You are 29, and for the last few months your dear friend has been inviting you to house parties, camp outs, and other events of a particular flavor which you have a sense of but can’t quite put your finger on. On April 27th 2013, you’ll finally make time to attend one and are introduced to what you tend to think of as ‘the burner scene.’ It is now 2016, I am 32 and I write you this letter to say all the things to you that I wish had been said to me as introduction. And I say them now as a way to contextualize and better understanding my own experience; the path of becoming a ‘burner.’
A caveat bears mentioning. I should also point out that I’ve never actually *been* to Burning Man. Instead I am the beneficiary of its efforts to self-deterministically franchise into smaller events & cultural osmosis… although this might be part of what allows me to write about this, giving me some distance that is ultimately necessary if one is to be able to comment effectively. My understanding of my own relative experience level is that I’ve been warmed by the fire: I’ve yet to be thrown into it. I have swam in the river, possibly the lake; never the sea.
Disclaimers issued, let me say this; on the most basic level this life, these friends, these parties and excursions are fun. A lot of fun. When in doubt, when nothing else is happening, this is fun. Occasionally, it is a massive pain in the ass which makes me question why the fuck I bother. But sometimes, for some people, for me; it is something in addition to the fun and the hassle. Sometimes, woven into and from the fun is intimacy and communion and presence; both with yourself and others. These things are available to us always, but the Burner Scene is a more vehement invocation to these parts of ourselves that are often obscured by the petty degradations and endless distractions of our everyday.
The Burner Scene -with its music, and its spectacles, with so many of the people who choose to participate- serves the traditional role of feast day or carnival; that is, an altered space in which to (potentially, maybe temporarily) slip out of the straightjacket of identity. This absolutely vital part of existence has variously been suppressed or denigrated as ‘mere hedonism’ and this is particularly the case in our society where identity is so linked to notions of how much you consume, how much you produce for consumption, and/or whether you are something to be consumed.
Playing with/at identity, expanding your spectrum for possible behavior (or even just associating with those who are so engaged) is a double edged sword and the judgement of others (family, business associates, et al) can potentially have disastrous effects on your life. To have ‘power’ over someone is predicated on ‘knowing’ what they’ll do next/in a given situation, and lots of people are deeply uncomfortable relating to other human beings over which they don’t hold power. Much of the social contract is that we act within a narrowly proscribed band and/or we are at very extremely predictable. Burners… don’t necessarily fit in that model (at least some of the time) and so have the same sorts of trouble that weirdos/subversives/artists/anti-authoritarians always have (mostly, the trouble is that if some people knew what they did on the weekends they wouldn’t be entrusted with ‘adult’ responsibilities). As such, a lot of burners use different names or other obfuscations to protect what they build outside of the scene and/or to guide expectations of their own framework for behavior within/without. I personally have never felt the need, but then again as a white married middle-class father I won privilege bingo.
Burning Man/Burners did not invent the possibility of self reinvention/catharsis through altered spaces and sensory overload, through a fusion of high-holy silliness & garish hyper-sincerity; but they seem to do it especially well in the modern world. There have been so many stabs at this sort of thing, I suspect there was an element of this amongst the early hippies, early disco, early funk, bacchanalias etc. and so forth all throughout history if you know how to squint. The other most common paths to this sort of sensibility (the fractal bloom of party/celebration variants) are often hobbled primarily by two unfortunately common factors; first, they are impaired by commercialism, it’s hard to get into the festival spirit when people are attempting to make their fortunes by selling to you. In such cases, ‘partying’ can quickly degenerate into conspicuous consumption/spending intended to function as status displays (as heard in the lyrics of every rap song which mentions clubbing). Whenever a new venue of human interaction opens up it is unfortunately a relatively simple matter for it to become a new stadium for dominance displays by other means (I am richer/spent more money than you and hence we are different). Alternately, the ‘lowering of guard’ around festivals and parties is taken by some people as an invitation to violate others. You can see this in harassment of cosplayers at comic-con, rape at frat parties, or assaults/groping at clubs/bars. The Burner Scene has remained remarkably resistant to these things -comparatively if not absolutely- but is not wholly immune (nothing, sadly, is a perfect defense against human shittiness).
