Louisa May Alcott: Breadwinner, Frustrated Creative and Opiate Addict

littlewomen

 

by Terry Gotham

While I was never that big of a Louisa May Alcott fan, her impact on American literature cannot be denied. Alcott is an adored and fiercely protected author, in no small part because of just how impeccably written and potentially life-changing Little Women can be.  Her eight YA novels have remained in print continuously for the 140 years since they were written. There are two anime adaptations of Little Women, plus half a dozen other adaptations. Her creative output is a fundamental piece of American literature. Today is her 185th birthday, so I wanted to tell you a story about her. You probably didn’t know she smoked hashish and used opium for most of her life to deal with the side effects of mercurous chloride to treat typhoid pneumonia, which is believed to have eventually killed her (though an alternative diagnosis of Lupus was suggested in 2007).

Previously, I was delighted to dismantle the myth that the Civil War created a flood of heroin addict veterans. However, that doesn’t mean everyone managed to escape the clutches of substance abuse. Nurses, doctors and surgeons were far more exposed to the dangers of these substances than the Union soldier who only saw the inside of a field hospital once during his service. Repeated use of alcohol in the form of whiskey and opium in the form of laudanum, morphine, and heroin to treat hundreds of soldiers a week, in addition to essentially zero oversight when it came to use was a one-two punch that created a tempting proposition for those who tended to the wounded on both sides. There are a number of isolated reports, documenting the odd doctor or surgeon who got a little too sauced at work, or needed to be relieved of his duties because he was incapacitated. This implies that there could have been more of these medical practitioners who didn’t get caught, but still ended up using to cope.

Louisa May Alcott, one of the most influential and beloved American writers of the 19th Century, was one of these medical practitioners. She worked under Dorothea Dix who administrated military hospitals as a nurse.   Before leaving for the Civil War, she’d already assumed her station at the head of the household. Her father, one of the pre-eminent thinkers of their day, couldn’t keep it together for long enough to keep them out of poverty. When she left for the Civil War, her father was reported to have said he was “sending his only son to war.”

It was during the Battle of Fredricksburg that she contracted typhoid pneumonia, an ailment that would alter her life forever. The prescription for typhoid was calomel, and to ease the side effects of literally consuming mercury every day, she started using opium, in the form of morphine & laudanum. She didn’t enter into this habit by accident. She was a very smart lady and knew the potential dangers in consuming it daily. Alcott assisted Catherine Beecher in writing The American Woman’s Home in 1869, a year after Little Women was published, in which she stated:

“The use of opium, especially by women, is usually caused by at first by medical prescriptions containing it. All that has been stated as to the effect of alcohol in the brain is true of opium; while to break a habit thus is almost hopeless. Every woman who takes or who administers this drug, is dealing as with poisoned arrows, whose wounds are without cure.”
~Alcott & Beecher, The American Women’s Home (1849), revision of A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841)

But a little thing like typhoid pneumonia & a daily opiate habit didn’t stop her. She built herself into the powerhouse of an author by sheer force of will. Realizing that her success and financial stability was depending on her career as a writer, Alcott built herself and her writing into a brand that we remember to this day. While she had made money previously from writing pulp fiction, this was light years away in propriety from Little Women and the branding and recognition that followed. The pulp was published anonymously or under a man’s name (A.M. Bernard) for similar reasons to why women writers today publish using a man’s name.

By 1870, she had grown so dependent on opium that she no longer expected to be able to sleep without it, as she described at the end of this letter to her father:

Our hotel is on the boulevard, and the trees, foundations, and fine carriages make our windows very tempting. We popped into bed early; and my bones are so much better that I slept without any opium or anything, a feat I have not performed for some time.
~Louisa May Alcott to her father, Hotel D’Universe, Tours, June 17,1870

As discussed in the Seattle Pi article that I’ve cited a few times, it’s important for stories like this to be told. Not because I think famous people should be knocked down off their pedestal, but just the opposite. We treat substance use/abuse as almost integral to the creative process, especially when it comes to strong drink and writing. This seems to be heavily amplified in men while minimized in women. The idea that alcoholism is this noble part of the developing male writing process has been so deeply embedded in the work that I have friends who honestly didn’t pursue significant study in writing because they were Irish and didn’t want to fall in love with Jameson. This is going on while we eulogize female writers in the exact opposite way, discussing them as pure or without stain, objectifying them in hugely problematic ways. Then, when someone like Amy Winehouse, Billie Holiday or Janis Joplin struggle and die from drugs, we pretend there was nothing we could do and that it just “happened again.” That needs to stop. As a dear friend reminds me, we celebrate drug use in men and totally ignore it in women.

