Almost Certainly Not Axe Murderers

Welcome to day 30 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.  (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.)  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.


“The man behind the check-in counter gives the impression that he has just axe-murdered the motel’s owner (and family, and family pet) and is going through these procedures of hostelry so as not to arouse suspicion.” ― Paul Quarrington, The Ravine

I mean, how could I not use that sentence in this series. But seriously, the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Kennett Square, PA (the Brandywine Valley) is nothing like this! It’s just a clean, simple, normal chain hotel in a medical/corporate park alongside Route 1, perfectly located for visits to Longwood Gardens, exactly two miles away from the hotel. It’s also only about a mile to charming Kennett Square, with shops and restaurants, and about 1.5 miles to Victory Brewing, a brewpub on the outskirts of Kennett Square. Spouse and I have stayed at the Fairfield Inn three times now for six nights total — in Aug 2015, July 2017, and Oct. 2017 — and will use it in the future when we visit the area.

I’m not sure what so appeals, besides primo location and hotel staff who in no way resemble or suggest axe-murderers.

It’s not the Pumpkin Spice coffee.


It’s not the wacky carpets, although it is kind of fun to try to walk only on the straight lines.

The breakfast is variable, though usually the oatmeal and fruit are good.


I think it’s really just the combined sense of comfort and anonymity that appeals. The staff is friendly and efficient but non-intrusive. They look up when you walk in and out, so you feel someone is noticing your presence, but their eye contact, body language, and spoken words (if any) don’t suggest they are watching too closely or monitoring your movement. Housekeeping comes at a predictable time. The public space is impersonal but there is coffee and tea and sometimes lime water offered at all hours, as well as candies at the front desk sometimes, and complimentary newspapers on weekdays.

The private space, the rooms, are comfortable, too, with all the basics provided.

view into room, Oct. 2017
two double beds, Oct. 2017
one king bed, July 2017

The desk has additional electrical outlets and jacks. There’s a microwave, fridge, and coffee maker. There’s ample drawer and closet space.

microwave, fridge, desk and chair, dresser and TV, coffee maker, lighting, Oct. 2017
microwave, fridge, desk and chair, dresser and TV, coffee maker, lighting, July 2017

The bathrooms are big enough with capacious counters and lots of space for shampoos and such in the shower.

bathroom, Oct. 2017
sink, counter space, mirror, Oct. 2017
tub/shower, July 2017

The rooms aren’t cheap — from $105-$165 per night depending on what season and nights we stayed — but they’re comparable to other places in the area, and I feel there’s good value for the money (just the location near Longwood alone means we can return to the room and then back to Longwood easily during the day).


Speaking of Longwood, and since this is a garden blog, a few pics from our visit this month, starting with the almost-futuristic bathrooms in the conservatory:


This is what they look like from outside:


I’ll be doing a longer post on this trip to Longwood soon, but for now, a few teasers:

old beech tree, meadow
monarch and red admiral butterflies on dahlia
mimic fly on chrysanthemum
lanterns in conservatory
‘Easy Does It’ floribunda rose … pink and orange


Next time I’d like to get to Chanticleer, Mt. Cuba again, and maybe even Tyler Arboretum in Media, PA. Might need a trip to the area just for garden-going. And a few more nights in the cheerfully disinterested Fairfield Inn & Suites.



There is Comfort. There is Reassurance.

Welcome to day 3 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.


There are six motels/hotels that we (spouse and I) stay at over and over, in Savannah, Boston, Middlebury VT, Orleans MA, Boothbay ME, and Ogunquit ME. I’m not sure exactly what their appeal is. Prices per night range from $89 to $250, all fairly mid-range for their locations. The locations themselves are great but they differ — two are in the heart of cities, two are in the heart of towns — all four very walkable to the things we want to walk to — and the other two are on the outskirts of town, though still walkable into town (a mile or two each way, which we enjoy), and one of those is a few blocks from the ocean. Three accept pets, which mattered to us until a few years ago.

