At Burning Man this year, I had one especially rough day, and I think the people I was camping with could tell. As evening settled in, I was standing near the street watching the crowd roll by and the head of our camp came over and said, “Tell me what you think. What do you make of all this?”
I hesitated and said, “You’ve caught me in a pretty cynical moment; I’m not sure you really want to hear what I’m thinking.”
He said, “No, go right ahead, lemme have it.”
I took a deep breath and plunged into it. “Well, I’m thinking about all the time and effort and money it takes for me to come here. And then I multiply that by the 80,000 (more!) people who are on the playa this year. And I can’t help but wonder… really? Is this the best use we can make of all that focus and intention? Surely there’s something bigger and better we could be doing with all those resources.”
He nodded thoughtfully and said, “I hear you. That’s a totally valid question, and one I’ve pondered before.” He paused before continuing, “Here’s the answer I’ve come up with to that question, for myself. When you think about how much time and effort you put into attending the Burn… well, I’ve run this camp for several years now, and there’s a lot of gear and planning that goes into it, so I can assure you I spend a lot of time thinking about whether it’s worth all the hassle.”
(Editorial note: This guy runs a theme camp that is the biggest, baddest BDSM play space on the playa. He constructs a huge public play space, with all manner of associated furniture, gears and toys. Epic in scale.)
He continued, “Each year at Burning Man, I see people come into the camp who have never even considered anything in the realm of BDSM before. And their eyes get as big as saucers. And they end up discovering something about themselves that they never even knew existed, a whole ‘nother side to themselves that they had never even considered before. Something they never had to opportunity to explore, or never felt safe enough to explore, and they found it here. I find that to be pretty amazing. For me, that makes it all worthwhile.”
That thought has really stuck with me. I had already been thinking a lot about how much easier it is being a Portland Burner; we’re physically so close that simply getting to playa (including all your camping gear and toys and art projects) is vastly simpler than it is for someone who lives in Indiana. Or Toronto. Or Israel.
But this is yet a different issue on top of that. I live in Portland. I live in a city that has an annual bike ride of ~10,000 naked people through the heart of town, and it barely makes the papers. I live in a city that has a guy who rides a unicycle, while wearing a kilt and a Darth Vader mask, while playing bagpipes, which also blow flame. And we’re so used to it that we shrug and say “Oh yeah, him.”
Which is to say, I think it’s easy for me to take for granted how much freedom, how much personal liberty I have to express myself in this town. All things considered, Portland is a pretty supportive environment for radical self expression. And so many people do not have that same confidence about where they live. I met a number of people on the playa who spoke openly about how the playa was the one place where they felt like they can truly express themselves, the one place where they can meet like-minded people, the only place where they can “let my freak flag fly”. It’s good for me to remember that I am in a really fortunate place, compared to such folks.
Oh jeez, did I just write a blog post about “Portland privilege”?