V: Loss & Suffering in Black Rock City

Box Camp balcony
sunrise

Black Rock City is in the midst of its major construction phase and it’s building into what seems to be a post-apocalyptic Disneyland for the dedicatedly strange, mystic, and wyrd. Flooding into the city are people from all around the world—people who made this tremendous pilgrimage to the playa to watch a huge effigy burn. Obviously, Burning Man’s emphasis on building a social community factors in drawing people in, but what else is out here that people find so attractive?

These last few days have been an emotional rollercoaster and I am still having trouble adjusting and it’s been painfully obvious how often I’m forgetting to breathe. I am keeping a low profile today, getting my mind and body prepared to work my first shift tomorrow at a Box Office window—a midnight-to-six graveyard. Do I want to be here? Do I even want this? Shit, what do I want?

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After uprooting myself from two cities and living a transient lifestyle for long enough to feel like a stranger everywhere, I’ve taken to seriously enjoy talking with random folks at bars and cafes to fill the need to be with people. Part of my reasoning for being out here was to find my people. Thankfully, Burning Man has people aplenty.

I have an uncanny ability to connect with people I meet. I tend to be open and revealing rather quickly, and so I tend to receive this kind of communication in return. Some of my most treasured moments have come from sitting down alone at a bar and having a random stranger make their way over and leap right into a conversation with me, as if they knew me from a previous lifetime. Making these kinds of connections is deeply cathartic. It’s happened to me in Santa Barbara with a woman who proclaimed her self a hedge-witch—somehow we got on subject of magic within the first minutes of conversation. On the streets of Dumfries, Scotland I fell in with a group of the karaoke regulars who explicitly told me to refer to them as “loveable cunts”. I stayed out with them until 4am. I told them a name that wasn’t mine. Someone stole my hat.

The long standing friendships of my youth are firmly past. They developed in a time where we all lived in the same zip code, before we had smartphones, and when we played video games with each other on the couch.

My new scene is sitting alone in bars and cafes and meeting interesting people from all over the world. Through doing this I’ve had a lot of time to contemplate what I can only describe as the #socialmediablues. These days I can’t help but feel depressed whenever I look at the news or instagram or literally anything from the internet. I’m constantly filled with an anxious dread that humanity is at the end of its existence—that we are at the brink of ushering in a new mass extinction. I don’t know how to process living in a world that is clearly and unshakably doomed and as a result I am gripped with a real and terrible fear that we are living in the end times. So, when facing the general public, I fake it and pretend that everything is fine.

Doing this every day, really, burns me out. I’m not an effortlessly happy person. Darkness will crack through the facade of my persona and it shows up on the surface of the day-to-day mask I wear, when the depression wanes enough where I have the strength to get out of bed and put on the mask. While I’m sure it’s refreshing to listen to a doomsinger spin a tail about how fucked humanity is once in a while, the trouble I have is that I can’t quite adjust the flow on the valve. It’s either all or nothing with me, and that kind of mindset tends to lead me to set a lot of figurative fires to figurative bridges.

I’m forced into introspection. Maybe I’ve needed to torch those old friends and ex-girlfriends in order to restart my own life and push me over that depressive hump. Maybe I live to build something up only to be the one who burns it down. Maybe that’s the loop I’m caught in now. Maybe, through my awful cycle of creation and destruction, I only want to know that I hurt someone because that way it must mean that I exist. It’s a shitty way to do it, but it is one way to feel like you mean something and that you’re being noticed.

Paradoxically enough, I never want anyone to see me when I’m the most me: catatonically depressed. What a disconnect: an unholy craving to be noticed that pushes directly against the psychotic urge to shove people away.

In many of my relationships with people, I stubbornly refuse to avoid suffering. I insist on making a sacrifice—less noble and more needless—and when I can endure no more of the self-inflicted suffering, I blow up with a complete emotional and physical meltdown. I must, even though I hate myself for it, enjoy the process of being miserable. I’ve ripped out hearts and created wakes of suffering. Where I, naked in bed after Sunday morning sex, dump them. Where I, through a text, tell them I don’t want them in my life anymore.

