Back when I was only four Black Rock Cities in, I’d overhear people who were in their 15th, 16th, year say that they didn’t come back for the art or the adventure or the sense of possibility, anymore – they were really coming back for the community.
And I thought to myself: “that’s some bullshit right there.”
10 years in, I need to re-evaluate. Those people haven’t changed their minds, but I have.
One of the pieces I’ve written here that I would most change if I could was called “There’s a reason so many Burning Man friendships don’t work out anywhere else.” It explored the phenomenon of going out to the desert and meeting all these people who you feel so open, so intimate with, so close to, who become important touchstones in your story, but who you don’t bother keeping up with when you leave, and who don’t really make an effort to keep up with you either. Maybe you’re Facebook friends, but you’re not in each others’ lives.
I called them “Burner Buddies,” and wrote:
“Burning Man pries open our psyches in a rare fashion: to thrive in this environment you have to open yourself up to radical possibility. That makes it easier to make friends, fall in love, feel connections, and share psychic space – not because the other people are so special but because you have discovered how to say “yes” more often and more deeply. When you get back to the real world, where you are constantly saying “no,” it’s hard to keep that going. Those beautiful intimacies disappear.
Perhaps the post-burn depression would be easier to manage for some of us if we went in understanding that these unusually powerful relationships are usually transient. That you go to a liminal city to have a liminal experience, and in a way become someone new while you’re there. And that you have deep, profound, meaningful experiences with people who are also someone different while they are there … and that everything but the feelings is going to vanish in the exodus.
And that’s okay. Amazing, even.
It would be a stretch to say I’ve made a lot of friends at Burning Man, but I’ve got the best fucking Burner Buddies in the world.”
And that’s all true. There’s something relevant and important there. But … it’s not as true, or true in the same way, 10 years in as it was four.
Today, it would be fair to say that I look forward to the art, and I’m keenly interested in the adventure, and even that I crave the sense of open possibility that Burning Man provides. But those are enticements. What binds me to Burning Man, the thing that really holds me here now, is indeed “the community,” both as specific people who I may only get one chance to see this year, and as an abstract entity which it matters if I am a part of.
The old timers were right: I just wasn’t there yet. But I also didn’t realize, over time, that I was getting there. I didn’t know that this shift was happening. So what was it? What changed?
Part of it is surely just that you feel closer to people you’ve known for 10 years than people you’ve known for four, even if it’s just a week or so at a time.
But Burning Man also changed me over time (this is quickly becoming the theme of this series of posts), which means that the people I know through Burning Man are people with whom I went through profound personal changes. They were witnesses to it, participants in it (sometimes unwitting), and catalysts for it.
Back then, even if many of these people had kept up with me during the rest of the year, I couldn’t have been as open and present with them in the rest of my life as I had been at Burning Man. I wouldn’t have known how. I had to learn how to be the person who belonged in that community, first on playa, and then, in a much slower process, off of it. Four years in, that process was still in its early stages; 10 years in, it has happened.
How it happened, the mechanism of that change, seems especially important. I have never in my life been one for joining communities – I’ve always been the person who walks around their perimeter but never steps inside. I had thought Burning Man would work the same way, and for a while it did, because in your early years Burning Man is just one more community (and set of communities) that you can join. What I had not understood is that if you do this long enough, it becomes a set of communities that you build. And that is a very different thing.
On the macro level, of course the “Burning Man” community existed before me and without me. But on the micro level, many of the “communities” of Burning Man to which I most specifically belong did not exist before: they were communities that we created together as we were creating ourselves. Sometimes it happened through years of collaborative work, sometimes through specific events that have since become origin stories that we tell strangers when they ask “who are you?” Sometimes we simply fell in together, and that was that. But however it happened, it wasn’t so much signing up for a pre-existing thing as it was creating something new together – very much in the way that Burning Man isn’t about a prefabricated experience that you can purchase, but a unique experience that you co-create.
I didn’t even know that I was creating community at the time, let alone how much I would come to value it. But now there is a community of people – multiple communities of people – that I helped build as they built me, whose center of gravity is Black Rock City.
In many ways, I suspect that the other factors – the art, the adventure, and all the rest – are more important to during that process of becoming and creating. It’s not that we value them any less, but we learn how to bring that into our daily lives. We don’t need to go to Burning Man for art and adventure and possibility any more. But if we want to share these things with the people who made it meaningful in the first place – that we might need to go back for.