Hairbrush, she says, reading the strip of paper she’s just pulled from the long-gone, now-returned box of prompts. Hairbrush? I think of awful parents banging their children’s bottoms with the bristly side of ancestral grooming tools. I think of the epic struggles my own mother had with my snarling mass of hair, when I was a little girl. What was that? My puppy-hair must have been different from the slippery eels I have now. I wonder if that means Elliot will stop forming dreads behind his ears when he grows up. If he grows up.
When I went to Burning Man sixteen years ago my hair was uniquely primed for dreading-up by constant chlorinated swimming, and by the three days of backpacking I put in, even before not-showering in the desert. By the time the whole extravaganza was done, Sierra Nevada pine-tar and playa-dust had coated themselves into my post-monastic do and yielded an intensely pleasurable sort of happy hyena fur. I remember driving into the Reno airport rental return, depositing my Chevy Malibu with its delicate desert-matte finish, and walking off into the terminal in my sunbaked body, which had seen neither shower, nor hairbrush for ten days. I felt lithe and grounded, light and vibrant, certain that my plan to show up for one day of graduate school, then bugger off to California, had been the right one.
Monastic life is a serious undertaking, or at least it was for me, and serious undertakings often require intense antidotes. That was what I was looking for, that whole first year after ditching my robes and crash-landing back into the world. Burning Man was an excellent choice – sort of like an anti-monastery, or a monastery existing in a parallel universe that shares many of the same values of community and generosity, while giving them very different expression.
I was staying with my friend Joyce, at her brother Heinrich’s camp in a pretty central part of Black Rock City. Heinrich and his crew had been going to Burning Man for years, slowly building up a following and a performance schtick around Mr. Crispy Head. A small crane lowered one of the dudes (they took turns) into a vat of boiling oil, in a special suit that allowed him to be deep-fat fried, without incurring any harm. It was totally hokey, and thrilling at the same time. People gathered for the sight of the suit disappearing slowly into the vat, the alarming smell of burnt sacrifice, and the miraculous resurrection. Meanwhile, one of the other dudes (often Heinrich, who has a beautiful, booming voice) narrated some sort of carney-story about Mr. Crispy, and his heroic willingness to face fast-food death.
The year I was there was a kind of turning point at the Crispy camp: after a decade of showing up single, several of the guys had bought their girlfriends with them, which meant: significantly less groupie-bonking, and also some tensions, as the ladies attempted to bring order and vegetables into the mix. I took one look at my probable roles in that dynamic, set up my little blue cocoon of a tent (which I slept in exactly one time), and took off to wander the playa.
At that time, and I hope some of this is still true, there was nothing money could buy in Black Rock City except ice and coffee (two substances thought so essential as to constitute life-support). You bartered for some things, and there was a parallel gift-economy, where amazing offerings were constantly happening, just because someone was feeling really generous in their own kooky way. I ate whole meals of gift-food, danced like a maniac to gift-music, and enjoyed LED-wire sculptures zooming across the deep, flat darkness of the desert landscape. A purple hopping kangaroo made of light, hovering just above the level of the earth. And I wasn’t even taking any drugs.
My own suitcase was an eclectic affair: tons of dried fruit and nuts, some good hand-cream for the desert air, some body-paint (actually it was just kids’ tempera), and some assorted weird clothing from my travels. The barter stuff came in handy when some idiot took all my stuff from a pile outside a drum circle, leaving me one Teva, but no car keys, water bottle, anti-dust scarf, or warm jacket. I spent the night with the same warm Brazilian man as the night before, and in the morning, set about bartering for help breaking into the car, and a ride to Reno, for a new key.
No hairbrush and not much else, but: happy living in community, moment-by-moment, with whatever turned up. Hello, eighty-year-old nudist in leather chaps! Hope you’ve been tending to those leathery buttocks, or else they shall be fried. Hello, Freaky the Clown. I am pretty sure we live on different planets, but look! Here we are, together, right now. I traveled world-to-world, like I had in earlier backpacking days. This was much easier: I didn't even need to ride some deathtrap goat-roofed bus over the mountains to get from one universe to the next. I could just grab a water bottle and follow my feet to the next place.
What I needed from that time was twofold. One, I needed the promiscuity of art infusing everything. I needed to see that there were people so passionate about their creativity that they were willing to work job-jobs all year, saving up to build giant temples, give away ice-cold daiquiris, dress as giant fluttering hummingbirds, or drive flamethrower-tanks through the desert. These people cared not at all about galleries and museums, and they weren’t selling anyone anything. Two, I needed tenderness, and this I found also, with my Brazilian friend, who welcomed me and let me go; with the shy man who drove me to Reno; and with an Alpha male of the Crispy camp - in an exchange that could not have been better-timed, ending as it did in my leaving for good that very dawn. O abundance of the world, un-fucked with by camp gossip! I love your smooth skin and rental truck delights as much as I love your discretion!
So I came back to graduate school with a new perspective on what is possible in the world and in art: not two different possibles, but one. I built a large papier-mâché Cow, and decorated it with the help of my friend Lori. We built a kind of stretcher-throne for the Cow, named her Vashita, and then recruited other devotees to help carry the whole thing through the streets of Atlanta, in an improvised activity that people were free to identify as protest, performance, steakhouse advertisement, campaign stunt, or Promise Keepers rally.
We walked free and scruffy-haired, bringing the profligate, beautiful strangeness of the world to whomever wanted it. We gave out candy, and we laughed.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.