The last night at Burning Man, Sunday, the Temple burns. It has been a quiet place amidst the noisy celebration, where images and words, prayers and tears, hope and loss have all been, with contemplation and care, alone or in pairs, carefully given to the keeping of the Temple. Given, knowing that on Sunday, it will burn away in flames and escape freely into the air as smoke and cinders.

Monday afternoon, and there I am squatting in the ashes, sifting through to retrieve and remove nails and wire, finding pieces of tile and other released keepsakes amidst the ash. I am a tiny one of the myriad who over many days will clean the playa, true to the ‘leaving no trace’ agreement the Burning sensibility has embraced.

I am dressed as I had been in the morning, the last morning to ride through the now breaking up and disappearing streets, completing the quest to ride every street before it or we left. I dressed to feel the air on as much bare skin as I could, to soak up as much of the sun as possible without damaging myself, free of dress codes. This is how it has been all week.

Today it is a tiny ‘barely over the perky bits’ fluffy purple bra held together by strings; a white gauzy, no buttons, long sleeved, hip length blouse (or jacket?); and small, very pink, sort of jockey style knickers, with artfully dangling black garters and the playboy bunny whitely astride my crotch. This is all topped by a floppy hat and footed in socks and boots.

The essence of Burning Man. Structures endowed with meaning, wild play with the spiritual, burning it all away and cleaning up. All the while free to be and do it as your individuality creates itself for your reality.

For me, this time became the heart of Burning Man. That day after the Temple burn, (where together my daughter and I were able to continue the process of saying of goodbye to her grandfather, my father), in the still warm ashes under the sun, picking out the MOOP (Matter Out Of Place), all of which has to be removed from the playa when at last everyone leaves.

It was very quiet there at the remains of the Temple. The usual wide range of people, (as is a given at Burning Man), all focused and sifting through the rubble, returning MOOP to neatly organized piles – nails here, wire here, metal bolts over there, charred timbers in that pile and general other rubbish in the box. Sometimes there was a cry of delight, a gasp of surprise, as some small shattered gift was found in recognizable form – a piece of tile it’s remnant boldly declaring ‘love and peace.’

I became very aware that I was giving back, in prayer as I, and others, with great attention to detail and under no orders to do so, voluntarily cleaned.

The playa was slowly being denuded of the human-made structures and many of the brightly lit cars were also moving out, looking almost normal, (except for the upside cow!) their lights off and the music silenced. Tents and other structures coming down, piles of wood appeared at designated locations, again each clearly labeled for reuse/recycle  – 2×4 with nails, 2×4 no-nails etc. The huge metal burn cauldrons around the circular Esplanade  stepped into their own, taking in the burn-ables and releasing the transmuted into the air with smoke and heat.

People were more subdued now, moving a little slower, a gentle mist of exhaustion, sadness and goodbye lingering over the light made dusty by the lines of departing vehicles.

I rode out to the perimeter one more time. The playa beyond looked as it had when I traveled out there first full day after I arrived. Clear, clean, huge and devoid of human trace. Looking back at the now almost silent city of Black Rock, its activity all about removal and cleaning, I felt a huge wave, an explosion of gratitude.

This was worthy of all the gratitude that I could muster. A list streamed through me: To the people who make this possible, (who knows what they do and for how long before, during and after.) To the artists who labor with love and determination not just to create their art but also bring it to the playa (and with what creativity and ingenuity surely to get some of it there!) To the friends and family with whom I traveled and camped, particularly a wondrous daughter who chose to spend time with me.

Most of all, gratitude to the beautiful landscape, the hills that have stood for eons looking down on this ancient white flatland, and the sky and her sun who, regardless of what we do or don’t, will be there through dust and rain. Finally, beyond all of that, gratitude to and for  this beautiful planet in which I live.

I pedaled back across the rapidly clearing playa, weaving through now unrecognizable streets as the landmarks and noises I had used as beacons disappeared and I vowed that next year I will dedicate days after the Temple burn to the clean up. I hadn’t this year because I did not know that this is what would happen at the end, didn’t even think of it.

I had not imagined the scale of everything at its height of creative activity, so how could I even begin to assess the depth of the cleaning up afterward?  I did not know what my experience would be on a physical auditory plane, so how could I have anticipated the spiritual component? I surely did not consider that I would be in such a state of grace, as I gave back, nail by nail, charred wood board by charred wood board, the gift I had been given.

For it is in restoring that which had been given to us to dance and sing on, explore and wonder and grow in, and to burn on, the true spirit of Burning Man happens. It is not the hedonistic creative playground with its techno lid of sound (all of which I Loved). The spirit is in the sparse, clean canvas we leave when we go.

I have come to truly feel what gratitude is and can now articulate it, recognize it more clearly in other areas of my life. The feeling I called ‘gratitude’ has been but dimly felt and known when taken beside this opening for me.

Gratitude: the gift of receiving, the gift of giving. I received so much and squatting in the ashes in my pink playboy-bunny knickers, I was fortunate enough to give.

Gratitude is not something you owe or have to do. It is not a debt. It is a spontaneous felt and manifest response, given freely without expectation of return. So it is not in return or for return. It is simply participating in that circle in which we live. Gratitude.

And isn’t that the heart of all real art? The pure expression of creative spirit? To give and receive? We receive the inspiration, we give the art… after each gift is made, the canvas is clean. We start again.

We are in grace. We are in gratitude.