Lynn Ruane on what freedom to express oneself really means…
In many of the descriptions I’ve read, Burning Man describes itself as ‘radical self-expression’. Sounds great, but what I found myself doing in the weeks ahead of my Burning Man experience was wondering about what one wears in Burning Man. What ‘should’ I wear feels like the opposite of radical self-expression.
Already I was trying to ‘do’ Burning Man. If authentic self-expression is being entirely who we are, how do we truly know what that is and that we are not yet again falling into the trap of showing up in a way that is considered radical self-expression by someone else’s standards? I learned that wearing my Levi denim shorts and my hair slapped in a hun bun is me, but what I wear is not the parts of myself I need to confront.
Self-expression is not all the positive illuminating free-spirited parts of ourselves but also the elements we value less. Those we bury deep, often dark, often obnoxious and regularly not so fun for others parts of self. Does anyone accept that form of radical self-expression, or is self-expression only welcome when it presents as cool outfits, naked cycling or deep communication of the affirmative kind? What is a self, and are we ever it?
At Burning Man, some people feel that their naked self is their form, a least in part, of self-expression. Whether it’s my body issues or my history of experiencing male violence, the idea of nakedness irks me somewhat, most notably the male body. What I realised however is, that this isn’t necessarily true, but it’s what I told myself before Burning Man.
The impression was so intense I hoped I didn’t have to sit watching the sunset surrounded by penises. In reality, when I was faced with nudity in Burning Man, I wasn’t bothered in the slightest. What I struggle with is standing out. Yes, I, who always stands out, was afraid to stand out if anyone in my company decided they wanted to live their life nude at Burning Man. Anyway, my fears of thousands of bare arses in my eye-line as I danced to some techno was not to come to fruition, but what did was a tear-inducing moment when a woman with a prosthetic leg, up to the hip, participated in the naked mile fun run. I sat on a dust-filled sofa with a retired republican congressman (both fully clothed), talking politics surrounded by excited naked bodies as they took to the start line.
The whistle blew, and everyone ran; within minutes, the ex-congressman’s son crossed the line first, and soon everyone else followed. Apart from the woman with the prosthetic leg. I knew I wouldn’t leave the finish line until she got there, and when she came around that bend, I cried, I cheered, and I clapped, and I knew I was in awe of her at that moment. She ran her race; she moved slower; she held her head up; she knew she would take longer than everyone else, but she participated with pride, and I cried, but I knew at that moment I was shackled by constraints that existed only in my mind.
I wished I was as free as she seemed to me. That doesn’t mean running a naked mile is my radical self-expression. It just means I haven’t yet found what the self is. Or I have discovered what it is, but I am afraid to be it. So with that in mind, I took my tears to the Temple. A few days into Burning Man, I visited the Temple. At first, I felt like I was intruding on someone else’s moments of grief. There were thousands of pictures of people’s loved ones, some clothes hung from the wooden structures, and many letters.
There were people in prayer positions, in meditative poses, and in friends’ arms. It was pretty sombre, and I felt its power, the power of people together, mourning individually but together, and I felt an urge to leave like it wasn’t my mourning. The energy in the Temple was not mine, the moment was theirs, and I should not be here, watching. I left but never stopped thinking about it. The large wooden structure erected on the Playa is geometrical, encompassing mythology and radical inclusion metaphors and is of Empyrean design.
This means very little to me, but Empyrean is said to be beyond our realm and is the realm of pure light that is believed to be the realm of the conception of fire. The geometrical architecture representing the eight-pointed star is said to originate from the intelligence order that underpins the universe. The thought that goes into the design sounds beautiful and magical but means very little to me. I am glad I read this afterwards, as I am allergic to sentences that appear vague and conceptually difficult for my thinking, yet still manage to sound encapsulating.
I always feel like someone is trying to deceive me by talking in riddles, but what I never feel deceived by is my experience of something. Not long after sunrise, days after I visited the Temple, I felt the urge to go back, similar to the desire I had felt previously to leave. I got on my Eighty Dollar bike I bought from Target, and with a piece of paper in my pocket and a Bic pen, I cycled in tears, alone, empowered but howling to the Temple.
I wrote on the wood and my paper and placed it inside, then I sat for a moment and joined, individually but collectively, in mourning, hope, or desire to be ‘the self’. Then I cycled across the Desert with my tears still rolling until I found the beat carrying me. A large ship, on wheels, with a DJ compelled me off my bike, and I danced, and I danced, and soon the tears slowed up, and my feet and arms sped up, and I exerted every bit of energy the morning would give me. It was no naked mile, but it was my self-expression, dancing alone like no one was watching and being ok with crying while doing so. I don’t need radical self-expression to be observed for it to be an expression of self, it just needs to be honest.
There was no cheer or no pat on the back. I was cycling back to the camp, knowing that this morning had happened, and that was enough. Burning Man was incredible; the sensory experience is indescribable. The energy is beautiful and exciting, and the principles are aspirational. I smiled inside at each odd and wonderful thing I saw, and huffed like a child when the sandstorm reach the point of a whiteout. I laughed with new friends from around the world and I worried about where I fit in and what group I belonged to.
Remembering my therapists words when I say I don’t know where I belong anymore and he would say “Lynn you belong everywhere”. So as I cycled through Blackrock City, Nevada, with my new pal the sixty-plus year old gay white male gynaecologist or I sat talking to an Artist from India while we got our plaits and disco buns done at camp Bitch N Braids. I reminded myself that I belong everywhere and sometime that was in a hammock, alone, reading Sean Casey. On the final night, as thousands circled the Temple, I sat in the most potent noise, the silence of people. I watched the Temple burn to the ground and felt part of something, the energy of grief. I knew at that moment that this was what Burning Man would be to me.
To be radically self-expressing, I need to express the sorrow I still carry, sometimes unthinkingly. I can dance on stages, wear Burning Man outfits, run a naked mile, and watch a rising sun, and they all may be self-expression. Still, at my core, I am mourning, and sometimes that is unwelcome in places of art, music, and sunsets, so I am thankful for that moment at Temple because it was there I fulfilled the description of Burning Man as a place of radical self-expression.