Dream City Home

Welcome to day 31 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 are all listed here.

To be an outlaw you must first have a base in law to reject and get out of, I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room. … Am I alien? Alien from what exactly? Perhaps my home is my dream city, more real than my waking life precisely because it has no relation to waking life…  — William S. Burroughs

Dream city as home. This idea works for me. My dreamspace, which feels like a place where I live even more vividly, more sensually, than usual, is often architectural in form and setting, with past houses (which obviously do have a relationship to waking life) — especially this one …

Maine house, Feb. 2001
partial kitchen, Maine house, 1994
Thanksgiving in Maine house, 1995
fireplace and living space, Maine house, 1994
stairs and warming oven, Maine house, 1994
Christmas 1996 (with Cactus) in Maine house

… and apartments, hotels, restaurants, frequently other people’s houses, auditoriums, hospitals, bridges, schools, bathrooms, meeting rooms, buildings and built spaces that I don’t think I have ever been in except in dreams (and there they are typically recurring settings) — all common in my dreams. Of course, dreams have to be set somewhere, like plays, but what interests me is the transformation of knowledge and memory of the building, and the exploration of it in the dream, and how often dreams are set in places I don’t recognise except perhaps from previous dreams. (This dream, e.g., about my dad a year or so after he died, takes place in several buildings I’ve never been in in waking life.)

My “dream city” feels like a multiplicity of places — some real, some not real as far as I know (or at least not remembered by me in real life) — that are significant for various reasons: because of my emotional and aesthetic memories of a real place; because of the feeling evoked by its architecture or layout; because of some association with it through other people’s stories (what my imagination conjures — from novels, from what friends have described, from song lyrics or lines of poetry, from what I’ve heard on the radio — or what my eyes have actually glimpsed, momentarily, in paintings, on TV or in movies, riding past, etc.); or who knows what reason.

Yemassee SC Dec. 2013
Rocky Mount MC Dec. 2013
somewhere in Rhode Island, Feb. 2008
somewhere in Connecticut, Feb. 2008

Why do buildings and other places resonate and spark imagination? Why do they “make us” feel a certain way, evoke moods and sensations (e.g., “haunted houses”)? Is it because they contain us, hold us, bring us together or split us apart, both exclude and include us? Do they somehow form an external correspondence to our interior spaces?


More to Burroughs’ point, my sense of homelessness, placelessness, alienates me from real life sometimes. My family moved often — due to my dad’s corporate life promotions and transfers — so when asked, e.g. as a security question on a financial site, “what is your hometown?,” I have no idea. I have no hometown, and my home is pretty much where I am at the moment, so in one sense I feel “at home” almost anywhere. But coming home after being away feels jarring — home is familiar, a place I know well and am comfortable, but re-entry to normal life after being away feels oppressive, constrictive; I feel restless, like I’ve lost something. I think it’s partly that on the road (hotels, motels, trains), there is much less stuff and therefore less emotional tiredness brought on by the emotional and physical demands of stuff.  But I think it’s more than that, perhaps something to do with the way, as I’ve mentioned previously, that travel disrupts, questions, and subverts conventional thought and behaviour. Coming home, I feel the demands (that word again) reinstated, the sense of what I am expected to be and do limited by the circumference of “home.”


Unlike Burroughs’ experience (“I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room”), I have in my life almost always had a base, a room, apartment, or house to come home to day after day — and yet these places have always felt transitional to me. (I’ve written about this before, 5 years ago, in Oct. 2012). I can’t help but notice that all our lives and all our places are transitional, ephemeral, not made to last. In the short run, someone will dig up my garden or terrace it, a storm or fire may take out trees and destroy homes and towns, objects and materials constantly wear out, living things die (some exceedingly quickly, others at a slower rate) and everyone I know, including me, including friends’ children and their children, including all the animals now alive on earth, will die soon. In the long run, all bodies, all buildings and things, all governments, all human constructions will disappear and wild nature will take over, as it is wont to do now when given half a chance.

seaweed growing on rock, Kennebunk ME, Dec. 2014
fern growing out of rock, brick, in Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah, GA, Dec. 2015
trees growing out of rock ledge, Northern Rail Trail, NH, April 2015
watermelon plant growing on beach, Jekyll Island, GA, Sept. 2013

And in the longer run, land, sea, and all mortal beings, all species of flora and fauna, will disappear.

