The Wall Street Journal recently published an essay called In Praise of a Nomadic Life, by Andrew Blackman. It’s a story about a particular couple, a 40-ish man and woman who decided to live on the road, mostly in Europe so far, driving around in an old Toyota, staying in hotels, and living on about $100 a day. They both write freelance to cover their costs (Andrew wrote the piece that I read); she also teaches photography. They’ve been at it for a couple of years.
The essay is published in the WSJ category “wealth management” and when I noticed this, it got me thinking about how people plan for their lives, and for wellness. It’s not really a wealth management article. In terms of a managing money, Andrew writes: “Our plan is to earn more and start saving.” For now they live comfortably, spending a little more per month than they did when living in London, and covering costs as they go (an example follows with the image).
Financial planning is really not this couple’s thing. I mean, they seem to be doing fine, feeling safe and secure, and having fun, but they’re not thinking about the future. The whole point of their travel adventure is to not have to think about the future. He writes about how he used to pin his happiness on future events, and how life as a nomad has allowed him to live in the present and enjoy what he has. “At the risk of sounding like a slogan posted on Facebook, I would say that for the first time in my life, I am living in the present rather than dreaming about the future.”
I’m curious about how and why this approach works for them because it doesn’t usually work for me. Sometimes I use cash-in-my-pocket budgeting as a mental exercise that can lead to thrifty decision making. It can be useful. It’s attached in my mind to romantic ideas about simple living. But honestly? It gets tiring. There’s decision fatigue in general, and the ways that poverty taxes the brain specifically. I’m so grateful that the exercise is optional, that I’m not stuck counting dollars all the time.
I think the trade-off approach works best with a long-term planning perspective. Rather than spending money and then belt-tightening to offset the things you got or did, it works in the reverse: choose something you want in the future, and make adjustments now that will help you get there. I find that having a goal in mind makes present-moment compromises feel much better. This is how we saved for the Cricket adventure. Here’s another example —
Chris and I didn’t get tickets this year in Burning Man’s main sale. At first I was really disappointed and I focused on other ways that we could get in, like working for a camp. But we’ve been talking about building a home, and as soon as I made a mental connection between using the resources we would have spent on Burning Man towards the house, I could let go of my perceived need to go to Burning Man. I’d rather use the money towards (some of) a hydronic radiant floor heating system, and I’d rather spend the time tromping around potential lots.
This idea about perceived value isn’t all about money, either. On our Cricket travels, I sometimes felt worn down by making all sorts of choices in each new place: where to buy groceries, where to get wi-fi, where to get good beer, where to sleep, where to make friends. While a general expertise may be cultivated (such as, in the art of finding campsites) the individual decisions didn’t seem to ever add up to anything lasting. The next day, you start over again. I almost always wanted to stay longer in places so that I could build on what I’d done the day before. I like it when parts of my life run on routine; this frees up some decision-making energy for other, more interesting, present-moment activities. I feel unenlightened writing this, but I’m happiest when my “now” is connected to a future that I’m excited about creating.
p.s. If you’re curious, there are people writing about how to blend financial savvy with forms of happiness that aren’t reliant on stuff. Mr. Money Mustache is the best, in my opinion.
These Crickets are pretty well settled back into (and enjoying!) the routines and rituals of everyday life. I miss the open sky and easy connection to natural landscapes, yet I’m glad to once again be part of the community structures within which I feel most intellectually and spiritually alive.
There’s a richness to life within a community; that’s an obvious point, but one that is under-appreciated because for most of us, social structures and our DNA are always driving us towards creating and maintaining connections. When you’re not living on the road (or otherwise reconstructing your life in some kind of new environment), you don’t usually have to think too much about it.
Networks of people have many functions. To mention just a key few, they help us meet basic human needs, bring us together to create and share joy, and offer us support during times of trouble.
In a talk this week at Smith College, Maria Stephan highlighted the importance of networks in successful nonviolent resistance to authoritarian regimes (this is her expertise). “A movement of movements,” she called it, describing the ways that working at a local level builds trust and loyalty that are needed for a sustained engagement. If these efforts are also organized with intersectionality and into larger networks, rather than in silos, they are more likely to succeed. If you’re interested in these ideas, this TED talk will give you food for thought about the need to mobilize 3.5% of the population, and what that means.
