Sunday was the day to strut your dusty playa duds one more time before putting all those summer outfits away for the season. It’s getting chilly and wet now, and sparkle shorts and bikini tops won’t work so well when the days get short and the temperatures dip.
Sunday was the day of Decompression in San Francisco, and this gathering of the clan will have to do until the next time we get together in the desert.
That is, if there is a next time.
Oh, we’re not saying that there WON’T be a Burning Man in Black Rock City next year (even if the 2012 theme is still an enigma wrapped in a mystery.) And we’re not trying to be all melodramatic and end-of-times.
But there does seem to be an inordinate amount of self-examination and Burning Man examination going on, and we can’t say that it hasn’t made us thoughtful.
There were so many good and amazing things this year. By many accounts, it was maybe the best year ever — great weather, great playa, more and better art, one of the most amazing Temples ever, the Regionals stepped up … lots of stuff to like and to feel optimistic about.
But then, the grumbles: My friends didn’t go because they couldn’t buy a ticket. Or … the city has gotten too big! The Esplanade was so crowded! Or … there were soooo many art cars, I felt like I was missing out if I didn’t have one or wasn’t on one. … And the RVs! Everybody was in an RV! They were having their own good time and not being part of the community! That’s not Burning Man! Air conditioning is not Burning Man!
Sigh. It almost makes you want to wash out the playa dust and be done with it once and for all.
And that’s exactly what some folks are going to do. They’ve been to their last Burning Man. They won’t be going back. And you know what else? We honestly and sincerely think they’re doing exactly the right thing. And we wish them nothing but the best.
Because here’s the truth about Burning Man: it has changed. And here’s another truth: it will continue to change. It won’t ever be the same as it was in the ’90s, or five years ago, or six weeks ago.
And that’s good. It’s not a museum piece, or a stage play. It’s jazz. It changes. It’s not the same every time. It’ll never be like that again.
Gather round the campfire now, and let me tell you tales of the olden days, when there were only a few hundred people out there in the wilds, and they built and lifted the Man into place themselves, and they had to follow a map to get to the site, and they huddled in the shadow of their vehicles to escape to the heat. They weren’t quite outlaws, but they were definitely fringe players — jokesters, pranksters and artists and musicians.
But here’s another thing: Not all of the old timers had the experience of a lifetime. Some of them were miserable and out of sorts and felt disconnected from the other people there, who all seemed to be loving everything and were being fabulous. They didn’t know if they fit in, they didn’t know if they were doing it right, and they weren’t exactly sure of just how to act under the circumstances. And yes, there were even a few people who were just along for the ride.
Does that sound familiar? Did you have moments like that this year? Of course you did. That part hasn’t changed. It was always better last year. And it’s always been crappy for all the people some of the time.
Burning Man always has been an event for the people who have the time and money to be there. Are there more trust-fund babies in the population now, proportionally speaking? Maybe. Maybe not. But there are still people there who have to scratch and claw to come up with the dough to make it happen.
So what’s to be done?
We think the people who run Burning Man figured out a long time ago that all you can do is set the stage, and the rest is going to happen on its own. You can try to direct things, orchestrate them for a good outcome, but you can’t control what happens. You can try to lay out a city that fosters community, but you can’t make it develop.
The whole point, the whole essential point is that there ISN’T the kind of control that tries to make, and keep, Burning Man a certain thing. The event has been allowed to change, to grow, to be organic. Lots of people have tried to anticipate what’s needed to allow a certain kind of magic to happen, but then they have to sit back and watch what actually does happen.
And things take a left turn sometimes.
For all the “leave no trace” proselytizing, there is plenty of trash that gets left behind.
For all of the talk of radical self reliance, we still see people who have instead a radical sense of entitlement.
And for all the talk of fostering community, we know there are plenty of people just looking for an easy lay.
Even Sunday, at Decompression, some bright lights thought that glass Christmas ornaments and sprays of confetti would make wonderful additions to Esprit Park. Of course, they didn’t have to clean it all up, and didn’t think much about the people who did.
But there were still dozens and dozens of people who had signed up to clean the neighborhood the next day — in the rain, we might add — and somehow what happens at Burning Man motivates involvement like that.
We talked to Kelvis, a chef who put on a fabulous dinner for a VIP group out there a couple of years ago. He knew what he was up against — lack of resources, a distracted all-volunteer staff, the lure of the event. And yet he pulled it off, his whole group pulled it off, because they were energized and motivated by the challenge of contributing, of maybe playing a small part in accomplishing something big. They believed they were doing a good thing, and it showed.
It’s going to sound trite and simplistic, and maybe that’s just the way we roll, but Burning Man is going to go its own way. … It’s going to go the way the people want it to go, and that’s not anything to get riled or disappointed or disaffected about.
We like gifting. We like a non-commercial society. We like feeling that we can do whatever we want (without impeding others from doing the same). We like the rituals, we like being, or trying to be, our best selves. We like the random people we meet who turn out to have amazingly relevant insights to share.
We like it. Granted, it’s not the same as it used to be. But it hasn’t worn off. We still feel excited and energized by thinking about the contribution we can make. We won’t go to be entertained, we’ll go to be the entertainment.
We still don’t know of anything that brings so many fun, thoughtful, creative, supportive and appreciative people together. Are there some assholes around? Yes there are. But we’re willing to bet that there were some assholes around in ’91, too. Maybe they were hostile or aggro or cynical. And maybe they were looking to get something and weren’t very interested in giving anything. And they came away from Burning Man not liking it much, either.
The dislikers have always been with us, and they always will be. But some people will discover that the spirit and the atmosphere and energy that they find at Burning Man will have an effect on them, and they’ll go with it, even be nurtured by it.
Others will remain untouched. And that’s ok too.
As Burning Man changes, those it touches will be different from those it once touched. Or those that it once touched will need to be touched in a different way. And that’s not to say that they have lost their humanity or their vulnerability or their hearts have hardened, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re just thrill-seekers, looking for a new hit.
It just means that Burning Man is not working for them anymore.
Burning Man isn’t a lifelong commitment — at least, not the part of Burning Man that says you have to get a huge group of people together in the desert and wear funny clothes and burn a bunch of stuff. But the other stuff, the desire to leave commercialism behind, to include all who wish to be included, to take care of your own shit, to gift and be gifted — well, these things might stick with people, even if they’ve decided to not go back to Burning Man.
And that’s not a bad thing.
As you leave, though, please don’t make me feel bad or guilty for still liking Burning Man. Because I still get to do it the way I want to do it. If I want to, maybe I’ll be in an RV. If I don’t want to, or can’t swing it, maybe I’ll be in a tent.
Maybe I’ll be with a huge group of people in a theme camp on the Esplanade, or maybe I’ll be in walk-in camping, enjoying all the glitter and glow from afar.
Maybe I’ll be with the sparkle ponies at Pink Mammoth, or maybe I’ll be having tea at the perimeter fence.
But not matter how I try to do it, big or small, fancy or bare-bones, I’m going to look for ways to make the experience amazing. I’m going to look for ways to live in style and grace.
And I’m going to be around a lot of other people trying to do the same thing.
As ever, your thoughts, observations, feedback and participation are most welcome. We’d love to hear from you, and thank you in advance for taking the time.
Ok, how ’bout some pictures: