Community and Adversity

A man grilled chicken outdoors, giving it away to passers-by. A few blocks away, people from all over the city showed up spontaneously to visit a friend. And as the sun went down, neighbors who rarely spoke to each other gathered in Tompkins Square Park, dancing in a circle around a fire, laughing and smiling.

No, this wasn't a community block party. It was the New York City blackout -- the most joyous celebration of an emergency I've ever seen. It was an emergency, with disabled people stuck in skyscrapers and commuters stranded under the city on the subways. But for those who were lucky enough to be out and about, much of it was a big party.

I was struck by the way that normal class, race, and age barriers lowered or even disappeared. Late at night in the park, residents of the projects by the East River mingled with trendy yuppies from new condos a few blocks away. Anarchist street punks and business people, kids and parents, the locals and the staying-with-a-friend-'cause-it's-too-far-to-walk folks all, in the words of the much-maligned Rodney King, just got along.

There's something about the harshness of emergencies that sheds light on our more ridiculous day-to-day worries. Maybe that morning we waited an extra five minutes for the subway, fuming the whole time. Or our favorite bakery was out of apricot-bran-carrot muffins. Or, far more serious, a freelance assignment was late with a check, which meant rent would be late. All of that -- the small problems and the big ones -- disappeared for a moment as we realized the freedoms we had to reach out to one another and break the daily routine.

I have a similar experience almost every year. It's called Burning Man, a festival of free expression every Labor Day week in the Nevada desert. It's a little hard to describe to anyone who hasn't been there, like explaining Cirque du Soleil to someone who's only seen the Barnum and Bailey Circus. In fact, Burning Man is a circus -- a volunteer effort where everyone comes and contributes whatever of beauty or wonder that they have. A rollercoaster, a temple, huge public artworks, and a mind-boggling display of costumery and plumage are only the start.

What I love most about Burning Man is the same spirit of openness and community that suffused the New York City blackout. Urban refugees drop their unapproachable city-faces, offer free food and drinks and jewelry; in other words, do almost anything to help their fellow man enjoy their time on the playa. This year, my camp and I gave shelter to a member of the Paiute tribe, whose lands are near the festival. He helped us with our camp and told us about his tribe's history, which included successfully defending their land against American troops. By the end of the festival, his first, he declared himself an enthusiastic member of the Burning Man tribe as well as his own.

How can we bring this spirit of celebration to everyday life? It begins with small things, like smiling instead of scowling on the street. We can question our attitudes, particularly towards people who serve us in some capacity (waiters, attendants). There is a certain kind of disdain that masquerades as formality in this society. Be a rebel. Break it. Live.

Let's make every day an emotional state of emergency

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