Creative women are no different than creative men and their processes should be laid bare for all to see, scars and stumbles included. Louisa May Alcott probably pursued her habit away from her family or those who could help her. Given her status as the household’s main income generator, I think it’s easy to see her habit in line with the alcoholism of Don Draper, or the cocaine usage of a street dealer. They use because they have to, in order to provide for the people they love. Louisa May Alcott was able to produce Little Women & Perilous Play, a story about hash, in the same year. That’s nothing if not professional. She inspired generations of women to be better than the brand she created. Which is the point of art in the first place. She may not personally be this amazing protagonist hero that she write about, but in striving to be so, even if it’s only to feed her family and take care of your idealist, lazy ass family, she created the possibility for those who looked up to her to become exactly that. As a biographer of hers said on NPR: “You don’t grow up to walk two steps behind your husband when you’ve met Jo March.”

What Is Right With Burning Man? Part 2: A Shaman’s Perspective

Part II of a guest post by Ayahuasca. Read Part 1 here. Happy New Year, Burners!


 

The flame that Burns the man is lit in a magickal cauldron named El Diabla. Image: Dust to Ashes/Flickr

The flame that Burns the man is lit in a magickal cauldron named El Diabla. Image: Dust to Ashes/Flickr

This mirror, designed by Ember, lights the flame in El Diabla that eventually burns The Man from the sun's rays

This lens, designed by Ember, lights the flame in El Diabla that eventually burns The Man from the sun’s rays

Burning Man begins with one of the founders using the power of the sun shining through a crystal to light the first flame that stays lit all week until the burning of the temple. If that doesn’t tell you there’s something special about Burning Man nothing will. Shamanism has been around for thousands of years and is deeply rooted and revered in many cultures. Most of the time the Shaman (man or woman) acts as the priest, doctor, therapist, lawyer, peacemaker, and more for communities. They are healers in the community and have learned to connect to spiritual worlds within themselves of which we all have access. I have heard it said before that a Shaman is a person who can teach you to view the world from a totally new perspective; a healer that can see to your true nature, that wants to heal you, that wants you to remove the masks you build up within yourself to cope with a dark and painful world.

I was born with a curiosity to know myself deeply. I have been referred to as an empath, indigo child, healer, shaman, wanderer, intuitive, and a few others. To put it simply I have always been drawn to self-reflection and understanding myself. I feel things extremely deeply; pain and suffering is difficult to witness for people like me. This natural journey has produced many so called ‘spiritual’ experiences. From experiencing satori ‘a moment of clarity’ or deep epiphanies, to witnessing a satori in another human, to becoming one with all things many times in deep meditation and feeling a deep connection with spirit, god, and the universe. To put it even simpler, I constantly look within for the answer. I look for trust and guidance from spirit and my inner knowing rather than what my mind or society thinks I should do. To be honest, it’s not easy. It can be a very lonely path to walk but being among my brothers and sisters at Burning Man knowing I am not the only one, creates deep healing within me as well. There are powerful healers all across the world and a high concentration of them at the Burn doing amazing work. When I walk through the gates and the first person says, “welcome home” I couldn’t be more grateful. This is home and this is where we are all going.

There was a time in our societies where the Shaman or Spiritual Worker was common. Every culture in history had them and they were an integral part of the society. Today, modern science has pushed aside generations of spiritual wisdom. Science and healthcare are extremely important and should be utilized, however we have completely forgotten the other side of the spectrum and have turned pharmaceuticals into a dangerous for profit entity rather than merging the two worlds together. Thankfully the knowledge is still here and holistic practitioners, energy workers, yogis and even Shamans are keeping the teachings alive. These people have mastered their minds and bodies through different disciplines such as yoga, meditation, earnest seeking, energy work, and more. Many of us are able to clear our minds and tune into the vortex deeply at any moment. As I allow the energy to pulse through me I can easily drop into powerful altered states instantly. The depth of this state happens infrequently in the default world and instantaneously on the playa. I’m absolutely using ‘the force’. To someone who has never practiced the art of looking within and clearing their mind, this may seem a little fantastic and I can assure you it is nothing special, although sometimes it is righteously special! I could go into stories about supernatural experiences but I don’t want you to think that is the purpose of the practice. The purpose of the practice is to connect with yourself, to trust yourself, to have a deep connection that no one can take away from you.

The most telling and profound proof of the vortex discussed in part one http://www.mattbelair.com/burningman1/ is the witnessing of transformations all over the playa. It is extremely common for people to have deep healings of past trauma, crying, a deeper connection to source or spirit, awakenings or satori, spiritual experiences and an evaluation of ones life. We begin to realize and understand the truth that we are all one and mask after mask, layer after layer falls away as we are open to experience and witness our true selves. Participants have the option to go to countless workshops on self-development, yoga, meditation, consciousness, and more. Not to mention the powerful healers who work tirelessly to give healings all day. These are the places I call home at Burning Man; Shaman Dome, Sacred Spaces, Red Lightning, Camp Contact, Honeysuckle Hood, Anahasana Village and many more. These places dedicate their time, love, energy, and healing all week and is a huge part of what makes Burning Man so special.

