrics of a playa documentary team’s between scene choreography. I find them recruiting in someone else’s camp and follow them into the center of the playa, where we are paired up and filmed kissing, falling to the ground, lying there for long, still, amused minutes as if dead. I’m not entirely sure what this bizarre pantomime is intended to communicate about Black Rock City – except that it’s full of weirdo film students – but it was delightful to connect in this way with a total stranger, in front of the camera, in the middle of the desert. And I came back to camp at dusk, grinning to report I had stumbled onto film...a fitting spectacle for my first-ever Monday at Burning Man.
...Attending a seminar held by Poly Paradise Camp on understanding and overcoming jealousy, after which my ex-ex and I are coached by our new synchro-friend for over an hour in Nonviolent Communication and then draft our (long-awaited, long-discussed, realized at last!) first working constitution for a mutually satisfying open relationship between us.
...Packing ourselves into a sweating friendly mass of couples both straight and gay for a workshop on male full body erotic massage, a form of electric body work that culminates in a surprisingly nonsexual intensity that shudders me from lips to fingertips, prickling pleasure-gnosis revealing the precise locations of personal contractions in my auric body – and suddenly I know can I heal myself, for suddenly I know beyond doubt that I have the hands of a healer (and wow, she does too, apparently). Leaving the sweat-and-serotonin drench of the massage tent, I share a depth of surprise and gratitude and comfort/relief, praise for this newly discovered realm of embodiment, through “Were you there for that, too?” eye contact with the half dozen gay men I was, not an hour earlier, worried would kick me in the head while tossed about in the throes of orgasm.
...Roaming around on a photojournalistic tour of the endless fake road and warning signs: “Yield To Art In Plaza,” “Reserved For Theme Camps,” “Now Leaving The United States,” “Speed Limit: Terminal Velocity,” “Department of Spontaneous Combustion,” “Larry Harvey for United States Congress,” “Slow – Children At Playa.”
...Getting myself zapped by “Got Stickers?” Camp’s electric fence in exchange for a delicious frozen margarita, then standing with my woman, each of us putting one hand on an arm of their variable-voltage electric chair, and closing the circuit with a kiss.
...Watching the biggest smoke rings I’ve ever seen get shot from some invisible cannon across the playa and into the evening sky, trailing arabesques as they drift up into the air like giant lung cancer jellyfish, one of them threaded by a party of skydivers.
...Playing guitar with one hand and spinning fire poi with the other.
...Drinking a "Canadian margarita" blended by a chainsaw motor and calling that breakfast.
...Hunkering down with goggles and face mask through two day-long dust
storms that turn our entire camp, tents with sleeping bags and all,
into a rippling alkaline dunescape.
It was some time in the middle of one of these dust storms, I believe – possibly even while staring directly at a pale white Sun no brighter than the Moon – when I recognized that Black Rock City is a mandala.
“I think of mythology as the homeland of the muses, the inspirers of art, the inspirers of poetry. To see life as a poem and yourself participating in a poem is what the myth does for you.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p65
xii) I am only familiar with a handful of mandalas – the Tibetan wheel of the Six Realms, the magnetic grid of the Cardinal Directions, and the four quadrants of Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory. On a Cartesian plane, Wilber has divided domains of human knowledge into the interior (loosely, mind and experience, the first-person perspective) and exterior (loosely, body and description, the third-person perspective) along the y-axis, and into “singular” and “collective” along the x-axis. You end up with a grid of the various ways that truth can be found in the world, the various long-competing methods of inquiry finally put to work in complementarity.
I studied Wilber’s work in graduate school and have not forgotten his insistence that our models are no replacement for direct experience – that we must not mistake the map for the territory. And yet, fresh from my immersion in Joseph Campbell and absorbed by how the perceived world is constructed – how fact and interpretation wash back and forth, creating one another – I can’t help but suspect that the TERRITORY is actually the MAP. Carl Jung, after all, said that dream architecture signifies the dreamer’s mind. Since our minds construct the contents of consciousness according to their favored theories of self, it seems perfectly rational to engage the world in a way that recognizes perceptions as propositions ABOUT the self.
Rather than “mistaking the map for the territory” by losing myself in the disembodied game of theoretical abstractions, I set out to discover just how deeply the intentional ritualistic design of Black Rock City, and my own half-conscious meaning-making, shape the literal physical topology of the event. And so, for the last twenty four hours of my stay at Burning Man, everything has cast itself in a new light, a glowing metaphysical, metaphorical grid overlaid on the dusty streets of the city, reaching back in time to web together all of my experiences in a newly-discovered structure.
