Starhawk’s of City of Refuge: the Fading Magic of Nostalgia

This year, Starhawk’s “City of Refuge” was the gift I bought myself. I backed the Kickstarter and couldn’t wait for it to show up. Getting the third book in this series brought a lot of things full circle for me.

high fidelitySo this is not really a book review. This is that scene in High Fidelity when someone asks whether the main character’s records are arranged chronologically or alphabetically, and he replies that it’s autobiographical. This is the story of these books in my life, and this last chapter in that context.

5th cover

I first read “The Fifth Sacred Thing” in 2005. I found it at Powell’s City of Books, my second home during my unhappiest days in Portland. I had read Starhawk’s nonfiction work since I was a kid; they were my first books on witchcraft that were written for practical use. She was a hero of mine, sparking my interest in permaculture and ecofeminism and introducing me to the dynamics of small group consensus for the first time. I had no idea that she wrote utopian (or Ecotopian) fiction, so I was dumbstruck to read the back cover when I spotted it on the shelf. I ran into the prequel, “Walking to Mercury” a week or two later.

The thing is, I’ve been telling people for years that “The Fifth Sacred Thing” is my favorite book. I always warn them that it isn’t great literature, but that it represented something new and precious to me, and I always felt pretty connected to it. I re-read it about once a year. It gained this status for me because I read it at a time in my life when I was living too small and not thinking far enough ahead. It made me examine a lot of my assumptions about people, sex, religion, the future, and what kind of person I wanted to be. The central conflict of the book is how to  fight against war without warfare. It goes beyond passive resistance into a subtler blend of magic and martyrdom that I found intensely seductive.

But most of all, this is the book that convinced me that I had to move to San Francisco.

The city was described by an author who had fallen in love with the Bay Area that was and will never come again. In both books, the city is rich in its former character: a hotbed of free speech and demonstrations that provided the freaky freedom that a nation of weirdos needed. She follows that thread through to the AIDS epidemic and the slow decay of the movement, but stops short of explaining what it has become.

I’d be lying if I said I showed up expecting anything but Haight-Ashbury in 1968. I went out and found the drum circles, the public rituals and the hippie kids. But I got adjusted real quick to San Francisco in its second tech boom. I think Starhawk adjusted, too. She turned tech culture into intelligent crystals to work around the need to be connected and communicate. She turned this city into an impossible fantasy of wealth and security, better and more equitable than it is now, ultimately so perfect that outsiders in her books don’t believe it exists. With the real dilemma and the fictional one in her immediate view, Starhawk set her sights on the dry south for this third (and hopefully final) installment.

20160105_090318There’s less magic in “City of Refuge” than either of its predecessors. It lacks any of the hardcore witchcraft of “Fifth,” skipping over any of the much-hyped sacred group sex or miraculous dream-working by Madrone. Our heroine visits the bees and the Melissa again, only to be told ‘lol idk’ when she asks what she should do with her ever-growing power. Bird sings songs of revolution, but they’re only understood by decayed academics and they don’t turn the tide. The movement Bird and Madrone start attracts nuts and trolls, and without the convenience of the Wild Boar People to stash the undesirables, the second act of the book reads like a long internet comments section.

It ends in triumph, but one that flatly subverts the message of nonviolence carried by the first two, roundhouse kicking the banner out of the hands of our heroes and replacing it with rifles and tiredness; the same old tale about the same sad world. The driving ideal behind “Fifth” was that nonviolence could change the world. In “Refuge,” blowing up ships will do, I guess.

Throughout, Starhawk backpedals on what was great in the first books. Real-world curse words are replaced with such toothless substitutes as “What the jacks?” in an attempt to separate sex from the profane, according to an author’s note. River’s immediate love of real food is retconned into a widespread love of ‘chips,’ a transparent reference to poor kids’ dependence on junk like Taki’s or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The abortion scene in “Fifth” is repeated for no clear reason, and the reader learns nothing from it.

Bird, who was once the contemplative center of a story about transforming our inner violence to curb our outer violence, becomes a flat manboy whose thoughts are opaque to us as he works Madrone’s last good nerve in an effort to be her partner. And Madrone, who was the witch to beat all witches in modern fiction, spends the whole book nesting and fussing over whether or not it’s time to get knocked up. I signed up for the coming-of-age of the next revolutionary generation, not love among the ruins for people who’ve decided it’s time to stop being badass magicians who shut down nuclear plants and travel to the place where three roads meet and time be conventional, have some kids, and sweep the floor. 

“City of Refuge” is weary. It is lost in the description of generations of trauma and the grey shitty barrenness of Los Angeles. It is punctuated by the memoirs of the witch queen of the series, Starhawk’s clear self-insert Maya Greenwood. It is the indulgence of the writerly mind with near-nonsense rhymes spouted by a street prophet, where there used to be an attempt to eff the ineffable. It is a weak iteration of what used to be a powerful theme.

Starhawk has been my hero since I was 15 years old. This book says clearly to me that a lifetime of activism has diminished or maybe destroyed her faith in magic to the degree that it’s just about gone, even in her fanciful utopian fiction. Those memoirs ought to be hers, rather than assigned to a fictionalized version of the author. The best stories are hers, and the advice in there is priceless. I wish Starhawk had written that, and let this fading little world go for good. I still hope she will. 