Which is why perhaps a heterotopia appeals to me so deeply … the placeless place, neither here nor there: a ship between shores on which an ad hoc society exists only as long as a cruise or passage; a tourist town, which shutters up and closes down after a few months; a public garden, where antiquity meets modernity (and as Louis Marin says, “the unsurpassable contradiction, where art and nature, artifice and truth, imagination and the real, representation and being, mimesis and the origin, play hide-and seek”); a museum (hard on the back and wearying though they are), where the past is reinterpreted by the present (“Foucault’s museum is not a funereal storehouse of objects from different times, but an experience of the gap between things and the conceptual and cultural orders in which they are interpreted”- from Beth Lord); a cemetery, where past and present collide and almost all of us have a relationship with it. A place, in other words, where here-there-everywhere and now-then come together in some ambiguous, disturbing, provocative way. A place that deviates from conventional norms, a constant reminder that ‘normal’ is always and everywhere just a temporary construct. These heterotopic places are where I feel I belong, if one can be said to belong to such a place, because they match my sense of what’s real.

my mom, Evergreen Cemetery, Roanoke, VA, 13 Dec. 2014
Dad’s ashes, scattered in Mt. Rogers National Recreational Area, Virginia, June 2013


We each exist in a place now, places that seem real, solid, geographically tangible. At the same time, or in another time that runs alongside the chronology we obey, we are placeless, standing at a threshold, that liminal space, waiting, one foot here and one foot there, waiting, inhabiting multiple realities, multiple places and times in one moment, in one space. That’s how it feels to me, and I guess it’s why hotels, motels, lodging, and the movement of travelling resonate for me, reminders of the non-linear world beyond and inside and overlapping this other world we are inexplicably placed in. They remind me that we’re here for the moment, we’re in this spot in each moment as we move toward another spot in each moment, places we’ve never been, or have visited in dreams and in memory.

We live out of suitcases, uncertain in the middle of the night how to find the bathroom and the lights; we wake up disoriented, aware of strangers coughing, flushing, moving about next door; we check ourselves in the mirror before opening the door and stepping through.



Thanks for traveling with me on this part of my journey.


A bit of dread that finds your borrowed bed

Welcome to day 6 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.

A friend — Jack, a college acquaintance, now friends on Facebook — asked me yesterday why I’m interested in heterotopias. He asked, I saw the question, then I went out with a few friends for a goodbye lunch for one of us (not me), where those friends asked me, What exactly is a heterotopia?


I gave my short spiel, then walked to the hair stylist, who, while she cut my hair, asked, What is that first word, that “h” word, heterotopia, what does it mean? I said I would send her the little piece I wrote, Heterotopias and Liminal Spaces. But meanwhile, Jack’s question stirred my mind: Why?


I had been looking earlier at an interesting and beautiful-in-its-way Tumblr page called Motel Register. The page’s writers seem to have a nightmarish view of motels; many of the images are dystopian, creepy, ominous, grim. Some are sort of bleakly glamourous, like this one:

CapriMotelMotelRegisterbleakglamourour(Above, not my photo)

A recent entry that caught my attention was the one on Crossroads, i.e., motels with that name, as well as the idea that motels are a crossroads, which is heterotopian:

“Crossroads. This is the ur motel marker. Traced back to its German roots, this two-letter prefix means ‘out of’ and ‘original’ all at once, just like a motel room promises adventure and solitude in the figure of the frontier. America in a nutshell.

“To be in a motel is to be at the crossroads — of adventure, the workaday grind, criminality, and life in general. Anything could happen here. And you could take one road or the other out of the parking lot. The choice is always, painfully yours.

“Everything is overdetermined on the road. You cower under the sheets of your adventurous spirit. The company of strangers is the only home you care to know.
If the ultimate promise of travel is self-discovery, the lonely night beside the highway might be the most authentic moment of your life.”

