I attended Burning Man for the first time in 2016. It was the best thing that could have happened for me at that point in my life. I left feeling invigorated and revived, having reclaimed permission to love my broken self again.
I thought Burning Man had given me a new lease on life, but it had actually prepared me to deal with my dad’s sudden death. It was a blessing disguised by what had initially been a more exciting package.
Every burn is different. For me, 2016 was life-giving even in the face of my father’s death. So when I returned to the default world after the event, Black Rock City remained a beacon of hope. It had been my last hurrah before shit hit the fan, like my innocence had been left there.
I spent the next year slogging through continued trauma and unraveling stability. In many ways, the memory and distraction of Burning Man kept me going. My dad had died. I lost and couldn’t regain weight. Trump was elected. My healthcare was threatened multiple times by Congress. Cross-country travel to manage my dad’s estate was physically taxing. Changes in medications caused my appetite and weight to drop even further. And I entered the verge of homelessness.
I was desperate to return to the place that had saved me. So return I did.
The 2017 Burn could not have come at a better time. I arrived in Black Rock City the most broken I have ever been, with very little self-worth remaining. The three things I had managed to hold onto were hope, a shred of determination, and memories from the previous year.
2017 was very different.
It wasn’t as profound as I had remembered. I was looking for the Sorcerer’s Stone I had extracted the previous year, before I’d experienced the trauma of burying my estranged father. I realize now that it was precisely because I was looking for the eureka moment that I couldn’t find it.
What I did find was an art installation.
A lone skeleton hunched over on a park bench holding her heart in one hand, covered in alkali dust, beckoned to me in the middle of a white out dust storm. Chills ran through my body, even in the heat.
I was terrified. And captivated. I thought, “Am I dead? Is that – me?”
The thought paralyzed me. My body rooted itself in place and forced my two booted feet down with muffled thuds into the dust as my bike skidded to a halt, my heart echoing the persistent throb of the electronic music pervading the Playa.
Except that’s not what happened. Not that first time. My body hadn’t stopped – it was only in my mind I felt the dust rise up like soft socks around my ankles and saw the skeleton looking up with piercing non-eyes, sucking my breath out of my soul.
My brain had been paralyzed while my body continued pedaling.
I glided by, craning my neck backwards every few seconds to make sure I had not imagined an apparition.
I felt nauseous.
And I knew I would be back.
Ever since my diagnosis of Ankylosing Spondylitis I have developed an interesting relationship with skeletons – one reason being that I feel more like a corpse: rigid, fragile, thin – the other that my bones could fuse together from spinal bone spurs. Then there’s also the fact that I see a full-sized skeleton model at every doctor appointment.
The beauty and the eeriness of this woman tugged at my soul – and my back – constantly. The miniature silicone skeletons decorating my bike basket seemed to reach for her, too. I needed whatever it was she was supposed to represent of my life. She had crawled inside me and felt like – me.
She was me, hunched over on that bench. Dead. Having given up, breathed my last breath. Having expired.
Or was it something else?
I rode by her every chance I got. There was a force-field around her every time. I was walled off by some invisible shield of my own mind’s creation. I was haunted and mesmerized. I wanted to run but I also needed to feel. We all take away from art what our life experiences have molded us to need, and I teetered between logic and emotional memory.
She was an inanimate object. But she was also breathed emotion.
On the last day, before the Temple burned, I was finally able to touch the woman, this skeleton with feet that moved when the wind blew. Whereas before I had been mortified, imagining her suddenly grasping my hand and looking up with a face of death, I actually felt calm, comforted, and safe.
When I was able to touch this skeleton on a bench in the middle of the desert I felt very alive, as if she had given me strength, as if I had made peace with something. So I spent time with her in the nothingness, in the silence of the desert, as dust enveloped us both.
She was me, sitting there on the bench. Alive. Having breathed my first breath, having been validated.
Note from the artist, Candi Carrell:
“I am honored as an artist that you had a personal connection to my piece. that is such a compliment to me. This piece that I did this year was very personal/emotional for me, My piece- Rituals of Love- Broken Hearts and Lost Dreams – reflects a women ( me) or any other women that is going through the many struggles in their life. For me lost loves or no love, self reflection of who I truly am, coming out of the closet, fears, lost dreams because of other paths chosen, grown children, health, chapters closing and the realization that I want to be loved but haven’t found that connection. We as women share many hearts and sometimes lose them along the way, we are extremely strong but with each heart taken from us – extremely fragile like a skeleton.”