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!
[This story appears in a new compilation that’s available as part of my Varanasi Sage art installation. For more information, including how to receive a copy, please click here.]
Faithful observers, large and wise; monoliths standing emphatically. Jutting from the earth in rising balconies and towers, watching, witnessing. Boulders looming, rocks piled, guardians of the cave. Trees flourish in crevices with cool mineral moisture. The trail, meek between giants. My body even smaller.
A large metal gate at the entrance. “Flashlights Required.” I pull out my headlamp. I crouch and squeeze between rock bodies, layered and etched with the Sculptor’s tools; rigid, yet crumbling. Gentle giants summoned by the earth’s heart, set into place. Darkening. Light cut through holes, cracks between boulders, lighting the way over bridges and up stairs. Bold and industrial gifts from the New Deal and Civilian Conservation Corps.
Further inside, my lamp finds little white arrows painted, marking the trail. I follow and follow, deeper and deeper.
The cool, dark, deep quietude penetrates my being. The awe of sacred knowing. Completely held inside the earth’s body — her smooth touch embraces me, like a wounded bird in caring hands. With only my breath and the rock, I sit and turn off my headlamp. Surrounded, supported, my body soft and humble, yet unafraid to share space with titans arranged into impossible shapes, moved like pebbles. Spirits born from the depths of the earth.
To sit amongst them within their chamber, entities unfathomable, a guest in their great hall. Without sight and sound, I dissolve into the rock, the air, the empty space. She comes to me, the deepest part of me, the same part as her living body, connected. The outside world lost to her embrace. My heart turns over to hers and the feeling of oneness, endlessly present in time.
[This story will appear in a collection of shorts for Varanasi Sage, due out July 1, 2019.]
I opened the door, welcomed by early morning light peeking around clouds, caressing the world. Unseen doves proclaimed the day’s arrival in trilling coos. Oaks stretched in wild formations. Brown grasses stood defiantly against their drought deaths. The distant scent of a wood-burning stove — a reminder of recent wildfires that stopped at the next ridge. Deer tracks in the dust said I was not the only one who walked the trail.
They carried a flash, a remembering from my youth, making eye contact with a doe. She led me past trees, through ferns and ivy to her fawn, chestnut with white spots, nestled in the grass. Vulnerable. The doe watched as I knelt beside her baby, as I touched its tiny head, unaware of the danger to its fragile life.
Through oak trees, lichen drooped long from their branches, the filtered sun created irregular, glowing shapes on the forest floor. Branches and leaves formed a tapestry of life, thick with energy, magnifying their essence and intensity. I was just one small organism in the network of life.An enormous oak whose wide-spread branches twisted and turned, defied all patterns and rules. I approached the grand dame in awe of her divine, ancient presence, and when I moved under her furthest reach, the forest suddenly went silent.
A covey of quail (dressed in fancy spots, stripes and bobbling headpieces) whistled as they ran on speeding legs. A crinkling — Towhee kicking up leaves, flying in unison on purring wings when I approached. Acorn Woodpeckers squawked, perched on tree trunks — wearing tuxedos and red caps — drilling holes, stuffing them. Their gleeful chucking like happiness on the wind. I passed a giant oak, split at it’s lowest, thickest branch — down the middle. The top half on the ground, the trunk standing a jagged obelisk, rotted at the split.
Around a bend, a rhythmic cascade, almost like dropping water. I stopped to listen, but couldn’t make out the sound.
Slowly and quietly I walked, listening without seeing the source. At the crest, down the shaded hill, 5 or 6 deer chased each other, leaping between trees. They moved in s-curves, criss-crossing, creating figure eights with narrow hooves, playing like children in the forest. Nearer and nearer, they were so absorbed in their chase they didn’t notice me. Closer and closer, astonished by the sight, as close as I could get on the trail.
Overzealous, I stepped off the path and my human feet crunched leaves. Without showing signs of seeing me, they bounded away in perfect time through the meadow. At the edge of the forest, an antlered male turned back to look at me — knowing me, beckoning me on.
On the other side of the meadow, the deer had left no trace.
A thick oak with a large horizontal branch, an arm reaching, pulled me off the trail. I hoisted myself up, stretched my legs and reclined back. Cradled in her arm, I gazed past the canopy to the sky. Rustling, fluttering, croaking, squeaking, laughing, whistling, chattering, calling. Each voice joined in one abundant song.
