Burning Man, Revisited (Via Other People’s Photos)

Over the past few days, photos from people returning from Burning Man have started popping up in my Facebook feed. I looked through a couple of the galleries and noticed myself feeling that strong pull again, touched with the wistfulness of not having gone. YOU MISSED OUT ON A LOT, the photos said.

But then after a bit I noticed something else: Everything about Burning Man looked exactly the same. The camps looked the same. The art looked the same. The people and the clothing they wore looked the same. I saw cars made over into whimsical rolling art. I saw big sculptures with people climbing on them. I saw people in dust masks and people in steampunk and people in pink hot pants. I saw big soundsystems with beautiful people dancing in front of them.

And I don't mean to disparage any of it, or to suggest that it wasn't a profound experience for those who went, or even to assert that I wouldn't have enjoyed it. I'm not trying to be arrogant here. What I'm saying, though, is that after the initial sense of OHMYGOD I SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE went away, it became all the more clear that my decision to not go this year was the right one. All of the sameness in those photos said to me that if I want something different out of the Burning Man experience, I need to bring a different me out there.

And while I'm a substantially different me from where I was a year ago, I know I haven't gone far enough yet. Another year of the process of change, approached with a little attention paid toward returning to the playa: that should do the trick. That's when a return to Burning Man will make sense.

Labor Day

In honor of Labor Day, a holiday that celebrates the achievements of the Labor Movement in the United States, I'm going to take today entirely off from publishing and...oops.

Well, since I'm here anyway, I will I take a moment to comment on how deeply ironic it is that Burning Man, which relies on the volunteer labor of tens of thousands to make a bunch of a money for a tiny cadre of people on its board, is held over Labor Day weekend.

To my friends who are coming off the playa today: may its magic have outweighed its contradictions.

Contradictions, Self-Diminishment, Greed

So if Burning Man's great magic is the liberation of the imagination across its whole society, its great failure is more prosaic. Everything that Burning Man really is--the art, the theme camps, the music, the costumes, the parties, the classes and workshops and events and rituals--is created by the people of Burning Man as gifts for the other attendees. Lurking behind all of this is BMorg, which provides the infrastructure. A substantial part of the ticket price goes to a small cabal of people within BMorg, who pay themselves as the "creators" of Burning Man.

For all of Burning Man's anti-capitalist/anti-commercial pretensions, nothing could be more typical of amoral/immoral capitalism than the few profiting mightily from the hard work of the many.

I propose that it is exactly this aspect, this ugly contradiction right at the heart of everything that Burning Man is, that has kept it from having the broader positive cultural impact that so many of us used to believe it could.

In the Echoes of My First Burn, A Vision

Though I still recall it with awe and a deep sense of magic, the jolt of energy I felt upon first setting foot on the playa no longer strikes me as especially surprising. You bring tens of thousands of creative-minded people to a place as inhospitable and remote as any in this country and free them to explore their imaginations, joyfully and without fetter, and it's no wonder at the intensity of energy that results.

The implications for what is possible when we free our greatest selves is pretty staggering.

It was late January or early February of 2006, and I was still very much aglow from the experiences of my first Burn. I was flying from Oakland to Burbank after a few days visiting friends I'd made at Burning Man. I had a window seat on the right side of the plane, and as we came in to land I saw a glacier of headlights creeping down Mulholland Pass on the 405. I have never forgotten the sight. It was like witnessing a vision. I said to myself, Surely we can do better than this.

The utopian drive of Burning Man in a nutshell: Once you have witnessed what creative energy, properly harnessed, can accomplish on a grand scale, you no longer see the world in the same way. Our intractable problems come to seem like failures of imagination. Limitations fall away. You say, Surely we can do better than this. And you aspire to make it so.

Thank God We Finally Got Rid of, You Know, Them

Everyone I know who's attending Burning Man this year should be out there by now, leaving the rest of us free to speak about stuff.

Feeling any regrets about not going?

No. I made my decision and stand by it.

What would it have taken to get you to go?

A gift ticket. I didn't want to give BMorg $390.

Does that kind of thing happen?

Yes. It's never happened to me, though.

What if some millionaire gave you a ticket right now? Would you go?

She'd have to fly me in on her private plane, too. I wouldn't do the charmless 1,200-mile drive to the Black Rock Desert right now.

So if you know of some filthy-rich person looking for someone who'd make an excellent addition to their camp, tell her I'd be happy to pack light.

How are you doing with the feeling of being called?

I'm still feeling the call. I was in downtown Boulder Saturday night and I saw a couple dressed in Burner attire. ("Why aren't you on your way to the playa?" I asked in my head.) The sight of them got me envisioning what it would have been like to be there right then--I imagined the temperature and the dryness and the quality of the light and the cacophony of the place. At that moment, Burning Man wasn't even officially open yet, but you can rest assured it was already hopping.

Are you sure you aren't feeling any regrets?

I thought it through and made my decision. No regrets.


But the way I'm still feeling called says to me that I should plan to go in 2016.

A trip to the Burn takes a ton of energy, time and money. Now I've got a year to put together a plan worthy of the investment.