I heard about Stephan’s talk from someone at work, and I’m grateful for that. I love to build connections around my perpetual desire for learning and growth. One of my (several) favorite things about being home is that as I’ve wondered how to re-engage in democratic civil society, people I know have pointed me towards lectures and other resources that were just the thing I needed at a particular time. (I read a lot, but lectures are unique. To speak for an hour or more to a live audience is to create a particular kind of responsive long form journalism that requires a lot of clarity and care.)
First, it was Garry Trudeau. He reminded me that it can feel good to connect with people about distressing events, and that it’s possible to be entertaining and constructively engaged. Next it was Adam Gopnik, who reminded me that there’s precedent for dealing with uncertainty and ugliness. Societies are cyclical, vacillating in fairly predictable ways between openness and aggressive reaction. This can result in feeling disheartened and hopeless, but it can also help us use great minds of history to inform our thinking about the present.
Most recently it was Maria Stephan, who spoke cogently about action informed by history and brought up the importance of self care. She had already pointed out that it’s important to plan for at least 8 years of civil resistance, if not more. The divisions in our society are that deep and it’s a big mistake, she says, to allow people to become discouraged because of unrealistic hopes — we need to plan for a marathon, not a 400 metre dash. I’m drawn to think about deliberate nurturing as an important element of sustaining momentum. I already think a lot about the overlap between healthy shifting of awareness and unhealthy avoidance — how to tell the difference, and how to create practices that serve me well.
The day after the election, Chris and I happened to be near Boston and we visited the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis. There was a particular installation by Sarah Sze (this page has photos and describes the enchanting piece better than the official Brandeis site) that allowed me to feel calm in a way I could nowhere else. We spent time exploring together and then, while Chris visited other galleries, I sat for more than an hour and sort of meditated in the large dark room. While that activity felt healthy, the desire to stay seated there forever did not (or wouldn’t have been in practice).
In the months after the election, I’ve felt a strong desire to escape. Burning Man has thus crept into my psyche; I’ve often been viscerally reminded of pieces like the lighthouse and I’ve felt a pull to run away to a magical place that doesn’t exist. I’ve also felt an urge to run away into the hills; I think lots of people feel that way, but for Chris and I it’s somewhat more of a practical option because of the ways we’ve lived in the Cricket. I’ve observed the blogs of fellow road travelers, noting that some have gone quiet (sometimes as their life patterns change, as ours have) while others keep up a steady pace of festive adventuring, no mention of the state of the world. I wonder if they feel as carefree as they seem?
For some time, those various couples were the network to which I related most easily; they understood and could inform that peculiar lifestyle of living together on the road. I wonder, would I would still be avoiding the news if Chris and I were still on the road? It would be easier to do so without the forces of community here at home inciting me to talk, question, and know. Or I might also be building networks of a different sort; I had one non-escapist fantasy that involved taking the Cricket to all those places we skipped and interviewing people who support Trump about how they feel and what they hope to achieve. I think it would make a great podcast (someone’s doing it, I imagine).
Chris and I hope to get tickets for Burning Man 2017; they go on sale soon. Burning Man is a once-a-year-extravaganza of departure from everyday life. I wrote last year that it felt post-apocalyptic. It’s also a place of super strong community and active engagement. A city almost unto itself, bound by both ritual and radicalism — and that’s exactly this year’s theme: Radical Ritual.
In 2017, we invite participants to create interactive rites, ritual processions, elaborate images, shrines, icons, temples, and visions. Our theme will occupy the ambiguous ground that lies between reverence and ridicule, faith and belief, the absurd and the stunningly sublime.
There will surely be rituals of cleansing escape and rituals of social action (along with everything in-between). The more I think about the networks of people volunteering year-round towards making the on-playa event happen, the more I realize that Burning Man isn’t quite as debauched as it looks while biking around, especially to an overwhelmed newbie. So maybe the question is, how does that energy translate now, post-Trump? As a healthy escape, a safe space, a refuge? Or is Burning Man more part of the activism of everyday life than I realize? A place where intersectionality already flourishes?
