My 91 Year Old Mother Visits the Temple at Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery
Updated: Nov 4, 2018
I was heading down to DC to help my parents, now in their 90s. I knew it was going to be an intense trip. Memory loss and medical conditions are making it harder for them to live independently. My siblings and I are learning to step up and make decisions about their future care. My week was filled with doctor visits, assisted living tours, and interviewing long-term care providers, all while shopping for and cooking their meals.
Two New York friends recommended that I go see the Burning Man art exhibit at the Renwick Gallery while in DC. They said it was "not to be missed." I had only heard bits and pieces about Burning Man and I knew I needed to do something enriching for my soul to balance the emotional aspects of my visit so I resolved to make it happen. My father thought it sounded interesting so we planned to go together on our way home from visiting my sister in Virginia. In the car my father said my mother seemed tired and not up for a museum and that parking in that area was tough. He didn't want the hassle. Sticking to my plan of soul nourishment I suggested that since the museum was on their way home anyway they could drop me off and I would go by myself and then take the metro home. Hmmm. It's always a trick to take care of yourself while caring for others. I needed to do something for myself but did not want to stress them out.
As we approached the museum, following Google Maps, my father missed a turn because a police car was in the way. Suddenly we were 2 blocks from the museum with no traffic jams. Right in front of us was a nice big parking spot. I said “Dad just pull in there and drop me off.” He parallel parked perfectly and then commented “gee we’re really right here at the museum, it’s very close.” I said that was a good sign that they should come with me. Mom said “OK then, let’s go.” She opened her door without any fuss and off we went.
There was no line and the elevator up to the gallery was easy. I read aloud a brief overview of the history of the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City, Nevada, while my father listened intently. My Mom wandered off. We followed her into a large, expansive, dimly lit room made from carved wood in whimsical patterns that looked like cut-out puzzle pieces with writing on them. I had no idea what the exhibit was about yet the atmosphere was deeply moving. The lights emulated candles in a hushed, reverent atmosphere. Soothing music floated in the background as we gazed around trying to make sense of our surroundings. My mother had her hands on her heart and was moving along with her face right up close to the walls. (In addition to memory loss she has low vision.) She pointed to a small piece of wood and asked me “what does that say?” I picked it up and it saw “Papa I miss you so much every single day! I love you.” I had to choke back tears to read this to her. Having just received a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease the day before, we were sensitive to the topic of loss. I had no idea what the exhibit was about yet the atmosphere was deeply moving.
My father sat down on a bench next to us, looked over at me and said “Wow, this is quite impressive here. What tribe would something like this be from?” I still didn’t know what the exhibit was about but at this point I was able to determine that the room was reminiscent of altars or shrines although there were no identifying religious figures. I went off to read the plaque by the door.
We were inside what's known as "The Temple" an integral fixture at the Burning Man festivals that is intended as "a sacred space for people to reflect on loss." Participants adorn the walls and altars with memorials and inscriptions before burning the structure, an act that is meant to inspire healing and community.
An artist is commissioned every year to create a Temple. Visitors are encouraged to take a small wooden cutout and write a message in remembrance to something they have lost. At the end of Burning Man the entire structure is burned as a testament to the transitory nature of the life cycle. The atmosphere here in a re-creation at the Renwick was deeply moving and sacred. Mom kept exclaiming and wandering and reading the notes. I noticed a rack of wood pieces and pencils and fetched two. I asked her who she wanted to write about. She said ‘my mother.’ I asked if she wanted to thank her for anything in particular and she said “Yes, she taught me how to love... Love needs to grow between so many people.”
By this time my father had wandered off so I asked my mother “Since dads not here maybe you want to say something on behalf of his parents too.” She said “oh, ... They sure gave us the love of family and what that means ... and how to spread it around.”
We continued wandering around the room, staying close to the walls, while my mother exclaimed “Look at all this writing.” She asked me to read more of the heart wrenching tributes. I suggested we find a place to put our wood pieces and she said “It’s amazing to see so many people sharing their lives out in the open.”
She didn’t want to leave the Temple of Healing.
On the way out, walking towards the car I said “Thank you so much for coming with me to see that. It was great to share it with you. I really didn’t know anything about the Art of Burning Man except that 2 good friends told me I would love it.” And my father replied “No, I thank you. It was quite remarkable.” And my mom said “Yes it was remarkable. It's sure going to stay with me for a long, long time.”