Tiny Seaport Home

Welcome to day 2 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.


One of my favourite places to stay recently has been The Element Boston Seaport, a Westin Hotel on the outskirts of the seaport area, a part of Boston I especially like. I like the edgy feeling, the sea, the gulls and ducks, the restaurants, the proximity to South Station — the major train and bus hub in Boston — and most of all the industrial, edge-of-the-city, institutional vibe; it’s also near the airport, and the convention center is there. (Map here.)

And the Element hotel is just perfect, so much so that while we (spouse and I) were there in late March, to attend the annual flower and garden show at the convention center, I looked around the hotel room, a sort of studio apartment — with its surprisingly well-equipped galley kitchen, living area with sectional sofa, bookshelves, and king bed, its bathroom, closets and other storage spaces, the windows overlooking concrete and glass buildings — and thought, I could live here. I started to consider whether there was enough room to entertain the way I like to and decided, no, not for more than two or at most four other people (or six who really know each other well), but there are rooms downstairs, off the lobby, to hold parties and dinners.


“Small rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, large ones weaken it.” — Leonardo da Vinci

Kitchen – obviously, I was enthralled; I mean, a full refrigerator, a dishwasher, and a stovetop!:


The Living Area/Bedroom, with sectional seating for 4 or 5, and including a desk:


A decent closet:




Corridor and part of lobby (breakfast area, also wine and cheese area in the afternoons):



It’s a very appealing thought, to get rid of 90-95% of what I own and move into a 400-500-square-foot home, especially one with such clean lines and efficient use of space, surrounded by a whole vibrant city, on water, almost literally a stone’s throw from Amtrak. Granted, the bed is right there in the living room, but for one person, or for two people in a relationship, would it really be a big inconvenience? I might stretch out and sleep more than usual, but maybe not.

This was one of the first hotel or motel rooms that actually prompted me to consider what it would be like to call it home, not just a transitionary space for a few days or a week.

View from the window over the desk:


Just a short walk to the Barking Crab, Row 34, Trillium Brewing, City Tap House, and lots of other places to eat and hang out:


City Tap House beer flight, Seaport

Art (maybe) in the Seaport:



“the height of sophistication is simplicity” — Clare Boothe Luce, in Stuffed Shirts

Living in Transition

I could have sworn I had posted something about the idea of “home” in all the years I’ve been blogging, but if I have, I can’t find it now.

deer were here, 28 Jan 2012I was prompted to think about it again this time by my friend Lynn’s class this fall on “a sense of place,” and by another friend, Caroline’s, post recently titled Staying Put, in which she writes, inspired by Wendell Berry: “We can’t love a place until we know it, and we can’t know a place until we are willing to open ourselves to its mystery, its intricacies and complexities, its willingness to invite us into conversation.”

Like Caroline, who calls herself a “former nomad,” I have never stayed put. Many of my friends (including Lynn) have lived in the same house or the same town for 20, 30, 40, 50 years. I think my imagination is pretty well-developed, but I have trouble envisioning what this would be like: to not consider every box that comes into the my piece of sky, 22 July 2012house for its packing potential, to not browse house listings (daily), to know how to get places, to not need to find new grocery stores and hair stylists, to never walk into a new library or church for the first time. To never have to make a complete set of new, local friends. To not feel the delicious, displaced, lonely, and anticipatory burden and freedom of living in someone else’s house and tending someone else’s garden.

I’ve lived in 24 places in 50 years, in 18 towns, in 6 states. I’ve spent another combined (estimated) two years in one- and two-week vacations across the U.S. (focus on Jekyll Island, Rehoboth and Myrtle beaches, New York City), and in the UK, Spain, the Caribbean; and another year or so of summers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, most summer weekends for six years on a lake in central Virginia, a cumulative month in San Francisco with a friend’s dying sister; and another 6 months perhaps on the train, travelling coast to coast several times, to New Orleans 5 or 6 times. I’ve spent some time in every U.S. state except Hawaii, Alaska, South and North Dakota, and Michigan.

I’ve lived in my latest state, town, neighbourhood, house and yard for exactly three years now. For the first two-and-a-half years, I felt like a tourist in this town. In fact, the Marti Jones song, “Tourist Town,” came to mind often as I walked and drove through town: “I’m tempted to hide away / I’m tempted to hide in a tourist town.” I felt hidden in plain view, recogising almost no one and unrecognised by almost all.

hummingbird in penstemon, 23 June 2012And I realised that I liked it, most of the time. A few palm trees, sand, the sound of seagulls, and some ocean would have improved the experience, but on the whole, I appreciated feeling anonymous, invisible, unknown by my fellow townmates. I also appreciate being known (or at least recognised) now. Both states feel deeply healing, in their owns ways.

