by Cybele Knowles
They say Burning Man changes lives. They say Burning Man ruins lives, too.
Don’t be frightened! Burning Man will only ruin your life in the best possible way.
Burning Man changed my life. I’ll tell you how.
I used to be different from how I am now. I worked as a secretary at a software engineering company. I was afraid of my own nose. I lived with a nice man.
When I went to bed at night, I used to say a fucked-up thing to myself.
The thing I said was, Is this it?
Because stuff was not so good.
I was a secretary, but I didn’t want to be a secretary. Does anyone really want to be a secretary? No. No one does. I’m entitled to say it, because I was a secretary for a billion years.
The other problem was that I was slightly crazy. In the clinical sense of the word. That tidbit about being afraid of my nose may have tipped you off.
And then there was the nice man I lived with. He was so nice, but we loved different things. I loved all sorts of pointless shit. He loved me.
“Let’s go dancing,” I’d say.
“No,” he’d say.
“Let’s go to Barcelona,” I’d say.
“No,” he’d say.
“Let get a dog and love it and let it sleep in bed between us.”
“Let’s paint the walls emerald green!”
“The landlord, no.”
“Let’s get married?”
“Yes,” he said. “With all my heart, yes.”
As you can see, he did no wrong. He was always, irrevocably himself. I was the one who did something wrong. I decided that the things I loved were dumb. I forgot that the dumb things are the things that make life worth living, and I settled for less.
To address the whole nose situation I started taking serotonin reuptake-inhibitors. They totally worked and my nose ceased to scare me. But I still went to bed thinking, Is this it?
One day I went into the kitchen and raised my voice.
“Something has got to change,” I said.
No one responded. Not the nice man I was living with, not the dog we didn’t have, not the property manager vacuuming the carpet out in the hall.
I remember. It was a drizzly weekend afternoon. I put on my raincoat and stomped out of the apartment and into a puddle. I got into my car and drove to Moe’s Books. I was going to shiver and look at old, sad books and feel old and sad.
But at the bookstore I found an important book. A book of Burning Man photographs. I turned through the pages of flame and a certifiable blue sky. One photo arrested me entirely, making me forget my wet socks and squelchy heart.
It was a photo of a girl’s butt.
In the photo the girl is wearing a pink tutu with nothing underneath. A black Avocet bicycle seat is tucked between her cheeks. Her body is young and beautiful. The tutu, like all tutus, is a saucy thing pretending to be innocent. The black bicycle seat is rude. The very moment captured in the photo is warm and hot, sexy and sublime, juxtaposed and harmonious. To me, it looked like everything I wanted and did not have. Joie de vivre.
I decided to go.
I joined a friend’s camp and spent a month of weekends buying tents and coolers and little camp dishes. I invited my nice man to come too.
“No,” he said.
So my friend wedged me into the packed back seat of her Subaru and we left. Her boyfriend, riding up front, commanded the turnoffs and food stops and stereo. He played dance music the whole five-hour drive, a pre-echo of our days in the desert. I stared out the window and dreamed about being seduced by a techo-pagan wearing furry pants.
How I felt the first time I saw Black Rock City?
Like a kid at Christmas.
But something more than that, too. You going do something to me, I said to the city. You’re going to get into me.
It’s easy to say what I did at Burning Man that year. I just run my hand down the spine of time, nose end to tail, and tell you what’s there. I did nothing either dangerous or strange. I hung out with my camp. I helped prepare meals, because having something concrete and necessary to do allowed me survive the limitless possibilities. In my four days on the playa I had just one drink, a screwdriver prepared by a woman in a turquoise bra. I took photos and I gave away bindis, sticking them to the sweaty foreheads and cheeks of strangers. I didn’t fall in love with a techno-pagan, but a Norwegian robotics engineer took a shine to me. He hung around, offering to check my tire pressure and rub suncreen on my back.
That’s what I did at Burning Man, the first year. It doesn’t help you understand why I came home and started changing my life. Why I left my nice man and my secretary job, and got a puppy and became an artist. To understand why all that happened, you need to know not what I did at Burning Man, but how I felt.
Simply put, I felt like that photo I saw on the rainy day. The girl’s butt and the tutu and the presumptuous black bicycle seat. Full of joie de vivre. Erotic. Alive.
I have a theory, and my theory is that Venus reigns over Burning Man. All the gods show up for the party-Ganesh, Quetzalcoatl, Mercury, Coyote, and The Seven Happiness Beings. But Venus, goddess of art, conversation, sex, and love, is queen of the heap. Hephaestus, a deity of smiths and fire, is her husband. The gearheads and pyromaniacs who build Black Rock City and its spectacles are Aphrodite’s dreamtime consorts. In an age of manufactured desire, Venus is on a mission to reacquaint us with the things we truly love. She manifests through the citizens of Burning Man to show how it’s done. How can you see an art car full of hedonists penetrating each other with dildos and not rededicate your life to your highest values? Because if those people are okay doing that in plain light of day, then the least you can do is become the game programmer, novelist, naked dude, or other relatively modest thing you wish you could be.
Venus, too, is goddess of the grind, and Burning Man is justly famous for its hyper-erotic atmosphere. On one level, all the sexiness of Burning Man is just that. A form of self-expression, a place and time to be the radical sex idiot you can’t be anywhere else-not at work, not at school, not even, sometimes, in your own bedroom. Invites to Astro-Glide wrestling are casually made, a “Worship Your Pussy” booth is open for business. How I love our city.
But on another level, the erotic activity of Burning Man is a pathway or by-product of people getting in touch with their essential desires. Sometimes erotic response is a metaphor. The awakening in the body speaking for an awakening in the mind.
Here’s how a rite of passage works. It’s the same the world over, Ndembu and Trobriand and Kwakiutl. They take you away from your ordinary life-your online banking, your myspace.com, your commute. They bring you to a place set apart. They give you a new name and they don’t let you bathe. As the dirt rubs into your skin, you return to the earth in a symbolic death. And in the words of Mircea Eliade, a scholar with a poet’s name, then comes “a time of marvels.” Masked figures and sculptures, dancers. Grotesque or beautiful beings that teach you the things you need to know. This is the liminal period. When you leave, you are ready to be the next version of you.
Does it sound familiar?
The resemblances are not entirely accidental.
There is one crucial difference between the old rituals and our new one. In a traditional rite of passage you are given responsibilities, endowed with doctrine. You learn how to be a proper man or woman. You learn how to be a husband or wife. You are emptied so you may receive a new set of social rules.
But at Burning Man there are no rules. OK, there are rules (no guns or feathers, please), but they’re just crowd control. I mean to say that rules are not the subject of the ritual, the matter of the ritual. There is no doctrine, nothing even to know about the Man except that he is, and that he is good to think. There’s just you and your state of consciousness, altered through trance dance and at the very least, sleep deprivation. Eventually it crosses your path, that experience or person or symbol you want and need. Venus is at Burning Man, which means that every thing you might want or need is there too: cutting-edge technologies, glitter, jet packs, pancakes, new algorithms, yoga, Christ, stripper poles, boys, girls, stars. Say yes to it, and it will enter you and become a part of you.
Burning Man can change your life.