“Let’s take a walk,” my mother said to me one afternoon during Burning Man. At this festival of wild dreams, fleeting but magnetic interactions and art that you can climb on — along with howling dust storms that blind the city without notice — a casual stroll to even the nearest port-o-potty can lead you hours away from camp.
We filled our water packs and, my mother being forward-thinking and experienced at creating luxury in environments of scarcity (she moved from the Soviet Union at 21 years old, already a mother), dumped some ice in hers from a cooler. I didn’t plan away on being long; well, that’s how good stories begin. You don’t get the journey you plan on, but you receive the journey you need. In this way, the carnival of light and sound reflects life. As usual, anticipating the experience more than my practical needs, I didn’t bring any snacks.
My mom, Kate, nearly 50 years old and still petite, slim and striking with short gray hair that shimmers naturally from black to bright silver, pulled up the fashionable compression stockings that guarded her knees, swollen and fractured after two near-fatal car accidents and a decade of distance running. I fussed with my tutu, trying to get it just right —
“Come on, don’t waste time!” she urged me, taking my hand in hers. Not that time mattered in this dusty horseshoe, but I knew what she meant. We walked away from our camp to the outer edge of the temporary city, all the way to the acid yellow “Do Not Cross” tape marking where the uncivilization ended and the desert began, alkaline and empty for miles until it was cut by a ring of stark bald mountains.
Rules about entering the desert are strictly enforced by volunteer rangers and police who lurk around the perimeter of the Playa (the name of the parched land where the festival is held). Cross the line and you will soon see a black dot racing towards you, curving towards the horseshoe of the city grid like a meteor hurtling to the gravity of Earth, a plume of dust billowing behind the truck. A jarring sight of power, since no vehicles in Black Rock City are allowed to drive above five miles per hour.
Mom and I gazed out at the silent blank slate surrounding us. Wordlessly, she slipped under the yellow tape and outside of the perimeter and waited for me to join her. One inch of dust gained us a world of freedom. Burning Man is a celebration, but it’s also a reminder of impermanence: The artwork is burned, the structures dismantles, the camps clear out and leave no trace in a matter of days. At the heart of the fun, fuel and fire is a pulsing emptiness — a reminder that the carnival of life is a dot of absurdity and love in the cupped hand of nature’s forces.
We take our sorrows with us to burn. They power our will to live and create. In previous years, I understood the “radical self-reliance” principle of Burning Man to mean reliance on one’s own knowledge, skills and survival handiness to contribute to the building of the city. Over time, I came to understand that you contribute your inner resources and share your personal strength and experience. You burn using that raw fuel that mixes with oxygen to power your dreams. We take these raw diamonds into the heat and cold of the forge of the desert and they emerge sparkling, perfectly imperfect.
The bond between my mom and I has been forged in the furnace of loss. This year, I moved across the country from New York (close to home) to San Francisco. This also marked the 20th anniversary of the death of my father and baby brother — my mom’s first husband and youngest son — and one year since the death of my beloved grandfather Boris, her father.
We took his photo with us to the Temple, his chiseled jaw and kind eyes sparkling above the message, “My first Burn.” He had always wanted to go, and even through the severe illness of his last years, paralyzed and suffering from phantom pains after a car accident, we tried to find ways to let him experience it, just for one day.
Each loss took a piece of the puzzle of home, heart and identity. And yet, each time we fell through the dark night of the soul, my mom and I found each other’s hands. Standing there at the edge of the city, like the knife’s edge of life at which we had found ourselves, we were obscured from view by a sudden dust storm.
The dense alkaline sediment from the ancient lake bed of the playa gathered tightly around us. Dark yellow patches of opaque dust swam by us like ghosts of the mysterious fish that once lived there.
We could see only one another, holding hands, and it seemed like we were the only two people lost in the turbulent currents of the space between the realms of the material and the spirit. The place where the souls of our loved ones roamed out of sight, but felt close by.
My mom’s heartbeat pulsed through her hands and I felt the connection we share, like two halves of a whole that was split in two at the time of my birth. I used to be afraid that it was unhealthy to be co-dependent, but I felt now the reality of our sacred interconnection between mother and daughter, friend and friend, sister and sister that will remain unbroken beyond the edge of time.
I knew this as I looked down at the cracked circle of playa below our feet, which could well have been the surface of Mars or some other distant dry planet, or the Earth before and after we are all gone.
“I love you to the edge of the cosmos and back,” I said.
“It’s always going to be the two of us, no matter what,” she said.
We squeezed hands and embraced. As quickly as an exhale, the dust curtain dropped away. In the distance, a ranger’s truck stirred and moved in our direction. We hopped back over the divider to the city and into new adventures.
We didn’t come home until 2 am. I was glad that Kate thought to bring ice water. I should have taken snacks.