Shameless

It occurs to me, I texted c the other night, that we don’t just have two different relationships here, we have six: you & i, h & i, you & i and h, h & i and you, you & h and I, and you & h & i. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized this before.

h drew a diagram of this phenomenon. I’ll share it later.

It may sound silly, or needlessly complicated, but it’s true. In a threesome, pairs are constantly forming and disbanding. It’s not as though all three people are equally engaged all the time. Sometimes two are focused on the other one and not each other. Sometimes two are focused on each other and not the other one. There are (obviously) more moving parts in a triad (we’ve been working on a better name…trifecta…unholy trinity) than in a couple.

Each of us have our special challenges in this thing. One of mine is the fact that I tend to feel much more comfortable one-on-one than in a group, even a group of three. Actually I think that’s true of all of us. At a friend’s birthday party, h told me he’s an introvert. I’ve always thought of myself as sort of a disabled extrovert–that is, for most of my life I’ve had the desire but not the skill or confidence to be a true extrovert. h is charming, charismatic, and dynamic. He built a business from the ground up, he works with people constantly, emcees events. He’s respected in his industry and in the community. I didn’t think he was an introvert at all until I read this article:

10 Myths About Introverts

So. Turns out I wasn’t a lousy extrovert, just a typical introvert living in an extrovert’s world. The turning point in my social life came when I figured out how extroverts see the world and began to understand the logic behind their seemingly arbitrary and endless rules and formalities. In any case, as comfortable and easy as it is for the three of us to be in one another’s company, it takes a little more energy.

Another thing that makes this interesting/challenging for me is the fact that I’ve never dated a woman before c. “It’s reminding me of trying to learn Spanish in Germany,” I told her. “Learning to date a woman in a triad.”

It’s really not anything that c does to make me feel foreign and strange; it’s just that where I’m used to coarse I encounter smooth, where I’ve been relatively tiny, I’m now giant, where I’ve been at least slightly more graceful I sometimes feel like a bull in a china shop. These feelings aren’t necessarily bad, just new. I can see the appeal of being butch. It’s nice being on the other side of The Gaze (even if she’s gazing right back), it’s nice feeling protective, it’s nice subsuming oneself before another’s beauty. It’s different than when I lose myself to h, which is more like being the sacrifice itself than being a supplicant or a pilgrim. The moments of discomfort or disorientation are well worth it for the unique pleasures and discoveries.

With c’s help, I’m reconciling a part of myself that I’d sort of put away and decided not to bother with, the twelve year old girl who liked to experiment with her best friend under blankets at sleepovers. I may have intellectually reconciled the sense of purity surrounding those early explorations with the shame of confessing them to a religious leader, but I never completely worked through the conflict in terms of my spiritual or physical self. In trying to minimize the seriousness of the sin, I played down both my desire for another woman and my sense of innocence and purity surrounding sex. “No, no; you’re right. I know it’s wrong, dirty, etc. what I did,” I told my mom, my bishop, and never really told myself otherwise.

Just when I thought I was liberated, c is showing me a whole new level of freedom.

h challenges and stimulates me in an entirely different set of ways. He’s almost two years younger than me, and he’s already taken the hardest steps towards turning his passion into a paycheck. He’s accomplished so much, but beyond that, he works incredibly hard, pursuing his goals with relentless dedication.

Although this is the h I’ve always known, it’s a fairly recent development. When c and h met, they were both in a bad way, and they spent dysfunctional drunken months being sad together. And he overcame it. And built something beautiful. This is very encouraging to me as a highly functional stoner. Beyond that, his unflappable self-assurance and impatience for weakness push me to be more confident, to stop hiding behind my flaws and making excuses and start becoming the best version of myself. I want to pursue my career with the same faith and unstoppable energy as he’s pursued his.

I found it actually very helpful and revelatory (and, incidentally, sexy) when I looked at h & c beside me on the bed and thought, my two best friends and I get to have sex with each other, and no one is ever going to stop us! Of course they’re much more than that to me–but I think part of the reason we stress so much about our romantic relationships is because we’re trying so hard to define (and control) just what they ought to look like.

There’s nothing they “ought to” look like. A relationship ought to look like whatever best contributes to everyone getting their needs met and feeling appreciated and loved.

“How about this song for one of ‘our’ songs?” I said, feeling sheepish the way I always do when I’m being a bit cheesy or romantic.

“We have a song?” h asked, lounging on the couch naked with c in his lap.

“If you want,” I said. “I’m proposing one. This one.”

We’d better have a good explanation

for all the fun that we’ve had

‘cuz they are coming for us baby

and they’re going to be mad…

Hope and Fantasy

I was thinking last night as I finally finished the last part of “The Test” that m trying to convince me to move to New York, despite knowing all along that I have a boyfriend, is not so different from my persistent efforts to convince a to try again, despite his demonstrated indifference (and even aversion) to the idea.

It was a vision I held on to willfully, at my own expense, and against all reason, for two years. This is the sort of thing that leads people to call romantics “foolish.” There was never very much chance I’d be successful, and I held on, perhaps, for much longer than I should have. Or maybe not. A himself told me once that my wild ambitions and dreams for myself might pay off in the end, because only people who are foolish enough to believe they can do something have any chance of achieving it.

The one variable you can never control is the other person’s feelings. Did my belief fail me, then? I don’t think so. It kept me alert and hopeful, it kept the cynicism from seeping in, it kept my life painted with color (even if it was only imaginary), and most of all, it kept me looking for magic.

As children, M and I both found it irresistible to test out wardrobes in case they lead to Narnia, to walk through gateways, to see if we might fall through a mirror if we leaned on it just so and believed hard enough. As adults we only do these kinds of things sheepishly at best, in private. Burning Man changes all that. Something about Black Rock City encourages its citizens to see everything through new, wondrous, unjaded eyes.

When we left the telephone installation I described in my first post, m and I held hands and hopped past the border, but we weren’t trying to cross into a magical world, we were jumping back out of one. The world we jumped back into was another layer of magic. And my practice looking for it is paying off now that I’ve jumped back into the default world, where magic is hard to come by but here it is: m and I are imagining a way to keep knowing one another without violating my commitments to h & c, I am finding that simple things like carrying music around in your pocket have a cast of magic when looked at from the right angle, and it’s clear to me that loving people who love me back isn’t an ordinary kind of magic at all.

The Test, Part 3

On Sunday I went back and forth between my camp and m’s, helping dismantle, watching the city recede and give way to playa. I kept getting lost, as my primary navigation mode is based on visual markers. An attempt was made, once again, to coordinate with my campmates, who were now saying they wanted to leave right after the temple burn. I hated the idea. Leave home? Already? But I just got here! In the end we decided that I would meet them back at camp at one, and if I wasn’t there when they left, they should assume I had another way home.

At some point I turned to m and asked him point blank: “If I were to come to New York and visit you, what would it mean to you?”

“It would give me hope,” he said, “that you would someday break up with your boyfriend and move to New York. And be my girlfriend.”

This was much more direct than I was expecting. At least he wasn’t beating around the bush.

“I love h,” I reminded him. “I love c. If I would so easily leave them behind for someone new, what makes you think I wouldn’t do the same to you?”