So, maybe that’s why I blew up my latest relationship at the end of an exhausting, week-long international trip. The frazzled, human husk I saw in the mirror in Mexico City was so disgusting and disappointing to witness, I had to write him out of this fantasy sitcom life he was living with a woman who loved him. He disappeared, and everyone attached to him fell away.

Maybe the character I was playing with her—a charming and well-read French-speaking jet-setter—couldn’t sustain the lie anymore. Where the energy to keep the mask on for her was greater than the energy I drew out of her. It was simply no longer economical to feed off of her, and I abandoned her in a huff in the baggage claim at LAX. We had a chance to talk on the plane—and over the course of living together—but instead, it was an icy five hours of sitting in airborne silence. She in the isle and me on the window with an empty seat between us. We exchanged not one single word the entire flight. A fatal flaw in our love for each other might have been our inability to communicate our deepest feelings to one another.

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Severe depression: Numbness in the extremities. A jarring disconnect from people and reality. Complete hopelessness and the disappearance of willpower.

I am not happy about where my life is currently, so here on the playa when genuine, beautiful people ask me about me, I shut down. I spin negative. I make my life sound horrible when I’m essentially retired in my mid-thirties, exactly where I need to be. I am struggling being positive when it seems like it should be so easy. I could be making friends here—real friends—but instead I’m pre-plotting how I can abandon them. I don’t know how much of this life I can live before I wash out completely.

From behind the mask, I bottle this emotion up and suffer alone from the inside out. It’s still early in the Burning Man event calendar and technically it hasn’t even started yet. So far, it feels like I have nothing to share with people but despair and sadness. Total emotional collapse at the slightest perceived transgression is very likely. Escape is an option I’ve been weighing heavily and it wouldn’t take much for me to throw the bare essentials in the car and ghost out in the middle of the night. Hell, I’d abandon my whole tent if it meant I could sneak away without notice. All these new connections and new faces and new names to remember have overloaded me, and I feel depression because I lack a quiet space to occupy, and it’s generating an immense amount of that fight-or-flight panic. Sure, your heart is pounding inside your chest, but do they know that? Do you let them see the fear and paranoia inside you? Can they already sense it?

Maybe being alone is my greatest strength. I go to calm cafes by myself and relish in the simple joy of a hot matcha and a book. Maybe I don’t need a loving, inclusive community to support me. Maybe I’m good enough to be completely on my own. But to what end? This shared human experience needs producers and consumers—and what am I producing in this kind of self-defensive arrangement? Shit, what am I consuming?

There’s a pain in my heart, throat, and left arm. Great White has enough fuel to get me into a hot shower in two hours.

The stress is easily compounded by poor sleep and the noise of a growing dusty city. Plus there’s a lot of commotion from the social gathering of other campers. The quarters here are very tight, as I have one-foot buffer between me and the next tent. I am surrounded on eight cardinal points. Sound is not absorbed or reflected well by the thin fabric of my tent, and even though I brought ear plugs and had them somewhere within arm’s reach, I didn’t put them in. My excuse for not doing so was that I was tired, but I truthfully don’t know why I endured myself to suffer for nothing. Each one of the day’s scenes—normal interactions with people, twisted by my own darkness and negativity—is replaying in my head all at once as I take some time to rest and prepare for the night shift.

Box Office Window 2
one hour after midnight

The first hour of night shift in the Box Office passes smoothly enough. People from all over the globe come to this place for one week, and I am here, the first person to greet them. “Welcome to Black Rock City,” I say with beaming a smile, and in return I am treated to winks, smiles, hand holding, and the occasional jubilant shout as I hand them their coveted Burning Man ticket. Every person I met at my window was generally nice in spite of the long ordeal of travelling, road fatigue, prolonged idling in an excessively long line on the Gate Road. Waiting for the ticketing system to pull up information and print receipts is a perfect window for small talk, and when I raise the question, “how was your trip?” the people I meet at the window are so eager to be here, they will gush their stories, excited that someone will listen.  

I’m enjoying each interaction I’ve had with these travelers, eye contact has been amazing. It seems the random sampling of Burners who I met at the ticket window have a caring capacity that exceeds the average person outside the playa. Burner after burner flowed through the gates well into the wee hours of the night, when the line was slow at the very end of my shift, I got my very first “short story” from a woman on her 17th Burn.

