Now that the dust has settled, I’m excited to share the experience of installing Varanasi Sage at Burning Man. From concept to installation, the entire project took one year, and what a year!
I went through my own metamorphoses during this experience. Doing everything for the first time, the processes of building, funding, and installing taught me like no other teacher. I found great rewards in the process: I felt supported in my art, I felt my art was received, I connected with people in new ways, and continually encountered the best of humanity.
A hidden gift in the process was creating the Varanasi Sage companion booklet, which I didn’t know was going to manifest until a few months before the installation was complete. This booklet is a culmination of my writing over the past several years, and something I desired for a long time, but needed the framework of the Varanasi Sage installation to create. I will offer the companion booklet as an e-book and audio book soon! Stay tuned!
After a full day building camp, several friends formed a group to go out. Of course I wanted to join! I grabbed my necessities (headlamp, toilet paper, goggles, emergency champagne) and hopped on my bike. As we turned onto the esplanade, art installations rose from the dust as far as I could see. I lagged to catch glimpses of them as we passed. Art or friends? Art or friends? Curiosity pulled at me.
And then — we approached a pier.
Group mission be damned! This was the emptiest the playa would be for the rest of the week, and soon the pier would be crammed with tourists.
I stopped and put my feet onto the dust. I pulled the scarf off my mouth and called to my friends: “Guys! I’m stopping to look at art!” Either they didn’t hear me or didn’t care.
Except for Kitten, my faithful companion.
“I can’t keep passing art installations. It’s our first night out,” I looked towards our group; they had already blended in with the other blinking lights.
“We have all week to find music, but we only have a week to look at art,” Kitten dismounted his bike.
We stepped onto the pier. Nets and ropes hung between posts, hammocks swayed beneath the boardwalk. A long string of lights romanced me. I hooked my arm into Kitten’s.
The boards creaked under our footsteps — just like the old boardwalks I’ve wandered along in seaside towns. And for a moment, when I relaxed my eyes and looked up, it felt like we were at the sea. But looking down, seeing the dry lake bed below us, I thought of the sheer genius and manpower it must have taken to build this dock — from the concept to the design to bringing the materials and assembling them in the middle of nowhere without basic amenities like running water.
We arrived at the midway tower. We leaned in to view its inner intricacies. Some people were gathered on the upper level; I’d be willing to bet they were drinking whiskey.
“Want to go up?” Kitten asked.
“Not particularly.” I felt content looking inside the tower at the details that made it seem more like a relic than a modern piece of art. It gave me a sense of nostalgia for a time I knew only in turn-of-the-century novels. Antique photographs, compasses, hourglasses, bound books, and glass bottles — in all colors, sizes and shapes — the scene piqued my curiosity to touch and pick up the items. Every detail existed for exploration, a mystery to be revealed, a reverie in which to lose oneself. It was a living, breathing piece of art that transported us to a different time and place. The curiosity, the wonder of it all, put me back into the frame of mind of a child: everything was new and strange and deeply interesting.
On the other side of the tower, we found an antique desk — the kind in which the door to the main compartment folds down to become the writing surface. My literary heart skipped a beat.
“And what could be inside?” My curiosity whispered with glee.
When I opened it, I found the cubbies, that once may have organized papers and mail, were filled with antique glass bottles. How odd. I touched a few, pulling them out of the compartments and examining their details, trying to understand their riddle. And then — I found one that contained a piece of paper.
“A message in a bottle!” I gasped. I lifted it with awe. The bottle’s long, skinny neck was jagged at the top. “What kind of message do you think it is? Profound wisdom?”
I slowly put my index finger into the bottle, careful not to touch the toothlike edge, but my fingertip barely reached the paper. I pushed in a little more until the base of my finger rested against the pointed teeth. I could only move the paper around in circles along the side of the bottle. The shape of the neck made it impossible to drag the paper out.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” Kitten warned. “We are in the middle of nowhere and it’s dirty. You’ll want a working hand for the rest of the week.”
I sighed and pulled my finger out. “I’m just too curious.” I turned the bottle over and around, trying to see if I could read the message from the outside, but the paper was folded in half. Even more mysterious. I inverted the bottle and shook it, but the paper wouldn’t fall out.
“Oh well, let’s go,” Kitten said. “Slicing your finger is a bad way to start your Burn.”
“Let me try one more thing.”
I held the bottle so the paper was at the very base of the neck. I put my finger back in and pressed the paper firmly against the glass. It slid along the edge, I almost got it passed the base of the neck, but it slipped back.