“I know, I know. Just remember, this is different for me. This is a feeling I haven’t experienced in a long time. I can’t help but hope.”

So there it was, right in the open.

The sun was going down along with the camps all around me. The light was leaving the playa. I biked carefully back towards Center Camp, my butt highly sensitive to each bump in the road thanks to my hard little thorn of a bicycle seat, a plaster cast of my breasts dangling from my handlebars in a garbage bag.

Soon the temple would burn, releasing its prayers and hopes into the sky. I had first visited on my second day. It seemed to me exactly what a sacred space should be: People mourning their lost loved ones unashamedly and sometimes loudly. Others smiling, eating, playing, writing, reading, talking. The walls were covered in pictures and words commemorating the dead, sometimes also the suffering of the living. So many beloved faces, so many terribly missed souls. As I wandered and gazed, I found most poignant the depth, the longevity that it requires for someone to take a permanent shape in another’s life, to leave a hole that doesn’t quickly heal over.

I took a blue sharpie and wrote on the wall: h and c, someday I will lose you. Thank you for the amazing love that makes this such a terrible thing.

Tonight that statement would burn like the others. Someday I will lose you. To everything there is a season, after all. Maybe my California season was over; maybe my adventure learning to be in love with two people instead of one should stay just that, a brief but thrilling adventure. A part of me wondered whether such loveliness could be sustained, anyway. And another small part of me wondered whether I had the strength to keep learning day by day like this, to keep fighting my baser instincts, my jealousy and possessiveness, my neediness and recklessness.

I thought about my life back in San Jose. I hadn’t established anything there career-wise. New York is certainly a better place for a writer to be. My friends were lovely, and the community was growing on me, but…New York.

I pictured myself and m, working side by side in coffee shops, he on his syllabus and I on my novel, hobnobbing with intellectuals, going to off-broadway shows, working on costumes for next year’s burning man.

M told me his friend j would be joining us. J was in a bad place. He had recently lost his job, not just any job but an identity-establishing, dream-job type situation, and his open relationship girlfriend, a regular burner, hadn’t wanted him to come to Burning Man, and had kicked him off the camp art car the night before (radical inclusiveness, anyone?)

As we biked towards the temple, bike after antlered bike and car after monstrous car bore down on us, headed the opposite direction. I had a sinking feeling. It was too close to nine for them to be running last minute pre-burn errands. The darkness was scattered with partiers and up ahead, we could see neither temple nor flames. We reached the corridor of gas lamps which leads to the temple. As m and j locked their bikes I stopped a white-haired man with a woman who might have been his wife, and asked them if the temple had already burned.

“Yes,” said the man, “I’m sorry.” His name, he told me, was Dash, and he had built the temple last year.

“It was really, breathtakingly beautiful,” m said. “A lot of people were weeping openly when it burned.”

“Did you lose somebody this year?” Dash asked us, with a smile which carried all the weight of his next sentence. “I lost a daughter.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said m. “No one should have to go through that.”

“No,” Dash agreed, still with the kind, sad smile.

“Myself,” said j. “I lost myself.”

Dash hugged him. “That’s what the temple is for. That’s what this festival is for, to some extent. Letting go. Of ourselves, of the things we cling to out of fear or love.”

Throughout the day I’d been experiencing little jabs of intense sadness, watching the playa empty out. Now I found myself tearful. “I’m really sad we missed it,” I said. “It seemed like the most important part of Burning Man to me.”

“It was beautiful,” said Dash. “Here.”

He pulled out his camera and replayed the video for us. The first shot was focused on the embers and ash and smoke billowing into the air. “You have to watch it with me,” he chuckled. “See it the way I saw it. I was picturing these embers as all of the thousands upon thousands of prayers that all of the people gathered here are sending up to the heavens. As all of the souls and egos and hopes are released.”

We watched in silence, thanked Dash, then made our way to the glowing heap of temple remains. Despite the intense heat, the people crowded it closely. At the innermost edge of the spectators, a parade of people walked, swayed, danced, marched, and leapt past at different speeds, enduring the heat in order to be close one last time to the things they were letting go, or to share in the ritual, or to challenge themselves.

One of those embers flying into the sky was my message to my lovers. Thank you for your amazing love. 

I thought of c. My elusive, translucent womanchild. Her willful, gorgeous way of walking through the world. The marvelous tiny feel of her waist when I wrap my arms around her. The poetry of her speech, the Mrs. Darling kiss on her lips that I haven’t yet reached (though I’m sure I’ll get it from her someday). She would never begrudge my leaving. In a way, she is always leaving. She wouldn’t be pleased, but she would understand. (Had she ever meant to really give herself over to me?)

Our parting will be terrible for me.

I thought of h, and regretted that I hadn’t put the necklace on that morning. The small, cool stone would have been extra reassuring in the face of this heat.

H, with his classic elegance and boyish energy. His strength, unmarred by his vulnerability. The way his smile takes hold of his whole face. How expressive he is with his posture, with his hands. How adamant he is about his preferences (“I don’t like that!” he exclaimed firmly after attempting to do a handstand in a pool). The daily messages of love and appreciation. His alertness and sensitivity, the way he knew an ex was pregnant because her smell changed. The way he balances confidence and humility, assertiveness and awareness of others. The moments when this all breaks down and I see the anger he has learned to moderate or the fear he has learned to quiet.

I dwelled on the memory of the first time h made me swoon. We were a bit tipsy (this is often when the romantic in him manifests) and the possibility that I might move away came up. It was not something we talked about often, but it was nevertheless sort of omni-present. H looked at me with good humor and love in his eyes.

“If you moved away,” he said slowly, calmly, “I would be sad, and c would be sad. You would be sad too, but only for a while. You’d have exciting things to do. You’d be getting used to a new place, meeting new people.”

“I would be sad for a long time!” I protested, but he wasn’t finished.

“Nothing would change. We’d still feel the same way about one another. But of course, after a while we’d stop calling.”

“It happens.”

“Eventually, we’d hardly email. And we’d go on with our lives. Keep doing exciting things. And one day, you’d come back for a visit.”

He paused. I realized I was practically holding my breath.

“It would all still be there. One day we’d meet, and look at each other, and we’d be thinking a thousand things in our heads.”

“And we’d know,” I said, as he nodded. “We’d know that the other person was thinking the same sorts of things.”

“And I wouldn’t want to let you go again,” he said. “And maybe you’d realize you never should have left. Maybe you’d come back to us.”

Before me, the temple smoldered. As sacred as the entire city had become to me, as this festival was, there was a marked difference here. Despite the girl over there knowledgeably explaining to us all that we’d brought the goddess down to visit us, this is the goddess, despite the occasional directive from one person to another to shut up or to be more respectful, despite (or maybe because of) the people laughing and joking or the ones clearly having fun as they danced past the sacred building, the people wearing nothing or wearing something sexy or wearing banana costumes (yes, there were bananas present) the sense of sanctity remained.

I wish I hadn’t missed the ceremony. Then another thought struck me. When you violate sacred things you are shut out from the sacred. You miss the sacred.

H had never sworn me to fidelity. What had actually happened was this: I, personally, have no desire to sleep with anyone else, he said. There is plenty for me to explore still, but I’d like to do it with you.

