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 (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

57 Comments on “Welcome Home, Again

  • Will Chase says:

    I learned that the way to win Burning Man is to practice release and acceptance. This year, I let the playa lead me … I took a left when I felt like taking a left. I took a right when I felt like taking a right. I picked a blinking light and aimed towards it. I said yes often, when I might otherwise have said no. I went with the flow as it took me.

    And the playa gave me exactly what I needed, when I needed it … no more, no less.

    I remembered to have faith in the universe.

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  • brody says:

    Mr. Curley! It was so nice to finally meet you and spend a few minutes chatting this year. Your blog entries are a delight. Thank you for sharing!

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  • Carl says:

    Second year at burning man, and would have to say it was better than last year, yet last year was nothing to sneeze at. One of the few places in the world I have been able to experience every emotion at the same time. See you there next year.

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  • Daniel Monk says:

    I seem to learn something new about myself ever year. I think nobody can disagree that BM is a must have learning experience.

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  • Flame says:

    Thank you for this beautiful article. I don’t know any of you personally, but I’m so grateful for the people that made my experience possible.

    Things I learned this year:

    It’s better to do something, even if your friends aren’t thrilled about it at the moment, than regret a missed opportunity. If the friends matter, they’ll forgive you.

    Sometimes, in the midst of all the frenetic chaos, the best adventure is a night in camp with people you love.

    You can’t trust other people until you learn to trust yourself. Then it’s easy.

    Having a Playa name is just plain fun, and makes introducing yourself to strangers into a game! Good riddance, lingering shyness!

    The simplest task, like an ice run, can be an adventure if you let it be.

    Exodus only seems like hell if you let it. You may be done with Burning Man, but if Burning Man isn’t done with you, surrender to that. Go for a walk. Meet people. Give out your last gifts. Do yoga next to your car. I was in line for 9 hours and had a blast.

    People are amazing. They make amazing things, they do amazing things, they have amazing spirits and beautiful smiles. Doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what your life is like. You’re amazing.

    It is possible to have a perfect Burn. Thank you to everybody that helped make it happen. I owe you a huge hug and kiss if we ever meet. <3

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  • beautiful as always John. temporality, yes! and the reminder of impermanence. my most favorite things about BM.

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  • Cay says:

    * We are more, together
    * This is MY story
    * Follow Joie

    I am still searching for another word, but profound really is the only way to describe this year.

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  • empty pockets says:

    i learned that money is everything

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  • Bryan says:

    Wow, can I say Wow?
    This was our official first Burn. But no one would have known it LOL. We brought to the Playa a 10′ pink Poodle wearable backpack puppet and an 11′ King Kong as well. We were officially christened ‘Camp Yonder’ at 8:13 & I.
    Being in the first push to get in (we passed the gates about 2:30am Sunday), it was honestly like being a kid again at Christmas morning, running downstairs to look under the tree, rounding the corner to the living room and ‘swearing’ that you just caught a glimpse of Santa’s boot heel going up the chimney. Wow.
    The Temple of Transition… I still get emotional each time I think of it. So incredibly meshing of tens-of-thousands of hearts minds and “soulthoughts”.
    Planning bigger and better next year.
    See you all next year!
    Find us at 8:13 & I… Look for the giant pink bones LOL
    Stop by for a granola bar, or maybe an electric-blue margherita at afternoon happy hour!


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  • Level says:

    This was my second burn. The first time I participated in a theme camp which was not exactly my cup of tea. A little too much on the sleazy side if you ask me. So my group of friends decided to make our own little camp this year. 90% were first timers. So we submitted our idea in April and the response was”Sounds good. How about a spot on Esplenade?” Ummm, what? Really?! Hell yes! Yeah.. Easier said than done. All my virgin buddies went full blown gung ho into building domes, kitchens, showers, all the things they thought “would work.” Guess what? Oh yeah massive problems occurrd once they hit the playa. E-vap pond was too small, kitchen was too small, 3 of our 4 generators failed the first night, pretty much all their dreams of grandeur went up in playa dust by Monday night. Hell, two of our early build teammates were so fed up with it all they packed up and left Monday afternoon.(No, seriously, they went home.) So by Tuesday, we were in shambles. People were upset, annoyed, hot, blah blah blah. The 3 of us who had been before just nodded and smiled, and let everyone know, hey guys, welcome to Burningman! Guess what we DO have! One working generator that will power our sound, 2 RV’s than can power a few lights, a ton of food and booze, and each other. I know all your plans went to hell, but let’s just improvise, and all will be fine. So we did. And we had the time of our lives. So making the most of what we had rather than complaining about what we do not have is a lesson we all learned, and this lesson translates perfectly into our de fault lives.