I’ve gotten older too, and I’ve lost much of my early belief in what change was possible if we acted courageously and boldly. I suppose it was unfair of me to expect this book to restore me or inspire me, but I got so much from the first two that my expectations were quite high.

There was something I glimpsed between the pages of “Fifth” and “Mercury.” It was the promise of the world to come; an idea that we really could make that next leap of civilization, even after terrible losses and under the undying threat of tyranny. It was that fiction I moved to the Bay to pursue; and I’ve grown up with it as an unattainable but tantalizing beacon toward the next world. Like most aspects of growing up, I see now that it’s smaller and dimmer as I get closer to it, and that the ones who lit it have long since moved on.

I guess it’s time for me to move on, too.


Posted in Books, Pagan, Remembrance, San Francisco, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Guest post: Ten Principles in Search of a Story

manMeg’s note: This post was written by my husband, John Elison, who has no blog of his own. He likes to tell long stories, and I like to hear them. Hope you do, too. 

The Man first burned in ‘86 and the Ten Principles weren’t made official until 2004, and yet much of the Burning Man’s heart seems to lie somewhere in those ten guiding lines. So, as I attempt to process just what happened during my first burn, I am going to use them to compartmentalize my experience. It was that or let this become a novel of some cis white dude’s self-discovery at Burning Man. Nobody wants that.

Radical Inclusion

Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community. And yet, while the invitation is there, I don’t think everyone got it. Certainly, there were more than your standard number of tattooed weirdos, nudist octogenarians, and peacock-blue fauxhawks.

If your standard is nowhere near a coastal city.

There were so many gorgeous naked 20-somethings that the first couple days I was torn between states of Stendhal syndrome and paranoia. I was convinced that the BRC police, baffled by how I even got in, were going to find me and kick me out for not meeting their strictly-enforced beauty quotient. My only saving grace was that I am white (which is kind of redundant, I know.) Everyone here is white. Everyone.

Not really. But every year BRC keeps a census and according to their latest record I meet every majority demographic from race, age, gender, and education. While this gave me some comfort that I would not in fact be kicked out, it did a lot to kill the radical inclusion illusion. While talking to one of the few POC I found, it was explained to me that one of the biggest issues facing Burning Man’s quest for greater diversity is that since time-immemorial POC have tried to avoid places where white dudes are riding in the backs of trucks screaming “Wahoo!”

Even in my attempt to find online POC Burner’s suggestions for more inclusivity, I found that the topic is mostly being discussed by only more whites.

(an interesting piece on the topic of security is also addressed in this piece.)

Being of that ivory camp, I don’t have an answer other than to continue to invite those whose voices are often neglected to speak up. Even if we lack the radical inclusion we profess to seek, it doesn’t mean that we don’t want to find it.



At the beginning of August I announced that I would be giving free massages to my friends and family. In part, this was just my way of giving back on the road to my 35th birthday. It was also so that I could knock the rust of my skills, a bit. I knew that I would be gifting some of my time to my crewmates as their masseuse and I really wanted to do a good job.

I got a few wonderful friends to lay on the table for me and I practiced my effleurage, petrissage, and tapotement; as well as my timing, and grounding, and draping. Then, when the time came, I hauled my table and chair and coconut oil off to the desert. I even brought a tub and extra vinegar for foot washings (a practice my dad started doing when he worked at Renaissance Faires.)

It’s been theorized that in gift economies that the bigger the gift given, the more prestige and power the giver gets in return, and I had every intention of being the big mystic imperial poobah.

I think this was one of the reasons our first day there was so difficult. There was no way for me to give that gift. There just wasn’ the space, time, or environment for it. I had tied my self worth to my gift, which made the gift for me more than anyone else. And that, people, spoils the gift.

In time, we were given a wonderfully sagging Easy-Up, that hung downward over our heads like an enormous canvas breast. Tired of feeling it brush the top of our heads, we wounds the center tight and wrapped the excess in duct tape, putting a huge silver nipple on the newly-lifted breast. Being the incredibly talented, witty people that we are, Meg and I named it Nipple Tent.

Slowly, as we made connections with the rest of our crew, people started coming to us. I worked on bodies with rods in their backs, with scars from botched surgeries, heavily pierced bodies, protected bodies, PTSD bodies, and bodies that had just worked 18 hour days for a week to build an Escher-esque suspension bridge that was just going to burn a couple of days later. I worked on my wife, on strangers, on new friends, and old friends who were once enemies and everyone was so incredibly, painfully beautiful. This trust was their gift to me. Every time someone laid on my table or sat in my chair or in any way let me offer a healing touch to them, I received this gift of trust and it was crystal clear that I was never going to be a mystical poobah anything. I can’t even profess to have helped everyone I worked on, but I know that work always helped me. The connection built in those tender moments of intentional love healed things in me and I am supremely grateful. Thank you.


