Friday, August 31, 2012

Skin and Bones

It is such a pleasure to read through your words and think through you thoughts.  

I am so impressed and happy to hear you taking such a material interest in the structure of Innermost Houses.  Julie is already at work designing her dream.  Pam is interested in beams and rafters and design programs.  After a life of rounded corners, Katrina is longing after rectangles and squares!

Sherry speaks about Feng Shui, the balance between opposing and complementary principles, as the line and the circle.  Ember speaks of the sword and cauldron, and the structure and the contents of Innermost House.   Al speaks of the lines of the house and the hand plastered walls.

To Ember the lines have the beauty of discipline.  To Pam they have the order of geometry.  To Leah they represent the structure that separates the inward from the outward world.  With all of this I agree in my deepest feelings.  

I love the lines because they are not me.  I love the beautiful bone and sinew of reason and structure with all my heart.  It is no wonder that when I found them in a living human being I married him.  It is he who encloses me in this house.

But he loves the walls.  Michael took great care over every aspect of the house, always learning as he went, but there was nothing he took more care over than the walls.  To him I think the walls are me.

Al, you make a kind of distinction between the craftsmanship of the wooden structure and what you might call the "handsmanship" of the plaster walls.  That is strangely true, and I never thought of it before.  The craftsmanship of the woodworker's art has to do with the careful application of tools, but the the handsmanship of our plaster surfaces had more to do with the dogged strength of our plasterers' hands.

Michael knew the walls he wanted.  He wanted a very dense, fairly smooth surface that was gently uneven, that "moved."  He interviewed a number of professional plasterers.  It was interesting.  In our part of the world in California, two styles of real plaster prevailin addition to the drywall and premixed compound that is everywhere now.  Plasterers know how to produce a very smooth, almost perfect surface of the kind that developed in the 20th century, and they know how to simulate the rough surfaces of mud over adobe bricks that belong to the Spanish colonial period.

We were after something we had known in houses from the colonial period in the American east that traveled west with the advancing settlers.  It belonged to the special time in history when, as Michael says, high traditional civilization met the wilderness, and human possibility glowed for a moment on the surfaces of life.

The plasterers didn't know what Michael was talking about.  The man he finally chose combined a high degree of professional mastery with a very open mind.  He offered to bring large boards over, mix up some plaster and let Michael experiment on those boards leaned up against his truck before working inside the house.  He was as excited as we were with the possibilities, and they agreed to work together. 

We chose to use gypsum plaster instead of the lime plaster we had known because it preserved all the essential qualities of the older lime material but dried in weeks instead of months.  Our contractor arrived with a team of three men and work began in the dark and the wet of the woods.

After several trials and errors they arrived at a method that made our plasterer very uneasy.  They applied gentle "mounds" of plaster over a wall in advance, then finished the surface the next day with hundreds of short strokes with the short trowels in their kit.  Michael worked along with the others.  No one was allowed to finish using the larger "floats" that make a wall even and smooth.

More distressing for our contractor was Michael's insistence that they wait until the mud was almost set on each wall before they worked it into its final forms.  This meant the men had to work very hard and fast on the stiffening mud, applying a lot of pressure to move the material.  But it produced a wonderfully dense surface almost like polished stone.  

This all was almost too much for our plasterer, but he preserved an admirable good humor to the end.  His crew put their hearts and arms into it with laughter and singing, despite the very hard work.

When the Plastering Day that had become the Plastering Week was finally done, our contractor agreed to let his most careful worker come back for an extra day so that he and Michael could go over all the hand formed edges and shape them into a final imperfect perfection.  I don't think he could bear to come back himself!  Still after it all he said it was among his proudest work.

The plasterers for the walls and the masons for the chimney were the only professionals who worked on the house, along with the handyman who built the house with my husband.  Those good, hard working, and modest men made the mineral surfaces of Innermost House come to life.  The result was a daily pleasure for us from first waking to putting out the candles at night.  
The walls at Innermost House have a quality entirely unlike the wood structure of the house.  They are like living skin over firm flesh, in perfect complement to the bones variously underneath or exposed.  The wood is warm like my husband.  The walls are cool like me.  