“Leave it, come on, there’s a lot more to look at,” Kitten said. “There’s bottles everywhere. Just look at all these bottles over here.” He motioned to a couple of antique suitcases behind us with bottles on top of them.
“I have to know what it says!” I insisted. “I can’t just find a message in a bottle in a desk on the dock in the middle of the desert and just — walk away without knowing what it says! A message in a bottle at Burning Man. Who knows what it says? Maybe it’s written by the artist.”
I turned the bottle a little more, got my hand on the side with the shortest teeth and finally — I had the paper sliding up the neck and out of the bottle! I held it in my hand like it was a golden scroll of truth. “Yes!” I said to Kitten, my eyes wild with excitement.
I unfurled the paper and paused. I was hungry for the message I worked so hard to receive, but needed a deep breath. Delayed gratification.
“Come on, open it,” Kitten said.
I opened the paper.
I read it aloud: “Go Fuck Yourself.”
Kitten and I looked at each other and burst into laughter.
“Oh that is good,” I said as I caught my breath.
“We should’ve seen that coming,” Kitten smiled.
“A special message from the artist,” I joyfully mocked myself as I folded the message and rolled it back up. “A message just for me! How absurd.” I laughed as I placed the paper back in the bottle, making sure it was all the way in for the next person.“Well worth the effort, I say.”
“It couldn’t have been more perfect,” Kitten agreed.
I put the bottle back exactly where I found it and closed the desk.
Kitten and I continued our walk along the creaking pier to the very end. I looked out at the playa — illuminated art installations dotted the landscape — and I realized this pier was on an endless sea of wonder.
“We made it!” I gasped when the first hints of light created deep blue swaths of color on the dark sky.
Music pumped from the Mayan Warrior’s sound system while its lasers sparkled and shot into the sky as if they sought to reach the stars. The DJ danced to his music in the center of the bus with his entourage around him. The crowd, enthralled by the music and the light show, moved rhythmically to the driving beat with their backs to the rising sun.
“Shall we?” my sweetheart asked.
“Oh yes, it’s time,” I said. I turned to our new friend Gregg and touched his arm with my gloved hand, “we’re going to celebrate the dawn with a bottle of champagne. Would you care to join us?”
His face brightened with surprise: “sounds great.”
We stepped from the crowd towards sunrise. Lasers continued piercing the darkness with criss-crossing patterns, but each beam of light lost its length as the darkness faded. Yellow and orange streaks appeared at the horizon. Some may say the heavy cloud cover blocked out a beautiful sunrise, but I think it created an intricate canvas for the growing light to paint upon.
“This is the real light show,” I said as a pink tints made their debut. “Even the most next level lasers can’t compare with Creation.”
The playa became white again and the mountains surrounding the flat lake bed appeared out of the darkness. We stopped far enough away that we could still hear the music, but not be distracted from the dawn. My sweetheart gave me the bottle of Champagne. I popped the cork and offered the first drink to Gregg. I took a deep breath as if to inhale the scenery and watched as the strip of sky between the earth and clouds became vibrantly yellow, orange and pink.
We drank our Champagne and soon the men began talking shop — both in the field of sound and music, they spoke in a language that I couldn’t understand. That’s when I unsheathed a pair of rainbow silk fans my friend and somatic healer, Muse, gave me in Spring.
As I touched the silk, her voice echoed in my mind: “These fans are medicine,” she said upon presenting me with the gift. “They will open your heart and give you more confidence; they will allow you to integrate more of your body into your dance; they will help you take up more space.” I didn’t understand what she meant. Why should I take up more space? For months they sat on a shelf.
Until that dawn.
I unwound the silk from the bamboo ribs. Wind immediately danced with the silk flagrantly showing off her natural talent. I hesitated for a moment, positioning my body so the silk could move and bend unobstructed through the air. Every color of the rainbow glowed in the morning light. Spreading the bamboo wide, the silk followed and softly, gently caressed the space around me. I lifted my arms and watched as the silk mirrored my movements, large rainbows flowing from my hands.
I moved my arms in large arcs and my hands in flicks to create waves of color — the wind danced with me. Together, we celebrated the morning star; together, we paid homage to the Creator of All. As I danced, I felt beautiful, free, and connected with Nature in a new way.
Vibrantly opulent colors at the horizon continued to announce the morning star, but to the west, clouds softened every hue.
Suddenly, it hit me: I understood what Muse meant. The fans helped me move in new ways extend my body in all directions, I was dancing without the constriction and confines that I wanted to break, and in opening my arms I was opening and stretching my chest and shoulders — I felt confident and effervescent — a far cry from the way I normally danced. Like a flower, my soul bloomed with the rising sun. Joy coursed through me as the sun first peeked over the horizon; I had to share my newfound expression of Love.