It’s true that Burning Man is its own brand. One we pay dearly for, both directly and indirectly. The irony of this is not (I hope) lost on any of my fellow burners. However, it is also true that once we set camp, I stopped seeing brands, phones were put away, and the constant rush of being sold something was put to rest. My eyes began to relax. By the 3rd day, even my Male Gaze was reduced to the much more controllable Male Glance. Admittedly, this may have been from overstimulation, but I was nonetheless relaxed.

So did the need to sell something. Once I got over the “my job/gift is my identity” trial of the first 48 hrs, I also stopped telling people what I do for a living. Once I went a couple of days without bathing, I stopped worrying about what I looked like. Once I started handing out raw and real for free to strangers I was able to forget that the commodity once known as “John” was ever for sale.

And it wasn’t just me. Meg read from her book on the spoken word stage, but didn’t bother to hand out copies, because it smacked of self-promotion. I watched singers finish sets only to hand out CDs of other people’s music. And I watched a baby boomer named SHRED improvise metal sets with lyrics like “She’s not Mexican, she’s a Hawaiian,” with no sense of irony whatsoever.

We can all stand to decommodify, once in awhile.

Because we’re worth it. 

worth it

Radical Self-reliance

For the most part, I felt neither radical nor self-reliant during my stay in BRC. How could I? My wife and roommate/sister-wife/younger brother managed most of the packing, sewing, and driving. Once there, all of these amazing, brilliant, strangers went out of their way to make sure I was fed and hydrated, that I was getting enough sleep, that I knew how to do my job and covered my ass when I didn’t. Even those outside my camp made sure that I wasn’t overheated or dirty. There were volunteers putting rolls of toilet paper in all the portapotties every day in what felt like it was just for me. A wonderful camp of sweet, gentlemanly bears even offered a space where I could lay back, get a shoulder rub while being fanned and misted, sipping on a wonderful mango mojito and then they cleaned, clipped, and cared for my beard. Why? Because clay encrusted pube face doesn’t look good on anybody.

But maybe self-reliance isn’t only about things? I mean, really, what if nothing is only about things, but especially this?

Our first day in BRC was my birthday. We were met by an eight hour dust storm. My asthma, which has only come out to play about once every 7 years since junior high, gave me a strong, hearty hello. Our tent and bedding were immediately hidden under alkaline dunes. My eyes ached. And the dust in my beard aged me about 20 years but somehow made everyone else look like the Greeks carved punk paragons and brought them to life in Reno.

I had hoped too long for this. I was given too many opportunities not afforded others to be here. I was miserable and I felt guilty/ashamed/bad for feeling that way. Finally, I pulled Meg into the car to get out of the white-out and I asked her “Can we just accept that this sucks?”  And being the bad ass that my wife is, Meg didn’t guilt me: “Look here, dude, (I hate it when she calls me dude) you know how hard we worked to get here?” or let me wallow in it: “Oh, puddy-wumpkins, why does this always happen to usss?” Or try solving it for me: “Let me just take care of that storm for you, babe. Oh and here’s a G&T and a handjob, too.” She thoughtfully acknowledged that my feelings were real and valid and then sat with me while I processed that. She smiled and nodded. And that’s all I needed to turn things around. Because that’s life. Or at least that has been my life and I suspect the lives of many of my friends. When we ignore the obvious suckiness in the world I believe we can’t properly deal with it, either. Like hoping to shoot invisible snipe with a gun you don’t believe you have, loaded with imaginary buckshot.

Owning your negative feelings is self-reliance.

Not giving in to negative feelings is self-reliance.

Not allowing other’s negative feelings to take you down is self-reliance.

And when we are all being self-reliant it is so much easier to also build community, to make art, to give more to our neighbor, to make that extra bit of magic in the desert happen. And that’s what makes it radical.

Radical Self-expression

There were art cars and murals and mutant monkey babies. There were fire dancers, a 20 ft. skeleton marionette, and a burning temple. There was a blue sabretooth leopard that played the Hang drum and a Discordian wizard who slung hard truths and nonsense through wicked rhymes and rhythms (Zak and What Army?) and the winner of the Battle of the Marching Bands had a stilt-walking witch who dual-wielded 6’ bullwhips like they were just another member of the percussion family.

And yet none of that seemed  “radical” per se. Delightful, wondrous, awe-inspiring, and surreal? Definitely. But nothing so radical as sitting silent in a tent across from a nymphet with vitiligo and eyes in Heisenberg Blue. This was a tantric exploration of Divine Intimacy at 6:30 and Ersatz. The closest I got physically to anyone was a long hug, however, we sat and sprawled in a dirty tent, enacting a cosmic dance where we ran across the infinite spectrum of radical human expression, silently breathing, staring into one another eyes, honest, naked, and open.

Once the silence was broken, this long-limbed youth and I spoke in turns about heartache and loss and self-sabotage and all of the incredible, godlike potential we have stored in us and how only fear seems to cork that in. Fear of rejection, of failure, of responsibility, and all the million other shades of fear, which are just that; shades. Nothing real or substantial, here. I am prone to both laughter and tears and with this nameless elf, I did both.

I truly believe that every man and woman a star. As a star, I emit light and have my own gravitational pull. Better still: as you are all stars, I receive your light and occasionally get pulled in by your personal gravity.

I should note that there was one performance that took place on Center Stage that I think transcended into that similarly vulnerable, truly radical space. During Sorne’s performance of Fragile Frame, Laura Blake’s dancing ushered me into a liminal space and taught me something, however, when I try to talk about that particular moment my words run dry. I was raised to believe that certain things are sacred. That talking about them too directly cheapens them. Perhaps this is one of those moments.

Communal Effort

From the lamplighters to the TP patrol to everything the Black Rock City Department of Public Works does to the art to the music to the fluffers, Burning Man is a community and I was really glad to be a part of it this year. I was especially fortunate to have been a part of the Cafe Sound community. We were all working hard and playing hard and I have heard more bitterness from coworkers in quiet, air conditioned libraries made to work an extra 10 minutes on a desk than I ever heard from one of my crew who had to work a double shift while their relief slept off whatever happened the night before. My Cafe Sound teammates were all amazing.

An especially memorable night was my first day as Lead Stage Manager. One of my duties was to make sure we didn’t have dead air. If an act no shows, we find someone in the audience who might have their guitar, drum, theremin on hand and throw them on stage. While this definitely makes room for plenty of playa magic, the reality is that often it’s a hassle. My shift started at 7am. I showed up at 4: 30am just to get a feel for the madness. For all the tantric yoga sun worshipping that goes on in BRC, not many burners actually like waking up at dawn. And it looked like we were about to have a long line of no shows. And none of my almost sleeping hippies in the audience had even a kazoo to share amongst the lot of them. Then came Simply B. This long-haired, walking smile from Salt Lake City, UT showed up with a bass, guitar, a harmonica, and his looper and proceeded to play for almost 3 hours. Then when he had played everything he had (covers aren’t allowed in Center Camp), some of it twice, he personally went out and found people in the audience to play his instruments in order to cover the next hour of no shows, while he sipped coffee and rocked out to his fellow burner’s jams. Simply B was my Community Spirit. Seriously, I love you, man.


Civic Responsibility

Knowing what I know about the history of Burning Man, what happens now at Burning Man, and the general politics of East Bay Burners at large, I almost feel like this principle was written in either at governmental, metaphoric gunpoint or beneath an alkaline veneer of cynicism and irony. But then my darktard butt went and ran into an anarchist with dreads and a non la and rather than give me grief for my clumsy, virgin ways he threw me a light and wished me luck and safety. I and all of my would-have-been victims thank you, Mr. Lightgiver Man.

Leaving No Trace

Picking up MOOP (matter out of place) was sort of a nostalgic zen thing for me.

Before I left for Burning Man, I talked to my Dad who took great liberties at teasing me about how me and my siblings still complain about that one time he hauled us out for desert camping. We were hot and miserable. There were so many bugs that the ones that covered our tents made the lighting inside look like dusk at noon, and the ones in the pool left a layer thick enough you could walk on it. “Hey Dad, I’m like Peter. I can almost walk on water, too.” And now here I was going out of my way to go to a hot, miserable desert full of bugs.

But actually, I loved our family desert camping trip because my dad taught me then that the only thing worth bringing back from a vacation is a better story. He taught me to always leave no trace. It’s not just the crazy hippies in the playa who understand that this is important. But it was really nice to see that most of the crazy hippies in the playa did get it.


Everywhere I went there were Easter eggs of delight. No corner came without some sort of spritz or drink or smile. And food and drink were abundant where I was told that hydration and nutrition were scarce and treasured necessities (and they are, burners. Stay hydrated. Eat things.) And towards the middle of the week when the party really got started it seemed as though I was almost being chased down to be given things. At one point, I literally had a remote control guacamole truck drive me down and follow me until I took some of its chips and dip. But why?

The best I can come up with is the 100 hand massage.

During my wanderings, I ended up in a tent with some Angelenos and a strange bed space. I had ducked in to avoid a quick gush of dust and they asked me if I was there for the 100 hand massage.

“Well, I am now.”

And with that someone stripped and got on the table while the rest of us massaged their body all at once. We took turns. The more times we worked on someone, the more people saw what we were up to and joined us. We got more in sync and our technique together improved. My own time laid on the bed was incredible. And fun. And I think most of us get this. We want to share. We know sharing is fun. That the more we share the higher the chance that someone, or several someones, will want to share with us. Maybe I get to be the great mystical poobah, after all.



Linear time is a lie. Time is both infinite and eternal. Therefore, it is one giant single point and plane. What we are experiencing is just that facet of time that we have chosen to focus on, right now.

One night, I got to see a steampunk octopus car with moving, flame thrower tentacles light up the sky, in direct competition with my wife’s cherub-cheeked grin. Then she hit me. With a snowball. In the DESERT. Dumbfounded, I watched her giggle and run away. She looked 10 years younger. And not in spite of the crusty grey dreads that had developed in her molasses curls, but because of it. No, she was 10 years younger. Because time isn’t linear. And that slip might demonstrate the most challenging part of this principle. Time is a slippery point on a greasy, tilting plane. We want it to be linear and clean and behave the way we expect. For all of our bemoaning of the number of hours in the day and how aging sucks us dry, we tend to like our memories of the past and plans for the future much more than their actual present-time manifestations. Immediacy is intense. But it’s also all we really have. Even off the playa.