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  • David:NakedCowboyFu*ker says:

    ..Hope my player name isn’t offensive…but I found it written on my bottom after a joyful evening at the Naked Tiki Bar! hehe
    My first BM, only wished I’d arrived there sooner.
    What I learned I think is that people really are how they seemed to me at the height of acid house,England, in the early 90’s. That open, loving vibe never went away when people got older, they just found that places they could discover to express themselves disappeared.
    The warmth and fun in human nature really touched me that week in the desert. It has been difficult on my return to explain it to friends that have yet to experience it. My love goes out to all who make it possible…I shall see you next year:) x

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  • David:NakedCowboyFu*ker says:

    ..it’s late..that’s meant to read “playa”…oops! :/

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  • brad henry pottery says:

    Although tried several times to rally with a group to enjoy events it’s almost impossible unless on an art car. It’s an individuals or you and your buddys experience. Sometimes a three person gang is perfect!

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  • Shannon says:

    I actually had a career epiphany one night laying out by the trash fence and looking up at the stars (sorry to the biker I freaked out a few times). Working with a camp and getting away from the everyday really helped me focus on going a new direction that has been so fun and so perfect for me to pursue since the Burn!

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  • Sparrow says:

    I discovered that when I am myself, I mean completely and utterly me, I attract the most wonderful people. Thank you BM

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  • Cadeau says:

    I learned that it feels amazing to really love everyone, and to be free about it. I hugged an amazing amount of people for endless amounts of time – I never broke it, and let them do that…. And so many just held on and on forever…it was wonderful. I gave them love unlimited, and took in whatever I took in. Euphoric, and it euphoric.

    And I found what being me – just me – looks like. I had forgotten. I realized I couldn’t do that again. Everything I stand for it totally right and totally me. I resolved to live it, and if others don’t like it, that’s about them. It’s what made me realize (months later) that it was time for a divorce. A loving divorce, where we honor each other…but a divorce.

    But that was last year. This year I came in exhausted (tough year) and my Burning Man family loved me and served me all that I needed. More love….faith…challenges…lessons… and I got to give even more love and healings (I’m a healer) than last year.

    I love my playa family and honestly, I look forward to the next Burning Man as soon as I leave the first.

    Burning Man is reality. We come to remember what it offers so we can go out in the world and remind it of what life NEEDS to be. And manifest it.

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  • Raina says:

    I learned that I’d always been a burner, I’d just never been to Burning Man.

    I was reminded what it means to be truly open and giving, and how important it is that it carry on into our lives away from the playa.

    I am now family with people I’ve only know for a week, but who have brought out a confidence in me that I was once afraid to bring out on my own.

    but most importantly

    I was reminded of what it means to live with a full heart.

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  • mollyester says:

    This year, I had no expectations. Year before had an odd vibe, I thought. But it was really wonderful this year. Just fantastic. The weather never better and what I felt was a really collaborative spirit. Everyone was partaking. It didn’t hurt that our camp had an art truck (Tea Party, serving tea) so that just was pure fun.

    A friend and I went running out amid the sculptures one morning and I just started to cry. Cry from a tough year but also a feeling of being home and feeling so released out there. It’s such an open space and so full of love and acceptance. It is what I need and look forward to now.

    I’m so grateful for the hard work that goes in to this annual city and the commitment to the values of what BM is about. Our society is lacking of this more and more and I’m so grateful to be in a place where no one is looking at a computer or a cell phone and we are there to just be and interact. To embrace creativity.

    The BOOOMM!! of the man exploding with a fire ball was so great!! Screams erupting! Ha! What a fabulous time we all had. Thank you!!!

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  • Alex Nayberg says:

    The excitement was rising, the rush on my skin, the tension in my scalp, with each extra step I could feel the blood in my veins flowing faster and faster. The anticipation of something amazing, something astonishing, unknown, something which doesn’t exist were making me dizzy yet made me want to go faster and faster.
    Here and there out of complete darkness strange lights were emerging with bizarre colors and shapes, some on the ground, some in the air and some simply moving along with me to somewhere, to nowhere, to there… Hundreds of dark yet colorful silhouettes of people popping out everywhere were joining me for the same cause, going in the same direction.
    Destination, you don’t really see it, you feel it, in your gut, it’s like a giant magnet, which moves every muscle in your body. You know that the end is near but you also know that that place is nothing but opposite of the end; it’s an entrance into outer space, into nothing and everything. It’s like a giant colorful matter, which consumes you entirely, your body, mind, soul, conciseness, your very existence.
    You know what’s going to happen and you don’t know what’s going to happen, you are furious and calm at the same time, this sweet confusion and anticipation of the overwhelming happiness is boiling your mind. At the end you barely keep yourself from running. Few more steps and you are finally there…

