The Burning Man Recap

It’s been a little more than two weeks since I repacked my minivan and drove away from Burning Man. It’s been a little less than two weeks since I finally pulled back into my driveway, and was thrust back into the mayhem of a new school year as both a teacher and a parent. I’ve been processing, but it has been a struggle to find the time to really write about the grating, transformative and utterly mundane experience I had in the desert.

burning man art

The Amazing Parts

Burning Man is built around 10 principles, two of which are decommodification and gifting. Once you arrive you can’t buy, sell or trade anything (other than a few basic survival items that Burning Man itself sells). Many attendees, including me, join camps that have public areas. If you stop by a camp’s public area you’ll find that many offer some type of gift. For instance, I found one camp that gifts a wide array of hand-blended teas, which you custom order either hot or iced. I found another camp that bakes bread in a wood-fired oven and serves it hot, with jam, every morning. Many camps have bars serving liquor, others give away costumes, and others offer a wide array of workshops. Our camp offered a bike repair shop, and my friend and I served tea and fortune cookies. All you have to do to receive one of these gifts is show up.

burning man fortune cookies gifting

There is a saying that “the playa provides” and I definitely found this to be true. I was wandering around very late on the night that the man burned with a craving for something sweet. I met a guy dressed in a banana costume handing out banana candies, who kept pressing me to take more. And one day when I was overtired and grumpy I came across a camp serving the best freshly ground, French-pressed coffee. All I had to do was hand grind some beans for the next person. These are things that would great at anytime, but when you’re tired and dusty they’re beyond amazing.

The art, though, was really my favourite part. Black Rock City, the name of the city built up for the event, is constructed in a semi-circle with a big empty area in the centre where the man is. On the empty desert north of the man is the temple, and massive art installations are placed between the city and the man and the temple and beyond. It’s really huge, and very difficult to see it all. While there are maps showing where the art pieces are, given that you’re wandering large distances in a barren landscape, sometimes in the dead of night, it takes on a serendipitous quality where you stumble across things and feel the thrill of discovery.

art burning man grammaphone

art burning man

art burning man

art burning man

The art pieces themselves are also different at night than during the day. The big hit this year was the tree, which during the day simply looked like a lovely large tree in the middle of the desert. Even though it was obviously artificial everyone sat under it as if it were real. At night it really came alive, as each leaf was lit and changed colour as if the seasons were shifting, or the wind was rippling through it. I even saw a wedding happen under the tree one night.

burning man art tree

burning man art tree

burning man art

burning man art

burning man art

burning man art

While the art was my favourite part overall, the single event that I enjoyed most was the Playa Choir performance. Attendees can join the choir, and they practice all week. On Sunday they perform twice – once at sunrise at the temple (I wasn’t awake for this one) and once at 11:00am in the choir dome. The performance is like a rousing non-denominational church service, and the music was outstanding. It was all capped off with a “communion” in which attendees shared whatever food they had left with everyone else. I left feeling inspired and transformed and like the whole trip was worth it just for that hour and a half.

And of course, there was the burn, complete with fire dancers and pyrotechnics and a giant celebration.

burning man the burn the man

The Terrible Parts

There are no amenities at Burning Man. The bathroom facilities consist of porta potties, and you have to bring your own food and water and, well, everything. It has all the discomforts of camping in the desert, but it’s happening in the middle of a busy city of 70,000 people, many of whom are constantly partying. I was frequently woken up at night by a passing art car playing booming music. There’s no escaping, no quiet, no solitude. You’re part of a week-long non-stop maelstrom and it’s relentless, right down to the noisy generator running outside my tent all night.

The weather this year was very hot. Not surprising in the desert in Nevada, I know, but apparently it was worse than usual. It didn’t really get cold at night, which was a good thing, and there were few dust storms, which was also a good thing. But the afternoons were scorching, and I spent most of them resting in camp because walking or cycling was out of the question. And the couple of dust storms I did experience were unpleasant, with little or no visibility. Fortunately I carried dust masks around with me, and wore goggles at all times, because not having those things would have made everything that much worse.