Before I conclude, let me just say I tried really hard to not be trite, but then Meg told me that it was ok because that’s how all Burning Man posts end and who am I to argue with an award winning author?



“What do you want most out of Burning Man?” Meg asked me as we started up the car, our new car, the first new car I have ever owned, the new car I had bought just a week before, the brand spanking new car I had just bought and was about to drive to the desert.

“A story.”

I don’t recommend driving new cars into Black Rock City if you want to keep them looking new. But I do recommend taking anything that’ll get you there, if what you are looking for is a story. And these days, a better story is all I’m ever really looking for. The desert is a pretty good place to find one. Or ten.

-John Elison

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

9 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Burning Man

All photos by Devin Cooper.

All photos by Devin Cooper.

There are more guides for first-time burners than there are grains of playa dust in my still-unpacked suitcases, but I’m adding this one anyway. No two burns are alike, and I learned a few things in the doing that I hadn’t been warned about. So here it is from me, virgin no more. These are the things I learned about my own comfort and discomfort levels during the strangest vacation I have ever taken.

  1. I wish I had brought more clothes. I brought fun costumes and sealed Ziploc bags of underwear and socks, warm night gear and gauzy daywear designed to make me look like one of Immortan Joe’s prize breeders. It wasn’t enough. I ought to have planned 2-3 outfits per day, to account for sweat and blood and dust and wine and scrofulous plastic outhouses and surprise puddings and all manner of other things. This is tricky, because nobody wants to be the over-packing diva with a trunk full of formals and two costume changes per act. Do it anyway. You’ll thank your past self.


2. I was warned about playa dust. I cannot say that people didn’t tell me I’d be filthy and bone-white for a week, they certainly did. However, every body is different and we all react to things in our own way. My skin hurt. It ached so that I could hardly stand to be touched, it cracked when I stretched and it screamed when the sun touched it (that’s normal for me). I packed two parasols that I lived under and I wore sunblock all day, every day. The playa dust adhered to both of them. Where playa dust touches oil, whether it be my various attempts at a protective barrier or the stuff on my scalp intended to keep my hair healthy (more on that later), it turns sickly yellow and becomes a kind of clay. That clay sucks you dry like a bentonite facial mask. My skin abraded and broke anywhere something rubbed on me, and wearing goggles, a utility belt, and a mask every day contributed mightily to that rubbing. The break and ache didn’t stop until my third shower at home.

That third shower happened because I had to run through several attempts before something washed the clay out of my hair. My hair’s texture makes it run to locs under normal conditions; under these it ceased to resemble anything I had seen before. It lay in clay clumps that were grey and gummy to the touch. Vinegar loosened the clay but did not break it. Dr. Bronner’s made it worse. No shampoo, dry poo, or no-poo could break through.  Desperate and moments away from washing my hair with dish soap, I tried my acne wash. Winner. I have my own wiry insubordinate hair once again.

  1. Take clothes and shoes that you want to throw away. Some things wash out fine. Some do not. Don’t take anything irreplaceable. NB: I broke this rule to bring my diary. Calculated risk.


  1. Definitely bring a bike. The playa is bigger than it looks on the internet, and walking everywhere is slow and very tiring. The neon lights of parties and cars and art whip by like a Lisa Frank peyote wonderland, and other bikers honk their little horns and ring their little bells as you navigate the undefined space that only sometimes includes roads. You’re going to be sore no matter what you choose; raging quads beat throbbing feet on my score card. Consult your own needs, but know that a bike is worth the effort.
  1. Everyone there is from the Bay Area. I expected to make friends and I did, but I also expected to wave a bittersweet goodbye to most of them after the Temple burned. Instead, I learned that most of them are my neighbors and I’m free and able to see them again.
  1. I dreamt vividly every night. I dream almost every night in the default world, but this was an exceptional run of days and nights. I suspect that my sudden and total digital fast contributed to this phenomenon, but the constant input of thought-provoking art and performances likely played their own part. I had a startlingly clear dream of John Candy driving a 50-foot carving fork, for example. Play hard, dream hard.


  1. There were drugs literally everywhere. I thought the stories were an exaggeration, but I’ve never seen a higher concentration of drug use anywhere else in the world. I saw mushrooms, ayahuasca, marijuana, 2C-I, mescaline, cocaine, and things referred to by names I’d never heard before. I saw enough alcohol given freely in that de-commodified space to drown the entire Marine Corps, and I did far more desert day-drinking than I planned. I drove through the main gates beside a beautiful girl who was casually doing whippets at each stop. I found a plastic Easter egg filled with LSD, left behind by a generous individual who wanted to blow some minds. I expected covert drug use, carefully hidden among friends to avoid trouble with the Pershing County Sheriff’s office. What I found was an open and convivial drug scene that resembles the fairy tales I’ve heard about the 60s.
Best new tumblr of 2015.