At this point in the relationship he didn’t need to add and c.

I can handle monogamy, sweetheart, I said. That’s what I did all my life. I don’t really want to sleep with anyone else, either.

We’d had a couple of somewhat awkward follow up conversations, in which I tried to figure out whether it meant I didn’t love him if I still thought polyamory was pretty swell, but also assert that he was more important to me than polyamory. But also, do you really really want monogamy? What? No, of course. I do too.

But at no point had he remotely compelled me to agree. So this wasn’t a question of whether I was going to assert my independence in our relationship or not, this was a pure question of whether or not I was going to keep my word.

New York with m would be an adventure, sure. San Jose, and for that matter h and c, would be just fine without me–though we’d always wonder. In the end, though, I’d already made a promise to h to pursue our connection over all others. Severing that connection because I met someone interesting was tantamount to cheating, and furthermore, I’d just be chasing my tail. M wasn’t more interesting than h, he was just newer. At some point there’d be someone newer than m, and then what would I do?

I finally admitted to myself something else I’d felt in the temple–jealousy. What a strange thing to be jealous of people in such pain. “You are so lucky,” I had wanted to tell them. “So lucky to have loved someone so strongly that it hurts this much to lose them.”

As much as I love adventure, I realized I was tired of the ever-changing faces, the relationships hung neatly on the wall of my past, framed by distance. The cities I learned to love just as I said goodbye to them. I want to really, really know people. I want to love them despite years of meannesses, I want to shower them with years of kindnesses.

I’ve never been happier in my life than these last couple of months with h & c. San Jose seemed pretty stiff, boring, and corporate at first but now that I’ve found my people, a little pocket of gutsy, creative, warm-hearted, dirty-minded badasses who are pretty much exactly the kind of human beings I find it easiest to love, it’s hard to imagine a better city anywhere on this planet.

I don’t want to miss the sacred, I told myself. I want to build something profound.

M suggested we take a break from the heat and wander the playa a bit. J tried to head back to camp and I almost got sidetracked by the drum line on a nearby art car, but m steered us all calmly to the Woman. The fungus had me feeling quite serene and blissful, but even so I contemplated the task of telling m. He was so confident and cheerful, doing such a good job looking out for his friend.

The other wonderful adventures of that last night I’ll share in later posts, as they pertain to some other things I plan to write about. For now let’s skip ahead to the next morning, as m and I woke in the Eagle’s Nest above The Forest.

Around us, the soft white fur of the installation was wet with dew. The air was crisp. The cape offered meager protection but I wished the sun would hurry. We could see the whole vast sky and before us the city; some tents and structures still remained. M reports that at some point there was a couple in full sexual congress–doggy style–on the roof with us; I didn’t notice them, or I was still asleep. As the rays sought us we looked at each other and smiled, then I looked away. Periodically throughout the night I had tried to formulate the sentence, tried to break the news just right, and I had the words as right as I could get them but I knew there was no easy way.

“I need to tell you something.”

“Yes?”

“I enjoy your company greatly, and our time together has been meaningful for me, and I’m glad I met you.” I took a deep breath. “But you should know that I’m never going to leave h for you.”

The words settled between us, leaden and grave. “That’s not what love is to me, chasing every new connection. H and I have a connection, too. I already committed to seeing it play out.”

M regarded me darkly. I could hear him breathe, rapid and heavy, the clearest sign of his agitation.

“If things were to end naturally between h and I, it would be a bittersweet moment,” I said. “I would hope that you were still single. But I’m not going to end this just to see what might happen. I love h. I’m very happy with him. And I love c.”

We were both silent for a moment. “You forgot another reason to end it,” he said. “For me.”

“What if you were my boyfriend who couldn’t make it to Burning Man, and he were the one here with me?” I shook my head. “Don’t you see? Why should you ever trust me if I went with you? I know you’ve been lonely for a long time. I’d love to be the one to help you not be lonely anymore. I want to. I do care about you, you know–I’m invested in your happiness.”

There were some tears at this point between both of us.

“But h wouldn’t do this, you know? That’s part of what I love about him. He would never try to seduce someone else’s girlfriend. You knew from the start that I was in a committed relationship.”

M didn’t say much as we biked back across the playa. We didn’t have much time left. Soon his bus would leave, and I needed to find a ride.

He faced me. “I’m not mad. You’ve been a wonderful playa girlfriend, and I’m glad we got to have that in this bubble of a world. I won’t pretend I didn’t hope this would play out differently,” he said brusquely as we returned to his camp, “but I’d still like to stay in touch back in the default world. And I’d still like you to come to New York, if you still want to.”

“I feel the same way,” I said. “You’ve been an excellent playa boyfriend and co-adventurer. I definitely want to continue our friendship beyond Burning Man.”

Two nights and several mishaps and miles later, as I lay in bed next to h and told him about m and he listened, quiet and calm, asking questions and responding reasonably and lovingly, I was filled with gratitude and no small amount of fear as I thought about the other way this might have gone.

“I’m glad I didn’t do anything that would threaten our relationship,” I said, holding him close.

“I’m glad you didn’t, too. I’m glad you were faithful. There would have been all-too-real consequences,” he said. “if you had taken that lightly.”

He was talking, I supposed, about monogamy, but the funny thing was, sex had never been part of the test for me. Why would I be tempted by such a thing considering the bounty I have at home? But I said instead,

“One of my conditions when we agreed to monogamy was that infidelity should never be grounds, on its own, for breaking up–only for a serious discussion and re-assessment of circumstances.”

“Then,” he said mildly, but there was a gleam in his eye, “we would have had a very serious discussion and reassessment.”

I had sort of known, subconsciously, for some time now that karma was out to get me for my indecisiveness. I had spent the last few years in a state of noncommittal detachment, until a few months ago when I’d hated a job so much that I finally decided to stop perfecting the backup the plan and actually launch my writing career. Soon after that, I found I hated the way my unattainable ex, a, was more important to me somehow than the real, flesh-and-blood, fully lovable people right in front of me enough to call off my pursuit of him, and promptly met c, who soon after introduced me to h. Are you really ready to commit? the universe seemed to be asking me. Are you sure? Okay. Here we go

Passing a karmic test isn’t as exciting as having a paradigm shift–after all, a paradigm shift means you have come to understand the ontology behind the correct actions, and doing the right thing after almost doing the wrong thing has more to do with remembering the consequences from the last time you acted incorrectly. While I think there was something of a paradigm shift in my decision, I still haven’t completely sorted out for myself how I feel about monogamy vs. polyamory, except for feeling very glad about my current state of monogamy with my two partners.

So. Here we go. I’m in San Jose with my loving girlfriend and my loving boyfriend, writing by day, making love to h & c and/or the city by night, and trying not to think too much about what happens when the other shoe drops.

…To Be Continued…

The Test, Part 2

First, there’s a part of Friday night that I didn’t discuss in enough detail. M pointed out to me (yes, m reads my blog…so do c and h, for that matter) that we didn’t just ride art cars (I think I called them mutant vehicles) we rode a very specific art car, the Acavelo. This is important because the Acavelo is pretty much pure magic, with giant, metal carnival horses which go up and down as the car moves, pull-chains which cause fire to spout into the air, and the general look and rigging of a pirate ship. Here’s his description of that part of the night:

It was that moment when we first realised that we no longer had any idea where we were. The desert night shifted with bubbles of fantastical shapes, and all around us on the ship faeries and pirates danced. I realised simultaneously that I was high as a kite, 10 years old, and in my personal heaven. You were talking to the lovely friends, but you were also getting a little sick, so maybe we weren’t in quite the same place.

