Leaving Shangri-La

A couple of days ago, as we were looking through some of our old photos, we ran across one from a few years back at BRC taken with our Burner friend, Helen. We were shocked at how young we looked.  Today, after a year-plus in pandemic mode, we look and feel old, haggard and tired.  I mean, I get it, that we’re both beyond our mid-70s and it’s time to start looking our age, but we’ve felt differently about ourselves up until now – especially since we started going to Burning Man.  Each year when we returned from the Burn we felt ageless, youthful, exuberant.

That feeling hung with us like a positive aura for months, and as it faded we could pump it back up by recalling the previous Burn, talking with Burner friends, or working on camp activities.  But now we’ve missed a Burn and know we’ll be missing another this year, and – though we’re vaccinated – we still have concerns about our health because of our age and underlying conditions.  We’ve also both faced health challenges such as surgeries over the time since our last Burn.  As a result, we feel deflated; put another way, we’re feeling our years.  And finding the photo of happy us brought all of our feelings into sharp relief.

Burning Man 2013 with our friend, Helen. How young we were

This onslaught of negativity has had one positive repercussion – it made us recall why we love to go to Burning Man, and why we think it’s such a powerful experience for older adults.  As I’ve noted many times in this blog, Burning Man makes you feel young.  It’s almost as if going to the Playa subtracts years from your aging mind and body.  I’ve come to see it as a balm against the ravages of aging.  After my first Burn in 2005, I felt 20 years younger.  I’ve evaluated why I think that’s so in earlier posts, but I think it’s worth doing so again as my wife and I struggle with this sense of our age catching up with us.

The four factors I think bring about the de-aging effect of Burning Man are creativity, change in both people and place, whimsy, and eroticism.

 Creativity is all around you at Burning Man, and not just in the massive art installations and the clever art cars.  Most individuals take pains to add creative elements to their bodies and their attire.  The impact of the creative effort suffusing the Playa forcefully demands that your brain open up to new possibilities.  That’s a particularly good idea for us oldsters who tend to become calcified in our thinking (and doing) as we relax into retiring and resting.  I know I don’t have the energy I used to have and have begun to wonder how I ever got the energy up to do anything.  A shot of BRC creativity re-energizes me for months.

The change from our normal lives provides a positive jolt to our system.  Of course living on the Playa is different from living in our house; but, it’s more than that.  We’re also among friends who are unlike the people in our community, and unlike the people we knew during the pre-Burning Man phase of our lives.  It’s not that everyone out there is so different from us.  There are plenty of individuals who have similar lifestyles and experiences as we do.  But there are also a variety of lifestyles that are outside of our comfort zone, and it’s something that we love because it helps wake us up to the world’s diversity.

There is always something to laugh about at Burning Man.  People come up with whimsical ways to express themselves and to entertain others, and the joy we feel from these efforts – I believe – peels back the years.  It makes life worth living.

Finally, BRC has always been a city built on a base if eroticism.  I still remember the shock of seeing naked people running around during my first year.  At that point, days were identified by sex acts in the Who, What, When, Where Guide.  It was Masturbation Monday, Oral Sex Tuesday and so on.  While that practice is long gone, the presence of eros on the Playa remains forceful and exciting.  I think of eroticism as a lifeforce, without which our existence shrivels into the old age portrayed in the minds of most people.  The erotic nature of Burning Man enlivens our marriage and keeps it stimulating (even after 54 years).

Being away from Burning Man for too long is like leaving Shangri-La.  You quickly wrinkle up and gain all the age that has been suppressed by the magic embedded in the Himalayas.  We need to get back to our Shangri-La – our Fountain of Youth.