Thursday, June 18, 2015

Travelogue: Lightning in a Bottle, Part 8

What: An Art and Music Festival with a New Age Twist
Where: Bradley, CA
When: Friday, May 22nd to Monday, May 25th
With Whom: my friend Ashley and her boyfriend Matt

Part 8: Culture Shock

"Pick a door," Matt says. "And choose carefully."

He's showing me a round wheel made entirely of different doors. I walk around them, slowly, examining each one. I consider a door with faded teapot wallpaper and a blue door that reminds me of the Tardis. But in the end I chose a sage green door with cryptic numbers above the knob.

I enter.

On the inside of each door is a giant tarot card. Mine shows a faded tower and a visibly distraught girl. "Tower," reads the bottom type. "Break Down, Break Through."

A book explains my fortune further. "Detoxify yourself of what you think you know. Demolish your core belief systems before they inevitably crumble. Take a leap of faith. Rebuild yourself."

I feel annoyed.

Why should I tear down my soul because a stupid card tells me to?

Ashley speaks of these festivals as a kind of transcendent, cathartic experience, where barriers fall, where she can embrace humanity and be part of a larger community. Other people I talk or listen to echo this sentiment. I'm having fun, but am I having a spiritual awakening?


Maybe I just don't get it.

While Ashley and Matt do yoga, I drift into the Temple of Consciousness, where author Chip Conley lectures on the importance of festivals in modern life.

"The more digital the world becomes, the more we need rituals," he says. "Festivals connect us to the 'other.' It forces us to understand people who are different from us. And this actually makes the world a safer place."

He continues. "The modern world is a desperate editor, and when it's in editing mode, it's not in creation mode. ...I wrote a guide about emotional survival for Burning Man. A kind of island fever sets in. There's not enough distraction. Things bubble up and it's scary."

When his speech ends, he fields the audience for questions.

A young couple stands up and asks him about how to build new festivals and especially how to recruit the unconverted. He answers, but the word "converted" snares my brain and now all I can think about is my first year in college, when I became a Christian.

I felt that shiny, newly-minted convert feeling. And that's what I'm seeing now. College-age students burning with idealism and deep connection to the spiritual world. But I don't feel that now. Because I've already broken down several times, had my personality beat upon the rocks, questioned who I was and what I believed in. It's exhausting. It's exhilarating. It's hard to maintain this kind of passion and still get up in time for work.

Here, in Lightning in a Bottle, I doubt there's an agenda to convert people to any specific beliefs. But the ideology still permeates the culture. Organic foods, veganism, drugs, eastern beliefs, yoga, sex, partial nudity, liberalism, open-mindness, acceptance, hugs, art, generosity, community. It's all there. And if that's you, maybe you can find yourself.

But I don't think that's me. I'm moderate. I can respect and even enjoy that kind of culture. But I just don't think it's me.

The talk creates a tension in me that I carry back to the tent. When I speak to Ashley and Matt about it, I realize that they don't necessarily fit entirely in, either. They're older, they don't want to party all the time, they don't do drugs, they're in a committed relationship, and even though Ashley is vegan, Matt is not. They've had moments when they felt that ecstatic elation and they've had moments when they felt nothing.

I feel better after hearing this. I guess part of me felt this vague pressure to convert, to give in to this community, to turn over my very healthy ego and find transcendence. But once I realize that I need not be ecstatic, I'm able to relax, let go of expectation, and finally enjoy myself.

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