No, I remembered the Acavelo (but not the name of it!) quite clearly, though its name tended to elude me. One of the “lovely friends” was a golden, glowing little fairy named Lisette, who looked irresistibly soft to me, who thrummed with joy at the wonders around us, tuning me into her marvelous frequency. She had a voice like bells. Everything was coated in magic.

And then I began to feel sick to my stomach. The smell of gas became overpowering and the heat from all of the flames was bearing down on me. “I may throw up,” I said, looking around uselessly for a bag or a can. “Oh no. I don’t want to throw up on the playa.”

M helped me down and we walked alongside. “This is my fourth year and I’ve thrown up on the playa four times!” Lisette called cheerfully from her perch. “Go ahead and throw up, sweetie, if you need. Do you want some water? Would this help? Here. Drink.” Before long I was feeling fine again, so we danced alongside the pirate ship (I don’t dance, m had claimed earlier) until we saw something beautiful to chase down.

“You could just be Peter Pan,” I mused, still trying to name m. “Hm. Peter Pan.”

“And you’d be Wendy?”

“I’ve taken care of my share of Lost Boys. I don’t want to be the one who makes everyone grow up at the end. I’d rather adventure.”

So. On to Saturday night.

First, m and I tried to find the art car where I’d agreed to meet mon amis, but it was hopeless. There were too many cars, all amassed in a giant circle around the man like a patient audience of brilliantly colored mythical beasts, crawling with burners. We secured a spot and watched the fire dancers, the fire breathers. I thought about h and his poi. I thought about my friend t who went to writing school with me, who ran away to the circus. Her beautiful essay about fire-eating, and the way her face is smooth and shiny in the picture where she is emerging from, or retreating, in any case beckoning the viewer into the colorful  depths of a circus tent.

The burn was spectacular. The sky was crowded with flowers and streamers and tiny explosive rockets of fire non-stop from long before the man began to burn until well after the spaceship exploded. The enormous heat and the wind came together to form skyscraper-tall smoke tornadoes, which whirled magnificently forth from the fire and through the cleared area, threatening, along with the billows of smoke, ash, and embers, to veer into the teeming crowd, though they never did.

I tried to decide what the man meant to me–the man can be anything, anything you want to let go of, get rid of. Later I would hear m and others claim that the man is you, yourself. I had certainly been feeling the tug of ego in recent weeks. Having stumbled accidentally on so much happiness with h, a part of me was desperate to keep it. Letting go was the last thing I wanted to do. My tendencies towards neediness and clinginess had been aroused again, though I was successfully driving them back. I wasn’t quite falling in love so much as relaxing gingerly into it.

And now here I was, somehow, with another man’s arms around me.

M and I had talked and wandered, we’d made out. The beauty of this, we’d said to one another, is the way our connection is temporary, meant to play out in this momentary space. We’ll let go of this along with everything else when we return to our default lives.

A blinding sandstorm caught us as we made our way out to the deep playa, chasing down tiny lights in the darkness, trying to find the most distant installations. We battled through drifts and then began to tire. A creepy metal reed encampment populated by skeletal tribespeople provided cover for a moment’s powwow and regeneration, and then we prepared to set off again.

“We’ll follow the perimeter fence for a bit, see if we can’t find something we haven’t seen yet, and then we’ll find a piece of art to crawl into and take shelter for a while.”

“What a lovely thing to be able to say,” I said. “‘Look at the dildo this clown just gave me.’ ‘I wish that dog hadn’t spanked me quite so hard.’ ‘Let’s crawl into some art for a while.’ God I love this place.”

We found our art/shelter: the horse and carriage installation, extra eerie in the low visibility. The giant metal steed was kneeling awkwardly–brought down, most likely, by climbers–but the carriage, with its cushions and cozy space, was fully operational. We climbed in, took off our shoes and put down our bags, and enjoyed its semi-privacy for a good long conversation, chatting pleasantly with the various interlopers who peered inside, some of whom stayed for a nice chat and some of whom left after a quick “sorry,” startled to find occupants. We decided that the latter were tourists–people who come just for the weekend, looking for a big party, never really getting in the Burning Man spirit. Muggles, as m took to calling them (to my delight).

“Who is your favorite sibling?” m asked me. “I know you have a favorite.”

“I don’t!” I protested. “I love both of my sisters. It’s a difference in nature, not in volume.”

“I have a favorite,” he said comfortably. “My youngest brother. All of my other siblings detested him for a long time when we were little, and I never understood why.” He described his brother’s unfailing kindness and good nature, his terrific kids.

He, too, a lover of underdogs, a respecter of kindness. “I don’t want our friendship to end when Burning Man ends,” I said abruptly.

“I don’t think it should,” he said. “In fact, I’d very much like you to come visit me in New York. Would you think about it?”

It was undeniable at this point; I was developing feelings for m. But then he said, as he had before, “I haven’t had a connection of this kind in a very long time,” and I fell silent. I had gone long periods of time without feeling this way, certainly, but of course, my response right now would have to be, “I have. Right now. Back in the default world, for a few months now. I have two of them, actually. Two strong connections.” And now this.

It never rains but it pours, as they say.

M was a bit higher than me and very affectionate. I was quiet, anxious, sorting through my epiphany. I had somehow developed an emotional connection to him, without meaning to at all, without needing one. It certainly hadn’t developed out of discontent, as infidelity often does. It wasn’t that I loved h (or c, for that matter) any less. It was just–I’m an Aquarius, dammit. I want to love everyone.

Besides, m and I had cultivated our own little brand of realistic romanticism, pragmatic fabulism. We had figured out how to combine our childlike immediate enjoyment and our more adult, contemplative appreciation for the complexity and magnitude of things, and we were spinning a web of wonder everywhere we went. I had been doing something similar on my own out there, but to share it? What a fucking lovely thing! What a dream! What a trip!

And yeah, I wasn’t sharing it with h & c.

I would have been. I wanted to.  I would be, next year!

But still I questioned myself. Wondered how this all fit into my ideas of polyamory. I knew h would struggle with the fact that I’d had a male adventure partner. He’d admitted to jealousy issues, especially with other men (less so other women). How would my connection here make him feel? Had he really okayed a playa boyfriend? I thought I remembered him saying it was all right. Would he feel threatened by all of this?

Should he?

M was, after all, just a man. Just a handsome man, a romantic and a lover of fairy tales, a man I would gladly have dated pre-h, pre-c, trying to convince me to come visit him in New York.