As I was thinking about Burning Man 2017, I looked at our photos from 2016. The theme was “Da Vinci’s Workshop” and as a small contribution to the Burning Man community, I had posted a “Leonardo quote of the day” each day of the event. Some of the quotes (as below) are strikingly appropriate to the concept of nonviolent resistance and social change, as part of a network.
I realize that quotes don’t change culture and Burning Man doesn’t represent any practical solution to the challenges of a divided America. Yet it’s an interesting piece of the puzzle, somehow representing both an effective system of connections and a place of renewal. As I talk with people about how they are making sense of the current social and political climate, I realize that although my dilemmas are specific to me, they’re not particularly unique. People who followed the campaign straight through are still facing questions about how to be useful and how to feel ok. I find it to be comforting that the Burning Man network exists (admittedly far more liberal and open-minded than the population at large) and succeeds as one sort of movement of movements.
Now, I need to dig into the many resources for organizing and action suggested by Maria Stephan and others. Radical ritual and life in action. My community has persuaded me that there’s no other choice.
(All photos in this post are mine from Burning Man 2016.)
Last year, circumstances resulted in Chris going to Burning Man alone. This year we attended together. Wow! I had an awesome time and I hope I’m able to go back next year, or soon thereafter. I think it would only get better with experience.
There’s a narrative arc to my week, the ways in which I responded to the events around me. I found myself becoming more open as the week went on. As I found my niche, I also felt more at home. I started to understand more clearly why people get so excited (and devoted to) this crazy event. There’s so much I could say about our experiences — here are a few things that really stuck with me.
The desert tries to kill everything, including your relationship
On our third date, Chris and I discovered that we had both recently burned upright pianos — and that we both think this sort of thing is a ton of fun. I remember thinking, and telling friends, that the connection seemed auspicious. Still, it was beyond my imagination that almost ten years later we would be on playa together participating in burns of a different scale!
I’ve heard from several sources that Burning Man can wreak havoc for couples. There’s a “relationship survival” guide on the Burning Man website, and “How Burning Man is going to destroy your relationship” was this year’s cover story in BRC Weekly. So I’m kind of proud of the many ways Chris and I got along during the intense week of activity. A new friend, one of our across-the-street neighbors, commented to me that Chris and I work well together and don’t seem to fight. That’s mostly true, although we certainly did have our moments.
Yes, there are many relationship challenges at Burning Man; one of the biggest was described well in the above-mentioned BRC Weekly article:
This place is a never-ending series of distractions, and the distance between what you THINK you are going to do at any point in the day vs. what you ACTUALLY end up doing can be measured in light years.
Your partner can tell you that they are just headed out to get some ice, and end up coming back three hours later because they ended up getting involved in trying to set the world’s record for the world’s longest conga line or some shit.
Chris & I had those moments of distraction or missed expectations, along with the hungry, cold, hot, dehydrated, tired, or overwhelmed moments too, all of which create pressures inside a partnership. Especially because some of the other good advice about surviving Burning Man with your loved one includes this: (1) plan dates together to stay connected, and (2) leave time for yourself and your own interests too. That’s A LOT of planning and logistics for a place where planning doesn’t work that well! Still, it helped to be aware of the duality of these needs.
I’m also extremely grateful for everything Chris and I have learned during these travel adventures about how to communicate, share space, have fun, get time apart, get needs met, plan, anticipate, adjust, iterate, and (importantly) move on. It really helped us rock this event, despite some inevitable moments of frustration. I think that Burning Man would been a lot more difficult for us as a couple had we not had the practice of living in close quarters on the road for 14 months. It’s a strange event, at which people don’t always act like they normally would. It helps a lot to be flexible.
It also really helped that Chris attended last year, and we had some experience to build on as we prepared. For months and weeks leading up to the event, we’ve been talking, asking, planning, and dreaming. We came up with some good practical solutions, like cooking yummy meals in Durango and freezing them to bring to Burning Man. We put together costumes. We argued about how much water to bring. We talked about the things that made us nervous. It all worked out.
