Thursday, October 8, 2015


Although it was a month ago, I'm still posting about Burning Man. It was a stretch for me to go with Lyme disease, but it was one of the most fascinating trips I've ever taken.

Some of our neighbors, across G Street, who lived in tepee tents for the week

On my first excursion to see art work, with my hair and face covered with scarves and goggles to protect from dust. I'm getting water from my pack before I check out the giant squid.

It was Tuesday, my second morning at Burning Man, and due to the shock of adjusting to my surroundings, plus some exhaustion from the trip down, I hadn’t done much the first day. The second morning I woke up feeling better. I had the intention of further regaining my balance by finding somewhere quiet to read and write in my notebook out for a few hours before I worked up the energy to explore my surroundings.

My quiet house in Seattle,
where I can be a hermit
Normally, I don’t like to do anything that isn’t reading or writing before 12 noon or longer if I can get away with it, especially not anything that involves being around people, or actually talking. Mornings are rough for me. I feel slow and achy and my brain and body need to go at their own pace. Therefore, I stay in my very quiet house in my quiet neighborhood in Seattle, and I write. I am grateful to be making some sort of a career out this, because it is exactly what I need and want to be doing, pretty much every morning, every day of the year.

That Tuesday morning at Burning Man, my boyfriend wanted to go on an art tour. He’d mentioned this tour a couple times on the drive down, and on Monday. My vague idea was that I would let him go do that, and we’d find each other when the tour was over.

I didn’t expect to do any writing at Burning Man, and so I brought two books, thinking I’d read in some quiet spot in the mornings, and this would be my alone time, my sanity time.

I did not understand Burning Man at all.

Here’s the way Burning Man works:

1) There is no quiet spot.

2) You’re way too stimulated and tired at the same time from all the loud thumping music to anything like read.

3) The morning is the best time to get out and see things, because by 12 noon it’s blazing hot, the wind has picked up, and the air is full of dust blowing continually from south to north, covering everything and making it hard to breathe.

This was why my boyfriend, when I told him I didn’t think I’d go on the art tour, gave me a look like I was crazy. I’d never gotten that look from him before. He is one the most laid-back, take-things-as-they-come people I know, so when he looked at me like that, I got a clue. I changed my mind and decided to go with him.

Inside the kitchen tent, where I made coffee
while fellow campers talked about how lucky
we were to have found a quiet spot, which
blew my mind because this was the loudest
place I'd ever been. (See previous post!)
The tour was leaving in 15 minutes. I had just enough time to make coffee, which I poured into our thermoses, and pack a couple of apples. We hustled over to VW bus camp across the street, the starting point of the tour, where we joined a line to climb onto the tour vehicle: a double-decker bus built in the shape of a VW microbus. It was soon crowded with burners (or Burning Man attendees), mostly from the VW Bus Camp itself.

Thank you, Phil Berg, who took this picture of "Walter" the VW Bus Art Car.

BACK GROUND ABOUT BURNING MAN (skip this if you like)

Burning Man is a temporary city set up in a remote part of the Nevada desert. The organizers of the gathering lay out streets in a clock-shaped grid, and most burners arrive in small groups of friends, in cars or RVs, and find any empty spot on the grid to camp in. Some people organize themselves well enough to have what are called ‘theme camps,’ which offer workshops, classes, open bars, or parties throughout the week. My friend Rose was a member of Camp CuriOdyssey, which threw some big parties. My fellow dancer Cameron stayed at Camp 11:11 (‘Camp Eleven Eleven’) which has an art car and bar. There is Contra Dance camp, and Chakralicious Camp, and the Alternative Energy Zone. VW Bus camp was for people who loved their VW buses enough to drive them to Burning Man and spend the week living out of them.

Our camp at our evening dinner gathering, close to sunset
Some of the members of our camp had once been part of VW Camp, but due to a small disagreement about what’s the best way to keep clean at Burning Man while having the least environmental impact (shower vs. baby wipes), our camp split off from VW. This disagreement was very friendly, so we camped nearby. Our smaller camp of 16 included engineers, doctors, nurses, architects, and teachers, one accountant, and one writer. Quite a few people in our camp were also artists in their free time. We ranged in age from early 60s to mid-twenties and were mostly from Seattle or Portland


My boyfriend and I climbed onto the giant VW bus for what we thought would be a guided tour, with information about the art. But like many things listed in the official guidebook at Burning Man, some of the details were off.  It was an art tour without the guide part: simply a ride out to the art installations on the desert, with stops for people to get off and look for a few minutes, then get back on the bus. All the bus was blasting music and people were sharing drinks. (Blasting music and sharing drinks seeming to be the baseline for most everything at Burning Man.)