I saw a couple embracing not too far from where I swirled and played with the wind. They, too, appeared to me as a perfect reflection of Love. Approaching the strangers, I did not feel one iota of doubt or self-consciousness. I let the fans lead the way, guided by the wind’s breath and the slow movements of my arms.
As I came close to the couple, they turned and looked at me with smiles on their faces.
“Do you mind if I celebrate you for just a moment?” I said raising the rainbows into the air.
I danced around them, extending the expression of my love and devotion to meet theirs and converge in reverence to the day.
“What’s your name?”
“Whisper,” I said, introducing myself with my playa name. “What is yours?”
“Out here, I’m Radical, and this is Kam.”
“It’s lovely to see you here,” I said. “Can I give you a hug?”
“Yes,” Radical extended his arms.
Kam opened his arms next, “thank you for the celebration.”
“I couldn’t help myself, you two are so beautiful — I was drawn to you.”
They both smiled at me and then at each other.
“Recently,” Radical said to me, “I’ve become interested in signs and symbols — as a way to communicate with — you know — Creator, Universe, One, Source, whatever you want to call it.”
“I understand you, whichever term you want to use,” I said.
“Ok, so, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but in the story of Noah, the rainbow appears at the end of the flood, communicating divine mercy — it’s an act of compassion, kindness, and love. It shows divine favor. And recently I’ve been thinking, the most compassionate and loving thing we can do for ourselves and others is to forgive,” despite his smile, tears sparkled in his eyes reflecting the sunlight. “I’m overwhelmed with the beauty of this moment. I feel so loved — seen — by the Divine. I’ve been feeling this gentle nudging in my heart and spirit to forgive, but my ego gets in the way. Now I’m seeing my true path — it’s one of forgiveness, love, compassion, mercy — for myself and everyone around me. The deepest desires of my heart and spirit — this force of Love that’s greater than us — it sees me, it knows my desires and it’s telling me I’m supported.”
I put my hand to my heart acknowledging the power of his statement. “I have been feeling the same way. I never considered that rainbows are a symbol of love, but that’s what I’ve been feeling, too. I brought them out to celebrate and appreciate the dawn. And your movement towards forgiveness, I can relate so well to your experience. I have also been wanting — needing to practice what I consider ‘radical forgiveness’ for myself, for the people I love, for strangers. And like you, my ego is the one that holds me back. But you’re right, that’s what Spirit wants from us. Even deeper, this moment, you — you’re also showing me that Spirit sees and hears my deepest desires. I wrote a list of intentions before I came to Burning Man. And our interactions right now are fulfilling, well, pretty much all of them!”
Kam raised his eyebrows and looked at Radical with a knowing smile: “I told you that you’d meet your mirrors on the playa.”
Radical beamed, “we are reflections for each other!”
When Gregg and my sweetheart joined us I introduced my new friends. Together, we rode past the lighthouses, through the speed-of-sound hoops and to the BAAAHS (an art car resembling a sheep). We danced, we took a slide through the sheep, we climbed to the second story and we talked about our lives, our experiences and our dreams. We even ate freshly baked chocolate chip cookies! Someone had the foresight to bring a portable oven and we were lucky enough to find them.
The sun lifted higher into the sky, the BAAAHS pulled away and we knew it was time to get back to our respective camps. On our way, we rode to the temple, which had yet to open.
“It’s incredible the amount of manpower and care this construction requires,” Radical said. “And then for it to burn.”
I marveled at the stacked boards that created an airy, ornate pagoda. “Last year, watching all the art burn helped me learn to let go. We work hard, we want to create something with our time on earth, and ultimately we die. But it’s glorious. Our lives can be a work of art, created just for creation’s sake. And to make an impact on all those who witness it, however brief we exist and however many people we encounter.” I thought of the fans and Muse’s message to me. How could I have known the medicine she spoke of would connect me to others, spread Divine insight, and help me manifest my soul’s desires.
“Maybe that’s part of the lesson of forgiveness. Maybe it’s an art. I know it’s a process of letting go, but it can also be the way we have an impact on others. Forgiveness is Love. Shouldn’t we give that to ourselves and others freely? We will burn away at the end of our lives, I think the question we have to ask ourselves, is how can we make our lives something beautiful? Even if it houses pain, like the temple. It can still be beautiful and an expression of Love.” Radical took off his backpack and began rummaging through it. “I want you to have this,” he held out a glass figurine.
An angel, with large wings and folded hands, looked up at me.