Make like a lighthouse and shine
Obviously, there’s no shortage of cool stuff to do at Burning Man. Each day is so chock full of potential and unique experience that it is difficult to mentally process or to sum up. One of my most memorable and favorite experiences was helping the Lighthouse crew with burn prep. I had no idea what to expect when I showed up onsite Saturday morning. I simply knew that I loved the creation of the Black Rock Lighthouse Service, and that the crew wanted assistance with getting ready for that night’s burn.
The Black Rock Lighthouse Service is the name of a project on playa. It was one of a few really large wood structures that were burned during the course of the week — first the pyramids, then the man, then the lighthouse, then the temple. The lighthouse was actually a cluster of whimsical lighthouses, outfitted with steep staircases, a spiral staircase, high balconies surrounding the lanterns, and rope bridges to connect each tower. (Pics and info about the artists here.)
Many of the smaller lighthouses in the cluster were leaning, by as much as 20 degrees. Everything was askew intentionally, including the balconies you walked on. There were art installations inside. At night, the lighthouses used mirrors to send light onto the playa. They also shot fire. (Yes, you heard that right. The cupola of each tower was equipped to make bursts of flame.)
Late Saturday night, after the man fell, the lighthouses were burned. I feel so lucky to have helped in a small way (with emphasis on small; the artists and team responsible for the lighthouse have been thinking about this for years, gathering materials since fall, and building since winter; they worked long hours in Oakland and on playa). I learned a lot. I was able to spend time up close with a project that really impressed me in both design and execution. I worked with the people who had conceived of and created this piece of art. I got my hands dirty in service of their goal. I feel lucky.
So what is burn prep, anyway? It includes a lot, I learned. I don’t know all the terminology yet (but oh my, I want to read and learn more) but it includes … Setting perimeter to secure the space. Removing everything that shouldn’t be burned (wiring, lights, fuel hoses, glass, materials that could blow in the wind while alight). Placing ignitors and accelerant, sorting and hauling scrap wood, placing tinder and kindling. Decisions had been made about how they wanted the structures to collapse, and everything was done with that goal in mind. Holes were cut as needed to ensure airflow. A rigger came in to wire. We used highway flares and boxes of wax and sawdust. There was a lot of activity.
There was also something gratifying about experiencing the wildness of Burning Man while busy at tasks. I like this way of experiencing the stimuli, compared to simply riding around looking for adventure. Throughout the day, I noticed the music changing as different art cars rode towards and away from the lighthouse. Most of the day, there was the thud thud thud of electronic music that’s so prevalent at Burning Man. It’s not my favorite, but I minded it less on the work site. At sunset, orange rays shone melodramatically while classical music filled the air at a terrifying volume. As darkness fell and a dust storm rolled in, tribal sounding drum music set a rhythmic beat. This (and many other factors) all set a festive mood unlike a worksite almost anywhere else.
A rainbow of colors, and not so green
Being an east coast gal, I don’t know many people from back home who attend Burning Man, and I haven’t heard a lot about it. Thus, my preconceptions of the event were mostly based on: (1) what Chris told me after he attended last year, and (2) what I read in the Survival Guide and on the Burning Man website. Add to this my predilection for appreciating back-to-the-land and minimalist lifestyles, and hippy events, and ended up with some expectations that were a little … off.
Once at Burning Man, I realized I had been naive. Yes, Burning Man might be the world’s largest leave no trace event. Yes, radical self reliance is another of the ten principles, and everyone is responsible for hauling out their own trash. Yes, the organization works closely with the BLM to ensure no detrimental impact to the playa on which we party. Yes, there is an alternative energy camp and there are a lot of old hippies. But.
We’re still bringing in tens of thousands of cars, trucks, and semis hauling all the infrastructure to make a temporary city. Each day a 42-foot long truck hauls in more ice. Pump trucks are in and out of the city, emptying porto-potties and RV black water tanks on a constant basis. Did I mention that it’s about a 100 miles to the first town of any size? That’s a lot of miles back and forth. It’s really quite a display of extravagance.
