It was my first moment of clarity, a brief glimpse at the meaning of my life’s true purpose. In the height of my pain, I reached a point where things finally began to make sense.
Driving down a two-lane never ending highway headed towards Black Rock City, I can see from my rearview mirror the last drops of civilization wither in the blistering sun. It will be a week before I see a gas station, restaurant, or grocery store.
Easements of piercing hot gravel alternating with quick sinking sand warns me not to rest as mounding formations of free standing boulders embellish the sparse vegetation and parched terrain that is indicative of the vast Nevada desert. The odometers escalading mileage calibrates with the rising temperature of the trade winds, and I gasp in fear that I will no longer be able to breathe effortlessly.
“Water, plenty of water, sunscreen, plenty of sunscreen” is my mantra and no matter how far I turn the dial, nothing tunes in. AM/FM, cell phones, satellite, cable, internet, nothing works. It’s as though we have entered the abyss. 120 miles north of Reno, it is a desolate world all on its own. The last speck of civilization, a 24 x 24 square foot mini mart and single pump gas station had a sign above the entrance reading “welcome to nowhere” and I believe them.
My traveling companion is oblivious of my fears as she beams with intense anticipation of an upcoming world that I know nothing about. A scene she discovered several years back during her days of living loose in LA.
“Oh My God Shannon, you have to go! It’s so you. You’ll love it!” coached Karen.
Yes, yes its true, I am adventurous, but her double life description of this altered ego, non conventional event is nothing I’d seriously considered doing. For one, there are no comforts of home and I have grown accustomed to many comforts. To me her description of the mania mimics cluster fucks of schizophrenia.
By the time we reach the hand painted plywood sign that welcomes us to Black Rock City I am overwhelmed by wasteland that spills in front of me.
Once a lakebed rich in life form, this ancient four hundred square mile landscape now embodies only dust, sand and sun. Windstorms whip the harsh elements of the playa, creating a constant changing tide; an evolving canvas dipped in muted shades of coral, amber and gray. But for one week out of the year, fifty thousand people from all over the world journey here to participate in an experimental community; a radical exploration that units creative expression and self-reliance. The result of this experiment is Burning Man
I cannot say for certain why I am here. I am aware of the physical challenges and yet I arrive reckless, my tank drained to the point of reserve. I have never been attracted to the austerity of the desert, preferring the soothing motion of the oceans sway; and it’s been quite sometime since I’ve craved laughter, instead cloaked in restless isolation. Truth be told, I’m not sure I signed up with the intention of achieving. Instead wondering if, exposed to such harshness, I would simply perish; dolefully dissolve into the barrenness of this region.
“Newbie’s keep to the left,” calls a Burning Man greeter.
The line of cars waiting to get into Black Rock City is stretched beyond my sight.
“That’s you Shannon. You’re a virgin. Pull the car into the left hand lane,” orders Karen.
Karen and I have long been partners in crime, and although I am 14 years her senior, our heightened sense of adventure combined with an uncanny craving to be the center of attention, is the common thread that strengthened our bond.
“I don’t want to pull over. Christ Karen, this is worse than rush hour traffic. How the hell are we going to set up our tent before sunset?” Neither of us has ever pitched a tent and I for one have not gone a day without a blow dryer, let alone indoor plumbing.
Sandwiched between thousands of happy campers, I am the only one not smiling.
“Name please” asks the greeter.
“Shannon Kennedy” I answer with rocket speed.
“Shannon Kennedy is your playa name?”
“I - ah, I have no playa name?”
“Newbie, Newbie!” cries the greeter.
Is my red face evidence of my embarrassment, or has my fair, Irish potato skin already begun to burn?
Against my will I am escorted to a large multi-colored, two tiered roulette wheel and told to give it a whirl. When the wheel comes to rest; bells ring, car horns beep and everyone cheers. It is official. I will now be known simply as Limp Fairy.
Silently I greet the outbreak of eccentricity that now surrounds me. Masquerading in creative attire, participants pedal festively decorated bike, or cruise by in elaborately adorned golf cars, scooters or art cars. The exchange of money is replaced by the bartering of gifts. We have each brought our own food, water, and shelter, for there are no vendors or plush accommodations here. At journeys end we will leave no trace. The world we built leaves with us, its existence imprinted forever in our soul.
Under a veil of sweltering dust, we begin our journey through the streets of Black Rock City. Hard work and creative minds transform self-pitched tents and you-hauled trailers into hedonistic theme caps brimming with gaiety. Fervent participants build sculptures and interactive art installations; alluring the masses to touch, climb, ride, spin, engage, and explore.
“Isn’t Burning Man amazing!,” Karen declares.
I can not answer. Trepidation traps my breath.
“Cum to Camp Jiffy Lube, feel the difference,” bellows a brawny man adorned in a skirt constructed of 1,000 plus sporks (part fork – part spoon), silver space boots, and massive cherub wings; his head crowned in twisted tiers of plastic baby doll arms. Emerging from a conventional New England town; I am naïve enough to think his invitation is directed at me. “Step aside sweetie, you’re blocking my view!” he orders, his attention captured by the sight of a stately looking man, sparingly dressed in a leopard skin loincloth.
