I’m finally unpacking my bags from Transformus.
It was over a week ago, which breaks even my extreme procrastination standards for belated readjustment from travel. But as I unpacked this morning, I started to understand why I let my bags sit undisturbed by my door for so many days. It’s been touched by Transformus, I realized as I unzipped the sides. As I sorted through the gifts I had received, my suitcase seemed like one of those magic bags from the Raymond Feist books. My suitcase is the same weight as it was when I left, but filled with all new items. It traveled through miles of dirt, tumbleweeds, and dust, but its color is still a lush green. Touched.
In the first pocket, I found a new necklace, an unope,ned box of earplugs, three pairs of new sunglasses, a red feather boa, Asprin, a leather Xena-ish top, and so many letters. So, so many letters.
It’s very uncool to say that an event “changed” you. I see my Washingtonian credibility slipping, my ability to impress strangers melting away.
But I do feel changed. Just a little… transformed.
It’s mostly because of you, best friend. And all the things you’ve done.
Here’s how it happened:
I have this best friend, Leo. I’ve written about the adventure-times we have together (including, but not limited to: pussy-gazing, pest control, and being fabulous in spin classes), but it’s hard to overstate how emphatic of a force she is in my life. If Leo told me to eat a bar of soap, I would puke bubbles for her. If Leo asked me to build her a temple, I would sacrifice live rats on a mound of flowers. She is central to my world. I love Leo.
Two years ago, Leo biked across country with Mr. Wonder to attend Burning Man. Despite injury and misadventure, they had a fantastic time, and attended Transformus last year. And for the past year, Leo and Wonder have been raving about Transformus, the greatest of all regional burns — waxing poetic about nudity, free bars, the burn, the beauty of Asheville, fire performers, and art. Art everywhere, being given freely.
“Most other burns, except for the big burn, are really drug heavy,” a mutual friend of ours explained. “But Transformus is about the art that doesn’t require drugs; the art that creates a changing experience on its own merits.”
And Leo looked at me, her eyes wide, and mouthed, “ART-O BURN-O?”
And I repeated, “ART-O BURN-O!”
And we cackled together.
The Transformus Love Letter Delivery Corps?
Leo leveraged her art degree, her academic (and superlative) understanding of love letters, and invited the brilliant Paxus to craft an undeniably great and well-articulated grant. I edited maybe three words of it.
More than anything, Leo loves… love letters. She longed to create a love letter art piece, but was a seeking an appropriate venue. Like a scientific study, Leo wanted to maintain secrecy from the audience, and foster some mild double-blindness. She didn’t want her audience to know that she was making them write love letters. She wanted to let them stay private, but still do the thing she wanted: to confess their love to another person. She’s freaky like that.
So we ran the Post Office. Leo enlisted Madness, at Acorn Community, to help build and paint the structure itself, to make it magnificent and daring. And Madness completely answered that task.
If you arrived at the Post Office at Transformus, this is what you would hear.
“Our shtick is that we have three shticks,” explained Gpaul to our ‘customers.’ “Shtick One: We will deliver a letter to anyone in Transformus. Anyone. You just need to know their name, and their camp, and we will deliver it straight to them. With postage due.”
“Shtick Two,” Paxus interjected, as the “customer” collected their thoughts about what ‘postage due’ could mean. “Shtick Two is if you like instant gratification you can receive an anonymous love letter, in exchange for writing one.” Paxus always said instant gratification in a way that made it seem sexy, but not dirty.
“And Shtick Three,” Gpaul returned, “Shtick three is where we can burn a letter.”
Those were the gifts we offered: delivery, anonymity, and destruction. And through those services, people wrote some beautiful love letters.
Of course, the act of building, preparing, and creating the postal office was more time consuming than expected. To prepare, Leo and I hosted a love letter writing jam, which allowed us to pinpoint the areas in which we weren’t good at communicating what we intended. The ideas of radical honesty, and unattached requests, are pretty upsetting to most humans, especially when communicating with a crush.
Even me. Especially me.
