Form or Function?

I had the good fortune to meet some real punks recently. City-style art punks, living in a huge old  house that looked condemned from the outside. They had their space fixed up beautifully inside, with dozens of old bike frames hanging from the extremely high ceilings, ramshackle shelves made of reclaimed wood displaying everything from canning jars to sewing supplies to Marx– all arranged tastefully with that spare, cleaned up, dumpster art punk style. The extraordinarily tall window was half boarded up with opaque plexiglass, but the top was open to the world and the breeze was billowing out a 16 foot long white curtain. You could tell that they spent their nights drinking homebrewed moonshine and reading Chomsky aloud by candlelight.

Or, I could tell anyway, because I used to be them. The woods version– minus the bike parts and the moonshine. I was 20 in my 20s. All the way, baby. I looked the look. My chosen style was army issue wool pants with 18 pockets all crammed with gear and old Pendelton shirts which I never, ever washed. Rifle over the door, crates of dumpstered food, shelves of canned bear meat and dried wild mushrooms. Some kind of animal skin soaking in a bucket in the corner. Reading Gary Snyder by kerosene lamp light.

Now I am all grown up, with such a boringly regular looking life. And I can’t help but feel a crushing nostalgia.

But as things have evolved, as I have crept ever farther into the ‘This Isn’t How I Imagined My Life’ classic drama of modern first-world adulthood, I wonder more and more how much of what I miss, what I feel I’m missing out on, is pure aesthetics. Do I really want to change the world? Or do I want to look like I’m changing the world?

My Man always reigns me in on this subject– the tendency of people in our subculture to want to be weird for weird sake. It’s just another form of branding really. We so desperately want to believe we belong, somewhere, to something. We can’t just be us for us, we have to be One of Us. As opposed to Them.

It’s the same bullshit we rail against, but transposed onto our own supposedly alternative lives. Them being regular people, Us being ‘different,’ with an unspoken ‘better.’

The fact that I was, I think, insufferably judgmental in my 20s doesn’t help things now. As I become more and more like one of Them, and lose more and more of the badges that used to get me into the Us club, I feel a rising panic in my throat. Am I selling out? Am I failing my ideals?

Of course the answers, if there are any at all to be found, are exceedingly complicated. But lately I am plagued by wondering just how much of my discontent is due to the derailing of my chosen path, and how much is simply a lack of the appropriately alternative appearance. If I were doing all the exact same things– getting and spending the same quantity of money, using the same range of electronics to hand power, buying vs making in the exact same proportions—but in the context of a homemade ramshackle squat, would I feel more like I had succeeded?

I always thought of myself as valuing function over form. Even though I have wanted to be the artist type (you know those people who, no matter what their chosen style, make their home into a thing of composed beauty?) I was never able to make myself give up the incredible time and energy it took. In the end I always came down on the side of practical. But now I am seeing that it is a struggle within. I choose function by default, but then I pine away for form.

Certainly there is lots of overlap, and much of what I am pining for is not just the lost form of my cabin in the woods, but the function of quiet and peace that was undoubtedly in greater abundance. When we lived by kerosene lamp our lives moved slower. And I miss, I crave that mental space.

But many things have changed beyond the structure whose walls we inhabit. We had kids, for example. I never got a chance to play that out, the family woods-punk lifestyle. Would I have liked it? Would I have hated it and dreamed of moving to the city as so many mothers have before me?

I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being last year. One of the concepts that has haunted me is that we only get one chance at every decision we make in our lives. We don’t get to make the same decision twice (in the same circumstance) and then reference afterwards to see which one worked out better. With no possible actual comparison, we can never know if our decisions were for the best or not. We can only keep stumbling through, untethered by the weight of applicable experience.

As I’ve gotten older I have noticed that 1. Most people over 35 feel at least vaguely dissatisfied with their life and 2. They blame it on whatever decisions they happen to have made that led them to where they are.

Having had many friends with many distinctly different lives, I have witnessed the blame flying in all directions. People can feel disappointed because they do or don’t have kids, because they have a partner who isn’t perfection personified or because they’re single and lonely, because they have a nice house (granted not many bitches ungrateful enough for this one) or because they don’t have a nice house. I don’t actually mind a little discontent if it keeps a fire under our asses to work for what we want, something of worth. But the vague and directionless anti-climax of adulthood is less than inspiring, and if any part of this malaise is just a failure of aesthetics, I want to know goddamn it.