All of this is simply to say that it is hard for people to actually ‘let their hair down’ for a lot of reasons and to find a tribe that facilitates this even some of the time is something in which I place a lot of value.
Which is not to say that there aren’t potential dangers to these sorts of activities; people get hurt and people die. Most commonly, people get hurt because they forget to eat, drink water, or sleep. Most commonly, people get hurt or more rarely die because of willful exacerbation of a known medical issue or choosing to become over-intoxicated in an area that requires greater care/attention (alone, while in water, around cars, etc.). These are real risks, but exceedingly uncommon: by nearly any measure you’re safer melting your face off with art and music in the middle the desert than you are going about your day in your community. Honestly, the most risky behavior you’re likely to engage in is traveling by car to and from events.
The more common ‘risks’ are becoming obsessed with the shiny to the detriment of your life, or using the shiny to gloss over the things in your life you’d rather not deal with, or losing sight of how difficult lasting change (of a people or person) can actually be, and/or coming down with a truly bad case of lazy hippy mouth where you can’t talk to people without relying on vaguely new-agey clichés you don’t actually grok.
Engaging with the Burner Scene can be costly in time, money, and environmental impact (with no ‘cap’ to how much you hypothetically could spend). But at the level of engagement for myself and most others I would place as still significantly lower than the cost of taking up golf for instance. And, without exception, I would much rather myself (or anyone really) join the scene than join a country club.
And now that we’ve discussed the negative, let me speak to the rewards. First, there’s what I’ve touched upon already; incredible opportunities for fun, communion, intimacy, presence, and to temporarily or permanently rewrite or supersede the narratives about ourselves by which our identities are shaped. There is also community, one that is unique and vibrant and good. Beyond that, I like the Burner Scene because it has largely managed to avoid being segregated by age, gender, or social status (though it is still mostly white… I do wonder if it was black people congregating like this how long it would take before the national guard was called in). I like the people, and while Burners do not have a monopoly (or even perfect track record) of attracting smart, interesting, engaged people their per capita ratios are better than I’ve found anywhere else. I like the costumes and crafts, I like the invocations to self-reliance and the necessity of problem solving. I like the music. I like the art. I like the venues.
I love the moments.
I love the relationships.
A word on relationships: the Burner Scene can facilitate massively accelerated intimacies. Sometimes, even most times, this is a tremendous gift and something to be appreciated. At other times however, this is a recipe for spectacular flameouts which leave everyone scarred in ways they struggle to talk about. With the development of relationships (and the development of yourself) potentially running at an incredibly high speed, smaller and smaller imbalances can cause seemingly catastrophic breakdowns. Alternately, it occasionally seems like every burner is secretly terrified that they might be the only one who has caught a case of the feels, or that their emotions somehow aren’t real. Fears like this -along with the one that you ultimately pass through others lives without marking/mattering or being seen- is a current of anxiety that can motivate a lot of unnecessary pain if you aren’t careful. There are also subdermal worries that you are the only one being excluded from _, and temptation to fixate on what you aren’t being invited to. Or –if you are invited- you can end up worrying that your invitation was an afterthought. Which is just another way of saying that old tired story that it’s easy to find new ways to be cruel to yourself. Most of this only ever happened in my head, and whether a relationship has to be ended (with prejudice) just remember the moments you did experience were real. It is my experience that -generally, if you’re not led astray by your own toxic self-narratives, if you avoid the rush to fit new feelings into your already existent narratives- if you feel something and you think someone else is feeling it they probably are (and if you get something a little wrong, burners -by necessity of their lives- tend to be good at clarifying conversations largely free of judgement). It’s not a perfect protection, but if you keep your intentions pure (by which I mean honest, most especially with yourself), if you check in with people, if you take care of yourself and your companions then you have encouragement to be vulnerable, to seek what you really want from yourself and others in a way that is nearly impossible in the everyday world.