Understanding Burning Man Phenomena and Expressions

Have you ever considered that you create your reality? Have you ever considered you have the ability to create any reality you want? Have you ever considered that you are infinitely powerful? Any Burner you meet will talk about and fully embrace the concept of ‘Playa Magic’ but what is playa magic? The short version is:

Playa Magic = The Law of Attraction

You will find countless stories of Burners who will SWEAR that playa magic is real . .  . because it is! Whether it was the time that you were hungry and a hot dog vendor appeared out of nowhere or you needed some comfort and a cuddle puddle and kind soul offered a hug, or you were thinking, ‘man I need a ride and some great music’ and a few minutes later the perfect art car rolls by and you jump in! It is the human condition and limited perception that consistently brushes this off as coincidence. However, another powerful by-product of the BMV (burning man vortex) is that these lessons run deep, you cannot continue to look away from the majesty and intelligence of the universe and brush it off as coincidence. The playa provides! Since I am a Law of Attraction coach, taught by the great Michael J. Losier, and have studied countless metaphysical fields, the laws of the universe are easy to witness on the Playa. The reality is that participants are sending a request into the universe for what they need BUT because the playa vibrates at a much higher frequency your request comes at a faster rate. That coupled with the fact that your doubt (the thing that prevents your desires) is very low causes you to be much more open to receive. This is exactly how the law of attraction works in the default world except there is a longer delay and more faith is required. With the longer delay we have much more time to sabotage our desires with our doubts, unconscious and observed signals being sent out by our minds, bodies and hearts at every second. The law of attraction has one job and one job only and that is to match vibration. Most of us are good at asking but very few are good at receiving. For example how often are you present? How often do you sit in silence? How much mental energy is wasted on stress, going places, fear, anxiety? How much of your mental power is focused on presence, wonder, excitement, gratitude, joy, curiosity? This is a deep lesson with a simple answer; focus your thoughts, feelings, and actions toward that which feels good to YOU and so it shall BE. Obviously the universe is going to throw you curve balls – you were never in control in the first place.

Zen Lessons

If offered the chance would you jump at the opportunity to learn from one of greatest Zen masters of all time? The universe is the greatest teacher of all and we have been conditioned to ignore its constant communication with us. The incredibly powerful art is also a massive healer on the playa that most people miss. It is also another big piece of the healing energy. Participants are getting deep timeless Zen and spiritual teachings without even knowing it. One of the biggest lessons is on impermanence. In some Zen or Buddhism sects they will spend weeks creating elaborate and extraordinary art only to allow it be complete for 24 hours before racking their art and starting again. This is to demonstrate impermanence and offer a deep lesson in attachment.

I witnessed as some people broke down with the burning of the Lotus temple. The fact that it was a lotus alone has huge meaning. The lotus is a very sacred symbol in Zen teachings and is often referred to in order to teach about the layers of the mind and unfolding of the self to ones true nature. Not only did the artist build a breathtaking sculpture with deep spiritual roots, about 15,000 of us watched it burn to the ground. The amount of hours, love, and commitment to build such a structure must have been extraordinary, nonetheless all the time and effort gone in a matter of minutes. We all learned a deep lesson on impermanence. These lessons are burrowing deep into the participants subconscious without them being aware of it. Think of it this way, if a child is learning that an element is hot and slightly burns their hand by touching it they will probably learn that lesson. However if the element is on high and the child touches it and suffers severe burns they’ll learn the lesson even deeper and have even more respect for the power it produces. The same applies for spiritual teachings and the reason why in Zen they often refer to layers or levels of understanding. The spiritual symbol of the lotus, coupled with the magnitude and beauty of the piece of art allowed for a deep lesson in impermanence.

The flower of life is the most sacred symbol in the universe. It is the pattern in which all life is created and is another example of how the art and environment is affecting everyone at Burning Man. The flower of life is all over the world and has been around for centuries including being etched into the main pillar of the temple of Osiris in Egypt. Here is a brief summary from an ancient civilizations website;

flower-of-life-egupt1

“The temple was a subterranean complex dedicated to Osiris, the god of the Afterlife, symbolizing death and regeneration. The northern wall of the Seti Temple was decorated with scenes from the ‘Book of Gates’. The afterlife and resurrection. The once-underground chambers are the most ancient of all the ancient Egyptian ruins. The Flower of Life symbol is carved with laser-like accuracy on huge granite blocks in the temple walls and we are not able to replicate this today.”

