Thursday, August 20, 2009

Home Town(ness)

There is no place that I can identify as my home town, though I've had a sense of home town(ness) in two separate places in the last seven plus years. One of these is Gibraltar where I spent a few hours in the Spring of 2006. As the tour bus made its way along the upward curve of the winding road, I had the sense that this was where I belonged, that it was an ancestral home of sorts. I trace this feeling to a television commercial that was shown many years ago, I think for an insurance company. It used the "rock of Gibraltar" as a symbol of its own rock solid strength. Such is the power of advertising.

The other place where I have experienced the sense of being in my home town is in Black Rock City, the magnificent, transitory, and densely populated city that appears on the Black Rock Desert of Nevada for one week at the end of August every year. Burning Man, a festival that I first attended in 2001, is the context for the creation of this city. As I roved around gaped-jawed at the eye popping creations and the previously unimaginable friendliness of its citizens that first year, I kept hearing such phrases as "Welcome home" and "It's good to be home." Even as I departed from "the playa" at the end of the week filled with the joy and magic of the place, I couldn't relate to these sentiments. Home was the place where I lived the other 51 weeks of the year, I thought. In the sense that my little domicile is my home, I was right. I hadn't yet gotten the sense of home town(ness).

It was in the second year, and instantly upon my arrival, that I understood the experience of home(ness) that had seemed so foreign to me the year before. The population of Black Rock City reached 25,000 or 30,000 that year, yet wherever I went, I would almost inevitably run across friends from the previous year. We would laugh and hug each other with a joyous abandon that I'd experienced nowhere else. Strangers would greet me and I them with an ease that I'd never known in what Burners call "the default world." For a few minutes, we'd be as friends without masks. As I walked throughout the city, a voice within me silently and boldly shouted, "This is My Town." It was an experience I'd never felt before.

The songs of country music often refer to home towns. I listen to them (and sing along) with a sense of having missed out on that. None of the places where I've previously lived are home towns for me. None of them are places to which I could return with the expectation of finding anyone there who would remember me or I them. The title of one of Tom Wolf's books comes to mind: You Can't Go Home Again. Perhaps I am missing a mythic home town that has its roots in a less mobile past. Even so, in my second year at Burning Man and every year thereafter, I experienced home-town(ness).

I think that I may be finding a path to this experience in the town where I actually live. One of the things that has helped open the door to this is my rediscovery of the joy that I felt as a child when I was able to let my creativity run free. Burning Man played a big part in this by providing the impetus for me to make art (very loosely defined) that other people enjoyed. Big George in his rocket ship and M!MM with his/her straw hat are examples of this. Burning Man also taught me to talk comfortably with strangers. (Advanced age has allowed me to continue with this even as I encounter people who are not necessarily . . . ahem . . . kindred spirits.)

And so I finally come to a community event that I attended on Sunday, October 5, 2008. It was called Sculpture Jam and was put on by a small group of people, most of whom are artists. They have been hosting an annual community art project since 1998 and meet throughout the year working out its details and hearing related presentations from various local artists. The theme for 2008 was "Fish In Motion." An (approximately) 12 ft. by 12 ft. area was set aside in the plaza of a park where a farmers' market was also taking place. Within the Sculpture Jam area were several tables on which participants could make and/or decorate metal fish. These would become a part of a permanent display, although the fish were available for $5 or $10, depending on size, for people who wanted to keep their creations. From the moment that I saw the set up, and even though none of the organizers who I met had been to Black Rock City, I felt some of the sense of community that I experience at Burning Man. In March 2009, I was priviledged to join this group of creative people.

When I began this post, I was thinking that the town where I actually live might become My Town. A couple of week-ends before Sculpture Jam 2008, I attended a festival called The Great Handcar Regatta which was largely organized by Burners. This was the first year of the event and, with about 3,000 people in attendance, it was successful beyond all expectations. The festival will make its second appearance on September 27. I have offered my name as a potential volunteer. It's beginning to look like the place where I actually live may eventually become my home town.

With a few minor changes, I wrote but never published this post on October 10, 2008. Not realizing that it was so long, I intended to incorporate it in a current post about my newest project. It is now 11:25 a.m. and I have much on the agenda today. My next post will be a continuation of this one.