Consequently, my theme camp, situated facing 9:00 on Burning Man's clock-based roadmap, fell into the Upper Left quadrant of personal experience and individual psychology – albeit with our camp bar and tent door open to the Lower Left quadrant, the jurisdiction of shared meaning and intersubjectivity – what “we” know, what is true for us, our common language and symbols. It makes sense for my partner and I, arriving at Burning Man in a confused state over our relationship and torn between personal and mutual interests, to be camping on the boundary between Ken's “I” and “We” domains – just a few minutes’ walk from where we attend those 7:00 workshops on open relationships and partner massage down in the Land of You and I.
Across the mandala, the Opulent
Temple Sound Stage at 2:00, square in the middle of the empirical,
behavioral, anatomical domain of the Upper Right, where my strongest
individualistic urges all week focus me on the sight of dancing women,
the joy of being out alone to peoplewatch, intensely interested in
seeing other people’s experiences from an objective distance.
At 4:00, Entheon Village’s lecture series on drug policy, social reform, sustainable design, and crystal lattices makes perfect sense – Entheon sitting, after all, in the dead center of the Lower Right quadrant, domain of the collective exteriors, socioeconomic research, network logic, complexity. In retrospect, it’s little wonder that this is where I have found so much discussion about synchronicity, ecology, and unified field theories.
And right on the 3:00 Portal, between individual behavior and social practicality, the Red Eye Diner, where the Bigfoot ranger threw his petulant fit and disturbed everyone’s micropolitics of decency.
At 12:00, between “I” and “It,” the Temple (“Basura Sagrada,” Sacred Trash) where Burners were encouraged to write their prayers for deceased loved ones, performing ritual release from painful personal identification and to equanimous simple observation.
At 6:00, between “We” and “They,” shared experience
and economic infrastructure, waved the banners of Center Camp, where
people alternately gathered on couches to watch live music or entered
data into information kiosks, huddled together during the whiteout of
Monday’s dust storm or stood in line to buy coffee and look up lost
friends in the registry.
Center Camp is body painting and filling out the 2008 Census. The Temple is silent prayer and stargazing.
This is the thinking in which I’m steeped, the mythological and the geographical making sweet angel love in my psyche, when after sundown on Saturday night the wind & dust finally relent and our camp (Deviant Playground) finally cleans up and heads out to get front row seats to the Burn. I am expecting now that all of my experiences will be textured, impressed by this hidden fractal enformy, everywhere I go to yield conversations predicted by the coordinates, my last night at Burning Man to be the decoding of an endlessly rich cryptex I can finally navigate with some minor degree of intentionality.
then we are all walking together toward the center of the promenade,
the axis, the point of all points, the mathematico-spiritual origin of
this entire orgy, the center of the galaxy. The art cars have all
answered the homing beacon and cluster in a circle around the Man as if
waiting to be nursed, or prostrate in deference. The entire crowd,
50,000 strong, has accreted/gravitated around and within this flammable
blinking equator, eyes and subwoofers turned like petals to the Sun,
all charged by the pressure cooker of eager flesh, all expectant, light
xii) Four days vagabonding in San Francisco and in spite of the great people I’ve met and the lovely homes in which I’m staying – and in spite of the delicious fact that I took the 19 North to Market Street and bought everything I need to do live performance painting at Golden Gate Park’s 10th Annual Power To The Peaceful Festival this weekend, I feel like I’m losing the glow. Perhaps traveling to distract myself from the post-Burning Man blues really wasn’t such a bright idea, after all.
And then, on a deck
looking out over the Bay Bridge and a vast swath of the city at night,
the ancient flickering spectacle of gathering that yawns into
unwalkable distance, life love and death stretched out before us hidden
in plain view, one of the guys with whom I’m staying says, “At Burning
Man, there was so much to do that ... it’s not that I was doing things
RANDOMLY, so much as ... I wasn’t using my social self to make the
choices.” And all at once I taste it again, The Freest Place On Earth.
x) Yeah, it has a commercial side. Like every other fucking thing in our society. But that in no way detracts from the good of what is accomplished by this event. The magic of this place.