I could have lounged for hours, held by the tree and listening; yet, the forest did not sing for me. Symphonies without need for an audience. A true artist: creating for herself.
“Show me the way,” I whispered. “How can I create like you?”
Close your eyes.
Moments passed, my ears opened to subtle layers of the song. Singers unashamed of their sound they received at birth. Each day a new score created without doubt or self-consciousness. Each voice accepted exactly as it was — knowing it had a welcomed part.
It’s late and I’m watching the newly-waxing moon set in the west. I’m driving through the mountains, en route to Black Rock City for Burning Man. This will be my third time participating in the art and music festival. Last year, I set intentions that mainly focused on my interactions with other people. And although they were extremely elevated, I saw and felt my intentions manifest in some of my experiences.
I’ve been humbled and challenged this past year — especially recently — and my intentions reflect my need for deep nourishment and reflection.
To share our intentions is to empower them. Please read mine below:
I intend to reestablish my relationship with my creativity; to fully engage with the art installations at the festival and allow myself to be inspired and motivated by them. I need to reset my relationship with my creativity in order to create for creation’s sake without the desire to be seen, popular or make money. This will afford me the freedom I need in my artistic pursuits. I must reconnect with my truth that God’s gift to me is my creativity and my gift back to God is using it.
I intend to be open to receiving the keys I need to enhance my productivity and fulfillment.
I intend to continue the process of letting go of the pain and hurt I hold onto by releasing the people and events from my heart that continue to cause me suffering.
This year, I would like to feel and witness the expansive love that is my true essence, so that I will know who I am.
I step outside. The sun peeks around clouds to caress the world and welcome me. Unseen doves proclaim the beauty around us.
Dew rests on the earth; oaks stretch in wild formations. Brown leaves blanket the ground and young grasses grow amongst those that had died in summer. Moisture adorns foliage with drops that sparkle and glitter in the sun. Deer tracks tell me I am not the only one who walks this trail.
I take a deep breath; crisp, clean air fills my lungs. The distant scent of Linney’s wood-burning stove reminds me that only a few months ago a wildfire raged in these mountains.
I come to a clearing and see a flock of quail, each dressed with its own fancy spots, stripes and bobbling headpiece. They whistle as they run away on speedy legs.
I hear a crinkling sound and see California Towhee kicking up leaves to forage beneath them. As soon as I’m close, they fly away in perfect unison, their wings purring through the air.
Acorn Woodpeckers squawk and chuckle while they perch on tree trunks, wearing tuxedos and red caps, drilling holes and stuffing them with acorns. Their happy, gleeful chucking brings a smile to my face. They must be telling jokes to make work more fun.
Off the trail, a thick oak branch grows horizontally from its trunk. Seeing that it’s dry and free of insects, I hoist myself onto it, stretch out my legs and recline back. The tree holds me like I am lying in its arm.
Gazing into the canopy and up to the sky, I hear birds all around me. They rustle in leaves, they fly with fluttering wings. They sing, chirp, laugh, and coo. Each voice joins in one abundant song: the song of the forest.
I could lounge for hours on the tree branch listening, yet I know the forest does not sing for me. The forest needs no outside audience for its symphonies. It is a true and great artist: creating for creation’s sake, creating for itself.
If the forest is the ultimate artist, how do I compare? What happens when I am the only one who reads my writing?
I know the answer; I have felt it often. When I am my only audience, I get discouraged. I blame my voice — I call it awkward and uninteresting. My dream appears hopeless. My feelings keep me from putting words on the page.
The oak holds me like a mother.
“Show me the way,” I whisper. “How can I create like you?”
“Close your eyes,” she says.
Minutes pass and I begin noticing subtle layers of the song. A hawk calls from high. A frog croaks in the distance. A crow caws.
The forest tells me there’s room for every voice and contributors are never ashamed of their sound — it is the one they received at birth. They need not be melodic, gentle or harmonic to join the orchestra; they need only to be themselves. The song’s beauty is in its rich and vibrant variety. Each day it creates a new score without one thought of who will listen. The forest creates by design — without doubt or self-consciousness.
Opening my eyes, I look into the tree with new understanding and say, “I will add my voice to the forest’s song.”
On Sunday afternoon, the first day of Burning Man, I stood at the corner of 6 & E in front of my camp wearing a minidress and holding a megaphone. As my campmates assembled our bar and stage behind me, I heckled passerbys to pass the time. Instead of making fun or being mean, as usual heckling goes, I gave compliments and encouraged radical self-expression. One thing I loved the most were men wearing skirts (“kilts!” some would say). Many passerbys waved, returned compliment, and even said, “I love you!” It was a happy, warm, feel-good way to start the week — one that would likely induce eye rolls from snarky, fuck-yer-burn participants.
