Tuesday, September 9, 2008

And Then, We Burned

For a description of the scope and purpose of Burning Man, I encourage everyone to visit and read around on the website. There are pictures, lists, musings, and stories all over the web, and I will not take it as my project to separate fact from stereotype here.

What I'd rather do is sift through a few of the experiences in the overwhelming file from that few days and think with you about the art, about the community, and about what it means for any of us to want to live by the principles of radical inclusion, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance.
In an experimental, temporary community as large as Black Rock City, there will be half-baked, flawed, and problematic manifestations of these concepts. There were unwelcoming art cars, who should have been offering rides. There were pieces of art
that broke down or couldn't handle the volume of visitors. There were burners trudging the playa without a requisite level of joy on their faces. Sure, of course there were. It's a 49,000-person city! Someone will screw up and be cranky.
Thrillingly, there were also gems of totality in purpose and execution--at the level of art, costuming, and attitude. One interactive art space, called the Dust City Diner, was created by masters of concept and design, and it was where I had one of my more profound moments of appreciation for what Burning Man seems to be "doing" in the world.

The context for the Dust City Diner is the "deep playa." This means that the real hectic noise of Black Rock City is quite a few minutes away by bike, and in the dark one can barely see the forms of various art installations spread out across the hard-packed desert. We had ridden across treacherous dust dunes six inches deep that unexpectedly arrest and disable even hardy mountain bikes. We had lost and found and lost and found each other in the dark, searching for the signature glows: Lindsey and I with bunny ears, Max with red loops down the side of his leather
jacket, Anthony with flashing red devil horns. (you must light yourself at night or fall prey to the blind forward inertia of other bikers and art cars!)

The Dust City Diner does what any city diner should: provide oasis at 4am to bleary-eyed travelers. In this case, however, it is a true oasis in the Platonic sense, providing beauty and refreshment in the middle of an enormous stretch of barren land. It was unreasonably well-decorated with a perfect retro-graphic sign, vinyl-covered counter stools, sturdy counter tops, metal napkin dispensers, a short-order kitchen, and waitresses who all wore the same pink dress, white apron,
and platinum wig, regardless of their gender. We four hovered on two stools together, drinking tea and coffee, munching grilled cheese sandwiches with Lowry's seasoning salt off of real dishes, listening to the other "customers" and talking about what we'd seen already that night. We were in a diner. We were ouside on the playa. Without any monetary exchange we were fed. The contrast of urban cues in the diner and the utterly desolate and difficult natural world of the playa reminded me of how arbitrary our little worlds can be. We remember this in times of crisis: an earthquake, a fire, moving out. We see that it's all temporary and permeable and filled with mortality. I get so easily lulled into feeling "at home" with my stuff, in my little walls and boxes, as if living with the knowledge the Temporary would destroy me. But it doesn't. Sitting in an un-walled restaurant, which is a "real" restaurant despite having a different deep playa location every night, I felt that deep acceptance of entropy and chaos that ultimately describes what is real beauty in the world. We can never repeat anything. With that truth, nothing is mundane, and the truly transcendent is miraculous.Max, Kelsey, Me, and Linz interact with the shiniest spheres of pure purpose.

Louis flies above the familiar.

This is not the kind of trip that gets compartmentalized and forgotten. Not only do I hate that practice anyway, it would be blasphemous to the often unspoken mission of Burning Man: to change the Default World. BRC is not just a gathering of self-selected givers, who want to massage their hippie potions into each others' tanned shoulders for a few days before driving back into their forgettable jobs. There is an urgency to the act of "burning" (literally setting fire, also a way of living and existing at the event characterized by constant curiosity, willingness, adventuring, opening to change, etc.) that tells me our country needs more Bacchus, more Dionysus, more room to bounce high, bounce hard, fly, fall, make stuff, break stuff, and make more. That many people I know believe they can't dance without a few drinks is evidence enough for this problem.

On Saturday night, after the ceremony of burning the Man had occurred, a reporter from the BBC asked me to articulate what I thought it meant. In the chaos of those thousands, with the lights and the music and the drums and the thrumming of my blood, I told him it was a marker of the most important death: death of the old self. Death of the anxiety, denial, lack of awareness, passivity, hiding, and exhaustion of a self that has been dictated by past pain. Once that self has died, the new self rises from the ashes--I saw all those dancers, I know they were giving birth--and the committment to living wide awake can get made. But that committment can't get made without some fireworks, some violence, some brief terror that it wont WORK, that we're on the brink of madness here, that it's impossible and too terrible to try. And then, we burn. And just after it seems like it will never end, I found the triumph of living beyond that moment, of finding my body strong in the heat, my will strong in the crowd, my love glowing like a neon heart above my face.

Why would anyone want to do that? My grandma asked me.

Susan has given me a line from Rilke to respond with:

Let everything into you: beauty and terror. Just keep going.

The dust coated our skin and hair and made us look as wizened as we felt. Now, we embark on the grand task of descending into the world with our newness, our energy, our missions, and continuing the burn.

thanks to Anth for the pictures!


  1. Vanessa,

    I just wanted to thank you for your comments about the Dust City Diner. I was one of many people who worked on it and your eloquent description captured exactly what we were striving for - reading it brought tears of joy to my eyes. Thank you!

    -- Douglas
    (aka "Daisy" by night on the diner)

  2. There is a gigantic "wow" inside of you. I hear it when I read your blog. I felt it when I knew your presence. We're all better for it.


  3. Douglas! So glad you found gc and that you could see how much the Diner WORKED. I'm not the only one who got it.

    And rosie--thanks for one of the more perfect monikkers. I am a wow-filled girl. How can we put the "wow" back in to everyone?


  4. I'm a major Rilke fan, so thank you for that quote. beautiful blog.