A story from my first Burn

It was my first visit to Temple. In retrospect, I had biked out to it with a blindly cavalier attitude; having hit the 10:00 edge of the city, I thought I’d “might as well” just keep going and check out the Temple, propelled only by the blank curiosity of seeing another art installation, another pretty structure.

There’s a manifest immediacy to the space inside the Temple, a quiet power which lets the normal chatter of your mind see its own triviality, and gently cease of its own accord. You walk amongst the charged silence of your fellow human beings, see their scrawled messages of love and loss, and with your mind clear of noise, you see straight through to the bottom, to all the feelings of your own life.

It was just as well that I’d come to this place on a whim; nothing could have prepared me for this anyway, for being inexorably confronted with all my un-dealt-with pain, worry, doubt, and fear, just by stepping into a room. Thoughtfully, some kind soul had written “LET GO!” in giant green letters inside, so with at least that much understanding of what I was there to do, I scrounged up a Sharpie and tucked myself into a corner of the Temple, taking refuge under the low-slung roof.

It was a quiet nook that I found, but I wasn’t alone there. There was a young woman, about my age, who was there before me, and somehow had wedged herself even further out of the way than I had. I didn’t know her, and we didn’t exchange any words, but I could plainly see the pain she faced; it clenched up her jaw, threatened to spill out of her eyes, and sometimes turned her head away to one side, as if her eyes could be averted from darkness within. Whatever it was, she’d clearly been there dealing with it for some time already.

An hour later, both of us were still there together. My face now looked as pained as hers had been, and hers didn’t look any better. I’d written a message on the wall, and while that felt helpful, letting myself openly feel some of my pain, I also felt that it was not yet time for me to leave. But I didn’t know what else to do, didn’t know what else I needed to do in order to not just accept my pain, but to fully “LET GO!” of it.

As it turned out, I was just minutes away from seeing the answer.

While I was sitting there, a man walked in with his three year old daughter in tow, and sat down just in front of the nook shared by me and my anonymous comrade. The girl found herself next to a pile of different-colored Sharpies, and immediately began scribbling on her corner of the Temple. Quickly satisfied with her work there, she then began to draw big meandering loops all over her arms – in indelible ink.

Her father tried gently to get her to do anything else, since “mommy’s gonna be mad with me” for letting her draw on herself. He suggested many things for his daughter to do instead, but she shot all of them down, sticking to her artistic calling with single-minded focus, adorning herself with more giant green and orange squiggles.

I’d been halfway watching this scene, amusedly at first, but after it’d gone on for several minutes, I started to feel a little irritated. I saw it ultimately as a distraction from my task at hand, instead of an opportunity to complete it.

But the opportunity was there, and although I didn’t see it, my neighbor in my nook did. I glanced over at her, and saw that she, too, was watching this little girl’s little drama, but with a look on her face that astonished me. The pain which had marred this woman’s face for the past hour had vanished, and all I saw now was a look of tender joy. She cleared her eyes of their remaining tears, leaned in towards the girl with her bare arms, and said, “You can draw on me if you want!”

It was such a small gesture, but with no exaggeration I can tell you that it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I still can’t help smiling every time I think of it. A gift was given, and everyone benefited. The girl was shy at first, but quickly became enamored with her new canvas, and completed her masterpiece there. The father was relieved that his daughter would escape the Temple with some skin still unaltered.

But the person who received the most here was the woman who gave the gift. After the father and daughter left, she sat there with her arms stretched out in front of her, regarding the girl’s erratic squiggles with a look of absolute rapture. And whatever she had come into Temple to grapple with, after that act, it was finished. She said, “That just made my week,” packed up her things, and glided out into the sunshine.

It made my week, too. And I found myself wondering what on earth I’d thought I needed to let go of, when I’d seen that there was such beauty in the world, and seen how easy it was to create more of it. I wrote a quick second message in which I said goodbye to my doubts, left the Temple, and proceeded to have easily the best week of my life.

I’m sure I’ll never run into that woman again to thank her, and I honestly don’t know if I’d recognize her even if I did. But if any of you have gotten anything out of reading this, I hope that’s thanks enough.

I also owe thanks to my friend Emma, for editing this post; my friend Alex, without whose help I couldn’t have made it out to Burning Man this year; and my camp, Black Rock Cantina, for being my home away from home.