Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Deep in the Playa at Burning Man there is a temple.

It is a spectacular structure, made out of wood.  The carvings are intricate, elaborate, beautiful.  The energy of the place is heavy, very heavy.  It's a place where people put their hopes and dreams, their sorrows and losses.  Photos of loved ones.  A loved dogs favorite frisbee.  Notes of loss, notes of sorrow, notes of anger, notes of love love and love.

And on Sunday night, everything burns.

It's easy to dismiss this place as just some hippie mojo bullshit in the desert.  It's easy to think it doesn't actually contain anything special or anything powerful.  It's temporary.  It's nothing...

...but to dismiss this place would dismiss something amazing.

People talked about the temple before I went.  My roommate Brian says it's his favorite place on the Playa.  A friend in my camp said "If you want to get to the 'spiritual' side of Burning Man, goto the temple".  Now, I'm not a big fan of the overused "spiritual" (no offense Sam) that is tossed around a lot.  Living in California, especially, I meet a lot of people that are "Spiritual, but not religious".  It's nebulous, and really seems to mean different things to different people.  Some folks think there is a proper way to be spiritual (and those folks are hypocritical in the same way extreme Christian's or Muslim's are in thinking there's is the only way to worship or to pray or whatever...but that's a discussion for another time :). 

The temple of Juno (as it's called) is not one of those places where there is a right way to be.  Just be.  And it changes every year.  Dramatically.  Completely.   This temple will never exist again. 


My first trip out there was on Thursday.  There was so many things to see at Burning Man, I think I was building up to it.  Or maybe I didn't think it would be such a big deal.  The temple is a beautiful piece of art, but is it really anything other than that?

All I can do is tell you my experiences.

When I walked through the surrounding outer wall for the first time I was so overwhelmed with sorrow, tears welled up in my eyes.  It was like I'd jumped into a swimming pool of...something.  Whereas most places in Burning Man are filled with noise, music, laughter, talking.  There' s a hush over the temple.  A respect?  A fear to let loose the emotions we're feeling?  If the stories are true, the first temple was built by the artist the year his father died.  If that's true, then my impression of it being a temple of death makes sense.

Inside the main building people were sitting, kneeling.  One woman was reading a poem, and when she finished people clapped.  Then it was just silent for awhile.  Another woman burst out in tears and her friend held her. 
Crowds gather day and night.  Altering the temple as the week goes on.

I looked to the walls, and there were notes and photos.  Right next to me was a note to someones Mom, missing her, loving her.  I had to step out into the courtyard.

As many of you know, my Mom died of brain cancer in 2001.  She fought for a year, but in the end, death took her.  As it will take us all someday.  If you don't know that about my mom, then you don't know me at all.  It's the single most significant event in my life.  It sucks.  I hate that it happened, but it's also brought out many of my best traits, and my Mom's always with me, and for that I am ever grateful, and even right now I puts a smile on my face through the tears.   (And me being me, I made a movie about my Mom's struggle.  I'm sure a lot of you have had similar experiences, so I warn you it's a challenge to watch.  But if you do take the time to go to the link below, it's 88 minutes, please let me know your thoughts:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUKlXDGq3QI).

Out in the courtyard I watched people come and go...and watched a wedding!

Even though my main impression of the temple is a temple of Death, it seems it's also a temple of life.  The amount of messages and expressions of sorrow at losing people (or is it just that I feel sorrow at losing my Mom and others are expressing joy, and happiness?).  I see sorrow.  Death sucks.

So as these two people expressed their love for each other (anyone can walk up and join the audience, particiapation is encouraged), I was looking for a place to write a note to my Mom.  I wanted to write something, anything, I wasn't sure what.  And there, written on an outer pillar on the temple was one word, that overwhelmed me.  One word, with a little heart under it.  My Mom's name.  JANE.

The Playa provides.
Hi Mom!
Hi Mom!

I did write my note to her, right there around something someone else had written.  (That note is for me only).  I don't know the story of their Jane.  I'll never know who wrote it.  But as things happen at Burning Man, their expression mixed with my emotions and my expression.  I hope their Jane and my Jane are dancing a jig right now.

The thought of all of this burning kept choking me up, and eventually I had to leave. 

On the way out, I saw folks taking wet gate photos (the technology from Civil War times), and got that great picture of me in front of the temple.  The temple is a cool place, and not at all something I would expect out here at Burning Man.  (Now it makes total sense, but before I went, the idea of the temple was cool, but really?  Is it as cool as people say?)

