Every year at the end of August a temporary city pops up on the alkaline sand in the middle of Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Folks trek across the country, some from other corners of the world, to participate in its creation. The population numbers vary, but in recent years it's been in the range of 48,000 - 60,000. With planned infrastructure and unplanned whimsy, this is not so much a festival as an alternate reality. The weather is harsh. The stars are brilliant. Time of day is measured by the sun and moon. Time of week is marked by large installation artworks being set on fire.
Back in my East Coast days I'd sometimes hear mention of Burning Man. Maybe the word's spread, maybe it's the advent of Facebook, or maybe it's just because I live on the West Coast now, but it seems pretty much everyone knows a thing or two about it. That said, if you want to know more you can read more about it here or here or here. Or, if you want to just know about the ticket fiasco that happened this year, you can read about that here or here or, for a summary and also an excellent lesson in public relations, here.
I've only been once, and had ambivalent feelings about it. I was giddy in love with Darby and we celebrated our 1st year anniversary there. We stumbled into circuses, live music, strange art, inspiring people. It was our first week-long vacation together and I wanted to be perfect. I wasn't perfect. The last two days I had a headache from the almost-constant dust storms. It was exhausting. It was an adventure. I was in grief.
Planning for a week on a different planet -- that is what it feels like -- takes some forethought. When we decided to go again this year we also began looking forward to the summer months of creative preparation. In this Year Of The List I jotted down some Burning Man intentions:
#36 - Contradance at Burning Man
#38 - Drink a beer at a Burning Man theme camp
#52 - Give gifts of food at Burning Man (cook pancakes on the ashes?) (vegan s'mores from our bike baskets?) (middle of the night vegan hot dog stand?)
I suppose everyone has their reasons for wanting to take a journey into the desert. There were many reasons for me, but this year the two biggest were:
#85 - Go away for a week with Darby
And, to go back to the Temple.
Burning Man is bigger than a song, it's like a symphony. It is built, thrives, and then is burned to the ground. Ashes to ashes, desert to desert. It is like life, only smaller, so you can see the whole picture, or at least a whole picture. For everyone it's different, but it is always temporary. Like music. Like life.
The Temple looks different every year. I suspect, however, that the feeling around it is generally the same. It is a sanctuary, it's a wedding chapel, it's a wailing wall, it's a grave stone. The walls are filled with love, release, anguish, and hope. There are Sharpie marker dedications to lost loves painted on the walls. There are angry notes folded into cracks. There are witnesses and wedding vows. There are platitudes. There's a hush in the air, a respect for the grieving. And then, like so many of the other structures built for Burning Man, on the last night of the week, the Temple is released in flames and ash into the desert night.
That last cold night of our first Burning Man together, I huddled with Darby as the Temple ignited. For the first time that week, everything was silent. 53,000 people stood in a wide circle around the Temple, and you could hear the flames. With the love and loss that had been graffitied on the Temple walls all week, I released my own well of sorrow that had been building for some time. The columns of smoke swirled into the night like souls being released. Tears ran down my face and my stomach tightened. I felt the baby that I had long dreamed about finally release into the dust and stars of Black Rock Desert. I was never going to have a child of my own, I had known that for awhile. But as I stood there in the dark with the man I knew to be my soulmate, I sobbed in grief. The man I loved was the best father I could imagine, and he already had two wonderful, beautiful, fabulous girls. I knew we wouldn't be having another. That night in the desert I buried the baby I would never have.
A week later, back in Los Angeles, I still felt shell shocked. I walked around numb, and then drove out alone to Joshua Tree -- a different desert, with different people. There I spent a quiet few days amid the celebration of a music festival my band was performing in. While I was there I reached out to a friend who had lost her father. How could I grieve for something I never had? She helped teach me how to mourn. I reached out to another friend who had never had children. How did she release her desire? She helped me find peace. When I got home, I reached out to Darby, my sweet man who I know wishes he could fix any sadness I have, but who I knew couldn't fix this. I learned how to ask him to hold me in sadness, without trying to fix anything, and let it work its way out. It took a long, very long, time, but eventually it did.
About ten months later, Darby and I moved in together and started creating a home. Now I have kids every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. There are school events. There are camping trips. There are holidays and hard questions. There are sick days and cranky days and happy days and goofy days. Little by little I am learning how many ways there are to be a mother.
Someone told me once that in Sweden a step-mom is called a "bonus mom". It doesn't resonate with me. I was never one for extra credit, I never cared for add-ons. The fairy tales all show step-moms as wicked and unfair. That is not the story I carry in my heart. I have no template for how to do what I do, how to be what we call "a step-mom". From my own fragmented upbringing, in a way this is a blessing. I cannot turn into the models I had, because I never had this model.
Well, this is Burning Man week. We tried to get tickets several times earlier this year, but after a few months of frustration we decided to let it go. The ticket fiasco complicated our plans, and although many available tickets popped up recently, we'd already let our desire to go slip away. Over the months of the fiasco evolution I rewrote The List, nixing Burning Man for the year. We are here in LA.
This weekend is the anniversary of our first date -- the most wonderful first date in the history of humankind -- so instead of the desert we're heading to a little cottage on the beach to celebrate. We will ride our bikes along the boardwalk, hunt for seaglass, toast over cocktails. My sweet man and I will write our love and our hopes in the sand, and release them to the Pacific tide.