She gave me an excruciating detailed report of her journey. Every turn, every misstep, every vista, and every bathroom break. She compared it to years past. She was clearly excited to be back on the playa, but somehow through the retelling I got the sense that she was almost numb to it. After 17 years, she had seen it all. She had a story for each year she had travelled out here—I have to wonder what her stories are of her experience during the actual event. She continued to talk while I changed out my register drawer, gathered up my belongings, and as far as I know, right on through into the next shift.

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2:30 & E
sunrise

Exploring the growing town is a fascinating experience. This place will be a complete zoo in just a few day’s time. I was recently informed that people don’t come to Burning Man to find anything, they come here to lose something. Loss can be a cathartic process. I don’t handle loss well.

I spoke it out loud to myself while biking through a new part of the city, taking in the impressive amount of work going into each and every one of the individual theme camps. After finishing my first shift and staying awake to catch the sunrise over the chilly, quiet city, it was easy to pretend that I had just woken up as normal and started the day at 6. There’s something about being awake enough to watch a rising orange sun that just feels incredibly natural. I wish I had a more profound description than that.

At this point I’m sober and well hydrated, bumbling down the radial streets on a salmon red cruiser bike Box Camp had as a spare. I knew I was bike deficient on the way out here, and I was glad the camp could provide. Biking around playa is the only way to travel. There is a lot of ground to cover within that trash fence boundary that contains the city and most of the time it’s an effortless pedal to get around, where otherwise it’d be a long walk.

The bike ride is therapy. I know that I simply must have quiet, contemplative alone time in order to be my best self all the time. Whenever I sit down somewhere, I have a feeling stirring within me as if I were on the lamb from the law. As if I’ll be captured by anyone at any moment and interrogated. I’m constantly on the edge of a panic attack because I can’t find that safe little corner where I can sit down in the shade and steal away to do some writing. To quietly read a book. Hell, to sit quietly and count breaths. I fear judgement for these things and, so far, when I’ve tried being alone in a space such as the Lounge, a crowd forms around me—for better or for worse.

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There was a death last year when the man burned. He was 41, he was sober, and he “spoke of end of life during the festival.” It was his first time here. His friend described him as helpful and magical. He had to run through a line of volunteers acting as a living wall. He had to plunge into flames. He chose to die.

I can never comprehend what he went through to get to that point. No one will know what drove this man to suicide, but it’s something worth talking about.

From the RGJ story, it sounded like Aaron Joel Mitchell was a happy, fun loving man. He met his wife while backpacking through Nepal, and they lived together in Switzerland. From an outsider looking in, that kind of life sounds like a dream come true. What was his intent when he made his run toward the flame? What pushes people to put their toes over the edge? Why do some merely flirt with doom and others dive head first into it?

I wish I could say Burning Man is a fantasy camp and a 24 hour party. But it isn’t. It can be heavy. It can be emotional. It can expose you to unexpected things and reveal more of you to you than you’d ever expect. Maybe Aaron knew all along this would be how he leaves this world, and in the meantime he calmly spread joy and light wherever he went with whomever he met. My heart goes out to the people who survived him, sympathizing with the pain of trying to understand why someone so apparently happy would end their own life.

It is just a mystery.

city outskirts
nightfall

Burning Man is a ritual performed every last week in August. The structures themselves are built and burnt over the course of the month, with elaborate wooden constructions now springing up all over the city. Experienced Burners come prepared with artifacts and memorials to sacrifice in the hallowed grounds of The Temple.

I’ve had trouble interacting with people lately and I feel like I’ve been a drag in social situations. I came here to reboot, so; reboot, robot. Get your shit together and figure it out. Go see a shaman. Peer into the future and get a tarot reading done. Infuse a quartz stone with your infinite sorrow and burn it in a huge funeral pyre dedicated to the deceased.

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A horrendous dust storm passes through the basin and dislodges anything unsecured and sends it a mile away into the trash fence. I hunker down in Great White while I check my phone. It’s been in airplane mode for 120 hours. I wonder who in the outside world has tried to contact me? Maybe nobody.