 Usually it is drawn in two dimensions and this year Swiss engineers fabricated a brilliant and mathematically perfect reconstruction of a 3D version of the flower of life, or as most people referred to it as, “are you talking about the ball?” The flower of life is a mathematical masterpiece and the foundation of all Sacred Geometry. Not only was the ball amazing in 3D they were able to use a light show to create and express the infinite dimensions of the pattern with a light show, which broke down the flower of life into more and more dimensions vividly showing the power, magic, beauty and awe of the pattern. Most people missed the significance. Nevertheless, this timeless knowledge was affecting them.

Enlightenment Is Nothing Special

In a few moments time you’ll know what enlightenment is. After that you’ll be disappointed. There is an old Zen saying that goes, “Enlightenment is nothing special.” And another that says, “Before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment chop wood carry water.” I can recall reading books on enlightenment and Zen teachings at the age of 16 and looking at it like static on a television. Why all these riddles? What the hell are you saying? I have experienced and understood enlightenment deeply through mediation and for prolonged periods in Ayahuasca ceremonies. It is something that is so painfully simple it hurts. Enlightenment is the simple realization that YOU are the creator. The world is not happening to YOU, YOU are happening to IT. Unsatisfied? I thought so but spend time chewing on that nugget and I promise you’ll grow, YOU ARE THE CREATOR! In order to wake up you must want to, you must earnestly seek. I had the honour and privilege to witness my first Satori ever on the playa with a beautiful soul. As we conversed about the meaning of life and the universe, all of a sudden I witnessed him have a deep moment of clarity, a powerful insight! We both began to laugh hysterically because we both knew what had happened. Over the coming days we spoke again and he confirmed he had woken up, things were different and it’s nothing special. With awakening you must still walk the human path, still confused, still searching except you have a deep knowing that no one can take away from you unless you let them. You are the creator. You are infinitely powerful. The world is not happening to you, you are happening to it. When you master your mind you can master your reality and state of being! Enlightenment is not a change into something better or more it is the realization of who you already ARE. Enlightenment is the process of letting go of everything that you think you are, that drives you mindlessly so you can act from your true nature and be FREE as you were intended.

“Do not follow the ideas of others, but learn to listen to the voice within yourself”

Zen Master Dogen

Re-entry: A Transition From Love to Fear

When you arrive at Burning Man they say welcome home. You quickly feel the love and acceptance from everyone. You witness genuine kindness, receive a thick book of workshops from spirituality, sexuality, art and everything in between. You are free to express who you truly ARE. After an experience of what I see as a 7 day Ayahuasca ceremony you must leave the Playa and re-enter the ‘default’ world. There is genuine concern from almost all participants because for most the default world is painful, dark, stressful, and makes no darn sense. A society where you’re taught to fear and protect yourself. You are literally stepping down in vibrational frequency from LOVE into FEAR, and it’s a real challenge.

Although I am blessed in the default world the transition is a strong challenge. I am able to raise my energy to astronomical heights on the playa on command and the feeling of joy, acceptance, love and my connection to spirit lessened because I do not have the BMV to tap into. Hence my communication and connection with source is greatly heightened and it’s a long way down back into the 3rd density. It is our job as humans, Burners, and people of this planet to carry and hold the light. To lead by example and as Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” That no matter what happens externally you will choose to show LOVE. Life is not perfect and when you learn to master your perspective, mind, and emotions, your reality will transform. Change always starts from within. Learn to master your mind and body, become an alchemist, and find peace and harmony within. Do not depend on the external to bring you happiness, rather radiate peace and joy and harmony within and like a ball of ferocious light let it be seen; in a smile, in forgiveness, in compassion. Trust the creator/universe/spirit/nature to bring you what you need. Ask for awakening, learning, growth, kindness and compassion. This is what a soul needs; don’t be fooled by false gold. Find infinity within.

There is only one choice that you need to make now and from every moment forward. There is no trying. You are going to choose between the two most powerful frequencies in the universe, which are FEAR and LOVE. They are polar opposites and also the most powerful. Society does everything in its power to force fear down your throat. Pay attention to where you look because you will always find what you are looking for. If we as individuals can begin to choose love for ourselves and love for our fellow man we can shift this planet. Burning Man is an example of what is possible. This world will never be perfect, however if you can find harmony within yourself, you will find harmony in your environment and that love will radiate from you and affect others. Einstein believed this so it must be true! Keep it simple, follow your heart, connect with yourself deeply and try not be an a-hole 😉

If you enjoyed these articles please share on your Facebook and Twitter, spread some love :)

All my love!

-Ayahuasca

 

Oprah and Dr Phil Do Burning Man

drphil oprah

Regular readers of this blog who have observed an occasional cynical slant to my opinions might be surprised to learn that I’m a long-time fan of Oprah Winfrey. It stems from my college days, when my choice of how to spend the day was between bicycling to an Economics lecture or laying in bed with a hangover watching daytime TV on one of New Zealand’s 4 television channels. Oprah usually won.