You can imagine that the VWers were not the techno crowd. The music they played was enjoyable (Bob Marley, Natalie Merchant, Talking Heads), although louder than I would have liked. I put in my earplugs, and then did some polite-but-assertive angling to find somewhere to sit. The bus designed for standing room only, with a few ledges where you could sit comfortably. It was also packed, making me self-conscious about insisting on a seat. Anyone going by outward appearances would assume that I’m healthy and have no need to sit down, but I knew that if I stood up for an hour, especially in the morning, it would kill me for the rest of the day.

On the tour, suddenly I understood why people drive from all over the country to camp out in the blowing dust and the heat. At Burning Man you see things and experience them in ways you simply won’t anywhere else.

Some of the art I saw at Burning Man. True confessions: these pictures are of things I saw Weds, because I put most of my Tuesday pictures in the previous post. (Which you should read if you haven't yet!)
This 'Church'...

...had this amazing organ inside. One of my favorite installations.

Detail of the carved skull hanging above the organ

This sculpture was really cool...

...and a nice way to take a self-portrait without using the selfie button.


I deliberately didn’t read too much about Burning Man beforehand, because I wanted things to come as a surprise. I researched just enough to know if I there would be coffee, that I wouldn’t be entirely roughing it in terms of the bathrooms, that there would be a way to bring my medicine and my own food, and what to wear. Beyond that, I wanted to experience it when I got there, without too many preconceptions.

The Temple at Burning Man. Thank you to the BF, who took this photo and most of the pictures on this post. (He chooses to remain anonymous.)

This was why when the tour came to the Temple, I had no idea what it was. The Temple is an important part of the gathering, perhaps more important than the Man itself. Built deliberately to be burned down on the very last day of the week, it’s made out of plywood. It pertains to no particular religion, or to all religions. Throughout the week, people write the names of friends and family who have died on its walls, and they bring items that are tributes to the deceased and leave them inside. All the tributes will be burned when the temple is set on fire.

My boyfriend explained this to me as we walked towards the Temple.

“Is there someone you’d like to remember?” he asked me as we came up to the entrance.

“Yes,” I said, thinking of my doctor and friend who died in 2014, Carolyn Humphreys.

He somehow produced a Sharpie and handed it to me, and then I lost him in the crowd as I walked through the silent temple, looking at all the names on the walls, wanting to find a good spot for Carolyn’s name.

Inside the Temple

I found myself crying deep, overwhelming tears, while I walked. There were so many names, names everywhere, and posters people had made with photos of their loved ones.

I saw a photo of a young woman with a cat, which reminded me of Carolyn. Next to it someone had put up another poster, for a sister, her head bald from chemo. FUCK CANCER!  the poster read. I cried for this young woman who died, but I didn’t want to write Carolyn’s name next to FUCK CANCER! That kind of anger was not like her. I walked on, reading more and more names and crying harder.

I saw a bench with two people sitting cross-legged, holding hands and meditating in the silence. This took me utterly by surprise. In the middle of all that that pain and grief they looked so calm, and there calm was also such a contrast to the drinks and blasting music on the bus I’d just been riding.

The meditators reminded me of Carolyn. Everything seemed to remind me of Carolyn.

She had been so important in my life. She was the doctor. She pulled my life out of the trash can. Although she didn’t officially diagnose me with Lyme, she essentially did, saying ‘this is what I think you have,’ and sending me to the Lyme expert who put me on antibiotics. And then with her wonderful naturopathic expertise, her caring spirit and her laughter, she got me through those first grueling years of antibiotic treatment.

It is now impossible for me to think about Carolyn without a sense of awe that she got me to where I am now.

