Burning Man, 2009. Saturday night. The Man is about to burn and I am in the back of the Budget truck/sleeping area I share with my husband, having a nervous breakdown.
An hour ago:
I’m at the Golden Cafe, a theme camp full of top shelf liquor, great bartenders, and fabulous ambiance. I’m feeling pretty invulnerable; having quite recently been hit on by a charming Frenchman during my drunken wander back to my camp, I’ve reached the conclusion that despite being worn down by a week in the desert, alcohol and playa dust have somehow magically combined to cause my face and body to radiate youthful beauty, and my conversation to scintillate with equal parts wit and wisdom. I feel like the belle of the boozy ball. It’s the evening of the burn, Black Rock City is practically vibrating with anticipation, and I might as well stay for another drink!
The Golden Cafe folks were our neighbors that year, just as they had been in 2008. So we (and by “we” I mean our friend group who attended Burning Man together and had built our theme camp that year) had gotten to know more than a few members the camp. An older Golden Cafe guy who I’d seen around starts to talk to me as I sip another drink at one of the small cafe tables inside their shade structure, and points out his daughter who is working behind the bar. Do I know her? Isn’t she great? She’s the whole reason he’s at Burning Man. Had I been there earlier in the day during his set, when he’d sung a song he’d written for/about her? No? Let him go get his guitar, and he’ll sing it for me now. I wait at the table, wishing my chair was padded because my hips are really hurting.
My hips had been hurting all week, actually, and by the time Saturday rolled around I was almost crippled by pain. When a friend of an uncle of someone in our camp offered me a Vicodin, I accepted it thankfully and took just half, wishing to block the pain but concerned about the effects as I don’t take prescription drugs regularly and tend to have a low tolerance. About half an hour later it was suggested that we head down to Abstinenthe, a camp that opens mid-afternoon and offers a mind-boggling variety of absinthe and a multitude of cushions on which to recline. So, off we went to visit the green fairy.
We were at Abstinenthe long enough to sample a couple of different flavors of absinthe, but I was tired after a long ten days of building and running our theme camp, and was having difficulty staying in the conversation. Already forgotten was the half-Vicodin I’d taken an hour previously; I just felt fatigued and a little buzzed and attributed it all to the past week or so. At some point I think I decided to head back to camp. Or to the port-o-potty? At any rate, somehow I wound up in another camp up the street, reading porn through a bullhorn and drinking beer with the folks hanging out there. If you’ve been to Burning Man you know this is how it goes. Nice people, but when dinner started coming out I realized I was hungry and departed so I could get back to camp and eat (vegans have a hard time at Burning Man, as much of the food that is offered consists of bacon). It was probably a good idea for me to eat something soon, what with the Vicodin, absinthe, and beer I’d had over the course of the last couple of hours.
And that, naturally, is how I’d wound up at the Golden Cafe, which was oh so very close to my home camp, having just one (two? three?) more drinks before for really and truly heading back to camp to find some food. Waiting for the very nice man to come back with his guitar, which he did in short order. And then he began to sing.
The song was about his grown daughter, and how much he loved and respected her. It was honest, touching, and sweet, and I wish that I could say that once he finished singing I thanked him kindly for sharing it with me, then stood up and walked the few yards through our shared space back to my own camp, where I rummaged in our food bins and found something tasty to eat and then rejoined my group of friends and my husband and watched the Man burn from our camp’s fine Esplanade location.
Oh, if only I could say that. But then again, that wouldn’t make for a very good story, would it? Luckily, the reality is much more lively. I really only remember flashes of the next couple of hours, but I’ve managed to piece most of it together through eyewitness accounts. Here is how I think it went:
As the nice man from the Golden Cafe sang, I began to cry. I am absolutely not an emotionally demonstrative person, even in private, and thus was completely mortified by my public display. I apologized, tried unsuccessfully to stop crying, apologized more profusely, tried even harder to stop and only succeeded in crying harder. Then what I think happened – and this is where it gets fuzzy – is that I stood up and blindly ran out of the Golden Cafe, crashing through our shared space until I happened upon a camp-member’s carport. I managed to get inside, where I’m sure I totally freaked out whoever was in there getting ready for the evening’s festivities. That person probably tried to talk to me to figure out what in the world was causing me so much distress, but when I made no sense through my near-hysteria they decided to run to find my husband. Lucas, who had been wondering for the last couple of hours where the hell I’d gone after I left Abstinenthe, was grateful to hear that I’d finally shown up back at camp and then immediately and deeply alarmed by the state in which I had returned. He took me back to our Budget truck/home away from home, where I cried and babbled until I passed out. Eventually he woke me up, and, hollow, I watched from a distance as the last embers of the Man smoldered.