“We’ll play chess in the East Village,” said m, his voice dreamy. We were in the Center Camp on a somewhat uncomfortable makeshift couch. I’d knocked over each of our coffees, one after the other, with the same maddeningly mobile round cushion. It was probably three in the morning, someone was playing music, and little pockets of burners were cuddled wherever there were pillows to be found, or sitting, listening attentively to the artist, or to the speaker pontificating on another stage. Black Rock City never sleeps. “I’ll show you the real New York. We can do some of the touristy thing as well if you like, but I’d like to take you to my favorite cocktail bar, which is a bit of a secret. And the Museum of Natural HIstory, of course, but at night, when the crowds are gone.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

“I could be your New York boyfriend,” he joked. “You know. Just for when you visit the East Coast.”

“Sure. One of many boyfriends across the world,” I said musingly. “One in every port.”

I’ve definitely entertained that vision of myself: a modern, feminine holdout from the beat generation, an artist, living somewhere outside of the emotional range of my lovers, my feelings for them abstract, complex. I’d be the same with all of them: warm, sensual, affectionate, but firm: unattached, unconcerned. And, you know, they’d all be dear to me (dear boys) but then I’d have that one, the one who would always try and convince me to stay. The one who’d almost tempt me…almost…until I remembered that I am a free spirit, a roamer, doomed to keep wandering, like that woman in Chocolat.

“I do hope you’ll come visit,” m said. He didn’t seem quite as amused by my logical conclusion to his proposition.

“I’d like to.”

Would h let me have a New York boyfriend? No, of course not. H wanted monogamy. Would he even let me visit New York? Why was I using the term “let me”? He felt very far away. It was all very confusing. I started thinking about his conditions again. The imperative for exclusivity had come out of nowhere. Hmph. Why should he begrudge me happiness just because I was experiencing it with another guy? How well did I really know h, anyway? What if he wasn’t supportive of gender equality at all–what if he was actually a chauvinist at heart?

After all, I had fully encouraged him to sleep with another woman if he felt compelled. I watched him make love to c often, relished their connection with one another, thoroughly enjoyed the sight of them coupling. H had as well, incidentally, a beautiful Australian friend and colleague with whom he’d been intimate in the past, and I felt no qualms telling him to sleep with her again if he liked. And h had not seemed particularly averse to this possibility. So why should I be a practicer of holy abstinence? Why should my desire for monogamy, or lack thereof, be any kind of sign of my connection to him, when he knows very well that his current single-minded devotion can and will wear with time? That a day will likely come when he’ll say, “all right, enough of this monogamy thing,” and I’ll say, “Cool, who have you been wanting to fuck, baby?”

It wasn’t like m was threatening our relationship.

“I’m really glad I met you,” he said sleepily, holding me tight. “I needed this. Thank you.”

“I’m glad I met you too,” I said. But I certainly didn’t need this. Christ. What now?

Tattoo

I’m going to put off the rest of my Playa revelation until the next post, as I was recently re-inspired to finally write about something I’ve been turning over and over again in my head for a good long while now.

I have a rather large tattoo on my back. It has about seventeen hours of work in it– eight of them in the southern state where I previously lived and nine here in the South Bay. The central theme is liberation. Although I enjoy the way the imagery becomes a focal point for my lovers, a lens through which to interpret me, I am also wary of it. Lenses paired with the wrong eyes don’t clarify, they distort. In any case it’s part of me now, a very visible part, and people will interpret it as they will.

Do I want more tattoos? Hell yes. Do I like getting tattooed? Um…I’m not really sure. I look forward to my appointments–unless I’m having a bad day already, operating on little sleep or feeling generally grumpy, and then I can’t face it. I enjoy certain moments and revelations brought on by getting tattooed. I enjoy being in the shop and interacting with the artists and the other customers. I don’t enjoy the healing process–no swimming, frequent application of ointment, no itching, no hot tubs, the ruination of clothes and sheets, and yeah, a bit of pain and discomfort.

I haven’t experienced many things more painful than being tattooed. I’ve broken bones, been burned so bad my skin came off, had teeth drilled into without novocaine. It doesn’t hit the same peaks of pain as the throb of a broken wrist or the pang of a drill striking root, but it maintains a respectable pitch of pain and delivers it relentlessly, consistently. All the while you are maddeningly aware that it would be easy to escape this torture. All you have to do is be a big weenie. Puss out.

So, you know, depending on your reason for being there, you don’t puss out. Not for a while, at least. You sit there for three and a half long hours (that’s my max) and teach your brain not to listen to the tiny voices screaming at it to DO SOMETHING! DO SOMETHING! SOMETHING TERRIBLE IS HAPPENING TO US! SOS! And you can’t quite shut out the voices, ever, and they just scream and scream, and you go to your happy place and you say “I’m not listening” and you scream along with them and you do anything you can think of to not go crazy or run away.

It’s an interesting mental exercise. You know, but your body doesn’t, that after all of this disruption and alarm, you’re not going to die–you’re going to have some new decorations on you. A little more color.

I see the artist working on my current piece biking around my neighborhood sometimes. He has a long salt-and-pepper ponytail and he writes beautiful Facebook statuses. I mean lovely things; coded, dense and lyrical. He doesn’t let me off easy. Sometimes he says he’ll stop in five minutes but then he keeps going for another half hour. But he also reassures me that I’m brave enough. Pain is hard to work through. We all do our best.

Coping strategy number one: translate the pain into pleasure. With your imagination. Try and make it sexy. Pretend a lover is inflicting it, that they take pleasure in the process of awakening your skin to the air like this, that you, too, enjoy this. You can do it, but it takes a lot of concentration, and before long, the tiny voices are yelling at you again. DANGER! DANGER! DO SOMETHING, YOU SEDENTARY DUMBASS!

I usually keep trying to distract it the same way, just in case it will still work, but it almost never does. My brain’s just like “yeah, yeah, I remember that but THIS is REALLY IMPORTANT!”

So I’m like “abracadabra!” and pretend I’ve magicked the pain away. “Oh, look, screaming nerve endings,” I say to them, “see how you aren’t screaming any more? Yeah, you’re not screaming, because you don’t feel anything.” And they’re suspicious but they stop, and I’m like “see? You’re so totally engrossed in what I’m saying, there’s no pain at all.” And they nod, pleased, and everything’s cool for just long enough to make me think maybe I really am magic. But no, one of them gets really good and jammed, and starts screaming again, and soon they’re all panicking.

Okay, I’m running out of ideas, but there’s really nothing for it. That needle is digging into this skin, and the screaming will. Not. Stop. It’s like screaming babies, too. Even if I’m not consciously annoyed, some primal part of me is running circles in panic. The part of me that mans the alarm system.

So I just watch myself hurting for a while. “Wow, yeah,” I say. “You guys are completely correct to panic like that. This is really, truly unpleasant. Ouch. Oh wow. Ho-lee-SHIT. Aww, look at the way you’re squirming. Is that necessary? Huh?” And then my artist goes back and forth across my shoulder blade a few extra times just for funsies and everyone screams at me “YES its fucking necessary! Are you FEELING this? FUCK ME!”

I do the thing where I shoot the pain– kapow! Pow! Pew pew!–on its way up my backbone to my brain. That works for a bit. The thing where I just calmly receive and then ignore the messages–“DO SOMETHING!”

“Thanks, yes, I’ll take that advice under consideration.”

“FUCKING GET US AWAY FROM THIS AWFULNESS, YOU LAZY SHIT!”

“The opinions of my constituents are important to me, thank you for bringing them to my attention.”