    It’s like someone has turned on the light but in very slow motion. You can see the entire process of surfacing the mythical realm right here before your eyes. From dark to light, from negative to positive, from emptiness to completeness; it’s like growing breathing organism transforms every second into something new.
    It takes few minutes to process, to digest, to understand, to believe, to get used to what you see and what you feel… It doesn’t compute in your mind, as you know deep down inside that 2 plus 2 must be 4 and not 375, but you can see it, you can touch it, you can hear it; then you realize that it’s real.
    The music like thousand voices comes from everywhere; you are completely surrounded by lights, people, dust, air, feelings and emotions. You have the desire to go everywhere at once, to see everything at the same time. You want to hug the space. You want to consume it.
    You have no drugs in your body, no alcohol in your blood because for once its insignificant high cannot be compared with your real feelings. You feel like HOME, which you never had.

    This was my 1st night playa entrance on my 11th year at Burning Man

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  • HK says:

    Very, very nice.
    Thank you, Mr. C.

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  • Jane says:

    This year was my first ever burn. Before I went, I had – unsurprisingly – a lot of thoughts about what I was about to experience. I wrote about them:


    Then I actually had the experience. And I wrote about that, too:


    Hope you enjoy the contrast.

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  • Mateus_play says:

    I learned that of all the ten principles, immediacy is perhaps the most important and least understood. Immediacy was my mantra this year.

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  • Morrel says:

    John, your words never fail to strike a chord in me!!!! Thank you Thank you Thank you!!!

    This was my fifth burn and each one has taught me something about myself. This one taught me to surrender to where life is taking me, that I can’t control everything…and it was amazing! I can hardly wait for next year’s lesson!


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  • MonkeyGurl says:

    My first burn, an amazing experience, but! I realize it was made easier because of a)perfect playa conditions for bike riding b)no white outs c)mild weather d) a really cool camp of people, several birgins and some vets alike…all very very relaxed and excited and pumped and chilled at the same time….sweet, generous people that I would never have met if not for this journey west.

    Somehow I missed the greeter station, still not sure how we managed that, but I made my dusty monkeyangel on the playa the night the man burned, and was spanked by a priest whom I several minutes later, molested…..it all seemed quite right to me.

    The Temple was my favorite and most deeply felt part of my burn, and next year, I will be spending more time there…where it will be, searching more for me…although not as spiritually enlightening, Thunderdome was f***ing AWESOME!!!! I would never be able to do it, but being a spectator was almost as participatory, I was so PUMPED!!!!

    I left feeling on the brink of something HUGE!! And I came back to reality softly, spending several days in Reno before returning, red eyed and almost naseous with lack of sleep. That’s when my meltdown happened. But I survived and am continuing to feel…..something….I can’t yet define….but man I’ve clicked on burningman.com so many times, my computer is getting tired of me, and I am DREAMING every night about the things I fear in this world, and wondering what am I doing here? And what will my soul find next year?


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  • Samsa Lila says:

    My prominent experience out at Burning Man this year could be titled the Sadness and Beauty of Change, Mortality and the Temporary. Sounds pretty general for every Burn, but this year I zenned out pretty hard on it. I had a pretty darn clear head this round so my feelings were pronounced yet confident.

    I met someone who is a 53 year old diabetic out there this year. He was the nicest, most easy going person I have ever met. And what a smile, and very sparkly eyes. I could of hung out with him there for eeons. Anyways, I enjoyed waiting for him and going at his pace, shining my flashlight so he could do his blood readings in the dark. He did not want to be of burden but there wasnt even a pause for those thoughts, we just aligned. We had a blast. We went on art tours and raged camp jams as he bartended. We met people together and saw the weekend burns all buddied up. I felt totally free with this new friend, and like I could express myself. I also felt a sense of worry inside myself for him, his condition. He was being very responsible to himself, but even in doing that there is still a hyper sense of awareness out there, like you can read the persons future, or see their past, as cloudy and surreal as it may seem, the truths and other emotional dimensions blur and you are left with this Everythingness.

    As I spent time with my new friend, my care for him grew, and the past and future started hovering around my head moreso with every moment. I had to tell myself to live in the moment and not worry, which was not that hard to do given my past burn practice. What was freaky was that living in the moment became soooo sacred and special, heightened, hyper playa style. WOW! NOW!!! WOW. Then I would look around at the city and realize I was living in the land of the temporary. It was the common city law! Symbolism and beauty overwhelmed me at just how precious the moment is. Who knows, I could never see this friend again (I doubt that but stranger things have happened) Oh and then theres the WORLD….that could fall apart, too! And everything in between.