Oprah has always had a very positive message of personal empowerment. She has created a new 7-part documentary series called Belief, which is looking at 33 different stories of spiritual journeys from around the world. And one of them is Burning Man.

Belief premiers Sunday October 18th at 5pm PST on the OWN channel, with a new episode on every night. The Burning Man episode will air on Wednesday October 21.

Did she just say “Art Project”?

From Indiewire:

Seven billion people around the world, searching for connection, redemption, meaning. This fall, Oprah Winfrey presents the landmark television event “Belief,” a week-long documentary series airing over seven consecutive nights that depicts how people with a wide range of beliefs search for deeper meaning and connection with the world around them – the rituals, stories and relationships that bind us together as human beings. 

The documentary series will explore humankind’s ongoing search to connect with something greater than ourselves, traveling all over the world, and to places “cameras have rarely been,” in search of the origins of our diverse faiths.

The series will premiere on Sunday, October 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.

“For the past three years, my team and I have been working to find the most compelling and thoughtful stories of faith, love and devotion from around the world,” said Oprah Winfrey. “This truly has been my heart’s work, to be able to share stories like these that reflect our world and explore humankind’s ongoing search to connect with something greater than ourselves.”

[Source: Indiewire]

Here’s the official trailer:

 

Before I learned about this, there were some puzzling things about this year’s Burning Man. Now, I am no longer puzzled by them. YMMV.

Things like – why would Larry Harvey do an interview from the Playa about black people, saying that they don’t like camping and he can say that because he has a black ex-wife and son? Why would this story go viral around the world, getting picked up by more mainstream media than even the Bugpocalypse or Chocotacogate?

Why the sudden War on EDM, and a push for returning to the Techno Ghetto of the mid-90’s?

2015 black lives matterAnd why was there a “Black Lives Matter” political protest inside the Temple this year? Burning Man has never been about race…all of a sudden, Oprah’s doing a special on the Temple…you join the dots.

My coincidence theory antennas are also tweaking at the sudden formation of the Pink Hearted at Burning Man and Beyond Facebook group…did Halcyon get an inside tip?

I am surprised that there has been not a peep in the JackedRabbit, Voices of BMOrg, or the new Burning Man YouTube channel about something as significant as Burning Man being one of the things Oprah wants to feature in her special. The last issue of JRS had this:

Burning Man’s Black Campers

 
   

Steven W Thrasher writes:

“After three treks to Burning Man, the famously hedonistic festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, I must admit it: I am a black Burner.

My black friends and family think I’m crazy for going to Burning Man. According to its own 2014 census, Burning Man is 87% white and 1.3% black. But while Burning Man founder Larry Harvey recently told me that the reason so few of us are here is because ‘black folks don’t like to camp as much as white folks’, the 20-odd black burners (plus one Chicano and one Latina) I interviewed during this year’s Carnival of Mirrors-themed festival had a more nuanced take. Some agreed with Harvey, but many had very different ideas about what keeps black folk from Black Rock City.

We black Burners hailed from several countries and included virgins and veterans. Below are excerpts from our conversations, as we chatted about white hippies, the great outdoors, the problems of black hair and skin in the unforgiving desert and everything in between.”

Read more in The Guardian

There’s an important conversation about this article happening on Facebook, too.

(Photo of Mark Adolph, a.k.a. Leut, by Alexander Heilner)

If you follow the link to the “important conversation” on Facebook, you’ll find a whole heap of WTF coming from the Burners at this one.

Screenshot 2015-10-18 01.03.58

The Burning Man segment on Oprah was apparently filmed in 2013, when it was the Temple of Whollyness. The episode will air this Wednesday, October 21.

oprah-cartoonWednesday, October 21, “Belief: A Change Is Gonna Come” – Explore how our beliefs help us change. First, Anju, a young woman in central India, has committed to forgo all of life’s conveniences and permanently sever ties with her family in order to be initiated as a Jain nun. Anju must first pass three tests designed to challenge her commitment. Next, Howard Fallon and his daughter Shane arrive in the Nevada desert for Burning Man, an annual festival that provides an experiment in community art, self-expression and culminates in the ritual burning of a large wooden effigy. Howard and Shane are seeking to reconnect and heal after unimaginable personal loss. In another part of the American desert, Ashly Hines, a member of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, prepares to participate in the Sunrise Ceremony, a spiritual ritual into womanhood. Finally, scientist Marcelo Gleiser stands at the foot of one of the most powerful telescopes in the world. He has journeyed to the heart of the Atacama Desert in Chile to look deep into space for clues as to how the universe was born and how it is changing over time. He finds the more he searches the universe, the more he must embrace the mystery of the unknown.