“SON OF A FUCKING CUNT FACED OWWWWWW!”

“It is my duty to represent you, not to be abused by you. Please contain your–ouch. Fuck. New distraction. Ow.”

And so on.

Why was I there? Well, to tell the truth, the inescapable, immediate stimulus setting fire to my back was reassuring. It’s cliche to say I wanted to know that I could still feel pain–well, I guess I was just tired of the sameness of the pain I was experiencing. My lifetrain was on track to keep plugging along through this inclement weather pretty much indefinitely. What I really wanted–absence of pain–was unattainable. It was starting to be boring, my unhappiness. I was getting too comfortable inside of it. I needed something new. New pain.

I’d never been one to shield myself from emotional pain until I broke up with a. I entered balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred commitment after commitment, trusting my heart, embracing the full range of the experience, never deterred by the mounting evidence that my heart wasn’t equipped with any kind of special honing device tuned to The One’s special frequency–it was basically just smelling something nice and then taking a stab at it, like the rest of me.

One of my favorite coping strategies was transposing the physical pain over my sort of, you know, my anguish over a. This man remained ruthlessly untouched as I tried to help him catch my vision of Us Pt. 2, This Time Really Really Forever, but despite his indifference he kept coming back, letting me try one more time, setting me off on all of the daydreams. All of them. I knew I was suffering the pain of pointless pursuit, but it felt closer to love than any of the shadows I’d been chasing in the meantime–affection, deep friendship, desire for one another’s well-being, empathy–ultimately not The Real Thing. There’s no use pretending or trying to force it. But that’s exactly what I’d been doing. I wanted and didn’t want to find a way out of my conundrums. I was trapped.

So there I was, bent over a chair, getting stabbed in the back over and over again, subjecting myself to this seriously uncomfortable and often near-unbearable process with the ultimate goal of being a little more beautiful and a little more myself afterwards. Learning to appreciate the pain as part of the experience. And it just all. Made. Sense.

And when I was ready to jump the tracks and escape that bleak landscape, I did, and life was a little more beautiful, and I was a little more myself. But it won’t be the last time I find myself fixed on a grim trajectory. Thank goodness for symbols and signs. Thank goodness for reminders. And above all, for the beautiful people who grace our lives and help distract us from the panicked nerves.

The Test

It had only been a few short weeks since h and I both simultaneously and enthusiastically decided to nurture our budding relationship. Even fewer since we decided it would, in fact, be a monogamous one (not counting c, of course). As happy as I was (super, freaking, amazingballs happy) I was a little worried. I had no idea how Burning Man would go down.

After all, I had been so proud of myself for finally learning to truly embrace polyamory. Deep in my heart I found its model of unconditional love the most compelling of any I’d ever encountered. I love you, so go be happy! Even if I don’t get to be the one who makes you happy, please, just be happy. My jealousy is a goblin awakened by my love for you, not a careful sentinel, warning me of an actual threat to our relationship. I will keep the goblin at bay; you go and be free!

Sure, I like sex as much as the next girl who masturbated continuously and compulsively from age twelve onward. But sex with a bunch of randoms has never appealed to me much. Unfortunately I’m not hyper-orgasmic, and I almost never come the first time. I’ve had more and less disappointing one night stands, but never one that made me gasp and cry out the way c & h can.

No, I like polyamory because it makes a greater effort than any other model of love I know to practice true love, love that asks nothing in return, love that neither subsumes nor guards the self, but gives freely and fearlessly and wholly.

But monogamy can be nice too–the passionate, single-minded focus, the whirlwind, the sanctity. A romantic like me finds it all too easy to agree to something like that–especially for a man she’s so mad about, she doesn’t even want to leave him for her very first Burning Man. Even if it is a beautiful, orgiastic hedonistic party. Even if sparkle ponies abound, and steampunk dust warriors beckon in their aviator goggles and gauntlets.

In the days leading up to the festival, both h and I noticed a marked change in c–she was more affectionate, unafraid, unreservedly loving towards both of us. I had mentioned to h that the situation in its current state, with c as a fond asterisk to our arrangement, was fairly unstable and bound to change soon; it seemed I was right. But there wasn’t time to discuss it right now.

I said goodbye to my lovers with some difficulty. It was only eight days, but we had somehow all become extremely attached to one another, and none of us knew exactly how the separation would affect us, what Burning Man had in store for each of us…

Flash forward over the first several days. I was surprised, how little I was tested by the abundance of beautiful people around me. It was liberating to appreciate them without agenda, wonderful to love them universally, not because of who they were but because they were. It’s the obvious way to proceed among open hearted and loving people, and I was hooked, Aquarius that I am. Love some people? No! Love everybody!

But the test would come in good time.

On Friday afternoon, I stopped at Costco, the camp which specializes in finding you a soulmate in just three hours. I should have known, right? I walked right into it.

Why was I looking for a soulmate? Well, I wasn’t. I’d two perfectly lovely ones waiting right at home for me. But my friend had said it didn’t have to be a love match–it could be a soulfriend, soulmentor, etc.–and encouraged me to go, so when I happened to bike past it, I stopped, knowing I might never find it again on the Playa.

The application were more fun and complex than your average questionnaire, and took a bit of thought. So far, so good. I submitted it, feeling a bit silly, very tired (Friday would have been…two nights with two hours or less sleep in a row), and excited for the outcome, regardless.

After some time, Misha or Mishga, I can’t quite remember, brought me back for my interview. He asked some deep and probing questions, really pushing me to self-analyze. What are you most afraid of? Why were you afraid you would drive people away? What are you most proud of in relationships? What’s an example of a time you were impatient with someone?

I kept going off on tangents, as I do, and I told him the story of h & c, as I do, and we had spent quite a long time already but he just kept listening and probing deeper.

So there I was at Costco, at the end of a very nice connection with the interviewer. I said, “That was so one-sided. I don’t know anything about you” (except that you’re a good listener and you ask excellent questions, I thought). He said I could come back and talk to him if I liked, or even volunteer with Costco (which I’m definitely doing next year–getting people to open up about themselves is right up my alley).

I was feeling a little bemused that I’d had such a personal and introspective conversation with someone who wasn’t even my “soulmate,” but still happily unguarded. I waited another hour or so in the lounge area. In that time I entertained an interesting offer from a total stranger (a ring, a free ride, an au pair for the children, Hawaii), soon afterwards met a girl who was a little insulted that lonely older guys weren’t randomly proposing to her, and finally, watched a girl come out and perform a pole dance, joined partway through by a man in a penguin costume, busting moves with the white guy overbite.

That’s when I noticed the man sitting at the other end of the sofa from me. He looked thoughtful and his eyes were kind and maybe a bit tired. “Waiting for your soulmate?” he asked.

I laughed. “Yeah, right?”

“What brings you here?”

“Oh, it’s silly. I actually already found mine. But I heard about Costco and then all of a sudden, here it was, so I stopped. Aren’t those great questions? On the application?”

We chatted a bit and he told me about the very expensive telescope he had with him, the kind which has an aperture filter and is only good for viewing the sun. I expressed enthusiasm at this, and learned that he was an astrophysicist from New York, here for his second year.

I extended a hand. “I’m Joycebird.”