And -ye gods- the shit that comes up. For me, engaging in this scene, this practice of wallowing in being, I’ve had issues with my spirituality, sexuality, physicality, personal history, etc. etc. and so forth all brought up in a workable way for matters that had previously seemed to be damn near inaccessible. It has changed how I think about relationships, helped clarify my actual values, and most importantly helped me massively rewrite the story I tell myself about myself. The scene did not make this happen, I’d been doing the work for a long, long time and I still possess no suggestion that this process is anywhere near complete. But the scene was incredibly useful to facilitate more rapid change/growth than would have otherwise been possible. And while not universally pleasant -growth and change can hurt like a bitch sometimes- it was more enjoyable than I would have ever hoped. And every change I’ve gone through ultimately made me a better person. And so the growing continues. “Yay.”
And the moments I had; that was all me & the mesh of companions and games I was dancing through.
It’s easy to get distracted by the pretty lights and gorgeous people and it’s easy to glamorize, to deify your companions based on your romantic notions of who they are rather than deifying them based on who they actually are, on the specificity of their humanity. It’s easy to feel that I was ‘only’ changing or living because of _; find reasons why _ didn’t actually ‘count.’ But no, it was only ever me having a moment (whatever props I used to help me get there).
And oh the things that have happened to me: I have had fun. I have spent time alone in my tent sobbing, crying out that nobody had taught me how to be me as I felt like my unbalanced energies would tear me apart. I have been confused, so deeply confused. I have danced until I wasn’t a person anymore. I have marveled -agog- at wonder and beauty poured out for the sheer pleasure of it. I have watched structures collapse - both figuratively and literally. I have witnessed marriages end and begin and be renewed. I have climbed the peaks of silliness with my friends. I’ve turned down offers from gods. I have faced my greatest fear; I have faced myself - faced myself in my violence and my anger, in my sorrow and transcendence, in my play and my laughter and in my love and my gratitude. I have greatly enjoyed the company of beautiful girls and boys. I have been sore, deeply uncomfortable, existentially itchy wondering what the fuck I was doing and why the fuck I’d ever thought any of this was a good idea. I have made the worst first impression of my life (a small voice whispers that I’ve made the worst first impression in my life so far). I have had the best group shower of my life (technically also my most awkward group shower, technically my only group shower, technically all these things so far). I have fallen more in love with my wife, my daughter and myself.
I have seen some shit.
And it all makes me smile. And -for now at least- I think I’d like some more of the same.
In short, I’ve lived.
Because that’s what the Burner Scene is for me; living. Not all of my life, but part of my life that is perhaps concentrated and refracted in such a way that it brings attention to the divine wonder that is ALL of my life; reminds me that every moment is mine and open to surprise, and communion and connection and neurological hell or meat-brain heaven (and so you see, not even I am properly vaccinated against lazy hippy mouth).
And, when nothing else is going on, when everything else is going on; I’ll be having fun.
My general advice for navigating the scene is the same as my general advice for life: Engage. If you have the strength, put just a little more attention and intention into how you shape your experience; but when you don’t have the strength make sure you’re taking care of the essentials (essentials being eating, sleeping, bathing, moving your body, spending time with people who matter, and avoiding unduly impoverishing your tomorrow). Freely give as much as you can but always stop before you start marking the ‘tally sheet’ — if you are expecting something in return/’feeling’ the loss then you aren’t really giving. Gratitude is always safe to express; though mind that your gratitude doesn’t shade into the ‘I’m not worthy’ of self-loathing that dishonors yourself and your companions. If you see a niche where you can help, jump in (or at least ask to, if you suspect its someone else’s domain). Despite how it feels sometimes, there’s not really a secret code/handshake you’re not privy to; everyone else is making it up as they go along (just like you) and having a lot of potentially awkward conversations and working hard to figure shit out. Trust yourself; you’re probably more right than you are wrong and -when things don’t go the way you expected/hoped- trust in your ability to make things right after the fact. Whatever happened -yesterday- you’re going to wake up today and make of it what you will. I’m so happy you get to do this John. I’ll see you in three years.
PS And John, I’ll be sure to see YOU in another three years, and another, and another… until you’re done.