At the jam, I realized how afraid I am to send letters. How many letters have been accommodating dust in my bureau, written and then buried? A stack of my many missions, apologies, promises, confessions, and declarations. I found my hands clenched shut, unable to write, as if a stutter had seized up my whole arm and I could no longer think or concentrate.
I was terrified.
I thought of my friends in other cities, floating farther and farther away, as they pulled towards stronger anchors, and I stayed bobbing, still caring about all of them, but never telling them. Over distance, I lacked the honesty that I strive for in my friendships. I let them float away.
“What a shitball I am,” I thought. The people at the jam were busy, writing letters to mysterious people they didn’t ordinarily write to. My hand was still clenched. Leo was busy writing.
The Journey In (deeply abridged)
Suffice to say, there are a lot of stories involving the travel from Washington, DC to Asheville, NC. If you’d like to read them, they’ll be on my other-other-blog. But for our purposes at DDP, please imagine an epic travel montage of your choosing. Thanks.
…. suddenly, we were there.
We exchanged tickets and waivers for wristbands, and set off for where we’d be camping. As a virgin burner, I got _(redacted)_ , and given information about consent, the new eleventh principle.
And then, as we got to Eden, the site for Camp Contact, the trailer (containing the camp’s large tents, kitchen, and generator) got stuck in the mud.
“The wheels are spinning,” Wonder said. “We’ve got to push it out.”
We hopped out, and started assembling at the sides, but here, ten other people started helping us. “One, Two, Three!” Wonder yelled, and we pushed, and the wheels gripped and the whole minivan started to budge. “Woooo! Wooooo! Go!” And it started to roll, and move faster and faster, until I could no longer keep up. The people around me were grinning, mildly muddily.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Thank you! Welcome home!” they said.
“Right. Welcome… home. Right here.” I replied. “I’ll just be setting up my tent now…”
“Let’s go find the nearest abandoned, beautiful meadow!” Leo exclaimed.
On Transformus: Environment and Culture
Some Environmental Facts About Transformus:
0. It is impossible to fully describe the beauty of Transformus, or to allow my viewpoint to speak for anyone else. We all see the event differently, and are differently affected by the culture of the burn. That being said, these awesome photo-videos are an incredible peek into the event. “Rhythm in Peace” includes a full look at travel of the PEX group with burns and dance parties.
1. Transformus is set in Deerfields, a campground in rainforest in the Appalachian Mountains. It is overwhelmingly beautiful and unspeakably wonderful, like the summer camp of your dreams. There are enormous trees and rich forest life, with a strange absence of insects. Hiking trails weave up the hills, intersecting with huge raspberry bushes, and trickling streams.
2. Two huge lakes serve as the central point of Transformus, lakes deep enough to swim in, and murky enough to discourage wading. At these lakes, people do not wear swimsuits, and the lake provides some much-appreciated hygienic support. The lower lake offered an enormous 200+ foot slip-and-slide down the hill, a rope swing, a dock, a variety of floaties, and a pirate ship.
Enter: skinny dipping, mud bathing, naked dancing on the dock, and boozing on the lake. Nudity is extremely common at Transformus, and seeing nudity became very normal. After a day, seeing a totally naked person was about as remarkable as a person wearing a large sombrero. You might notice it when you walk up to them, but it doesn’t distract for too long. One great aspect of constant nudity was a desensationalism of “skimpy” costumes. Like many people, I inadvertently draw some outrageous, unhelpful conclusions from certain costumes, be they sundresses or suits. Being desensitized was a profoundly helpful experience (and didn’t do a bit to reduce the beauty I saw around me.).
3. The site was smaller than I anticipated, making it manageable to see much of Transformus in about an hour. Theme Camps were right on top of each other, and we at Camp Contact were neighbors with Costume Camp and the Flaming Tuba camp (the tuba shot flames, of course.)
4. Transformus was still large enough to “get lost in,” and had multiple districts – Eden, Narnia, Shangri La, Valhalla, etc.
5. The Post Office was selected to be placed right by the Upper Lake, next to Cowboy Coffee, the TITS camp (Transformus Information Tent), and the burn site. It was, I’d say, damn central to most events.