Three Gifts for My First-Timers, Part III: Welcome Home

If the Greeters are doing their job, the first words you will hear when you pull up to the Greeters' Station will be, "Welcome home."

And if your Burn is everything I wish it to be for you, you will, after two or three days of acclimatizing, find yourself deeply, truly at home, in a way that you have rarely, if ever, experienced before in your life. That's what you see in the eyes of people when they come off the playa for the first time. That stunned and joyous openness.

I left the playa after my first visit and immediately planned to return. I said I'd never not go again. And yet two years later I only ever glimpsed that magic, and by 2008 it seemed better not to go.

As I lived with it, "Welcome home" came to take on an unpleasant connotation. If I only found myself "Home" for that one week every summer, then where was I the rest of the time? The statement risked implying that we were supposed to live for that one week a year, and too many people seemed to do exactly that.

So here I'm going to give you something that no one out there was able to give me, something that took me many years to understand. You may find yourself Home out there because the magic there is very real, but the Home you find yourself in isn't out there. It's inside you.

Welcome Home.

Three Gifts for My First-Timers, Part II: Balancing the Scales of Gifting

You already know that gifting is a huge part of Burner culture.

I don't remember if I was told to bring things to give my first year, but if I was I didn't know what one would give that made any kind of sense. When I was drafting this piece, I remembered for the first time in forever that I did give things that first year, but what I gave I was given--I helped a couple of my campmates put the pins in the buttons that they'd made, and they gave me a whole handful to give away, and I did, all week long. They were great buttons, and people liked them. Ten years later, I still have two of them pinned to the Camelbak I brought that year.

But the major form of gifting on the playa isn't the little things people give you. It's the big things. It's the art installations and the theme camps and the art cars and the sound camps, all the hundreds and thousands of hours of work that make Burning Man what it is.

I urge you not to get too involved in giving your first year. For a gift to balance out energetically, it needs to be received. It needs to be received graciously.

Thousands of people have put in thousands of hours to make Burning Man into the wonderland that it is, and though you have heard stories and though you have seen pictures, you have never been before, and most of the people who've gone to such trouble to give such wonders did it because they too went out to the playa and were blown away by what they found out there. They wanted to give back.

For your first year, go out and soak it in. Find the things that delight you. The best gift you can give your first year is to balance the energy.

Open yourself to receiving that which will delight you.

Three Gifts for My First Timers, Part I: Intention

My first year I got connected to my camp's mailing list, and through it I pre-connected with a few people. My not-yet-friend Kyle stepped forward and asked me a simple question that mattered so much. He asked, "What are your intentions for your Burn?"

His question offered me a solid framework to have an amazing experience. There is magic at Burning Man, magic enough to change your world for the better. If you can set an energetic intention for the experience, you are much more likely to be able to tap into that magic. As the saying goes, The playa provides. By setting your intentions ahead of time, you maximize the possibility that you can direct (somewhat, anyway) what it provides.

Three Gifts for My First-Timers: Introduction

"Maybe you should," said Dawn. "Sounds like an adventure."

Well, sure. But to what end?

That's not a question I usually want to ask when I'm talking about an adventure. Adventure--stepping, be it gingerly or boldly, into the unknown--qualifies as its own end. I admit that's something I've struggled to explore. All too often, I've chosen to wait tentatively on the sidelines of life, to my obvious detriment.

But with respect to Burning Man, it's a little different. I've been five times. Yes, of course, every year is its own adventure, but at the same time I have a pretty good feel for what the flavor of that adventure would be. And at this point the benefits of simply embarking on that adventure--throwing my stuff into a duffel bag, like I did ten years ago--isn't going to outweigh the costs in money, time, and energy.

Which is why I've been trying to express my idea for getting myself back onto the playa. It's calling me. But I know I need to offer more than just my presence there.

This isn't new. I recently found an email to my friend Ken from August, 2010. I wrote:

So I sold my Burning Man tickets on Friday. I kept getting messages from the universe telling me to take this year off, and finally I listened. It felt like I made the right choice, but I've been having little flashes, like visions, of life out on the playa, and it's making me mourn a little. An art car trundling past, some unknown DJ playing amazing thumping dubstep1; the midday sun beating down; weaving my bicycle through throngs of people; the way the light comes down at the middle of Center Camp--disconnected discrete moments and when each arises I feel a pang of loss. It may be the right choice but I'm going to miss it.

I felt this year that I needed to bring more than just myself and my self out to the playa. I needed to give back in some serious way, but that way never revealed itself.

This year, too, I will feel those pangs. And what I said next--"to give back in some serious way"--that's what I still need to do before I go again. So here I am.

As promised in yesterday's Refill, I will start by giving a few things to my first-timers, that they may find the pleasure and wonder and joy during their first visit to the playa that I did on mine.

1 Back in 2010, dubstep could still be amazing.

One Might Conclude that My Relationship with Burning Man Is a Bit Complicated

I've written something like 8,000 zero-draft words related to Burning Man in the past two weeks, and yet each day I've been finding it almost impossible to carve out a piece to publish.

Maybe it'd be easier if I threw up my hands in defeat, stopped writing, and just started packing. Surely that path would lead to a story or two...