Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Burning Man or Bust

Burning Man is coming up. We leave in a week and a half. Yipes! For those who have never been to this festival in the desert, it's pretty hard to describe. Burning Man is like a combination of camping trip, class reunion, art festival, music concert, spiritual retreat, gynormous bar crawl, and hippie love-fest all rolled into one - with costumes and 50,000 of your closest friends. Set in the high Black Rock desert north of Reno, it's usually described as an experiment in intentional community. For most of the year, the desert is as nature intended, a moonscape;  for one week out of the year, it's transformed into a working city, complete with its own economy (no money is exchanged) street signs, a police force, medical personnel, its own rules of conduct, a schedule of events, several radio stations,  a coffee shop, and even a beauty pageant. One Christian gentleman described it as "Satan's Birthday Party." It's more than an art or music festival, more than a retreat, more than a camping trip in a beautiful natural setting, more than a ritual, more than a gathering of hippies and freaks, more than a big party. You have to experience it to understand.

Last year was my second time, after an ill-fated first trip 8 years before after which I swore I'd never go again. A man persuaded me to go again, and this time, with the help of a wonderful new camp of friends, I had a transformative time. Still, Burning Man is not, at least for me, some carefree jaunt of parties and half-naked women. It's tough, too.  In the desert, I confronted my deep inner stuff. My fear of and discomfort around people, my deep inner insecurities, my relationship troubles, old grief, the gaping hole of need that I carry around with me, my judgments of others and myself, my fear of letting go. At the same time, I came back with a desire to live that creatively in the rest of my life - to be my true self, no matter how weird or different.

At Burning Man, you dress how you want - the more creative the better. Almost everything is participatory and nobody tells you what to do (unless you're a real danger to yourself or others). Art and self-expression are everywhere you turn, sometimes to physics-defying degrees. At Burning Man, you rely on yourself and your friends. You haul in your own food and water and necessities and haul the waste out again, and if you run out of something, there's no corner store to go replenish your supply. At Burning Man, there's music, dancing, yoga, meditation, art classes, lectures, nature walks, fire displays, bars, and performances 24 hours a day - and no money is exchanged. At Burning Man, you can't drive your car around unless it's a permitted "mutant vehicle" - a vehicle that's been modified in some creative sort of way.  People-watching gets raised to a whole new level as folks go by in outlandish outfits, sometimes no outfits, and often being transported by strange devices  (stilts, pogo sticks, unicycles, cardboard fish, cupcakes). In the desert, it's hot during the day (temperatures of 115 degrees are being reported) and cool at night, and sometimes the alkaline dust gets kicked up into whiteouts that shroud everything in what looks like talcum powder. Oh, and did I mention that there are no showers unless you bring them (and the water) yourself?

I've heard it described that at Burning Man, everything is love and there are no judgments. I don't think this is strictly true; on the playa - as the Black Rock desert is called - people are the same as they've always been. There are the assholes who get too drunk or high and act like jerks, or just generally don't act with common sense; there are the hotsy sexpots in their 15 revealing outfits a day who stand around and preen, and the lazy ones who disappear whenever work needs to get done. There are the flakes and the users, just like in the 'default world' (as Burners call where we are right now.) But in general, I would say that Burning Man brings out the best in people. Or maybe it's that the people who go to Burning Man are generally more open, more creative, more flexible, and more expressive than others. 

The experience of Burning Man begins when you get in the car and start the trip. You drive further and further from your life, and your entire new life is packed as tightly and efficiently as possible in your car, RV, or van. Civilization passes behind you. As the hours roll by, you pass green trees and lakes, and then you get further into the desert, and things get more sparse. The weather gets hot and dusty. You start to see other Burners on the road - vehicles piled high with bikes wrapped in pink fur, hula hoops,tents,  rugs, and other assorted items, the vehicles often painted with slogans or crude depictions of the Burning Man logo. The highway, your fellow travelers,  and the barren, hot landscape are all you see.

Then you hit Reno and it's like someone dropped a huge pot of gold paint onto the desert floor. It's so surreal to have this gigantic mass of lights and glittering buildings rear out of the desert that it seems like a mirage. In Reno, you finish buying supplies, the way the old timers did - stocking up on the essentials before heading out into the brush.

As you leave Reno at 4 am, you know you're heading into the wilderness. You hope you didn't forget anything. The air is quiet and cool, the stars sparkle. Others are on the move, too; the string of red lights ahead of you on the road tells you that. You're all heading to the same place. The further you go, the more Burners you run into, until they are the only people on the road - Burners and the people who serve them.

The closer you get to the playa, the more of the default world you slough off. Cell phones don't work (much), radio is spotty, there's no e-mail. You no longer care if the dust gets into your hair or your fingernails break. Your body adjusts to the heat. You braid your hair to get it out of your face, and you stop looking in the mirror to check your makeup. Then you're there, and the culture is totally different, with different rules and expectations. The first thing you see that lets you know you're on another planet now is a huge metal dragon the size of a bus - oh wait, it IS a bus! The guy getting something out of his RV in front of you in the line to get in the gate is wearing tight silver bellbottoms, platform boots with flames on them, and has a red mohawk. BMIR (Burning Man Information Radio) is the only station you get and it's pumping out music to welcome the hordes. You're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

A week from this Saturday, I'll be on the playa trail. I hope for myself and everyone else who attends, that it's a vibrant, transformative, creative, challenging, fun, laughter-filled, connecting time. I hope for new friends and for old connections to be strengthened, for joy in the sun- and moonrises, for the time to sit in the shadow of the great, wrinkled mountains and absorb their calm presence. Have fun, y'all!

Thursday, August 05, 2010

What I Learned from Twisting Myself Into a Pretzel

A yoga studio where I used to take classes several years ago had a note taped up in their bathroom that said, in essence: "If you notice what other yoga students are doing or wearing, than you are not doing yoga." It was much more complicated than that, but what I always impressed me about the message was that it told me that it didn't matter what others' paths were; my yoga practice was mine and mine alone, and like nobody else's. It reminded me not to compare myself with others in the studio, but only to concentrate on my own experience of yoga. I can barely remember how it was to practice at that studio (except that the receptionist brought her small parrot in occasionally to crawl around on the front desk) but I remember that message taped to the bathroom wall near the mirror.

In yoga, not only do we practice strengthening and stretching our bodies, paying attention to our breath, and always moving with physical and mental integrity, we also practice self-care. We go as deeply into poses as we can, and we even challenge our physical comfort, but we do not go so far as to cause ourselves injury. We are mindful of our own level of practice and we don't try to emulate others who are at different stages or who are simply different people than we are. Some days during our practice, we feel more open, more flexible, and have more stamina. Other days, we feel stiffer and get tired more easily. We learn to pay attention to where we are on any given day or minute, and to be OK with that, no matter what.

In another studio where I went to a couple of classes, I was really irritated by a guy who was practicing behind me. It was a mixed-level class. I consider myself an experienced beginner (even after years of practicing), and this guy was some sort of high-level yogi, so he was doing all these crazy variations on postures that ended up with him twisted in ways you wouldn't think the human body could twist. But through it all, he huffed. And he puffed. And he groaned. And he sighed. And he did it all loudly. It was like a bear was doing yoga back there. Like he needed to put on a show so we would pay attention to him. Come to think of it, I've seen this several times, and the groaners have always been men. Anyway,  but boy, was I irritated! I just wanted him to shut up so I could concentrate on my own practice. And I was irritated because I felt like he was trying to show the rest of us up, to show how much more advanced he was than we were. I'll never know his actual motivation for making all those sounds that day, but what I realized - what yoga has taught me - is that it doesn't matter. My job is to concentrate on my own work and to do it with integrity, regardless of what's going on around me.

At yet another studio, a flier states that the energy of each person in the room effects the energy of the whole room. That if  we are to dedicate our practice to helping support the others in their practice, then we must practice with intention, mindfulness, and presence. How deeply we go into the poses or which variations we choose doesn't matter as much as the quality of our presence and attention matters.

So from these messages I've learned:

  • Concentrate on your own path, and not on the paths of others.
  • Be mindful of where you are in any moment, and practice good self-care. Push yourself, but not enough to injure. Pay attention to what your body and senses tell you, and be OK with wherever you are in that moment.
  • It is the quality of our presence that matters more than the details of our practice. The goal is not to be the most accomplished yogini; the goal is to move and act with integrity, openness, and mental and psychological flexibility and stability.

The funny thing about it is that I have no problem with these lessons as long as I'm doing yoga. But if I try to apply  them to my life outside of yoga, I have trouble. The first lesson, for example, tells us not to compare ourselves to other people. I've gotten better at this, but the sight of some lovely, vibrant beauty with perfect skin and teeth still sets my own overly-large horse teeth on edge. And "be OK with where you are in the moment"?? In the yoga studio, I send myself compassion when, as happens frequently, I topple over in Tree Pose when I'm supposed to be elegantly balancing on one foot with my hands in prayer over my heart. But outside of the studio, any minor mess-up is accompanied by a curse under (or over) my breath. Oh well. Another lesson from yoga is that the journey is more important, in the end, than the goal. It's what we learn about ourselves from the practice that counts, not how far we can get our heels behind our ears. I can feel gratitude to my body and mind and how far we've all come together, and at the same time notice that I still have much to learn.


