#257: Whitney Houston, "Whitney Houston" (1985)

“Welcome home,” someone says, giving you a hug and ringing a bell. This is the virgin burner tradition. After you make a snow angel in the playa dust and are covered in clay, you are glad your hair is braided in two long pigtails. Next year, when this look becomes a celebrity thing, all the girls will have it, but for now, you feel like an original.

“Make sure you go to the Whitney party, the ‘Crack is Whack’ party,” someone says. You do your thing where you filter everything through the lens of Offensive or Genuine, and decide Genuine, even though you are not fully convinced. It will be this way with many things you encounter here. Like the wonder in people’s eyes when you explain that yes, black people do go to Burning Man, and no, they are not afraid to camp.

You like to ask people how long they have been coming to the burn. Their stories make you smile—some are on their fourth, fifth, tenth, fifteenth, and up. Some have been around since practically the beginning.

You think that this will be a chance to be your greatest self, your best self. You think that if you put your heart into it, if you make your list and check it twice, that you will be prepared. You think that you will be ready to face the day as this new you, this brightest version of yourself, unafraid. You should know better, and maybe you do, but you try anyway, because it’s easier to believe, and you can’t let go of the possibility, the promise.

They say you can really look at yourself here without judgement, because you’re not so focused on the trappings of life that follow you each day—where you work, what you do, what you make, and who you know. Anything you give or receive here is a gift. There is nothing that you can pay for or sell. There is no one you can truly rely on but yourself, though most will try to help you if they can. The focus is supposed to be on what you have to offer the world, what gifts you can give. If you are not used to looking at yourself this way, it can be unnerving.

The magic of Burning Man is that the best laid plans often go awry. Traditional time doesn’t exist. You might write someone’s name on your arm or on a piece of paper with every intention of heading to their camp at the time they told you they were having a burger and beer party, but then you get waylaid by an old friend, a new friend, another party, a beautiful piece of art, something happens and time flies and you can’t make it, and though you want to feel guilty, there just isn’t space, or time.

Burning Man is full of tiny moments of grace—happening upon a little clearing where a DJ plays old-school reggae at four in the morning, discovering that the porta potties are surprisingly cleaner than you thought. Meeting an author you have admired forever as she cycles toward you, her sunglasses shining in the morning playa light. She invites you to her RV for air-conditioning and coffee, two of the most coveted luxuries in the desert. She talks to you like an old friend, and encourages your writing. Little does she know your journal is tear-stained with notes about giving it up. You keep writing.

The Whitney Party is one of those moments of grace. Bodies writhe and worship at the altar of Whitney. All those ballads from her very first album—”All at Once,” “Saving All My Love For You,” “Greatest Love of All”—they are beautiful but tinged with sadness, strong yet fragile, like Whitney. Beauty and pain in equal measure.

A gust of wind knocks over the literal altar—a picture of Whitney and Bobbi Kristina, a candle, and a leopard print tablecloth—and the crowd decides that she dropped the mic. It is a spiritual moment, of which you’ve had several here, without the help of any drugs, even though everyone thinks that’s all that happens here. The music is your euphoria.

When Whitney asks, “How Will I Know?” you wonder the same thing, about when you will be able to let this shit go—your longest relationship—fear. You carry it with you, ready at a moment’s notice. Maybe it’s a form of protection, keeping you out of tight spots. But when is it holding you back? You think that if you can let go of your fear, that everything will fall into place. That he will see that you are the best thing. That everyone will know that you are just trying to be this brightest version of you, even when you don’t feel it.

Your sister would have loved it here, and being here makes you feel closer to her. It is this way with so many things of hers that you try to put on, to understand her. The way you wear her boots and feel just that much more confident, her jacket that fits you perfectly. You miss her so much. You want her here—living, breathing, trying, making mistakes, doing anything, except being gone. It feels selfish, but it is the truth.

You think about why it makes you feel uncomfortable that the party is called “Crack is Whack,” even though you know it’s something Whitney said, even though her life became reality TV fodder. There’s even a drink here named after her and Bobby. You become protective of her, of her memory. You want to know that they don’t see her as just a crack head, just another black woman who was an addict. You want to give a disclaimer. You think about how Whitney struggled to find her place, to reconcile who the world wanted her to be, but really, she was just Nippy from New Jersey, who wanted to sing. You think about that thin line, between being loved and being shunned, between being enough and feeling empty. And even though you sense they probably mean well, you want to make sure. It’s like when you stood on the receiving line at your sister’s funeral and someone said, “What a waste of a life.”

It’s why your own relationship with drugs is tenuous, why you can’t just relax and try something wild because everyone else is, because you know, you’ve seen, first hand, how easily it can go from being the thing people do, to being the thing that does them in.

The last song of the party, “I Will Always Love You,” finds everyone hugging and swaying in a circle. The burn’s way of teaching you to greet everyone you see stays with you long after it’s over. When you arrive at the hotel in Reno after the burn, you find yourself saying hello in the hallway to a man you don’t know, who looks at you like you are crazy. You are a little bit—you are dusty, you are tired, and you are still braless, something you would never, ever be back home.

The temple burn, on the last night, is supposed to be the place where you have your come-to-Jesus moment. You don’t feel anything watching it burn. But you notice the quiet, the stillness that floats over the crowd, in stark contrast to the regular din of being surrounded by 70,000 people. You don’t cry, even as you pray for your sister, for your family, for yourself. Not until one of your camp mates comes over to your group and offers hugs. The ease with which he can offer a simple intimacy, and give you some peace without knowing you need it, stuns you. Earlier in the week you were so happy to see that he was there with his entire family—mother, sister, father. You thought it was so cool. And in this moment you feel the weight of the loss—of that level of openness, that level of free. Your own sadness, that you can’t have that particular moment with your family. Many doors are open to us all, but sometimes seeing one that you know is closed is painful to bear no matter how many other options there are.

You realize that the dichotomy between who you are and who people want you to be, between who you are and who you want be, between being enough and feeling empty, is nothing that you can pay for or sell. There is no one you can truly rely on but yourself, though some will try to help you if they can. The focus is supposed to be on what you have to offer the world, what gifts you can give. If you are not used to looking at yourself this way, it can be unnerving. People stop looking at themselves when it gets too hard. You give yourself the gift of not looking away.

—Lee Erica Elder