[Source: Indiewire]

So Burning Man has a Temple, and is being presented to the world in quasi-religious terms by the Queen of All Media herself. Meanwhile Burningman.com is posting sermons about the event from Trinity Cathedral (the priest is pretty cool, especially with his glowy costume).

Could we get any more mainstream than Oprah Winfrey and Dr Phil? Where do we go from here, Martha Stewart and Duck Dynasty? Caitlyn and the Kardashian clan on a catwalk made of glow sticks? Mickey Mouse?

lego burning man

“It turns out that in this vast desert space…there are peculiar properties, peculiar magic that takes hold” – Larry Harvey

Color-Lance-and-Oprah

Burning Man Critics Miss The Point

Image: Peter Ruprecht

Image: Peter Ruprecht

A guest post from Daniel Souweine. What do you think, Burners?


 

It’s been a week since Labor Day, so if you live in the Bay Area, that means your Burner friends are still giving extra long hugs, there are still dusty cars on the streets, and you just watched your colleagues give four days of wide-eyed looks like they don’t totally understand this world you’re co-inhabiting.

It also means that we’ve just gotten another round of pronouncements that Burning Man has, indeed, jumped the shark, ruined by too much money, too many celebrities, or just too many of “these people.” Whatever the cause, it’s just not the same as it was [fill in the year when the writer started going to the playa]. Even Quiznos has gotten in on the act, which is funny until you taste their sandwiches.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But for me, the problem with these jeremiads is not that they are wrong about the gestalt of the festival — which I think they are. It’s that they are missing the interesting story about Burning Man’s evolution, which is how much the community has maintained its core principles while being buffeted by the totally predictable and completely unavoidable influx of money, people, and attention.

Before I make my case, a brief admission. I didn’t go this year, not because I think Burning Man is “over,” but because I went last year and I usually don’t go two years in a row because it takes so much time and money. Also my camp kind of fell apart. But I went last year and I sincerely doubt that has much has changed since 2014. I have also gone four other times, starting in 2004. I’m not obsessed with Burning Man, I don’t spend my whole year planning for it, I don’t have a playa name, and I don’t think of it as my “home.” But I do think the culture it has created is amazing and impressive, and I’m bothered by how much people are missing the forest of values preservation for the trees of commercial intrusion.

The principal evidence for how and why Burning Man has sold its soul are the so-called “turnkey” camps where rich people drop thousands of dollars for a hosted and catered Burning Man “experience.” Here’s a particularly unhinged account of how the plug and play camps show that Burning Man’s principle of radical self-expression is really a right-wing Ayn Randian ideal, indistinguishable from the mottos of Silicon Valley social media giants. *Deep exhale*

There are certainly more of these camps than before. But they are hardly a new creation. People have been paying other people to set up their camps for year. They are just paying them more now, the camps are snazzier, and they have gotten a ton of media attention. I know some of the people who run one of these camps, and I hung out there for a few hours last year. The design was amazing but the vibe was off, as you would expect. Not much soul.

Now, I personally think these camps are wack, and they obviously run afoul of Burning Man’s 10 principles, particularly radical self-reliance and radical inclusion. Which is why Burning Man is taking some actions to try to minimize their impact.

But even before this crackdown, I don’t think these camps had much of an effect on the average person’s experience at the festival. They are relatively closed off and so most people won’t interact with them. Which leaves people to visit, oh, 98 percent of the rest of the camps that are building their own structures, making their own art, cooking their own food, fixing their own art cars, inviting in friends and neighbors, and generally creating community. The people in the plug and play camps may not “get” it, and I sincerely believe they are missing out, but I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument about how their marginal existence fundamentally detracts from the overall vibe of the city. If anything, it serves as a useful counterpoint for newbies to see what it looks like to depart from the 10 principles.

Another, perhaps deeper critique is that Burning Man is out of step with our political moment, a world on the verge of ecological collapse. I am sympathetic to this viewpoint, but the thing is, Burning Man, in my experience, has never been particularly political. It has always been a fossil fuel powered orgy of creative expression that doesn’t have much to say about politics or political engagement.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that’s far from ideal. Burning Man should think much harder about how to promote ecological sustainability, and I can imagine a future in which everyone turns their art cars electric and figures out how to do fire art with bio-gas. But the truth is, the festival has always been more escapist and utopian than it is serious about overturning the dominant political and economic paradigm. Indeed, Burning Man seems only possible in a late capitalist society where technologically-adept elites have leisure time and excess capital available to throw the most amazing, creative, and difficult-to-organize party in the world.

And the creativity continues to be off the charts. It’s not worth wasting words here describing the unimaginable creations that dot every inch of the playa. If you have any doubts, just check out the pictures.

But if Burning Man was just about cool sculptures, impressive art cars, and amazing outfits, then it wouldn’t be that interesting to me. It’s also about building a city with a different set of norms, where giving is the currency, creativity the common bond, and openness the expectation. I’m sorry, but if people who have been in the last few years think that is no longer the case, I don’t know what city they were hanging out in. For my money, the Playa still provides.