The social theorist Michel Foucault’s idea of a heterotopia is extremely appealing to me; he speaks of heterotopias as “‘counter-sites,’ places positioned on the … outside of all places … irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life.” They might be reserved for “people undergoing transitional crises: adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the dying.”  They can also be places of deviation, where “individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed”:  prisons, retirement homes (idleness is a deviation in our society), psychiatric hospitals.

But they don’t have to be places of abnormal deviation and crisis. They can be cemeteries, gardens, theatres, cinemas, museums, libraries, fairgrounds, festivals, ships … In fact, they can be tourist towns, which remove people from their normal daily lives and which usually exist outside of time and flourish for only for part of the year and then close down.

Some places — gardens, museums, cinemas and theatres, e.g. — juxtapose many shade garden etc, 2 July 2012places or scenes in one place. They may even contain mini-heterotopias and places of transition within them, like a bridge, an archway, movement from a sunlit meadow to a dark forest or from a gallery to an open rotunda. Some, like museums and libraries, constitute “a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages,” while others (fairgrounds, vacation villages) are “absolutely temporal.”

As described by John Doyle at Ktismatics:  “Heterotopias open onto heterochronies —  disjunctures from the evenly spaced and empty continuum of time. Theater time passes differently from the time that surrounds the theater. The cemetery is a juxtaposition of the end of time and eternity. Museums and libraries accumulate past time in a place outside of time. Resort towns exist only at certain times of the year. Entering into a heterotopia often requires a rite of passage: enlistment in the army, arrest and conviction, death, travel. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence” because it is “a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea.”

monarch caterpillar on asclepias, 6 Aug 2012I’m starting to wonder whether my true “home” isn’t perhaps a heterotopia, or some sort of liminal space* I am continually passing through. A wholly unnecessary space, “irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life.”

A tourist town, a dis-placed place. No-home. A place removed from ordinary time. A kind of folly.

It’s where I, perversely perhaps, seem to feel most at home. Not “home” in the sense of feeling rooted and attached but rather in the sense of feeling relaxed, satisfyingly connected, most myself, engaged in discovering and exploring the new and mysterious (as Caroline put it, “willing to open ourselves to its mystery, its intricacies and complexities”). I feel paradoxically at home as an unrooted, uprooted stranger passing through a strange and passing land.

I seem to prefer being neither here nor there. Even as I mhosta shoots, 3 May 2012ake each new place “my own” — no matter the USDA hardiness zone, no matter which birds sing in the trees, no matter whether I am in the midst of the most-craved ocean and marsh, or of mountains, lakes, rivers, swamps, meadows, prairie, forests, desert, or tundra — I am aware of the illusion of terra firma, of an everlasting place, this eden.

I think, through practice and perhaps by nature, I have become skilled at inhabiting places in such a way that they feel real to me — real like the smell of fried food and popcorn on the boardwalk, the shriek of gulls fighting over a clam shell, the glare of the high summer sun beating on sand, the warm taste of coconut and pineapple in pretty drinks with umbrellas, the overlay of pop music and oldies coming from every other beach blanket — even as I know that this place too will shutter up when the season is over (though the gulls will remain).

Rehoboth boardwalk at night, 12 Aug 2011

* From Wikipedia: In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning ‘a threshold’) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.”

From The Beginner’s Goodbye

Anne Tyler’s latest is The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012), a short novel set in Baltimore, as usual. It’s a story of grief, ghosts, family, and negotiating relationships.

Two bits I really liked:

That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.

I can so imagine that.

And this one is just like me!:

I tried that number, and this time I reached an actual human being. ‘Hell-o,’ a man said, too loudly.

‘Bryan Brothers?’


‘Gil Bryan?’


‘But you have a Gil Bryan?’


‘Could I speak to him, please?’

‘He’s out.’

‘Could I leave a message?’

‘Let me give you his cell.’

I wrote the number down, but I didn’t try it right away. The conversation with the first guy had worn me out.



Adventures in Gardening, Eating and Living

Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch’s farm in Harborside, Maine was featured in the NYT last week. Their homestead and garden were part of a Cape Rosier/Blue Hill garden tour once, maybe 10-12 yrs ago, and I was lucky enough to visit it then, when I lived in Maine, along with some other similar gardens on former Nearing land.  Coleman and Damrosch credit Helen and Scott Nearing with their livelihoods. The Nearings are also among those who first got me interested in voluntary simplicity, with their book Living the Good Life, when I read it about 20 yrs ago; they were very influential in modelling for me a way to think about living life (though my life as lived bears little resemblance to theirs). I’ve posted about the Nearings a few times in the past.