It is clear that I am not the norm here. Chivalry is most certainly dead. It is the first time I remember feeling like a social outcast; my indifference flashing with the intensity of an emergency vehicles rooftop mounted strobe light, warning onlookers of my obvious nonconformity. Did Kerry feel this way, I wonder? In his writings he described himself as an ogre - trapped in a world ruled by insecurity, living with the never-ending fear that someone would discover the bruises buried deep inside.
“Confess your sins, salvation awaits the remorseful,” shouts a man outside Camp Almighty, the entrance a reproduction of a catholic confessional booth. “I have nothing to confess,” I sheepishly reply. If only he knew the severity of my sins, I thought. Although, I no longer tell people, “I killed my son” I am consumed with guilt.
Inside Camp Almighty sinners crowd around a glow in the dark alter, passing psychedelic mushrooms along with carafes of home made, dandelion wine. I am intentionally close to breaking the one law that governs Burning Man – that there are no spectators; yet despite my lack of involvement, my offense goes unnoticed, concealed by the gaiety that overrides all regulations.
By day two, I am ready to embark on a solo expedition. My flask full of water, my skin slathered in sunscreen, I jumped on my bike and head towards the farthest point of the playa. Wind pitched sand stings my skin and my mind races on. Faster and faster I peddle, envisioning what would happen if I never came back. Would the clean up crew simply donate my belongings, return the rented SUV and notify my family?
Twenty-foot tall pillars, balancing two lanterns each, line the mile long pathway that leads to the Temple of Honor. It is undoubtedly the most spectacular structure at Burning Man. Distinguished for its architectural magnificence and aesthetic beauty; it stands as artist David Best’s proudest creation.
A massive fortress constructed of curving, gentle swelling domes, spears and cones, rested on a square wood casing, forming an image similar to that of the Taj Mahal. Intricate black and white mystical illustrations illuminated the temple, accentuating its grandeur and holiness. The culmination of the artist’s painstaking efforts along with a troop of twenty volunteers would end in a ritualistic blaze, signaling the closing of Burning Man.
Inside the temple, I slowly survey the array of commemorations loved ones left behind. Beside a portrait of Buddha dangles a green monkey tagged with a red heart. A shabby, child’s stuffed toy that, like the tales of the velveteen rabbit, looks as though he has been loved real. Above it a sticker reads, “Believe in the Power of Monkeys.”
The site of this spawns memories of my son’s childhood and I smile, recalling how our pet bird ate an exotic, prepackaged food labeled “Monkey Chow.” For whatever reason, these two words always made us laugh. Over and over again, Kerry and I would compete for the best rendition of "Monkey Chow."
I have since turned this into a game for Kerry’s young son Jackson, and it too makes him roar with laughter. It begins with a bulging eyed stare as I slowly declare, "I AM SO HUNGRY,” pausing to watch his wide-eyed reaction, “I'M GONNA GET ME SOME,” and in my deepest roar, “MMMONKEY CHHHOW!!!!!!!" And then I eat his belly. This belly eating business is quite ticklish and when you’re two years old, the sillier the better.
It is the first time since my son’s death that memories of him bring me a smile.
"Live and Burn" was one of Kerry's mottos. Attending Burning Man was one of his desires. The Temple of Honor would give me a place to grieve, a place to pray, and a place to honor my son. And so, below the green monkey tagged with the red heart, I create my memorial to Kerry.
First, I hang a T-shirt my sister Colleen has given me. A white, Fruit of the Loom T-shirt with a computer generated photo of Kerry; his face morphed by improper alignment. A rainbow stretches across the back panel along with a line from the song, Over the Rainbow, “Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind.” Simple as it might be, I love this shirt. I love the fact that my sister, Kerry’s Aunt, cared enough to create a tribute of admiration. My eyes pierce with tears as I added a letter I wrote about my beautiful son, and attached to it a photo of Kerry holding his son, Jackson. This becomes my place in the Temple of Honor.
Crouched beside me, a woman reveals a shrine for her son Chris. Our son's were the same age. We exchanged chronicles of a turbulent era, realizing the interchangeable pain and vulnerability of our son's lives. Her son's drug abused lifestyle and overdose bandaging his depression and my son's suicide completed by an overdose. An overdose of sleeping pills - over the counter sleeping pills, three packages, ninety pills, crushed, mixed with his ice tea and swallowed. No one seemed to questions the motives of a distraught young man as he entered the 24 hours CVS local pharmacy. No one wondered why he might want to purchase three packages of sleeping pills - his palms sweating as he handed cashier number 7, two twenty-dollar bills and said, “Keep the change.”
Each day I spend hours in the Temple of Honor. I sit in meditation; write in my journal and cry. Reflecting on the twenty-three years I had with my son and pleading for an ongoing connection. It is heavy, it is hard, it is healing. It is everything I need.
The first person to read my letter about Kerry is a man wearing only a baseball catchers
face mask, chest guard, shin guard, jock strap, cup and cleats. And despite his well-guarded, protective gear, he was vulnerable enough to shed a tear.
