This week I returned from the playa! AKA the Black Rock Desert, home of Black Rock City and the magical yearly event known as Burning Man. This was my first full Burning Man, and my second “burn” of sorts if you include the grassroots-organized Renegade Burn of 2021.
I’m feeling, fittingly, burned. As though some loose pieces of me came to an ending, transformed into a charred ground that is ripe for new life. I feel strengthened, focused. I hear the hollow echo of a firestorm ringing out inside of me… and feel at peace with the emptiness that follows in its wake.
The Element of Fire
Now I get why they call it Burning Man. Besides the man-burn itself, fire was everywhere, and immediately noticeable to me from our neighboring camp, which hosted an elephant-shaped art car that shot fire (loudly and gratuitously) out of its head and trunk.
My first reaction was to feel disgusted by the blatant burning of fossil fuels essentially just for shits-and-giggles. And that’s a feeling that never fully resolved in me during my time on the playa, though it did become more complicated when I had meaningful experiences interacting with fuel-driven fires.
Fire, though… independent of its fuel source… is incredibly wise. Despite my feelings of misalignment about what fueled a lot of the fire at Burning Man, I did spend a lot of my time on the playa mulling over this element, and the gifts that it offers us. It’s no accident that a festival celebrating fire is such a hub of awe-inspiring feats of creative expression. Fire is enlivening!
On Saturday night when the man burned, I felt a jolt of life blow through me unlike anything I’d felt before…. a visceral realization, that death is what breathes life into us. Something about knowing that there will be an end, ignites the creative spirit in me and makes me want to seize the day.
Do you know that every year thousands of people pour amazing amounts of time, energy, love… blood, sweat, and tears… into projects and experiences for Burning Man that will be completely ephemeral and transient? Some people devote all their creative energy into art pieces that will literally go up in flames at the end of the week… and something about that stokes the creative spirit itself, makes the art actually worth making. I would be willing to spend a lot of time out in that desert building art, just for the experience of doing it, of having the art be witnessed and experienced, and for the catharsis of letting it burn down.
In contrast, the “default world” that I know lives in fear of fire and death, and makes efforts to run away from that destructive force. We repeatedly choose slow death over fast death, in doing so, and starve ourselves of the creative life force that actually animates us and gives us purpose. I see this in our insurance policies, in our acceptance of long-term medication as an answer to pain, in art that is preserved in museums, even just in the concept of ownership. I feel a sense of widespread entitlement in my world, in the idea that when something is in my possession it is my right to have it forever. What a source of conflict this is… and how freeing it would be to fully embrace gifting and sharing without keeping score, and to love the fact that everything dies.
One of the 10 principles of Burning Man is gifting. The whole experience is created by acts of generosity. We bring what we have to share and offer, and we give it freely to each other. This is a stark contrast to the default world, which operates on transactions rather than gifts. In my normal life I think we waste a lot of energy trying to quantify the value of different materials and acts, and in doing so we tend to create systems that exploit rather than celebrate and protect.
The Gifting economy of Burning Man upholds that the value of a gift is unquantifiable. And for me, I’d argue this goes both ways, and that both the giving and receiving of “gifts” are acts that are deeply needed and nourishing to the spirit.
My lesson around gift giving was clear this year. I saw how badly I wanted to be an “equal contributor” to the burn, and my approach to doing that was to give and over-give. I tried to get my hands into as many projects as possible and always say “yes” to helping. The result was actually that I got burned out, that things I wanted to do got dropped, and that by the time I got to the playa, I was so depleted that I wasn’t even able to receive the multitude of gifts being offered to me there – it actually took me most of the week to find my balance and be able to really let it all in and enjoy it.
The lesson? First, from where I am now, it’s okay and actually more powerful and impactful to do less. I wish I would have picked one thing to give energy to, and prioritized being in a balanced place. I believe that for me, it takes a lot more discipline to say no and do less… and if I succeed in starting to do less in my life, I will make more room for magic and creativity to get involved. This goes way beyond Burning Man for me, although Burning Man helped shine a bright light on this pattern, which gives me an opportunity to change.
Over-giving is a sad pattern. I feel sad looking back on this week, because it almost feels like I wasn’t there. It feels like an event happened, and I was there but not a part of it. It’s a curious feeling, and I feel that it’s connected to my confused sense of my own place – in the world, in my camp, on the playa, as a human. Questions I was sitting in all week… what is my gift, here and in the world at large? How do I find the people who can receive my gift? Am I where I belong? Finding roles that feel true to who I am is at the front of my consciousness right now. That’s always been true and difficult for me in the default world, and I think I grabbed onto Burning Man as a way to start stepping into roles that I actually chose for myself. But even in that magical land, I found myself unsatisfied with the result of my offerings, and unclear what my offerings even were.