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Between the Lines

We meet as friends in emptiness at Innermost House.  Time moves in a circle to enclose us.  But that circle is enclosed by something else it took me years to see.

We have left Innermost House twice, the first time four years ago this autumn.  That last night the house was all packed away and empty, but for only the three porch chairs we brought inside.  

We had a guest that evening, visiting from the plains of the upper middle west, that low land of broad horizons and big skies.  He had looked forward a long time to his visit, and we to receiving him.  When he sat down he looked around at the emptiness in silence and finally said, "All these lines!"

It took a plains-dweller in an empty house to see it, but ever since that night I have enjoyed more consciously the lines of Innermost House. 

The house is a monochrome of browns and black and white.  Everywhere I look, light and dark are meeting.  And everywhere they meet in a straight line.  I helped most every day during the months of finishing the house, and there is not a line I cannot still feel in my hands.

In the walls the windows are so simple—so nearly the “wind-eyes” of their early namesake and nothing more—that I see in them what I am distracted from seeing in other windows, that they are simply lines forming a box around a hole in the wall.  And the doors:  simple posts and stiles over standing planks of wood.

I look at the posts on the hearth wall, and the mantle that crosses them, and then the beam that crosses them above to support the roof.  I turn opposite the hearth and see a bookcase formed by simple uprights of wood, divided horizontally by six simple lines of shelves. 

Above the bookshelves a simple barge board runs the whole depth of the house, and just behind it run the square joists that support the loft platform of broad boards that form the loft floor.

From there the lines rise to the ceiling and its complex of lines.  The ridge beam forms a spine the length of the house from east to west, flaring its rafters north and south like ribs of some great leviathan.  I look down and even the floor boards beneath my feet are plainly just lengths of wooden board.

The study and the kitchen are, in their way, the most densely linear rooms of all.  They are just simple shelves, cabinets, and cases—no color, no elaboration at all.  Everywhere just lines.

Lines, lines, lines!  Do I live in a such a woodland that it takes a plainsman to see the forest for these trees?  All these lines!

It is an innermost house in which I live.  The house has nothing you could call a "style."  The lines are of the structure, and the house is all structure.  What is structure but the bones beneath the flesh of things?  Perhaps structure is the form through which we have our being.

I have heard my husband say that structure is to architecture as necessity is to everything:  the food we eat, the things we read, the way we spend our time.  Where structure is visible in a building, architecture is speaking the language of necessity, and necessity is the language of the Innermost Life.

The pot of food over the coals is its own kind of structure—my structure, the food I need to feed the structure of what I am.  All our guests can recognize necessity in this plain food, prepared in one iron pot over the fire. 

The fire itself—our only source of light and heat—is a kind of structure, a fire in the mind without which I do not feel fully human, and guests can sense that it too is necessary.  In the chill of the advancing autumn, you can feel its necessity.

The books that seem so remote from obvious use—guests have sometimes remarked on their austere inapproachability—you would have to need to read them to read them at all!  Yet they belong to the kind of reading we do because it makes the difference, not of pleasure but of being—of understanding what life means and why it is worth living.  For me it is a difference of survival in the soul.

It is strange to think that the Conversation that is the spirit of the house, moving forever round in circles, exists in some inseparable relationship to lines.  It is as though the two were met in the house, and now live in one married union.

Everything about Innermost House, from the structure that is visible upon its surfaces, to what we drink and eat and read, from the things we do to the words we speak to the silence that we live amidst, all bear the mark of beautiful necessity.   

It is the first thing I see now, even before I know what it means.  I feel the spirit always, enclosed by time.  But now I see it between the lines.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Falling in Love

Welcome Mel, it is a pleasure to hear from you.  And Bamboo, thank you so much for joining us.    

Today I want to try to talk about a special kind of love.

It startled me a little to find so many wonderful comments over the weekend about friendship, a relationship I have always found bewildering.  

I think that if friendship had come naturally to me, the Conversation as I know it might never have existed.  I might not have needed it enough. 

