Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Redefining 'Home'.

The other day I started reading Ann Power's Weird Like US: My Bohemian America (2000). The author is a mere six years older than I am. I thought her book might evoke some feelings of nostalgia for my twenties, and maybe even suggest some ways to integrate any resulting insights into the trajectory of my current life. For a long time I have lived with a feeling (sometimes vague and at other times diamond-sharp) that I am walking a path outside of the mainstream's social conventions. When I first started having these thoughts, it bothered me to think that I was 'different'. By the time I reached early adulthood, I was comfortable enough with the idea that I began to integrate my individuality into almost every facet of my life. I became truly committed to experiencing as much as possible, and forming my own conclusions rather than simply receiving the wisdom of others.

Part of what facilitated my process of 'becoming' had to do with the people I chose to surround myself with on a daily basis. When it was time to go to college, I deliberately picked a place that was far enough from where I grew up so that I could remake myself without interference from the people who had already decided who I was. I paid close attention to the qualities of those I encountered, and was methodical about considering whether or not they fit my future vision of myself. Needless to say I had a string of roommates throughout those years. Everyone existed on a trial basis for me, and I wasn't tentative about moving away from them if it turned out that our interaction wasn't working. This led some to decide I was crazy, and others to characterize me as 'difficult'. I was perfectly willing to live with those labels. The formation of my new identity was an act of conscious creation that I put above all else.

Powers' book resonated with me almost immediately, as her very first chapter has to do with the alternative living spaces people on the periphery (she calls it Bohemia) seek out. She insists that 'home' has just as much to do with the family one constructs around oneself as any description of the physical facilities where one resides. It's fairly common for college-age folks to live in common spaces with others who may or may not share the same values and interests. This is a typical phase in the 'growth' of many people who go on to fill the ranks of the professional class- the gate keepers of normative morality and lifestyles. The task to be negotiated is learning how to 'go along to get along'. For most it reinforces the idea that there are parameters of acceptable behavior within our society. If you breach the rules, then your cohabitants confront you, and you are brought back into line with convention.

But (quite obviously) not everyone embraces the socialization presented by such arrangements. Eventually I got too frustrated with the expectations of those following the preordained paths. I believed that there were alternative arrangements that could be just as valid, and I threw my lot in with others who had come to similar conclusions. The groups I would end up embracing rejected what they interpreted as the common middle class values that stifled real individuality. We came together to form an informal collective of outsiders, and defined ourselves against the external world. We made it a habit to question the assumed values of our society. If something was considered 'bad', we had to seek it out and make our own evaluation. Conversely we withdrew from many of the things society had deemed to be "good". It was only through dropping such (seemingly arbitrary) qualifiers that we could see the true nature of things.

I can't claim that our experiments resulted in a series of consistently unqualified successes. Our arrangements were necessarily volatile, since we often found ourselves at cross-purposes. It was never assumed that any of us were the 'ultimate authority', so there were plenty of conflicts resulting from inevitable disagreements. However hard we tried to put aside our prior conditioning, elements of it existed as obstacles to mutual understanding. Still I had never experienced the levels of open-mindedness and acceptance that I found among those fellow travelers. I probably never will again. But the lessons learned in that environment still affect me to this day. I try to avoid using terms like 'right' and 'wrong'. I value differences and don't perceive them as inherently disruptive. I believe I have carried with me certain aspects of the lifestyle we forged in our youth. It was the essential re-definition of concepts like 'family' and 'home' that inform me even today.

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