Speaking of dust, it’s everywhere. As a first-timer the greeters had me roll around on the ground upon arrival. The idea is that you’re going to be covered in dust all week, so you might as well just embrace it. I did my best, but it was pretty unpleasant. The dust is superfine and alkaline and very drying. This meant that my hair was better than I anticipated, since the information I’d read about the dust basically acting as dry shampoo was true. But it also meant that in spite of using my shower bag every day and being very liberal with handy wipes, I was always covered in a layer of the stuff. And so was the inside of my tent. And every item of clothing I wore. And my food.

burning man dust greeters welcome

burning man dust

As for food, I brought plenty. However, as the week progressed I ate through most of the fresh stuff and some things got ruined, like a loaf of bread that got moldy and another that ended up soaking wet when I put it in a cooler to keep it from molding as well. I was never hungry, but over time I found myself craving more variety. By the time it was Friday and everyone was tired and cranky, and more weekend partiers were arriving, the combination of heat and dust and noise left my resources low and little issues like running out of hummus seemed like Big Hairy Deals.

Most of the people I met were amazing, but a few were just plain inconsiderate. People steal street signs, which makes it difficult to get around. And while there were no majorly gross porta potty disasters that I witnessed, some people left garbage or toilet paper on the floor, and potty locks got broken. Out walking one night I tripped over an open and mostly full can of beer, which I picked up, and since you’re required to cart out all your own waste that meant I was now responsible for someone else’s undrinkable garbage. It happened because at night in the desert it’s very dark and you can’t see, so tripping over waste, riding your bike into people who aren’t wearing lights, or colliding with a bike that’s been left on the ground without lights is a real risk. People get seriously hurt.

All of the terrible parts are why, as we packed up the van at sunrise on the last day, I was eager to leave.

burning man sunrise exodus

That Thing That Happened

The big cloud that hung over Burning Man this year, and the thing everyone has asked me about since I got home, was the man who ran into the fire and later died from his injuries. Something that’s important to understand is that while the giant wooden effigy of the man is burned, we’re all sitting in a giant circle around the whole thing, with a big open empty space between the spectators and the fire. There’s a multi-layer perimeter set up in this empty area to keep us all at a safe distance. I’m bad at estimating distances, but it was far. Like over a hundred feet.

I was near the front of the crowd, and facing me was a perimeter guard who knelt down with his back to the fire during the burn and watched us. And to his right and left all the way around the circle there were other guards, maybe eight feet apart or so. The fire dancers were allowed on the other side of these guards, but a few feet from them was another perimeter with another set of perimeter guards. And further in there were firefighters and so on patrolling the fire.

This means two things:

  1. It is impossible to accidentally end up in the fire. Six separate people attempted to stop the man who ran in, and I understand that he struck one of them to make it into the fire.
  2. For those of us watching, it was difficult or impossible to see the man run in because even if you’re at the right angle (which you probably aren’t) you’re very far away and the fire itself is very bright.

I didn’t see it at all. My friend who was sitting with me noticed a brief commotion, but had no idea what it was. Campmates of ours saw him run but weren’t aware if he actually made it into the fire or just got close, whether or not he was hurt, or how badly he was hurt. While we were sad to hear that it happened, there was very little news at the event itself, and very little discussion. I wouldn’t say that, in general, it ruined the rest of the burn for the people who were there. A group of folks that we sat beside the next night during the temple burn hand’t even heard about it at all until we told them.

I’m thinking about this in the same way that I would think about anyone ending their own life. It’s a tragedy. I wish it hadn’t happened. I mourn for the man and his family. I understand that sometimes darkness takes people. And I still choose to enjoy my life and focus on the amazing experiences that make me who I am. I had a great time at the burn and I carry great memories with me.

What Next?

burning manAs of right now, I don’t plan to go back to Burning Man. I’m hoping that I will have a teaching contract soon, and that I’ll start off the next school year with my own classroom. However, I enjoyed my first burn immensely, and I’m incredibly glad that I got to go to the event. I took a chance, set out on an adventure, and made incredible memories. Now my next adventure is building relationships with students and growing professionally.

