Burning Man Exclusive: Choosing How To Be Through the Elements on the World's Largest Playground

Burning Man is the world’s largest playground: miles of expansive playa, transformed once a year into a city where over 70,000 burners set up their homes, “storefronts,” art work installations, jungle gyms, orgy tents, trampolines, yoga, lookouts, bars, salons, cuddle puddles, stages, carnival games, you name it, you can probably find it. No money is exchanged on the playa; everyone has their role and you’ll experience that “employee” satisfaction is through the roof. Burners choose their jobs and joyously take part in sharing with others. For example, someone might be “on duty” keeping passersby cool, “Can I mist you with cucumber water?” they ask. Someone else is serving cocktails and inviting you explore the roof deck and hammocks they made for you to rest in. My role was to be an art docent with the Infinite Community from Los Angeles. We were responsible for Matt Elson’s Infinity Boxes experience on the “Midway,” which is the area surrounding “The Man.” It is through the sharing and service at Burning Man, that meaningful connections are madeBeyond chosen roles, every burner is responsible for their own fun and well-being while exploring the treasures and beautiful humans playing on the playa, 24 hours a day for an entire week.

Sound dreamy? Like anything in life, its an absolute dream if you choose it to be.

There’s another side of Burning Man you probably hear less about and that's the extreme discomfort that is living in Black Rock City. The choice is to become one with the extremes or to let the extremes take you over. With this, it’s possible to see the ugliest side of someone. Every person gets to choose how they respond to the seen and unforeseen elements.

Here’s the deal: Burning Man is damn challenging. All year round there is no life in Black Rock City because nothing can live there. It’s extremely hot during the day, with no natural shade and it was not uncommon to be at or below freezing at night. Day and night, dust storms will swirl up without warning, creating “white outs” where you can’t see five feet in front of you. If your friend was too far ahead of you on her bike, well, now she’s gone and you can’t call her because there’s no phone service.  Even with science-lab goggles and a scarf to cover your mouth and nose, the dust will coat your face, arms, legs and it will crack your skin and dread your hair. There’s no telling when one of these storms will hit or how long it will last, so you’ve got to be prepared always. The way the dust creates mini tornados may likely leave your belongings that were “safe" inside your tent coated in inches of the playa dust. 

 

To sum it up: its hard to sleep and it can be hard to play too when your eyes are crusting, lips cracking and nose is bleeding.

My friends who had been to Burning Man breezed over these details when prepping me to go, however even if I had known, I’m not sure that on my first Burn, I’d ever really be prepared without experiencing it.

I went in with an open mind and the intention to be at peace, to be at play and to beam love and gratitude.

That was relatively easy until...

“Jordana! You are so selfish! I cannot sleep because of you!” my Italian friend barks from our air mattress.

I rose early that day because after three hours, the cold night turned into scorching day. I figured that rather than sweat in bed, I’d clean up from that night’s dust storm so that my tent-mate and I would have a “clean” place to change our clothes and prep for the day.

“It’s actually time to wake up now,” I let her know, “We’ve got our shift at the Midway in 90 minutes and you might want to have breakfast before.”

“You’re crazy! You make so much noise in the tent for the last hour and now you expect me to work? I need to sleep!” She scolds me. I realize that while I thought I had been quiet, I had kept her awake while I was cleaning our space.

It was the ultimate test of my Burning Man intention. I was tired too. I was also, dirty, hot, and I had just spent over an hour engaged in one of my least favorite activities (cleaning) only to be yelled at by my friend.

I channel my mother's grace in this moment, remembering the time when I had wisdom teeth pulled at age 16. I was very crabby after throwing up for 24 hours and seeing my face swell and bruise. My mom paid no mind to my crabbiness, she spoke softly, calmly and looked for solutions to make me feel better. I often think of her sweetness in that moment when I'm feeling unsettled.

