Burning Man is not Home
“Welcome home” is the standard greeting people hear when they first arrive at Black Rock City, the city which is Burning Man. For many return visitors, this phrase embodies why they keep coming back to endure the long travel and harsh dusty conditions. Black Rock City (BRC) feels like home in a way they can’t find anywhere else. Although I understand this sentiment, I think this is a really unfortunate way to live your life. How sad to have a home that does not exist 51 weeks out of the year.
To be clear, I understand that it is a wonderful feeling to find a home if you haven’t known one before. In 1997 during my first visit to Burning Man, I felt like Gonzo in Muppets from Space when he (spoiler alert!) first meets his extended family. His unique appearance had made him feel utterly alone, until a spaceship full of Gonzo-looking aliens landed on earth and explained that he was one of them. The realization that he was not a freak outcast but part of a vibrant community is the same that many first experience at Burning Man. I first experienced this sense of inclusion there, and it has undoubtedly transformed my life for the better. It is a deeply powerful experience that continues to be extremely important for a great many people. But why does it need to be rooted in a wasteland in Nevada? Why not bring that feeling to your real home?
My challenge is this to everybody who considers Burning Man their home: How can you bring what you love about Burning Man into the other 51 weeks of your year? What is so immutable about your regular life that you can only feel comfortable 2% of the time? Is that dusty dusty place really so special that you cannot bring its culture home in a sustainable way? From personal experience, I think not. It might take years, but you really can take the things you love about Burning Man back to your regular life. Let’s go through some of the features of BRC that many people find wonderful and discuss how to recreate them in the real world.
At Burning Man, I get to spending lots of time with my friends
One of the simplest pleasures of That Thing In The Desert is that you get to spend an entire week hanging out with your friends. Vacations are great, right? Well here’s an idea: go on a camping trip with your friends closer to home. Or how about arranging a weekly gathering to play board games or cook dinner together? Creating sustainable community activities is completely possible at home.
Or convince your friends to go somewhere new for a vacation. Sure, BRC is a wonderfully amazingly different place (at least the first several times you go), but so is much of Africa or Asia. It’s not like a trip to BRC is cheap either — on average people spend over $2,000 for the whole thing (ref: BRC Census). Compare that to a plane ticket across the globe.
If you really like being around your friends all the time, how about actually moving into a house with them? That’s what I did. It’s called co-housing, and it’s awesome. Every morning when I get up and every evening for dinner I see my good friends milling about living their lives, and we enrich each other. I highly recommend it. If that’s too intense for you, figure out how you and your closest can live within walking distance of each other. It takes years for neighborhoods to coalesce, but when it works it’s wonderful.
At Burning Man, I’m surrounded by cool art
If this is an excuse for why you can’t feel at home in your regular home life, the irony is thick. First tabulate how much time and money your camp expended on your last vacation in the desert. Break that down into the part that was spent on personal comforts (i.e. making BRC more like home) and the part that was spent creating cool art for others to experience. Now try harnessing all that creative brainpower which went into your project, and divert it towards doing something awesome for your local community. A few quick ideas: a mural or sculpture in your neighborhood or a new community P-patch or a collective third place for your friends.
Sure it’s a different kind of challenge. Most cities have more rules about modifying your surroundings than Black Rock City. But as the years go on, the differences are shrinking. BRC has strict fire codes and (less strict) building codes, and as the community expands, increasingly restrictive community decency standards. You can always put up your own Jiffy Lube sculpture in your back yard.
At Burning Man, I can be myself
“Radical self expression” has been one of Burning Man’s philosophies from the beginning. The ability to be yourself in your normal life seems on the surface like it really should be easy, but is often extremely hard. What’s preventing you from being yourself? Often it’s social inertia. People who expect you to act a certain way — a way that maybe you’re tired of and want to move on from. If this is the case for you, I’ll offer some bold advice: try spending less time with those people, and more time with people who reinforce the version of yourself you prefer.
If on the other hand you enjoy being somebody different only while you’re in the desert, then you have a harder choice to make. Is that other person who you really want to be? Perhaps they’re just a costume you enjoy wearing like for Halloween. But if that other person has a real home, and you are living as an outsider, then this choice bears consideration.
At Burning Man, strangers are friendly and awesome
This one can be hard, especially for people living in certain cities. After my first burn, my campmate and I decided to try to bring some of the playa attitude back to Los Angeles. We attempted what we later termed “attack smiles” because their effect on sidewalk passersby was the exact opposite of what we hoped. Within a year we both left LA for friendlier pastures. So in the “tough choices” department, moving is always an option. You might not feel at home because your home isn’t a very friendly place. But I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion too quickly.
It might be cliche, but scientific research has shown that good moods spread through social networks. Happiness is contagious. Especially amongst friends. So spend more time with your friends and friends of friends, and bring that same energy you bring to the desert. Build community. (This is the simplest, strongest advice I can give.) Bring the cultural principles that you love into your 98%-of-the-year community. It’ll take a lot of work over time. But I bet your friends will be on board to help, and the end goal is absolutely worth the effort.