Happy burn!

Burning Man Preparations – Not Packing Light

Confession: I do not pack light. Ever. Maybe it’s all those years of Girl Guides and learning to be prepared. Maybe it’s all those times as a mom when I was burned because I only packed two extra outfits for my toddler, or didn’t think to bring along three spare hats, or seven different snack options. Whatever the reason, no matter where I’m going I always, always, always bring a ton of stuff just in case.

In fact, when I was in labour with my second baby and checking into the hospital the triage nurse laughed at the large suitcase I was lugging with me. But (1) I’d ended up in the hospital for four days when Hannah was born due to complications, and (2) I really wanted slippers, and my big terry bathrobe, and magazines, and extra pajamas, and…

On that occasion, first I cried because the nurse laughed and I was going through a lot emotionally, hormonally, and physically at that precise moment. Then I had the baby 45 minutes later and went home four hours after that, so I used none of it. But I viewed that suitcase as my security blanket and was glad I’d brought it. Because what if I’d needed those extra sweaters?

Anyway, now that I’m planning to pack up my minivan to drive to Burning Man in 25 (!!!) days, you can imagine the level of packing that’s going on up in here.

But first things first. Why am I driving? There are two big reasons. The first is that for Burning Man you’re required to bring all of your own gear. There’s no running water, no buildings, no…anything. And no place to buy any of that stuff on site. If you want something, you better pack it in, and there’s no easy way to get all the stuff you need for a week-long camping trip on to a plane. Plus, even if I did that the Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held, is super remote. I’d still need to arrange transportation from Reno to the middle of nowhere. So, driving is the best option. Here’s the planned route:

burning man map

Now, what kinds of things am I bringing with me? The most important item is a very fancy shelter called a ShiftPod. It’s designed to be dust proof, and it’s very roomy. In fact, it’s so roomy that these photos don’t do it justice, but here they are, anyway.

shiftpod burning man

burning man shiftpod interior

I’m also bringing a bike, but fortunately that’s being shipped separately. And water and ice are being supplied by my camp, so that’s one less thing I need to bring.

Otherwise, it’s a lot of the stuff you’d expect. Tons of sunscreen. A camp stove, dishes and coolers for the food I’ll buy en route. A collapsible table and chairs. An inflatable mattress and a sleeping bag. Water bottles and goggles. Extension cords and chargers to connect to the camp’s electrical supply. A heater for nighttime. Good boots. Hot weather clothes and cold weather clothes, and some fun stuff like a BB-8 dress and a cowboy hat. LED lights to light up both the camp and myself, which is actually more practical than ornamental since it’s ridiculously dark at night. This belt with pouches, called “Playa Pockets”, which is like a cooler twist on a fanny pack (FYI – the dry lakebed where Burning Man happens is called “the Playa”).

burning man drawer unitMy solution for packing my clothes and toiletries is an old plastic drawer unit that we’re no longer using. I’m finding that this is a really elegant way to go. It’s so easy to throw one or two items in as I think of them. I anticipate it will also be nice to have all my stuff in what amounts to a dresser once I’m in camp. I won’t have to dig through bins or suitcases, which should make it easier to find things and stay organized.

Right now the drawer unit, the ShiftPod, and everything else are in my garage, which has become a staging area. I also have most of my friend’s gear, including his guitar, because we’re driving down together, so all of that stuff will be in the van, too.

I’ve done one trial run and was able to fit everything I had at the time into the minivan without breaking a sweat or removing the second row seats. I have more items now so I’ll need more space, but the plan is to remove the second row seats and leave them behind so that will buy a bunch more room. I haven’t done that yet because it’s kind of a pain and I need those seats for my kids right now. But the punchline is I have verified that I can physically transport this stuff.

burning man staging area

The interesting thing is that “Radical Self-Reliance” is one of the 10 principles on which Burning Man operates. What that means is that, unlike that triage nurse, this is a community that really seems to value overpreparation. After all, if you’re in the middle of the desert without the means for survival, the outcome can be really bad. If you don’t have food or shelter it’s unlikely that the other 70,000 people will abandon you, but it’s far preferable to make sure you’re meeting your own needs and planning for pretty much any outcome.

You guys, I finally found the vacation I’ve been training for my whole life. The vacation where bringing too much stuff is more celebrated than frowned on. Bring it on.

The Soccer Mom Goes to Burning Man

I’ve gone through some big changes in my life in the past few years.

Going back to school.

Applying to, and completing, teacher training.

Getting my minor in environmental education, and re-discovering my love for the outdoors and the good parts of camping.

Working as a substitute teacher.

Watching my own children grow and change and become more and more independent.

Making new friends and building a new social circle.

Taking skiing up again, and getting pretty flipping good at it.

There are things I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing a few years ago, that I now do frequently. My word for 2017 is adventure, and I would say that for the most part I’m living up to it. And now I’m really embracing it, because this summer I’m planning to attend Burning Man.

Burning Man

Aerial view of the festival. Photo credit: Viaggio Routard on Flickr

As in, I have a ticket, and travel plans, and a couple of costumes to wear.

If you’re not familiar, Burning Man is a massive alternative arts festival that takes place each year in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada in the week leading up to Labour Day. The culminating event is when this massive wooden effigy (the “man”) is burned (…as in, “Burning Man”).

The event itself is, well, I don’t really know yet. Everyone says it’s amazing. And terrible. And transformative. And the worst vacation ever. I do know that it’s very dusty, hot during the day, cold at night, and rustic. It’s also massive, with about 70,000 people attending last year. For a week they all build a city from nothing. There’s no running water. No flush toilets. No real amenities of any kind. Amazing art displays. A strong culture of inclusion, self-reliance, participation and communal effort. And did I mention the dust?

Burning Man

Photo credit: Jon Collier on Flickr

I’m going with a friend who’s been twice before. I’m joining a camp that provides some good stuff like water, ice and electricity. I have a very cool, supposedly-guaranteed-dust-proof shelter and a bike. I bought myself new boots and a portable shower. I made myself some hoodies to stay warm and look cute. I’m reading the Survival Guide cover to cover. I’m stocking up on sunscreen and LED lights to wear at night so that no one runs me over in the dark.

I’m doing my very best to prepare. I’m not really sure I can prepare. I sort of wonder if I’ve lost my mind.

Burning Man

Photo credit: dvsross on Flickr

Here’s the thing, though. This is my one shot. If you don’t have a boatload of money you pretty much need to drive in and out of Burning Man, and leaving is not a quick process. There’s this whole “exodus” rigamarole to get your car from your camp to the road that took my friend eight hours last year. That’s eight hours after you’ve packed up and before you actually begin the 15 hour drive back to Vancouver. It would be difficult, if not actually impossible, for me to make it back home in time for the first day of school.

This year? I can do it because I’m a substitute teacher. I can just book the first week of school off when I likely wouldn’t be that busy anyways. But by next year I’m hoping to have my own classroom. I’ll need to spend the last couple of weeks of summer preparing. I’ll need to be there with bells on when school starts.

Maybe I’ll hate Burning Man. Maybe I’ll regret going. But I suspect that I would regret not taking the shot more. I’m old enough to know that time is precious, and you need to seize opportunities as they present themselves. Which is why this summer I’ll be taking out the booster seat, loading up the minivan, kissing the kids good-bye and dancing in the desert.

Bring it on.

A Word for 2017: Adventure

For the past number of years I’ve been choosing a word at New Year’s to represent what I wanted to bring into my life in the 12 months ahead. In 2011 that word was space. In 2012 I chose clarity. In 2013 I chose presence. For 2014 my word was forgiveness. For 2015 I chose strength. And for 2016 I chose confidence. For 2017 my choice is a little bit different: adventure.

adventure word of the year creek

Over the course of 2016 I had a number of experiences that stretched me in new ways. I completed my student teaching practicum in a grade 6/7 class. I attended environmental education field school here in the Vancouver area, which involved two overnight retreats (one at the beginning and one at the end), a visit to the landfill, interviewing a rock (for real), mapping an urban neighbourhood, and hanging out with some of the most awesome people I have ever met. Plus a whole lot more. I graduated and earned my teaching certificate. I started substitute teaching. I started skiing again. I turned 40.