I’m going to highlight one of these hotels today, The Holiday Inn Express-Historic District, Savannah, GA. We’ve stayed here at least four times and would have stayed more but they were booked twice when we travelled and we had to stay at other hotels, including the Cotton Sail, which sits just above River Street, chic, modern, expensive, and the Planters Inn, on Reynolds Square, which is old-fashioned, falling apart (when we were there, the elevators didn’t work, almost the whole time!), and the staff was unfindable and not helpful. There was a complimentary bottle of wine in the room for my birthday, which was a lovely surprise, but things went downhill from there, and at more than $300 per night, things needed to be pretty perfect.

But I love the HIX.  Yes, it’s a Holiday Inn — which, when I was growing up in the 70s, was “the nation’s innkeeper” and its iconic sign was everywhere (my family stayed in family-friendly Holiday Inns and Howard Johnsons on our once-a-year vacation) —

Holiday Inn_0002_NEW(above, not my photo)

— but this one is on the corner of E. Bay and Abercorn, one block from River Street, a few blocks from the City Market, a block from Reynolds Square. The location can’t be beat. (Shown below with red tag. You can also see the Cotton Sail Hotel and the Planters Inn on the map.)


We come into town on the train,


take a cab to the hotel, and we don’t rent a car (from the airport, miles away) until we check out and leave for Jekyll Island, an hour and a half away — often via the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens:


Somehow the HIX feels like a sanctuary from the moment I enter the wide, whooshing automatic sliding doors, usually for the first time each visit at 6:30 a.m., more than 24 hours after having fallen out of bed in New Hampshire at 4 a.m. to catch the 5:50 a.m. bus to Boston, then the 9:30 a.m. train from there, through a change to a different train line in New York’s Penn Station in the afternoon, with evening and overnight on the Silver Meteor (which continues on to Miami), to be awakened early again, at 5 a.m., for disembarking.

And just about always, our room is ready when we stumble in, bleary eyed, at 6:30, both needing showers and some sleep on a real bed before hitting Huey’s on the River for beignets, cafe au lait, and grits:


Nothing says “welcome” like the availability of the hotel room in the wee and exhausting hours of the morning, and check in staff who seem happy to provide it more than 8 hours before their normal check-in- time. (They also give us bottles of water and sometimes fruit.)

Chilling out on the bed in your hotel room watching television, while wearing your own pajamas, is sometimes the best part of a vacation.  — Laura Marano


We’re usually at this hotel at Christmas and New Year’s, when it’s decorated cheerfully and simply.


There is something especially wonderful, for me, about spending big, culturally significant holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving away from home, and it is precisely because of the heterotropic feel of it: I like the way time passes differently when travelling, when staying in a city or town where I don’t know anyone except the person I am travelling with (and if I’m travelling alone, even more so). Time is open, the future is unknown rather than proscribed as it often is when surrounded by family or friends, when in one’s usual place, taking part in the same interactions as always on these occasions.

We often spend a day or two before Christmas in Savannah, then drive to Jekyll on Christmas Eve or Christmas itself, and we return to Savannah on New Year’s Eve or the day before, spend that night there, and take the train home on 1 January. I love subverting the procession of what is often treated as “sacred” time by making it feel ordinary (ordinarily holy) through the mundane activities of packing, picking up a rental car, driving on the interstate, unpacking, finding take-out Chinese food someplace or just nibbling on snack food when most others in our culture are buying, wrapping, feasting, gathering in groups. I like interacting with cab drivers, rental car agents, restaurant staff, hotel staff on these set-aside days; I feel I am part of an underground community in some way, and at the same time I know I’m not. Our schedule and plans for Christmas Eve and Day and the days before involve not decorating a tree, not wrapping and unwrapping gifts, not making holiday foods, not meeting family/friends for a meal, not going to church, and so on, but rather just checking out of a hotel and picking up a rental car on time. Then? Nothing is certain; time could unfold any way it will.

We exchange only one or two small gifts during this period and I make some rough decoration for the room from shells, branches, sand, rocks, ribbons and rope, a few shiny things. If we were at home, I’m not sure we’d scale down to this extent, but even if we did, I don’t think it would feel the same to me, because there is something about the usual place, home, that exerts a kind of sway on time, on plans, on what’s expected to happen when, and it really does seem like it’s the place itself that has this effect.

