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There are a lot of misconceptions about Burning Man. But here are a few things that are not misconceptions: There is almost no cell phone service, and regardless of whether you stay in a tent or an RV, it is a certainty that you will begin and end each day completely covered in dirt and dust. You will sleep far less than you are accustomed to, and you will be overheated during daytime highs that hit the 90’s with no shade as you ride a shitty bike with no gears across desert sands. You will be cold at night when the temperature drops into the forties and thirties, and at some point during the week you will lose your friends, and wander aimlessly around the desert night with bright lights flashing all around you, likely in an altered state. At times you will be lonely, and maybe even scared. You will find yourself caught in dust storms so powerful that breathing without a face mask will prove impossible, and the extent of your visibility will be about eight feet in front of you…all of which leads to the obvious question: Why the hell do people go to Burning Man?
People go to Burning Man because once a year, in a place that is an uninhabited desert for more than 340 days a year, tens of thousands of people from around the world come together to celebrate the things that connect them to each other, rather than lament the things that separate them. People go to Burning Man because professors with PHD’s give free lectures on topics ranging from emotional intelligence to genetic mutations and evolution. Because strangers greet each other with hugs rather than handshakes, and chase after one another not to sell their goods and services, but to give them away. And most notably, in dozens of acts that give the festival it’s name, internationally renowned architects spend weeks, months, and sometimes years building incredible statues and structures that stand for less than two weeks before they are burned to the ground before admiring crowds.
I recently attended Burning Man for the second time, and found inspiration in the most unlikely of places. As I rode my barely functional beach bike one afternoon past hundreds of people participating in various activities ranging from eye-gazing with strangers to listening to lectures on mindfulness to dancing like there was no tomorrow at a 2PM rave, my eyes were inexplicably drawn to a small booth with a single woman sitting behind it, and a sign above her which read: “non-monogamy-advice.” Fifteen minutes later we were involved in a deep and meaningful conversation on the difficulty of love and loss. Freebird, as she asked to be called, posited that most of our relationships are fleeting. People enter our lives for finite periods of time, during which they leave us with profound insights that change the way we think, and shape the people that we become. And when those lessons are taught, and each person has given the other a special part of him or herself, the time comes to part ways.
From a young age, I have had trouble giving things up. To this day, I have dozens of boxes in my parent’s attic full of “Milk: where’s your Moustache?” ads, baseball cards, and yes, I’ll admit it, even Beanie Babies. And as hard as it is for me to let go of things, it is even harder for me to let go of people. When I was 14 years old, I skirted on the border of depression for months after my grandfather passed away. Even more recently, as I learned after my break-up with my first real girlfriend, I am not good at letting go of relationships even when they are not right, steadfast in my optimistic belief that love alone is enough enough to keep two people together. Freebird questioned my assumption. The tip of her analytical sword was poignant– the very place we found ourselves — Burning Man. She asked me how long the incredible statues and structures all around us took to build, to which I quickly replied:
“Months, and sometimes years.”
She nodded, and replied softly with another question:
“And what happens to them at the end of Burning Man each year?”
No answer was required; we both knew that nearly all of the incredible structures around us would be burned to the ground. As I sat there in a hastily crafted wooden booth in the middle of a desert, dressed in a full mesh suit with a 6 beers in a camouflage utility belt strapped around my waist, I considered that perhaps Burning Man was a well-disguised metaphor for something greater. Freedbird, who was wearing a tutu and a set of butterfly wings strapped to her back, looked into my eyes compassionately, and in her silence, acknowledged my realization of the point to which she had gently led me.
That evening, I visited one of the saddest and most harrowing places at Burning Man: the Temple. On the walls and benches of that incredible structure which towered nearly 100 feet into the sky, people wrote notes and built shrines to commemorate the loss of loved ones and the loss of love. The faces of those I witnessed in the act of writing their messages on those walls betrayed a raw, unadulterated sadness that was so powerful at times that I had to look away. Over the course of the three hours I spent there, I read beautiful messages of resilience, heartbreaking stories of lost love, and tragic tales of husbands, wives, sisters, brothers and children taken before their time.
My thoughts drifted to the quote from the powerful book “Tuesday’s with Morry,” which tells the story of a professor’s final months spent teaching his former student important lessons in life and Love.
“Everyone knows they’re going to die Mitch, but nobody believes it.”
Having spent three hours so close to such powerful feelings of death and loss, I was made intimately aware of my own mortality and that of my loved ones. The overwhelming feeling that I was left with by the words written on the temple walls was that there is only one thing that is important in this world: To love others, and to let love in. A woman who had lost her son asked my friend Danny to post the moving words of Michael Josephson’s “What Will Matter” on a wall of the Temple that she could not reach.
“Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end. There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days…What will matter is not your memories but the memories that live in those who loved you. What will matter is not your competence but your character. What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.”
At the end of Burning Man, the temple, with all of it’s beautiful words and tributes, and all of the sadness it contained, was burned to the ground. As the ashes rose where the temple once stood, those of us who filled it’s walls with our words sensed a slight lifting of our burdens as the sun rose on a new day, a day in which we were still able to give our love to those around us, and share with them the lessons of those who had left us.
After leaving Burning Man, I thought back to my feelings as I left the Temple that Friday night, tears streaming down my face, confused and guilty that I could ever feel happy in a world that contained so much sadness, and consumed by the memories of those I had loved and lost. And as I reflected, slowly, everything began to come together in my mind like the pieces of a puzzle. If life is a journey, it must occur along a path. And since each of us takes our own path through this world, we must either remain stagnant at the crossroads and linger with others until they move down their chosen paths, or we must forge our own trail, which at times means parting ways with those we love.
If we are wise, we take the love and the lessons of those who have changed us profoundly along with us on our paths. If we are lucky, the lessons that we have been taught help us to teach others. In this way, those we’ve left at the various crossroads of our lives never really leave us. Both dead and living, those we love and lose live forever within us. Just as the leaping flames of the burning temple warmed our bodies on that cold desert morning as the Temple burned, so too do the memories of those who impacted us forever warm our hearts as their memories burn eternally within us.