Best new tumblr of 2015.

  1. I knew there were two main burns, Man Burn and Temple Burn. What I didn’t realize was that the two are starkly different in tone and function. The Man burned to a thunder of drums and cheers, in a sacrificial and yet expansive mood among the participants. By contrast, Temple Burn is silent, with throngs of thousands engaged in acts of mourning without words or music. After the Man burned, the whole event changed in tone. I started hearing about what people did for a living, and opinions like ‘prison is too lenient’ and ‘climate change might not be real.’ After the Temple burned, the remaining faithful could only talk about going home. I understand now why so many subject themselves to the 8-hour exodus after the Man is gone. Everything slides downward after that point, everything feels like a long goodbye.
...except this one, which is clearly mine.

…except this one, which is clearly mine.

  1. That long goodbye is only a tiny piece of the emotional rollercoaster of the whole burn. People warned me that relationships could be taxed and limits might be pushed by the circumstances of the event. What I didn’t know was that I’d feel euphoric, incredible (natural) highs that produced that irrepressible, Frank Capra-style love for mankind that only the very young and the very old can hold on to. I also experienced utter hatred for the ascended spiritual masters peddling DMT and new age bullshit who think they have it all figured out, but in sudden shifting moments of compassionate clarity, I’d see them as perfect and ineffable, just as if they were made in the images of a thousand fresh-faced gods.

I’m glad I wasn’t prepared for wanton expressions of kindness and support we received from our fellow Burners. That is best experienced firsthand. There is no way to prepare yourself for this process; it’s like dying and being reborn every few hours. But it is real.

My husband John ran head-on into one of these, crashing out on the dark playa into a white kid with dreadlocks and a nón lá. The kid hugged him and then gave him a light for his bike, telling him to be safe. Or I’d slog halfway across Black Rock City to find an event that had been canceled without warning, only to sit hot and dejected in the dust preparing to turn around and get back to camp. Then some girl with a green sparkly face and fairy wings would roll up on an adult trike and spray me gently with icy water, laced with peppermint oil, while chanting to me about my unique beauty. John and I were welcomed to a long, low tent full of coffee and fruits given freely by a kid named Aladdin, only to be joined moments later by a man named Genie. We had a snowball fight beneath a flame-throwing mechanical octopus. I raved to Fleetwood Mac. We climbed a Thunderdome and cheered for the bungee-bound combatants. A Scotsman made me tequila sunrises for breakfast. I watched the dust rise up and veil a bride as she walked down the aisle as if she had commanded it. I arrested a self-proclaimed rock star and his roadies gave me a medal for being Cop of the Year. These moments replay themselves for me when I wake up in the middle of the night, still feeling like I’m there.


I think that months from now, I’ll still be saying that I just got back from Burning Man.

I’ve spent a lot of words here trying to define an experience that is ultimately indefinable. It’s something different for everyone, and you will likely have different wishes after your first burn.

It was the best and worst vacation I’ve ever had.

Posted in Adventure, Love, Remembrance, San Francisco | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

LA Review of Books Raves about TBOTUM

LARBFrom the front page of the L.A. Review of Books:

“In 2015, Elison’s novel won the Philip K. Dick Award, in part because it offers an equally compelling — although markedly different — re-imagination of gender and sexual roles. Elison, quite cleverly, does not reduce women to one meaning or one role; instead, she offers a number of familial structures, including redefinitions of gender and sexuality. In the utopian space of Fort Nowhere, any person can pursue any professional or vocational role, and any person can partake in any one of a range of sociosexual roles. This may not be a fully realized feminist utopia, but it’s a start.”

This is not a review for the prospective reader; spoilers abound. But Ritch Calvin gets it in every way I want a professor of women’s and gender studies to get what I was trying to do. Being understood is priceless. Especially in this business where we are so often misquoted and misread.

Posted in Book Review, Books, Ego, Feminism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Palimpsest: the Most Beautiful Book I’ve Read in Ages

One of the shittiest things about growing up (and there are a great many shitty things about growingaaaaaplimp up) is the forfeiture of your magical inheritance. As a child, your passport got you stamped into the Shire, into Fantasia, into Narnia. Your letter from Hogwarts showed up on time without question and you got into Milo’s passenger seat knowing that the Tollbooth was a gateway to adventure. If Peter Pan knocked on the window and you had not yet grown up, you could go with him.

At some point, we all had to live the sad scene from Hook where Wendy admits that it’s over. She got married and passed out of childhood forever; she’s forgotten how to fly. There’s some shame in that admission. It’s never really said, but there are lots of metaphors for it. The most direct one I can remember is the dæmon of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series; once the dæmon has been touched by a lover, it never shapeshifts again. In most fantasy universes, there is some unspoken understanding that only a virgin can ride the unicorn. Growing up means having sex. Having sex means losing innocence, it means handing over the keys to those worlds and being constantly reminded that the real thing is boring, nasty, brutish, and short.