Michel Foucault says (slight paraphrase) that “the heterotopia begins to function fully when people are in a kind of absolute break with their traditional time.” To make “an absolute break with traditional time”  — by travelling away from home, by staying in a hotel or motel that superimposes and confuses public and private space, that functions as a temporary and transitional way-station, that allows personal (and perhaps “couple” or “family”) identity to float free of its boundaries in an anonymous environment — removes or rescues us from prevailing norms, allows time and self to dissolve and re-order to some extent, blurring the boundaries of time and self as the boundaries of meaning in the space itself are blurred (public/private, familiar/strange, feels institutional/feels like a retreat, etc.). And what period of time is more traditional in American culture than Christmas and the weeks before it?  (Rivaling Christmas for traditional celebration, Thanksgiving is the other time we tend to travel each year.)

Some years, we do feast on Christmas Day at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel buffet extravaganza, and New Year’s Eve is often a special dinner in Savannah. We may attend the Christmas concert at St. John the Baptist in Savannah, or take a nighttime walking tour with a sort of Christmasy Dickensian theme (a fund raiser for the local food bank or other charity in Savannah). Even those time-appropriate, traditional “Christmas” events, however, take on a different feel, because we are in the space of a heterotopia, where multiple realities are juxtaposed. We’re in a place that’s both familiar (we have been to Savannah and Jekyll before, we have certainly stayed in Holiday Inns before) and unfamiliar, even exotic, a place where the weather is mild enough that we can dine outside at a cafe table on the sidewalk in mid-winter, when there are feet of snow piling up on our driveway at home. We are among palm trees and camellias blooming everywhere. We are wearing light clothing. We are among other tourists, also enchanted and bewitched by their surroundings and how they feel in these strange surroundings, unmoored from the usual family, community, daily household tasks. It often feels surreal, disorienting in a mostly good way.

Instead of spending Christmas morning unwrapping gifts, we light a candle or two, open a card and a gift or two, and then take a long walk on the quiet beach, admire the shore birds, maybe walk in the woods and look for stinkhorn fungi. On New Year’s Eve in Savannah, we often eat dinner fairly early, walk about on the Savannah streets a bit as festivities are starting to gear up, then head back to the waiting hotel room, where we can perhaps hear a car horn, fireworks, carousers from inside the small impersonal space.


Back to the hotel: The room itself is simple, like the lobby,  with just what’s needed: good wifi, a refrigerator, a microwave, a desk and chairs, comfortable bed(s), well-functioning bathroom, some space, some quiet.


The staff are always attentive, and the place just works well. I don’t feel in any sense that I am home there, but I feel benignly looked after without feeling watched or intruded upon. I can be anonymous, I am unknown (even after four or more visits), but I also feel the tenuous and privileged connection that being a “guest” confers.


While in Savannah, favourite spots besides the hotel and Hueys are the Paris Market, with their unusual toys and stuffed animals, good-smelling things, jewelry, books, household goods, fantastic displays, and the macarons, especially at an outside cafe table …


… the fabulous Arches Bar in the Olde Pink House

(Our Little Hummingbird cocktail)


And the tavern there for dinner, by the fire …


… and then there is the estimable Gryphon Tea Room, serving tea sandwiches and brunch, staffed by the Savannah College of Art & Design students …


the ceiling


Oh, and Savannah Bee honey, with two (maybe more?) locations in Savannah (and one on St. Simon’s Island) … Free samples of honey there, plus mead tastings, lots of lotions and potions …


… and the River Street Sweets and Candy Kitchens on River Street and at City Market (all with free praline samples) …

barrel of ZotsCandyKitchenSavannah22Dec2013candySavannahsCandyKitchenSavannah22Dec2013makingcandyapplesRiverStreetSweetsSavannah28Dec2013

Other favourite food places are Jazz’d Tapas Bar for tapas and romantic atmosphere; Moon River Brew Pub for casual eats (big outdoor space); Churchill’s Pub in the wine cellar for special occasions; Rocks on the River and Rocks on the Roof at the Bohemian Hotel for a fun, hip nosh (Rocks on the River was open one Christmas morning when nothing else was, bless them); Vic’s on the River for great view and a comfy traditional spot. Once we get the car, we usually head to the Crab Shack on Tybee Island for seafood and cocktails. I’d love to get to the Crystal Beer Parlor next time; we walked there last time but they were unexpectedly closed that day.