    Of course the moment won and I had a huge smile on my face the whole week, except for those few emo breakdowns when all of the thoughts of Mortality and the Temporary would get overwhelming. I did not shed tears in fear, just realization. It has been awhile since I was given the ultimate space to let loose with fellow people, with nobody around to judge me for killing the vibe or questioning my feelings, but not being alone either. Melting down at Burning Man is not weird or out of sorts. I just held onto him and hugged him and tried to not get too sappy. Meanwhile, the funniest joke ever told made me laugh uncontrollably for hours one night. the Yin Yang of Burning Man was living on, gimme strength and expose my weakness, wheeeee!

    We parted ways and promised to keep in touch. When we did talk again, he had gone to the hospital and underwent minor heart surgery right after getting back to default land which was not planned. I remember him having troubles out in the desert so it all made sense. (He is recovering and doing OK now) We live too far for me to visit but I will always care for this person and be there if he needs me. I hope we can be friends for a long time. I am very thankful for his gift of understanding mortality on a different level than usual. In a place like Black Rock, we are more open to spending quality time with people that may not be like us on the surface. Its like we are all put on this part of the planet together in this experimental soup from all over, lets see what happens when people get out of their cliques and comfort zones.

    There are so many different kinds of playa connections. This person is nothing like me in terms of taste or social scene, but we had a lot of other things in common that were amazing like a very similar easygoing energy in both of us. Very polite and sweet. I loved sharing that bond of personality. I would of never met this person anywhere else but Black Rock City. I go to music festivals, this person probably hasnt seen a concert in years. But thats what was so cool about it.

    I keep getting flashes of his face with an orange glow, embers and glowies and blinkies all around us, staring at the big fires. His eyes twinkling, looking at me and at the flames. We wouldnt talk much around the big fires, just Whoah and Wow and Ahhhh. Breathe, look around, and then gone. Ashes, rise, rinse, repeat recycle and return. It will be different. It will be difficult. It will be delightful.

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  • factoid says:

    Samsa Lila speaks eloquently of The Moment.

    Absolutely. Eighth burn, fifth with our two kids (10 and 11) and never was the immediacy of emotion, sensation and accomplishment so intense:

    – 2-1/2 days of solid, near-solo work building a mutant vehicle. I became intensely aware of the hours I was technically “wasting off-playa” speeding past – Fun was getting away without me! Aware of the precious hours when friends lent a hand and construction zoomed forward. Aware of the crawl of days and the split-second FUCK of a dropped wrench, a stripped bolt, a misjudged measurement that were conspiring to keep me from diving into the Burn until Wednesday afternoon.

    – The moments stretching to centuries while waiting twice in the DMV line, hoping that XyloVan/JANUS wouldn’t fail inspection, then the whip-bang-YESSS!! when the hotties slapped on my daytime, then nighttime license stickers.

    – The langorous hours spent driving Burners on art tours – punctuated by moments of generosity, delight, awe and occasional mechanical panic

    – The two-to-five-minute gifts of random strangers – even entire bands – playing gorgeous, sudden and unexpected music on our instruments – and all the long, tinkly hours of experimentation that non-musicians layered in between

    – The split-second quadruple full-body orgasm of the four fuel bombs igniting the Man

    – The endless, ghostly spiritual power of the Temple burn – a single moment that seemed to stretch for days

    – And the random abrupt intensity of my kids’ surprise, my wife’s embrace, our campmates’ jokes, a slug of Gatorade, the start and end of a 10-minute whiteout, a Pulpo Mecanico fire-belch, and the realization that the wall of rock-hard-dubstep-aggro blaring from the mutant vehicle that just pulled up next door was simply not going to go away until hours later when the Trojan Horse was smoldering ash.

    I learned with my first vehicle mutation that preparation, intelligence and hard work off-playa can reduce knuckle-slicing, soul-draining, fun-murdering work you have to put in on-playa. Hope to be smarter next year, and not sacrifice so much interaction time to a lack of foresight.

    I learned that my daughter – left to her own devices in the absence of my wife and son (who came up Thursday) is one hell of a burner, as people kept telling me.

    I learned that if I give a cheap lightsource to a darkwad next time, instead of suggesting he “get some lights” – he might not yell “FUCK OFF” at me.

    I learned that I am not tired of Burning Man. Still. Because there is so much left to give and to learn.

    I learned in my marrow something to which I had only paid lip service before – the moment is what you make of it.