Here’s one small story about what that looked like last year. On the day of the burn, I headed out on my bike to give a message to a friend. Coated with a week of dust, my creaky bike started to give out half way, the chain had fallen off and I couldn’t fix it. But I would not be deterred! So I found a random camp of people I didn’t know and asked if I could borrow one of their bikes. They said sure, and off I went. I came back 30 minutes later, message delivered. In the time I was gone, someone in the camp had taken the time to fix my bike. And I wasn’t even surprised. Because that is the culture of Black Rock City.

Here’s another story from last year. That same day, while I was biking cross playa, my camp mate spent the afternoon baking dozens of chocolate chip cookies (yes, we had a solar-powered oven). When I came back to camp and saw them, I thought to myself — that is way too many cookies, we don’t need all of those. Fast forward 10 hours. The sun is rising. We are at the far edge of the festival in our art car. A girl from our camp is playing piano and singing a haunting cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” through our huge speakers with a voice that would make you melt even if you hadn’t been up all night. My camp mate saw her moment. She grabbed the cookies, walked off the car, and started handing them out to the dozens of people listening to this impromptu concert. I don’t know if she planned it or not, but it sure felt right. That is the culture of Black Rock City.

Because I can’t resist, here’s one last one. Friday afternoon last year. I head out in a dust storm with two camp mates because one of them thinks that would be a fun time (it’s not). We seek shelter behind a small sculpture where I find a girl with a knapsack. In it is a plastic ukelele and melodica. We get to talking and she explains that she carries these instruments around because they are cheap and hard to break, and pretty much everyone can play one or the other. It becomes clear that what she wants is to have a little jam and that this is basically what she does at Burning Man. I ask her to remind me of a few chords on the ukelele, I begin to strum, and she plays a haunting little melodica melody along. We play for a few minutes, she thanks me, and heads on her way. I will almost certainly never see that girl again. But I will never forget our little duet. Because that is the culture of Black Rock City.

I could assail you with dozens of other stories like this, and so could other attendees. Each of them on their own is a thread of goodness. But together they form a tapestry that is unmistakable, it depicts a city that continues to live by a different set of rules, where giving is the currency, creativity the common bond, and openness the expectation.

It may be that this whole argument comes down to a question of viewpoint, and where you fall says more about who you are and your history than what’s actually going on. But I think the right way to think about this is the martian test (h/t to Dan Carlin, my favorite podcast host, for this one). If you took a martian, dropped them in Black Rock City, and asked them for a report back, what would they recount. Would they tell you about how Turnkey camps have robbed the spirit of the place, or how there are too many frat bros, or how the celebrities have turned the place into Times Square? Or would they tell you stories like mine?

People have been writing Burning Man’s obituary since it began. A friend who has never been told me he was offered tickets in 2001, but had heard that it was “so over” by then, so he didn’t go. He’s still never been, and every year I tell him, it’s not too late. The city may have changed, but its core stays the same.

 

The Ten Year Anniversary of Burners Without Borders

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Thanks to Jex from BMIR for writing this guest post. It adds to earlier stories we have published regarding Burners Without Borders:

Burners Storm The Jersey Shore

Superstorm Sandy Vs The Burners

Seeding The Future

3 months ago, Burners Without Borders got assimilated by the Borg. We hope this will lead to an expansion in the amount of good they do in the world.

 


 

The Ten Year Anniversary of Burners Without Borders

by Jex

During a recent online conversation on Burners.Me, I, as many do, found myself in what grew to be a heated discussion. Some of my final words included something of ‘why not focus on the positive in our community, showcasing volunteers and such?’. With these words, Zos offered me a voice via his publication to showcase said volunteers. A lovely opportunity to share my words on what may possibly be my biggest inspiration, as well as what I believe is a huge part of the pulse within the burner community. Thank you, Zos for sharing this piece and thank you in advance for reading…Burn Bright – Jexime, Production Director of BMIR – 94.5 Burning Man Information Radio.

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Peru_BWB website

Ten years ago, on August 29th, 2005, the third largest hurricane ever recorded to make landfall on the United States showed its wrath on Louisiana and Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina, the namesake of this monster storm, peaked at a category 5 with over 175 mph winds. It left New Orleans 80% underwater, with a death toll of 1,577 people in the state of Louisiana, and another 238 fatalities in neighboring Mississippi. Katrina caused over 15 million people to evacuate their homes and left what may exceed an estimated 150 billion dollars in economic damage, with hundreds of thousands of citizens left unemployed, displaced, and homeless.

