Why Green Monkey?

Green Monkey


Driving down a winding, two-lane road, headed towards Black Rock Desert, I watch the last drops of civilization wither in a blistering sun. It will be a week before I see a gas station, restaurant, or grocery store. 

This barren lakebed in northern Nevada is home to a hedonistic metropolis known as Burning Man--a temporary, global community powered by radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, and total inclusion. A gifting economy that values imagination over money and celebrates the visual beauty and emotional power of art. 

I cannot say for certain why I am here. I am aware of the physical challenges, yet I arrive broken--my body and soul defeated. I have never been attracted to the desert, preferring the sway of an oceans tide, and it's been quite some time since I've craved laughter, as I am consumed by my self-inflicted misery. 

Quietly I greet the outbreak of eccentricity that surrounds me. It is clear that I am not the norm here. I visualize my indifference flashing with the intensity of strobe lights, warning onlookers of my obvious nonconformities. Did Kerry feel this way, I wonder? In his journals he described a life pitted by insecurity, fearing that someone would discover the bruises he buried deep inside. 

Hard work and creative minds transform scaffolding, box trucks, trailers, and a kaleidoscope collection of shade canopies, into elaborate theme camps bursting with gaiety while I struggle to erect a modest, two person tent before sundown. I have never pitched a tent before, nor have I gone a day without indoor plumbing or a blow dryer. Sandwiched between fifty thousand happy campers, I am the only one not smiling. 

On day two, with my flask full of water and my skin slathered in sunscreen, I jump on a bicycle and head to the farthest structure on the playa. The ground is hard, the air is heavy, the sun stings my skin, and my mind races on. 

Lofty pillars, balancing two lanterns each, line the pathway that leads to a massive fortress of columns, domes, spears and cones.  Covered in intricate patterns of black and white illustrations, it is an image that mirrors the grandeur of the Taj Mahal. 

Named The Temple of Honor and created by renowned sculptor, David Best, it serves as a sanctuary for those who are grieving and will be burned, along with its contents, on the closing night at Burning Man.

Inside the temple, I study a collection of memorabilia honoring loved ones lost. Beside a portrait of Buddha dangles a green monkey tagged with a red heart--a shabby stuffed animal toy that, like the Velveteen Rabbit, looks as though he was loved real. Above it a sticker reads, "Believe in the Power of Monkeys." This sparks memories of Kerry, as I recall a prepackaged food that our exotic bird ate called, "Monkey Chow." Playfully, Kerry and I would repeat a deep, bellowing cheer of, "Monkey Chow," and I have since turned this into a game for his young son, Jackson. It begins with a bulging-eyed stare as I slowly declare, "I AM SO HUNGRY," pausing to watch his delight, "I'M GONNA GET ME SOME... MMMONKEY CHHHOW!!!" And then I eat his belly. This belly eating business is quite ticklish and his laughter is contagious.

It is the first time since my son's death that I can remember him and smile.

"Live and Burn" was one of Kerry's mottos. Attending Burning Man was one of his unfulfilled desires. The temple 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 assembled my tribute to Kerry.

First, I hung a t-shirt my sister Colleen had given me. A white Fruit-of-the-Loom t-shirt covered in a computer-generated photos of my son, his face morphed by improper alignment. Across the back is a rainbow along with a line from the song, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, "Someday I'll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me." I love this t-shirt. I love the fact that my sister, Kerry's aunt, created a tribute to Kerry. My eyes swell as I add a letter I wrote about my beautiful son and attach to it a photo of Kerry holding his son, Jackson. 

Crouched beside me, a woman sets up a shrine for her son, Chris. Our sons were the same age. We exchange stories of their turbulent adolescence. Her son's drug addiction and my son's depression both ended in an overdose. For Kerry, it was sleeping pills. Ninety pills that he crushed, mixed into ice tea and drank. No one questioned the motives of a distraught young man as he entered CVS pharmacy, picked up three packages of over the counter sleeping pills, handed the cashier two, twenty-dollar bills and said, "Keep the change." 

Each day I return to the temple. I reflect on the twenty-three years I had with my son and plead for an ongoing connection. It is heavy, it is hard, it is healing. It is everything I need. 

The first person I notice reading my letter about Kerry is a man wearing only a baseball catcher's face mask, chest and shin guards, jock strap, cup and cleats. And despite his protective gear, he is vulnerable enough to shed a tear. 

A man wearing a black top-hat with the word FUTURE on it, reads my tarot cards and tells me that there is a male guide beside me -- always near. 

On my last night at Burning Man I kneel in the sand and watch the temple burn. I scan the faces of the crowd, knowing I am a stranger to them all. Above me, a full moon glows. It was a full moon the night Kerry chose to end his life.

Entranced by smoke tunnels that swell from the fires core, I remember the last time I saw my son alive. He was teasing me about pictures I took of his son holding large, silver, cardboard stars. "I don't know what you were going for there, Ma." he laughed.

Tears spill rhythmically, one by one, from my eyes to my cheeks, then ripple down my face to pool at the tip of my chin and leap into the barrenness of my chest. I do not wipe my tears away. 

As much as I try to remember the way he lived, I am haunted by the discovery of his sparsely clad body. His skin cold and gray. His mouth slightly gaped. His eyes focused upward.

I did not hear his cry. I came too late. And so, he traveled on without me. 

David Best, walks the circle of spectators that surround the blaze. I watch as he stops every so often to shake someone's hand. As his image mirrors mine, I can see through his sleep-deprived, blood-shot eyes that he understands my pain. I thank him for all his hard work, and tell him how meaningful the temple is to me. I tell him about my beautiful son and how the pain of his loss cripples me. 

"It's not your fault," David replies as his hands reach out to me. "We all sign up for this journey. There are no coincidences. We must live deliberately."

Shortly after Kerry's passing I discovered the phrase "Live Deliberately" scribbled inside one of his journals alongside a sketch of a stick figure man and the words, "Burning Man." 

I stay until dwindling embers turn to ash. The crowd now gone, the stars, cloaked in a canopy in cinder, are unable to guide me home. From a distance I hear the faint melody of Neil Young's signature song, "Harvest." This was my very first album. I was 14 years old and had earned the money to buy it by completing a sewing task my Aunt had given me. Somehow these childhood memories seem bigger, closer.

Slowly, I drift towards the echo of my past. Neil's voice grows richer, deeper with each mindful step. From out of the darkness I see a dome constructed of steel shafts. Inside, a sound system rests in one corner and a hammock stretches across the center. Eagerly I climb into the hammock and sway to Neil's cry. There, cradled in hope, I rest till morning comes. And although I am by myself, I know I am not alone. My son rests peacefully beside me, rootless in the desert breeze. 

The original Green Monkey tagged with a red heart. 

Kerry, hugging his son Jackson. Mary at his back.

Photo taken 10 days before his death.

Green Monkey Tales © 2010 Shannon E. Kennedy


Thank You For Encouraging My Joy of Writing

Thank You For Encouraging My Joy of Writing

Shannon E. Kennedy


Photo by Joan Harrison