My true reward came when two men, one younger and one older, in matching outfits approached.
“Heckle me, please! I long to be heckled!” The younger man said in a British accent.
“What kind of a masochist wants to be heckled?” I said into the megaphone. As they neared, I saw they wore socks, shorts and shirts with small pizza slices printed on them. “One who wears a pizza outfit, apparently.”
“We’ve been giving away pizza!” the younger man told me.
“Where’s my pizza?”
“Somebody else has it,” the younger man said.
My sweetheart walked over to us, perhaps because he heard pizza mentioned. He began speaking to the younger man, which gave me the opportunity to engage the elder.
“How many times have you been here?” I asked, expecting a large number.
“This is my first year,” he replied in the Queen’s English. “I’m 68!”
“Congratulations, that’s inspiring,” I said, taken aback. “Welcome!”
“And what brings you here — aside from the opportunity to wear a pizza outfit?”
“I’ve come for the temple,” he said. “My father passed away and — I never had a good relationship with him. There was a lot of pain for both of us. I’ve come to make peace with him and our troubled relationship.”
“That’s beautiful,” I said. “The temple is the place to do that. I saw my intentions from the temple last year stick with me and bloom over the course of the year.” I remembered the note I had written to the divine, asking for help embracing the present moment and letting go of my compulsive obsession with the past and future.
“That’s what my friend here told me,” he gestured to the younger man. “He said I would find closure and peace.”
“Yes, you can create whatever experience you set your mind to out here. Especially something personal and internal such as yours.”
“My mother, I am so much like my mother and I pushed away my father, she thinks this is important, that holding onto the resentment and anger — it’s not healthy. At first, maybe I was doing this for her, but now I can see that it’s for me.”
“Do you have any children?”
“What do they think about you coming here?”
“They laughed and asked me if I’m coming for the nudity and free love, but you know, after 45 years of marriage I think I’m past that.”
I laughed with him. “Maybe they will come next year after the hear what a great time you’ve had.”
“That would be fun.”
“And once they hear you’ve gotten what you came here to do.”
“I can only hope.”
I looked into his tender face and noticed his open heart. “Thank you for sharing your intention with me.”
“You’re welcome!” His eyes lit up. “I feel a bit silly, maybe even weak, for sharing something so personal, but my friend said out here people will love to hear it.”
“I think I have a gift for you — if you are interested.”
He beamed, “a gift? For me?”
“Yes, I think I have the perfect thing for you. Follow me.”
We walked to the van I would call home during the festival. I opened the front door and pulled out a bag of feathers.
“I gathered these feathers from the land I live on in California,” I told him. “I learned their symbolic meaning and prepared a message for each feather. I prayed over each of them to speak into the heart of whoever chose them with affirmation or direction.”
I held the bag out to him.
“I just choose one?”
“Yes, whichever one.”
He reached in and pulled out a large feather with a string that tied a small note to it.
“Which did you choose?” I asked.
“‘Goose,'” he read, “‘signals an opening to new possibilities, new creative portals, new directions, and new ideas. Affix yourself to your path and fulfill your vision.'” He looked at the feather and caressed it a few times. When his eyes met mine I saw they were filled with tears. “This is about my father.”
“Incredible,” I whispered. I could barely fathom the perfection of this message for him. Although I had prayed and set intentions for weeks before the burn, I was moved by the alignment.
He put the feather to his heart, “this one is just for me. Thank you.”
“Can I give you a hug?” I asked.
At the end of our hug, he looked into my eyes, “I’ll treasure this,” he said, lifting the feather.
We walked back to the street where his friend and my sweetheart waited.
“Happy burn,” I told him.
“Thank you,” he said, lifting the feather again. “Happy burn!”
Two days later, in the middle of the afternoon, I rested in the van. A small knock sounded and I opened the door. To my surprise, the elder man stood in front of me — wearing his pizza outfit.
“Oh, you’re resting,” he said. “I can come back later.”
“No, no, I’m just lying down, I’m not sleeping.”
“I came back because the gift you gave me, it touched me deeply. And I wanted to make sure I told you that.”
“Thank you,” I said. “That means a lot to me.”
“I have a gift for you as well. So that you can remember. I have watches, if you want one. I put them together.”