Then there’s hours spent strolling on cobblestone streets, along tree-lined streets dripping with Spanish moss, beautiful and interesting architecture everywhere …


… and the parks, gardens, squares, Colonial Cemetery …


… the stairs that are so fun to climb …


… the whimsical creche and the glorious Christmas concerts, with organ and choir, at The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist  …


I almost forgot the Telfair museums — which includes the Telfair Academy, part period house, part art gallery …


… the Jepson Center (a more modern art gallery) …


… and a tour of the Owens-Thomas House (no inside photos allowed) …



And after walking, eating, drinking (cocktails on the street!), attending events and taking tours, enjoying tea, (mostly) window shopping, sampling gobs of pralines and honey, pounding the cobblestone and climbing up and down the stairs, it’s so nice to retreat to the unpretentious Holiday Inn Express at the corner of E. Bay and Abercorn for a little quiet, some privacy, a few Zots candies, and some moments or hours of down time in an uncluttered, embracing room, possibly overlooking a pocket garden behind the hotel.


Even after a long train ride and early morning wake-ups, no shower, gritty eyes, I always perk up a bit when I see this ….


When you get into a hotel room, you lock the door, and you know there is a secrecy, there is a luxury, there is fantasy. There is comfort. There is reassurance. —  Diane von Furstenberg



While my dad was dying, and since he died on Wednesday, I heard some phrases and sentiments repeated, including

  • Everything happens for a reason
  • He’s in a better place
  • He fought a good fight / I’m sorry he lost his battle
  • It’s never easy to lose a parent / It’s only going to get worse / You’re going to need a lot of support to get through this

I know these words are truly meant to be comforting and helpful guides and balm.  I know they’re sentiments and ideas that really comfort the people who are saying them to me, who have their own deeply felt experiences with dying, death, loss and grief. And for that reason, I welcome them and am grateful for them.

All the same, these ideas aren’t comforting to me.

>> I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, and it seems like such an easy thing to say, a way to give meaning to any act or event and therefore render it non-random, understandable, part of a benevolent plan. I think some things are random, don’t make sense, and are not under the control of a plan. Yet I know that other people firmly believe that everything happens for a reason, and they are sharing that perspective to help me because they care and want to offer an idea that brings solace to them. It’s given as a gift.

>> I don’t know if Dad’s in a better place. I really can’t imagine where he is, if he is Dad, New Zealandanywhere, or what it’s like. My feeling is that he’s OK wherever he is or isn’t, that death isn’t bad — and maybe that’s my own cheap comfort (after all, life is awfully painful, miserable and desperate for many people on earth).

I suppose I get this idea that “death is OK” from witnessing other deaths and endings every day:  seasons cycling, this moment ending and the next beginning,  one breath ending and another beginning, relationships flaming out or waning out and relationships igniting or flickering, hopes dashed and another vision of reality coming along afterward, etc.  I see that endings aren’t catastrophic, and endings can lead to beginnings. But really, I don’t know.

I feel, without certain evidence, that love is elemental, universal, and completely available, and that that’s as true before death as it is after death:  love is death-less. So I feel that Dad is loved now as completely as he was always loved. For me, both of these ideas or feelings — that endings are OK and love is all-available — apply as much to beings who are alive as beings who are dead; they don’t give me additional comfort when someone dies.  Knowing that people who are alive suffer, fear, hate, and can be entirely miserable leaves the door open for the same to be so in death. But who knows?

>> I don’t see death and dying as a battle or as something to be fought. On the contrary, I see it as something to make friends with. To allow and accept.

I don’t mean that one can’t try to be well through medication and other treatment for illness or injury, through protecting oneself physically from harm, through fitness and healthy eating, etc.  Life can be good, and even those for whom it’s not may have the hope that it will be (while there’s life, there’s hope, its said), and feeling well and healthy is lovely.

But life being good doesn’t make death bad. One’s limited emotional, physical and spiritual energy, when one is dying and not able to feel well, could go toward maintaining a sense of well-being and connection, towards a practice of equanimity, towards spirit-feeding actions rather than striking out against a perceived enemy, which seems depleting to me.

In my Dad’s case, he used some treatments (surgery, a few rounds of chemo) but when it was clear he was dying, when he wasn’t healthy enough to do the things he likes to do, he didn’t fight death. He took its hand.

