Time’s a funny thing.
On one hand, it is a relentless and unwavering marker of sameness. Every second lasts, by definition, precisely as long as the second before it. Same goes for minutes, days, months. We freak out when our watch batteries run down and start measuring seconds just a couple milliseconds too slowly. Without all our clocks, radios, cell phones, trains, and planes subscribing to precisely the same definition of a second, the mechanisms and patterns of our lives would slowly unravel. Our society praises timeliness and scorns tardiness. We strive to ensure that our organizations, workplaces, and other enterprises function “like clockwork.” In our day-to-day lives, no unit is measured so carefully as the second.
We all know that every second is NOT the same. The eight hours spent staring at a computer screen can pass in a flash while the two hours spent scaling a mountainside can stretch on for eternity. Or, perhaps, for a different person, the opposite is the case. Our subjective experience of the passing of time is as wildly varied as the objective measurement of time is obsessively fixed. Our brains somehow accept this bizarre paradox, the idea that time can be both supremely unchanging in the world and infinitely flexible in our mind.
Why the pseudo-intellectual musings on the passage of time? Why not write more about poop, fake marriages, communal taxis, and masked tree people? The answer, hard as it is for me to admit in writing, is that my summer is over. For the past nine weeks, I have journeyed through time and space with no rules or guidelines except those I’ve imposed on myself. Days spent lazing around quiet village lanes in rural Senegal passed in the blink of an eye, while transport-heavy days featuring several communal taxis, markets, homestay negotiations, and agricultural rituals stretched on and on. A morning spent breaking down camp at a 11,000 foot mountain pass near Kings Canyon might slowly glide by, while an afternoon spent waiting out the heat in Black Rock City could abruptly crash into evening in no time at all.
All this to say, I left work at 5 PM on July 3rd, and then time fell apart. That ends tomorrow at 9 AM. Tomorrow means a return to the imposition of deadlines, “paid time off,” lunch dates, weekend adventures, and the annoying crush of business-hour-only errands. There will be clear markers of routine to guide me through the day, the week, and the month. It will be fine.
I left on this journey with no particular goals, other than to break away from my comfortably busy routine and see what happened. I was open to life-changing realizations, mind-bending cultural immersions, dramatic ideological showdowns, but I wasn’t going to be disappointed if I just saw a lot of pretty stuff and hung out with good people. I had a lot of questions about myself, my career, my social connections, and my role in the world, but I was in no rush to find answers.
Which is great, because I didn’t find many. I did, however, learn an awful lot about myself, the meaning of community, and the incredible size of the world.
I drove with Mike to the John Muir Trail with a concrete goal: deliver food and goodies to my friends Hannah and Noble as they pass the midway point of their 250-mile trek. I expected to share good times in the backcountry with my rugged buddies and to be impressed by the remote beauty of the Sierras. I was not disappointed on either front. The crystal waters of the alpine lakes near Selden Pass were certainly among the most stunning natural features I have ever witnessed. But I was surprised by an additional feature of this particular trail: the dynamic community of thru-hikers. From Pancakes (the 11-year-old homeschooler rushing through the trail with his slightly concerned mom) to Sherry and Gary (the friendly middle-aged couple from Fresno), my interactions with these bizarre characters from across the country struck me deeply, as did the force that drew them all to this particular secluded natural superhighway. The natural support and camaraderie they shared on their parallel physical and spiritual journeys was touching to witness.
My travels through West Africa with Juliana were certainly the intellectual peak of my journey. Thanks to my faux-wife’s truly impressive mastery of Senegal’s dominant language and cultural practices (as well as a lot of good old fashioned stubbornness), we managed to insert ourselves into a dizzying series of villages across the less-traveled roads of southeastern and southwestern Senegal. Tradition endures there. We saw a lot of crazy things. And then, like the good Brown students we are, we had to unpack them. Stuffed into the gerry-rigged backseats of countless jam-packed communal cabs, we hotly debated topics such as the meaning of the incursion of technology into remote communities that had resisted “modernity” for hundreds of years, the confusing boundaries of hospitality in the face of extreme power imbalances, and the daunting maze of linguistic pitfalls facing anyone who tries to describe one culture in terms that make sense to their own. I boarded my flight back to America shellshocked by the sheer quantity of individual cultures and traditions I had been allowed to witness in four short weeks in one tiny country. The implications for considering the massive diversity of the entire planet are staggering.
And then I went to Burning Man. Four days after landing at SFO, I drove out to the middle of the Nevada desert to build a home for 17 people with my roommate David and four friends I didn’t know all that well. Up until the moment we arrived in Black Rock City, I wondered if this particular journey was a good idea. I wondered whether Burning Man would be “too crazy” for me, if I would be wildly uncomfortable the whole time, stuck in the desert with a bunch of bizarre people I couldn’t connect with.
I need not have worried. I fell in love with Burning Man fast, and Camp Warp Zone became my family. Coming home to camp was as exciting as going out on an adventure, knowing there would be friendly souls hanging out in the home I helped build, eager to hear what I’d been up to and share their own journeys. And I had a lot to talk about.
You see, my brain really loved Burning Man. On one level, the urban studies geek in me was delighted by the brilliant, rational city plan that allowed 65,000 people to arrive and instantly orient themselves to everyone else. I loved the concept of “neighborhood character” in a city that only exists one week a year. “Oh yeah, the bars over on 7:30 are great,” folks would say, as though 7:30 Avenue, one of the radial spokes of the Burning Man city plan, didn’t just spring into existence days ago, miles away from the location of the “same” street last year. On another plane, the social butterfly in me loved the open hearts and minds everyone brought to the Burn. Anyone was fair game for a conversation, a compliment, or a hug, and everyone was deeply interesting.
But perhaps most importantly, my brain loved the self-reflective elements of Burning Man. Coming off a barrage of crazy experiences on the other side of the world, I relished the abundant opportunities for meditation and internal reflection, whether surrounded by friends in our wood-burning-stove-warmed HexaHome or by surreal interactive art in the far reaches of the Playa. I learned a lot about my own mind. Funny as it sounds, I found out that my brain takes care of me, that me and my subconscious are pretty much on the same page. Which is an exceptionally comforting thing to realize. Having not stopped moving in two months, I was finally able to take a step back and consider what it all meant. Truth be told, I didn’t find a whole lot of answers.
But I think I understand the questions better now.
When I started writing this post, I was hours away from my first day back at work. As I finish writing a week and a half later, I’ve already finished off two hectic projects, and have two more ramping up. The abrupt reintroduction to the daily grind reminded me that I forgot an important part of my multi-phased journey: all the bits in between. The days I spent in transit, running errands around San Francisco on weekdays and grabbing meals with friends in DC and NYC and weekend camping in Shenandoah National Park. It was these relatively ordinary days on which I ironically felt most free, watching other folks go about their daily rituals. Tuesdays in San Francisco are amazing when you don’t have to go to work for ten hours! I had forgotten that every day brings the opportunity for adventure and connection.
I’ll try not to forget it.