by Shannon Kennedy
It’s different every year. Not just for me but for all those who make the deliberate decision to attend Burning Man. The theme changes, the energy changes, the circumstances surrounding and driving the playa changes. And I have changed. For me, on my second journey home, this is the year I show up wanting to live. I have no idea what facilitates this flip. Maybe it’s the Temple burn, when David Best tells me, “It is not your fault.” Maybe it is the passion that swelled the moment I release myself, conceding to the broadened beauty of the desert. Maybe it’s my commitment – to tell the world that he, my son, had lived. Deliberately lived. All I know is that I am determined to return. Determined to contribute to this self-inflicted world and make my presence known.
The flicker of the flame fuels me now, still, six months later as I sit in my loft surrounded by a blanket of new fallen snow. With the draft from a turbulent winter scratching against darkened skylights, it’s the playa that warms me. The sweat and sting and surrender of the playa, the playa in all its glory.
For some of us, it’s obvious that we don’t fit the conformity of an earthly society. You can tell by the way we dress, the style of our hair, our tats, our jewelry, or our piercings. And for others the pain of our peculiarities is buried deep inside. Some of us are haunted by it; others express it freely, creatively.
I love the unpredictability that is Burning Man. The fact that this 45-year-old business woman (mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, daughter, daughter-in law, wife) from Connecticut, now subdivides her life:
Stage 1 – My Trip to Burning Man
Immediately followed by:
Stage 2 – A Desperate Attempt to Reconnect
For me this means frequent communication with those who have experienced it, daily visits to burningman.com and endless Googling for anything and everything Burning Man. All of which is replaced by:
Stage 3 – Planning for the next Journey Home
I’m convinced that a lot of what we experience on the playa happens because, in spite of the glaring sun and fuming dust storms, we walk with our eyes wide open. Nothing is a means to an end. Every moment, every encounter, every drip from our brow is felt. We take our moments with us. Some we tuck away, others we frame, but none are forgotten. There are events, holidays, birthday, vacations, accomplishments and milestones that mark the passage of time, but the playa takes center stage.
It’s impossible to paint, to give a comprehensive visual to anyone who has never been here. And it’s impossible to articulate the collective experience of those who have participated because each contributor encounters something uniquely their own. These are their moments, moments that cannot be duplicated or described.
One of my framed moments takes place at the Temple of Stars. Swaddled in a contrast of gleeful supporters and tearful mourners, it is here I have a moment with a woman I never met but whose force continues to get me high. Her name is Stevie.
Stevie does not see or acknowledge me but she is everything right now. Her vision disconnects me from myself, and I willingly hover above. The spark from her drive shifts me through my pain. I am now focused on the living. Without judging, I soak in her unexpected splendor. Speckles of piercings dot her profile, highlighted by long swaggering dreadlocks that dart from a sun-bleached bandana crusted in sweat and ash. Her dark leather choker, studded satchel, high-laced boots and a hip-hugging kilt caresses her with style; she has a deliberate swagger, a reverence to her step. She is young and fresh, despite the desert’s toll. Her words are rich, powerful and provoking, rooted in a foreign twang. And then, without warning, without knowing why or understanding her purpose, she is gone, lost in a passing fury.
I will not see her again until Stage 2, in my desperate attempt to reconnect. Her snapshot is captured at the Love Project. She carries a bouquet of purple and white tulips that balance her plumed white veil and sections of plum hazed braids. The deal is sealed with a smile. Oh, and he (I’ll call him Lucky) looks as though he’s swallowed a precious jewel. They are newlywed. Newly formed love. Locked in fervor for the playa. I imagine he said “Always and Forever,” and I imagine she believed him. But he does not know that forever is a lonely time.
Days later, with my Stage 2 in full bloom, I Google my way to David, which links me to the Black Rock Foundation, and a request for donations. Donations in honor of a “spitfire of a woman.” Donations in honor of Stevie. Without knowing that this is my Stevie, I click in and discover her memorial page.
On my first journey home, I am introduced to many lonely hearts who, until then, suffer the pain of their separation in silence. From the man on the plane from Chicago to Reno whose recovering addict son unexpectedly slips into a coma and eventually succumbs to an untimely death; to the women at the Temple of Honor who shares a space beside me as we build memorials to our sons, to the man who knelt beside me during the Temple burn, whose son died in an airplane crash at the age of 27. We all share and connect with the pain of separation.
But this year it’s different, just as it is every year. This year I am united with the soon to depart.
I have to remind myself that I have never met Stevie, that I never knew the joys and sorrows she faced in her brief journey. I didn’t guide or support her. I didn’t watch her soar. Instead, her spirit crashed into me and I am tied into her.
And I know that she lived. Deliberately lived.
And I know the pain her family and friends must now endure.
There was a time when the loss of my son Kerry separated me from the living. The playa teaches us we all belong. The playa reconnected us, gives us a place to express the magnitude of love.
Stevie’s last framed moments were taken on the playa. Her breath lifted as she drove away. But her breath is not lost, nor is it forgotten. I will feel her breath in the fury, in the drive, and the passion of the playa. The breath of a woman I never met. I will feel her breath when I return home.
In Memory of Stephanie Vitouladitis