Welcome Home, Again

So, are you back? Are you all the way back?

Our guess is, probably not. Because it’s more than likely that you’ll never come all the way back from Burning Man. Things happen out there that tend to change you profoundly. … We don’t want to get overly cheesy or preachy on the subject, but if you had the kind of experiences that routinely happen out there in Black Rock, then  it’s likely that the way you see things, and the way you see yourself, and the way you let yourself be seen, have changed.

Who knew you could be so spontaneous? Who knew you liked to dance so much? Who knew you could talk to so many new people?  Who knew that all the gifting and openness and joy could have touched you the way it did? Who knew that you’d be so moved by simple but repeated acts of kindness?

Welcome to the post-playa club, you Burner you.

Here’s a prediction: There are going to be subtle but persistent reminders of the desert popping up when you least expect them.  They’ll be as mundane as getting a whiff of the playa when you turn on the heater  in the car. And they’ll be as meaningful as when you  remember what you were like when you were being your best self out there.

So no, coming all the way back from Burning Man may not be possible.

But still, you’re back. You are back in your world, your job, your life. You have your “responsibilities.” But maybe you have a slightly different way of looking at things.

So this is about what you might have learned out there, and what you can take back with you, and maybe what you’ll bring next time. You learned a thing or two, and again, they ranged from the mundane to the … well, we shy away from words like “profound,” but maybe you learned some more significant things, too.

For example, we learned (or were reminded) that peanut butter has remarkably powerful restorative properties.

Many of you eat far far better than we do. This is not news: Food is sustenance to us. We recognize and enjoy good food, but our world does not revolve around growing our own produce, making our own pasta, or inventing things in the kitchen with whatever happens to be on hand (because honestly, there is very rarely anything on hand.) These are not things we are necessarily  proud of.

But out there … out there … my goodness.  Grilled elk? Why, that’s very good, thank you. Barbecued eggplant with grilled garden-gown tomatoes? Delicious. And this doesn’t fall in the category of haute cuisine, but being handed a slice of pizza when you are tired and hot and hungry and ornery … well, that combines kindness with culinary art, and it is a fine thing. So thank you for that, mysterious but kind person.

In short, we were reminded, or remembered, that we might be missing out on something. And this is both a small lesson, and a large one.

We found out how we like to dress at Burning Man…. We’re not a big costume person, although we know that many, many, MANY of you are. You like furry leg warmers and leather vests and elaborate headdresses. You like chains and tattoos and dressing all in one color. You like dressing provocatively without having to worry about it, because everyone else is doing the same thing. You redefined  sexy. And you did it all because of the liberating lack of self-consciousness there, and you found out what actually made you comfortable with yourself.

We learned that moisturizer is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because in that environment your pores develop a seemingly unquenchable thirst.  But bad, in the sense that playa dust on top of moisturizer can create body sludge. Ew.

We remembered, or learned again, how important it is to have a sense of gratitude. Look at where we were! Look at what we did! My God! … So any heat, or lack of sleep, or short nerves, or long bike ride, or dusty whiteout, shouldn’t get in the way of that sense of gratitude for something that ultimately is so short, so temporal.

Again, not to get too preachy about it, but we are not here for long, kids. We strut and fret our hour upon the stage, and then we go away. It all goes away. The heat, the light, the art, and oh … the people … they all fade away. Back to where they came from, as we all do.

Yes, there are DJs and flames and art cars and all-night wanderings and beautiful dawns, but Burning Man ultimately reminds us of  our temporality. That is what is at the root of its special poignancy. We’re not here for long. We have this thing for awhile, and then it will be gone. We can lay on our backs in the Temple and listen to the chimes and stare up at the sky, and then it will be burned to the ground.

We may be in the minority here, but we do not look at Burning Man as a model for the rest of our lives.  We can’t forget or suspend belief in the fact that it takes place for a certain time, in a certain place, and then it will end. We wouldn’t even try to persuade or convince anyone that we have found a better way.

BUT … but … we can take that week and have it serve as a metaphor for how we want to live. If  we decide that for that week we will live with strength and grace and beauty, then we are better for it, and so is our community.