"I didn't realize I was keeping you awake. It was not my intention to disturb your sleep. I wanted to clean the tent before it got too hot out." I paused and thought about a possible solution, "I know you're tired, but we can sleep again after the shift at 4pm. And there's fresh coffee!" 

It didn't work. "No! How can I possibly do this? I must sleep!"

Needless to say, Burning Man brought out the worst in my friend. Throughout the week I got to hear about how she never should’ve agreed to a tent and that next year, things will be different. I rescheduled her Midway shift, but she didn't show up. She told a fellow camper she couldn't be of service because she, “hadn’t had any fun yet.”

Shifting Into Being

Burning Man, Black Rock City: it is the world’s largest playground. For me, this made it easier to adapt to party-poopers and inclement weather (collectively, I refer to these now as the "elements”). It is here that I found my greatest lesson from Burning Man 2015.

I am responsible for my own behavior and experience. The “elements” are circumstance and I cannot control them. I can get roped in or I can be at peace with the elements and maintain the state of being that I choose for myself: playful, relaxed, loving. My actions, the things that I choose to do and my responses to others will support this.

Burning Man gave me another opportunity to think outside the box in problem-solving. For example, I couldn’t sleep for more than an hour or two in the tent at night, so, I stopped sleeping there. In Black Rock City there’s always something to do or somewhere to go. At night I’d go out and dance or explore the art installations that adorned the playa. I’d sleep in a cuddle puddle wrapped in the arms of a handsome stranger for a few hours, then go off to find my coffee, support the community or learn about sacred chocolate ceremony.

To battle nature's elements, I carried a pouch around my waist with the essentials for self-care. This included hand sanitizer, baby wipes, cuticle oil, eye drops, lotion and lip balm. Every hour I’d take self-care breaks and invite anyone I was with to join in. The way I looked fell to the wayside as the way I felt was paramount. I got over “gross stuff” like other people’s boogers and crusty hands. I became the best version of mama-bear I’d ever been: yes, I even took pride in helping a friend pick his nose and I joyously used my fingers to apply lip balm on many-a-cracked set of lips.

It was a game and I was winning. Dirty but not defeated, I played bumper cars, bent over backward to win a monkey, slept in a suspended trampoline filled with stuffed animals, swam through a ball pit on a school bus, kissed beautiful men, traveled across the playa on a giant pink unicorn, and danced on stage for hours while shooting my “love gun” to “overflow hearts with love.”

What I take away from Burning Man is the overwhelming joy of choosing presence and connection with those around me, getting to see the essence of others. And the sunrise: so luscious, my heart welled up, my stomach churned and I nearly lost my breath in the moment of its beauty.

Back in society, it’s a challenge to adjust. Just in the way that the playa dealt me with “elements,” so too does Los Angeles have its own set of the same. As I decompress and readjust, I remind myself daily of the magic that appears wherever I choose. And also, that I choose to be, consciously, however I want to be. If lovebug is the name of the game, I’ll meditate on that. I’ll give myself more time to be alone and to ground myself in that.

Dancing among a few hundred burners at Charlie the Unicorn’s “Decompression” party in Venice, California this week, I see a familiar face come through the crowd. “Jordana,” he says, “you walked me through the art exhibit on the midway.” We had connected for five minutes the day of one of the worst white-outs. Now, here he was, back to deliver a smile and a hug. We laughed at the serendipity of it all before he disappeared again.

Leaving the party and nearly to my car, I find myself in the arms of a familiar stranger. Post-hug and upon introduction, I realize I know Mikey B. Choosing to support the Nepal rescue effort instead of going to Burning Man this year, Mikey gave his ticket to a first-timer. Through a friend of a friend, that first-timer had been me.

Takeaway

Opportunity for delight is in every step taken. Magic is real because I want it to be, and the woman I get to be is nothing short of the patient, loving, care-taking mama bear I got to be when faced with the “elements” on the world’s largest playground. This playground is the breath-taking adventure that has become my life.

Photos as credited by talented friends: Kat Thomas, Patrick Noonan, Matt Elson