What this no-place place, this crossroads between real and unreal reveals is disillusionment: we are lonely and exist as solitudes, we seek adventure but we are cowards, we are people in pain seeking to escape pain.

There’s this lovely thought, a sort of mockery of nostalgia, about motel phones, on a night when the air conditioner, with its “hum like an airplane’s engines … wheez[es] out a bit of dread that finds your borrowed bed” and after you come back from a trip to the foreign bathroom, a crack in the curtain [which is why I always carry large safety pins] casts a spectral light spotlighting the obligatory telephone:

“Age finds you in an instant.  Frozen like a deer, your mind starts silently punching in your first phone number, still so easy to remember some 30 years later. 481-9371. And like that, you’re at home and so far away all at once.

Motels: They stand in for home, and in doing so remind us, in their bleak emptiness, that we are not home, not at all. Or perhaps they remind us that home, wherever that is, is not any better than this shabby and friendless motel, that “the company of strangers” is the only company — the only family, the only community — that exists anywhere for us.


So I go to lunch with friends (friends I had never met 8 years ago), go to get my hair cut, walk the mile or so home (taking a detour to photograph some butterflies in flowers at a farm stand but end up in love with these grasses in this light),


flip on NPR and listen to more discussion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature today, with the Nobel committee’s comments about his writing: Ishiguro “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Others (NYT, mainly) write that “[h]is dual identity has made him alert to life’s dislocations; many of his characters are caught, in different ways, between worlds. There is a sense among his men and women that a single wrong move may be calamitous.” (Shades of the mood at the Tumblr site, Motel Register.) They say, “he writes about what you’ve had to forget to survive in the first place, as an individual and as a society.” (From Never Let Me Go: “All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma.”) Prospect magazine calls him “the master of the quietly unsettling.”

Dislocations; the experience of being caught between worlds; that sharp and inescapable realisation of the abyss that lies black and gaping beneath our abiding hope that we’re connected, that we are solid, permanent, that we are who we think we are, who we appear, known and loved by those we believe we know and love; the necessity of forgetfulness about who we are and what’s been done to us, or what we have done, that enables us to function, and then the remembering, sometimes, that disquiets, quietly unsettles, calls into question everything.

What, I wonder, in our culture reinforces the illusions, tells us the lies that are needed so that we can function as it prefers us to function, helps us forget what we hold inside, distracts us from what’s true, asserts unacknowledged power over our options, our desires, our relationships with each other, with other species, with the earth?  Is it really an illusion, that we are connected to each other, or is the truth that we actually are and don’t see it, don’t feel it, and if so, why not? Why do so many people feel they “don’t belong”? Why are so many resources spent on making houses into homes, far beyond what’s needed in terms of shelter and comfort — the many home box stores, the TV stations, hundreds of magazines, newspaper sections devoted to home decor and desires, decorators, stagers, massive industries and hours of time devoted to the project of creating and recreating the home, over and over?



Today, again on NPR, I heard this interview with a reporter who wrote in the Atlantic magazine about ongoing and deadly fraternity hazings and about the “profound moral unease” that frat members may feel as they cross the line into criminality, certainly into cruelty and obscene carelessness, or they may cover up this sense of unease at the time, may express unconcern and callousness, only to have it seep out later, who knows when, why, and how. Because “there’s this sense that at the core of hazing is a kind of manhood that says, ‘You endure, you shut up, you keep the secrets’ and that’s how you go forward and become a man in this context.” A man doesn’t call for help. A man covers up, hides the significance of what he’s done and how he feels about it from himself, and moves on: “And … they take a breath the next day, the next month, even the rest of their lives, and realize what they’ve been part of ….”

Hiding aspects of who we are from ourselves and everyone else. Profound moral unease.


Because of the new Ken Burns & Lynn Novick series, Vietnam is bubbling in our collective consciousness again. I haven’t seen any of the series, though I was privy to a small discussion about it among people who have seen it, and I’ve listened to some news stories on it (this Maine Calling program on the documentary is particularly affecting); one thing that seems clear is that, like fraternity hazing, it was another circumstance — and a compulsory one for most, unlike fraternities — where young men (primarily) were put in a situation of doing terrible things and then having to bear the psychic consequences of their actions.

