On being a burner, and on identity

I’ve never felt like I “fit in.” Not really.

All my life, I’ve felt awkward and ill-at-ease, particularly around gatherings of people. I’m not sure why… I’m not sure there is a “why”… but I feel like everyone is looking at me… judging me. This makes it difficult enough to be in the comfort of one other person, let alone a dozen.

So it might seem odd that I consider myself a member of one of the most outrageously outgoing, über-social groups around — Burning Man fans, also known as “burners.”

A while back, while struggling with my own feelings of social anxiety, and while struggling to stay sober, a friend advised me to “find my tribe.” For quite a while now, I’ve felt like burners were “my tribe.”

For those who don’t know, Burning Man is an art and music festival that grew out of a regular gathering on the beach in San Francisco, back in “the day” (as kids these days say). It’s since grown to be huge, with 60-70 thousand participants not uncommon. I knew this much about it — that there were lots of people, that it was out in the desert (Black Rock desert in Nevada, to be precise) and that it was held on the last week of August every year. I knew all that; I thought that it was basically just a giant rave, with a huge amount of music — much of it EDM (electronica dance music) — lots of drugs, and lots of sex. I knew all that.

What I didn’t know was all the art, and the creativity that burners pride themselves on. Burning Man is loosely organized around “ten principles,” one of which is “radical self-reliance.” In other words, you need to be able to take care of yourself. In fact the event itself (burners often just call Burning Man “the event” or sometimes “the event in the desert” or TEITD) is a test of self-reliance; the Black Rock desert where the event is held (called Black Rock City) is a brutal alkaline desert, called the “playa.” Another principle of the event is “leave no trace” — in other words, when all 70 thousand people leave Black Rock City — aka BRC — the playa should look just as pristine as it did before we show up. And we manage it, something we are insanely proud of — every scrap of litter, every sequin, every bit of glitter, is removed. But, because of “leave no trace,” you can’t just bring in a bunch of fast food, dump the wrappers in the garbage, take a piss on the playa, and leave. No, you bring it in, you take it with you, including “grey water” (water used for washing dishes and self). And if you want to live in BRC, you bring and drink lots of water. And you wear sunscreen. And a hat. It’s a real test of endurance and grit.

But the art… oh, the art! Man, burners are some of the most crazy, creative, inventive people I’ve ever met. From creating giant sculptures of wood (and a little metal) which are fully intended to be burned to the ground on the playa, to costumes made of sparkly, shining, flashing lights (which actually serve a purpose; it gets dark as fuck on the playa at night, and you do not want to be run over by some drunk on a bicycle or someone driving too fast on an art car, so you cover yourself with EL wire and flashing LED’s…), to the sculptures designed to be climbed on and interacted with and thought about, to the endless, surreal, and wonderful art cars… Burning Man is like a wonderland of art and creativity. I sometimes feel pity for those who only go for the “giant party,” because they are missing so much more that’s there…

So, the art convinced me to go (plus, last year’s ear worm video), and I’ve been a convert ever since. On the desert, I didn’t do any drugs (I drank myself silly one day, but otherwise was fairly moderate), I didn’t have any sex, and I didn’t dance. But I looked at so much art that my mouth hurt from hanging slack-jawed…

This is why I consider myself a burner. I’m not in it for the party; in fact I feel awkward and uncomfortable at parties and make any excuse to leave early. But everything else about the culture, I love, love, love. And, I’m looking forward to going back this year — the Man burns in a little over a month!

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