Where we’re at: I just got back from Burning Man 2022. I had some thoughts.
They say, as you drive through the gates of Burning Man, in my case after a cross-continental flight and a brutal four state drive drive capped off by six hours in a line of suspiciously shiny RVs, welcome home.
But this particular week in the harsh Nevada desert reminded me that despite my ocasional best efforts to escape myself, I am my own home.
Wherever I go, there I am, indeed.
Stripped away from the distractions and comforts we left behind in what burners call the default world, I had nine days with my thoughts and my whims and no work tasks, no cell phone reception, and no routine to lean into if they became uncomfortable.
And it turns out grief indeed comes with me everywhere now.
Even Black Rock City.
Yes, there was exhilaration, too — sunsets marveling at transcendent art pieces with soul-level friends, sunrises blinking bemusedly at the wild stories already forming from the night with recent strangers, and all the things in-between that draw us out to this harsh inhospitable desert again and again.
In fact, I probably laughed harder at this Burn than at any that preceded it, thanks in part to my incredible RV-mate, Dave, with whom I had a really magical time dressing up and hyping up and being silly and being serious. You’ll read more about all of that, as well.
But these are the thoughts that compelled me to write so strongly that I started doing so right there on the playa, hiding out from the year’s infamous white outs.
I first went to Burning Man as a wide-eyed twenty-three year old, and found it be such a transformational experience that I’ve pilgrimaged back to three more burns. I felt an almost primal call to be back there this year, the first official Burning Man since 2019.
I need to go, I told myself and others, certain it was the key to unlocking pieces of myself I’ve struggled to access since my life changed so drastically that same year. The year my mom succumbed to cancer, the year I lost Rachel, the year Tommy passed, the year we said goodbye to sweet Prada; that year that everyone died. I must.
And I did. But what struck me, uncomfortably, was the realization that while you certainly can tap into parts of yourself that may have gone dormant or even been left out on the playa to be enjoyed on special occasions like a floor length glitter coat you pull out of your closet once every other year — you can’t go back to the you you were however many years ago. Or at least I can’t.
This year’s theme was Waking Dreams, and every night, as the sun slipped below the horizon and the Playa, lit up with colorful LEDS turned into the only version of a video game I’ve ever been drawn to play, I really did feel like I was in one.
The true City That Never Sleeps, Burning Man is the best party in the world. But I understood this year I need it to be more than that.
Upon reflection, I see that quite effortlessly, each of my previous burns had had a significant impact on my life. A meaning. My first Burning Man in 2013 was largely about learning the Ten Principles and being so taken with the concept of this utopian city where everyone shares their unique gifts; lessons I can see the footprints of in the businesses I’ve built since.
At Burning Man 2015 I let myself really fall more deeply in love with the big love of my twenties, and the tantric workshops and camps we attended there together helped me shape and find comfort in my adult sexuality.
At Midburn in 2018, craving a deep personal challenge, I attended the second largest regional burn in the world completely solo, in a country where I didn’t know the language — and it was a pivotal part of a trip that took the arrow in my heart that had been pointing towards Southeast Asia for a decade and nudged it towards the Middle East.
This year, I told an Israeli friend as we sat outside her tent in hundred degree heat, I was struggling to find that. That something-more-than-a-party.
Camping in a largely international camp, she shared some of her campmates were musing the same the day before, wondering if Burning Man was still worth the enormous time, effort and expense required to traverse the globe for it. So maybe it wasn’t just me? Maybe Burning Man too had to find its way back to itself, after all these years away from Black Rock City? I was intrigued, but eventually I had to go. I was late for dinner.
I was headed to Shabbat services at Milk and Honey Camp, where Dave and I were meeting another Israeli friend, eight hundred of us gathered to break bread and share this beautiful ritual from far away, reconfigured for the Playa.
And it was there, sitting cross legged in the dust, that I found what I’d been looking for. Or at least the thread that started to tie it all together.
While one rabbi spoke about how the search for God or a higher power brings some to a temple, it brings others to the desert to do acid. The next spoke on the week’s Torah portion, about Moses’s second ascension of Mount Sinai. That sometimes we have to watch the life we had planned for ourselves burn to the ground, and find the peace and courage to climb the mountain again and create a new one.
Sitting there in that hazy service, the sun setting behind a shipping container pulpit, hot tears pulsed through the glitter around my lashes.
Finally, we all stood and swayed, arm in arm, to sing. Being Hebrew hymns, I knew none of the words, but I closed my eyes and felt the rare and deep presence of my mom, who lived for the group community sings in our island happy place of Martha’s Vineyard, and who was most at peace with her own tumultuous relationship with religion when reminiscing about her childhood choir, or when we were hand in hand in my own childhood church, in song.
Two days earlier I’d experienced some of the rawest grief I’d ever let myself feel while I sat in The Temple at sunrise and let tears fall for hours. Sitting in the dust with my tea and my memories and my pen and paper, I wrote perhaps the most stripped down, honest and raw words I’d voiced since my mom’s death. As the sun became hot I affixed it to the wood, alongside a piece of her writing and a photo I’d carefully selected — and thousands of other tributes to lost loved ones, relationships and ideas.
A Temple Guardian, trained in consciously interacting with the temple’s grieving contributors, asked me if I’d like a hug. I accepted. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I sobbed into her shoulder, not bothering to add any further context. I can’t move on.
She nodded and paused, finally holding me at arms length to make eye contact. Well. You’re here, aren’t you?
It was the boost I needed to propel me back to the Burn. Finally emerging, feeling drained from a growing grief hangover, I’d biked back towards the city and stopped at an art installation inspired by an Asian funerary temple.
