When I was a virgin, locked in and packing for my first trip to the playa, a camp mate casually torpedoed me with, “Hey, think about what you’re gonna do for playa gifts.”
And there it was: my first experience with the Second Principle, and already baffled. I had never been to Burning Man before, and the whole concept of “playa gifts” was a bit vague to me. Was I expected to bring gifts for everyone? Just for the friends I was camping with? Were they supposed to be nice things they could treasure forever, or just a little tokens to give a moment’s joy? Would people appreciate my confused attempts, or snicker at the first-timer trying to fit in? I panicked a bit, then ignored the issue entirely, finally picked up a large bottle of excellent beer, and sat my virgin self down to figure this out. I came up with some guiding concepts that I still use today when I think to myself, “Self, would this make a good playa gift?”
The point of Gifting is not to lug physical goods out to a dry lake bed somewhere north of Reno. The point of Gifting is to manifest an economy built on the flow of goodwill and circulation of necessary items. It was clear that simply bringing things in order to give them away would miss the mark a bit. Instead, I had to figure out how to contribute to a gifting economy in a way that kept those juices flowing without bogging me — or anyone else — down. I wanted to stimulate the economy, as it was, in a way that actually helped improve this strange culture I was about to join.
So what did I bring? I figured it out eventually, but I learned some things in the process…
What’s in a Gift?
Gifts are neither transactions nor obligations. The principle of Gifting is about giving freely when you choose to give. We owe each other nothing, not even when you or I have just given a gift. Maybe especially not then. When something is given out of guilt, or in exchange, or in hopes of receiving something, it’s no gift. It’s a purchase, an apology, a thank-you, maybe a tribute or even a tithing. Give freely, and give deliberately. It’s okay not to give all the time. Objects handed out to fulfill a social contract cemented in the Ten Principles just lead to inflation of the gift economy anyway.
Sometimes we give gifts one-on-one, in a moment of human connection. We stop, we see each other, one gives a gift, and the other appreciates it. Other times, a gift is given to everyone — art for the masses, food fed to anyone walking by, stacks of stickers handed out by the fistful. Both approaches are wonderful and drive the community toward a future of plenty, but take the moment to appreciate the gift you’re giving for what it is.
Be generous with public gifts, and deny none, for these gifts’ beauty is in their plenty. These gifts are given without discrimination, simply because the recipient exists.
Savor the private ones — this is a personal moment. Give the gift, and also give the giving of the gift. More than anything, a gift says, “I am a human, and I see you, my fellow human. I am taking the time and making the effort to give you something.” Gifts are a passing of goods and services, but also a passing of intentions.
If I give a gift, I want it to pinch a bit. Sure, sometimes it makes sense to bring a large number of easy gifts, but sometimes it’s nice to give a gift that isn’t easy to give. A gift with a cost — time, money, sweat, emotions, hell, a bit of blood, whatever — is a difficult gift to give. Savor that. It’s not a gift given lightly. You will save it for a deserving soul. More importantly, you will know you gave that gift. You will remember that moment, and think back on it in months and years to come. Where is my gift now? Where is the person I gave it to? Do they still treasure it? Do they remember that moment the way I do?
Gifts don’t need to be material. We all love the person with armfuls of gifts to give, but where did that leave me, the poor and mystified virgin? Terrified, that’s where. I had no idea what to give, where to buy stickers, how to make buttons, whither to acquire the trappings of gifting. Terror is not the ideal motivator of our Second Principle, nor should Gifting require a frantic shopping spree.
Gifting is not about handing out tchotchkes, it’s about giving someone something they desire. Focus on that, rather than the physical object, and you’ll be a happy gifter. Except stickers. Everyone loves stickers.
Gifts have no value other than the one we place on them. A good gift is something we want — or need — whether we know it or not, because it brings a flood of joy and a relief from… whatever it was that was going on, that you can’t even remember right now because this awesome person just gave you something totally bizarre and amazing and beautiful and it’s just what you wanted and didn’t even know!
My Favorite Gift I Ever Gave
The best gift I ever gave was a cheap, flashing gummy ring I ground-scored somewhere in the dust of deep playa. In a throbbing, flashing, rumbling mob of filthy souls and bicycles, I picked up the soon-to-be-gifted bit of blinking trash and wandered off toward the excellent sounds emanating from the Unimog. Not two minutes later, I stumbled across a fellow Burner deeply distressed that her bicycle had lost its tail light, and here she was, deep playa, no lights, the ultimate darkwad. So hey — I handed her the blinky. No sweat, it cost me nothing, and I certainly had no use for it, but in that moment, that person had one ultimate, all-encompassing desire, and I was able to give it to her. She wanted a blinky, and now she had one. The light in darkness, the tube for the bicycle, the sticker for the tearful child, the bacon in the morning, the the jumper cables at Exodus — those are excellent gifts that stimulate the economy.
I didn’t bring anything to give away my first year. Instead, I packed a box full of bicycle tools and put them to use. I kept the camp’s fleet in working order as a camp service and fixed countless bikes as personal gifts. Most were quick, easy — a loose screw, a flat tire, a seat adjusted. Others were more — a comfy chair, a cold beverage, a “how’s your day?”, and a pedal replaced or chain repaired. We had moments, the bikes and I, and their riders too. Immaterial, perhaps, even fleeting, but always wanted, always needed.