The years since my diagnosis have not always been easy, and even now every day I am constantly preoccupied with how I feel physically, negotiating my way through little blips of brain fog and drops in my energy and blood circulation, worried that I won’t sleep at night if I don’t get the balance of exercise and medication just right. And yet I am doing so many things that for a decade of my life I wondered if I would ever be able to do again—such as walk down the street on my own two feet, live in a house that is not my parents’, write, read, and in general spend the day actually doing things instead of lying in bed.

Every time I think of Carolyn, I am filled with gratitude for this. Every time I think of her, it seemed impossible to me that I am here and she is gone. And now here I was at Burning Man—Burning Man, of all places!—going through this wave of emotions for Carolyn, one more time, in this strange place, and still feeling bewildered by my grief.

How could someone so powerful, so vibrant, die so suddenly?

I had walked the length of the Temple when my boyfriend found me. The wind was picking up and the dust was starting to blow. It was time to go back to the bus. I looked for a spot for Carolyn’s name and finally found one, and wrote some words that were far from adequate. “Thank you for getting me here. You’re with me always. I miss you,” I wrote. “Be in peace, Carolyn.”

I left the Sharpie for someone else to use, and we turned back towards the bus.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Picture me in a tent in the Nevada desert, the night I first arrived at Burning Man. I am alone and I am not happy.

For the two previous days I’d been on the longest road trip of my life, over sixteen hours in the car, the last three of which were in both a dust storm and a broiling traffic jam—the bottleneck at the single-lane entrance the Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held. I had loved the road trip, and hadn't minded the traffic jam. It was all part of this very different vacation I was taking with my boyfriend, whom I'd met speed dating six months before.

Our tent at 2:45 and G on the Burning Man grid, with the Cascadia Flag.
Once through the traffic jam, my boyfriend and I found our way to our campsite (an empty spot on a largely empty block, since it was the first day of the festival). We immediately got to work pitching tents and helping set up a shower as the sun blazed hotter and hotter. We were two of the first four to arrive at a campsite that would eventually have sixteen residents, and we worked steadily to get everything done before sunset. Without a kitchen, I sun-brewed coffee on the dashboard of the car, gratefully drinking it down and setting up a second round. I was short of sleep even when we left Seattle, and that coffee was the only means to keep myself going.
The first thing I saw when we arrived was part of the shower
system, an 'evap pond,' to prevent the graywater from draining
into the desert ground. Nothing else at our camp was up yet.

As we worked we listened to James Brown, not by choice. A block away a group of twenty-something men were building a Geodesic dome, and they had chosen the music—not a few songs, but the sex-machine’s entire repertoire. It was a lot of James Brown, and loud enough that I considered getting out my earplugs. As the Geodesic dome grew and the soundtrack switched to electronic music, I found my earplugs and put them in, which only cut the sound by a fraction.

The sun blazed on. We helped put up the giant kitchen tent that would serve our whole camp, unfolded chairs and a table, and a camp mate produced cookstoves and kitchen gear. Suddenly things were civilized. We ate dinner as the sun set and the techno beat drummed on.

The kitchen tent at the end of the day
Our neighbors with the Geodesic dome,
and non-stop electronic music

After dinner I started to walk out with others to the playa, the center of Burning Man, but I turned back before I made it there. I was so tired I could barely think straight or walk straight, and realized I wasn’t up for seeing anything spectacular, so I walked back to the tent by myself.

Picture me an hour later, in the tent alone. I’ve put on my pajamas and spent 45 minutes going through my nighttime medical routine, taking everything out of the half-sized cooler which I’d carefully transported from Seattle with a bag of ice so my medication wouldn’t be ruined by the heat. Lyme-fighting routine done, I lay down, although I had little hope that I would sleep.

When I closed my eyes, they filled with tears—because there were three different tracks of electronically generated music blasting into the tent from three different directions. It was so loud I couldn’t hear my own breath. My heartbeat involuntarily accelerated to the competing, frantic, synthetic beats.

Among the many things I had bought to prepare for Burning Man were both earplugs and construction worker’s earmuffs. I had understood there would possibly be unceasing music, and there would definitely be loud music. (“That thumping techno beat,” said a friend who had been to a regional Burning Man event, “it’s going to always be in the background and you won’t be able to get away from it.”) But the truth was I had no idea what I was in for.

While getting ready for bed I had put in my earplugs and over them the earmuffs and I still heard and felt the music, blasting into my ears, through my veins and bones. Desperate, I tried playing a white noise track I had on my own MP3 device, of waves crashing on a beach. Instead of drowning out the techno, it only sounded as if someone had setup an obnoxious, thunderous techno party at the beach.