Does The World Need More Fire?
Yes, more reflections on fire. It got really hot out there. A sweltering heat wave, in the desert, with all kinds of art apparatuses shooting flames day and night, and art pieces built to be burnt… not to mention the fiery cacophony of sound and light relentlessly pounding from all directions. Burning Man reminded me a lot of my iboga (plant medicine) journeys, in that there was a level of intensity of experience that simply couldn’t be escaped. I had no choice, in moments when I desperately wanted calm and order, but to surrender to what was happening and stick it out.
There was beauty in that – and I felt that it built a kind of resiliency in me. But somehow I deluded myself that after the burn, the fire would end. I found myself looking forward to escaping the heat, to plunging in a cold pool of water upon exit from the event, to not having to deal with that level of chaos… and yet, after I left the desert I found myself in an even hotter environment, a sweltering late-summer California heatwave in Lake County. I learned that chaotic things had happened in the world while I was away, and that the world was still heating up physically and metaphorically. In other words, I had to accept that some level of that heat and chaos in the desert… wasn’t going away, maybe ever. That I’d been made resilient to something real… not just to some theatrical fantasy land out in the desert, but to the fact of a world that in some ways is going up in flames.
And I have mixed feelings about this. Is Burning Man making me more aware of the excess heat in this world… in a good way or in an exacerbating way? Is it throwing fuel into an already destructive state of fire? Is it strengthening me/us or throwing me/us more in the direction of heat and chaos? Both?
These are questions that are sitting in my heart right now, a heart that feels broken and burned, witnessing a world that feels broken and burned.
Creativity Might Be The Answer To Life’s Difficulties
I felt so much, out there. I just spoke to this feeling of heaviness in my heart, and honestly that’s something that I walked out there with, that I’ve been getting more in touch with in myself for months now. Sometimes it feels like my heart is broken, and like the world itself is in too sorry of a state to ever hope to be repaired. My heart carries that idea, somewhere deep down, and mourns. Softly cries. Gives up. Goes to sleep.
My own awakening and healing process has caused me to get curious about the state of my heart, and to be willing to be more honest about it. The truth is, I don’t think it’s okay – despite how normal it is – to live without true aliveness in our hearts. The heart is meant to be the epicenter of our human experience, and she has a lot to say about life, the world, relationships, ourselves. She’s meant to be listened to, and given ample space to animate the body with spirit.
Once during the week, my friend Kyle asked me “how’s your heart?” and I decided that I wanted to give him a real answer. I had to pause, say “I don’t know but I want to know”, and let myself really drop in, to find what was there. And honestly, what I found was a lot of sadness and brokenness. I broke down and cried to him that day. And that felt good and right – and I felt more alive afterwards.
Why am I talking about my heart’s pain in this section about creativity?
I walked with a broken heart and an over-spent, depleted spirit into an environment more filled with creative human expression than any other place I’d ever been. Every part of Black Rock City is a piece of art. All that creative expression just repeatedly pounded on my tired body until I started softening to it. And as I opened up, I became amazed at what I found. All this art… it actually feels like something worth living for.
Most of my life I’ve felt creatively unsatisfied, and insecure about my creative skills… yet on the playa I found myself wondering if I could ever help create one of those big art pieces. What would it take for me to be a bigger part of this? To spend more of my time in this life, in this kind of experience? Is there some dormant part of me that recognizes all this art as a part of my soul, that knows that life could be entirely dedicated to art if we were doing it right? I suspect my own creative spirit is the only part of me that can find any kind of answer to the pain my heart carries.
Sweet Bitch: My Playa Name Journey
I got a playa name at the burn. It’s “Sweet Bitch”, or “Sweet B” for those of you who don’t like saying “Bitch”.
“Bitch” is a provocative enough word that most people avoid it entirely. Which is probably fair, and a safe move, especially for men. But as a woman, I had a hell of a journey last week deciding to consciously cultivate my relationship with the word “Bitch”, and own it for myself, from a place of joy and self-empowerment.
A couple weeks ahead of the burn I was struck by an odd inspiration to make myself some playa outfits with words like “BITCH”, “CUNT”, and “SLUT” written on them in big letters – provocative, offensive words that historically have been applied maliciously to women. As a woman I think I have spent my life unconsciously avoid doing things that might earn me one of those negative labels. And in a way, that’s a shackle that restricts my movement and my power. I found myself wondering out of the blue what it would be like to say “fuck it”, and play with claiming and owning – even celebrating! – those labels?