One line in a long poem about loss inscribed into one of the walls jumped out at me. Me, struggling and frustrated and ashamed by years of wondering when I’d stop letting this overwhelming grief direct my life.
Be courageous and be patient when you stumble.
Later that day, I sought refuge at a workshop at Camp Contact, one of the healing villages at Burning Man, and nodded along to the description of grief as an attachment where the object of the attachment is gone, and yet the bond remains. Attachments are essential to a full and meaningful life. But finding peace with their impermanence, and releasing the past to make space for the future, is perhaps the path to healing.
So courage. Patience. Maybe that, too, was the “something more” I’d lived this burn. Courage to keep trying to find joy even when you’ve reached that point in life where you realize loss is searing and our current state of being, so fragile. Courage to watch a life you worked so hard to create and loved so, so deeply burn, and to climb the mountain to create another one. Patience with yourself for however long that may take.
At the end of the long, hot week, I made a final pilgrimage to the temple, and as I always do, marveled at the sound of tens of thousands of people in silence for its burn.
Watching the temple engulf in flames, I cried for the life I loved so fiercely in my twenties, one I crawled tirelessly on my hands and knees up the road less traveled to build. I wept for the fear that those were the best days of my life, and that they are behind me. I wept for the rich, full life my mom deserved to have in her sixties, seventies, and beyond. I wept for the core-shocking losses of dear friends. I wept for the year I spent tormented by caring for my sweet mom and watching her suffer and die. I wept for the mistakes I made, the relationships I damaged, and the people I hurt in the process. I wept for all the grace and patience I have struggled to show myself since. I wiped away tears for the deep inner courage I once felt so strongly, and lost my faith in. I cried for a more innocent version of me, the one who didn’t seem to realize how incredibly, intricately, infinitesimally delicate everything was.
I saw it all burn.
When the fire marshals and Temple Guardians cleared it, I joined, for the first time, the hundreds who slowly moved towards the embers, getting as close as I dared and crouching to sink my fingers into the dust where it was still hot from the embers.
The next dawn, hour ten into a what would be a fourteen hour exodus line in our dusty RV, our tired and depleted bodies heading back to the default world, the boys sleeping restlessly in the back, I watched the sun rise over a distant mountaintop from behind the steering wheel.
And I saw the steep climb towards the next chapter of my life, stretching out in front of me.
Hey guys. Missed y’all.
Good to have you back, Alex.
Thanks LC <3 Much love.
This was just insanely gorgeous. Sobbed for me and for you. Thank you for this beautifully written tribute to love and loss.
Thank you Sarah. Sending you love as I type these words.
Wanna ghost write my book?!
Introspective Alex is one of my favorite Alexes. Nobody can write about grief and growth as beautifully as you do. I hurt for you all over again reading this, but at the same time, I know you’re already halfway up your next mountain with sights on the next one. Love you ❤️
Gosh, sometimes it feels like I made it part way just to slide down on my booty back below where I started, though 😂 One thing is certain… putting the words to page certainly feels like some kind of catharsis.
Another awesome post
Beautiful, as always. I will be returning to read this post again. Sending love and thanks for opening up.
Thank you Sarah <3 This put a smile on my face.
Thanks Jo. Felt good to write.
Missed you! I love reading your words, you write what I don’t have the words to say. Hope you’re doing well ❤️
Thank you Ramona. That is a huge compliment and I take it to heart.
Big love back.
<3 biggest love
This was beautiful and deeply emotional and I’m so grateful you shared it. Thank you.
I am too, Sarah. Thank you for reading, and for commenting (it means a lot.)
Another beautiful and raw post. Stay courageous x
Touched Cami, thank you xo
Hi Alex – It’s been very helpful for me to follow the story of how you’ve dealt with loss and grief over the past couple years.
My mother passed away just over a year ago at a very young 69 years old after her battle with cancer. Just a few months before her diagnosis, my partner and I quit our expat jobs in Singapore and headed off to travel the world full time. Needless to say, our plans went in a very different direction as her illness progressed. It’s been a difficult path back to a version of normalcy but it brings a lot of comfort to see how others are coping with a similar loss. Thank you.
I’m so sorry to hear that Stephanie. Truly I am. I agree, burdens are somehow lighter when shared, even if you don’t wish your own pain upon others.
What a most powerful story, thank you endlessly for the raw and wild gift of your sharing. Sounds soooo Intense and so much healing in the uncorking of the oceans of grief. My god I hope—and—know your systems will be in such deep relief and growth after all that. I wrote those poems on walls of the neon temple. Humbled and grateful to have played a small roll in your journey ♥️🙏🏼♥️ Endless love
Noah, it gave me such a smile that the internet connecting our works. Thank you for your beautiful words, on both the neon temple and right here. Perhaps we will meet someday on the Playa.
Stunning writing as always. You manage to capture being human so very well with your words. Can’t wait to follow along on the next chapter.
Being human — the craziest ride of them all. Thanks, Jess.
Not tears in my coffee!
Miss you <3
Well I just cried in the Heathrow lounge. Very different circumstances, but I relate in a lot of ways to the themes. Love you!
Making you cry in public since 2009 😘 Love you so!
Alex, you are an incredibly gifted writer. If I could offer you a hug like the counselor at Burning Man, I would. In lieu of that, let me thank you for these words and for the strength it took to share them. I didn’t know your mom, but I am sure she would be so proud of you (any parent would).
Thank you Caroline, for such a warm and loving comment. I feel the hug.