    Now – how are we gonna keep the ticket scalpers from depriving good burners of all those moments in ’12?

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  • Samsa Lila says:

    Thanks a lot. These are all amazing reads. Go team!

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  • Cameron says:

    The following is copied from my blog at cameronannemason.com. If you go to the blog you can see the pictures that accompany the text.

    2011 was my fifth year of attending Burning Man, a temporary city of over 50,000 in the middle of the harsh environment of the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Burning Man means many things to many people. Some see it as an opportunity to cut loose from the norms of society and party their naked asses off. That’s not why I go.

    For me Burning Man is a place for art and community. It is an amazing blank canvas surrounded by sky. People work so very hard in tremendously difficult conditions to give their art to the community for just one week. Much of it is burned at the end of that time. The effort and beauty are awe inspiring, even if a piece doesn’t completely work.

    This year’s Fire Bird was my third attempt at bringing art to Black Rock City. The first two didn’t really work. Stone, metal, wood, and fire are all mediums that translate well to the playa, fabric not so much. Strong winds and the ever present fine alkaline dust create challenges. Every time I think I have it figured out I am reminded not so gently that, no, I don’t have it figured out quite yet.

    Lesson one: nothing ever happens at Burning Man quite the way you planned it. Installation was relatively easy given that upon arrival I was told that my space wouldn’t be ready until 8pm and that we had to be out of Center Camp by 8pm because there was a private party there. A head scratcher for sure. It all worked out with my trusty assistants there to help. Some quick edits, some additional structure, and some flexibility and we got it done. It really looked great.

    Lesson two: everything instantly gets covered with playa dust. This actually didn’t bother me at all. It felt as if the piece became a part of the playa although I could have skipped the step of dyeing the reed.

    Lesson three: Burning Man is really distracting. Duh. Although some people got the idea and added to the effigy on their own, it was much more active when there was someone there to tell them about it. I found this difficult to do but Cat, my wonderful campmate, spent time there encouraging people to interact with it. It was lovely to see people get the idea and witness their interactions.

    Lesson four: carrying a really long piece of unlit fabric in the dark with people zooming around (high) on bikes isn’t a good idea. Duh again. Luckily Alan and Corey thought this one through before I did and we kept the fabric short while carrying the effigy and fabric to the fire.

    Lesson five: trying to get people who are tripping at the remains of the Man fire to move and/or hold a long piece of fabric is very difficult.

    Lesson six: as an artist I am merely creating a space or structure where an audience can choose to participate by attaching their own meaning. In this case, I was honored to get to witness this.

    Lesson seven and the most important: I can’t do this alone. Although the concept was mine, many hands, hearts, and minds touched the Fire Bird to make it what it was.

    In some ways the installation fell short of my expectations. I wished for higher participation. And I really wanted to see that 150 foot long piece of fabric carried out the fire in a solemn procession. If I choose to make art for Burning Man again I want to site it on the playa itself. I think that I’ve learned enough now that I could do that. Successfully? I don’t know.

    I can’t thank Rumor Camp enough for their embrace of this project. It still would have been pretty and we still would have burned it, but without the pre-ritual that Rabbit led in our camp and the intention that we seven camp mates put into it, it wouldn’t have had the depth of meaning that it came to have for me. I was touched beyond measure. The eight necklaces that Alan made, one for each camp mate and one that hung in the Fire Bird, gave us each a token to hold on to that is imbued with the meaning of the project. I’m wearing mine now.

    The installation far exceeded my expectations in the meaning it had for me. Seeing people interact with it genuinely and hearing what it meant to my camp mates made it truly represent a Rite of Passage. It was personal.

    And the Burn itself? It was powerful. Asking people nicely, yet firmly, to please clear a path and hold the fabric. Standing at the edge of that powerful heat and making the decision to walk into it with Rabbit and put the Fire Bird into the embers. Watching the Fire Bird catch and then be consumed by the flames. Feeling that intense heat be absorbed into my core self. Collecting the fabric back from those holding it and being thanked and hugged by those who had witnessed the Transformation. I can still feel all that.

    Yeah, it was powerful.

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  • Samsa Lila says:

    I love all these stories of distraction and immediacy and going with the flow….Felt that in a big way this year, dialing it in with each year, but its great to hear everyone talk about it so much. There have been years I have just stood there at my old camp looking out onto the playa and jsut being like HOLY CRAP, WHAT NEXT? Thats why its nice to have a project, job, something to give you a slight edge on that. So many different degrees of participation, sometimes being too free is almost overwhelming! The balance of mission man and flow man.

