Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.
by Shannon Kennedy
Driving down the two-lane gravel road headed towards Black Rock City, I can see from my rearview mirror the last drops of civilization wither in the blistering sun. It would be a week before I would see another gas station, restaurant, or grocery store.
I cannot say for certain why I am here. I am privy to the emotional and physical challenges and yet I arrive reckless, my tank drained to the point of reserve. I have never been attracted to the austerity of the desert, preferring the soothing gesture of the ocean’s sway; and it’s been quite some time since I’ve craved laughter, instead of recoiling into restless isolation. Truth be told, I’m not sure I signed up with the intention of achieving. I wonder instead if, exposed to such harshness, I would simply perish, dejectedly dissolve into the barrenness of this region.
Silently I greet the outbreak of eccentric apparitions that now surround me. It is clear that I am not the norm here. Feeling lost and dejected, I walk in silence, alone with my thoughts and thousands of miles from home. It is the first time I remember feeling like a social outcast. I visualize my indifference flashing with the intensity of an emergency vehicles rooftop mounted strobe light, warning onlookers of my obvious nonconformity. Did Kerry feel this way, I wonder? In his writings he described himself as an ogre – trapped in a world ruled by insecurity, living with the never-ending fear that someone would discover the bruises buried deep inside.
Hard work and creative minds transform self-pitched tents and you-hauled trailers into hedonistic theme camps brimming with gaiety. If I don’t hurry, I won’t get my tent pitched before night fall, I think. I have never pitched a tent before, nor have I gone a day without indoor plumbing or a blow dryer. Sandwiched between thousands of happy campers, I am the only one not smiling.
On day two, with my flask full of water and my skin slathered in sunscreen, I jump on my bike and head to the farthest point of the playa. Wind-pitched sand stings my skin and my mind races on. Faster and faster I pedal, envisioning what would happen if I never came back. Would the clean up crew simply donate my belongings, return the rented SUV and notify my family?
Lofty pillars, balancing two lanterns each, line the pathway that leads to David Best’s Temple of Honor. A massive fortress constructed of calm swelling domes, spears and cones, resting on a square wood casing, forming an image similar to that of the Taj Mahal. Intricate black and white mystical illustrations illuminated the temple, accentuating its grandeur and holiness.
Inside the temple, I slowly survey the array of commemorations loved ones left behind. Beside a portrait of Buddha dangles a green monkey tagged with a red heart. A shabby stuffed toy that, like the Velveteen Rabbit, looks as though he was loved real. Above it a sticker reads, “Believe in the Power of Monkeys.” The sight of this spawns memories of my son’s childhood and I smiled, recalling how our pet bird used to eat an exotic prepackaged food that was labeled “Monkey Chow.” For whatever reason, these two words together always made us laugh. Over and over again, Kerry and I would compete for the best rendition of “Monkey Chow.” I have since turned this into a game for Kerry’s young son Jackson, and it too makes him roar with laughter. It begins with a bulging-eyed stare as I slowly declare, “I AM SO HUNGRY,” pausing to watch his wide-eyed reaction, “I’M GONNA GET ME SOME,” and in my deepest roar, “MMMONKEY CHHHOW!!!!!” And then I eat his belly. This belly eating business is quite ticklish and when you’re two years old, the sillier the better.
It is the first time since my son’s death that a reminiscence of him brings me a smile.
“Live and Burn” was one of Kerry’s mottos. Experiencing Burning Man was one of his desires. The Temple of Honor would give me a place to grieve, a place to pray, and a place to honor my son. And so, below the green monkey tagged with the red heart, I create my memorial to Kerry. First, I hang a t-shirt my sister Colleen had given me. A white Fruit-of-the-Loom t-shirt covered in poor-quality computer-generated photos of my son, his face morphed by improper alignment. A rainbow stretches across the back panel along with a line from “Over The Rainbow”: “Some day I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me.” Tacky as it might be, I love that shirt. I love the fact that my sister, Kerry’s aunt, cared enough to create a tribute of admiration. My eyes pierce with tears as I add a letter I wrote about my beautiful son, and attach to it a photo of Kerry holding his son, Jackson. This becomes my place in the Temple of Honor.
Crouched beside me, a woman sets up a shrine for her son Chris. Our sons were the same age. We exchange chronicles of a turbulent era, recognizing the interchangeable pain and vulnerability of our sons’ lives. Her son’s drug-abused lifestyle and overdose bandaging his depression and my son’s suicide completed by an overdose. An overdose of over-the-counter sleeping pills. Three packages, ninety pills, crushed, mixed with his iced tea and swallowed. No one seemed to question the motives of a distraught young man as he entered the 24-hour CVS local pharmacy. No one wondered why he might want to purchase three packages of sleeping pills, his palms sweating as he handed cashier number 7 two twenty-dollar bills and said, “Keep the change.”
Each day I would spend hours in the Temple of Honor. I would sit in meditation and write in my journal and cry. Reflecting on the twenty-three years I had with my son and pleading for an ongoing connection. It is heavy, it is hard, it is healing. It is everything I needed.