I was completely blindsided by the overwhelming grief I experienced while hearing that man sing that song. Sadness, loss, and longing were not emotions I’d ever experienced in relation to my father. From the age of 13 on I’d grown up without him, but for as long as I could remember this had been more than alright with me, because I was terrified of him. I am 40 years old now, and I still have the occasional nightmare about him. He’s usually trying to kill me.
Because so many of my memories of my father are bad, I’ve never longed for one in the way that a person whose father died before they were born might long for theirs. Neither did I mourn the loss of my father in the way that a person whose loving father died from a terrible illness or accident would mourn theirs. I did not cry when my parents divorced because I was relieved, nor was I hurt when, a few years later, after I’d run away out of fear and then returned to get some of my things while he was at work, I found the locks changed and a note telling me to go to hell because he wanted nothing to do with me. My personal experiences with having a father left me distrustful of all fathers, so even when friends introduced me to theirs I tended to be withdrawn and nervous around them. I’d actually often thought that in many ways it would have been better for me never to have known him, because at least then I could have imagined a nice father for myself instead of having to live through the reality of the one I had. These are the things I’d been telling myself from a very young age. These things, these mantras, are what kept me going.
I do not care.
I am not sad.
I do not hurt.
From 3rd grade until my late 20′s I lived in the same town in western Washington. Many of my friends and acquaintances, having grown up with me or at least in my general vicinity, probably had an idea of what things had been like for me when I was younger. However, once I moved to Oregon my friend group shifted. Nobody knew me or my past, and I liked it, so I kept the facts of my childhood largely to myself. I developed a stock answer that I would give to people who inquired about my dad: “He hasn’t been in my life since I was 13. He’s not a good person.” I knew that I had “baggage”, but I had no desire to unpack it, especially because (as I told myself) this was all ancient history and I was a grownup now. A different person, in a different place. As long as I did not care, was not sad, and did not hurt, I would never have to confront that big old monster in my closet.
After a while I got so used to its presence that I didn’t even think about it anymore. Which I suppose is how all of my emotions managed to leap right on top of me that crazy night in the desert. Who would have thought that it would be a song, of all things, that would open the floodgates? Being in that place in the desert, feeling physically and mentally exhausted and under the influence of a variety of substances, and hearing that nice man sing such proud words about his beautiful daughter brought it all home to me, in one huge rush of revelation. After so many years telling myself I didn’t care, I realized that I actually did. I wished that I’d had a dad who had been there for me. I wanted a father who would sing a song like this for me. I felt, suddenly and with full force, the reality that I would NEVER, no matter what, have a dad who would be proud of me, or cheer me on, or hug me and tell me everything was going to be okay, because the dad I had was an asshole, and nothing I did could ever change that.
After I returned from Burning Man that year, I set myself to the task of finally confronting all of the facts, memories, and emotions surrounding my complicated and ultimately disastrous relationship with my father. If that makes it sound like I sat down at my table with a cup of coffee, wrote out a “to-do” list, and then went about systematically accomplishing the tasks on that list, let me assure you that that is absolutely not what happened. And if the fact that I’m posting this now makes it seem as if I am about to launch a series of posts that will culminate in my childhood being tied in a neat bow and me as a happy, well-adjusted adult, let me again assure you that that will not be the case. It’s been four years since that night in the desert, and although I have made some headway in this endeavor, I am not finished. I may never be finished. For every fact I uncover or memory I unearth, another mystery is revealed. Life is a complex tapestry that unravels from one end even as we weave the other. This post and any subsequent posts I may write represent nothing more than my attempt at figuring out which end is which. Perhaps, if I can tell the story of my father and I in a way that makes sense to someone who might actually read my blog, it will make some sort of sense to me as well.