My son Evan Cudworth was planning on attending The Burning Man event in August again this year. But it likely won’t happen. Even that brand of social distancing––rocking out in the Black Rock Desert–– is not enough social distance to reduce the spread of Coronavirus and the deadly Covid-19 infection that is killing people Right and Left.
Some people choose to mock the Burning Man ethic as an impractical response to the world at large. Certainly it could be characterized as one big rave in the Utah desert. But I’ve listened close enough to my son’s experiences to appreciate there is great value in that communal choice to indulge in creativity in an escape from reality.
In my son’s case the reasons for attending Burning Man has shifted and changed over the years. From his mother’s death from cancer in 2013 to his life in New York his move to Cleveland and then to Venice, California, he has had plenty of angst and life choices to burn through.
Which is why an event such as Burning Man can be a spiritual experience. And when that last day of Burning Man comes along and the flames climb up the massive man of the world effigy it is a cathartic opportunity to release whatever one feels necessary to let go. And at the same time, join in that endeavor. While not a religion, Burning Man parallels the dust-to-dust, heat and fire, water and wine and psychedelic substances upon which so many religions are based. Wasn’t there a Burning Bush in the Bible, after all?
Events such as Burning Man tend to teach us that we’re not alone. Not in our need for release of joy and pain. Not in our odd or strange thoughts and fantasies. The one good thing the Coronavirus is now teaching us is empathy for the human experience. Because none of us is alone in the trepidation of a pandemic.
This past weekend my wife and I dug through the basement to start extricating unnecessary possessions. She plucked out some boxes of old bank records and musty photos. I dug out a large box of newspaper clippings from writing I’ve done the last four decades.
That collection included years of articles on all sorts of topics, too many to even delineate here. I kept the most valuable and took digital photos of the rest as the actual clippings really aren’t useful to anyone. The pile of paper was two feet high and four feet wide. I gathered them all back into the stinky old cardboard box and carried it out back to conduct my own little Burning Man session, dumped them into the fire pit and tossed the box back on top.
I reached under the cardboard box and lit the flames. I didn’t want to have any second thoughts. Then I stood back to watch it all go up in flames. Thousands and thousands of my own words curled red at the edges and then blackened into ashes. There were dozens of articles I’d written about track and cross country meets, the exploits of runners younger than I, in most cases. In the late 80s into the early 90s I covered the local teams and became part of their story as I told it.
I thought about how much I burned for recognition while doing all that writing. It was not free from the drive and pull of ego, that’s for sure. In some ways I inserted myself into the lives of others through those efforts. Attending those meets. Talking to athletes as well as coaches and parents. Of course, that’s what writers have to do. One of my favorite writers Hunter S. Thompson was the original “Gonzo Journalist” who entered the story to get it right.
But sometimes we writers also get it wrong. During one of those cross country seasons one of the best runners on a local team had a particularly poor performance after leading the team all season. I made some harsh references to the kid, and it turned out that he’d contracted mononucleosis. His season was done. One of the parents on the team pulled me aside and suggested that I’d gone a step too far. And I agreed. That is one of the tarsnakes of being a journalist of any kind. You always stand a chance of being wrong.
After that experience, my days of coverage of the local sports teams soon ended. I’d accepted a job in the marketing industry and moved on. Yet like so many lessons in life, I learned that my judgment of another person’s character and skill was misguided. So I left that part of me behind. The sportswriter. As I watched the pyre of newspaper stories burning in front of my eyes, I catalogued the many other stories that I’d written over the years. Many of them now reside only on my phone. But others I just let go. Forever. And it’s okay.
Having cleaned out my father’s house after his death, I realized that much of what we keep may have significance to us, but not many others. So I’ll keep a record of my existence, but not try to keep it all. That’s why I embraced a Burning Man of a different kind.