And out of all of this came a big shift in my mindset.

I have always been a naturally conservative person. I don’t mean that I am politically conservative, or socially conservative. I mean that I am personally conservative, in that I resist change and upheaval. But what I learned by hanging out around a campfire with a bunch of people I really didn’t know at all, going swimming in an ocean that was cold enough to take my breath away and coming out laughing, and learning to ski on moguls, is that new and different can be good. Very, very good, in fact. Taking a leap and embracing new experiences leads to great things.

In short, I have discovered the wonders of living adventurously. Of accepting physical discomfort in exchange for personal growth. Of waking up to a phone call at 6:00am telling me what I’m going to teach that day and where, but never really knowing what’s in store. Of seeing what the trail holds for me as I whiz down the mountain.

I was recently speaking to a friend about my tendency to want to control everything in life. I love a meticulously crafted plan. I adore knowing what will happen, and when it will happen. My friend said that the trick isn’t giving up control. It’s not trying to control the things you can’t control. And for whatever reason, that hit me like a ton of bricks, the idea of acknowledging that I can’t control everything, and sometimes I shouldn’t even try. It makes logical sense, but it feels like a leap.

It also feels tremendously freeing. Because trying to control the uncontrollable is tiring – intellectually and emotionally. Giving that up would be a whole new way of living for me. A way of living that might just facilitate adventure.

That is exactly what I want more of in my life this year. Adventure.

How about you – are you choosing a word for the year? If so, I’d love to hear what it is, and how you’re setting your intentions for 2017!

The Sounds of Silence

There has been a lot of snow recently in my neighbourhood. All of Metro Vancouver has been nestled under a blanket of white for a couple of weeks, but here in Coquitlam we got more than most communities. It’s pretty, for sure, and my kids love it. However, it does pile up and need to be removed from sidewalks and driveways and so on, which is how I found myself out shovelling this morning.

snow shovellingNormally while I do a task I don’t enjoy, like cleaning the kitchen or shovelling snow, I distract myself with some music or a podcast. It helps the time to pass more quickly, and makes menial work less mind-numbing. However, today I forgot my earbuds somewhere inside the house. By the time I decided I wanted them I didn’t feel like taking off my snow gear and searching, so I gave up and shovelled in silence.

All that nothing in my ears? It actually felt kind of uncomfortable. It made me think about how rarely I experience quiet in my life.

I always have music or a podcast going in the car.

I’m a substitute teacher so work is pretty much never quiet, and on the occasions when I’m alone in the classroom I often play music.

I have two children and a husband. Enough said.

I spent about an hour and a half shovelling today, and by the time that I was done I had moved through my discomfort to appreciation. I was outside, I was exercising, I had accomplished something and I had some quiet time to myself. In the lead-up to Christmas, when my to-do list feels long and my days feel hectic, it was actually a rare treat.

Maybe I distract myself too much. Maybe I should stop and just be where I am. Be mindful. Wash the dishes to wash the dishes. Or shovel the snow to shovel the snow.

I have the next two weeks off, so this is timely for me. How will I use this vacation? Will I distract myself, or will I be present? If my experience this morning is any indication, I should probably choose to be present.

Or, at least, that’s how I justified the yarn I bought online this afternoon. Because knitting can also be about mindfulness, right?

Here’s to personal growth, impulse purchases and finding some peace in the busy holiday season.

A Letter to Myself

How are you? I am poking my head up from watching Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life on Netflix.

The first episode of Gilmore Girls aired in October, 2000. At the time I had just graduated from university with my engineering degree. I was engaged and living by myself in a one bedroom apartment in a much cooler neighbourhood than I lived in now. I had just bought my first car and I was volunteering as a Brownie leader and planning a wedding. Things were very different for me then than they are now. For one thing, binge-watching TV is much harder for me now these days, which is why I haven’t already finished Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.

