Heading out to the desert - Hope and Fear: The Future

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I'm spending the day preparing for my voyage to Black Rock City - home of the Burning Man Project.  This year's theme is Hope and Fear: The Future.  I'm giddy with excitement to get out there.  This will be my second year participating in the event.  The sketch on the left is my vision for the layout of our 26-person camp - Camp Tramp - the centerpiece of which will be four trampolines.  As the Burning Man website explains, "Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to
the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks
like to someone who is blind."  I was moved by my experience in the desert last year and decided somewhat recently to return with a smaller cadre of friends in 2006.  We combined our group with two others to form this camp.  One of the best descriptions of Burning Man that I've come across was written in the 2006 summer newsletter by the event's founder, Larry Harvey.  "Our annual event in the desert is meant to provide an example of what can happen in a community when social interactions cease to be mediated by a marketplace."  This description leaves a lot open to imagination and that is, in fact, the essence of Burning Man.  Naturally, Answers.com also has good coverage of the event.  Last year, I was inspired to write "The Piss Declaration" following the event and I thought it appropriate to post it again here:

“Giving the piss back…”

While riding through dusty Black Rock City, carved out of a desert in northwestern Nevada, I spotted a cluster of couches and lounge chairs set on shag carpet beneath straw tiki umbrellas carefully positioned looking out on the horizon. I parked my $20 bicycle turned gypsy chariot and joined a couple, who were already taking in the view. “We were wondering when you’d arrive…,” they explained. I introduced myself and before I sank into the couch, Chef Daddy arrived with bicycle turned full-service bar, apologetically offering, “…sorry I’m late….remind me who had the guava juice, the bloody marry, the daiquiri?” Now, beginning to sip my juice and take in the view, Chef Daddy’s son, Todd, pedaled up with trumpet in hand, freshly returned from performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival. While Chef Daddy prepared the last of the cocktails, Todd serenaded us in sweet ballads as we shared, expressed and celebrated life together as if we were old childhood friends.

The first few days of September, I took part in a social experiment of sorts, exposed to the extreme elements of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert with only the severely insufficient things I chose to pack. The harsh desert conditions had a way of reducing us all to our core - the foundation of our animal souls - and then forced us to work together to live, survive and celebrate. Out of this organism that we built, blossomed the most radical self-expression and creativity I have ever witnessed. Stranded in the desert with 37,000 strangers, we communicated, expressed and shared our lives with each other, each growing in our own individual, but connected, way from the experience. Out in the  desert, everyone shares the same challenges; the desert serves as a great equalizer, breaking down the boundaries that separate us in our daily lives. With these boundaries reduced to outlines in the sand, a door seemed to open, allowing us to share ourselves with those all around.

The most essential rule of Burning Man is the law of giving. No currency is permitted and no bartering allowed.  Rather, everyone is encouraged to give and by necessity, learn how to graciously receive. With giving comes  kindness, and with kindness, compassion, warmth, support and harmony. This simple principle of giving, more than any other, dramatically changed the way the community functioned and interacted. With traditional barriers down; we all became approachable, talkative and friendly. The world of possibility opened for all to enter.  Personally, void of everyday distractions, I was able to feel more acutely than I have in perhaps my entire life…sadness, happiness, loneliness and intense community.  Left without the luxuries to which I’ve become accustomed – reduced to worrying about the acidity of my hands and feet on a daily basis – I reached a higher level of clarity.  Reduced to your foundations and stranded in the desert, the importance and power of community becomes quickly apparent.

At the beginning of each new year, the Jewish people engage in Heshbon HaNefesh – an accounting of the soul – reflecting on our good and bad deeds over the past year. On Simchat Torah, which comes after the accounting has been taken and the books closed, we celebrate receiving the bible and with it, the life that we were given and chose to receive. Sitting beneath that straw tiki umbrella in the desert, rapping with an Israeli guy from Brooklyn, we couldn’t help but notice a few parallels and the auspicious time of year. Like the traditions of Rosh Hashanah and Simchat Torah, Burning Man provides a time for each participant to reflect on his/her life and reclaim it according to their own redefined rules and parameters and then celebrate it. 

This year, I’ve chosen to recast my own life by modifying the way I interact with my co-investors on this journey. My Australian friends have an expression – taking the piss – which means giving someone a hard time, often employing intense sarcasm… something that I, and many of those around me, know all too well. One of the reasons I became so familiar with this expression is that in a warm, supportive and kind environment such as Burning Man, there is no room for people taking the piss. The few times during the week when someone was taking the piss (probably me), they would inevitably receive a comment from someone in the group, “why you taking the piss out of him?” (insert thick Australian/quasi-British accent). During my week in Black Rock City, I witnessed the power of support and encouragement; what it means to add to each other’s overall experience, not take away from or discount it. Never before had I appreciated the damaging and debilitating effects of competitive bickering, unnecessary sarcasm and talking each other down. I also never before understood how warm, fuzzy and uplifted one can feel when freed from the shackles of this limiting behavior.

With the Jewish New Year around the corner and the Gregorian New Year on the horizon, I challenge myself and all of us to free ourselves from harmful jabs, sarcastic criticisms and snide remarks that do nothing to help us grow and improve as individuals. While they are often only meant in jest, I believe the underlying effects are far more severe. Instead, let’s support, encourage and help each other reach new heights and grow in directions we never thought possible. Let’s pledge to give the piss back; the piss that we’ve all taken from each other over recent years.

By Josh Guttman

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