If the music weren’t so inescapable and exhausting, if my nerves hadn’t felt so shattered, this would have been funny.

This was music transformed, remade into a destroyer god—if this electronic stuff, pure repetitive, aggravating beats, could even be called music.


I was once in a yoga class when the teacher said, “Now that we’re in pigeon position, see if you can reach your right hand back to grasp your right leg at the ankle or the calf, and from there hook your heel into the crook of your elbow to stretch your ribs.” (or some such complex, yogic pretzel-ish move)

“I’m not quite picturing how to do that,” one of the students said. “Can you demonstrate it so I can see what to do?”

“Actually,” the teacher said, “if your brain can’t follow the description, it’s a good indication that your body isn’t ready to do it yet. So just stay in the pose you’re in.”

Your brain cannot conceive of what the body cannot handle, or what the brain itself cannot handle, not until it encounters these things in real life. Before that moment in the tent at Burning Man, I had not been able to conceive that this assault on my nervous system could possibly happen, precisely because it was far too much for my nervous system to handle.

So I lay on the air mattress and cried, and I understood that coming to Burning Man had been a giant mistake. It occurred to me that I had written two fantastical/sci-fi short stories about women who are driven almost crazy by ceaseless music (one of them you can read here)—and even those stories the music never reached this pitch. I had willingly walked straight into a nightmare beyond my imagination.

What I was missing: night scenes from the Burning Man playa

At 11:30 pm, my boyfriend, who had walked out with the others to the playa, came back our tent. I turned away as he unzipped the door and came in. I didn’t particularly want to see him at that moment--or rather, I didn't want him to see me.

I had come to Burning Man because several months before my boyfriend had asked me if I wanted to go.

My boyfriend had not asked me to come with him to Burning Man, he had asked me if I wanted to go, and this was an important difference. That past winter, before he met me, he had decided to go because a group of his close friends were going back that year. When he asked me if I wanted to go, he had said something along the lines of, “I don’t want to influence your decision. I won’t like you any less if you don’t go. Burning Man isn’t the center of my universe and you should only do it if you want to.”

I decided that this was an opportunity to go somewhere and do something new, which is rare for me, because of Lyme disease and chemical sensitivy. I was motivated by curiosity, and by a sense of challenge. (Could I actually manage Burning Man while also managing Lyme?) And let’s be honest, I was also motivated because I wanted to do this with my boyfriend. I wanted to go on what amounted to an adventure with him.

It would have been very easy at that moment to blame my boyfriend for the shape I was in, but I couldn’t. This was my own mistake, from start to finish.

“You’re not asleep?” he asked now, when he saw me shift in the bed. I shook my head. I tried not to show him I was crying. In a few minutes he figured it out anyway. He put his arms around me and said things intended to comfort me.

“It’s just so loud,” I said through my tears. “I didn’t know it would be this loud.”

He said more things that under normal circumstances would have comforted me, but the music was still happening, and my body was still in shock.

At the same time, I was trying to understand how my boyfriend could think this was an OK place to be, not just for me, but for him, a place that was worth driving twelve hours to get to.

What had I seen so far of this man that would have given me a clue? The way he doesn’t like loud restaurants? The hours he spends tending his garden and hiking? Or quietly, deftly turning out watercolor paintings? The way he talks about the importance of getting out into nature, away from electrical devices and the electrical grid? Or that he decided against buying a piano in part because playing it would bother his neighbors?

“I know it’s loud,” he now said. “I remember the first time I came and I was trying to go to sleep and it felt so confusing, all this music coming at you from different directions, but then you just close your eyes and fall asleep.”

It was then that I understood that my boyfriend, as gentle and calm and tuned in to music as he is, has a nervous system work that works entirely differently from mine. That was why he hadn’t warned me clearly about the electronic dance music. He has the ability to simply block the music out, and so he assumed that I did too.

Soon this gentle, thoughtful man fell asleep in the middle of the maelstrom. I lay next to him, not asleep. I tried paying attention to my body. I sought out my breath. Yes, it was still there, if I concentrated I could feel it.