Profound moral unease. What do we do with it, as people, as a culture?

Then the news this morning of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign To Abolish Nuclear Weapons — as the Nobel committee says, “the spectre of nuclear conflict looms large once more” — and I thought of the existential unease many of us experience, some consciously, some subliminally (that is, below the threshold of sensation, consciousness; affecting our mind without our being aware of it, so that we may deny it).

Unease. Disquiet. Dark thoughts of mortality, morality (acting in a way unaligned with our deepest values), alienation from self and others.

Welcome to the Crossroads Motel!

CrossroadsMotelMotelRegisterTumblr(Above, photo by Joseph Vavak. “Happy Easte”)


So, these are all things that interest me — I assume they interest most people in this culture? — and that are the essence of what heterotopian spaces evoke, I think.

When I am in a motel (as in a cemetery, garden, hospital, museum, on a ship in the middle of the ocean), in that “borrowed bed,” the knowledge that life is a way-station, an unlikely moment between nothingness and nothingness, perhaps, is as pervasive as the peeling wallpaper and the stark, unflinching lights over the bathroom sink.  I am travelling, not only here as a guest in this motel but also, at the speed of light, between birth and death.


And there is that dual sense of possibility, of being anyone, doing anything next, because time is floating and place is layered and who I am is unclear, fragmented, divided. As Motel Register reminds us, “Anything could happen here. And you could take one road or the other out of the parking lot. The choice is always, painfully yours.”


A heterotopia works on us by mixing up layers of life, layers of meaning, layers of time like yesterday, “when I’m old,” my 8th birthday. Normally, I may wake up at 6 or 8 a.m. and do this, then do that, then do this other thing, and then it’s time for dinner, and life goes on in this linear way, though the activities vary, from one moment to the next, and it might make sense to me at times, it holds me together and sets out boundaries. Time and space are defined by known boundaries.

But heterotopias disorder time, they subvert our sense of expectation and of what’s next, and often, by means of their temporal and spacial misalignment with our normal world, they contest, question, or subvert our usual sense of what’s important. Heterotopias stir up unknowing, throw established meaning into question, both our personal perspectives and ways of making meaning and also the significance and meanings assigned to things, events, people, places by others, by the society at large.

If you have been in a space of crisis (serious illness or injury, someone dying, natural disaster, war, abuse, etc.)  you may have felt the way an hour can last 10 hours, or vice versa. The experience of time in such a place, during such an event, intensifies, distorts, feels circular or exponential. And in this disrupted, out-of-the-ordinary place and time, our attitudes, beliefs, relationships, sense of self can suddenly feel provisional, less definite.


More, on a level above the personal, the relationships we observe among our society’s spaces — whose definitions and meanings derive from the prevailing cultural power structure; and in which we may participate willingly or not — can be called into question in heterotopic spaces. Michel Foucault’s (rather grand) claim was that heterotopias are critical to the functioning of the human imaginary (i.e., the deep-seated mode of understanding, the creative and symbolic dimension, through which we create the ways we live together collectively), and that without heterotopias societies will inevitably collapse into authoritarianism. In Foucault’s conception “the heterotopia is simultaneously both part of and apart from the hegemonic arena [i.e., from the power structure of the society]. It is something whose aim is to challenge the dominant culture yet at the same time it is constitutive of that very culture which it opposes and challenges – no culture exists that does not contain heterotopic spaces. So, it is clearly not the case that the heterotopia is seeking to replace the prevailing hegemony.” Yet it is meant to question, challenge, and subvert it, from within. (Much more on this at The Heterotopic Art Institutionat Traces of the Real, by Hugh McCabe, August 2014.)


Fiona Tomkinson, writing about Ishiguro’s novels in her article “Ishiguro and Heidegger: The Worlds of Art” (in Kazuo Ishiguro in a Global Context, 2015), asks “How do the protagonists survive the loss of their illusions and of their world? What is left when a world, floating or otherwise, vanishes ….?”