“Myths are so intimately bound to the culture, time, and place that unless the symbols, the metaphors, are kept alive by constant recreation through the arts, the life just slips away from them.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p72
xiv) So, the middle. The mandala’s Godhead-Spot, on Saturday night, with the largest display of saturnalia around us that I have ever seen. Oh I’ve seen larger crowds, but this is ALL ONE SINGLE PARTY.
THIS one has a fifty-foot Duck Car with a flaming Mohawk.
THIS one has a full tour bus AND trailer covered in white fur & glowing from inside.
THIS one has more blinking things than the alien city on the fucking Moon.
THIS one has spindly Victorian tricycles squeezing flame minarets from twinned antique flutes, and a van crowned by insectile light webbing that curls into a gently poised ten foot tall wireframe heart, the alien love symbol of some tryptamine entity giving the Earth language of affection a college try, flanked to each side by battleship wings of subwoofers.
And firetruck sentinels guarding the Man’s central conclave like lions to either side of each cardinal portal.
And hundreds of chagrined firedancers disallowed due to high winds.
And apocalyptic orange light on the low clouds.
THIS one has me finally donning the ankle-length Ethiopian gown my
mother bought in Kansas City the week before I left for the desert, the
cool, thin fabric barely touching my skin, the most sacred article of
clothing I possess, at long last out of its giant zip-lock bag for the
appropriate hour, a sacramental and sacrificial garment now obviously
meant for THIS, NOW, the bearing witness of a grand ritual transition.
xiii) This book is falling apart, as I write this.
v) [I write the following passage waiting in the front row to watch the burn, steeped in the moment’s incredible anticipatory energy. The intensity of waiting is so powerful I feel – as I often do – as if I have died, as if the whole affair were taking place in some adjacent alchemical realm where mundane identity is shed and sacred anonymity is the norm. And, in my best attempt to do something worthwhile with my wait, I start exploring the various voices in my freshly dead head, the muted clamor of subpersonalities that come together as Michael in daylight.
My friend asks me what’s up, so I tell her, and she says, “Oooh, voices? How many are there?”
And I know she’s being silly, so I’ll be silly too, and say, “Hmmm…five, I think.” And I listen for a moment. “Or six.”
“Well, one of them is kind of in between being and not being. It’s not ‘six.’ It’s ‘OR six.’”
Many spiritual traditions add one to any count in their sacred geometries – the one extra actually representing the void from which all forms emerge. It’s kind of like pouring one for your dead homies...]
(Or Six.) Well, here we are. Waiting. On the other Side. You are already dead. I think a lot (a LOT) about the Super Mario World game, the first released on the Super Nintendo, the punchcard of a new system, and in it, a Dungeon Castle navigable only by climbing around on fences crawling with turtles (Turtles? The only CLIMBING turtle in the world is the SE Asian Big Headed Turtle, a personal favorite, but then).
And to get around them, find a gate in the fence, and PUNCH it. It’ll swing you around onto the other side.
[The music is intensifying around me. Fireworks are shooting off. Flames are spraying everywhere. The inner world and the outer world are mirroring each other. It’s all I can do to think, to get this down on paper in the middle of this carnival.]
DUNGEON, mind you.
Ominous tritone organ music.
You’re – primary colors! – you’re almost, er, uh, maybe already
[And I turn the page to write one more word exactly as the Man erupts in flame.]
xv) There was so much more to that night: third eye wonders, safety risks, the Shrine of Fortuna, ongoing play with paradoxes and inversions, a pervasive triradial geometry popping up everywhere, fascinating conversations with fellow wanderers, the inheritance of a boomerang, and finally passing out from exhaustion with my wife and a nosebleed on a couch in front of the Café Stage at Center Camp at five in the morning only to be awakened and evicted by my own music shimmering and slamming over the loudspeakers (and only the two of us knew; it was like attending my own funeral) – then walking on dead legs back to camp in birthing light past exhausted burn-barrel clusters turned eastward in silent expectant devotion, the playa already on the out-tide, the first tents already folded like flowers back into the desert ground, the amazing calm of this city finally ASLEEP.
And so much more to say about the land, the mythological playa winter, the simple duration of place that seeped into our schedules and, like persistent roots, penetrated and crumbled our rigid sense of city time, forcing us to let go of the “What/Where/When” as anything more than a handbook of intriguing but improbable diversions.