This is the oldest meditation technique in the world, literally: paying attention to your breath. My breath felt like a battle, but I told myself that as long as I could I feel it, it was some minuscule benefit to me and I could therefore make it through the night, sleep or no sleep.

This must have done some good because eventually I remembered there was one last herbal medication I could take, a tincture (called NT Detox) which I reserve it for when I absolutely can’t sleep. I found it in my medicine cooler at the end of the bed and used a flashlight to open the little bottle and take one drop, which is all I usually need to knock me out.

I lay back down and put my pillow over my head instead of under it. It didn’t muffle the music, but it was comforting. I found my breath again.

I must have fallen asleep because I woke at 4 a.m. The music was still blasting from all directions. I fell back asleep and woke again at 7:30. The music was still blasting. The fact that I had slept, however, seemed like a miracle.

I got up and found my shoes and started on the two blocks to the port-a-potty, knowing I’d been a dufus to come to Burning Man. The only thing to do was to get on a bus to Reno and then fly back to Seattle. I would figure out how to do that after breakfast. As I walked, the music faded away behind me and other sound systems from other camps took over.

The bright glow of sunlight across my face distracted me from my thoughts, and I looked up from my feet. I took in my surroundings. I was in one of the most visually stunning places I’ve ever seen.

The morning light across the desert was a fresh, yellow-gold hue. There were breathtaking mountains spiking across the horizon, in browns and russets.

A corner of Black Rock City in the morning. My iPhone photography skills don't do it justice.

The camp-city around me was a variety of tents and hexi-yurts, which are yurt-like structures made out of silver-sided, insulated sheeting. The hexi-yurts looked both ancient and futuristic at the same time. People were also putting up lace-like netting for shade, and building towers that would be the markers for their camps. I saw bikes tricked out to look like animals, and people wearing playful, elaborate clothing it was joy to see. Everything looked as if I’d stepped onto one of the best sci-fi movie sets imaginable.

A neighboring camp

A steam bath other neighbors set up, with evap pond

Another nearby tent

On the far side of the port-a-potties there was no blasting music. I walked on in that direction just for the sake of the quiet. Someone was building a giant golden dragon on wheels, the size of a city bus—one of the art cars I’d heard about. In the far distance was a bright red satin tent that looked as if it came out of fairytale.

The golden dragon: when it wasn't touring around Black Rock
City, it rested a few blocks from our camp

As I drew closer it seemed it was just someone’s tent. I suddenly felt hungry. Needing breakfast and coffee, I reluctantly turned back to our camp. When I arrived, the EDM was still blasting and my body and brain returned to their state of shock.

This is the wrenching contradiction of Burning Man. Visually, it was wonderful. People often compare Burning Man to the movie Mad Max, and this is partly true. I would say it’s Wes Anderson mixed with Mad Max, mixed with Steampunk, mixed with Traveling Circus. If you want to be endlessly amazed visually, go Burning Man.

But when it comes to the auditory side of Burning Man, it’s a disaster. It is entirely acceptable that anyone can blast any kind of music, most often the worst kind, at the highest decibels possible. People who return to Burning Man year after year are those who either like electronic music or have the ability to tune it out, no matter how loud. Even with earplugs, Burning Man is a recipe for going deaf young.


I am not able to tune out music. In normal life, I get worn out by the music playing in so many places. I once felt myself growing exhausted because a cellist was playing Bach at an outside seating area where I was having a conversation with a friend—I couldn’t handle both at once. Reading or writing while there’s music is impossible for me. This is the primary reason I don’t ever spend time in cafes: there’s always music, and it’s always loud. I’ve had moments when I’ve struggled to finish grocery shopping because of the background music in the store.

“How is that possible?” someone once asked me. “You dance all the time.” True, I am a dedicated dancer, taking classes and three times a week and practicing at home. And yet there’s no contradiction. I am all for listening, actually listening, to good music and connecting with it.

What I can’t do is shut it out, which is an ability most people take for granted. Since I came down with Lyme, this has been impossible. I remember playing John Coltrane while I wrote my college thesis, and spending tons of time in coffee shops writing and reading before I got Lyme. Now, however, I listen to music only while I’m moving to it or doing repetitive tasks like cooking. (And cooking and music is not the best combination, because I end up dancing instead of making dinner.)