What may be left, going back to the Tumblr “Motel Register” site, is an authentic moment, perhaps a lonely, disconnected one, perhaps a moment when we come face to face with our cowardice, selfishness, lack of faith, pettiness, terror of the abyss, homesickness, heartache, helplessness, exhaustion. Perhaps a moment when we question what we know, what we believe, what we’ve been taught in our culture and by those who love us. Perhaps a moment when we don’t know anymore who’s bad and who’s good, who to exclude and who to include, who belongs and who doesn’t. Perhaps just a moment when we don’t know and don’t have to know, or one when we don’t rush to unravel a ball of tangled feelings … as we listen to the clanging air conditioner, feel the light from outside the motel room even through closed eyelids, and lie there on our borrowed bed, disillusioned with the promise of the motel room.



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.”

Photo #16

dad walking, HHSP, florida Feb. 2007
dad walking, Hickory Hammock State Park, Florida, Feb. 2007

I wrote this piece in November 1993 — more than 18 years ago.

At Home

My father called last night. He’s finally changing his will and he’s made me executrix. The term surprises me, and before I can stop myself, I flash on Electrolux vacuum cleaners, then high-priced call girls performing exec-u-tricks for CEOs. I don’t think about what it really involves until after we hang up, and then I can’t stop thinking about it.

Dad and his girlfriend, Nancy, are renting a house on the Carolina coast for three months, then they’ll decide what to do next: either house-sit in a Michigan lighthouse, or build their own log cabin in the western Virginia hills, with the idea of living in it half the year and travelling during the rest. Either way, he’s still looking for a home, temporary or less temporary. He’s spent the last 10 years hiking, living in the woods, living in other people’s houses while they’re away – usually without a telephone, so my sisters and I never know when we might talk with him again. We make up for it by talking about him, comparing the evidence of our lives and finding him both mutable and constant.

Lately, Dad talks a lot about money. He never used to mention it, not specific dollar amounts. Until I was 25, I had no idea what his salary was or what the house cost. If I asked, he’d say “Oh, we have enough. You don’t need to worry.” Now, he brings up the subject while we’re talking about breakfast or the Orioles. He tells me what his 401k will mean for my sisters and me when we split it three ways. He tells me how much money he settled on my mother in their divorce last year, and how much she’ll receive from a life insurance policy. I write it all down for later.

I remember when I first realized my father wasn’t all-powerful. I was 7 and my mother, who never listened to me, was vacuuming around me one evening while I talked. I packed a few stuffed animals and fewer clothes, and I told her I was leaving. “Goodbye!” she waved, stepping over the cord into the living room. I slammed the door, walked through the dark to the back yard, and stood under the redwood deck Dad had made the summer before, wondering where to go now. The mint grew thick in the shade, the aroma so strong I’m overpowered even now when I pull it out of my own garden. I heard the front door open and close, and then my name yelled into the night. I heard him coming towards me and as soon as he got close, I took off. It felt like a game, then. We ran three times around the house but I was more agile around the corners and stayed well ahead of him. He couldn’t catch me. I felt powerful, strong, safe in my youthful body. It was only later, in bed with my animals, that I felt a cold sliver of fear near my heart.

I feel the same chill now, sometimes. When Dad and Nancy visited this summer, we played 4-card stud, 7-card draw, hearts, and any other card games we could remember most of the rules for. Suddenly, Dad got a charley-horse and fell writhing to the ground. I ran to get the analgesic cream. After Nancy and I rubbed it into his calf, he was able to stand up again, but he seemed a little shorter, a little stooped. I don’t think I had ever witnessed his pain before, so direct, so unmitigated.

When we talk about his will, or the house they may build, I know that hiding just beyond the circumference of this conversation is another conversation, one much more difficult to navigate.

I had a nightmare the other night that my father killed himself. In the dream, he had made a promise to me that he would live out the length of his days. Everyone in my family dies young; few have lived past 65; and he knows I’m anxious that someone break into old age, just to show me it can be done. But, in the dream, he kills himself and the promise is broken. In life, he’s made no such promise, and even if he had, I couldn’t hold him to it, no matter how strong I am or how weak he becomes.

Eventually, he’ll find his home and he’ll want to stay there.