“Oh yes! I have been wanting a watch!”
He pulled out three watches. “Let me show you. On the front it has the directions because you can choose your direction out here without ego interference. And it says ‘now’ because the time is always now at burning man.”
“I love it. That is so perfect for me,” I laughed, acknowledging the serendipity of his gift like a wink from the divine that I had been heard last year.
“And inside,” he opened the watch, “I designed the vitruvian man for this year’s theme and there’s three compartments with mini candies: gummy bears, mints, and jawbreakers.”
“This is wonderful! It’s so thoughtful! And I can share these little candies with people as well. It’s the gift that will keep giving!”
The wrinkles around his eyes, now pronounced by the dust, crinkled as he smiled, “I knew I had to give you one. You can choose whichever color combination you like, the faces are all interchangeable with the bands.”
I held the three watches in my hands. “I wear a lot of white out here, and tomorrow is white Wednesday, so I think I’ll choose the white and silver.”
“That’s a great choice,” he said, putting them together.
“Thank you,” I said as I gave him a hug. “This, everything about this, means so much to me — more than I can express.”
“You’re welcome. Your gift means a lot to me. It couldn’t have been more perfect to set the tone for my experience. And to show that what I’m here for — it’s destiny — my heart’s desire is important and heard. I’m just glad I have something to give in return.”
At this very moment, I’m on the road heading northeast to Black Rock City, Nevada for the art and music festival Burning Man. Far more than just a party, last year (my first time), I learned the truth of the saying “the playa delivers.” I got everything I wanted and even more of what I needed for my transformative path. Now, sitting in the front seat of a cargo van — packed full with supplies and costumes — I know the most important part of my preparation has been setting my intentions.
Putting intentions into words and sharing them with others seems to strengthen and solidify them. And so, I would like to share my Burning Man 2016 intentions with you:
To have deep, meaningful interactions with friends and strangers; to speak into peoples’ lives with wisdom and love.
To see the divine Light shining from the eyes of those around me; to feel divine peace and love; to feel the oneness of my divine nature.
To see beyond and let go of my self-limiting beliefs; to access new levels of consciousness; to step into my authentic truth.
When I emerge from the dust, I will have stories to share and I will let you know what became of my intentions.
Below is a video shot by Evan Halleck capturing a group hug from last year. I appear at about 50 seconds, wearing a white jacket and holding the hand of a very dear friend of mine.
The past couple weeks were hard. I was in a major funk — my heart felt closed to myself and the world around me and I haven’t been writing because of it. When I feel shut down, I usually don’t force myself to write, it’s an easy excuse. (“I don’t feel like it,” I say to myself.) And then it gets worse because I’m not living my soul’s purpose; I’m not doing what brings me joy. Resistance and bad moods compound each other, they love each other.
It’s a vicious cycle.
When the funk began, I started writing a post on the practice of staying with unpleasant emotions in order to ease them with presence. I’ve been practicing this lately and it seemed fitting for me to write about it when I had so much hardness heaviness in my own emotional body and had to practice it constantly. But the writing came out clumsy and uninspired. And when I read it over — I knew it stunk! It read like a lame high school essay; no real depth of understanding, nothing truly compelling or engaging.
I kept at it. I had to post something! I wasn’t going to just quit this blog, so I revised it a couple times, but ultimately, I had to put it away. It repulsed me. And I didn’t have the drive to look at it for well over a week. It was like my resistance to writing was snowballing — adding weight and size each day I refused to write. My self-imposed deadline came and went. Then the next week’s deadline came and went. Finally, I sat down and opened the document, but I sat with my body turned away from the screen. I wanted nothing to do with it! I read the first couple of sentences and got up for a glass of water. Not one cell in my body wanted me to do my work that morning.
I was in the throws of creative resistance.
Recently, I read in The War of Art the only way out is through and decided I would test the theory. I took some time to free write — to write whatever came to mind even if it was petty or nonsensical. Soon enough, the words flowed. And I was rewarded for my effort to overcome resistance when Inspiration brought me this post.
When resistance comes — and it comes to me often — I now have the knowledge to push through and not let it phase me. Whether it comes in the form of a sour mood, doubt, a list of errands, or any other excuse, I have succumbed to resistance more than I would like to admit. Yet now I know the nature of this illusion: it’s simply a thin veil, deceptively impenetrable, but easy to drop.
As for the funk — that, too, disappeared once I started writing.