The Conversation is the alternative to friendship for me, as Innermost House is the alternative way to live.  Both are my only alternatives
—my only friendship, my only way to live.  I suppose it is possible I could have lived without them, "As though to breathe were life." 

Reading through your thoughts and feelings helps me to understand better what I mean by friendship and the Conversation.  I see that without the Conversation, friendship doesn’t have meaning for me, and without friendship, the Conversation would be meaningless.  The two are almost inseparable.

Julie, you said that much of what we are talking about applies to the ultimate friendship of marriage.  Yes.  This agrees with my experience.  To me the foundation of what I call the Conversation is a special kind of love that began with my marriage.

When I first met my husband I was not looking to fall in love.  My passion took me by surprise.  I thought I was looking to disappear into the woods alone.  Michael quotes Moliere

        My one condition is that you agree 
        To share my chosen fate, and fly with me 
        To that wild, trackless, solitary place 
        In which I shall forget the human race.

It is almost as if the kind of love that makes true communion possible for me depends on a certain estrangement from the ordinary world.  Strangeness is in its nature.  It was as though my husband were there waiting for me, on the other side of the human race, the strangest of strangers.

Every Conversation is a falling in love.  Every Conversation is a meeting of strangers who will become deepest friends around the fire for a few hours of a night.  Every Conversation is a journey we take together only once, a first meeting and a final parting.  To me it is the very rarest, dearest luxury.

What am I saying?  Why are strangers friends to me, and friends strangers?  I think it has to do with something I remember, something I cannot forget.  It is a time out of time, nearer to me than the next moment, when everything was a surprise, and I was everyone, and everyone was me. 

When people meet and fall in love, I think they are surprised.  When strangers meet in innocence, perhaps they are surprised for a moment, surprised into something, and out of something too, some burden.   

I live in a state of surprise.  I cannot seem to get past the beginning in friendships.  Or as my husband says, I cannot seem to back up from the end.  I can only meet others as closest intimates.  In truth I am really only interested in the innermost things, so I love to meet strangers, even for the briefest exchange.  And for a moment, I can be that stranger to them.

Through my husband's Conversations I have shared a deep friendship with many.  Then it is as if the "time" in friendship stands still.  It is a special kind of love.  I believe it is still friendship, but it doesn't "go" anywhere.  There is nowhere to go.  We are already here. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Circle of Hospitality

"This being human is a guest house.  Every morning a new arrival."  Thank you Lydia and David for that lovely poem today.  So it has always seemed to me.

I awoke this morning still thinking about guesthouses.  I am so grateful for our life as guests in the world.  It has taught me things and freed me to live in friendship in a way I could never have enjoyed as the mistress of a house in any ordinary householding way.

I don't have friends the way most people have.  When a person remains close to me for long I become more aware of their independent existence, which is uncomfortable and confusing to me.  At a little distancewith acquaintances or strangersI experience people as continuous with myself, or myself as continuous with them.

But it is different in a guesthouse.  When people come to share the Conversation with us, then even though I see them far more closely than I would elsewhere, I experience no separateness between us.  We are all only souls then.  It is the same with those I know through the books we choose to have in our guesthouses.  In a way they too are here for the Conversation.

Probably the most famous guesthouse I know is Henry Thoreau's house at Walden Pond.  It is strange that I never enjoyed Walden until we moved into Innermost House, but then it came to life for me.   

Before then it was Thoreau's great friend Ralph Waldo Emerson whom we read, and through my husband I have known Emerson around the fire for thirty years.  He is almost the only person with whose outward history I am inwardly familiar.  

Emerson was established in the world by the the time he befriended the young Henry David Thoreau.  It was on Emerson's wooded land at Walden that Thoreau built his famous guesthouse.  My husband once read to me a very touching account of the two men's long and fruitful friendship, taken mostly from their writings, simply and appropriately entitled, My Friend, My Friend.

I don't think Thoreau ever expected to stay long at Waldenhe was a guest after alland the house was quickly built for the pleasure of it.  Still I understand that many people who see Thoreau's reconstructed house for the first time find it much less rustic than the pioneer cabin they expected.  It is not a pioneer cabin of course.  It is a guesthouse.