The Likeness

thelikenesscoverJust finished The Likeness by Tana French, which follows on her evocative debut of last year, In the Woods, both set in Ireland. The Likeness would be a great readlike for Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, with its focus on a closely knit group of college-aged students (grad-school-aged, in this case) who have secrets.

French’s writing and emotional sensitivity are both superb.

The elements that most interested me are the thread of sacrifice woven throughout the book, French’s evocation of sadness, and her portrayal of the settled, harmonious, familial, habitual, insidious, dysfunctional, oppressive, romanticised and idealised relationships and lifestyle among the five friends. I think that besides sacrifice, one of the major themes of the book is home: what constitutes home, family, the places we are free, the places we are held; and how some people sacrifice everything to create home, and some feel it a threat they have to run from, and some never find it, and some luck into it for a week, a year, a decade, a lifetime.


“I don’t tell people this, it’s nobody’s business, but the job is the nearest thing I’ve got to a religion. The detective’s god is the truth, and you don’t get much higher or much more ruthless than that. The sacrifice, at least in Murder and Undercover … is anything or everything you’ve got, your time, your dreams, your marriage, your sanity, your life. Those are the oldest and most capricious gods of the lot, and if they accept you into their service they take not what you want to offer but what they choose.” [Cassie]

“Look at the old wars, centuries ago: the king led his men into battle. That was what the ruler was: both on a practical level and on a mystical one, he was the one who stepped forward to lead his tribe, put his life at stake for them, became the sacrifice for their safety. If he refused to do that most crucial thing at that most crucial moment, they would have ripped him apart — and rightly so: he would have shown himself to be an impostor, with no right to the throne. … But now … Can you see any modern president or prime minister on the front line, leading his men into the war he’s started? And once that physical and mystical link is broken, once the ruler is no longer willing to be the sacrifice for his people, he becomes not a leader but a leech, forcing others to take his risks while he sits in safety and battens on their losses. War becomes a hideous abstraction, a game for bureaucrats to play on paper; soldiers and civilians become pawns, to be sacrificed by the thousands for reasons that have no roots in any reality.” [Daniel]

“Regardless of what advertising campaigns may tell us, we can’t have it all. Sacrifice is not an option, or an anachronism; it’s a fact of life. We all cut off our own limbs to burn on some altar. The crucial thing is to choose an altar that’s worth it and a limb you can accept losing. To go consenting to the sacrifice.” [Daniel]

“[J]ust like Daniel, I’ve always known there was a price to pay. What Daniel didn’t know, or didn’t mention, is what I said right at the beginning: the price is a wildfire shape-changing thing, and you’re not always the one who chooses, you’re not always allowed to know in advance, what it’s going to be.” [Cassie]

Near the end [spoiler alert], Cassie considers mercy, which you can also look at in terms of what people are willing to sacrifice, including themselves:

There’s so little mercy in this world. Lexie sliced straight through everyone who got between her and the door, people she had laughed with, worked with, lain down with. Daniel, who loved her like his blood, sat beside her and watched her die, sooner than allow a siege on his spellbound castle. Frank took me by the shoulders and steered me straight into something he knew could eat me alive. Whitethorn House let me into its secret chambers and healed my wounds, and in exchange I set my careful charges and blew it to smithereens. Rob, my partner, my shieldmate, my closest friend, ripped me out of his life and threw me away because he wanted me to sleep with him, and I did it. And when we had all finished clawing chunks off each other, Sam, who had every right to give me the finger and walk away for good, stayed because I held out my hand and asked him to.”

There’s also some philosophising about content and discontent, with language about ‘the sacred’ and ‘exterminated at all costs’:

Abby says:

“our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their decor, their clothes, everything. Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got — specifically if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular — then you’re dangerous. You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on.”

Daniel takes it up:

“I think you’ve got something there. … Not jealousy, after all: fear. It’s a fascinating state of affairs. Throughout history — even a hundred years ago, even fifty — it was discontent that was considered the threat to society, the defiance of natural law, that danger that had to be exterminated at all costs. Now it’s contentment. What a strange reversal.”

