Why Going To Burning Man is A Lot Like Finding Out You Have A Terminal Illness

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I figure, since I never really posted about Burning Man back when I went, that I should do it now. It’s been two years, for Pete’s sake. I started writing about this experience with a bit of poetic license here. A good chunk of some of my best friends on earth are returning from their annual pilgrimage in the desert right now. So, you know. It’s time.

Our Address

There’s an eency-weency part of me that feels like I’m breaking some kind of code by talking about this almost mythical subculture so frankly… but, so many people asked me what it was like afterward and it bothered me that I couldn’t produce a satisfactory answer. So, in an effort to remedy that, here goes.

There are stages.

Your first awareness that there even are stages is when you finally feel how oppressively hot it is. You look at all the veterans carrying on like it’s perfectly normal to walk around in arid 100-degree heat half-naked in swatches of leather, rubber, and fur, and covered head to toe in dust, and you raise your arms to the sky and you ask the heavens IS EVERYONE HERE RETARDED, OR WHAT?

The next thing that happens is you enter a state of speechless awe. You watch the city getting built. The city. It’s a real city. With lights and running water and roads. And street signs. And cars. And when the lights go down. Christ almighty. It’s like a carnival on acid. Now, I grew up in Northeast New Jersey, the neon capital of the US. I’ve seen my share of things that spin around lit with a thousand and one Christmas lights. Burning Man is an entire 40,000 square feet of carnival. One of the most surreal things you can do is get someplace up high in the middle of it all and just slowly spin around to take it all in. Miles of pulsating lights. And utter and total black darkness. It’s like Candy Cane Lane. To infinity.

So once you get accustomed to the heat, and to the fact that most people around you have the physiques of Greek statues (seriously, where are you people in my everyday life? I wouldn’t mind a little more eye candy during my commute, y’all) and that you might be the only muffin-topped A-cup for 500 miles, you try to find your groove.

The next thing that happens is that you start to get angry. Because you see that in just three days, a city has been built. And no governing body was there to tell it how to do it. No building inspectors (okay, there were some inspectors) trying to shut down your project because you didn’t install a handrail in the bathroom. Somehow, through the mantra of radical self reliance, stuff gets built. The place hums with activity. The generators hum, the music systems hum, the earth just sings. And when it’s all up and running, you get a little angry. You get angry because you think about how the whole earth at this point is just mired in red tape and that’s why our global creativity is so stymied. You think about how much could get done if there weren’t twenty levels of resentful middle-managers in bad ties playing cat and mouse with their underlings. You think about things like economics and health crises and war and you fume inside thinking about things like wasted time and talent.

I thought to myself, my GOD, if we can do this, why are the people of Darfur still living on international aid? If we can do this, why do we have people living in FEMA trailers still in New Orleans? Why, with all this collective ingenuity, can’t we put our heads together and in one WEEK, cross a major crisis off the world’s list of problems? I kept saying over and over in my head: we can solve world hunger. We can solve world hunger. We can solve world hunger. It’s not that hard. We can solve world hunger.

But then acceptance settles in and you start to relax a little. I realized that there needs to be space on this planet for the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. And who the hell was I to judge these people? For all I knew, they WERE solving world hunger in their spare time. And this was their one week off per year, and they were here, using the skills they used every day to solve world hunger to build geodesic domes and tiki bars instead.

I mean, there has to be a little bit of hedonism, right? It can’t be a utilitarian life we lead all the time, right? Not everything has to be number-crunching and problem-solving and self-sacrifice. We can ALSO put our heads together to build something beautiful in the desert just for beauty’s sake. Why can’t we get as much satisfaction in building an irrigation system in a developing country as we do staring up into the bright sun at a gleaming metal sculpture that took just as many people to assemble? Isn’t that community-building at its finest as well?

So, yeah, I calmed down. I saw it for what it was: an impromptu community, a city, built on the principles of do-it-yourselfness beautifully balanced with helping your neighbor out. THAT was a miracle to behold. I can’t say that I have ever experienced anything like that in my life. And I live in a pretty progressive city. But even Seattlites can’t decide to build a monorail or a toll bridge without hostility and legal battles.

One of the most wonderful things about Burning Man was how I ate. Or, how I didn’t eat. Being in 100 degree weather does something very beneficial to this sedentary North American: it makes me totally and completely unapologetically un-hungry. I packed myself a week of gluten free food: GF oatmeal for breakfast, rice crackers and nut butter and dried soup mix for lunch, and then boil-in-bag Indian meals and rice for dinner, a few bags of extruded corn and powdered cheesy goodness, some fruit juice, and some electrolyte tabs. Sure, it wasn’t terribly diverse, and when/if I do it again, I will DEFINITELY ignore all the advice about packing light and not packing perishable things and I will take my foodie ass to the store and stock up on live food. I was warned that fresh fruit would not last long in the desert, so I didn’t bring any. I brought Vitamin C tablets instead. But on the last day, THE LAST DAY OF TEN, UNIMAGINABLY HOT DAYS, I was offered an orange from a neighbor. A real live orange. It was cool to the touch because it had been sitting in a cooler of ice for ten days! The person offering the orange was trying to unload not just the orange but LOTS of other fruit from that cooler because she didn’t want to carry a full cooler back home with her. So, now I know. But, hey, that was the fastest five pounds I have ever dropped. I felt AMAZING in my body, lightweight and not bloated. Heat just relaxed all the muscles in my body. I felt invigorated and relaxed at the same time. I felt strong and fit. All the water I was drinking was helping flush things out, too, I’m sure.

