Here There Be Magic?

[from zd/2016/0613]

Of course, who am I to say whether or not there is still magic to be found at Apogaea or any other festival? Who am I to define someone else's experience?

Let me share a story. Tickets to Burning Man 2011 sold out within hours of going on sale. The event had never sold out before; everyone was taken by surprise. Substantial numbers of long-time Burners, who'd gotten accustomed to being able to buy tickets well into the summer, suddenly found themselves ticketless. The theme camps whose ranks these Burners filled suddenly found themselves lacking the resources and labor they'd grown to rely on. Without enough tickets, the theme camps said, we can't do what we do. And BMorg said (rightly, I think), "Sorry. That's too bad." And so many of those long-time camps didn't go that year.

The result was a huge shift in the culture. When I first went, back in 2005, photo sharing existed, but not with nearly the ubiquity that Facebook brought to our lives, and so we weren't all inundated with our friends' pictures from Burning Man. First-timers back then substantially didn't know what they were getting themselves into. But by 2011, everyone had seen pictures from Burning Man, everyone knew what it was supposed to look like, and though the many, many first-timers who went that year brought a great deal of new energy, they came with a preconceived notion of what Burning Man was based on what they'd seen in photos. The result was a festival that was more visual and more on-the-surface, with less space to go deep. It was more of a party and less a space geared intentionally toward transformation. Let me be clear: I'm not saying this was good or bad, just that it happened. Things change.

My friend John went that year for the first time. Going in, John's outlook on the world tended toward the darker side. He liked a good party and knew how to have a good time, but he also was world-weary and quite cynical. He didn't seem to find much meaning in the world. But John came back from that first Burn genuinely transformed. He immediately began to make substantial changes in his life. He saw things that were no longer serving him and began to remove them. His outlook brightened. Not long after that Burn, he moved boldly toward a career in which he could legitimately devote his life to helping people. These were not surface changes. He lives them still.

Two years later, my friend Richard, whom I'd met at Apo 2013, went to his first Burning Man. A few weeks afterward, I ran into him at the Denver Decompression party. This was late September, two months after my dad died and two weeks after the Boulder floods filled my basement with raw sewage. I think it's fair to say that things were kinda tough in my life right then, but sometimes you don't know just how much the weight of the world is crushing you down until someone can serve as a mirror for you. Richard threw his arms around me in a big hug, and I just stared at him for a long moment, literally gaping. To this day I think he thinks I didn't recognize him, but honestly it wasn't that. It was that the gulf between our respective energies--his still glowing with joy from the Burning Man experience, mine heavy with grief and loss--was so wide that it left me stunned.

Even after the what I saw as the shift in the depth of the Burning Man experience, John and Richard both went to the desert and came back transformed.

So maybe I am wrong that there was no magic to be found this year at Apogaea. Maybe I don't see it anymore because I've already integrated it into my life. I don't need it anymore. But that doesn't mean it isn't there. I used to say that the starting point for the magic of Burning Man and related festivals was found in spending multiple days in a place where people are really, truly happy. And until you've experienced it, you might not realize just how rare that really is. Perhaps this year's first-timers walked away with wide eyes.

Be all that as it may, I don't shy away from my ultimate conclusion from Tuesday's piece: those of us who were given the vision did not come back and change the world. It's not enough to live with open eyes. We have to step onto the path that lies before us. We can no longer wait. It's time.

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