Hurricane Sandy Relief_BWB website

BWB Grant Program_BWB websiteTen years ago, on August 28th, 2005, Burning Man presented us with ‘Psyche’ – exploring psychology: self-expression, self-reflection and the unconscious power of dreams. Who are you? Who are we? What is this ‘we’, this ‘I’, we speak of so commonly on a daily basis? As burners pondered the very existence of their symbiotic relationships between I, we, and the power of dreams, a plethora of self-expressing art filled the clockworked city streets, giving unique avenues for self-discovery.

 

During this journey of self-reflection, as Hurricane Katrina simultaneously destroyed the lives of millions of people, one of the most important and phenomenal representations of Civic Responsibility was born. When word made its way through the dust of the devastation of Katrina, a group of burners discovered a profound sense of self and reflection of those in need. They headed straight to ground zero of the disaster area to help rebuild the destroyed communities.

 

Bayou_BWB website“As the volunteer numbers grew, they focused their initial efforts on rebuilding a destroyed Vietnamese temple in Biloxi, Mississippi. After several months, that job done, they moved to another needy Mississippi community, Pearlington, to continue to work hard – gifting their time – to help those in need. Over the course of eight months, BWB volunteers gifted over $1 million dollars worth of reconstruction and debris removal to the residents of Mississippi.”

-BurnersWithoutBorders.org

 

This solitary event opened the doors to one of the greatest grassroots, volunteer driven, organizations to emerge from our ever growing community – Burners Without Borders. With a goal to empower local communities, BWB supports their volunteers from all around the world in finding creative solutions through community efforts to aid in disaster relief. They believe in the power of collaboration and community driven leadership to make solid and effective change. The BWB mission statement reads:

 

“BWB promotes activities around the globe that support a community’s inherent capacity to thrive by encouraging innovative approaches to disaster relief and grassroots initiatives that make a positive impact.”

-BurnersWithoutBorders.org

 

Haiti_BWB websiteSince Hurricane Katrina, BWB has supported major global projects including; Will Ruddick’s project of Kenya’s alternative currency, Green Peace’s Water Patrol with several members of Buklod Ng Kabataan, the communities affected by the Colorado Floods, participation in a one month artist residency at Jakmel Ekspresyon in Haiti (a program set up and run by Su Frame, a Chicago based art educator and activist) as a response to the horrific earthquake to hit Haiti in 2010, relief for those affected by Hurricane Sandy, and a multi-year earthquake disaster relief project in Peru. BWB sets up programming for volunteers to contribute to ongoing efforts such as these, as well as offering $100-$1000 dollars in grant money every April for civic projects that make a positive impact.

 

Project Hope Art_BWB websiteAs the ever growing nucleus of Burning Man and its diaspora continues its shift, feeding upon the current state of our populous, us burners find ourselves at the target of hyper criticism and challenges to our foundation’s ethics. Drama saturated rants infest social media – shrieking cries of billionaire plug and play camps echo far and wide as if they were the Mordor of Burning Man, while playa famed EDM DJs curse the dust over power discrepancies. We shockingly discover our beloved Ten Principles are mere reflections of our own ideals, held so tight they started to fall, vowels and consonants shattering into shards of morals and attachments, leaving us holding our knees, shaking in deep Playa, desperately asking ‘whatever shall we do?’. We look to the creators to change what is quite possibly in OUR hands to change. Perhaps, Burning Man is our true mirror and the evolution of our precious world and the fate of our community is our responsibility? Our Civic Responsibility. Let’s say the Borg are not our metaphorical parents, but are the gatekeepers who give us the blank canvas to create what we desire to reflect. Rules are inevitable – we are a society of rules, whether we’d like to admit it or not. However, are these rules a reflection of the chaos we are impassioned by? Are we subconsciously choosing entropy as our community religion? Are we the destructors of our own world while struggling through cloudy vision, unable to see we have the ability to come together to create change?

 

A mindful and ever so humble suggestion: Look to the example of those who have come before you. BWB is a pure example of the power we have to create something fantastic, something mind-blowing, something truly capable of changing the world.   They are not just an organization working toward aid of physical disaster relief, they are a symbol of how community, solid leadership, and how the true sense of Civic Responsibility can create massive waves. Be the change you want to see, in whichever community you dance in. Start with your passion, connect with those like minds who share it, rid yourself of mental clutter, and watch what can unfold. You can add to the poetry of those who have come before you and contribute to building a better world.

Haiti_2_BWB websiteProject Hope Art 2_BWB website

“When we connect our passion to the community purpose, anything is possible.”

-Carmen Maulk, BWB

 

BWB_Infiinte PossibilitiesThis 2015 burn, we celebrate the 10 year anniversary of Burners Without Borders. May you continue to succeed exponentially, for many years to come. Thank you for the inspiration.

 

Visit http://www.BurnersWithoutBorders.org to find out more and get involved!!

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Image: Burning Man