6. On the first day, everyone greets each other by saying “Welcome home!”
7. Transformus, like Burning Man, is governed and culturally shaped by Principles. These principles govern behavior, and help people create a culture that encourages inclusiveness, radical honesty, self-expression, and participation.
The economic system is a “gifting” type, encouraging people to give gifts to strangers. Exchange of legal tender is deeply discouraged.
On that first day, we assembled the post office, the kitchen, the dome, and our own tents. Wonder, Leo, and I found an abandoned beautiful meadow to pitch our sleeping tents, far from the bustle, sun, and sound of the Theme Camps. For the rest of the day, I watched people, both the people at the meeting, and the people walking around.
They all seemed a little more loud than normal, more silly and gentle. I whispered to Leo, “Am I allowed to be weird here? Is this weird person summer camp?”
“Yeah, silly. That’s why we’re here.”
“Oh.” I said, and felt terribly relieved and much less lonely.
Overall, I doubt Transformus should be characterized as “weird person summer camp,” as there are precise mechanisms in play in its creation. There’s many methods in all this madness. Specifically, the ten – no twelve! – principles, in practice. Please read them, right here.
Or, in brief: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy, Consent, and Volunteerism.
These values differ very strikingly from those emphasized by “default” American culture. For me, they helped me bond deeply to… myself, and my own values. Even if there hadn’t been any burn, art, beauty, or giant lakes, simply living those principles in full for three days can be incredibly… transformative.
It feels different to give, with no expectation of “returns.” It is different to feel ownership over an enormous event, to feel connected to strangers in an immediate, expressive way. It changes how you act, how you see yourself as a friend, relation, and as a citizen. It transforms a participant into an activist.
As Paxus puts it, on his blog post on Transformus, “One of the ten guiding principals for Burning Man is Participation. What this means is we are trying move away from the idea that you come to a festival to be entertained and instead are engaged and active. You are not there to be audience, but rather an organizer. As an activist, this is mimicking the change we need to see in the world, pushing people away from their passive screens or viewed performances and towards thinking about how they want to be making things happen.”
Post Office Protocols and Rules:
1. For each service, we strongly recommending gifting us an item, story, memory, or joke.
2. Both the writer and the recipient must pay postage fees to send and receive mail.
3. Postal officers are allowed to read mail unless specifically requested not to.
4. Postal officers may be deterred by swimming, kissing, or other time-squandering activities. However, they must do their utmost to deliver all the mail in their care.
5. All postal officers must wear a postal uniform cap at the time of their service — when they have completed delivery, they must return the PO caps with all due speed.
6. Postal officers may keep any gifts they earn for themselves.
7. The postal mistress, Brosie Brazen aka Leo Locks, may change any rule at her leisure.
8. At any point, there is always something to do at the Post Office. All postal officers are volunteers and all people are encouraged to volunteer. Similarly, all are encouraged to write mail. Postal Officers are never the servants of the “customer,” and are to be respected.
The Difference of a Letter
The Post Office, as Leo had anticipated, with a complete success. Inside of Deerfields, there was no cell reception nor any internet. While smartphones were allowed, they were nearly useless. Given the ease of “losing” someone, letters were actually extremely helpful.
Generally, people wrote letters along the lines of “you’re neat” or “thank you” or “you’re super hot and I wish I knew you better” or “where did you put my sleeping bag, you evil trickster?” but all positive letters, each one a gift. The Post Office allowed people a chance to respond to gifts, and a way to reflect on others in still-immediate, but more thoughtful, manner.
At the Post Office, Officers delivered mail, dealt with “customers,” and restocked the “postcards” bin. I found a much deeper-than-expected joy in making postcards for others to write on, postcards that set tones for communications, postcards that took risks, that were nasty and sweet all at once. There was something wonderful in creating a template for others to use.
I also emphatically enjoyed the delirious challenge of delivering mail at a burn. Through the Post Office, I met people I’d never otherwise encounter, in all different camps, in all walks of life. While delivering mail, I was romanced, deterred, teased, and distracted. And to see what people wanted others to know, that was one of the warmest truths I’ve ever seen.