“I’m m.” He didn’t have a Playa Name yet. I suggested ‘Sun God,’ the first of many attempts to christen him. He showed me his camp (which will remain anonymous for his privacy), told me about its quite marvelous gifts, and invited me back that night.

I decided it was a good day for the one shower I was allotted (I hadn’t much minded being dirty except for frequent wet wipes baths, although my hair was starting to bother me) and got all dressed up. I had dinner with my campmates and then parted ways with them (again, they joked–I was a bit of a loner on the Playa, the better to indulge my ADD, and I had barely seen my Frenchies at all).

I was supposed to meet up with Love, the fantastic individual I’d met the night before, near the flying bicycle on the Esplanade–we hadn’t made any plans beyond that–but he was nowhere to be seen. After some time I headed off on my bike through the dark and dust. I managed to get very thoroughly lost before finding the camp, but somehow I made it. I wandered all around it meeting people and couldn’t find m. I decided to stick around, enjoy the camp, and maybe he’d show up.

A few hours later, I was sharing a nice conversation and some fungi with a man named Oz, trying to fight off my growing weariness. I had just about given up on m when I spotted him over Oz’s shoulder.

“Hello,” he said. “I didn’t think you were coming.”

“I was on time, even,” I laughed. “I didn’t know where you were. But this is lovely.”

Both of us were fairly drowsy so we shared an upper. I was about to take a nap on his air mattress while he conducted some business elsewhere, when he popped his head back in the tent and let me know the show was starting.

The main event of his camp was spectacular and drew quite a crowd. I watched in absolute delight, and fully awake now. Another reminder that people have wonderful gifts, and life is at its very best when they share those gifts unconditionally, never expecting something in return, but getting what they need anyway.

When it was over, we reconvened, gathering the things we’d need to set out into the desert night: Water. Lights. Goggles. Scarf (for use as dust mask). More pills. “Do you have something warm?” he asked.

“No. I didn’t plan very well.”

“Here.” He held up a royal blue cloak with silky gold lining. “Wear this.”

We set off on foot, I in my cloak, dress, and boots, feeling like a princess or a girl in a fairy tale, and he in his Victorian front-buttoning trousers, leather tailcoat, and leather top hat, two more fantastic denizens of the beautiful night-lit city. We stopped to watch some people dressed like astronauts playing Dance Dance Revolution: Flamethrower Edition.

“I see you, leaning back,” the announcer chastised one of them, then laughed cruelly. “That’s not going to save you.”

“That’s one thing I’m content to experience vicariously,” I said as we watched. “Hey. I didn’t get to ask you–why were *you* at Costco?”

“Oh, you know. Curiosity, amusement.”

“So you didn’t have the tiniest little hope that you would actually find one? A soulmate?” I teased.

“You know. You buy a lottery ticket, you don’t expect to win the lottery.”

I laughed. “A romantic, eh.”

“Yeah, a bit of a cynical one, at this point.”

“Oh no.”

“No, it’s not very fun.” He chuckled. “It’s just so rare to find someone that even interests you, and then they’ve got to be interested in you as well.”

“And it’s almost impossible to actually be on the same page with them in terms of what you want.”

“And even so, life just fucks it up half the time. Or you find that they’re not the person you thought they were. When you’re single, you remember being in a couple as this amazing thing, but then you’re in it, and it’s sort of boring and a lot of work.”

“But,” I said, as we began to climb a structure made out of white, un-sanded lumber, “then you find it. And you realize that yes, love is every bit as good as you thought it could be. And you see how much you’ve had to gloss over that picture in your head just to survive not having it anymore. Hey, this just stops!”

“So it does,” he said.

We arrived at the top, lumber stretching into the sky, several people sitting on the platform before us. We turned and sat on the steps, where we could survey the land before us, alight with color and fire and music and costumed people.

“I’m sorry.” I turned to him. “That’s an assholish thing for me to say, I just realized. I’m just very happy right now. I have not one, but two beautiful, fantastic lovers, and a great community of friends and coworkers, and I finally feel like I’ve found my home. And I’m so in love, and it’s every bit as great as I remember it being. Every fucking bit. I never thought I’d feel this way again, or at least not this strongly. …There I go. I’m sorry to say all this when I don’t know your status, romantically.”

“It’s okay, really. Let’s see.” He told me about his ex who was somewhere on the Playa with us. He told me about the one who got away. He told me the story about his Irish ancestors and the curse placed on his family.

All night we wandered, stopping at installations, riding mutant vehicles, having the same conversation about Burning Man–look at this, look at this, can you believe this exists? and different conversations about other things, about how we imagine the universe to be, about Peter Pan and growing up, about lucid dreaming, about a woman he’d had a love-at-first-sight moment with on the subway, briefly chatted with about her elvish tattoo, done a great deal of work looking up, and eventually met with, only to find that there was no chemistry, and anyway she had a boyfriend.

When we parted ways, we made plans to meet again that night for the burning of the Man, and adventure the night away again, though neither of us had, or was likely to get, much sleep in between. At this point I had no doubt in my mind that I would meet with him that night, nor as of yet any suspicion that he would draw my thoughts away from my lovers back home and towards a different life on the opposite coast. After all, I’d only just met him. But time on the Playa has a very different feel, and the default world can seem extremely far away.

Lucky

How do h and c and I get to have this bounty of love while some people have none? How do we get to enjoy without reservation the sight of a lover making love to someone else? Why does this work so well? We are all gleeful in this experience, amazed at how beautiful the world can be.

It did fall into place rather naturally and easily, but not without its own complex and difficult negotiations on each of our parts… negotiations which continue.

“Why didn’t you get me an ice cream cone last night?”

I want to text back, “Can you please translate that for me?” but I resist the urge.

It’s not so much that I don’t know what’s really bothering h as that I need him to articulate it so that we can keep working through it. He’s changed his tune a couple of times so far. I don’t blame him. I am asking a lot of him right now.  But surely he realizes: the priority right now isn’t the argument we’re having, but learning how to communicate/argue/whatever effectively with one another.

I’m asking him to put his jealousy in check and trust that I love him enough to be faithful, enough to come home, even though I’m going to visit a man who not too long ago told me he hoped I would leave h and move to New York, a man with whom I had unique and exciting adventures, in a place that h cannot yet understand or know.

The fact remains, however, that if any of these peripheral details is more significant than my love and commitment to h and c, it doesn’t matter if I go to New York or not, our relationship is doomed. The fact also remains that I do know myself rather well at this point in my life, and I wouldn’t go if I there were any chance of messing up this fantastically wonderful life my lovers and I are building together in California.

I know he wants me to just want to stay home, and I could try to make myself want that. I’ve done it before. I’ve been in that kind of relationship before, where I try to alter my desires to better match what the man wants them to be. I left him because I wanted to be with someone who encouraged me to follow my bliss, instead of encouraging me to find bliss only in him.

The other night h expressed the desire to be exactly that sort of partner. “I’m glad you picked me,” he said. “And I’m glad you were loyal because you wanted to be. You’re a free spirit. That’s part of what I love about you. If I tried to cage you, I’d lose you.”