The Friends

“On weekends they worked on the house; occasionally, if the weather was good, they took a picnic somewhere. Even their free time involved stuff like Rafe playing piano and Daniel reading Dante out loud and Abby restoring an eighteenth-century embroidered footstool. They didn’t own a TV, never mind a computer ….  They were like spies from another planet who had got their research wrong and wound up reading Edith Wharton and watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie.”

They were very tactile, all of them. We never touched in college, but at home, someone was always touching someone: Daniel’s hand on Abby’s head as he passed behind her chair, Rafe’s arm on Justin’s shoulder as they examined some spare-room discovery together, Abby lying back in the swing seat across my lap and Justin’s, Rafe’s ankles crossed over mine as we read by the fire. … I was on full alert for any kind of sexual vibe … and that wasn’t what I was picking up. It was stranger and more powerful than that: they didn’t have boundaries, not among themselves, not the way most people do. … [A]s far as I could tell, everything, except thank God underwear, belonged to all of them. The guys pulled clothes out of the airing cupboard at random, anything that would fit; I never did figure out which tops were Lexie’s and which ones were Abby’s. They ripped sheets of paper out of each other’s notepads, ate toast off the nearest plate, took sips out of whatever glass was handy.”

This is what I am always looking for, and idealised as it is, I have sometimes lucked into it.


“I was a wrecked thing smeared over with dark finger marks and stuck with shards of nightmare, and I had no right there anymore. I moved through my lost life like a ghost, trying not to touch anything with my bleeding hands, and dreamed of learning to sail in a warm place, Bermuda or Bondi, and telling people sweet soft lies about my past.”

We did something good. I thought that meant no damage could come of it. It’s occured to me since that I may be a lot dumber than I look. … If I learned one thing … it’s that innocence isn’t enough. … I didn’t even try to explain to him what I was seeing, the fine spreading web through which we had all tugged one another to this place, the multiple innocences that make up guilt.”

‘Civil’ War

I listened to this article — “Maronite Christians Thrive in Lebanon” by Peter Kenyon — on NPR earlier this week and wanted to record two astute quotes from it:

“Like much of the Middle East, Lebanon was fabricated by foreigners. It might be called an accident of history — if the rapacious manoeuvers of European colonial powers could be called accidents.” (Kenyon proceeds to detail some of these manoeuvers.)

Samir Khalaf, author of Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon: History of the Internationalization of Communal Conflict (2002),  says: “‘What I argue is that as long as the Lebanese were fighting over the visible issues, they don’t care. But when these are deflected into [invisible] issues — autonomy, identity, whom am I, where is my home — it is then that the fighting begins to be uncivil.’ At no time was the violence more uncivil than during the 15-year Civil War that began in 1975.”

Absence and Longing

parabola2The current issue of Parabola magazine is focused on the theme of “Absence and Longing.”

Longing is in my consciousness often … and yet for me, at this point in my life, absence and longing don’t much go together. If anything, I seem to long less for what I don’t have and more for what I do have. I realise that doesn’t make much sense — I’ve found only one small echo of this idea in the articles, poems, and essays in this issue of the magazine — and yet when I experience a sense of longing, it’s usually in the same moment when I experience union, presence, fullness, some kind of poignant, bittersweet, liminal moment. I rarely feel that I miss someone or something absent, and yet when that person or thing is present, I often feel a sense of longing, of desiring what is.

Some words that have caught my attention in the magazine so far (I’m about halfway through):

“Longing, then, is not only a feeling of incompleteness but also, and above all, a desire for a lost completeness. Mystics have long known this ‘dark presentiment’ as the spiritual ferment of self-realization and union with the Divine.” — Patrick Laude, “A Blinding Proximity” … I like this nostaligic sense of longing.