You knew this was going to devolve into talk about my bowels, didn’t you? Of course you did.

Sidebar: One of the funniest things that happened was this: one of my hosts, as we pulled onto the grounds, said, “Ahhhhh, the Port-O-Potties! I never shit so well in my life as I do here!” I could not IMAGINE what the hell he was talking about. Between trying to rest only the most minimal part of ass on the seat and trying to keep my feet planted in the driest part of the floor, I couldn’t fathom being relaxed enough to just let it all go. But, to my great surprise, my friend was right. I, too, was as regular as a Swiss watch for ten days. Ten days of muscle-melting heat, tons of water, exercise, small meals, and NO white food will do wonders for your guts.

It was nice not to have to worry about carrying around a wallet. Or my cell phone. It was nice to think about staying alive in this whole new way. I have NEVER had to worry about dying before. And that was eye-opening. The most risky thing I have really ever done was to hike the very slippery 12-inch-wide steps of Wayhno Picchu 13,000 up feet in the air on a very foggy day. (Okay, I also skydived when I was 19, but even that felt more safe to me than the hike up Wayhno Picchu). For all that risk, though, I never thought about my own death. I had knowledgeable people with me, and I had proper clothing and food and safety gear. If anything was to happen to me, help would be very quick in coming. But Burning Man… this was a whole new thing for me. Death seemed a very distinct reality. Or, given my weak-ass constitution, at least a fainting spell or two, or maybe a helicopter ride to the hospital. I have never, ever had to be responsible for my own life in that way. Sure, no one was going to let me go hungry or wither up like a grape leaf on the desert floor or anything… but it was impressed upon me from the start that I was responsible for staying alive. This was not a co-dependent affair.

And I did okay. I mean, I stayed alive, obviously. But I also cultivated an ENORMOUS appreciation for what it takes to keep us, as humans, alive. I’m talking about the transport of agricultural goods across country lines and indoor plumbing and the relatively recent discovery of germ theory. Honestly. Take a moment and think about what it would be like to have to get every single drop of water you need in a day from a well. A well that’s not near your house.
Think about how much of your day would be spent fetching water.

It was nice to slow down and get back to basics (“basics” including costume changes and shots of vodka at 4 am). It was nice to use a pen and paper instead of a computer to write a letter to Mr. Burdy, which I did every few hours to update him on my experience. It was nice to rise with the sun and to be forced by the boiling temperatures inside my tent to go out and talk to people, to participate in this whole experiment.

And this is how Burning Man is also like having a terminal illness: once you’ve accepted your condition, you have to fully participate in the processing of your condition. If you want to heal yourself, you have to actively engage in healing. If you want to let it consume you, you can do that, too. Participating is very important to the culture of Burning Man. It was repeated over and over again in various online forums, and by my hosts, that I was not allowed to stand on the sidelines. However uncomfortable it was, I needed to let go of my hang-ups and social anxieties and be an active member of the community. This was not a spectator sport. This was not a peep show. This was a place to live for a week, and that meant I had to wash dishes and haul trash and dance and play and celebrate and trudge through windstorms and be filthy like everyone else. This was not a place to go and gawk at the freaks. This was an opportunity to negotiate an existence with perfect strangers in a harsh environment in a loving, fair, and conscientious way.

One thing that emerged from the whole experience was that, no matter where you go, archetypes exist. And whether you are living in a city of 2 million, or forty thousand, there are assholes, and there are saints. There are helpers, there are hinderers. There are people who take and people who give. Okay, the world doesn’t naturally cleave into just two halves, obviously. There is a strata out there: a whole spectrum of folks that make communities come together and work in really almost magical ways. And Burning Man is a microcosm of the macrocosm. One of the (only) things that shocked me was a series of fliers taped up inside the Port-O-Potties. The fliers warned would-be victims that “no means no” and that if anyone had been forced into sex while at Burning Man, there was a resource center in the city for dealing with that. Rape. At Burning Man. It happens. So, it wasn’t all peace and love and daisies. This was the world writ small. There were maybe more furry boots here than in an average random selection of the population, but there were the same percentage of aggressors and helpers and philosophers and doers as there were out there in the “regular” world. And there was something comforting about that.

