I am so fortunate to have been a part of many welcoming communities in my life. From the Friends Club which made my high school years bearable to the sorority that was my home away from home in college, the Girl Scout camp that gave me a radically different perspective on life when I worked there after college, the AOII consultant group affectionately termed “The Nine” with whom I traveled across North America for a year, the larger fraternity/sorority community that I have been an intimate part of for more than 20 years now, the cancer community that no one wants to be a part of, but when you get initiated into the club, you are so thankful for, and the River Geeks, fellow river guides who open their homes and break bread with me on a regular basis, and with whom I spend time paddling on amazing rivers too, of course.
I have been a part of so many communities that have been meaningful to me. I am who I am because of these communities of people who have welcomed me into their midst and loved and supported me and made me laugh and graced my life. I shared an exercise in my book that asked readers to take stock of the communities of which they are a part - it was in the first chapter titled You Are Not Alone – because this exercise undertaken in my mind on a 90-minute drive one night was so powerful for me. Recognizing first the communities, and then all the incredible people in them, made me feel so connected and lucky to be a part of them.
I have also been part of many temporary and yet meaningful short-term communities from intense leadership programs or weekend retreats or river trips. These encounters lasted only a short while, and the participants bonded in a variety of ways and shared a common experience, and then, for the most part, we never saw each other or spoke to each other again. And in most cases, I had something in common with the other people who were there. We lived in the same place, or had the same kind of background, or appreciated the same things. But what prompted this blog post tonight was a memory of a different kind of community that I was fortunate enough to be a part of where I had little in common with the other participants, and that I was apprehensive about joining for a week.
I don’t think I have ever blogged about this experience, even though it was one of astonishing significance for me, and one I’ve longed to return to ever since. I think perhaps that as I start to talk to you about this community, I am going to get carried away, so I am open to the idea that this will be a multi-part blog, something else I have never done before. This community was Burning Man. Yes, the festival in the desert known for its revelry, rampant drug use and nudity. And that is what I knew of it when I made the decision to go in 2012. I committed to this adventure because a friend of mine wanted to go, and because she was dealing with stage IV ovarian cancer and this was on her bucket list, I agreed to go with her.
My apprehension had to do with the fact that I am not a big partier or a drug user and I value my sleep so the loud music at all hours didn’t appeal to me, but I threw myself wholeheartedly into the extensive planning that is required to support yourself in the harsh desert landscape for a week, recruited some experienced burners to share the RV we had rented, secured bikes, planned menus, bought costumes and other supplies and ordered gifts to share on the playa. When my friend received orders from her doctor a month before our scheduled departure that she was under no circumstances to venture to the middle of nowhere in her health condition, I had second and third thoughts about following through, but it was too late. I was committed. Am I ever thankful that I went anyway. It was without a doubt one of the most magical weeks of my life, and the second day there was positively the best day of my life to date.
It is impossible to fully explain Burning Man to someone who has never been. The photos are incredible and give some idea of the atmosphere – the art, the lights, the camp, the dust storms and the people that populate this city of 70,000, becoming the fourth largest in Nevada for one week each year. But the community can’t be described or even accurately depicted in the best video. The values lived and the warmth expressed by the inhabitants of this city are nothing short of wondrous. This video is the best representation of the spirit of this incredible place and its people, and it is one of the major reasons I said yes to going. I have watched it dozens of times and it makes me smile every time.
Tonight I watched another video that made me smile and brought tears to my eyes because it so beautifully described the experience of one 2015 “burner,” an Episcopal Priest who went with his 22-year-old daughter to this festival in the desert and gave people blessings, and camped with a group of regular music festival goers much younger than he, and tended bar one night in their camp and rode on their art car until 3 a.m. He shared his experience in a sermon, and if you want to understand the other side of this party in the desert, the side I experienced when I went to yoga classes and watched the sunrise and received my Reiki level 2 attunement and prayed in the temple and marveled at the fire dancers and the incredible spectacle of the man when it burned and the tears that sprang to my eyes on the first night when I rode my bike onto the playa and beheld the unbelievable light show more amazing even than the Las Vegas strip, then watch this video, and get a glimpse of the community that I am talking about.
In part two I’ll describe my Burning Man experience, share my best night ever, and try to explain why I’m sad every year that I’m not back on the playa and why I can’t wait to go again. Until then.