I had a secret, and I gave it away to a stranger in the dark.
This year’s trek to Burning Man was markedly different from my first journey last year. Most notably – I was not burdened with a heavy heart, as I was my virgin year. This year, I was joyous and happy and I took a newbie with me — and seeing the burn through her eyes was like seeing it for the first time myself. They say every Burn is different, and so far that appears to be true.
This year, I knew better than to try to do everything, like I tried last year. It doesn’t work – there’s just too much to do and see and hear and be… One can never do it all. So my goal was to just go with the flow and see what the playa would yield.
We did and saw many things, a lot of which is not suitable for publication here. However, most of what we saw and did was absolutely amazing. The utter wit and creativity on display at Burning Man is staggering, and the amount of work that people put into giving a memorable experience to others is simply awesome.
While having a bike at Burning Man is highly recommended, one of the best ways to experience the city is on foot. Walking through the city enables one to actually interact with people in their camps; impromptu stops are easier when walking than when whizzing by on a bicycle. So we logged many miles on foot in the streets of Black Rock City.
One of the camps we encountered was called the “Bureau of Unclaimed Secrets”. We walked into their tent on the three o’clock plaza and were greeted warmly (as is almost always the case at Burning Man) by a man who gave us the lowdown on how the Bureau of Unclaimed Secrets works.
He handed each of us a pencil and an index card. He invited us to each write down something we had never told anyone before – a secret we had never revealed. He assured us that no one in the Bureau would read this secret, and that the secrets would be completely anonymous.
Instead of reading the secrets, the Bureau places the card with the secret written on it in a small slot inside a larger box. The slot is marked with a letter and a color. The person who wrote the secret is, in turn, given a small hoop with two beads on it. One bead is a letter, the other bead is a color. The letter and color on the hoop correspond with the letter and color of the slot in which the person’s card is placed. The hoop is also on a chain with a tag that is a gift for the secret giver.
I took my card and pencil and stepped away a few feet to ponder what secret I would give. The older I get, the fewer secrets I have – a result of living a spiritual life that involves admitting my mistakes regularly, both the little everyday ones and the big, dark, scary ones. I’ve admitted these things to myself, to God, and to other human beings. Or so I thought. One secret bubbled up to the surface. One secret remained untold. One thing from my past that I had not, as of that day, ever mentioned. I had never shared that bit of information with any other person before. I wrote it down on the card. It only took a moment – it was less than twenty words and before I knew it, I had written down a secret that had never seen the light of day. I took the card and the pencil back to the big, friendly man who, that afternoon, was representing the Bureau. I was silently daring him to look at it – to see if he would blush, or laugh, or exclaim moral outrage at what I’d written. But he kept his word, immediately folded the card without looking at it, and tucked it away in a slot. Then he handed me a chain with a blue tag on it, and also a little silver ring with a colored bead and a lettered bead. His instructions were clear: give the beaded hoop to someone on the playa, and instruct them to bring it to the three o’clock plaza and the Bureau of Unclaimed Secrets. There, the person will hand over the beads and, in return, will receive the folded card containing my secret. I thought this was the coolest idea since Netflix. So I went through the week with the beaded hoop hanging around my neck, waiting to find the right person to give it to. I couldn’t give it to any of my camp neighbors, or anyone I knew, for it was the anonymity of the exercise that made it work. I had to find a stranger to give it to, and that meant making connections with people for more than a passing hello. I could have given it to the man who handed me a pink bandana and invited me to join in the HugNation spiral in center camp. I could have given it to Andy from Los Angeles, with whom I chatted for half an hour while we both marched naked through the city during the Critical Dicks march on Thursday afternoon. I could have given it to Leo or Jess, the man and woman I met at an art installation who were both newbies and completely blown away by their respective experiences at the burn thus far. I could have given it to the man who gave us temporary tattoos while we were waiting in line to pull the Trojan Horse on Friday. I could have given it to any number of people, but I never thought of it until later on, after these chance meetings had passed. Then, on Friday night, several of us rode out to the trash fence, the farthest point in deep playa where one can legally go. It was dark out there — the stars overhead dazzled, and the Milky Way welcomed me back like a childhood friend. We were all in great spirits, laughing and joking and wondering in which direction we needed to travel to find the movie theater that I’d heard of but never seen with my own eyes. As we posed to take a photo, I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye. There was a man walking toward us out of the darkness. He walked deliberately, as if he intended to join us, but then bypassed us and went around our little gathering. We were struggling with the photo opportunity because it was so incredibly dark, and finally managed to snap a photo.
The stranger was clearly loitering near us for a reason, and so we asked him what was going on. He was vague and bizarre in his responses, but we finally learned that he had gone beyond the trash fence border and was wandering out in the darkness where participants were forbidden to tread. He had seen the perimeter guard’s truck approachng and headed back to the legal side of the fence, and tried to blend in to our group so the patrol would not be able to single him out. It worked — the patrol truck passed us by and left us alone.