Before I left home, I spent some time browsing online forums and reading articles written about Burning Man. I wanted to know what to expect before I went. The folks I went with encouraged me to gather as much information as I could so that I wasn’t overwhelmed when I got there. What I found was that written accounts usually fell into two very distinct camps: those written in this distant, vague and spacey way, and those written as warnings to the uninitiated. The vague and spacey recollections, usually peppered with inside terminology like “playa” and “cosmos” and “soul-rending” were clearly aimed at fellow Burners and it had the effect of irritating and isolating those initiates who were just looking for practical advice. And the haters, using these flowery accounts as evidence that the only people who went were burned-out drug users, just got booed off the Internet stage and told by commenters that they clearly “weren’t getting it” and that’s why they’d had a bad time. None of this was particularly helpful. As a matter of fact, all of them, the gripers and the woo-woo folks, did nothing to really explain what to expect. And that’s part of both the mystery and the beauty of Burning Man (and I hereby acknowledge that sentiment probably qualifies me for membership in the spacey-vague camp.) Here’s where the inevitable breakdown occurs: there are words for the physical experience of Burning Man: hot, unforgiving, exhausting, dry, fur-filled, interactive. There are less for the emotional experience of Burning Man.

You can’t really put into words what it feels like to have 40,000 strangers cooperate just because. Our world is so fractured; it’s probably been a long time since anyone’s felt that feeling, if anyone’s ever felt that feeling. There is an energy of intentionality in the air; most people are there to share, to be vulnerable. You feel raw and exposed because you, now, are part of that shared, vulnerable energy, but you also feel safe, like everyone wants to push you to your creative and emotional limit, but they also have your back in case you get scared. It’s a feeling you just don’t experience much outside of a spiritual community.

I think it’s because a big chunk of us, on a daily basis, have only the minimum required of us. Somehow, between the lessons of cooperation taught to us in very early childhood, and our foray into the “real world”, something more base takes over us and we become more animal than spirit. Burning Man calls on you to set aside your animal protectiveness and to exercise that spirit instead.

One of the reasons I love photographing hand-made signs around the world is because our response to our baseness is so raw, powerful and emotive. I love most those signs that imply someone has broken a rule, a rule the sign-maker believes everyone should just KNOW, like “don’t eat your co-workers’ sandwiches out of the office ‘fridge” or “don’t pee in the pool” or “please replace if you’ve just used the last of something”. Our world right now is designed to have us fighting each other in the streets over resources and we’re prone, at the end of the day, to look out for number one and number one only. We’re all vying for the same nut. And on top of it all, this same system of limitations ensures that there isn’t any time or energy to sit, be still, and design a space in which nearly everyone can be provided for without all the squabbling. (I’m headed over the cliff into full-on woo-woo territory, aren’t I?)

If I’m making it sound like Burning Man is this playground rules reductionist experiment, then I’m oversimplifying. Because there are real dangers and real elements to be fought against. Windstorms are no joke. Nor is the heat. Or not bringing enough water. Or not knowing how to say no. But imagine, if you even can, what it would be like to fight the elements all day instead of each other. Would it be a step back in time? Maybe. Would it be relieving to pit myself all day against something that does not have an agenda, like wind direction, instead of my fellow man? You bet it would. And it was.

There is a “gifting economy” at Burning Man and it works in magical ways. When your needs are met (because you have prepared in advance) you can then be pleasantly surprised at anything extra that comes your way. Sometimes that thing is a back rub after a day of hoisting heavy metal. Sometimes it’s a cocktail. And sometimes it’s a sip of water when you need it most, or a needle and thread to hem your costume, or the lending of a headlamp. When you come prepared to take care of yourself and to hand out gifts, everyone benefits. There are no expectations, so there are no disappointments. Anything over and above your basics needs are just bonuses. And imagine a week, instead of letdowns by people being inconsiderate, of bonuses.

Just like any other life-changing event (like dropping acid or going to a tent revival) Burning Man is all about what you bring to it. There’s just no other way to put it. People told me this before I left, but I didn’t quite know what to make of this. I just sort of pocketed the information like the slip of paper from a fortune cookie. I was sure I would take it out and examine it later and have it be applicable only in retrospect. I think, two years later, that wisdom is finally beginning to make sense.

The fur, the tattoos, the overt sexual overtones, the dreaded hair and the Mad-Max get-ups… these were the things that were supposed to shock me into an altered state. They didn’t. I grew up right outside New York City; I saw the players and the set of Burning Man every day of my life. The “look” was nothing new to me; neither was the abundance of art or the number of people or the primitive living conditions.

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The thing that took my breath away was how radically different my experience was once my defenses melted away. Once I removed, piece by piece, my denial, my anger, my resentment. All that was left was joy. And the understanding that I was stronger, and, in some ways, more vulnerable, than I had ever known myself to be.

In the Beginning II