    Excellent stories y’all, yes yes yes

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  • G says:

    Burning man is my “church” I go for the yearly ritual. for a retreat, for the community, for the clean break in the daily routine, for the self discovery. for the escape. for the emotions, for the fellowship, for the ordeal and discomfort and suffering, for the utter delight and ecstasy, for the over stimulation and adrenalin. for the intellectual and artistic stimulation, I could go on an on.

    The first year there in 03, I felt discomfort that there was a clearly perceivable air of spirituality and religiosity to it in varying degrees depending on the person. The descent into primal behavior was disconcerting too. Now I appreciate the primal nature that is within us all. It is indulged in deliberately and openly and intelligently at Burning Man. It is a pinnacle of acting out the essences of human character in a civilized manner. Those in the out in the default who repress their primality are doomed to have it either shut down their experiencing life, or having it escape in ways that harm themselves and others. It took about 2 burns for me to accept that my motive for being there wasn’t the awesome people, the amazing experiences, etc., it is the fact that it is the most spiritual week of the year for me, by far. It is the one week that is on so many uncountable levels, the only sane one of the whole year.

    But that is just my take on it. What’s yours?

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  • Z says:

    2011: my virgin year on the playa.
    To my surprise, I learned:

    I am responsible for how I let others make me feel.

    Life is still worth living; there is no longer any room in my world for self loathing.

    What a commodity a good hug can really be.

    Rejecting opportunities out of fear of future regret isn’t being cautious, it’s being lifeless. Take risks… participate in life, and say “Yes” more than “No.”

    Riding a bike is just like… riding a bike!

    Gift freely without expectation of return… the most amazing things can happen.

    People I will most likely never see again have made a difference in my life by just letting me know them for a few short days.

    A seven hour Exodus isn’t necessarily the hell it sounds like it would be… especially when you have that time to make new and interesting acquaintances along the way.

    I can be happy.

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  • Mercedese Witty says:

    Every year, as soon as I get back to unreality from the playa… I start thinking again about how to get there the next year.. It is an addiction, seriously, worse than kicking heroin because Burning Man just feels so good… for one week, you see how people can come together and do something magnificent… it is amazing. My goal is to live a really long life and someday have my ashes put on the Temple for my memorial… that is how much I love Burning Man. I don’t want to ever live without the happiness of going there!

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  • Valerie Dawson says:

    Valerie Dawson
    Did anyone else who was at Burning Man this year go to the Theme camp that was on the Esplanade that was a dome with very bright lights on the outside, but inside you went through a room with an altar and then to a bigger room with white beds and you watched an hour long presentation on the ceiling that made you feel like you were floating and a shamanic (I think) healer sang and played the most beautiful music. I’m trying to figure out what that camp was called and find who was singing that amazing music…

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  • Bridget says:

    Everything Raina said plus I realized how tightly I was holding onto pain. The night the man burned, I let it all go with the help of a very kind stranger whom I will never, ever forget.

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  • Epiphany Starlight says:

    I learned that the shade crew rocks and make the process appear to be a dance of cooperation and theater. Brilliant! They came to rescue BRC Dept of Mobility and we really appreciate these hard working citizens. I’ve heard horror stories about DPW, but they stand as heros in my book. Hero… one (or more) that can make her say “O”
    BRCDOM Loves DPW Thank you. thank you, thank you.

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  • Aaron Double~A Montez says:

    I learned that if you EVER want to be a superhero to your neighbors and/or passer-by, just grill up some fresh pineapple slices on a bbq pit, cut them into generous strips and hand them out like slivers of hot sugary gold. I said it. I meant it.

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  • Davey J says:

    That amazing camp on the esplanade was called Red Lightning.

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  • lou says:

    first time this year, my bucket list is shorter now. Amazed by the sharing, loved the lack of commerce, EVERYONE was nice and open. Loved seeing old guys biking around nude, must have been so freeing for them. Loved how organized it is, how CLEAN the portable potties are, loved being about to shout “it’s not my fucking fault” over and over with St. Stupid. i’ll be back……………………

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  • Pop Tart says:

    I learned that it will take longer than two Burning Mans to strip away the years of isolation and terrified reservation – but they’re peeling away, peeling away, leaving me more naked, more vulnerable, more real each and every time.

    Maybe next year, it will finally all fall away. Bless all my Playa family.

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  • John Curley says:

    I just wanted to say thanks to all of you for these amazing stories.