Plus, each camp hauls in all their own water, usually in disposable plastic gallon jugs that can be difficult to recycle. I didn’t recycle all the cardboard, plastic, and glass that I normally would, because of disorganization and/or laziness. Generators are running all over the city. And that’s just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Thankfully, EL wire means that glow sticks, which end up in landfills, are mostly passe. Still, there’s a lot of disposable plastic at this event. A cacophony of stuff.
Even as I had fun, the waste gnawed at me, along with the realization that there’s a LOT of money poured into making the event happen. I expected the “plug and play” camps and famous attendees, but I didn’t expect how well-off the regular attendees would seem, how many comforts of home people would bring with them into the desert. I wasn’t prepared for the overall scale of the art pieces, or the scale of the city itself. It’s a LOT of material to haul in.
For most of the week, I felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic scenario in which only the wealthy and the artists had survived and were living off the scraps of a consumer society. Dressed up on the dusty playa, partying in style in an inhospitable environment, it was as if we were spending our last days on earth with as much spectacular glory as we could muster. As if the end was inevitable, and this was one last hurrah. Or at least that’s how it seemed in my head.
I’m not saying this is “bad,” per se. Indeed, much of the excess of Burning Man is not all that different from regular American life, although it does feel more extreme, more condensed, more in-your-face. Even as environmental matters weighed on me, I also had fun and appreciated the wonderful things people created and shared. The flip side of my complaints about the impact and excess of Burning Man is that I really liked it and I participated willingly. Black Rock City is beautiful. People make ingenious things. In addition to the money that pours in, people devote time and love. Often materials are recycled, reused, saved from the landfill. The coolest things don’t usually cost the most money.
Besides the lighthouse, my favorite piece is one that I’m told comes back every year: El Pulpo Mechanico. It is a big metal octopus mounted on a truck bed. It has eyes that move in and out, and tentacles that wave. Oh — and each tentacle shoots fire. Fire also comes out the top of the octopus’ head. And sometimes the truck plays music over loud speakers, and the tentacles wave and the fire bursts forth in sync with the beat, like the octopus is dancing. This piece was created by people who are smart, creative, and resourceful. If you look closely you realize a lot of the materials are discarded baking tins. If you look closer you also see the scale working model that was built from old soda cans and other scraps. If you stop to talk, you’ll hear that the creators are designing and building a new piece, which they’re really excited about.
It’s the excitement for creating and experiencing that would keep me coming back to Burning Man, despite some of my reservations about the event’s excess. This excitement can be found in places both large and small. We camped with a couple that Chris had met last year, some really interesting people from California. They built their own dome from scratch (you can catch a glimpse of it in the first photo, behind the Cricket), teach robotics classes to school kids back home, and are enthusiastic about all the neat people they meet at Burning Man. They had curious minds and were really fun to talk to at the end of a long day exploring. Their smiles helped me stay grounded, and I appreciate that. Their stories kept me inspired about life, and I appreciate that too.
In the end, there’s no way for me to perfectly reconcile these conflicting feelings. Burning Man is a large and varied place. (Every day I would ride down to the info station and check the population census, which peaked around 66,000 this year.) If I am lucky enough to return, I’d want to be more involved in a project (like the lighthouse) both before the event and on playa. I’d want to learn a lot more about making fire, safely. I would continue to think about the meaning of the event, the ways that Burning Man’s ten principles help create an immersive experience unlike almost anything else. I would continue to wrestle with the rest.
Chris is on his way to Burning Man (the theme this year is Carnival of Mirrors) with the Cricket in tow.
First through the Bonneville Salt Flats …
and then to Sun Tunnels where he spent the night.
Wishing Chris & the Cricket safe travels & lots of fun!
Just an hour or so after I’d wondered out loud to Chris about any remaining hope of getting Burning Man tickets, an email came — & he’s in!
One curious cricket will definitely be going to the Carnival of Mirrors. Maybe two?
At left, an image from the Burning Man gallery, by Yaan Anderson.
At right, Chris’ piece in the Music Room at Wisteriahurst, Holyoke.
Those of you who know his’ work will surely agree that Chris is a Perfect Fit for this experience in the desert. Yay!