Originally appeared in the Beyond Happiness Newsletter.
"Why Do You Even…"
…escape when we've got so much here?
…want to be subjected to extreme weather, unpredictable sandstorms, and playa dust? [Those fine alkali particles that creep into every crevice like powdered sugar but 10x harder to wash off]
…want dust coming out of weird places weeks after you get back?
I love the questions I get after I return from Burning Man (BM). I know, for those that have gone, it’s a nod and a smile because once there's a first time, there's rarely a last.
This was to be my ninth burn after a three-year hiatus for pandemic/personal reasons. These last years had me wondering if I’d ever go back. The world, the sense of what community means, and we as individuals have all had a seismic shift. My memories of BM were also intertwined with Tony. It all seemed overcomplicated until I tried to simplify it.
If I were to go again, I wanted to go back with simple and curious ‘why’ questions. Why do we continue traditions or rituals of the past? Because we’re supposed to, or we’d feel FOMO or for reasons that need to be [re]calibrated and [re]grounded? Why does BM continue to emerge from the ashes with bigger phoenix wings year after year? Why would I continue to go if not for reasons most meaningful to my own?
So I set a couple of intentions. If I go, it’d be for rooted reasons. Not just because it's been so fun and outlandish every time. This year, I'd go if I can get back to the origin story. The roots of why BM exists...and why I still go.
Every year prior, I've done it with Tony and an amazing motley crew of friends. This year would be the first without him and them. I wanted to untangle the memories, knowing it’d be the first time without his physical form. But I had a sense he’d be there in his Tony ways of showing up. I was curious to see where that journey would go.
What a Beginner's Mind in Old Dust Feels Like
This year, I stayed at a new camp…a new camp that happened to be the oldest. With much gratitude to Marian Goodell, I was fortunate [and honored] to be able to stay at First Camp [i.e., the founder's camp]. I couldn't think of another place that could bring me to the root of where it all started. Sharing the space of traditions with veterans and newbies auto-piloted me to a different place.
I went in with a beginner's mind of what could happen without expectation — of the experience, of others, of myself. I wasn't chasing my first-year experience at BM [when I rode my bike that felt like it transformed into a banana seat with tassels flowing from my handlebars]. I didn't need to be a kid again. I just wanted to ground myself in where I am today.
With a beginner's mind, here’s what occupied it:
- There’s boundless freedom within and generosity for each other. Burning Man's 10 principles keep BM grounded as it and the world evolve. Those principles are strong enough to dilute any potential of those that want to break them.
- The parallels between BM's principles and the values we help instill for culture in companies were never more real. It doesn’t take a week on the Playa to live what we believe in.
- We all have the agency to live according to what’s most important to us every day, whether it’s in the desert once a year, at work five days a week, or, most importantly, every minute that ticks by.
The Art & Intentions of Non-Schedules
As part of my intentions, I held to a non-schedule other than a handful of things:
- Camp duties [washing dishes at the FCK — First Camp Kitchen — and tending to the showers]
- Being present with first camp residents and team
- The burn of the man and the temple
- A ceremony for Tony
The liberation of not trying to meet up at specific times+places, other than the most important things, reminded me it can happen off the Playa too.
Saying Hello Again & Never a Goodbye to Tony
We held a loosely planned ceremony for him at the temple. Mini bottles of fernet and words of what he meant were shared. Minutes before, as I rode to the temple, I couldn't help happy tears. I didn't have much sleep the night before, and I woke up exactly at the time the ceremony was.
For a long while, Tony wasn’t a fan of people being late [this shifted over the years]. Riding my bike, as I was shaking my head, I was letting go of my lateness. Somehow I felt his head shaking with mine, saying, “typical Jenn,” both with smiles because of knowing we’re still here.
As I watched the temple burn a couple of days later, for the first time since I've been to BM, I felt his presence in all its forms. Perhaps there was a reason that I had never watched the temple burn before. My first temple burn was to say hey 'what's up, Tony on the playa, and never a goodbye. All the forms he shows up in will always come and go as it will from here.
Some moments were especially tough, but I was grateful that a smile of a warm memory would come shortly after. There was a transcendent ease of it all. Whatever constructs that exist because we wonder what happens to people that pass, or when we worry with “I have so much work to do,” or we get anxious about the next major life move we’re considering… doesn't matter the same anymore.
The Art of Taking it All In & Letting Everything Go
Like at all BMs, we feel the extreme spectrum of highs and lows; I held my intentions close this year. To get real with the whys again, I roamed on my own, gathered with people I love dearly, and met strangers that didn't need to exchange info because we knew we'd see each other again somewhere sometime.
This was the longest I've stayed on the Playa and as the days crept by when conditions were #$%!&* — and sped by because it couldn't be more right — I had a mounting feeling of the whys. Burning Man's 10 principles [or values] all still hold true. Obviously, there will be exceptions of people not living by them, but when they’re embedded in the ethos, there’s no wonder the community continues to grow and thrive.
In 2011, I stepped into something I knew hardly anything about. Now I've re-grounded myself as to why it matters and how much it aligns with my work/life purpose too. We get to choose whether we live by our values every day, whether we're on the playa or at work with good and bad bosses or living our days with family, best friends, and babies [furry pets or otherwise].
We get to see the same sunsets and sunrises as others around the world observe the same. We get to decide if we live in ways that matter the most to us. Saying “hi” to strangers, gifting something that's inspired by our authentic, creative selves, and fighting for the right to be free can happen anywhere, anytime.
YES, of course, it's extremely harder in some places than in others. YES, of course, it's easier for some to say than others. I don’t say this without reverence to those living and all ancestors — whether related by blood, earth, or spirit — that have passed. I say this with a deeper understanding of why we are truly one with all when we are true to ourselves first.
Why it Doesn’t Need to Happen Once a Year
No matter what crazy sandstorm/extreme heat we’re weathering: the loss of people we love, the birth of new ones, or the questions if we're quietly quitting or quietly firing someone [in work or life]...the choice will still be ours. And how we make those choices are the lifelong lessons we start gathering since the day we were born.
The moments and memories that manifested this year shifted in deeper ways, likely because I came in with a more grounded core of me. Instead of just showing up, I planted my intentions in the playa.
Why I Love the Playa Dust that Keeps Coming Out in Weird Places Now
I still see the dust on my shoes, water bottles, suitcases, and, dare I say, my pillow because little specks keep coming out of my ear. Like a fond memory of Tony, I smile when I see it.
In some melodic way, the cadence of my adventures this year felt like it was so meant to be — a year of focusing on my greenhouse [as I keep nurturing others] started with a seven-day meditation retreat and continued on to an 85-mile trek on the Camino De Santiago and now this.
I've been taking these moments all in, each standalone from the other. I let the build and burn of each experience happen on its own. I return, knowing I want to integrate every adventure so it seeds into how I want to live life a bit more consciously than yesterday.
Each step feels deeper in the soil of knowing I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be. This burn was another action towards just that. As I was watching the burn of the man on Saturday and the temple on Sunday, I viscerally felt I was actively letting go of the past, grounded in the present, with a step ready for the future.
I'm now heightened with the grounding, no matter what home I happen to be at in the world.
So, no matter where you are, even if BM means nothing [or everything] to you...remember the dust that shows up because what you do is simultaneously super hard and joyous in the ultimate highs and lows. Remember, we don't have to be specifically anywhere to experience it all because it can happen in our internal backyard. Remember how the hourglass goes by quickly yet fully when we’re being intentional in how we live our everyday lives.
When you get to the playa at BM, people say, “Welcome home.”
Remember that you’re always home when you’re keeping the dust that comes from building your greenhouse and watching it grow.