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  • Finding Meaning at Burning Man

    Kids on a rampage.

    The next morning began roughly. I was jerked out of a brief slumber by shouts that breakfast was ready. “Can’t miss that,” I groaned to myself and struggled to stand. Out the RV door, twenty steps, and around a corner I was in line with other souls awaiting sustenance. Breakfast looked delicious. Everyone politely but firmly took what they figured was their fair portion.

    As I was sitting and snarfing up the only meal I would have all day, one of the cutest girls in our camp, Tina, sat down next to me. We struck up casual conversation in a half-awake stupor. Minutes later my homeboy from Knoxville, Caleb, showed up and started discussing the day’s explorations. When we rose to begin preparations, Tina asked if she could come along. “Sure,” we said. “Fuck yeah,” we thought.

    The city by day was an entirely different beast. It was no less bustling, no less bizarre. But the sun seemed to vibrate the town into an even broader smattering of weird. Camps came alive with their interactive whatevers, wanderers got their second (or third, or fourth, or who cares how many) wind, and the music moved with renewed enthusiasm.

    Like three gleeful kids just out on a summer break, we rode our bikes aimlessly and with a carefree pep. The world was ours. We shouted jokes, made snap decisions, stopped for drinks, chatted loudly with whomever, hugged, laughed, relaxed under the occasional shade, raced, flirted, and danced. We played tennis with a racquet the size of a beach ball. We taunted the lifeguard at a fake pool as he megaphoned playful insults at passersby. And we rode. Always onward—always to nowhere and just where we wanted to be.

    At some point the Temple came up in conversation. “Should we go? It’s pretty awesome, but, you know… it’s powerful. Are you ready for that?” Always and never, we decided.

    So we ventured out deep into the playa, towards the Temple. The search for what it really meant to be there was just beginning.

    I’ve been struggling to find my center, my power core. Curiosity, optimism, and often reckless enthusiasm have carried me around the world. I’ve discovered treasures, studied people, manifested dreams, loved in unforeseen ways, conquered fears and uncovered new ones. But all of this life, as full as it has been, is merely the first phase. I’m ready for the next era of Augustin. I see it there in the distance, looming beneath a sunrise, its outline barely visibly—my Destination. But right here before me lies a mile of desert—my Rite of Passage.

    We arrived, parked our bikes somewhere in the swarm, and stood together silently staring at the Temple of Transition. The structure consisted of six towers; five in a ring around the middle tower. The five towers represented Birth, Growth, Union, Decay, and Death. The middle tower, the one that connected them all, stood the tallest for Gratitude.

    Center tower at the Temple of Transition

    The Tower of Gratitude

    Caleb handed me a green sharpie. I took it gratefully, breathed deep, and wandered off and into myself. As I remembered what my loved ones had told me to write for them, I found a space and did so… plus some. Between each frantic scrawling, I stepped back and reread, reflected, maybe added something, hands-together bowed, and walked on. In a short time I was in tears, shaken, overwhelmed. I blew some snot rockets and walked on… slowly.

    Eventually I found myself in the Death tower. It was a sad and reverent place. Silence filled the space like the humidity of Atlanta summers. Photos of loved ones covered the spaces between writings. Jewelry, clothes, journals, objects of all sorts—mundane, curious, and heartbreaking—lay with intention everywhere. One man sitting cross-legged in a corner was crying, rocking, and occasionally pouring emotion onto the wall before him.

    My heart ached with thoughts of inevitable death. None came more powerfully than my mother’s. It made my knees buckle. My hands went to the table for support. I choked back a wail and gasped. Tears clouded my vision.

    Then it hit me. If I were to bear my soul (which I needed to do) and give a full confessional, there was no one better to address it to than my mother—the one who invested the most in me.

    But there wasn’t enough wall or sharpie for what I had to get out. I found a journal that said “open me” on the cover. I opened it. Inside the front cover it said, “please fill these pages.” Pens were scattered nearby. I tore 4 blank pages out of the journal, swiped a pen, and left the tower of Death.

    My mojo was settling. I was falling into that even, calm place—that place where my heart expands to embrace the weight of the world and my mind tingles and goes blank.

    I sat in a bench near the periphery. I took out the pen and paper and began writing. All my regrets, weaknesses, fears, and doubts—things that I didn’t just offer up to anyone with a fading interest or wouldn’t even give myself the time to air—came out in a torrent.

    And word by word I was filled with the hope that I could burn all of this; that I wouldn’t cringe anymore with past mistakes and insecurities nagging my idle mind. I could honor my mother’s great sacrifice and be an extraordinary person.

    When I finished I reread it. Then reread it again. Finally, I folded the paper, stood, breathed deep, and walked looking for a place to put it all to rest. The tower of Gratitude beckoned. Tings, tungs, tams, and toms radiated out of it… louder and louder as I approached. In the hallway from an outer tower, I felt a strong breeze push my body back as it drew my heart forward. I came to the entrance, found a supporting structure flush against an upright with just a sliver of space between, gave the folded confessional a kiss, and crammed it home.

    Inside the Tower of Gratitude

    Then I looked up. Inside the great tower of Gratitude rose the energy of all within it. About two dozen people lying, sitting, standing, and bowing, soaked in the orchestra of sounds, sights, and feelings. It. Was. Glorious. God laid his hand down on the earth, palm precisely on the Tower of Gratitude.

    A perfect little spot was there towards the middle. When I saw it, I knew where I was to go and be. So I did and was. The wind blew dust in a constant barrage. I kept my handkerchief over my face, my sunglasses on. I sat cross-legged. I listened to the echo of chimes from dozens of bells mounted around the inside of the tower. Time became irrelevant. I’d look up and be blinded by sunbeams bursting through the upper levels, between people looking right back down at us… just as still, just as blissed out.


    Eventually I stood, stretched, and left. We picked up our bikes and headed on to the next adventure, ate, and partied. Before I knew it life was back to a bizarre but somewhat meaningless cacophony of sensory input. At some point I remember thinking back on those moments at the Temple and wondering if there was more to it. Was there a message lingering in the memories of that place that I’ve yet to find? What was I doing here, really? I didn’t know. Even now, I’m not really sure. The blinding shock of clarity that unequivocally kicks me in a new direction wasn’t there. All my problems didn’t go away. Life doesn’t seem any easier now. In fact, since then I’ve felt even more like a small boat on a big turbulent ocean.

    But what was I expecting? I wanted some reassurance that I’m on the right path. I think I got that. I receive that reassurance every day in little victories, little beautiful coincidences that delight and inspire me. The universe isn’t showing me my future all at once in a dump of cosmic prophecy. The universe is rewarding me for moving forward, for creating my future, one small act at a time.

    If I’ve learned anything—if I have to declare Meaning—I’d say this: grand, unique experiences no matter how inspiring, odd, beautiful, etc. are no sure pill to heal ails or reveal the purpose of life. Sometimes when we go out looking for meaning, for clarity, we come away with nothing but the mandate to keep on looking. Keep on moving. Sometimes we’re in the midst of a Rite of Passage.

    A Rite of Passage is a road of indeterminate length.

    • Cbralley

      Oh, Augie . . . !

    Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.