There was a part of me that thought, at that moment, no, you wouldn’t . You’ve got me as long as you want me, cage or no. After all, I tried really hard to go back to a despite all. In the end, that kind of love was even more delicious than freedom. I’m not about to give it up again now that I’ve found it.

But another part of me recognizes that it doesn’t have to be a tradeoff. Freedom and love can coexist deliciously when that love is generous, unafraid, and open, instead of jealous, guarded, and suspicious. That’s what I want—and I know h is capable of that. I know that’s the partner he wants to be. Giving in because it’s love that inspires him ignores the fact that this isn’t the kind of love any of us agreed to.

That’s how c, h & I will find balance. By practicing generosity, fearlessness, and openness in our strange little arrangement. We’re not the first—others have gone before and lit the way (thank you, The Ethical Slut)—but we still feel like pioneers, unsure of how friends and family will see us or treat us, unsure of how careful we need to be with employers, government officials, etc., unsure of how to do any of this, really.

I look up what time the ice cream shop opens and make plans to visit h at work and bring him a cone. C tells me she’ll come along for moral support. “He’s always pushing girls to be more specific about what’s wrong,” she says with a tolerant smile, “so he can fix something specific. If he says that the ice cream cone isn’t the point, I’ll just tell him: ‘she asked what was wrong and you said the ice cream cone, so she tried to fix that. If there was a bigger problem you wanted her to fix, you should have talked about that, not about ice cream.’”

“Hooray!” I say. “Can you just be there any time h and I are arguing? Forever?”

“So you never learn to work things out just the two of you?”

“Exactly! Because we won’t need to. Because you’ll be around. Forever.” I pull c down into a kiss. I brush her hair back pointlessly; it trickles back down her forehead. She smiles the smile I always interpret as “I hope so,” or “I really want to.”

There’s something about her that never quite promises. I don’t mind it because it’s in me, too, but it doesn’t mean I won’t stick around.

The Return

“The mere fact that anyone can physically walk past the temple guardians does not invalidate their significance; for if the intruder is incapable of encompassing the sanctuary, then he has effectually remained without. Anyone unable to understand a god sees it as a devil and is thus defended from the approach.”

-Joseph Campbell, Hero With a Thousand Faces

I’m not a virgin anymore.

The fact that I speak this phrase now with even more awe, joy and anticipation than I did at nineteen, a week out of the Mormon church and positively starving for sensual experience and knowledge—this is no small thing.

Last night I saw my loved ones again for the first time in eight days: my lovers, h and c, and my dog, b, all came up to Oakland to get me. I said goodbye to Foul-Mouth Pixie, Natashka and Lucio, the strange and wonderful traveling companions I’d met that same day and joined for the seven-hour trek from Reno.

Leaving behind the last of my Burner friends, I turned and hugged my sweeties again and climbed into the car, strange emotions brewing inside of me.

It wasn’t until we arrived back at the lofts that I could finally articulate how I felt: it was as though I’d died, gone to heaven, and come back to earth. I wasn’t sad to be back. I was thrilled to see them again. I just wasn’t quite yet back on the same plane of existence…

***

Joycebird…Joycebird…Joycebird….hello…hello…hello…are you there? There? Hello. Joycebird…

The telephone dangled beside us, almost perfectly at ear level. M’s voice emitted eerily from it, garbled and static, and then we could hear it echoing softly from the drooping, illuminated metal flowers circling the installation. M and I lay side by side on the royal blue and gold cloak he’d given me against the cold, staring up at the inky night sky, thrumming with wonder. Hello…hello…

“How very creepy. And yet it all feels perfectly safe.” His deep voice, with its Australian accent and measured rhythms of speech, had the cadence of a storyteller. Which he was, actually. Earlier that day, after asking if I had red hair—no? highlights at least? that’s good enough—he had shared with me a tale of his Irish ancestors, a beautiful story about a king and a mermaid very similar to the Selkie myths. It was said that his clan would not regain their throne until one of them married an Irish girl with red hair from the sea. He told me about the Bardic families who devote themselves to keeping the records of each clan. He’d traveled to Ireland and met the Bardic woman for his family, who’d said upon opening the door and spotting his dark hair and eyes, “Ye’d be one of them, wouldn’t ye?”

From the nothingness at our feet there emerged suddenly a dragon, lit spectacularly against the perfect pitch of the night, coasting slow and regal across our field of vision, pulsing the ubiquitous trance music that sounds so wonderfully surreal against the vast expanses of white alkaline sand.

I exhaled slowly, thrilled. “In spite of the dangers…the dark and the dryness, the heat and the expanse…the strangeness, the disappearance of boundaries, the isolation…we’re really very safe here.”

“Yes.” He smiled the childlike, mischievous smile I’d felt on my own face so many times over the last week—bright excitement, dark bravery. “Here we can play with the monsters.”

***

My friends and I stood outside the cage, waiting for the acid to kick in, momentarily transfixed by the two greying, somewhat heavyset men dressed in dungeon garb and the two young, slender, topless women strapped helplessly to their tables, being flicked, stroked and flogged by various instruments of pleasure/torture.

I shook my head. I was so, so far from where I’d started. So far from the ideals and mores of my childhood. And yet every time someone told me “Welcome home,” I nodded, grinning hugely. Yes. Home. These shameless, monstrous freaks were my home.

Gratitude coursed through me. Since childhood, I had always wanted to be the kind of person who had no fear of anyone, who loved everyone unconditionally. Here I am, I thought, at a festival devoted to unconditional acceptance and giving, unafraid of the strangest people and things. Undeterred by the temple guardians.

“…the/center of all beauty!/writing these poems!/imagine!”[1]

I hadn’t realized that in order to understand that kind of person I would first have to become that kind of person.

“Are you going in there?” asked e, and g and f began to egg me on. For French people, they were decidedly more conservative than I. But I shook my head. I would wait until I was alone on the playa—or maybe until next year, when I would bring my lovers, when I would share this fanciful land with them.

I had been gifted a necklace with a small stone which was comforting to place in my mouth and suck on whenever I was missing h or c. I put it in my mouth now and felt its cool presence, its firmness, a reminder of the default world, which still existed out there somewhere.

***

There is no single path to happiness. This should be clear to anyone who has ever disagreed with anyone about anything. We each come from a unique stance with singular motivations, preferences, and prejudices—how in the world would one path serve everyone’s journey?

And yet, some things hold true no matter the path. My own personal journey has taken me from one extreme to another, from fundamentalist Christian to constructivist agnostic, from monogamous and straight to polyamorous and bisexual, from teetotaler to psychedelic evangelist. It’s been quite a journey, and I feel especially empowered from where I stand to identify some of the common threads in the ways very different people aspire to attain peace of mind.

What inspired me to write this blog? I just got back from my very first Burning Man. I can honestly say that at no time in my life previous to this point have I been more at peace, more content, more assured of the functionality of my life philosophy, of its potential to create a more utopic world. As a New Yorker said to me in the White Forest, “my faith in humanity is restored.”

While I do understand, on a very visceral level, those who would invite only the sacred into their lives, there is boundless beauty and wisdom to be found in the profane. Deep in the heart of humanity’s fear and depravity lie the profoundest truths about our natures and ourselves.

Welcome to my gorgeously transgressive world.


[1] Frank O’Hara, Autobiographia Literaria