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Playa magic vs expectations

For those who’ve been to Burning Man (the big one) and regionals locally, there is this thing often called “playa magic.” While I don’t know of any official description, I’d offer it’s in the realm of this almost-beyond-possibility frequency with which the timing of what you need and that thing/person/experience appearing showing up. It happens A LOT at these events. Here’s one of my many experiences with playa magic and getting a ride on an art car.

For some people (perhaps those not yet acculturated to the community, or perhaps those with a Taker Vibe in life), it can mean “people give you things.” For those with more experience there and those more aligned with the 10 Principles, they understand, yes, Gifting is one of the principles, but so is Radical Self-Reliance.

Radical Self-Reliance is key, especially at Black Rock City in the Black Rock Desert, a place that can kill you–or at least knock some sense into you–real quick if you arrive unprepared. Yet, even if you prepare meticulously and with great intent, you can’t physically carry everything with you at all times, and there will be, of course, times when you are in need.

My sense (no empirical data, per se) is that playa magic—the mysterious, wondrous and phenomenally frequent alignment of near-impossible synchronicities—happens more to people who are prepared than those who come expecting to have things handed to them. Yes and alas; some people do show up thinking it’s a gimme-gimme event. Some people show up thinking they can not bring warm layers and hope someone will lend them a coat. Some people don’t bring a mug with them and hope people will give them a drink anyway.

This particular story comes to mind. It was a moment where I was rather baffled by a stranger who came into our camp, practically demanding we give her something; and I was super-proud of the first-timer in our camp who responded so graciously and, I’d say, accurately. This is what transpired—

she neeeeeds fresh produce

I was with a camp that offered a farmers market, where we gifted fresh produce in the early hours of the morning, 8-10 a.m. Around dinner time one day, a rando came into our camp’s private kitchen (which was in a completely different location than our camp’s public-facing farmer’s market stall) and asked if we had any vegetables or fruit we could give her. She explained that one of her camp members was eight and a half months pregnant and really needed some fresh fruits and vegetables. She was emphatic and dramatic in stressing how utterly critical it was for this very pregnant woman to have fruits and vegetables, now.

I was dumbfounded by her gall. I mean, yeah, we had a farmers market, but weren’t a 24/7 store for all her, her pregnant friend’s, or anyone else’s produce needs.

But she hadn’t come up to me, she had come up to this lovely first-timer in our camp, Whitney. Whitney very wisely said, “Our farmers market is open tomorrow from 8-10 a.m., and your friend can come by then, but I think I have a few extra oranges from my personal cooler. Do you think she would like that?” The woman said yes, and off Whitney went to get a few oranges for this woman’s pregnant and “needing fruits and vegetables” friend.

Now, first, I’m gonna say, “Go for it, girl” to the woman eight-and-a-half months pregnant and still making it to Burning Man. That’s awesome. But, really, if she needed fruits and vegetables (and I completely understand if she did), then that’s on her to provide and figure out. We were not—as Whitney clearly understood and communicated in a friendly yet boundary-holding manner—a backup refrigerator for someone who didn’t plan properly. Yes, we had a farmers market. Yes, we were open the next day and the day after and the day after. And, yes, the pregnant woman, her friend and, frankly, her whole camp were welcome to come by and get some produce … during our open hours. But, no, we were not a come-by-anytime-for-anything place. Not even close.

Of note, our farmers market produce was all pre-packed for distribution for different days, with each cooler iced and taped down so that no one, for any reason, would accidentally open up a cooler and inadvertently expose the produce to more heat and cause the produce to possibly turn and go bad.

Look, things happen. People need items they forgot, can’t find or never even thought to pack. That happens. It’s okay to ask a campmate or a neighbor for help or for a tool or for an item you didn’t bring. Maybe you’re cooking something and a stalk or two of celery would make it just right and you don’t have any; maybe your neighbor does. Stuff happens. But that wasn’t what was happening here. To me, it was the Asker’s attitude and expectation. She really wasn’t asking. She was putting the pregnant lady’s need upon us, and I was really clear that her lack of planning was not our issue.

Equally and 100 percent, our farmers market was open the next morning, the morning afterward and on. She could come back then. Our campmates working the farmers market shifts might even have happily plied her with more fruits and vegetables than they did with others, given her status as one eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Who knows? But I did know we weren’t a store. Or a backup for a total stranger who came flying into our private camp kitchen asking for (expecting to be given) produce.

can i have some of your water?

While I’m at it, another story comes to mind. Out one night while waiting for a friend to get a drink at a camp’s bar and join me back on the dance floor, a young man came up to me and asked if I would give him some water. I looked at him, puzzled, and asked, in all seriousness, “Where’s your water bottle?” He told me he had forgotten to bring his water bottle with him, at which point I encouraged him to go back to his camp and get it. Logical, right? Burning Man. Desert. Night. Out having fun. You need water. And the night was still young. He likely had many more hours out dancing and adventuring yet ahead.

I knew then I was talking to a first-timer, and while I have all the grace in the world for someone taking on an adventure such as Burning Man for the first time, or the tenth time, I also knew he needed to be responsible for his own hydration, that night and every night. Yes, gifting is part of our culture—a huge part, but so is radical self-responsibility. As a short-term solution, I offered him a capful of water from my water bottle (about a third of a cup) as he also didn’t have a mug on him and I wasn’t about to have his mouth and lips all over my water bottle! I encouraged him to go up to the bar and ask a bartender if they would give him some ice cubes to temporarily slake his thirst. He didn’t want to do that; he wanted me to give him more water … because he was, well, thirsty and to his mind, I had water, he didn’t have water, and I should give some to him because I had something he wanted. Clearly, he felt that his need created my responsibility.