Now that I am living with Lyme, my brain does one thing at a time only, and silence is essential for my well-being.

So, back at our camp at Burning Man that morning: I did not figure out how to get on the bus to Reno. I managed to get dressed, brush my teeth, and make breakfast while the multiple techno played, although all this felt like scaling a climbing wall. I had some vague thoughts about finding the bus, but it was something that would require me to pack up my things, dividing them from my boyfriend’s, and then get down to Center Camp, a place I hadn’t been yet, and navigate through the noise I imagined would be there as well, to find information on buses. This series of tasks, by no means challenges under normal circumstances, seemed impossible in the face of the EDM.

More camp members arrived Monday, and we helped them
put up their hexi-yurts while I contemplated leaving.

And so I stayed at Burning Man because my brain was too paralyzed that first day to leave. And because, despite how tormented I was, I didn't quite want to admit defeat. Not yet. To escape the little musical hell of our camp, I walked around our section of the city, in and out of zones of blasting music. I went to a figure drawing session that was in a blessed pocket of silence, and walked out into the desert for silence. Every time I came back to our tent there was the music, leaving me feeling like a deer in headlights. Still, I managed to fall asleep again Monday night.

And something utterly surprising happened Tuesday. That morning, my boyfriend coaxed me out of the state of shock for for an art tour. This was my first encounter with the Burning Man’s giant art installations. I was enchanted and moved and felt utter awe. It made sense for the first time that I’d come to this place. We rode the oversized VW bus (which, by the way, was also blasting music, but good music) until we were tired of it and decided to walk the mile back to our neighborhood, stopping to see friends from Seattle on the way.
An example of the art we saw Tuesday morning

The Totem of Confessions from inside (above) and outside (below).


An entrance to the art and activities at the base of the Man (above) and an organ created for Burning Man (below)

The stained glass ceiling from inside the Totem of Confessions, 
and a giant sculpture of a woman.

A mosaic, altar-like installation at the feet of the Man

Outside the ever-present port-a-potties, the dust was picking up

Back our camp, neighbors with assembled hexi-yurt

When we got back to our camp and the inevitable techno, I found I didn’t mind so much. I had adjusted enough that it didn’t seem worth taking the bus to Reno. I would stay at Burning Man. For the rest of the week, the EDM kept playing, but my brain managed by and large to put it in the background.

As the days passed, I encountered a few pockets of electronic music that was actually good: creative, melodious, joyful, and energetic. Music it was a pleasure to dance to, and so I danced. (This, however, was the exception.)

All dressed up on Saturday night, when they burn the Man. It was cold, so we wore our jackets.
(I'm in the middle, wearing a headdress I made, with my fellow campers Jan and Rebecca.)

I also managed to sleep around seven hours a night most of the week, but I never truly rested. How restful can sleep be under those circumstances? As the week wrapped up, a sense of just not being well crept into my body. Much as I had loved being there, had loved doing and seeing things I couldn’t have anywhere else, I needed to go home. I needed to rest.

We had to organize and dust off all our gear clothes
before we packed the car, but finally we got it done!

As we drove out of Burning Man and I heard true silence for the first time in eight days—pure, gentle, comforting silence—my body went limp. I simply could not move. Or talk, or do anything. Fortunately, my boyfriend was driving and I lolled my head against the passenger-side window. I felt the profundity of my exhaustion. I felt, finally, at peace.
The road home

Friday, September 11, 2015


I’ve done quite bit of travelling in my life, but Burning Man was hands down the weirdest trip I've taken. 

Yes, it’s practically a tautology to say Burning Man is weird. Burning Man—the gathering, festival, temporary city, giant party, make-shift religion—is supposed to be weird, and also wonderful and blow your mind, and that it did (although not in the way you think, dear reader). So that part of the strangeness was in fact not a surprise, not all that strange. For me the weird surprise was the entire trip--the process, from its start weeks before I left home, to its finish, which is still underway (I'm still washing the desert dust out of my clothes).

PaleoGreens & coffee making equipment in my food bag
But let’s back it up and say:
I DID IT. I was on the road and in the desert for ten days. I carried my medicine in coolers, which I kept cold by changing the ice daily. I did my injection in a tent, I translated my special diet to dried food (Paleo Greens powder, anyone?) and raw foods that would keep in a cooler (fortunately I’m already fond of sugar snap peas and red cabbage). I exposed my nervous system to far more stimulation than was good for it, and somehow zen-improvised my way through. I cried a every other day, rarely got a full night’s sleep, and for the first 48 hours I was back in Seattle I felt like my body was made out of lead. (I'm now feeling better.) 

