Year after year, the sculpture at Burning Man can rightfully be considered some of the most innovative, experimental, and engaging in all the world. (Much of it is also ludicrous – the two go hand in hand.)
But even so, the thing Burning Man does better than anyplace on earth is create neighborhoods.
Almost anywhere you are in the city, if you’re willing to explore you will quickly discover that there is a spot on the corner that serves amazing iced coffee, and a fun camp around the block that offers fresh squeezed lemonade. There is a mostly-blues concert venue over and up one block, and a bluegrass community constantly making music another block along. There are endless dance classes and lecture series, no reservations required. There are so many bars, each with its own set of specialties and traditions. There is barbeque and there is fortune telling, there are tea houses and there is craft making. It is the flâneur’s dream: no matter how far you go, there is always something new to explore, and every door is open to you, and every stranger has a story, or even a gift.
Then you wake up on Sunday, step out of your tent, and half the tents around you are gone. The iced coffee on the corner, gone; the fresh squeezed lemonade, the chill spot, one of the music camps – all gone.
The city is disappearing around you, just as you’ve started to get good at navigating it. And if you dare to wander out to the dark and deep after Sunday night, both of the major landmarks and many of the smaller ones will have vanished into fire, and can no longer be used to guide you safely home.
Heaven and Hell, both at once, are vanishing before your eyes.
History suggests that it is the massive lines out that create the sudden disappearance of the city from itself. That people would wait to leave until the very last minute if they weren’t so afraid of being stuck in the process of leaving. That many of us will sacrifice another day of heaven to avoid an 8 hour wait in purgatory. Most of the time, it doesn’t work. Most of the time, we miss the good moments still have available to us and end up stuck anyway.
Before you leave, your body will have started to change. Your feet ache and are filled with blisters. Your legs cramp. Your arms hurt in places you didn’t know you had. Your skin, your hair, your eyes, are all responding to a week’s worth of contact with dust. You may be coughing. You will not know your body the way you thought you did.
As you’re leaving, you’ll realize how little of your life you remember. Whole aspects of your life that seemed crucially important a week ago have vanished in the dust and flame, and were forgotten as you walked through the neighborhoods, surprised at every corner. Sometimes the memories come back piece-by-piece, sometimes all at once. You do not know yourself the way you thought you did. You, too, are full of surprises.
When we get out, we luxuriate in all the conveniences we briefly renounced. We shower, we gulp an infinite supply of water, we eat all our favorite foods one after the other, we guzzle ice cream, we sleep on comfortable beds. It seems, for a moment, like we had it all wrong and that this is really paradise.
Then, remarkably quickly, we dream of being back. We discover that the neighborhoods we live in have sacrificed a thousand small moments of paradise for a thousand moments of purgatory, and we no longer think that was a good exchange – even though we’ve just made it ourselves.
We cannot forget the vision of city neighborhoods that we’ve had, or the kind of person being there helped us become, and we wonder: how do we get this back?
The temple burns tonight, in remembrance of those who are no longer here, and everything we’ve lost, and how much we want it all back.
But of course we don’t get it all back. We have to build it again. Wherever we are.