Because… what? What would I do then– if it turned out that some bulk of my discontent was wrapped up in pure aesthetics? Is that a base urge to overcome, or a perfectly human urge to indulge? Should I throw out the unattractively normal looking bookshelves I have found on the side of the road or bought at garage sales for next to nothing and instead spend hours of my time scrounging splintery antique boards to build a beautiful art shelf?

I can tell you one thing, and I’m not joking. I’ve been building up to this one for years. I’m going to get a tattoo for my upcoming 35th birthday of a stinging nettle, a wild edible emblemic of my woods self. That my friend is some rarified aesthetics.




17 thoughts on “Form or Function?

  1. Both form and function are important I think. Being surrounded by ugly, even if it provides one with shelter, can be wearying. A beautiful home that is cluttered and dysfunctional is just as bad. Finding the middle ground, that’s what we need to do.

  2. oh, girl, i hear you. and i didn’t even get to twenty my twenties, cuz i birthed that kiddo 2 weeks into my 23rd year…
    i just don’t know – i was self-righteous and “insufferably judgemental” in my late teens/early 20’s, but i was travel-y and definitely not into homesteading, which made me (i think) even *more* insufferable and holier than thou. but then, i look back and realize –
    i wasn’t that happy, anyway.
    but i *looked* fucking, hardcore-ly AWESOME and HOTT.
    now i just look like i work 40+ hours a week (FOR THE MAN, no less) and tired.
    but then, it’s like, damn – i fall asleep really really thankful, every night, with lame and tired tears leaking from lame and tired eyes, and one lame and tired hand on each member of my gorgeous, funky family, cuz i am living blessedly.blessedly.
    even though i don’t look sexy doing it.

  3. I have a similar dilemma sometimes — the what-would-my-20-year-old-self-think-of-me moments. Sometimes I have the clarity to remember that I was much less accepting of my own self then, too (and thus, more miserable). Plus, I know a lot more now than I did then. Then, I was much more caught up in image than I am now, and I am certainly grateful to be free of that.
    Why do we think they were right, those 20 year old selves? I don’t know if they really were.

  4. Always enjoy your posts, ApronStringz. I am SO much happier now than I was in my 20s even with the cruelty of time on face and body. I think it’s because I’m so much happier living for other people, my children, that being so self-absorbed. That sounds a bit ‘holier than thou’ but I don’t mean it to. My children are so much more satisfying than I was to myself! And although I may not be living the way I thought I would; I am not changing the world. I realize with greater clarity at this age how horrific the world can be (and how lucky I am that I am unscathed by war and real poverty) and I do try, in my own way, to open my eyes, be conscious, live by my values and pass those on to my kids. I feel very, very blessed when I see the injustices that some people suffer but of course it’s hard not to wish to be even luckier sometimes ;) There are definitely more important things to do with one’s precious time, at this age, than making gorgeous art shelves, including spending more time with our kids and feeding the mind by reading inspiring blogs!

  5. Hi there. I regularly check out your blog. ( I think your blog is a good one to have in our world) I too have felt this existential discontent in my 30’s with two kids and an unhealthy relationship between myself and my alcoholic partner (father of our girls). I thought for most of the 10 years that we’ve been together that my unhappiness/dissatisfaction stemmed from my choice to be with this person who doesn’t meet my expectations, who doesn’t support me etc.. and whatever. The point is it has propelled me to seriously look at myself, my responsibilities to myself, to my children, the realities of my past, my current relationships. I’ve read a lot of books, checked out a lot of information trying to also heal from my being raised by an alcoholic mother; I’m following my passion for art and finishing up school to study it, i’m learning to let go of my pain, my (mentally made up discontent). HERE IT IS MY POINT:) I’ve come to the conclusion about what’s “wrong” with me, with society. 1). there is nothing wrong with me, with us; 2), we’ve forgotten how to play 3) we are being brainwashed by social norms, governmental enforcements to forget our power (don’t you remember having it as a child) our power to play, our power in connection with our source–the Earth–to experience joy. Remember that ecstasy we felt as children without needing anything. It’s the brainwashing of our greedy, fearful culture that tells us that there is something wrong with us, that makes us forget our connection to the Earth, to our power, to our antidote of love and feeling joy. I recommend checking out David Choe’s art experience on Korean’s Gone Bad website with his videos called Thumbs Up! He’s a person (an artist) who is an example and inspiration of someone who remembers to play, and has made his life an art project, not for art’s sake but because it’s a slow death otherwise. Peace Jenn