It was complicated, sure, but I’m glad I went.

I saw art that was wonderful and inspiring, and I took in as much as I could of the detailed visual cacophony that was everywhere I turned. I got caught in outside in the dust storm that made national news, cooked dinner in a smaller dust storm that didn’t make national news, danced a lot but far from enough, met interesting people I wish I could have gotten to know better, and heard far far far too much really bad music (more on that in the next post). I took away some valuable lessons about taking care of myself.

A participant who made his bike into a moving fish sculpture.

All of that, plus a surplus of love and support, were part of the weird journey.


It’s not the weirdness itself that makes Burning Man strange. No, that’s far too easy. What made Burning Man so crazy for me, what kept me marveling every day (besides the amazing visual artistry) was the effort-to-benefit ratio.

In normal life, the effort-to-benefit ratio at least 1-1, if not less. For example, by working 40 hours, people have the means to sustain myself and members of my family the entire week. We make cars on production lines in a matter of days that people drive safely for years. Casablanca, shot over the course of several weeks, became a motion picture people watch for decades.

When it comes to Burning Man, this ratio is inverted. On a personal scale, my boyfriend and I spent weeks planning, shopping, altering tents, finding bikes and special lighting, making headdresses (ok, that was just me), then devoted five days to driving there and back, in addition to hours packing and unpacking the car (we spent six hours packing up on the day we left, in the blazing desert sun)—all of it to be there for seven days.

One of the smaller headdresses I wore in the desert
While we were there, we could easily spend a morning sweeping dust out of the tent, shaking dust off our bedding, buying ice for the coolers and pouring the previous day’s melted ice out of the coolers, putting water into our solar shower bags to we could wash in the evening, etc. The bathroom (port-a-potties) was several minutes walk away. If you had to pee, it took ten minutes. I was constantly applying sunscreen and moisturizer. This also took time.

For Burning Man, the norm is to spend a couple days setting up a camp that will last a week, a camp that somehow contributes to the gathering itself, by being artistic or quirky, or having a bar open with free drinks for passersby. Our neighbor arrived and spent two days building a giant, iridescent octopus that enveloped his jeep. He drove it around the city three times, then he took it apart before he drove home, to Alaska.

The gold standard is a team spending months building a four-story tall, heart-breakingly beautiful work of art that is a tower, a temple, a church and a photography exhibit all at once, and will exist for only a week out in the middle of the desert—before the same people burn the thing down, dousing it with fossil fuels so the conflagration will be all the more dramatic. (Yes, this is terrible on many levels.)

The Totem of Confessions, my favorite work of art at Burning Man. It no longer exists.

I suppose this fleeting quality is what makes Burning Man so special and so frustrating. There is so much, and you can’t get to it all, and you make such a colossal effort to be there and to see and participate as much as you can, and you know that if you could do and see it all your brain would explode anyway.

And yet, the effort itself is play and is love. Although part of the planning and packing and pitching tents was hard and felt like work, I loved much of it. The drive down and back were part of the adventure, the hours in the car with my boyfriend were some of my favorite parts of the trip. Going to the Goodwill to find the most dramatic clothing I could—it was not a hardship. But then I altered some of that clothing in ways that make it extremely unlikely I will ever wear it anywhere besides Burning Man. And it’s extremely unlikely I will ever go back, despite the wondrous weirdness.

Neighbors, with pig

More on Burning Man, including notes from my journal, in upcoming posts.

But this post is mostly going to be about the noise at Burning Man. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015


For the past sixteen years, I’ve basically been one of two places: Seattle and Washington DC. That’s to say, at my house or my parents’ house. And that’s it. There’ve been a few exceptions, brief trips to visit friends in Brooklyn or to car camp outside Seattle, once a year at the most, nothing compared to how I once traveled, studied, and worked in foreign countries--but that was before I came down with Lyme.

