| Green Monkey
Driving down the two-lane gravel road, 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 will see another gas station, restaurant, or grocery store.
Once a lakebed rich in life form, this ancient four hundred square mile terrain 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, thirty 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 privy to the emotional and 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 gesture of the oceans sway; and it’s been quite sometime since I’ve craved laughter, instead recoiling 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; dejectedly 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. It's your first time at Burning Man. Pull the car into the left hand lane,” orders Carla.
Carla and I had 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. My god Carla, this is worse than rush hour traffic. If we don’t hurry, we won’t get our tent pitched before night fall.” Neither of us has pitched a tent before 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.
“Not your street name, your playa name”
“I - ah, I have no playa name?”
“Newbie, Newbie!” cries the greeter.
Is my red face the result of my embarrassment, or has my fair, Irish potato skin already begun to burn?
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 eccentric apparitions that now surround me. Masquerading in elaborate costumes, participants pedal foot powered, festively decorated carts and bikes. 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 Burning Man. 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!,” Carla 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 (you know, 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 sleepy, somewhat sheltered New England town; I am na´ve 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. “But 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 remained riddled with guilt.
Inside Camp Almighty sinners crowd around a glow in the dark alter, passing wafers of what I am told is blotter acid 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. Experiencing 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 covered in a poor quality 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.” Tacky 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 twisted dance leading upwards towards the black sky; my mind plays images of the last time I saw my son alive. His beautiful symmetrically balanced face, highlighted by the intensity of his crisp blue eyes, cheek raising smile, and tone of his blush; “Ma, don’t get upset,” he teased, “I’m a 23 year old guy - I don’t always understand you,” the backwards jerk of his head and neck 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 know, 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 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 of Honor is to me. I tell him about my beautiful son and how the pain of love engulfs me.
"It's not your fault." David replied, "Come with me, see the real beauty of Burning Man.” His hand reaches out to me, “beyond the smile lies the pain. It's why I built the Temple, for the pain beyond belief." David continues to shake hands, wave to the crowd, and answer reporter's questions. And through it all, he never lets go of my hand. "Look beyond their smiles. Deep inside each soul lies the truth. Honor the truth.”
My knees weakened from emotion crumble; the intensity of his message pulls me to the ground. “We all sign up for this journey,” David explains, “It’s no different than you deciding to come to Burning Man. You may not know why, but your journey is your own doing. It is deliberate.”
Shortly after Kerry’s passing, I discovered the phrase “Live Deliberately” scribbled inside one of his many 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?
With his two strong arms, David lifts me to my feet. His tone is more forceful, less tolerant of my ache, “Tell me Shannon, now that you have seen this new world, a world that is unimaginable to most, how will you define it? By the time you reach home, this world will no longer exist. Or will it? Does its existence prevail in another dimension, space or time? I believe it is all here, layered in our subconscious mind. But you will have to decide for yourself.” And with that he said good-bye. His image vanished in the stillness of the night.
I stay until the final drop of amber takes its last breath. The crowd now gone, the stars above 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 sons 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 limply woven thatched hut stands alone. Massive speakers, directed at the horizon, border the exterior walls. Inside, a sound system rests in one corner; a hammock stretches across the center. 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.
In loving memory of
Kerry Ryan Magann
February 16, 1979 to May 27, 2002
“So they will know that you lived. Lived and Burned”