The first person to read my letter about Kerry is a man wearing only a baseball catcher’s face mask, chest guard, shin guard, jock strap, cup and cleats. And despite his well-guarded, protective gear, he is vulnerable enough to shed a tear.
A man wearing a hat that says “future” reads my tarot cards and tells me that there is a male guide beside me. Always near.
On my last night at Burning Man I rest, kneeling in the desert sand and watch the temple burn. In the crush of the crowd I go unnoticed, eclipsed by the throngs of joviality. I scan the faces of the pack, knowing I am a stranger to them all. Above me, the bright full moon glows. Its massive full body dangles in front of me, just outside my reach. So close that I can see with great detail the scattering of mares that define the face of the man trapped inside. It was a full moon the night you chose to end your life, I thought, wondering if its power had somehow driven him over the edge.
The intensity of the blaze unbolts my pores and my body glistens, reflecting the fury of the flame. Entranced by the towering smoke tunnels that spew from its core, their twisted dance leading upwards towards the black sky, my mind plays images of the last time I saw my son alive. His beautiful, symmetrically-balanced face highlighted by the intensity of his crisp blue eyes, the cheek-raising smile, and the tone of his blush. “Ma, don’t get upset,” he teased. “I’m a 23-year-old guy – I don’t always get you.” The backwards jerk of his head and neck timed perfectly with the roll of his belly-deep laughter. I was certain he was laughing at me.
My eyes widen, overfilled with tears that spill rhythmically one by one onto my cheeks, slowly rippling down the crevasses of my face to a pool at the end of my chin and jumping into the barrenness of my chest. I do not wipe my tears away. I am not ashamed to cry. I wear my pain proudly.
As much as I try to remember the way he lived, I am haunted by the sickening discovery of his sparsely clad body stretched across the living room sofa. Cold gray skin covers his stiff, unresponsive shell. His mouth slightly gaped, his eyes pointing upward, frozen in sorrow. I came too late. I did not know, did not understand his pain. And so, he traveled on without me.
I would spend the next year of my life desperately trying to understand, collecting everything I could find relating to his suicide and suicide in general. The autopsy found no food inside his stomach, only traces of dark brown liquid, which I determined to be the iced tea he so frequently drank despite my warnings that the sugar base would eventually rot his teeth. The police report said it was seventy-two degrees the day he died. The medical examiner’s office listed him as one of 72 suicides in the state of Connecticut that year. Suicide is the third largest cause of death in men ages 15 to 25. Men tend to be more successful than women at completing their suicides. Most send an unheard cry for help prior to taking their life.
Still, I do not understand.
David Best walks the line of spectators that surround the blaze. I watch as he stops every so often to shake someone’s hand. As his image mirrors mine, I can see through his sleep-deprived, blood-shot eyes that he understands my pain. I thank him for all his hard work, and tell him how meaningful the Temple of Honor is to me. I tell him about my beautiful son and how the pain of love engulfs me.
“It’s not your fault,” David replies. “Come with me. See the real beauty of Burning Man.” His hands reach out to me. “Beyond the smile lies the pain. It’s why I built the Temple, for the pain beyond belief.” David continues to shake hands, wave to the crowd, and answer a reporter’s questions. And through it all, he never lets go of my hand. “Look beyond their smiles. Deep inside each soul lies the truth. Honor the truth.”
My knees, weak with emotion, crumble; the intensity of his message pulls me to the ground. “We all sign up for this journey,” David explains. “It’s no different than you deciding to come to Burning Man. You may not know why, but your journey is your own doing. It is deliberate.”
Shortly after Kerry’s passing, I discovered the phrase “Live Deliberately” scribbled inside one of his journals. It was a passage that touched me deeply. It became even more profound when my husband engraved it in our wedding bands, the exchange celebrated just three months after Kerry’s passing. Was I so lost in the endless stream of superficial wedding details that I failed to recognize my son’s desperate cry for help, I wonder.
I stay until the final ember takes its last breath. The crowd is now gone, the stars above cloaked in a canopy of ash, unable to direct me home. From a distance I can hear the faint melody of Neil Young’s signature song “Harvest.” It was the first album I ever bought. I was 14 years old and had earned the money to buy the album by completing a sewing task my overpowering Aunt had given me. She was surrounded by sons and, like Cinderella’s evil stepmother, enjoyed torturing girls that were not, in her opinion, good enough to call her own. Somehow these childhood memories seem bigger, closer – like the glory of the harvest moon that dangles before me. Just outside my grasp.
Slowly, I drift towards the echo of my childhood. Neil’s voice grows richer, deeper with each mindful step. In the expanse of emptiness, a limply woven thatched hut stands alone. Massive speakers, directed at the horizon, border the exterior walls. Inside, a sound system rests in one corner; a hammock stretches across the center. Eagerly I climb into it and sway to the sound of Neil’s cry. There, cradled in hope, I rest till morning comes. And though I am by myself, I now know I am not alone. My son rests peacefully beside me, rootless in the gentle desert breeze.