In this age of digital cool hunting, one can vicariously experience pretty much anything. But some things aren't really real until your finger pads are warm with the white heat of their direct presence. Some places must be seen, touched, and tasted live and in person, to be truly known. The Playa of Black Rock City is one of these.
In the first circle of Burning Man's divine comedy lie the superficial circumstances of dervish whirling dust, extreme temperature swings, and rugged camping conditions. But then the rings start expanding. Each new orbit peels back another layer from the core. One witnesses it happening initially while taking in what others have conceived and by being astonished at the effort, ingenuity, commitment, creativity, and diversity of these offerings. It's overwhelming to realize that in a year, one could barely scratch the surface of all the camps and cars, installations and initiations, visions and revisions that unfold around every corner. And then something clicks -- on the inside. All that outwardly-directed amazement takes a U-turn and the ship steers to home. There, the real journey begins.
At the surface level, what forms in the Black Rock desert every Labor Day week may have the look of a mirage. But, trust me, it's more like a endless series of mirrors. Nothing prompts individual introspection like the vastness of natural majesty and human capacity that one finds at Burning Man. I witnessed it happen to many around me. The more we stretched outside of the norm, the more we began to study that norm. I found myself thinking of W. H. Auden's line: In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountain start. Even from a norm of general joy and peace, there's still so much more distance we can travel. "Why not?" is a question that I for one don't ask myself enough. Maybe even joy and peace need dust and disco to teach them how to live and love and levitate to greater heights.
Here are some more "Why Not?" observations:
Gazing out upon the wandering crowd, I found myself thinking that those passing by -- men naked but for their tutus, women in sequins, bondage, bare, or tulled -- looked so natural and authentic. Nothing seemed odd or awry. It was all a wonderful sea of self-expression, but without the self-consciousness that so often guides a more daring look or pose. Childlike is the word that comes to mind. Natural, playful, innocent enjoyment. And no judgement. That's what really struck me. There is so much at Burning Man that's beyond what one thinks of as "normal" that that definition loses all meaning. Regardless of size, age, shape, these people all looked throughly as they should be -- and they all looked utterly beautiful. "Why not" always?
Burning Man also is the most entrepreneurial culture I've ever encountered. I say this as someone who lives a few miles from Silicon Valley and is well-steeped in that world. Burning Man has an answer for everything. It's as though everyone on the Playa thinks about what the place most needs and then goes ahead and makes it. What's more, the market -- even though it's a gift-only economy -- responds rationally.
For transport, there are the art cars that offer rides, adventure, impromptu dance parties, and there are bikes to share, and taxis shaped like rats that get you where you want to go. The only cost is one's own generous response, when in a position to provide what someone else needs. So, one desires food, then offer a drink, a joke, a shimmy. There are day spas, SPF spraying stations, yoga studios, jazz theory classes, and meditation seminars -- as well as flogging tutorials and the like. Each to his or her own. My point is this: I always talk about how fantastic it would be to have a driver that also gave foot rubs (to kill time at stop lights and when one arrives early to a meeting). Well, I now know a place where that service would thrive. I know a place where I could make the "dreamed of" the "real."
So, my next question is this: how can we embed this more pure and efficient form of capitalism -- one based more on mutual fulfillment and less on imbalanced enrichment -- in the world beyond the Playa?
I began by saying that some things need to be experienced firsthand to be actualized. Therefore, I send my next "Why Not?" out to the Burners who know of what I speak. First, you brought the ethos into your heart. Next, keep bringing it to others. We shouldn't have to get all dusty to inspire the way we interact. Generosity, truthful action, non-judgement -- these aren't new concepts. These are ancient concepts. But like democracy, freedom, equality, trust, love, etc., etc., they must be practiced daily to work. The work is ours. What a blessing. Shine on, you crazy diamond.
And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth,
"You owe me"
Look what happens with love like that.
It lights up the sky.
Follow Tamsin Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@slipstreamer