And a palpable wound in my writer’s duty that, sitting here a week (only one week!) later in a café on Fillmore, I can’t line up my vagabonding mind and schedule with the desire to say what I have left to say about the shadow work of my first burn, the continuous ebbing and surging revelations drawing me deeper into the understanding and experience of “the world out there” as an esoteric map of whoever I “actually” am.
And the myriad synchronicities and soul-family recognitions kindled at Black Rock City that have led me half-aware around the industrial cyber-beach of San Francisco in the contrail of Burning Man’s passage.
But for now those stories will have to wait ... and anyway, one of the
best hard lessons of my “virgin Burn” is that there are ALWAYS more
stories untold, more roots than branches, the conscious boat skimming
across the choppy meniscus of an unconscious ocean bulging with glowing
fish and dark angels.
xvi) For now, I will say only this about the Burn itself: Here I am with fifty thousand people’s eyes trained on an effigy into which we have all invested the idea of the American Dream, filled it with our hopes and fears, our criticism and cherishing, our making of peace with the past and our cautious celebratory embrace of the future, reverence and wistfulness, eagerness and irony, love and loss, joy and anxiety, all that would have been but never was, all that is and will not be, the Leviathan of industrial exhaust and pharmaceuticals, the Phoenix Eagle of innovation and community.
And the Man takes FOREVER to burn down, they have to light it twice, bouquets of fireworks everywhere, flourishing echoes of independence, encouragement from the coming us that this moment is the first light over the horizon, a cosmic passage, the magical instant between this page and the next, and I am so blessed to be here to report back to my friends and family that I have seen the American Dream finally collapse in a fountain of ashes and cheering, foundation buckling to crack and release the most exultant orange firelight, bending metal and wide sighs of dragon smoke, an inferno vortex that pulls us all into a tribal wheel of squeezing bodies, a galaxy party spinning in tight counterclockwise coils around the rising ghost, a crowd cyclone primally praising what we were all the way to heaven, crying tears of relief and cooking our faces in the heat of its dying light.
And here I am again, running hand in hand with my friend, weaving
through the whirlpool with kindergarten glee, washing in the innocence
of a new day, given in to astonishment and lost in absorption, eyes and
ears overflowing with celebration, newly confident that I can soon
write home to everyone who spent the weekend watching the Democratic National Convention and tell them our hope is NOT EVEN audacious. It’s plain
and obvious, natural and common as the earth or sky. And it’s here.
And it’s us. It’s a dream, all right, but dreams are borne from our
imagination, and imagination is our greatest natural resource. There
is more than enough to share.
[Post-script:] After Burning Man, after my two-week sojourn in San Francisco and before another big move, I returned to Boulder and spent my precious last days there sleeping on my friend Tristan’s couch, breathing as much Colorado air as possible. I told Tristan (who couldn't make it out this year) how fond I had become of wearing a skirt, of knowing we all had put aside our judgments and agreed to let each other present ourselves in whatever ways we were most comfortable.
He said he’d met a man who put it well: “At Burning Man, you are free to be who you actually are.” (But the all-important caveat:) “You might not SUCCEED, but you can certainly TRY.”
The night before I left, I noticed a book sitting on an old broken television in Tristan’s apartment: Hakim Bey’s T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (published 1985, one year before the first burn . I’d heard of it before but had never read it, picked it up out of curiosity and opened to this:
“The dérive or “drift” was conceived as an exercise in deliberate revolutionizing of everyday life – a sort of aimless wandering thru city streets, a visionary urban nomadism involving an openness to ‘culture as nature’ (if I grasp the idea correctly) – which by its sheer duration would inculcate in the drifters a propensity to experience the marvelous; not always in its beneficent form perhaps, but hopefully always productive of insight – whether thru architecture, the erotic, adventure, drink & drugs, danger, inspiration, whatever – into the intensity of unmediated perception & experience.
“The parallel term in sufism would be ‘journeying to the far horizons’ or simply ‘journeying,’ a spiritual exercise which combines the urban & nomadic energies of Islam into a single trajectory, sometimes called ‘the Caravan of Summer.’ The dervish vows to travel at a certain velocity, perhaps spending no more than 7 nights or 40 nights in one city, accepting whatever comes, moving wherever signs & coincidences or simply whims may lead, heading from power-spot to power-spot, conscious of ‘sacred geography,’ of itinerary as meaning, of topology as symbology.”
“Art project: the construction of a ‘map’ bearing a 1:1 ratio to the ‘territory’ explored.”
Once again, I have mistaken the party for a parade.