I don’t currently keep good contact with any of my friends. I’ve purged my presence from Facebook long ago, deleted my Twitter, and I’ve put Instagram on hiatus. To me they feel like endless vortexes of sadness and despair where people constantly try to outdo one another in a pointless game of one-upmanship. Social media has completely distorted how I act and appear to others, and I’ve gone numb to its constant barrage of content, instantly validated (or not) with pink hearts all in a vain hope to fuel one’s own ego.

I send and receive about a dozen texts per month and every time I text a thought to someone I have a feeling of emptiness that I don’t know what I’m doing or saying, or why I’m doing or saying it, or that I’m saying or doing the wrong thing. It makes the desire to communicate die away and instead the heart-piercing feeling of loneliness replaces it. I’ve lost my identity, slowly, and by degrees, and I have no idea where to look to gain it back.

I remember the girls who have told me they loved me. I think beyond the most recent relationship I chose to end and to all past relationships I chose to end. I’m wracked with guilt and feel sick. Am I incapable of having fun? Of letting go? Loving? Lack of happiness is what seems to define me, so, why not enjoy it? Maybe I enjoy dusting myself in the ashes of the bridges I’ve burned, one after another after another. Maybe I’ll finally run out of hearts to break. Maybe I’ll finally get to live on an island with myself and learn how to be happy being the only other person there. Maybe the sun will set on all my shitty, selfish, childish behaviours and I can abandon them here, in Black Rock City, to burn. Yes, maybe a ritual sacrifice is in order. I haven’t started any fires. Yet.

A duster continues to kick up a moving wall of fine brown sand and I stay hunkered in the Great White overnight, sealed into shelter on this inhospitable playa desert.

Box Camp
late morning

I stumble out of the Great White, groggy from sleeping in the driver’s bucket seat. I was still stunned and reeling from the immense feelings of grief and loss that weighed on me overnight, and in that moment I did not have any of my shit together. From a distance of 40 feet, dressed in her shimmering emerald dress, Nimbus watches me fumble around while I tap and double tap each pocket on my shirt, shorts, and bag.

“Didja lose something?” Nimbus asks me with a melodic perkiness in her voice.

I am shocked to see her this morning and even more shocked to see her able to read my thoughts.  I swallow hard, and I approach the woman to greet her.

“Good morning,” she said, eyes flashing and teeth an immaculate pearlescent white, “how are you holding up?”

“I, uh, can’t find my keys.” I tried to pretend that she couldn’t read my thoughts.

“I could tell you lost something.” She smirked right through the entirety of the sentence.

I wanted to ask her, deadpan, if she could read minds, but I decide against it. Anyway, if it were true I wouldn’t need to ask. We exchange pleasantries and check in with each other using simple words exposed in the broad bright light of the morning.

I can tell that she gets it. She empathizes. She’s seen enough volunteers come and go through the Box Camp and she’s been out here enough over the years to know what kind of intensity lives in Black Rock City. She’s gone through her own personal loss and suffering as well, and she’s here and present and stronger for it.

As the conversation progresses, I can feel raw emotion welling up inside me, and I have a moment where I feel like a collapsing building. I ask for a hug. We embrace, and while hidden from onlookers, I weep. At this moment: covered in grime, lovesick, homesick, and just generally feeling like an empty husk, crying on this woman’s shoulder feels like taking a hot steam bath. I’m dirty and tired and this downpour of a sob sesh comes as a great relief against the desert elements that continue to test my emotional and physical survival abilities. I turn my guts inside out with each breath as I force all the rotten air out of the bottom of my lungs. A good cry feels like throwing up. And it feels good to purge, especially if you have someone holding you—or even being near—while you do it. Having a cry is a fairly new thing for me. Years of passive gender training and listening to The Cure have squashed the urges to cry, instead, I typically would swallow that hard lump in my throat and let it sit in my gut like a hot coal. I never knew what to do with this emotion when it strikes, but letting this sadness rip through me is hugely charthatic.

With a sniffle and a smile, I leave her embrace and return to my own two feet. I touch the hidden pocket I had on the butt of my chinos.

“I found my keys.”

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