For me, Burning Man has never been about epiphaneous moments or breakthroughs. It hasn’t helped me gain a new understanding of human diversity or my own potential. It’s hasn’t helped me discover the real me nor has it changed my appreciation for my everyday life. What it has been, however, is the best week of my year for the past four years (and five of the past six).
This year has been about a different kind of adventure for K and I, one filled with joy and fear and hard work and community. A bit like a Burn, but not really. Despite being immersed in and overjoyed by this experience I couldn’t help but feel some wistfulness for the playa during the first week of September.
I missed the smell of the dust. I missed the intense three days work building our camp, More Carrot: The Black Rock City Farmers Market. I missed coming together with friends old and new in Reno and the anticipation of the night before we hit the playa. I missed the art and the noise and the kaleidoscopic variety of people and outfits and moments.
It was impossible not to remember moments from Burns past. Of minarets at dusk and the trash fence at dawn, of PBR for breakfast and sushi feasts offered by new friends, bike obstacle courses and pop-up Chinese restaurants, of our wedding in 2008 and of watching a memorial service while on duty as a Temple Guardian last year. So many amazing, moving, inspiring, hilarious times.
And I realised what it was I missed most: The uniquely immersive immediacy of Burning Man.
When I’m at Burning Man I feel so present with my surroundings I forget I’m present with my surroundings. I forget for long stretches of time that there is anything else I could be thinking of. I think creatively, I imagine, I sketch out future projects, but I don’t worry about my to do list or about money or question my relationships or stress about politics. I’m just wherever I am, engaging with the person I’m there with.
In my everyday life I’m seemingly-unavoidably scheduled. I have days I’m working from home and days I’m in the city, daily meetings in person or on skype or by phone. I’m engaged in a constant battle to keep my inbox close to zero and I’m throwing presentations together in the hours before I give them.
At Burning Man I feel almost completely unscheduled. This despite being part of a theme camp with shared meals and shifts to be done on the market and despite the other volunteer stuff I always do, whether delivering the Black Rock Gazette newspaper or serving as a Temple Guardian. Beyond these specific experiences which I play just enough attention to what time it is to turn up to I plan almost nothing. Maybe one musical act on a particular night. But mostly I don’t chase bands around the playa, I don’t organise to meet people at particular times or places, I don’t target specific events or workshops. The last three years I haven’t actually looked in the What|Where|When events guide at all. Not once.
Instead I go where the mood takes me with the people I happen to be with, mostly my closest friends but sometimes delightful new people. Sometimes we decide to open a pop-up restaurant, sometimes we play cricket, sometimes we go looking for art, sometimes we go to the steam bath, or a cocktail bar, or to visit friends. It’s wherever the mood takes us and it’s always the perfect place, close-enough. I never feel like I’m missing out on anything because where I am is always spectacular.
This immediacy brings a real freedom to it, a sense of being in flow, at one with space and time. It’s a rare feeling, something you also feel when you’re falling head-over-heels in love, during the birth of a child or in the midst of creative production.
I’d like to try to create more of this in my everyday life but it’s so much harder here. These meetings (mostly) need to happen. I love collaborating with people and making things happen and that means deadlines and meetings and to do lists. And without these structures and habits and commitments I really can’t get much done, and there’s a lot I want to do. This busyness stems from my purpose and my passions and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The key, I think, is balance. I couldn’t live Burning Man year-around. As glorious as it is there’s so much else I want to experience in my life and a satisfaction and meaning that can only be gained through hard work and sticking with something. Bringing immediately into everyday life doesn’t require giving up meetings or to do lists but rather cultivating time for reflection and to connect with others in open and creative ways. Bodhi helps me be more immediate (although also makes me more scheduled), as does time outdoors, catching up with friends, going to festivals and riding my bike. I want to live with the spirit of Burning Man year-round, embracing immediately and generosity and shared experiences, even as I commit to the hard work of making difficult things happen.
So, balance. An hour a day. A day a week. A week a year. Time without pre-established priorities, restrictions or responsibilities, without a to-do list guiding your actions or an event I’m preparing for. Unstructured time for thinking, playing, feeling, being.
Missing Burning Man this year has also given me more perspective on the big questions of whether and when to take Bodhi to the burn. Since we knew Bodhi was coming we have been discussing this. I’ve vacillated between thinking it would be great fun to take him when he’s young and to see him experience such a fantasy land through the eyes of childhood and thinking that it would be more fun not to take him and to use it as a week off (every two years, say) from the priorities and responsibilities and constraints of parenthood.
Missing this year’s Burn has made me realise more strongly than before how much I value the unstructuredness (somewhat: I still help organise a theme camp so compared to how unstructured your burn could be it’s pretty structured, but compared to how structured my life usually is it’s very unstructured) and openness of Burning Man and the immediacy I experience there. It also made me feel the loss of the balance Burning Man has provided over the past four years, the way it has inspired and recharged me, the new ideas and, new friendships and new insights into myself I would come back from my week in the desert with.
All of which makes me lean towards not taking Bodhi, for a while at least, and using it as a chance to step away and recharge every couple of years. I’d love to take Bodhi when he’s a bit older, when I trust him to look after himself sufficiently in the conditions and socially, but the stresses and pressures of taking a baby/toddler/tiny child to Burning Man would, I think, restrict much of what I most value about the experience. For now at least.
How do you create unstructured time in your life?