So after grabbing a shot of Jesus carrying the Cross through the Playa (yep, that happened), I was off to dinner and out and about for the night.  Drinking, dancing.  Fun to be had.

Even Jesus goes to Burning Man!

But that night I went back to the temple. 
People had said it was different at night.  The energy was different.
So I went in.  It's lit up.  Beautiful.
And still filled with sorrow.
I went and sat by my note to Mom.  I listened and watched some folks inside.  It was nice to be there, and again, not what I figured I'd be doing at night.  It was much heavier than I anticipated.  I was exhausted from the day, and eventually just rode my rickety community bike deep into the playa, laid on the dirt and stared at the moon and stars.  We are indeed very small pieces of this giant puzzle of a universe.


Friday I avoided the temple.  It's pretty far out, and without a bike takes a long time to get to.  And frankly, I didn't want to go there today.

Now one of the great things about Burning Man is the potential to connect with so many interesting things.  But the reality is that it can be hard to do.  I was solo a lot of my times at Burning Man, and though I met cool folks, it was rare to really hang with anyone for very long.  So it was great that on Saturday that Brian and I finally got to really hang out and explore.  We rode bikes past art, took photos, picked up the temple pic, lost my camera, found my camera, got caught in dust storms, explored wall street, spun the wheel of fate, hung out on this shiney, spinning couch /disco thing (yep, some things at Burning Man are hard to describe!), and eventually made it to the temple.

Again.  Sorrow.  Heavy energy. 

Before we went in, we got some great pics taken together.  Nice to have good pictures of good times with good friends.
Me and Brian - Thanks for bringing me to Burning Man!

But inside, it was heavy.  I wanted to show Brian the note to Mom.  Her name.  I wanted to somehow make him understand what was going on.  So I explained how I came over here and found this pillar and there was her name.  And then I just cried.  He gave me a long hug. 

And then a New Orleans style second line jazz group marched in for a wedding!  (Go Burning Man!)  They lined up, and the guy running it asked everyone to grab people next to them and tell them what they appreciated about them.  People trio-d off, and I was there by myself.  (The paradox of Burning Man).  Eventually Brian and I met up and talked.  And I can tell you, it's really great to just look at someone in your life and tell them you appreciate them.  And why.  I think too often in life we hold our feelings in check, either for fear of being hurt, or made fun of, or of being "inappropriate".  Who the heck decided we have to hide our feelings in life?  That's a stupid rule.

Off we ride.  This is Saturday.  Night of the Burn (See previous entry).  Chaos.  fun.  Awesomeness.

After the burn, I rode art cars, I saw Wall Street Burn...and there in the distance.  The temple.
Tomorrow it burns.  All of it.  The thought of that was so overwealming to me.  It's hard to describe, and I don't know if other people feel it the same way, but every time I would say to myself "This all burns", I would get choked up. 

So I went back one last time.  (They close it at 8am so they can set the charges for the night time burn).  It was 2:30am by this point.  It was getting cold.  Again, I walk in.  Again, I'm overwhelmed.  And I'm thinking, "Man, this is going to be too much tomorrow when it burns, way too much".  I went, I sat, I cried.  A lot.  I haven't cried this much in years.  Too many years.  The earlier tears I would fight, I wouldn't let totally go.  But tonight, it's too much.  I sit and cry and miss my Mom and it sucks.  All I want is some fucking connection here, someone to give me a hug, and people just walk by (in their own thoughts, joys, sorrows, contemplations).   I would look at people, hoping they would see me and come to me and hold me.  I didn't care who they were.  Someone see me. 

Eventually I went to the entrance of the main building and stood there.  A woman with a fuzzy coat walked past me, I reached out and petted her coat to get her attention.  She looked at me, reached out and hugged me.  I proceeded to cry and snot all over her coat.

After a few minutes I felt better. 
"I'm sorry I snotted on your coat".

She said a few kind words and suggested I go inside, and then she walked off.  I don't know her name.  But thanks for the shoulder to cry on.

I stayed a little longer, before taking off.  I was cold, hungry, worn out, wrung out and just plain beat.  As I walked away I looked back and thought "Tomorrow, it all burns." 

The next day I adventured a bit in the morning, and ended up seeing the Playa Chior.  Full on, huge choir show in the old Thunderdome.  It was amazing music, super uplifting and fun.  The choir director at one point spoke about the connection to "the infinite, the universe, God, Allah, whatever you want to call it, it's all the same shit".  Amen sister.