A man wearing a hat that says "FUTURE" on it reads my tarot cards and tells me there is a male guide beside me. Always near.
On my last night at Burning Man I rest, kneeling in the dessert sand and watch the temple burn. In the crust of the crowd I go unnoticed, eclipsed by the throngs of joviality. I scan the faces of the pack, knowing I am a stranger to them all. Above me, the bright full moon glows. It’s massive full-body dangles in front of me, just outside my reach. So close that I can see with great detail the scattering of mare that defines the face of the man trapped inside. It was a full moon the night you chose to end your life, I thought, wondering if its power had somehow driven him over the edge.
The intensity of the blaze unbolts my pores and my body glistens, reflecting the fury of the flame. Entranced by the towering smoke tunnels that spew from its core, their dance coils upwards towards the endless dark sky; my mind plays images of my final glimpse of Kerry’s impish laughter. His beautiful, symmetrically balanced face, highlighted by the intensity of his crisp blue eyes, knolling cheekbone smile, and tone of his blush; “Ma, don’t get mad,” he teased, “I’m a 23 year old guy - I don’t always get you,” the backwards tilt of his head timed perfectly with the roll of his belly-deep laughter. I was certain he was laughing at me.
My eyes widen, overfill with tears that rhythmically spill out one by one onto my cheeks; slowly rippling down the crevasses of my face, to a pool at the end of my chin and jump into the barrenness of my chest. I do not wipe my tears away. I am not ashamed to cry. I wear my pain proudly.
As much as I try to remember the way he lived, I am haunted by the sickening discovery of his sparsely clad body stretched across the living room sofa. Cold gray skin covers his stiff - unresponsive shell. His mouth slightly gaped, his eyes pointing upward, frozen in sorrow. I came to late. I did not understand his pain. And so, he traveled on without me.
I would spend the next year of my life desperately trying to understand. Collecting every thing I could find relating to his suicide and suicide in general. The autopsy found no food inside his stomach, only traces of dark brown liquid, which I determined to be the ice tea he so frequently drank despite my warnings that the sugar base would eventually rot his teeth. The police report said it was seventy-two degrees the day he died. The medical examiners office listed him as one of 72 suicides in the state of Connecticut that year. Suicide is the third largest cause of death in men ages 15 to 25. Men tend to be more successful then women at completing their suicides. Most send an unheard cry for help prior to taking their life.
Still, I do not understand.
David Best walks the line of spectators that surround the blaze. I watch as he randomly stops to welcome buoyant bystanders. As his image mirrors mine his hand stretches out to greet me and I can see through his sleep deprived, blood shot eyes that he understands my pain.
His message is simple.
“It’s not your fault” he tells me.
“But it IS my fault” I quickly reply.
Without warning, David’s grip pulls me to my feet. His tone is potent, intolerant of my ache, “Let it go. Let your guilt go. It’s not your fault.”
Between tears and shallow gasps of air, I tell him about my son, about his final explosion of rage, directed at me. I explain how we grew up together, how motherhood motivated me and about how I no longer know how to live my life now that he has ended his.
“Your son didn’t leave you. He’s right here beside you, guiding you ever step of the way” insists David.
“Then why have I never felt more alone?” I cry.
“We all sign up for this journey” continues David, “it’s just like you making the decision to come to Burning Man. The pain and pleasure you experience will help you discover your life’s true purpose. Once you find it, you can live your life deliberately.”
“Live Deliberately” was of the many a phrases Kerry had scribbled throughout his journals. The passage touched me deeply. It became even more profound when my husband engraved it in our wedding bands; the exchange celebrated just three months after Kerry’s passing. Was I so lost in the endless stream of superficial wedding details that I failed to recognize my son’s desperate cry for help?
“Look within yourself.” David continued. “You have everything you need.” And with that he said good-bye.
I watch as David’s image bleeds into the blaze. In patronage, I remain until the amber takes its final breath. The crowd now gone, the stars cloaked in a canopy of ash, unable to direct me home. From a distance I can hear the faint melody of Neil Young's signature song, Harvest. It was the first album I had ever bought. I was 14 years old and had earned the money to buy the album by completing a sewing task my over powering Aunt had given me. She was surrounded by children and like Cinderella’s evil stepmother, enjoyed torturing girls that were not, in her opinion, good enough to call her own. Somehow these childhood memories seemed bigger, closer - like the glory of the harvest moon that dangled before me. Just outside my grasp.
Slowly, I drift towards the echo of my childhood. Neil’s voice grows richer, deeper with each mindful step. In the expanse of emptiness, a camouflaged mesh tarp draped upon a geometric shaped, steel shaft dome stands alone. An elaborate sound system coupled with massive speakers’ border the interior walls. In the center, an oversized rainbow striped Brazilian hammock is suspended at the axis peak. Eagerly I climb upon it and sway to the sound of Neil's cry. There, cradled in hope, I rest till morning comes. And though I am by myself, I now know I am not alone. My son rests peacefully beside me, rootless in the gentle desert breeze.