I paid for the dream with six nightmares in a row in a haunted hotel in Reno.
Reno can be a sad place to return to after an ecstatic experience at Burning Man. The sunken faces of chain-smokers starring into the voids of glittery slot machines themed around magical animals, Ancient Gods, or just Lucky Number 7. Punctuated every now and then by a random alarm going off indicating one of the lost had scored a reprieve from the steady drip of pennies disappearing. In Vegas, I could imagine being swept up by the glitz and glamour of over-the-top heterosexual fantasy making gone bananas. The tuxedo-clad gamblers! The famous strip! The lights! The babes! Celine Dion! But Reno’s greatest attraction was the distant peaks of Tahoe, calling me away from the desert.
The hotel was the El Dorado Resort and Casino. I was sharing a room with my burner friends — our treat to ourselves after sleeping in tents on the desert floor of the playa for nine nights. The hotel was uninspiring, it’s greatest feature being an overly chlorinated swimming pool and too-small hot-tub crowded with sunburned burners relating their mind-bending experiences and networking opportunities they’d made at Burning Man.
In our shabby hotel room that smelled like cigarette ash bleached out of existence, we passed the time mostly doing whippets —filling balloons with nitrous oxide, inhaling them communally, lying back into our too-soft beds, and blasting off into inner space for fifteen seconds while mash-up jams by Bootie played off a dusty Bluetooth speaker. Then, we’d return to reality, giggling, while someone refilled the canister for the next round.
We fell asleep at 10 PM or so, our bodies train-wrecked from days of sleep deprivation, and then I began having the nightmares. I woke up moaning or crying out time after time but didn’t disturb my comatose roommates. I even had the nightmare where you wake up from a nightmare, still trapped in nightmare. At dusk, I woke once more half-screaming, the terror caught in my throat mid-glottal as I came to consciousness. I was ready to give up on the idea of sleep, when I tried one last time.
In the dream, I was holding a crystal chalice. It represented my life, beautiful and transparent. But I was gripping it as tightly as I could. I was holding onto the chalice with such intensity that the crystal was starting to fracture. It was breaking under my fingertips, and the more it cracked, the more I had to adjust my grip and squeeze it tighter to hold it all together. I thought my job was to hold the chalice, but really, I was just thirsty, and all I had to do was bring it to my lips and drink the water inside.
I woke to the sound of my alarm telling me to get my ass in gear for the Reno airport. I blinked myself awake and turned off the alarm, but instead of rushing to get ready, I looked out the window at the mountains far away.
I’ve spent 33 years feeling like my life is not enough. That I’ve failed to live up to my potential. It’s not that I don’t believe in myself, it’s the opposite — I do believe in my dreams and ambitions and talents, but I’m haunted by a feeling I haven’t achieved the promise of what I could be. I see myself as beautiful, but I’ve been pressing down on my heart and soul out of frustration that I’m not seen as beautiful by the people I want to impress. Interspersed moments of grandeur stand out as what I want life to be all the time: a standing ovation for a show I’ve produced, me entertaining good friends with bits and jokes around a campfire, climbing a pyramid of baseballs fused to baseball bats at Burning Man wearing a British flag as a crowd chanted, “You Win Burning Man!” below me. All of these are moments of external approval, and the dark side of them is the bitterness that comes when I’m not the center of attention and in moments of comparison with my peers achieving their dreams, imagining how it would feel if I was in their shoes. It’s a self-destructive cycle of never being enough, and in the month before Burning Man, it had started to break me down. I was telling myself I was done with being an artist, done with begging people to come to my shows, done with the hustle to ‘make it’ and the goal posts of what it meant to me to ‘make it’ changing as my peers did ‘better’ than I.
I saw all this in the metaphor of the crystal chalice. I was thirsty for a deeper connection to my life than the pitiful monologue above.
I normally return from the playa with grand pronouncements about how my life has changed forever. I come back to NYC crazed and full of revelations, raving to strangers at bars about how they need to go to Burning Man to transcend. This year, all I walked away with was: “Give Up!”
It was time to Give Up. On — first of all, needing to go to Burning Man. I felt done with it this year, and not only because my body couldn’t keep up with the stream of hard drugs and whippets. I felt like the most special part of the experience was laughing with my campmates, hanging out and shooting the shit in the desert. I felt relaxed at Burning Man, free of the gripping and tension I felt in New York — like I had permission to just fuck around and be Philip for a week. That was the greatest gift Burning Man could give me — art cars and raves be damned. And returning to Reno with this impending sense of “Well, I’m done!” seemed to free me of the burden of striving too hard. It suddenly felt like whatever happens is good by me. I have everything I need checked off already — all the basics of life: paying my rent, living in a beautiful home, raising a loving and slightly homophobic dog (she doesn’t like when I bring men over to sleep in her bed), having wonderful communities of friends and a loving family, running my own business, training and inspiring hundreds of aspiring comedians around the world how to create without fear and from a place of joy — all this is enough. I don’t need to pine after some imaginary stardom. And letting go of the gripping of the crystal chalice, I thought of all the things I don’t have that are actually important to drink up more: making space to fall in love, appreciating every moment I get to share my story (no matter the size of the crowd), the collaborators who have my back and with whom I want to create worlds, and my ability to own my sense of myself (warts and all) without needing others to see me in order for it to be real. And — above all — to not take anything too seriously or personally.
This was what it meant to “Give Up.” My friend Henry suggests I say, “Let Go,” but I think “Give Up” is funnier.
I packed my bags quietly, wrote a sassy note for my friends in the Reno hotel room who would be flying out later then me, and began my 12-hour trip home to New York. I didn’t speak to anyone the whole time. During the last 90-minutes of the flight, I started crying on the plane for no reason. I rarely cry — but something inside me was moving and making me feel deeply grateful for my life. And, because I’m a sucker, I then watched the last 20 minutes of Coco just to push myself over the edge into full-blown, ugly sobbing. It felt good to just be a hot mess.
I’ve recounted this story several times since returning to NYC, and I’ve realized that the dream loses some of its power every time I share it. It becomes less of a revelation in the telling and more of a memory of something that was important to me. I’ve spent my adult life sharing my whole life with audiences— publicly airing my inner thoughts to the point where my dad told me, “In my day, we kept these things to ourselves…or maybe told a therapist.” Perhaps I should have kept all this internal, so that the crystal chalice was my secret. But, I’m reminded of the fact that the whole dream came out of a feeling of: “Nothing is special and the fact that nothing is special is what is so magical about life.” If this dream fades too, well, that’s great — because I don’t need this dream to remain relevant in order to fuel my contentedness with life. I can be OK whether I’m feeling inspired or lost or jealous or grateful. A thought is a thought is a thought is just another thought. What really matters is the even keel as I steer my ship through adventures big or boring. As I take in all of my life, as it is, without wanting anything more than what I need.
Every self-help book I’ve ever read also declares that when you truly let go is when true abundance flows in, or at least when it seems to flow in. Who knows? I guess now I can find out.