Sun and Dust, Music and Dreams

By late morning, I was giving up.

Dragging my still exhausted caucus just a few blocks in the sun, I couldn’t take it.  I wondered if I was going to collapse.  I asked myself how I could ever manage to make Burning Man work for me again.  Would I need to spend tens of thousands of dollars on an RV and an art car just to function the way I used to with two feet and a tent?

I had slept a long time the night before, but it had been sporadic sleep.  I would wake up frequently from dreams that became increasingly nightmarish as Black Rock City got darker and quieter, filled with betrayals and vicious reversals of fortune.  All that remains of those dreams now is a sense of astonishment and horror that people could possibly be so cruel to one another.  “What’s going on?” I asked myself as I woke up for another minute.  “Why is this happening?”  Then it continued.

“Stop it!” I said, the next time I woke up.  “Stop dreaming this!”  And yet every new stretch of sleep included some new twist on people’s capacity for cruelty, and society’s indifference.

Just a few hours later, I was trying to walk in the sun.  Shambling through the dust – and complete strangers stepped out of their camps to see if I wanted to come inside and rest, get some water.  People I will likely never see again in life asked if there was anything they could do to help.  What did I need?  Generosity and consideration surrounded me.

Dream and reality had seemed to switch places that day, with the world impossibly kind and dreams unspeakably dark.

It would have been beautiful, except that even with all this kindness, I wasn’t sure I could make it. I had been told that today would be cooler than yesterday. Instead it was worse: 108 in the shade, according to one thermometer I saw.

It is so easy to just give up, even in a dream world come true, where complete strangers give you gifts.

Then the skies  darkened and the air crackled with electricity and lightning danced over the now cool horizon. I walked back from a party at Ashram Galactica, the end of the world trailing behind me: a wall of dust sweeping in on a storm, a swirling mountain of yellow and green and orange colors, promising blindness and breathlessness across the world.

I took shelter inside Camp Misteriosos,  a western saloon named after a legendary Venezuelan folk doctor who tended to the poor without charge. A portion of its bar was used all the way back in Burning Man’s first years in the desert, making it (probably) the oldest still functioning bar on playa. The camp contains an upright piano from 1912 that somehow, each year, finds someone in the desert to tune it. (Last year they put out a cardboard sign with the words “Piano tuner needed” hand written in marker, and two people stopped by before they could take it down.)

As I talked with my fellow storm refugees, making chitchat and offering gifts, a stranger came in and, seeing the piano, asked if he could play it.

“Yes,” said Jared, a member of the camp. “Play something stormy.”

The stranger sat at the piano and a slow, climbing, melody echoed across the camp and out into the dust. As he played, other strangers came in from the street, compelled by the music to make this their shelter. Young people, old people, a mother and daughter, all followed the sound of a 105 year old piano through a blinding dust storm to find shelter with strangers.

It was like a dream.

And now I was the person who was offering strangers comfort and shelter, asking “Is there anything I can do to help?  What do you need?”

The music ended just after the storm passed, and the anonymous piano player got up to leave.

“Hey, Gershwin,” someone called from the crowd, “what’s your name?”

The piano player stopped on his way out. “What?”

“I said, what’s your name, Gershwin?” the someone asked again.

“Oh!” The piano player thought for a moment. “Um … Gershwin?”

The room erupted in applause.

I don’t know how to give this up.


Cover photo by Lucas Swick

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

2 Comments on “Sun and Dust, Music and Dreams

  • squishelle says:

    #MeltdownWednesday was felt by Burners all over this planet, I’m sure. I know mine was brutal.
    Thanks for sharing your Burn for those of us following along unable to be on playa.
    Much love, my dear friend. Missing you hard!

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  • Mark Romain says:

    I came from New Jersey on the East coast. looking for something , not sure what. I got up at 2 am every night to hit the Playa all alone . connections were rare but real enough. I think we are all looking for the same thing but in many different ways and the dust and heat and cold reminds us of the suffering that human life is blanketed by. The connections I made are in my dreams now every night. and every day something reminds me of the playa dust. I never expected this feeling to last so long.

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