“I put this in my backpack last night,” Radical continued with a soft voice. “I believed I would meet an angel — I needed, wanted an angel. It’s you. You saved me spiritually this morning. You restored my faith. The Divine spoke to me through you.”
“What an incredible gift. I humbly accept it, but I wonder much I deserve it since the fans did most of it.” I held the gift in the palms of my hands and thought of Muse and the ripple she started. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me. Our entire experience has been an incredible alignment. I feel like it was destiny. Like I was in the right place at the right time, and that I followed the soft voice that told me to celebrate you. And as we are mirrors, you are my angel, too. Meeting you and having this connection is exactly what I wanted coming to the Burn.”
“Please come to our camp,” I told him. “This evening we’re having a party and I would love to give you a gift so that you have something to remember me by.”
Radical agreed, but we knew the challenge of meeting again on the playa — forgetting an address, losing track of time, or getting swept away in some other moment. We all said our goodbyes, thanking our lucky fortune for meeting each other.
As our bike paths diverted, I held the angel in my hand with gratitude and asked her to bring them to our camp that night.
All photos and videos courtesy of Radical and Kam.
I learned about Second-Sunday when I first started living as a glamsient and spending time with other glamsients. An unplanned extension of the weekend and luxurious expression of freedom, Second-Sundays are spent with friends enjoying leisurely, Sunday-esque vibes.
Earlier this month, after attending the Big Surreal boutique festival, I headed to Carmel-by-the-Sea for a Second-Sunday, which turned into a Third-Sunday to celebrate Linney’s birthday.
The day began with brunch and bottomless mimosas at Carmel’s Bistro Giovanni followed by afternoon cocktails and appetizers at Grasings — our favorite place to splurge. We laughed at our opulence as appetizers led to dinner; just days before, we were covered in dirt and eating on the ground at the Big Surreal. Satiated and in high spirits, we imagined the most glamsient way to end Linney’s birthday celebration. Of course Linney knew what to do: grab a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and drink it out of plastic cups!
The clerk at Nielsen Brother’s Market didn’t give us a funny look when we asked for plastic cups as we bought the Veuve; she even put the bottle into a paper bag!
Lounging in the evening light, telling stories and listening to the waves at Carmel Beach, we watched the sunset and opened the bottle of Veuve with gratitude. We drank out of the plastic cups, and we drank to our thankfulness — for the ocean, the sunset, and that we live our dreams and follow our fancies. Most of all, we were thankful for each other, because without friends, Second- and Third-Sunday is just free time.
Linney, now the media director for her local NORML chapter and no longer homefree, introduced me to the glamsient lifestyle. We met at my friend James’ Lightning in a Bottle pre-party.
When I walked onto the property, she was sitting with James and a few others next to the salt-water pool. Everyone was in festi-attire. Each unique, yet typical: cat ears, gypsy pants, leggings, crop tops, tie dye, faux fur.
Linney stood out. She wore a crown made with large pieces of smokey quartz crystal and a see-through little black dress. Gold jewelry sparkled on her ears, neck and wrists; a diamond ring on her right hand glittered in the sun. A long, pashmina scarf draped from her shoulders. She poured a glass of red wine.
James gave me a bear hug when I walked up, but he was mostly preoccupied with his mirror, so I sat down next to Linney.
“Hello!” she smiled. Her teeth glittered like her diamond ring. “Want some wine?”
“I’d love some.”
“Here,” she handed me the glass she had just filled. “I’m Linney.”
“Chelsea,” I said.
“How do you connect with us?” she poured herself a glass of wine.
“I know James. He gave me a ticket.”
“Me too! I think he’s bringing most of us here. He gave his favorite broke friends tickets. Cause he wants us to be there with him.”
“Seriously?” I couldn’t believe it. “How many of us?”
“Maybe, like, ten or fifteen.”
I did the math in my head — more than $3,000 on tickets for his friends. Damn. Wow. Here I was thinking I was special.
Linney laughed, “he’s the best kind of eccentric rich guy: generous.”
“Indeed… To James,” I said, raising my glass.
“To James!” she tapped my glass with hers. “The only reason we’re here.”
“So, you’re broke, too? Hard to believe.”
Linney laughed. “Yep. I’m a hobo!”
“No way! Me, too!” I laughed along with her.
“You are?! Oh em gee. James finds all the bohemian strays and gives us homes.”
“That’s so funny. I thought I was the only one who lived on his land.”
“Almost everyone here lives on one of his properties. He has so many. You can tell the ones who don’t because they are his rich friends.”
“I would’ve thought you were one of his rich friends!”
“Really?” She looked earnestly into my eyes.
She flipped her hair over her shoulder and laughed at the sky, “I’m rich in fun!”