I’ve always liked the Burma Shave sign that reads something along the lines of, “It isn’t that Burning Man is getting smaller, it is that you are getting bigger”
My dear fellow blogger, Mr. C. Magister has proposed a question regarding this year’s theme I believe is fairly summarized as: Are we truly a movement that even can partake in ritual due to our penchant for chaos?. I would not claim to be an expert on such things, and yes, Burning Man may be nothing more than a huge party in the desert, however, with all deference to my colleague in psychic crime up here, I would like to take the liberty to suggest that I suspect there is more to this Burning Man thing we’ve created than meets the eye. I don’t believe that ritual implies orderliness, but rather I believe that the Rites of Passage is more a concept of a transition from one state of being to another.
You never forget your first burn whether you return again to the playa or not. It makes an impression. When Mr. LH quotes the works of Arnold van Gennep and Raoul Vaneigem in this year’s theme, is it possible that those two tomes read together suggest, as in Rites of Passage, the movement from one status, through separation, transition and reincorporation, into another state of being and as Mr Vaneigem elucidates, on the whys and results of such a revolution of being.
Being a relative late comer and having arrived in a very Nebulous year, the longer I attend the less of a late bloomer I become and the more I appreciate the wild wind up to leaving for Black Rock City. But I remember being a tender neophyte full of anticipation. A veritable pre-initiate.
I like to think we are all at first beckoned by the Siren’s call of one of our more eccentric friend’s insistent beseechings of “You GOTTA check it out”. At the moment you make that preliminal decision to depart and traipse to some god forsaken dry lake bed of unforeseen consequence, the ritual of initiation begins and the journey there has been aptly explored by one or two of us up here and elsewhere. Plan, make, buy, load, get the hell out of dodge, leave your town behind to journey to somewhere unknown. It is just a roadtrip to make the celestial border jump from freeway to two lane to where the pavement ends and it is there that things become interesting.
You are off the road and right onto the Anteroom off the pavement where you begin splashing around in nihilist dust, then you approach the GATE, where one could conceivably imagine a magic portico of emperors where ‘“guardians of the threshold take on monumental proportions”. “Winged dragons. A sphinx, other monsters” are sometimes parked off by Will Call. It is a place where you don’t fuck with the people who fuck with you and if you do, you fail the test, you can’t pay the Stygian toll dumbass. Is this a ritual? I have no idea.
After GATE has impressed you with the fact that if you thought you were at some Kind Brother hippie vibe love circle jerk where we all sit around singing Kumbaya you were mistaken, and if you mess up you really *could* die, you drive into the Narthex where you learn your first rule is slow the fuck down as you receive your meditation on those Burma Shave signs. Then you are to the Greeters where you used to be pulled from your car if you were a virgin and lost your pants to be ass smacked several times then to have your provisions pilfered. Now I believe they ring a bell before pilfering your provisions. Welcome Home.
Once inside the City you realize that at every threshold there is another invitation to initiation.
You want Baptism? There is nothing that compares to a playa sized four hour dust storm of biblical proportions to readjust all your ideas of your place in the natural order of things. That in itself is a Rite of Passage because if you thought you wouldn’t be drinking out of a cup with playa in it or that you would keep your stuff clean you suddenly become a dirt person and practically eat the stuff. It takes on an aura of being a part of you. Dirty dishes? Ah, don’t worry, alkaline is a sanitizer.
You discover the serendipity of synchronicity aka the Playa Provides. You stroll and bike and ride art cars in our anarchist clown town. You experience that first Fireball that went off a little too close for comfort. You meet the wide wild eyed people with very dangerous toys. You may find love and lust in the dust. I remember the first time my camp mates said, “Take this can, you MOOP this section” and we all walked slowly, scanning the cracked ground for anything at all so we could take it home with us.
There is the “ritualistic wearing of special dress to free one’s self from taboos” that promenades the esplanade. You may perhaps undergo a quest for a playa name; the act of naming, like keeping your child’s name a secret until it is born, or releasing the name of next year’s theme from the playa by a tech jockey just before they are too wasted to use a command line. If coming out was separation, living in Black Rock City is transition and incorporation. And then there is that first early morning where you awake and survey your camp in the chill, pulling your clothes to you with the sky pink and blue streaks painting the dome above and you say, “Wow, that was a wild night”, and know that the nights will just get wilder from here on out.
Ritual? Well, Lamplighters, Golden Bulls and Processions, pulsating neon raves of gyrating bodies filled with the sound, hot rods, red parties, carnies and big time elementals like Fire and Water are all brought out there like deities manifested incarnate. The Temple Burn is another example of something that became an unintentional ritualized icon because our energy made it so.
Then comes the Burn when you step with intention from the Nave of the City into the Presbytery, and if the Man were in a cathedral, well, he’d be at the Aipse to the Altar. He is lifted earlier in the week at the Man Rise. When he burns we get the Man Fall. The next day the meditators and other acolytes wander around the still smoldering Man Pile, picking up pieces of the ONE TRUE MAN.
That Burn night you cross the playa in a City laid out by sacred geometry, out to a wooden Man built by craftspeople artists with a Masonic bent to The MAN himself, the Man, an icon, a totem you use all week to find your camp in relation, That night of grand processions and whirling electro luminescent anticipation is when an insane crazy swarming whirlpool of all of us intertwined feed upon the ritual and send out our energy telling the universe, look, there are good people here slouching towards paradise in the dirt.
The afterparty is thousands of people meeting and cross pollinating and manifesting patterns encoded into our DNA that have been there all along, but this freedom has created an environment to release them. Oh, and the blinkies oh the blinkies! Billions of blinkies and cacophony. But in the morning they are just another blinkie, winking and dying across the expanse.
Sad blinkie, so illuminated last night, Now you’re just MOOP.
But what of reincorporation?
Upon leaving, as you pass Greeters and the Gate at Exodus you think, maybe next year I’ll volunteer and one day YOU are at the Gate waiting for them to find your name on early arrival because you are building the greatest art project EVER to grace the playa, two weeks before the gates open. Or YOU are the one at Greeters welcoming everyone on your shift, ringing the virgin’s bells, knowing you gave them all a robust good initiation. YOU decide to bring your bus and infrastructure to your friends so they can paint the City because you genuinely love them. Or YOU are working to build the city, or working in the default world to create Burning Man all year round. And you become the friend who says, “You GOTTA check it out.”
And it dawns upon you that you’ve changed.
You go home and share your photos and experiences online and meet with your friends to plan next year and feel you’ve been happily separated from the default world that is obsessively using Holy Water like Purel because it is an isolated and enslaved and a Rapture ready commodified society. But you stepped through the portal into another realm and brought some of it back with you. Community allows you to see our species in a different light. Real community is always what the powers that be fear most. Isolation keeps us divided.
I like to think that we are a group that is aware of the absurdity of it all; the cosmic joke, aware of the game we play when we take things that enslave us and elevate them and GIVE them importance. Mr. Vaneigem writes that “Myopia and voyeurism are the twin prerequisites of man’s adaptation to the social mediocrity of this age.” Boredom is the great control but a “subterranean creativity cannot help but redefine our existence.” He suggests transcendence. Perhaps he has a point and perhaps that feeling you bring home with you is a seed that revolutionizes, if not only your life, the lives of those around you.
A friend of mine told me that Larry Walters, the guy who was known as Lawnchair Larry for putting 45 helium balloons on a lawnchair in 1982 and flying up into the flight paths of LAX eventually committed suicide. At that moment on that day when he left his launch pad, he’d done what he wanted to do his entire life, but he wasn’t understood by those around him afterward. My friend believes that had Larry gone to Burning Man and become part of our community, he’d be giving lawnchair rides out on the playa today.
And that is one of the reasons I volunteer for Burning Man. I see in my mind’s eye someone from back small town somewhere who has a creative streak, a weirdness streak, who isn’t a part of the cattle culture rat race and who comes to Black Rock City and says, “Oh My God, there is an entire City of people who relate to me, who I can learn from, who don’t judge me. Here I’m just another freak, another dreamer, another person who sees the big picture outside the small pond.” That someone who may experience a Rite of Passage out there and one day may be giving lawn chair balloon rides as a gift to their community, or something else amazing.
Yes, we are a chaotic bunch and it is a big party, but it is also a transformative event for many people, and that, I believe is very much a gift.