There are so many ways to say, “You’re important to me.” Over the weekend, I learned a hundred new ways.
Through the postal office, I saw the neighborhoods in Transformus. I observed which people knew (and didn’t know) their neighbors, and how they took care of their chosen families. I watched people perform rituals in sanctuaries, I was offered dinners, desserts, and many things in between while delivering mail from the Philosopher’s Stone to Moustachville and over to Neverland, and then past the lake to You Are Beautiful. I saw people read their letters, and watched them see themselves more fully — as mentors, as friends, as lovers, as heroes.
It was transformative, as they say.
Within community, there is an incredibly import placed on “being seen.” By being seen, conflict is answered by compassion. Differences are understood and resolved. At events like Transformus, people allow themselves to be seen, and in return, see others more fully. There is more vulnerability and changes taken, there are more silly jokes. There are more screams and wolf howls. There’s late night stories, and mid-morning singing, and midnight swimming. There’s a sense that if you have a dream, you can share it.
If anything, we share it at the burn.
As the effigy lights in flame, there is the pulse of the whole crowd rising, in reverence and excitement. There is a pull, to run towards the flame, to kiss the person next to you, to grip onto the earth around you. The flame burns so bright, the center white and liquid, that it’s impossible to blink away. As if the sky had opened up, and a new sun had been born.
And then, out that sun went.
After the burn, the parties build, in sound and flame.
After the burn, I saw the most incredible explosive jam of fire performers and circus artists. Fantastic hoopers and aerialists, and the finest spinners and dancers I’ve been lucky enough to see. I watched Drex perform, and be silly and free.
Our little family stuck together – Wonder, Leo, Rocketship, and I. Wonder got smashed, and created a parade of men following us around the sound camps. Leo, in her gladitorial garb, danced with me on a stage, surrounded by a hundred people. We all got lost, together. We sat inside of art exhibits, and danced to a hundred different DJs, including my friend Bluebird. We saw older friends, made new friends, teased strangers.
I touched an ice moon. I took a midnight swim, and listened to a friend-of-friends play saxiphone. I stepped into the “Wonkavator,” and felt the world change around me. I made a friend, a sweet and caring person.
I delivered a letter or two.
I lost track of a day, amidst hiking, feasting, laughing, and swimming.
I traded in old clothes at the Costume Camp, and got new costumes that fit me, the me I am on the inside. That weird person, who believes in friendship and wonder. I felt safe, safe to say what I wanted without judgement, safe to be around others without worrying about being hurt. People were honest, expressive, kind, and the most excellent kind of sex-positive.
And then, we packed it all up. It was strange to think about the return. I fell into a feverish sleep, sliding between new memories and dreams. I felt the outlines of Rocketship’s dreams, and Leo’s dreams, a hint of Wonder’s visions and Ms. F’s thoughts. On the long road, with the overly-stuffed trailer, we returned safe and happy. We left the trailer in Arlington, with Leo’s mom, then hustled home, almost late for our pre-existing commitments.
It’s strange to be in DC. It’s a funny feeling. It feels as if I’ve lost several inches of callouses, and every bit of my skin is softer, but stronger. It’s strange to be at networking events, school functions, and the little bits of the normal world I live in. It’s strange not to make eye contact with strangers, to remember to be afraid around strangers. It’s awful to remember that my friends get harassed and bullied for the clothes they wear (especially in the clothes that make them see their own beauty.)
Confession: I still act like I’m a counselor at Weird Person Summer Camp. And I hope I never stop.
And a brief letter to you, Leo.
Dearest, sweetest Leo:: to build a piece with you, to watch you see your dreams be made real — that was the most beautiful part of Transformus. To see you happy made my weekend warmer and sweeter. When you’re gone on a trip, my center cannot hold. Not very damn well. I miss you, Leo.
But I want you to know that I understand. Thank you for trusting in me. Thank you for sharing with me so many corners of our lives. I love that we work, live, travel, clean, explore and adventure together. You and I, you and I.
Yessir. That’s my baby.
All the love,
PS: For more information about Transformus, their website is awesomely devoted to transparency.