  6. This is how I feel about it:

    My “20s” happened from about 18 until 20. They sucked. I was married at 21, turned 22 on the honeymoon and had my daughter at 24. While my (actual) 20s were great, I wouldn’t go back. Looking back, I was kinda an idiot. ;)

  7. “Looking back, I was kinda an idiot.” So perfectly true of myself, too! Perhaps we all have to go through a “holier than thou, even though I don’t actually know what I’m talking about” stage in life? The older I get, the more I think about the saying “hindsight is 20/20”. There are so many decisions I’ve made that were, in hindsight, stupid. Thankfully, most of them were minor. (I should have saved that money back in the day for long term needs…or I should have let this person or that one leave my life sooner because they weren’t good for me.) But I don’t get to re-do those decisions and it’s odd to think about how my life would have turned out differently if I’d done things a bit different. I don’t think I would change them, though, even if I could. They made me who I am, and they brought me to the place I’m in. It’s a good place. Some days it’s hard work to remind myself how good I have it, and that I’m a better person now than I was when I was younger. And some days, it’s so easy. But I think the reminder is important. We compare ourselves to our younger, “more hard-core” selves because, really, the only person we truly can compare ourselves to is ourselves. Life takes us to places we don’t anticipate when we’re younger, so we might not be living the lives we envisioned when we were younger but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
    And Calamity Jane, you are changing the world through your blog. One post at a time you’re bringing people together. :)

  8. I love the Nettles tattoo idea! Actually, I’ve just fallen in love with nettles, and based on the little that I know about you, it’s perfect:)

    Ah, image. We all want to look good all the time, but frankly I don’t have the patience for it (if I can’t get dressed in under 5 minutes including brushing my hair once a day, forget it). Never have, and I’m about to exit my 20’s officially! However, I don’t want to look like I’m homeless either…

    One thing I’m learning the hard way this year is to appreciate my body and myself as I am. Not before kids or compared to others. I had 2 babies. My vagina went back to normal size. I can breastfeed and blog. I know how to make Ghee!

  9. Thank you so much for this post! I was feeling so down for not being able to express this experience with your clarity. When I admitted to a girlfriend that I was feeling lame for my “conventional” life (no longer the globe-trotting & impoverished volunteer pothead I was in my 20’s…) my cousin laughed. She couldn’t imagine why I would imagine my life as conventional because I am a SAHM. She pointed out that I had just chopped the head off a duck to serve roast for dinner. And while this is true, I miss the ‘cool’ and the potential to BE ANYTHING that I used to perceive myself to have. Of course, at the time, BEING something always happened in the workplace. So while I feel that homeschooling, homesteading, being a wife & mama & citizen takes priority over other goals, it still stings to feel the narrow judgement of my 20 year old self.

  10. mmmm, love nettles. but mostly wanted to say a friend gave me your zine today and I lapped it up like a nettle omelet, or ghee on toast or…anyway, I enjoyed it very, very much.

  11. I know I’m a bit late on this, but I feel I need to say a few things, for posterity.
    First is that I didn’t mean to say that I felt any judgment from those punks I met, nor did I mean to imply that THEIR life was based on aesthetics. They were in fact warm, generous and genuine– perfectly delightful people.
    Also, I don’t have a single scrap of regret about my 20s. Those years were awesome. I loved being young and hardcore with the world spread out in front of me. I think it was just right. For then. My issue is learning to accept that what was right then is not what is right now, and that that is really, truly OKAY. Young people with their hardcore black and white visions for the world get some important shit done. I am so glad there are more young people to take my place at the front lines! But I am accepting that the front lines are not the ONLY lines. There is much more work to be done, of a much less glorious sort. Not more or less important, but certainly more or less appropriate to different stages of life.

  12. Don’t forget that by making your home and teaching your children, you are showing them where the lines are, and giving those lines a little shove in the direction you want. Change by teaching the next generation is slow, but it’s important.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s