Monday, August 02, 2010

My friend wrote this wonderfully poignant, horrifyingly detailed account of witnessing firsthand the cruelty of bullfighting as a young boy in Spain. There are links at the end for anti-bullfighting organizations in Europe and the US.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Blind Lineman

I've only had a car for about 2 1/2 or 3 years. Before that, I used to always take the bus. Since I was 14, I'd spend hours a week on public transportation, going to and from school, work, recreational activities, even vacations. I got very good at figuring out ways to get strange places, cobbling together bus and train schedules in a complex web, poring over routes the way gambling addicts pore over horseracing schedules. Being an adventurous person who's easily bored, as well as someone with a mild driving phobia, I wasn't going to let a little thing like lack of a driver's license keep me from adventuring.

When you take the same bus for awhile, you start recognizing people. One of my routes took me through Emeryville, an industrial city on the edge of Oakland. The bus passed a school for telephone linemen, with rows of tar-covered telephone poles lined up at attention in the yard for the students to practice on. A few times a week, a man would get on the bus at the stop across from the school, dressed all in his lineman gear - hardhat, utility belt with various complicated-looking devices hanging from it. He would greet the driver cheerfully, and then sit down in one of the two seats up front dedicated to people with disabilities. He'd keep his cane close to his side as he sat down, careful not to sit on top of anyone else. Because this lineman was blind.

I was always fascinated by this man. A blind lineman? Who ever heard of such a thing? I'd watch him carefully. He always seemed happy, chatting with the driver or whoever else was near him on the bus. He was a skinny man with thinning red hair, maybe in his 40's. He was one of those characters that can only happen in real life. Nobody could have made up a blind lineman.

Things in my life changed and so did my bus routes and routines, and I stopped seeing him as often, although I would occasionally spot him waiting at another bus stop as my bus whizzed by, always with the hard hat and the belt. It was comforting, in a way, to keep seeing him. He was a fixture of my life and my city, the town where I grew up.  But then I stopped seeing him at all, and then I got a car, and my life changed even more.

Life with a car is different. Better, in a way. No more having to build in 2 hours to get anywhere and back (I once went on a date by bus. He stood me up, and then I took the bus back home. I figured I wasted 5 hours on that one.) No more waiting in the cold, windy evenings in shady parts of town, while the sun sinks, wondering whether the bus will be on time. No more avoiding the eyes of the smelly, mentally-challenged men who always seemed to take a shine to me immediately. No more walking for a mile through Richmond - number 8 of the most violent cities in the U.S., the last time I checked -  in the dark to get from the train station to home.

Of course there are drawbacks to not participating in the soup of humanity that relies on the bus. I feel like I'm less in touch with the reality of urban living now. I float between work, home, my boyfriend's place, friends' houses, stores, the yoga studio, the park where I hike, without interacting much with anyone in between. I'm less fit than I was when I walked 2 miles a day to the train station to get to and from work, when I would take one bus and one train each way. There was also some kind of pride I felt when I didn't rely on fossil fuels as much, and some pride in being a middle-class white girl who would dare take the public bus as a regular means of transportation. More than one person expressed their concern for me that I would take the bus at all hours, to which I would flip my hair and say "Well, I've been taking the bus since I was 14, I kind of have the routine down."

But now, I'm one of the drivers, caged in my steel box, able to go anywhere at the drop of a hat without worrying about routes or schedules or connections. I gas up my car like everyone else, putting money in the pockets of the horrible oil companies while rationalizing that there's no other option, since I can't afford one of those fancy new electric or hybrid cars.

Last week, I was driving through Berkeley en route to a friend's house. This was my old stomping grounds, a city where I used to be able to recite the routes of 5 or 6 separate bus lines, including the approximate period between buses, and approximately when each route stopped running in the evening. Driving up University Avenue, I looked over while I was stopped at a light, and I saw him. The blind lineman. He was standing at a bus stop, and he looked exactly the same, if a little bit older. He still had his hardhat and his belt, and his cane. He was standing patiently, waiting for the eastbound 51 bus. Seeing him made me happy, for some reason. I still don't understand how there could be a blind lineman, especially one that relies on public transportation. I still don't know his story. But seeing him again reminded me that the world is a strange and fascinating place, and even though I now drive a car, that doesn't mean I can't take the time to look around me and interact with all the crazy, wonderful, interesting people around me. On the bus, you're part of it, whether or not you want to be. In a car, you're not part of it, whether or not you want to be. But even us drivers can step out of our safe steel boxes occasionally and walk amongst the people who live with us.