>> So far, losing a parent feels … natural. I’m not sure if that makes it easy, but it makes it not-hard. I do deeply feel, as the poem I posted a while ago began, that everything that can be lost will be lost. My father is one of those things. Sooner or later, I will be one of those things and so will you. That’s life-death.

I can dwell on the loss of the particular — the impatient, active, avidly curious, thinking, faithful person my dad was, his laughter to the point of gasping, his rasping cackle, the way he got ‘tickled’ by things, his way of asking penetrating questions about life and listening to my responses, his availability to travel and visit, his eagerness to hike and go someplace new, his eagerness to try new things generally, his handwriting, his love of surprise, his way with restaurant servers, and so much more — and of course I miss those things about him, the Dadness of Dad.

(The best articulation of this I’ve ever read is John Updike’s poem, Perfection Wasted:  “And another regrettable thing about death / is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, / which took a whole life to develop and market”).

Yet, though that brand of Dad magic is gone, somehow it’s an integral, completely grafted part of me now. I carry my dad within me. Not just since his death but for most of my life I’ve been accumulating pieces of him and incorporating (good word — “to form into a body”) him into me. And everyone who knows him has been doing the same thing, not as “imitators and descendants” but as apprehenders  and appreciators of my dad.  So, oddly, it’s his presence that comforts me still.

So, I am comforted, in a way, not because I think Dad died now for a reason (I don’t — we all die, it’s ordinary, it’s a given once we’re born, it’s what happens), or because I know for sure that he’s in a better place (I have to admit that I don’t),  or because he fought valiantly against his mortal foe (I’m thankful that he strived to be well and active until he couldn’t, and then he seemed to seek silence and sleep); I’m comforted because I feel that Dad can access love now, as he always could, and because I can access his love and his particular form of magic in myself, in others, in the world I still live and breath in, for now.

I’m also comforted by friends, family, strangers online, and by the very people who say these ultimately uncomforting things to me, because behind whatever the words are is the generous gesture, the desire to love by giving me what is most comforting and meaningful to them. Thank you.

Non-Anxious Presence

I like this bit from Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil (2003):

“Bengt Maardh’s face bore a troubled expression as he seated himself in the visitor’s chair. He folded his hands and rested his elbows on the armrests while his serious gaze focused on Irene. Again she felt that a priest was here to console her, as if she was the one who needed comforting. The feeling was absurd, yet it was there. Maybe it was evoked by his sympathetic brown eyes behind frameless glasses.

“Then it struck her that she was simply being exposed to a basic tool of his profession. This was the way Bengt Maardh had learned to act in times of grief: He displayed compassion. It probably worked with a person who actually needed it, not least with women. And who doesn’t need compassion nowadays? Our need for comfort is immeasurable.”

I would not give you false hope

I love this:

House MD to Wilson: Why didn’t you tell me this?

Wilson: House, you and I, we don’t have the normal social contract. I don’t expect you to tell me the lies that …

House: I am fully capable of lying to you.  I’ve lied plenty of times.

Wilson: I mean collaborative lies. Giving someone a hand who maybe needs to deceive themselves, just a little. For two days I’ve been thinking about how Danny’s gonna react when he sees me. If I said that to any body else , they’d say, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll all be all right.’ You wouldn’t.

House: Because it might all go horribly wrong.

Wilson (laughs hollowly): Yeah, yeah,  it might.

House: In which case, you might want some company.


And then:

House MD to Wilson: Does it bother you that we have no social contract?

Wilson: My whole life is one big compromise. I tiptoe around everyone like they’re made of china. I spend all my time analysing what will the effect be if I say this. Then there’s you. You’re a reality junkie. If I offer you a comforting lie, you’d smack me over the head with it. Let’s not change that.

House: OK.

Wilson:  No …  see …  if you were implementing the social contract, you’d say that but only because it makes me feel better.

House: It is kind of fun, watching you torture yourself.

Wislon: Do you think things will work out with my brother?

House: No.  … But if it does go wrong, it won’t be your fault.

Wilson: Thanks, House.

(all from House MD 5×17, The Social Contract)

I can live within the social contract. Sometimes, when I’m exhausted, I want it, the facile lies that make it all easier.  But maybe the exhaustion itself is a product of living within the social contract, from the tacit knowledge of those facile, social lies, which comfort but aren’t true and don’t truly abide.