“[A]bsence is always the result of our inadequacy to be fully and perfectly present to the Ever-Present. In a certain sense we make ourselves absent from Presence …. In another sense, Reality appears to recede and withdraw from us simply because we have usurped its territories, and to the extent that we have and continue to do so. But what can absence be when Reality is Presence? Presence is everywhere. There is not a single inch of reality without Presence. … So what is absent, and for whom? We experience absence, and lack, and deficiency. But this absence is ultimately ours. All spiritual guides and mystics have made it clear: it is not God who does not speak, it is we who do not listen.” — Laude

“Buddhist training is the process of gradually softening our habitual resistance. The Dharma keeps telling us to open our hearts and let go, but we keep qualifying this letting go, looking for loopholes in the Dharma and searching for attachments we believe will not cause problems. Yet anything we grasp will help to turn our hearts away from this one, true longing.” — Kinrei Bassis, “The Buddha Calling the Buddha”

“To yearn for someone is to feel their lack: to yearn for another is not an expression of one’s own deficiency but of one’s glimmerings of enlightenment. For in acknowledging that I miss someone or that I long for them, I am acknowledging that I am larger than I had at first thought. I realize my heart is wider and incorporates many other dimensions of reality, for which, if they were to disappear, I would yearn. When I miss someone, the melancholy tug at my heart indicates to me that I have incorporated this person’s presence to such an extent that I feel incomplete without them.” — Rabbi Marc Gafni, “The Path of Yearning” … I wonder if it’s possible to have incorporated someone’s presence to such an extent that I feel complete because they are so fully present within me, no matter where they are physically and geographically?

Gafni talks about a core practice of his, an “intense meditative focus on songs of yearning and desire.” He says that “in this practice we allow ourselves to step into the full experience of the separation. We allow ourselves to feel the great distance between ourselves and the fullness of divine reality. We step fully into our longing for realization, enlightenment, and redemption. We allow ourselves to stay in the emptiness and to feel our pain. Not merely our individual pain, however. … Through the longing expressed in the tear [the kind we cry], we enter the great tear, the rent in the Kosmos. But at some point, if we can avoid the temptation for superficial fulfillment and genuinely remain in the emptiness, the superficial emptiness gives way to … the deeper emptiness which is empty of anything superficial and filled with the ultimate embrace of fulfillment and love. Crying of yearning gives way to crying of union. The separation itself — in its very depths — is revealed as but another disguise for union.” — Gafni

“The Beloved knocks on the door of our heart and calls to us to return Home. Then nothing in life seems quite right; something is missing, but we do not know what. There is a dull ache in the unconscious that begins to force itself upon our attention. Slowly the outer world loses its attractions, and it begins to dawn upon our consciousness that we want something else, something that does not belong to this world. Then the spiritual search begins.” — Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee (Sufi teacher), “The Pain of Divine Love”

“Our culture has forgotten and buried the doorway of devotion, and the lover is often left stranded, not ever knowing the real nature and purpose of the longing that tugs at the heart. …. We need to reclaim the sanctity of sadness and the meaning of the heart’s tears. This intense inner longing is the central core of every mystical path, as the anonymous author of the fourteenth-century mystical classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, simply states: ‘Your whole life must be one of longing.’ The heartsickness of the lover is a longing to return to the source in which everything is embraced in its wholeness.” — Vaughan-Lee

“Longing is the pain of separation and at the same time the affirmation of union.” — Vaughan-Lee

The Voyage

Oriol Vall, who works with newborns at a hospital in

Barcelona, says that the first human gesture is the embrace.

After coming into the world, at the beginning of their days,

babies wave their arms as if seeking someone.

Other doctors, who work with people who have already

lived their lives, say that the aged, at the end of their days,

die trying to raise their arms.

And that’s it, that’s all, no matter how hard we strive or

how many words we pile on. Everything comes down to

this: between two flutterings, with no more explanation,

the voyage occurs.” — Eduardo Galeano, “In Time” (transl. Mark Fried)

“If we can bear to face our longing instead of finding endless ways to keep satisfying it and trying to escape it, it begins to show us a glimpse of what lies behind the scenes of this world we think we live in. It opens up a devastating perspective where everything is turned on its head: where fulfillment becomes a limitation, accomplishment turns into a trap. And it does this with an intensity that scrambles our thoughts and forces us straight into the present.” — Peter and Maria Kingsley, “As Far As Longing Can Reach”

I didn’t quote from Hilary Hart‘s essay, “Entering the Ordinary,” on being told by her Sufi teacher to leave him and find God/love in her pear-shaped, heavy, unintelligent, graceless, ordinary dog, but I recommend reading it.