And yet, I do find myself, on long summer days like this one, missing camp terribly. I miss the kids with whom I had a connection, the constant availability of canoeing, frisbee, Jewish learning, food. I miss the long shabbos afternoons, the sense of belonging, the knowing the rules of the game, and the real love that flows between people who never express it. I find myself wondering if it will ever be possible to translate into the "real world" the lowering of personal barriers, the privileging of experience over maximizing potential, and the construction of community that summer camp is really all about.
Ironically, those same values underlie my new 'camp' - the group of people with whom I will be camping at Burning Man later this month. Burning Man had a brief period of being "cool," which luckily ended three or four years ago. Now the people who go, except for a very small percentage of moronic frat boys, are really there to transform themselves and experience the kind of art that penetrates, communicates to, and has the power to change our deepest 'selves.' Burning Man is participatory - you can't be changed passively - and it's an exploration of the further boundaries of art and humanism. For some people, it means intense sensual experiences, fueled by sex or drugs or music or visuals. For others, it means a new Rainbow gathering, where people exchange gifts and share and regard each other a little less mechanistically than usual. For most, it means all of these things and a thousand others. For almost everyone, it means being part of a real community, a place where people speak to each other, tolerate, encourage, and support each other, "help each other get through this thing, whatever it is." (Kurt Vonnegut on the meaning of life.)
Is it preposterous to analogize a Jewish summer camp, with morning prayers and curfew times, to a neo-psychedelic art festival in the middle of the desert? I'm not sure. I think that when I help some kid climb up a rock face that she didn't think she could ever scale, or when the ultimate team wins their big game by sheer determination and presence of mind, or when a boy asks a girl out for the first time, that these are the same forms of self-transformation that Burning Man is about. There was a barrier, but it was confronted, and it disappeared. There was aloneness; now togetherness. There was a limit, now a possibility.
So I don't think that Burning Man is so different from summer camp. It's just older. The boundaries are farther out; the Burning Man maturing process is one which (in contrast to summer camp) many people never go through at all. We settle into roles or identities - sometimes superficial, sometimes quite deep and authentic. We make money, because we have to. And as we grow up, we become "people" with definitions, just like the girl who defined herself as someone who couldn't climb up that rock face. Burning Man is about burning those masks, but most of life is about creating them.
Building a life is like building a house. It is a constructive endeavor, and necessary for shelter, even though it necessarily requires limits and walls. It involves planning, laying foundations, building the walls, making design decisions, and setting parameters that we later mistake to be part of 'who we are' when really we are as empty and limitless as the sky. Maybe we need this structure to live. But can you remember the summer - remember when you wished you could run out of doors, lie back in the grass, and bask in the warmth of the sun?
Jay Michaelson is chief editor of Zeek.
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