I also have my eye on another Netflix series, which I will get to…eventually. You get it, right? Anyways, I’m looking forward to checking out The Crown, which depicts a young Queen Elizabeth II. Inspired by that series, a few of Netflix’s leading women drafted notes to their younger selves. Here are my two favourites (you can click on them for a larger view):



Looking back on my own life, and how much it has changed in the past 16 years, I also wrote a letter to myself. I chose to write to myself back in 2000, when the original Gilmore Girls first premiered.

Dear Amber,

You worry too much. You already know that, but it bears repeating.

You can’t possibly understand this yet, but you have a lot of freedom right now. More than you will appreciate until you find yourself with two kids, a mortgage, a cat and a tank full of fish.

So that voice that is telling you that you want to do something different? Listen to it. This is your time to take risks and make mistakes. Big ones and little ones. Every mis-step will teach you way more than you will ever learn by following the rules.

That boy you’re engaged to? He’s a keeper. You already know this, but it will take years for you to learn what a strong force for good he will be in your life.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t go out and make other friends, though. You need people more than you know. Cultivate relationships. Put yourself out there. And don’t be afraid to show people your imperfections. That’s where the magic is.

And also: you are way hotter than you give yourself credit for.

Ms. Strocel





What would you say to your younger self if you could?

I was inspired to write this post because I am a member of the Netflix Stream Team. The opinions in the post are my own, but take the fact that I receive cool promotional swag from Netflix as you will.

My Happiness List: November 2016 Edition

I am a Canadian, and a relatively liberal Canadian, at that. Because of that it probably won’t surprise you to learn I was rooting for Hillary Clinton in the US Presidential election. My children were, too. Last night, as the results became increasingly obvious, my son Jacob became angry and my daughter Hannah became sad. At first I just sat with them and validated their feelings, sharing my own discouragement. And then I moved on to reassure them, as best I could, that as their mother I will take care of them and keep them safe and they don’t really need to worry about this stuff.

I tried to put on a brave face, but I was very unhappy. Today, I am determined not to wallow. I need some positivity. I think a lot of us need some positivity – even if you’re pleased about the outcome of the election, campaigns have a way of breeding divisiveness and bad feelings. So I’ve decided to count my blessings and look on the bright side. I blogged my last personal happiness list over a year ago, so it’s clearly high time for some happiness up in here.

Let’s get the joy party started, shall we?


My Happy List

  1. My daughter Hannah, who baked cookies yesterday, completely of her own accord.
  2. Singing along to a great song.
  3. Kindergarten. I spent today as a substitute teacher in one, and while those kids are super energetic, they are also hope in human form.
  4. Speaking of substitute teaching, I am so, so, so happy to have a job that I love and that energizes me every single day when I show up to work.
  5. Great boots, that make me feel super cute when I wear them.
  6. My son Jacob, who recently started piano lessons and loves them, and who shares my love of doing math calculations in the car.
  7. Chocolate, which never disappoints.
  8. Justin Trudeau. Is he perfect? No, but he’s a leader that many of us, as Canadians, are justly proud of.
  9. Speaking of being Canadian, I’m especially happy about that right now. Eh.
  10. New skis for my husband, and ski passes for my family, which means a really fun winter (provided the weather cooperates).
  11. The camera on my phone, which allows me to capture so much of life – and especially so much of my children’s lives – that I never would have been able to in the past.
  12. Colourful fall leaves, which brighten up an otherwise gloomy month like November.
  13. My husband, who supports me in so many ways, in particular as I went back to school and earned my teaching degree.
  14. Guitar Hero, which saw me through the couple of weeks when I was sitting around waiting for my teaching certificate to be finalized so that I could work.
  15. The peaceful transition of power, which is such an amazing thing, whether I disagree with the final decision or not.

What about you – what’s on your happy list right now? I’d love to hear!

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