I dropped the idea (because I was busy/stressed AF) until I got to the playa, but it came back to me of its own accord when my camp & I stumbled upon the idea for my new name. I suddenly remembered my desire to find and own my inner bitch, and I remembered my idea for altering some clothing. I had actually been gifted a hot pink crop top just before the burn that was perfect for the project, so I promptly wrote “BITCH” in all-cap, big black lettering on the front, and put it on.
It felt so right! ….. and yet, somehow, intimidating. I sat there, confused, in a puddle of insecurities. I found myself asking “What does it mean to be a bitch? … and am I even capable of doing that??” I tried to imagine intentionally saying “bitchy” things to others, and being okay with it. And at first, honestly, I couldn’t. I felt weak even thinking about it. But I wore that shirt around and let myself mull it over, and slowly my understanding of “Bitch” and myself shifted for the better.
Here’s what I came to, via others as well as my own developing internal wisdom.
A bitch is a woman who tells the truth.
A bitch is a woman who isn’t afraid to stand in her power.
A bitch is a woman who isn’t in people-pleasing mode.
A bitch is a woman who’s willing to prioritize herself and her own needs, no matter how it lands.
This is a slap in the face to the norm of women caretaking for everyone around them before themselves.
A bitch might be a caricature, and maybe I don’t want to be that all the time, but you know what? She’s got some things figured out that I have really struggled with in my life. She knows her own boundaries, for one, and isn’t afraid to tell you what she thinks or feels. I could use a dose of that.
And now, I have more of that Bitch energy in me. By the end of the burn, I made some direct and honest communications to men in my sphere that I needed to make. Two of them caused some emotional upset. One got worked through, and the other didn’t. And maybe for the first time in my life I’m perfectly okay with that. I actually could sing and dance for how good it feels to be able to directly speak my truth to a man!!
I would love for people (especially men, tbh) in my life to be able to receive my truth with strength, dignity, and humor – but that’s another topic. And now that I’m getting to know her, I can see how the Bitch can be a bit harsh. And people around me might not be used to that. So I do have compassion for the difficulty of receiving that energy from me, or from any other woman who’s historically been a people pleaser. But I’m not going to say sorry for telling the truth.
Even if “Bitch” isn’t ultimately where I’m going to land on my self-expression journey, she’s self-empowered and I’m glad to call her mine, for now. Thanks, “Sweet Bitch”. 🙂
Decompression: Back to the Default World… & Would I Do This Again?
This week was a slow readjustment to the “default world”. I was on the playa for 10 days, but really my life had been partially consumed by the fire of Burning Man for weeks leading up to the event. The level of preparatory effort I put into this experience might have rivaled my preparation for my full thru-hike of the PCT in 2016.
Which is absolutely insane.
A lot of that, I would say, was unskilled and kind of wasted effort. Some amount of “prep energy” was probably me just worrying about things and trying to control something that could never be controlled. I also put myself into roles I didn’t really understand, like “camp lead” for a small side-boob camp of my village. I stepped into that because I was really excited about the idea for the camp and wanted to commit to helping make it happen. But I didn’t really know where my role started and ended, and I second-guessed a lot of my own moves, which was really tiring.
Anyway… I’m honestly super happy that this burn cycle is over, so that I can drop the ways I was over-invested and let my life return to something like a normal balance.
That said, it’s also sad to come back to the default world. It took me a while to surrender to the burn experience, but once I got there… there was so much magic. So much freedom and generosity and realness. Boundaries from the default world around how we’re allowed to show up and interact with each other were just gone. Our normal roles and ages and jobs and social status – all gone. Cell phones, internet, social media, commerce, consumerism – gone.
As well, any expectation of comfort and normalcy was gone! Which was so freeing! After fighting to move through my own discomfort and find peace with the harsh conditions, I found myself surrounded by people going full-send on partying in a white-out desert dust storm in the middle of the night. I saw people not only tolerating those circumstance, but singing passionately into a microphone while the dust almost blew them over and a million other sounds rang out in ecstatic competition from all directions.
I hope I never forget those moments, filled with the spirit of creativity… of “why not try?”… of “even now, I say yes”.
So will I do this again?
I would happily say a wholehearted yes. I would also say “maybe not”. My misgivings about the environmental costs of Burning Man were present with me through the whole week. Plus, a lot of that magical gifting energy did just seem to be funneled into making bars for each other and partying, and that’s just not the vibe I’m cultivating in my life.
Maybe there’s a more aligned way for me to funnel some creative energy this year.
Time will tell.
I do want to step more into my inner Creative and let that guide me where it wants to go. Burning Man showed me that the creative human spirit is somehow still alive and well. That community lives wherever life is truly flowing. That we are built to be generous. And that any crazy idea could be given shape and an audience, even if just for a week out in the desert… and it might just be enough to change your life.
Thanks for reading!