For me, part of having Lyme is having chemical sensitivity, sometimes called environmental illness. Going anywhere if you have chemical sensitivity can be daunting. Just walking into a building where there’s fresh paint can make you feel sick. Long distance travel can feel like an exercise in self-destruction. At the airport, you will breathe in massive quantities of jet fume. On the plane, you can get trapped sitting next to someone bathed in perfume. If you choose the wrong seat when you buy your ticket, you will inhale even more jet fume while in the air. (So here's the itp of the day. WHERE TO SIT ON AN AIRPLANE IF YOU HAVE CHEMICAL SENSITIVITY: anywhere in front of the wing. Yes, if you sit towards the front you’re more likely to die in the unlikely event of a crash, but if you sit towards the back, behind the engines on the wings, you are guaranteed to inhale quite a lot of exhaust.)

Staying in hotels is also troublesome. It means calling ahead to request they don’t use air fresheners in the room, and also bringing your own sheets in case you’re allergic to the detergent they’ve used on the hotel sheets. And after all that, you still might be allergic to the carpet. Then there’s all that medicine to organize and pack up. And don’t get me started on at eating out at standard restaurants when you’re on the anti-inflammatory diet.

When going to visit friends, this whole princess-and-the-toxic-chemical-special-diets-pea routine is the perfect recipe for being an annoying house guest.

It’s no wonder that on my own momentum I ping-pong back and forth the between two houses I know are healthy for me, my own and my parents’. It’s far easier to stay home, find interesting things to do in the city where I live, and invite people over to my place.

Then this past March I went speed dating. I met a guy who was artistic and creative, and into eating healthy food and avoiding the toxic chemicals. (A man who uses Dr. Brommer’s soap gets a million bonus points from me!) When I first walked into his house I felt a wave of relief and happiness. I wasn’t allergic to anything!

A few months ago, this guy asked me if I wanted to go to Burning Man.

“No, of course not. I can’t go anywhere,” was my brain’s automatic reaction, but I kept that reaction to myself. Because there was also another part of me, the part that was once a journalist, driven by curiosity. That part was someone who once, long ago, could throw a few changes of clothes, a notebook, and a mini-tape recorder in a backpack, and go anywhere. I lived in downtown Buenos Aires and flew to rural regions of Argentina to report on protests along the Bolivian border, I tracked down the historical traces of Che Guevera in Mexico City, and wrote about the homeless squatting in ecological reserves. I tried working on a farm in France, and camped on remote Mexican beaches for vacation. That part of me apparently hadn’t disappeared completely, because I found myself saying, “Burning Man? Maybe. Tell me about it.”

Perhaps I just wanted to dream for a little bit that I could go somewhere radically different again.

Meanwhile, as I’ve been spending more time with the speed-dating guy, I’ve taken the leap and done some travelling with him in small doses. We’ve taken a trip to Kittitas County (apple country) and some trips to a house on Puget Sound, about 90 minutes away, but this was the sort of travel where we packed our own sheets and food, and everything went off without a hitch.

Burning Man is also the kind of travel where you bring your own sheets and food, and tents and other gear for living in the desert. The desert camping part sounded daunting. So I read a few things on the internet about Burning Man. It didn’t seem that I’d be roughing it beyond my capacity. I had a long conversation with my naturopath about it. Her husband has gone to Burning Man, so she had some ideas for me. We strategized about what I could eat and how I could take care of my medicine and supplements in the desert. It seemed possible. Or I should say, it seemed like it might be possible. It seemed worth the gamble.

I'm making stuff to wear at Burning Man.

So I said yes, I’d go to Burning Man. I’ve been doing a lot of planning and packing and ordering special items in the past few weeks. And now Burning Man is just a couple days away. I am a little scared. There will be generators and loud music, lots of flashing lights and people everywhere, plus dust storms and heat--any number of things could go wrong, including sensory overload. I'm as prepared as I can be for that.

But there will also be a temporary Utopia of art, dance, yoga, lectures, acceptance, and (I'm told) everything you can imagine. Plus I can wear the costumes I made for the Seattle Solstice Parade, and all the other glittery clothes I own. (And some that I don't own, thank you, generous friends!)

So mostly, I'm excited. I may love it, I may hate it. I may do both. I might go home early on a bus if it doesn't work out, but I'm planning to explore and have fun annd leave after seven days. We'll see what happens!

Goggles--ready for desert dust storms!