Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Black Rock City silence

(I realize I haven't written anything in a while. Here's something.)

A friend of mine at Quaker meeting asked me to write out this story for our newsletter. I told it to her in person, knowing she would enjoy it, and she said that more people than her needed to hear it. I don't know if any of you, dear readers, "need" to hear it, but it's a good story anyway. Please ignore the Quaker-y moral if it makes you uncomfortable.


It was well after midnight in Black Rock City, home of the annual festival known as Burning Man. I was out adventuring with my boyfriend, Ryan, and two of our friends. Our friends were heading to bed at the end of their night, and we had all hopped on an art car to save ourselves some energy. The car was modeled after an island, complete with palm trees strung with Christmas lights, and moved at a brisk 5 mph across the open playa. Ryan and I were still full of energy, which he proved by hopping off the island to heckle a group of strangers standing by a giant, lit "INSANITY" sign. The island trundled off, with me on it.

I had lost Ryan. He was not going to get back on the island. The playa stretched between us, acres of darkness with a scattering of LED freckles. I faced a difficult choice: stay on the island and return to the camp to sleep along with our friends, or get off and search for Ryan. I stepped off the island and walked briskly back to INSANITY. He was gone.

I had lost Ryan. It was starting to sink in. I was alone on the open playa, in the dark, in the cold.

I had lost Ryan. I began to walk toward the Temple, hoping to gather my wits. As I approached, I turned off my blinky lights to show some respect. The Temple is a deeply spiritual place. It is a place of mourning and release and difficult discoveries. It is where people bring things they want to let go of, things that are burned on Saturday night along with the Temple itself. I was hoping to center down, to find some strength to get me back to camp, or back to Ryan, or something. I needed centering, and the Temple seemed like a decent place to find it.

Alas, the Temple was not what I needed that night. I walked in and found myself next to two European men giggling in front of a shrine to Robin Williams. It didn't feel right. I walked out.

I turned my blinky lights back on (to prevent being run over by a bike or art car), reoriented myself, and started walking back to camp. It's a long walk from the Temple to camp, maybe half an hour, and time moves slowly when you're alone in the dark. After about ten minutes, I started to cry.

I had not gotten to center down. I had not reached deep for strength or guidance or patience. I had simply started walking.

You know what I wanted? I wanted a Quaker meeting. But I was alone! Don't you need two people or more? It just wouldn't have felt right to do it by myself. I looked around in desperation, but no one was in shouting distance, and those who were close were zooming by on their bikes. I just needed someone, anyone, to share silence with me.

And then, there he was. The Man. Faceless effigy though he is, I locked eyes with the Man, gave him a little nod, and settled into silence.

I don't know if it came from him, from Him, or from me, but the message that I got was: Joanna, you know what you have to do. You have to walk back to camp. It's going to be hard, but you have to do it, and I can't save you from it. So get to it.

It was exactly what I needed.

Long story short, I got back to camp to find Ryan waiting for me after an adventure of his own. Reunited, we went back out into the city to have a wonderful time until we fell asleep near dawn. A few days later, when it was time to burn the Man, I again shared silence with him and passed back the message I'd received earlier: Man, you know what you have to do. You have to burn. It's going to be hard, but you have to do it, and I can't save you from it. So get to it.

Meeting, as it turns out, can happen in some unlikely places, with even more unlikely people. But then, silence can happen anywhere, if you know to make space for it.

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