She also spoke of transforming emo0tions (you might remember the Judgement revelation from the first email).  Hey, it all comes full circle!

I mostly spent the day at camp.  I was exhausted from an amazing, awesome week.  Both of exciting new things, and sorrows.  Hot and cold.  Dust, rain.  And the fact that tonight the temple burns and I don't know how that's going to affect me.  The whole thing.   So I sat in my car with the AC on and napped.  Take that nature! :) 

As the sun set, an amazing milky twilight set over the world.
I found a community bike and rode out into the Playa. Past the temple into the other world.  (No, I wasn't high).  It was so cool, the temp perfect.  Because of the dust in the air, everything seemed like it was under water.  So beautiful.  My bike chain broke on the ride back to the Temple.  Crap.  So I walked the bike and chain to the perimeter and sat down facing the corner of the temple where Mom's note is.

All day long I had been hoping for a connection.  Again, something more than just a party conversation.  Something deeper.  Just, please Playa, send me someone, anyone.

Waiting for the burn...

As darkness was approaching, the lights began to glow.  Some music played from art cars, but it's much more chill and subdued on Sunday.  The temple isn't just a party, it's more than that (I'm sure you've figured that out by now. :).  So I'm in the front, unobstructed view, snapping photos, and this girl walks up and says
"Is anyone sitting here"
"You are".

She sits down and we chat.  It's her first burn too.  We share some warm PBR's she brought.  I bust out a Lara Bar for both.  She tells me of her experiences, how she imagines it would be different if her boyfriend were there or she was single.  How sleeping in a dubstep camp 20 feet from a bank of sub woofers that shake the ground and vibrate the sand isn't very easy.  I warned her that I might lose my shit when this thing starts to burn and I might need to lean on her.  She said that was fine, she might do the same thing.  
"Did you write a note to anyone in there?", I ask.
"Kind of.  Not really to anyone, but a note."

The time comes.
Silence over the crowd.  (mostly).  They start the fire.
And it's beautiful.
Mom's pillar goes up first.  It's a blaze before any of the rest of it is.
As my Mom was. :)

And as a brace myself for the sorrow...the sorrow never comes.
I don't cry.
I don't shed a single tear.
Maybe it's because I cried it all out already.
Or maybe it's something different.
Maybe my sorrow is what burned up with temple.
I've felt it for so long, and it's so strange, but it's gone.
Sadness, sure.  I still miss my Mom.
But sorrow.  No.

Magic?  God?  The Universe?  Energy?  Emotion?  Love?

As happens in life, the emotions I think I'll feel in a given circumstance, are often times not the ones I do.

After the main structure collapsed, and the outer wall continued to burn, my new friend and I started talking again.
"I guess I didn't need the shoulder.  But thanks" I said.
"Me either."

I told her about the note to my Mom.  How she died of cancer 11 years ago.
"Mine too.  Three years ago.  What kind?"  she said.
"Brain tumor"
"Mine too"
"And that's why you sat down next to me".

I gave her a hug.  I held her a little while.  She cried a touch.  She told me how it sucks, sucks, sucks everyday.  I told her it does.  That I miss my mom every day.  But, and this feels cheesy to say, it will get better.  I remember when I was where she was at.  When I couldn't accept that my Mom had died.  That I was pissed off all the time.  But then came the year that I accepted that she died, that was 2006.  And now I watched my sorrow burn and float up into the sky...6 years later. 

"I know it sucks, but I promise you it will get better."
"I hope so"
"It will".

When the perimeter came down, we went into the temple.  You could go through the fire remains of the walls and into the courtyard.  It's amazing how all these things fall perfectly in their footprints.  It's spectacular to be inside a temple of fire.  Where else is this possible?

We snapped some pics, swapped emails (If you're reading this, I hope you are well), and then went our separate ways, as happens at Burning Man.

There are times in my life where I connect with people about death.  If you've lost someone dear, you know what it feels like to be in the club.   If you haven't, unfortunately someday you will.  I wish I could make that not true, but unless we go all mad scientist, that is life.  That is death.  It was cool to me, that for the first time, really, I was the caregiver.  I wasn't the one seeking support, or comfort.  I was the one giving it without the need for the support to be reciprocated.  I don't know if it meant as much to her as I hope it did, but I didn't do it for anything in return. 

Burning Man is about gifting.

And it gave me an unexpected, incredible gift.

This is Craig Ouellette,
Last surviving member of the Nostromo,
Signing off.

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