Fantasies for grownups are often built on this; they are costumed fabulist orgies that dress up sex acts to make them more promising than they are in real life. They take a biologically driven absurd necessity and weave it into the magical world, remembering that we are not children and that when we stray back into the realms of faerie, this is pretty much what we’re hoping for. There are good examples: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books are wonderful fantasies for grownups, full of sexy intrigue and allusions to ancient history.

The only book I’ve ever read that accepts that grownups are sad and broken and dtf and still desperately trying to fly toward that second star on the right is Catherynne M. Valente’s PALIMPSEST. This book introduces the concept of a sexually transmitted city. Every person who is infected carries a piece of the map of the city of Palimpsest somewhere on their body. When they sleep with someone, that person is transported to their part of the city. Not only is sex part of the story here, it is the means of transport to the magical world.

There isn’t much of the story I can give away. It is woven with many threads, many connections between lovers and friends and rivals. It is an international story, taking characters from Italy and Russia and Japan. It is a story in which love is blind beyond all reason; couplings and triplings take place in the blind desire to be transported and gender is left in the dust. The truth unravels slowly, like an aerialist unspooling hundreds of feet of silk only to end up dangling still so far overhead that you know she is naked but you can’t make out her face.

This is a book that makes love to trains. This is a book that reveals the subtle ticktock sexiness of insects. This is a book that knows what you really want from a tailor but have always been afraid to ask. This is a book that takes the magic of place and uses it to turn you on and confuse you until you’d make love to an apple tree in bloom. This is a book whose prose is so dreamlike that Ray Bradbury dials it sometimes late at night and asks it to describe New York to him so he can sleep. This is a book that drowns you in a bowl of cream and makes you believe that you have always been a cat. This is a book that scars your face so that everyone who has read it knows you as one of their own. This is a book that teaches us how to find each other.

Reading this was like hearing a thousand stories shouted into a cave while you stand at the other end and try to pick one voice out from the others. It’s about cruising and secrets and the terrible nakedness between long-term lovers. It’s about jealousy and dissatisfaction and immigration and class. It’s about what we expect to know of someone once we have known them in the flesh; it’s about what we will never know.

Like this, but not.

Like this, but not.

Amid the tangle of tales, the one that seared itself to my skin in a crisscross blot of inky streets was the story of November. November is inducted into the society of travelers, but her piece of the map of Palimpsest shows up on her face. She cannot hide it, like the people she knows who are marked on back or thigh. She is unable to deny at all what she has become. In all other fantasy books, this is the end for a woman or a girl. She receives the wound, the brand of having had sex and she can never come back. Except that this is Palimpsest, and her mark brings her to Casimira, the mother of millions and matriarch of the city. November is a fully grown-up woman with a sex life, and the gates of the city will be open to her forever.

For me, this book was about that loss that comes with growing up. It was a moment for me to hold hands with Susan Pevensie and tell her that it isn’t too late for her. It was picking up Dorothy Gale and Alice and Wendy and telling them it isn’t over and I found the way back.

Posted in Book Review, Books, Geekery, Love | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NorWesCon 38: a Glorious Blur

IMG_20150403_210044Memory is the ghost of time trapped in meat and it doesn’t always work. It works even less when the meat is excited.

First, an old friend. I was met at the hotel by my friend Julian. I have moved around the world a lot in my life, living as an expat and trading one state for another more times than I can reliably recall. The result of this is that no one stayed my friend out of inertia; everyone who has known me for more than a year or two has been kept for a reason and by force of will. Julian knew me when I was 15, when I had been living on my own for nearly a year, working as an au pair and a dishwasher. To say that he met me in chaos is to understate the human capacity for disorder.

He lived next door to the home where I worked for room and board, the most red-headed of an Irish family. I told him I wanted to be a writer.

Seeing him at NorWesCon brought a wide circle back upon itself. There is a character in Midwife based loosely on someone we both knew back in those days. There is no other person on earth to whom I could have told that story. We sat over coffee and measured the years in each other’s faces.

New friends appeared almost immediately. I met the other PKD nominees— I don’t know why I expected them to be haughty and dismissive, but I did. I was up against some serious talent and I more than expected to lose. I had accepted loss before boarding the plane, and I just hoped to have fun.

I met Rod Duncan first, whom I had interacted with on Twitter, just a bit. He came and found me, shook my hand, and suggested that we form the League of Authors with Cross-Dressing Protagonists. I liked him immediately; he was funny and genuine and such a gentleman. Soon after, we both linked up with Emmi Itäranta and her wonderful partner. Both Rod’s and Emmi’s books had blown me away, they’re both huge talents and I was a little starstruck. They are both lovely people, and we got along wonderfully.

We all met Jennifer Marie Brissett the following day, and we knew that sadly neither Cherie Priest or Jonathan Strahan were able to attend, so we were four. Jenn, too, was wonderful and much more friendly than I had expected. Jenn, too, had written a book that had impressed and humbled me, and I wanted to ask her a thousand questions about it,  to tell her I was sure she would win.

We all got time to sit and talk about the process of being nominated and about our lives, where our books had come from and how all this had happened. One by one we confessed that none of us expected to win and that nobody had an acceptance speech ready.