Burning Man only lasts for a week. Another small reminder, and another large one.

We learned, and learned over and over,  that there is no better thing in the world on a hot, dry afternoon than an iced chocolate mocha from the Center Cafe.

We learned that you can’t necessarily spot Larry by the Stetson anymore.

We learned that it’s not always a good idea to make plans to meet  for dinner, because at dinnertime the light is going to be beautiful and you are not going to want to leave it, no matter how alluring and comforting the good food and the good people will be.

We learned, or realized, that there are other, more pleasant, maybe more beautiful, certainly far easier places to visit. But  there is no other place where you will find so many people pulling for you, wanting you to be who you are and who you want to be.  It’s a place where acceptance comes easy, and getting a taste of it makes you want to bring it back to the places where it doesn’t.

We learned that it really helps to FEEL clean, even if you aren’t exactly all the way clean. So pouring water on your head, or rubbing yourself down with those wipe-y things,  or changing your socks (if you wear socks) in the middle of the day can be really refreshing.

And we learned that even after  going eight times, we’d miss it if we didn’t go. It didn’t  get old. It’s the same, but it’s different. It used to be wild and wooly and free-wheeling, and now there are two Rangers on every corner and tickets will sell out. You used to hear about it by word of mouth, and now the Washington Post says its mainstream.

We went out there early to document and try to help the people who build the city. But we had to leave before the big burns, and that was weird. It was like three weeks of foreplay with no happy ending. It was a little like not being there at all.

But we were thankful that the interwebs could deliver a live feed of the Trojan Horse burning, and that we could find footage and pictures of the Man and the Temple being burned. But all that made the longing worse, not better. (Even if there were no lines during our exodus.)

So we’re back now, and have been for a little while. Most of our stuff is washed and put away. (And it’s incredibly helpful to keep all your Burning Man stuff together, right there where you’ll need it next year.) And we’re struggling to reconcile ourselves with this other life, this other world. But we’re remembering what it was like while we were there, and we’d love it, really love it, if you told us some of the things you learned, or remembered, while you were out there, too. All insights, great and small, would be appreciated.

And welcome home, again.

About the author: John Curley

John Curley has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 he spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. John is a longtime newspaper person and spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since leaving the Chronicle in 2007, he was a contributing editor on Blue Planet Run, a book about the world's water crisis, and for the past two years has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has also started an event and editorial photography business, and is also working on a book about the "Ten Dollar Doc" from Arco, Idaho, which will make a lovely film someday.

57 thoughts on “Welcome Home, Again

  • I continue to be enticed to go. And then, I see how commercial it has become. I live and love this without having to attend a gathering that I have to pay for. I respect how this has changed lives. Try something new, oh ye who have attended this so many years. As with anything that has to do with out growth process we need new experiences. This is not a FREE spirited event any longer. It is an expensive carnival in the desert. If you are searching for answers. Look within.

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  • I returned to the playa this year after 8 years away. I had gone 4 times in the later 90s and early 00s. While all of the critiicsms of the event have some merit (Hell, we thought it was getting too commercial in 2003!), I took a break, gained perspective, reframed what Burning Man meant to me, and returned.

    This year I returned to Burning Man a different person. I found Burning Man to be as profound as ever. Profound in all of the many ways noted in these posts, plus one more. I enoyed serving as a playa vetran for Virgin Burners. Seeing Burning Man through the fresh eyes of lifelong friends at their first Burn was supremely gratifying.

    It turns out that I didn’t need to walk away forever, but a break served me well. I will return. Probably not every year, maybe not even next year. But, for sure.

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  • It was the most freeing and liberating experience of my life.
    I saw the best in humanity.
    Finally understand what it means to give – without want of return.
    I learned that only I care, nobody else, me and my ego.
    I found how I create and recreate my reality wherever I go.
    I learned that there are no wrong choices – only choices.
    I learned that if I surrender to now and what is that I am much happier.
    I got to see I attract similar things over and over again. And when I began to shift, so did what came to me.
    I noticed the more I let go, the faster things would happen.

    It was my first burn after wanting to go for about 10yrs.
    I came back and quit my job, and changed the circles I was in. Now on an artistic path to follow my dreams – and I am so much happier.

    Love you

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  • My very first impression of BM was it was like the bridge scene in Apocalypse Now. It has indeed changed me. Thank you to Hair of the dog. I got to play drums there. Honored to be a virgin no more. Everyone was so fine. My awe and heartfelt thanks to those who put in so much work to make it happen. I will always be a burner now.

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  • I just found this blog. So cool. Everyone who posted is so awesome. Thank you.

    2006 and 2009 were amazing Burns, and when I got back, I wrote mile-long blogs about my great experiences. My 2011 Burn was tough work, and when I got back, I didn’t want to say anything. But I didn’t want to waste the learning experiences, so I blogged this list of things I learned (or re-learned).

    1. Shit happens. Good, bad, stuff that appears bad but is actually good – it all just happens. Sometimes there is no one to blame or to thank. The playa giveth and the playa taketh away. There may or may not be any reason or hidden message behind it. The trick is to roll with it and respond in such a way that you get where you need to go.

    2. Work doesn’t do itself. When it’s 35C (95F) outside, and the plan is to get 6 more domes up before sundown, then get some water and electrolytes and grab a tool. Figure out what has to be done first and do that. Find out what has to be done next and do that. No sense in crying about it.

    3. Take breaks. No sense in killing yourself over this stuff.

    4. Put sunscreen everywhere. The sun is not very selective about where it shines. This includes parts that may dangle out of shorts while sitting cross-legged. (And ladies: parts that may dangle in loose-fitting shirts.)

    5. When people gather from all over the world for a week of fun together, it’s best to appreciate the immediacy and impermanence of the experience. Enjoy it now. Love the people now, in this moment. You may never see them again. The playa giveth, and the playa taketh away. This happens in the Default World, too. Enjoy what you have right now – you never know how long you will have it.

    6. When a pretty girl thinks you’re sexy and wants to make out with you, don’t argue. Moisten those lips and start smooching.

    6a) When the unexpected happens, whether good or bad, our first instinct is to ask “why.” Why did my friend just take off and leave me stranded? Why did a stranger just hand me an ice cold beer and walk away? Why does this pretty girl think I’m sexy and want to make out with me? Sometimes we’ll never know why. The thing is, it happened, it is happening, and now all I can do is respond.

    7. Sometimes when someone wants to argue, there’s no sense in trying to make peace. Saying something or not saying something, apologizing or defending, it makes no difference. They want to yell at you for something they’re feeling. Sometimes all you can do is let them vent until they’re done.

    8. There is more than one way to get to Reno. Pick one and go. There is no perfect route.

    9. If you don’t want to lose something, label it and lock it. You could be at the International Convention of Monks Against Theft. Lock it up anyway.

    10. When aforementioned pretty girl finds another sexy man to spend time with, appreciate the gift of time already spent together, let go and move on. (See also points 5 and 6a above.)

    11. The body changes in the desert. Don’t just eat and drink what you’re used to consuming. Eat and drink what the body is asking for right now. Sometimes that isn’t much of anything. Gatorade and beef jerky are great in the desert.

    12. When you’re feeling really hot but not sweating, ask for help immediately. I was lucky to have 3 nurses and an icepack within reach. (Yes, we had icepacks in the middle of the desert. Chalk that up to foresight, a fridge and a solar panel.)

    13. Throw all those petty grievances and resentments into the fire. You don’t need them any more. Burn it all. And then there is only gratitude and joy.

    14. Who I’m choosing to be right now is more important than what’s happening to me. If I want to attract the right people and circumstances, I better get really focused on who I am and what I’m choosing.

    15. Life is hard sometimes. It’s hard to make perfect choices. It seems like, no matter what you do, someone won’t like it. We’re all doing the best we can with what we got. We’re all trying. So, cut some slack. Recognize that people are doing their best, even if they aren’t doing what you think they should be doing. Recognize that you’re doing your best as well, even if you’re not getting all the results you want. Forgive and let live. Be gracious. Be compassionate. You deserve a break and so do others.

    16. Everyone has love to give. Give them a chance to show it, and you will be surrounded by love.

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