There is no English translation for the first gift I received at Burning Man. It was not a necklace or a bracelet or other trinkety item of raiment. Instead, it left me exposed, across a stretch of seven extraordinary days on the playa, to both brutal sadness and the gates of personal freedom. It was gifted to me by Mitch, from Chicago, when I told him of my plans to travel to the Northern shores of Brazil.
It was a feeling.
A single word.
As Mitch explained it to me, saudade is a Portuguese word that came to describe a sadness for those who set off on long journeys to sea, or to battle, but never returned. More mysteriously, it’s the anticipation of longing. It’s the duality of envisioning, before you should, a future swamped with nostalgia.
It was with me as I explored the customs and structures of Burning Man, where the most inhospitable place on the planet is transformed, for a fleeting week, into the most creative space in the universe. Saudade was coiled and fused with the ten principles of Burning Man, which inspire participants to carry the playa’s spirit back beyond the mountains and into rebooted lives.
It felt like a warning.
Enjoy this. Preserve this.
I knew Burning Man, like any other party, would come and go, but saudade wanted to know why Black Rock City was the only place on the planet where a civilisation with no bins could produce no litter. Saudade wanted to know if people who came for the party would leave with the message.
Saudade listened as a man called Joe Quirk addressed the crowd at TEDx Black Rock City, envisioning a world unrestricted by borders or visas or work permits. A world lived in floating cities on the sea, equipped to save the environment, cure disease, solve global food shortages and jettison millions out of poverty. In our lifetime? But why not? As Quirk has pointed out, a mere 66 years separated the Wright brothers covering the wings of their first airplane with ‘Pride of the West’ ladies underwear and Neil Armstrong getting moon on his boots.
Burning Man was focused on impermanence. The importance of lettingeverything go. I was struck, obviously, by the primal value of the wildest party I’d ever seen, but knocked clean cold by the duality of the desert. I saw written on the playa’s Temple deep etchings of regret, remorse, sadness. Saudade. It was written ablaze on a metal sculpture called ‘Phoenix Risen’, built from the scraps of 2011’s Trojan Horse and in homage to Harley Payne, a burner who skydived into last year’s event and died, from heart failure, just a few hours later.
As the sun slanted on the Phoenix, I was approached by a Burning Man volunteer called Bambi. He wanted to know how I felt, as a virgin burner. I told him that I felt a thousand different things, but that I understood. In words I know to be Gandhi’s, I told him that I felt the importance of being the change you want to see in the world. I told him what I had heard about the oceans. We talked about how powerful it could be as a theme. He promised he would plant the idea at the committee’s table.
Between turning my back on the Phoenix Risen and sitting down to watch the temple’s flames, I examined a shrine to Steve Jobs. I read a line from his biography:
“As you get older, your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.”
As the flames took hold, I learnt that you don’t need to blow things up to tear things down.
I said goodbye to my grandmother. I realised a truth about a friend. I saw, clearer than crystal, the parts of me I wanted to leave behind. I tasted my own tears.
I watched it all burn.