Whenever I come back from an intense journey - as when I came back from my monthlong retreat to New Orleans a little over a year ago - I dread the inevitable question from well-meaning people: "So, how was it?" There's nothing wrong with this question, of course, but it's impossible to answer in a short sound bite. How was it? Well, here are a few descriptors:
Gorgeous. Dusty. Complicated. Exhausting. Scary. Adventurous. Surprising. Difficult. Dusty. Wonderful. Draining. Challenging. Entertaining. Dusty. Glittery. Fiery. Cold. Hot. Dusty. Inspiring. Disappointing. Exciting. Dusty. And did I mention Windy?
I've been back for five days and I've been severely depressed since the morning after my return. Wonderful friends had taken care of my cats and plants and home while I was gone for most of 2 weeks, but I came back to a feeling of deep loneliness. I felt like the only people who understood or cared about my experience were scattered throughout the country, and I had nobody who understood who could wrap their arms around me and lie with me to help keep the cold out. I cried to a loving, special Burner friend on the phone more than once about my loneliness, while pretending to everyone else that everything was OK. I lay in bed for the better part of 4 days, shaking with night sweats and other flu-like symptoms and watched movies and season 4 of Breaking Bad. My cat clung to me at night like a little furry baby, and I gained some comfort from him. At a couple of social gatherings, I watched myself keeping careful distance from people; my skin felt so thin that I halfway suspected people could actually see my nerves through it. I've never been good at projecting my voice, but lately my voice seems to have crawled back up under my breastbone to hide, and I can't cough it out.
Today I realized, at least in part, what's been happening with me: That my experiences on the playa had stripped me of all my preconceived notions of who I was, had shown me the reality of the situation: that all my stories about myself and others are just there as a distraction. When the stories and fantasies get stripped away what we do we have? Only our innocent flawed, complicated, boring, fascinating, fearful, joyful, fumbling, humble selves.
A Good Buddhist would say, of course, that this is the most blessed place to be: the place where there's no ground under our feet. Personally, I say it feels like shit even as I - counseled by my wise (and wise-ass) friend - do my best to sit with it, even enjoy it as the transformative experience the person I was before I went to the playa would have believed it could be.
And why DO we do this anyway? I do it because Burning Man pushes my limits like no other place on earth. It's a crucible, not just a playground. It's a deep valley of self-exploration, not just a huge rave. Also there are glittery things and a lot of things get put on fire (including, as it turns out, my hair when I spun fire before the Man burned.) Or wait, maybe I really don't know why I do this. Maybe I'm just a masochist.