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How An 11-Story Phallus Can Change a Life

A lot of my friends were perplexed when I told them I was going to Burning Man this year. In case you don’t know, Burning Man is a city/arts festival that’s created for one week each year in Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Truly in the middle of nowhere, this ancient alkaline lake bed is so inhospitable that nothing can live there -- no bugs, no reptiles, no plants, no nothing.  But it is the place that 50,000+ “Burners” call “home” – and they spend thousands of dollars and hours all year round to make this the most fantastic home-coming party imaginable. 

My friends asked, “Why go? It’s just sweltering heat, huge dust storms, and a bunch of dirty, crazy people drinking and doing drugs. Why are you doing this? And at your age?”

The simple answer: To build an 11-story phallus. The theme of Burning Man this year was “Fertility” and my fellow campers were dedicated to building an 11-story structure so we could give other Burners a panorama view of the entire playa.

The more complicated answer: I needed a creative jumpstart.  My new book was completed, my jokes felt stale, and the message of my current speech no longer excited me. I firmly believe that creative people need to search out fresh perspectives on life so they can continue to see the world anew. And no place does that better than Burning Man – where fantastic art is created just for the joy of it, and the economy is based on the notion of “unconditional gifting” – I give to you out of the sheer joy of wanting to share, and I expect nothing from you in return except for a thank you.

I got early entry to BM and when I arrived, the playa was as empty as a blank page. I spent four long days lifting heavy scaffolding to build the largest structure at Burning Man. Once opened, my job was to spank the people who wanted to climb to the top. That was my favorite job.

When it was erected (pun intended), I climbed to the top and the once empty playa was filled with dance clubs, bars, art cars, a giant fire shooting octopus, and gigantic sculptures, porn and doughnuts. As I walked the playa, and stopped in camps like Porn & Donuts, Suspended Animation, and Camp Beaverton, I had deep conversations with people of all ages and religions from all over the world.  I was offered music, workshops, food, drinks, hugs and kisses. I wrote the name of my high school drama teacher, Mrs. Moody, and my cat Harry who had recently died on the wall of the Temple. As I cried over my losses and the thousands of others so lovingly documented all over the Temple, complete strangers came over to hug me, soothe me, and hear about those I lost.

Despite the harshness of the location, Burning Man was one of the safest environments I’ve ever been in. By my third day, I had let go of my clothes, along with all the judgments I had about myself – my looks, my age, my deficiencies. They all vanished in this city that’s based not only on personal freedom and expression, but also on community, acceptance of all, and a desire to give to others.

From BM I flew to a corporate speaking gig for Iowa bankers.

In my speech, something magical happened.

In the past, when performing for people I deemed “conservative,” I’ve always modified who I was. I have always felt different -- I was “that weird kid” in school – so I gave those audiences a more “normalized” version of me. Burning Man changed that. I learned that there are bridges that we comics and speakers can make to connect to any audience, without compromising our authenticity. Day after day, night after night, this was proven to me over and over. I realized that it wasn’t the audience’s judgments that made me insecure – it was my own judgments. That insight gave me the guts to spontaneously share a deeply personal story with my audience. The results were that people didn’t just say that they enjoyed my speech, but rather they hugged me afterwards with tears in their eyes.

I brought Burning Man energy to Iowa, and got the Burning Man connection back.
In the end, there is no greater gift you can give an audience than the gift of your true, authentic self. When we performers give the gift of ourselves, failure is impossible.

Click here for a video from Burning Man 2012.


Anonymous said...

I have struggled with the same issue of feeling I had to change myself to be more like my audience. And then I finally let go and really told what I felt from my own perspective. The result? More love and acceptance than I've ever had before.

Congratulations on your newest life lesson!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful and inspiring story Judy. I am always at peace when I am just being myself. While I can be somewhat enigmatic and misunderstood, I wouldn't have it any other way. Thank you for sharing your deep, personal message.

Audrey Levy said...

Great story, Judy! You continue to amaze me with your proactive enthusiasm for life. La Chaim :)

Billy V Vaughn said...

Thank you Judy! I am a friend of Baal*Mart and a 10 year vet of BM. This year I was not able to attend, but helped provide one of your campmates with a ticket.

Your story ignited my mind and stoked the tear ducts. Thank you for reminding me how special each and every one of us are!

Billy V Vaughn

Deri Latimer said...

Love that, Judy! And I could not agree more with your message!
Regards, Deri

Andy Ford said...

Judy, that is a great story! Considering the fact that you are old enough to be my younger sister, very inspiring too! Andy

Jeff jeffers said...

Judy, you kick ass. Love that you could be candid and personal with a "Corp audience" and also love that your risk was recognized and accepted. This has as much to do with your skill as your courage. Thanks

marylee said...

It is possible, perish the thought, that the selves we are giving just aren't a great gift. there are some people in the world like that. It's like someone once said of a particular drug, "it enhances my personality?" and the response was, "what if your personality is shit?"

But mostly, the gifts are wonderful, like Judy's to us -- and I like to think I have something to contribute to the year long Christmas we should be living.


Anonymous said...

Judy - no matter where you are or what you do - you bring joy and care to us all. Thank you...Linda Lichtman

Tony Edwards said...

Hi Judy. Tony Edwards here.

You might remember me from the Improv back in the 80's. I've been going to the Playa for the last 11 years, so your story struck a very familiar chord with me.

I ended up writing and performing a one-man show about Burning Man, a video of which is available online:

Glad to know that there is another stand-up veteran who's home is Black Rock City.

Tony Edwards said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Muhammad Zahid Iqbal said...

Fantastic and heart touching. Really Inspiring story Judy. This has as much to do with your skill as your courage.CialisI am always at peace when I am just being myself.

lisa j said...

I never thought about going...but I'm enrolled! Can't wait until next year! Thanks Judy you are always inspiring...xo LJ