I recently read the book Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, a book about home-scale permaculture, and some of the techniques of permacultures described in that book are mentioned in this NYT article (the word permaculture is fairly new but the philosophy and the practices it embodies have been around for ages). For example:

The Nearings “built a garden walled with stone that collected heat in a climate where winter temperatures can still fall to 20 below zero. Their greenhouse, nestled against the stone wall, absorbed its stored heat at night. Such techniques, as well as a root cellar beneath the house, helped them live off the land year-round. “


“Close attention to soil health and the different needs of each plant are crucial. ‘We’re growing 35 to 40 different crops, in greenhouses and in the field, with no pesticides, because we don’t need pesticides,’ Mr. Coleman said. ‘Basically, we have no pests.’ That’s because pests attack sick plants, he said.”

Also, Francis Moore Lappe was on The Exchange (a New Hampshire public radio show)  today. Her latest book is EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want, which suggests some “thought traps” that mire us in despair and inaction, and which invites us to “Think Like An Ecosystem,” in terms of interrelationships and connections.

One thing Coleman/Damrosch, the Nearings,and Lappe have in common, it seems to me, is that they view and express their life’s work as an adventure, as something enticing, delicious, wondrous, and to be lived and shared for that reason:

A Blue Hill (ME) chef’s “words curiously echo Mr. Coleman’s about the Nearings: ‘Just the whole way they described growing their own food, building their own house, they made it sound like an adventure, and I was an adventurer,’ Mr. Coleman said. Farming is still the greatest adventure of his life, he said.”

Lappe says about moving to a more plant-based diet:

“I hope that this is the spirit in everything I write and say: the spirit of ‘Welcome!’ The expression of ‘Wow, this is so fantastic, why don’t you try it!’ And that is what happened to me back in my 20s when I changed my diet, it was all about excitement and discovery … That is the spirit, the spirit of adventure… with the Welcome sign.”

More inspiration:

“‘What we do here is the most subversive activity we could possibly engage in,’ Mr. Coleman said, pouring a little Chateau Cape Rosier Reserve 2009, the white wine made from the Swensen red grapes that climb a trellis outside the window. ‘We are feeding ourselves, number one.’ “He added: ‘Mother Nature is supplying my inputs’ — like sunlight, compost, water — ‘for free, because I’ve taken the time to study how it works.'”

Photo #27

laundry room, 5 Feb 2012
laundry room, 5 Feb 2012


I love the laundry room in this house, and the light it gets, even in winter.

Photo #19

shower area, 24 Jan 2012


We’ve had our bathroom remodeled. It’s the first thing we have ever really changed in a house in over 20 years and 4 houses. Gardens, yes, I’ve renovated and created a few. Not too few to mention. But interiors … not so much. We have done minor cosmetic improvements (ourselves) — sanding floors, replacing broken kitchen appliances (and water heaters, and a furnace), painting walls, buying drapes — but no remodeling on any scale at all.  This job required converting a family room closet into part of the previously too-small-to-shave-legs-in shower stall and seemed beyond our abilities, so we hired people. It was weird, and kind of expensive, but it’s almost done and it looks good and I hope it will function very well.

But the main thing is, after watching the movie Beginners, I feel like saying … “This is our bathroom, we use it for showering and peeing.”

Photo #10

Your Stuff Here sign, from train, near NYC, 3 Feb 2011
Your Stuff Here sign, from train, near NYC, 3 Feb 2011


I like moving. I like planning and planting a new garden. I like living in houses and places that are different from each other (brand new suburban, rustic post and beam on 10 acres, Victorian in a coastal small town, mid-century modern … what will be next?). I like reinventing myself, unhinging my identity a bit, not knowing anyone or anywhere, gradually making discoveries. Of course, some of this can be done by staying in one place for a lifetime, but some of it can’t.

Most of all — and what moving facilitates so well — I like getting rid of stuff. I like selling or giving away books, I like weeding out clothes, shoes, and other apparel and accessories.  I like tossing knick-knacks, puzzles, games and other things I never really liked anyway but kept because they were (usually) gifts. I love throwing out letters, postcards, and other ephemera. I like the freeing feeling in my body when I let go of what I’ve been hanging on to.

It’s been 2-1/2 years since we last moved and I feel ready to do it again. Not move, necessarily, but purge the house of the unnecessary and unbeautiful.

As designer and Arts & Crafts Movement forerunner William Morris put it, succinctly: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  I still have a long way to go to reach this ideal.