His audacity was galling to me. Galling. But more importantly, he needed to be responsible for his own hydration—that night, tomorrow morning and every day and night while he was at Burning Man

When he pushed again, I got my “Now, listen here, son” attitude on and said, “I’m sorry. Are you telling me—in the middle of a desert—that you think I need to give you my water, which I packed and which I’ve been carrying for the last couple hours or so, because you forgot to bring your water, or a mug and you don’t feel like going back to camp to get your own water bottle?”

Still clueless, he pushed and said, “I don’t understand why you won’t give me more water. You have plenty.” (As if he knew the contents and water level of my thermos.)

“Because it’s my water,” I answered, “which I packed for me; that’s why. You need to have your water bottle with you at all times in the desert.” End of conversation.


Now, for all I know, twenty minutes later or the next day or whenever, I might have happily shared my water with someone else. (I usually make a big thermos of hot tea for night-time travels, and I like to gift people a sip of warm teal; it’s unexpected and soothing.) I’m not opposed to sharing. I like to share. I love to share. I even make drink elixirs on hot afternoons when it’s super dusty, and people are often fried, and I love to gift the refreshing drinks to those passing by. I like to be of service, to provide comfort and ease. What I don’t like—what I doubt anyone likes—is the assumption and expectation they are supposed to give something because someone else wants it, especially if that Someone clearly didn’t plan for their own needs and shows no inclination of being self-responsible.

a mostly naked guy

Yet another—and rather different—memory comes to mind. There was an evening once where one of the lovely first-timers in our camp came up to me to tell me about a situation. “We’re going to be serving dinner for the camp soon, and there’s a mostly naked guy asleep in our camp’s dome. He’s been there for hours, he won’t wake up, and it doesn’t feel right to have him sleeping in the middle of our dome during our camp dinner. Can you help?”

Hmmm. A mostly naked guy in our camp’s dome? That might sound nice in particular situations, but it wasn’t sounding so fabulous now. Our camp’s dinner time together was special and something we did nightly as a group, so I went to find out more details and figure out what to do. Turns out, there was, indeed, a mostly naked guy—one only in his underwear—asleep in our dome. He had nothing else on him. No water bottle. No backpack. No lights. And no clothes, other than his underwear.

I was eventually able to wake him, and I told him we were about to have dinner as a camp, and it was time for him to move along. When I woke him, it was fairly obvious he wasn’t in the best of conditions and seemed a bit disoriented. I asked one of the dinner-crew people for that night if they’d gather together a meal for him, put it in a plastic container with a lid, grab an extra plastic fork we had laying around, get together a water bottle for him (visitors to our dome would sometimes leave them accidentally), and bring those items to me.

I asked Captain Underpants if he knew where his camp was and with the modicum of muddled information he gave me, I got a semblance of where he might want to head next. Then I walked him out of our camp and to the road where I oriented him to turn right and on to whatever his next adventure was—hopefully back to his camp before the dusk turned to night and his underwear-only outfit would likely prove insufficient.

He didn’t ask for anything. He didn’t demand anything. He may not even have been hungry, but he was in need. His situation was likely of his own doing. (He appeared to have been on some kind of psychedelics either then or earlier.) And he was quite a mess. But it was easy to give to him—to make sure he had some food, some water and a chance to make it back to his camp, his home and his people so he could rest in his tent. What he did next … What happened? Not my business, nor my care. But I was happy we could provide for him in that moment.

prepare and then allow

There are people who think, “Yeah, you go to Burning Man and people have to give you what you need.” (I literally heard someone say that at a business networking event some years past: someone who had already been to Burning Man several times, no less!) I corrected him—icily, I’m sure—right on the spot and said, “No. No one has to give you anything. Ever.”

And yet, when you go to That Thing in the Desert, when you engage with others, when you bring your innocent or wise or curmudgeonly or silly or whatever Self to the playa, and as you go about, magic will happen. Be aware. Tune in and allow. It’s everywhere. Something you do or say or offer will be someone’s playa-magic moment. I’m sure of it. Equally, someone else (likely many Someone Elses) will help make your magical moments possible. Playa magic happens. A lot!

I do believe—again, no empirical data here, just a hunch—that those of us who come with the best of intentions and who do our best to prepare are the ones for whom playa magic is quite abundant.

So, yeah, do what you need to do to prepare. Know you’ll fall short in some areas and in other areas you’ll provide the blessing of abundance for another. You might be the person with extra oranges to gift right at a moment when someone is craving a fresh slice of citrus; or maybe your ability to semi-fix a broken bike in deep playa—enough for someone to get back safely to their camp—is a story they’ll tell for years on end. Or maybe you’ll simply be walking along, singing a song out loud at a moment when someone else hears you right at the moment when the lyrics to the song you’re singing are exactly the answer to the question they’ve been mulling over in their minds.

Magic happens at Burning Man. Playa magic happens. When you arrive with the intention to be radically self-reliant is when the gifts and abundance of the playa seem to present themselves all the more.

I’d love to hear your stories of playa magic happening.

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