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  • Jennifer CocoCabana Raiser says:

    Sixth burn, first time as a Ranger. This year, I learned an enormous amount about the remarkable infrastructure that makes our magical week possible. The amount of effort, both volunteer and paid staff, is almost unimaginable. People reorganize their default world jobs, their family lives, their finances, their endless litany of serious responsibilities, just so they can go to a barren, baking-hot desert and work like crazy for nothing more than the joy and satisfaction of doing something for others. If people are paid for their work, it isn’t much relative to their expended effort. They do their work in DPW or Gate or Center Camp or Rangers or the ARTery or Man Crew or Lamplighters or the Commissary or Playa Info (and myriad other departments/theme camps/areas of affiliation) because they believe in the Ten Principles, and their value to this evanescent, essential place we blissfully call Home. The power of their purpose is as beautiful as any pyre, and burns just as brightly as the Man.

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  • gabriel says:

    i chose to go alone and let the playa guide me. i found so much strength within myself it amazed me! i made so many wonderful new connections! i see people so differently out here now! i gifted and received. i danced, i laughed, and cried! the playa is the most magical place on earth, there is no other city like it. see you next year!

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  • Ira Wing says:

    For me this year was about willingness to engage with things I would normally blow off or berate. Being critical and/or becoming jaded are things I struggle with in default world, and knowing that there is a place where I am *doing it wrong* if I’m snarky and critical of a situation helps keep that in check.

    It’s okay to whore sno-cones to strangers while wearing nothing but food-grade cake glitter. It’s okay to offer to help that guy with his bike when he’s clearly too f’d up to ride it home and end up with an excellent playa buddy. It’s alright to admit to getting used to and even developing some appreciation for skree skree wub wub wub dubstep… and it’s okay to be tired of it, too.

    Being given some 20 year old rolling sparkle pony to “take care of” for two hours was a strange honor; walking someone else through some other first experiences was also an honor. It was humbling, too. The event in its entirety has an immense power, but this power is the sum of the experiences of the people; it is greater than the sum, truthfully.

    Taking the pair of wings that I’d brought to represent my dad this year and nailing them to the temple; coming back to add my fifth-grade-level crap drawings around them to find that someone had moved them and incorporated them into an altar was amazing. That was my personal, internal journey made external. It is the kind of experience that could not have happened anywhere else. The gratitude I have for that will never go away.

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  • Sola Suze says:

    At my second Burn, I learned

    The mundane:

    The day I arrive in BRC I am basically an overwhelmed zombie-child and I need to be kind to myself and take it easy.

    Bringing a can of chili to make chili dogs, as my cousin did, is genius. (Ketchup and mustard are for suckers.)

    Camping in the ‘burbs means a long ride home, but it suits me just fine. Too much dubstep makes me cranky.

    The “profound” (at least to me):

    If you have to reschedule your trip from the east because of a hurricane, and you have to work until the last possible moment, and you pack in a mad rush and forget things you wanted to bring, and you rent a car and drive six hours to leave from a different airport, and you arrive at BRC a day later than planned and after having been awake for 24 straight hours — you may very well burst into tears of relief and amazement and gratitude when your greeter says, “Welcome home!”

    I am a nerd at Burning Man. I’m not an artist. I’m not a young hottie. I don’t know how to make a car that vomits fire. But that’s OK, and some people will like me anyway.

    Each Burn will loosen the stick up my ass a bit more. Maybe someday it’ll fall out (but not on the playa. That’s MOOP.)

    Each Burn will give me a stronger desire to participate in the community. I am stunned by the effort and generosity of burners, and I want to be better at it.

    If you jump into a dome filled with foam and then realize you’re terrified to climb your tipsy ass out of it, a stranger may patiently talk you through each step–where to place your feet, when to swing around to the outside–then catch you in his arms and swing you around until you laugh with complete abandon.

    I can still feel absolutely pure awe.

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  • DAwn says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m sitting here, crying, at work, reading through all these amazing journeys and reliving all the wonderful things that have happened to me each year at Burningman. I’m a 12 year burner and it still amazes me how this gathering has such a profound impact on myself and others. I too will be doing everything I can do to be part of this experience until my ashes are in the temple… Again – thank you all for sharing.

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  • Tonda says:

    Thank you for this beautiful piece, which brought back so many beautiful memories of so many beautiful moments on the playa. Thank you to Kiwi, Doug T, and the entire International Arts Megacrew for a spectacular and personally meaningful Temple. Thank you to all my incredible campmates at Whiskey and Dust, and especially to our ship’s captain, Weasel, and my dear friend Theo who landed me and my beloved bunkmates in the best little suburbia on the playa. Thank you to those who made this possible and to the 49,999 other beautiful souls that shared with me an experience of a lifetime. Thank you to Burning Man for letting me be me once again and for truly teaching me how to let go. As a first-time burner who now wonders how she ever survived without this place, I can hardly wait to come Home again.

