A lot of stories that I’ve read about burning man are marked by effusive outpourings of new-found everything - the missing piece of a person’s existence finally coming to fruition, a sense of love and acceptance from others that one had never previously witnessed… realizing a life-long dream, or coming away with an overwhelming sense of gratitude that pierced the depths of someone’s soul to the core … And, without a doubt, these are all TRUE stories about burning man, sincere takeaways being recounted by folks who were moved by the experience in a multitude of beautiful ways.
This story isn’t quite about any of those sentiments… it’s not particularly dramatic, passionate or arresting in nature, and I don’t think hearing about it will change anyone’s life; I do, however, think that it illustrates, in a simple way, the nuances of why so many among us have come to hold burning man culture in such high regard.
As I wondered around the playa, chit-chatting with folks here and there, I found myself becoming a walking advertisement for the city of San Francisco. Folks from Houston, Orlando, and suburban Minnesota spoke of similar circumstances: this was the one week each year where they could “let loose”, be their “real selves”… it was their first time walking around topless, experiencing true liberation and total non-judgment!! Secretly curious as to if I should ascribe my relative nonchalance to being slightly jaded or just purely to being a native Bay Area-an, I nonetheless enthusiastically lauded their enjoyment of these aspects of burning man, always eventually saying “…well…have you ever thought about moving to San Francisco…?” When mentioning that I was a first-timer, I was repeatedly and knowingly met with, “OHHHHH SO I bet you are you just going around with your mouth hanging wide open down to the ground here, aren’t you!!??!!!”
No – I wasn’t. Much of burning man culture was not new to me at all - significant bits and pieces were already woven into my daily life - and for that I felt humbled and blessed. In the same vein, a few us quietly poked fun at the common “welcome home!” greeting, and at the notion of “going home” - lucky for us, though, our home in San Francisco really WAS a generally welcoming environment when it comes to freedom of expression and individuality.
Yet in the least expected and often least intense moments of the week, the newness and other-worldliness of burning man would surely hit me. One of those instances took place right before sunset on our first day there. Two friends (from home) and I had been drifting around for hours, exploring with no real sense of time or urgency, all there was to be seen and done. At one point, we came across a young lady standing alone in the desert next to an unobtrusive table and two chairs… in light of most of the other installations surrounding it, in fact, it was downright modest, hardly even worth noticing. We greeted her, exchanged a few words, made introductions, and learned that her playa name was Foxy…shortly therein, she informed us that she had helped construct the table…would we like to look at it? And oh, would we like to have some wine, even?! She had a bottle of wine open… and she had some chocolate!!
As the wine was brought out, we remarked on the attractively designed label: “Three Wishes” was the brand… or the name of the winery…but how perfect! There were three of us…and accordingly, we should surely offer to grant Foxy three wishes!!! We all marveled at the synchronicity of our little meeting, and at the name of that particular brand of wine…in that moment, it just seemed so perfect and lovely that such a coincidence was brought upon us!
“I wish for you to come sit with me at my table that I made…
I wish for you to drink my wine…
and I wish for you to eat some chocolate!”
(Those were Foxy’s three wishes).
Suffice it to say that she certainly could’ve wished for something much more far-fetched and outlandish, and we would’ve done our darn best to grant her those three wishes. But she didn’t - she just turned it right back to us. She WANTED to make it all about us, and her only gain and sense of fulfillment from the interaction was founded on her being able to give us that. So, we let her…we laughed, talked… passed around the wine, swigging from the bottle… she was from Oakland…the sun was getting lower and lower…a dusty sunset…I unwrapped a piece of Lindt white chocolate, it glided into my mouth…red wine and white chocolate….we took pictures… of each other… with Foxy…in different combinations…someone sent a cloud of smoke up into the sky in the shape of an infinity loop… it floated there in the distance. And there we were…sitting at Foxy’s little table…granting her her three wishes.
I loved that evening so much. It was enough to make me a believer.
I didn’t get blasted out of my mind or have sex in the middle of the desert, as many people mistakenly categorize a likely burning man week. I didn’t have a profound realization or self-actualizing moment that changed me from that point forward (at least, not to my knowledge)…upon returning, a friend asked me if I felt like “a new woman” - and I don’t think I would be portraying myself accurately if I claimed to be a new woman as a result of attending burning man. I even got moderately pissed off when The Man’s embers flew fairly far out to where our camp was sitting, and burnt a big hole into the left leg of one of my favorite pairs of pants!
But what I DID have was, I had some fucking wine and chocolate while sitting at a hand-made table with the sun setting over the mountains alongside one of my best friends in the entire world and her gentleman friend thanks to a woman we had just met by chance named Foxy who cleverly found a way to diffuse our somewhat creative yet miniscule attempts to return her generosity. It wasn’t important that any of us try to maintain a life-long friendship with Foxy, get her life story, or even get her contact info. What mattered was being there and enjoying it, with no expectations, assumptions or unspoken agreements. We just let it come. After a while, we ran off to climb on a nearby dome, and as it tends to happen at burning man, one episode melted into the next…
My friend did encounter Foxy once more, though, in fact. At the temple a few days later, my friend had composed several notes. Soon after delivering them to the walls, and feeling rather emotionally hijacked, she turned to find Foxy standing behind her, and they shared an embrace. My friend described that hug as the one thing that she really wanted at that point - just a heartfelt hug from a familiar face.
Amidst the many strongly inspiring accounts of mind-blowing journeys and uncharted paths to self-discovery, I also hope that others can revel in the simplicity of burning man culture too. Burning man holds a lot of meaning to a lot of different people for many different reasons, and while it didn’t flip me upside down and inside out on the shock-value spectrum, it provided me with a vast space to have a lot of love and generosity lavished upon me in any number of large and small, expected and unexpected ways… and that alone was possibly enough to make my jaw drop maybe to at least my knees :)