Left to right: me, Rod Duncan, Emmi Itaranta, Jennifer Marie Brissett. Jenn is holding the special citation, I'm holding the PKD.

Left to right: me, Rod Duncan, Emmi Itaranta, Jennifer Marie Brissett. Jenn is holding the special citation, I’m holding the PKD.

That long, quiet afternoon was probably the best time I had at the whole convention. I went to parties, drank whiskey and wine. I danced with Browncoats and saluted Khaleesis. I sat on the Iron Throne and had a few moments of glory so acute that I struggle to put words to them. But belonging in that room was the best of it. I am sure.

The day of the award itself I wasn’t nervous at all. I stayed with a friend (a supportive, wonderful old friend) off-site, so I got dressed and did my makeup in the morning and just wore my party clothes all day. I sat on the Feminism in Fandom panel that day and I felt quick and calm.  I got through dinner just fine and felt absolutely normal.


Once the ballroom opened and people began to stream in for the award ceremony, I readily lost my cool the way a kid loses a balloon. My heart rate skyrocketed. I drank all the water in my glass, then drained the ones at the vacant spaces at my table. My feet pattered in quick rhythms. I bought myself a drink to calm my nerves. It failed.

We each read from our books. Absent writers had someone read for them. I had to go last. My mouth was like the talking flap in the front of a felt puppet. I sat back down unsteadily.

Back home, my husband and friends were watching the live video feed NorWesCon had put online. My mom was watching.

Jennifer Marie Brissett won the Special Citation and accepted it graciously, looking shocked. I was very happy for her, and I immediately wondered whether Emmi or Rod would win the award.

As soon as Jenn sat down, the room felt electrified. My throat closed up and I forgot how to breathe. Seconds later, I was announced as the winner of the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award.

Someone very thoughtful at my table had a camera trained on me and caught the shock and delight on my face in that very moment. I know I walked to the podium and accepted, I know that Gordon van Gelder put the award in my hand.

I know this because I have seen photos.

There was live video at the time, and there was supposed to be a recording after the fact. However, technical difficulties rendered this year’s video useless. So I have to trust my memory and the tweets from that night.

DSC_0512I know that I opened with, “Does HOLY SHIT count as an acceptance speech?” I know that I thanked my people. I know that I closed by saying that this was my Cinderella moment, except that it was so far beyond my expectations that it was more like the prince marrying the pumpkin. Beyond that, the moment is lost to me. I vaguely recall shaking Obama’s hand, pulling the sword from the stone, and flying away on Falcor’s back.

The last of the con exists in memory like the view from a fast-moving carousel. I shook hands, accepted drinks and congratulations, hugged and thanked and thanked again. The NorWesCon staff and volunteers were marvelously helpful, even when I lost my badge. The guests of honor were lovely and gracious and it was an honor to appear with them.


NWC 38 was one of the best weekends of my life so far. It’s been a month since then and it feels like years ago and yesterday. I am so grateful for all of it, and for everyone I saw there and everyone who welcomed me home.

This is the best and the strangest life I have ever known.

Sometimes a photo just captures the essence of who you are.

Sometimes a photo just captures the essence of who you are.

Posted in Adventure, Books, Ego, Geekery, Love, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

SoCal Book Tour

Traveling is both the privilege and the curse of a writer’s life.

I spent the the end of March driving all over Southern California, some time in LA followed by a long stint in the Inland Empire. I did three book events in that time, when I wasn’t visiting my mom and trying to eat all the Mexican food that would fit into my gluttonous mouth-hole.


My first appearance was on March 19th, at the Menifee campus of Mt. San Jacinto Community College, of which I am a graduate and from which I transferred to Berkeley. It was a thrill to be back and to talk to a crowd that wanted to know what people do when they leave MSJC and shoot for the moon. What follows is 40 minutes of my story of becoming a writer and taking questions about that process.

(Put this on while you have time to spare, or while you’re washing the dishes or something. I am incredibly long-winded when talking about the thing I love most.)

My second appearance was at the Hemet Public Library. I believe in library systems and use mine every week. When we lived in Hemet, my husband and my MiL both worked at this branch, and it’s always been special to us. That crowd got a reading and a long Q&A, and then bought all the books I had.

I believe in libraries. As someone who grew up very poor, I think of them as one of the best spaces I had access to as a child. It was a clean, well-lighted place staffed with helpful people and full of books I could read for free. I learned how to use computers in a public library, and I was always allowed to belong there in a way that was freeing and unstructured and without expectation.

Finding my book on library shelves is still a pretty emotional experience for me.




My final appearance on this trip to SoCal was at a private book club in Redlands. This group turned out to be all women, one of who was a former college professor of mine. I’ve never been at a table with so many people who read my book before. It was overwhelming in so many fantastic ways—they had specific questions and conspiracy theories and wanted to needle me about the sequel. I was drunk before my first glass of wine. They were incredible, and it was without a doubt one of my best experiences as a writer thus far.

I came home with about a day to spare before leaving for NorWesCon and the Philip K. Dick award. But that is a story for next time.



Posted in Books, Cleverness, Family, Love, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments