2013 was my first burn. Those who know me well probably figured I was going because of a midlife crisis. An event like this is so out of character for me. Perhaps they would be correct. Regardless I needed something to shake me. Burning Man shook me to my core in many ways.
Like many “virgin burners”, I found myself overwhelmed. My camp mates were very gracious and patient with me. Because of them I was able to explore and experience so much that I never would have. I was stretched both personally and professionally as a photographer. The one thing that left a strong impression on me was the concept of gifting. It blew me away to experience all sorts of gifting, both material and intangible gifts. It is a practice I want to make part of my daily life.
But as great as this was, there was one “negative” experience that threatened to overshadow my memories of the week. One experience that left me feeling confused and angry enough to forget about the beauty that I experienced.
It happened the night they burned The Man.
My good friend and camp mate, Mike guided me to the circle to watch the burn. He knew that I was uncomfortable about a lot that was going on, so he kept close to me as a guide. My first impression was borderline claustrophobia, a little bit of fear, and quite a bit of anxiety. It’s my nature. So I tried to breathe and remember my lesson to “observe without judgement”.
I was doing fairly well, and it was becoming an interesting spectacle. Ahead of us was a group of four middle aged Mad Max types who refused to sit down. People chanted and yelled and tried everything for them to sit down. Their response was to yell at the crowd to “eff off because this is effing burning man! We will do what ever the eff we want”, punctuated with all sorts of obscene gestures to the hundreds of people behind them.
They bugged me. Self centered, pretentious bastards. Didn’t they care about the people behind them? I tried my best to ignore them, but they were right in my field of view and people around me were getting very angry. Eventually throwing trash at them. What happened to the promise to “leave no trace”?
I watched a young bearded man speak with them. He gestured to the crowds behind them, pleaded with his hands in prayer position. They gave him the bird and some choice words. He bowed graciously then left. It didn’t take long before Mike and I worried that the crowd would become ugly.
Looking back on this, it’s difficult to say why I became so bothered. It should have been a simple thing to ignore those annoying people. But it was not possible for me. Maybe it was the crowds, all dressed in strange costumes. And the loud throbbing music, so very loud. And people doing things I had never before seen, like fire dancers, drum circles and I don’t know what else. By the time The Man started to burn, I had entered the freak-out zone. I became afraid. Mike could see that I was very disturbed and suggested that we get out of there. We made our move to leave.
I spun on my butt to see the mob of people behind me. Directly behind me was a beautiful lady dolled up like a flower child. I told her I was afraid. She patted my arm and gently told me it would be okay. Nice try lady, but it didn’t work. My panic mode was in full lift-off. I stood up and shouted that I had to leave. The hordes of people packed like sardines must have seen the fear in my eyes. Somehow they parted the waters to make way for a frightened guy and his buddy to get the heck out of there.
Outside the ring of Art Cars I found a BLM ranger. I stood next to her and felt safe, eventually joking and laughing with her and my friend. I had survived, but a seed of anxiety and anger was planted in my mind. The rest of the night with my camp mates was great, but that seed was germinating. It came to full bloom the next day as I began the long drive home.
During the hours of slow exodus, my mind kept returning to the experience at the burn. I relived the moments of frustration and anger with those idiots. Why were they so inconsiderate? Didn’t they care about the people behind them? How could they be so selfish? I rehearsed angry, even violent confrontations with them in my head. I was enjoying my self-righteousness and imagined delivering retribution that they so deserved. They would regret their behavior by the time I was done. It was delicious feeling angry at those strangers.
But I didn’t stop there. Soon I started to think of other people in my life who were bugging me. I was going one by one thinking of all the angry things I would say to the idiots in my life. I was on a roll.
Eventually I realized what I was doing. I was stewing in anger and resentment, treasuring all the precious grudges that I hold so dearly. I stopped, remembering the practice to redirect my mind toward good things in my life. My dogs who I missed. My partner who was waiting for me at home. My friends. My gracious camp mates. My friend Mike who guided me. I wasn’t very convincing, but I eventually calmed down. My blood pressure dropped. By the time I made it to Gerlach 4 hours later I was singing to some happy songs in my car.
A few days later I was telling a friend about the week. My first story was about the amazing experience of the gifting economy. But it didn’t take long for me to recount my story about the night of The Burn.
My friend kindly and patiently pointed out the obvious. Those obnoxious Mad Max Wannabees? They gave me a tremendous gift. Without them I would have experienced a spectacle. Perhaps more, but not much else. But because of their behavior I was able to experience real beauty in the strangers around me. The humble young man, with his gentle pleading. The calm reassurance of the flower girl. The kindness of hundreds of strangers who made room for me. The cheerful BLM Ranger. And of course the strong, reassuring guidance of my friend Mike. These experiences were a gift. Perhaps the most significant gift of the week. My friend stunned me to silence. I had been so blind.
Now when I think about that week, my dominant memory is the beauty in the strangers and friends I met on the playa. Their actions show me how I can live differently in my daily life. When I’m frustrated, instead of simply trying to redirect my mind away from the frustration, I can look for the hidden gem in the experience. It’s a new concept for me, and a real challenge.
It’s a gift that I will gratefully accept.
by “Gentle” Remington Rand