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  • Sheck says:

    I love all of the above comments, and many describe how I felt. John’s opening few paragraphs were dead-on! I learned that there are many others like me. When friends ask me what Burning Man was like, I tell them “You know how I spend weeks putting together my Halloween party as my creative outlet so that hundreds of people can enjoy it and will talk about it and remember it for years? It’s 50,000 people like that!” Burners are my people! Well, most of them.

    I was a bit taken aback at the number of people that were negative. 1) On a nice, slow, solo bike ride, a girl shouted at me “WHAT THE F*CK ARE YOU LOOKING AT?!” I just told her “Everything” and kept riding. Where is the “radical inclusion?” or “participation” mindset? 2) Late in the week I finally found a friend I met at a Region Burn that I knew was at BM. She was packing, and was tense and upset and complaining about not having bedsheets all week. Where is the “radical self-reliance” mindset? 3) My buddy I went to BM with, a virgin, said someone scolded him for “not dressing up” because he was just in khaki shorts and a baseball cap. Maybe that was his “Radical self-expression?” I know he participated, with his guitar, often, and for many.

    Fortunately the beautiful people far outnumbered the judgmental people, and I miss them all! The former are made more special when met after the latter.

    Peace to all the playa people. I’ll be back home soon!

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  • Bluesy says:

    Yes Gratitude. Yes temporary. Standing in the infinite. Life is sweet and short. Your article made me want to cry. Yes we love the Playa so Goddamn much! Just being there is amazing.

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  • When I went to sleep that last night on the Playa, I wrote down, “Be the change you want to watch.”

    I am!!!!!

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  • Zorsha says:

    What did you learn, Dorothy?

    this year was my first Burn, and I WAS Dorothy -thinking I knew so much and was so prepared, having spent months reading through this site and the ePlaya boards, grilling my veteran burner friends for insight. Thinking I had a pretty good idea what to expect, and what I couldn’t expect, I would just leave to an open mind. I counted the weeks and days to departure, sooo anxious to get there, to leave home, and embark on the ultimate adventure, believing I knew all there was to know.

    Wrong. And here is what I learned:

    I tried too hard to be the “prepared virgin” that would blow everyone away, thus, I was not prepared enough.
    I was not as smart as I thought
    I’m not as tough as I bragged.
    I panic easily.
    I stressed out too much over costumes.
    I hated that the toilets weren’t closer.
    I hid away from my campmates when I had a breakdown, instead of confiding in them. (hiding in your tent crying in 90+ heat is NO way to spend your time at BRC!)
    I occasionally had a hard time trusting strangers – it’s the Jersey in me.
    I had to face things about myself that I did not like.
    I was scared of being dirty.
    I’m a big cry baby who needs to grow up just a little bit.
    My live was going completely in the wrong direction, and I haven’t been doing the things I should be doing.
    It was harder than I imagined.

    I also learned that:

    I had more strength than I realized.
    I can make the best of a bad situation.
    It doesn’t take much to have a good time.
    My campmates always had my back
    I can sit on an artcar and cuddle with strangers, and not be freaked out.
    I am one tough cookie.
    I can make people happy with the smallest gestures – whether it’s misting them on a hot day or giving them a hug.
    Dancing on the Playa at night is just about the best thing in the whole fucking world.
    I learned how to pee in a jug and not be grossed out.
    Riding my bike in the open playa during the day, covered in dust and half naked, is a most liberating experience.
    Anything hard is worth doing – and makes it all the more satisfying.

    Every day was a lesson. I met some wonderful people. I saw incredible sights that I will never forget. I was also lucky to spend my first Burn with about 50 other people that I already knew, and could rely on, for anything. I was not alone.

    It was an extraordinary journey, with many bumps in the road. I cried, I whined, I exhausted myself. On the day of Exodus, I wanted nothing more than to leave that desert. My traveling mate asked of me “What do you think – are you a Burner?” I wearily replied “I’m not sure, just get me the hell out of here first!” But I knew what I was. Once we were off the playa and onto the highway..all I wanted was to go back and do it over again.

    I brought those lessons home with me..along with plenty of playa dust. I have not been the same. I am better.

    Was it easy? No.
    Will I go back? FUCK YEAH.

    See you all in 2012.

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  • john curley says:

    What an awesome post. Thanks so much, Zorsha.

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  • 4d6n2 says:

    I learned to dance like nobody was watching…and it changed my life…

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  • CryForDawn says:

    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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  • corky says:

    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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  • griffin says:

    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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  • Craig (Bear) says:

    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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