The Walden house was finished very much to the standard of many much larger New England houses of the timeshingle sided, sanded floor, brick fireplace, lath and plaster walls, great large windows.  It was a house for thinking and feeling, for reading and writing, for sitting by the fire and opening to the outdoors.  It was a guesthouse for solitude and friendship.

It is a lovely word when you think of it.  Guesthouse.  We who dwell in guesthouses know we are only guests of our friends in the world.  But when they call on us in our solitude for Conversation, then it is they who are our guests.  We are guests entertaining guests.  It is a circle of hospitality.
The people with whom we have shared our life are responsible householders by nature, and I have always appreciated the natural kinship we enjoy together.  I could no more wish to live in their houses than they could in mine, but we have always found ways to give something of what we have to each other. 

Most of all we have found ways to share a friendship of souls.  I have been fortunate to live a life of Conversation. This being human is a guesthouse.  Every morning a new arrival. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Guest in the World

Thank you for all this most interesting and helpful guidance.  I read your comments like landmarks that help me find my way.  We are markers to each other in a shared landscape.

Sherry, thank you very much for writing.  I know how difficult it is to begin again.  Perhaps in a way you began again when you first found Innermost House.  For me too it was an end and a beginning.  Beginnings and endings are really why we're here.

Be thou whole, as Ember has taught us to say.  That says as well as I ever have what we were searching for through all those years.  A way of being whole in the world.  It was healing that we sought, both in ourselves and with the world.

Our moves were from sanctuary to sanctuary.  Sometimes our search in this or that direction simply would not yield, and then we would find ourselves apart and exposed for months at a time, living in hotels and elsewhere.  Stretched out on the asphalt, as Al would say, between one big store and another.  

Many of our sanctuaries were guesthouses.  At first we did not observe the pattern, but after a number of moves, most of which ended in the same kind of solution, we began to see that guesthouses had become our sanctuaries for a reason.

I have the impression that many of you own your own houses, as I never have, so talk of guesthouses may not seem to be very useful.  Still I hope to be of use, for the problems that we face are perhaps not so very different.  The world is still the world.  The soul is still the soul.  It was our long experience of guesthouses that led to Innermost House.

Once we awoke to the fact that we were moving from guesthouse to guesthouse, we began to ask why.  There was the economic consideration of course, but that was not the primary reason.  While we most often lived on lovely properties in lovely little towns, I cannot think of a case when we would willingly have occupied the main house on the same property, regardless of the price.

Since we often came to know the owners very well, we were able to compare their large houses with our small house, and even their life with our life.  There were essential similarities, and also important differences.

We both were living where we lived above all for a quality of Place.  It is something seldom remarked upon, but guesthouses seem to grow naturally in a climate of beauty.  We would travel all around a region first wherever we were, and finally choose the best town we could find for the quality of aliveness we called Place.  If we looked far enough and wide enough (sometimes it would be very far and wide) there would always be some place where people built for love.

And those towns always had guesthouses.  It was a recurring element of the local building language wherever we stopped.  Which for us was very convenient!  On the other hand, where guesthouses were not part of the vocabulary, many of the other elements of Place were missing as well.  

There was something else.  Houses with a guesthouse are usually older houses built of a deeper and more satisfying material quality.  And the guesthouse was almost always of a quality equal to the much larger main house, which made it very different from most houses of its size elsewhere.  

People who build very small houses have mostly done so in order to save money or time or labor, but foot for foot guesthouses are the most expensive houses there are.  So people who set out to build a really satisfying very small house often have unrealistic expectations.  The cost of every individual element actually goes up because there is so little of it.

A new reader might almost get the impression here that I am a practical and realistic person, which would be a dangerous misconception!  But where houses are concerned even I cannot help learning from experience.

So the first thing we learned was that guesthouses have more in common with great houses than with small houses.  They are great houses poured into a small mold.

It is the small mold that makes for the differences, which are mostly differences of proportion.  It is like the differences between a child's face and and adult's.  The child's face has all the same elements, but the individual features, and especially the eyes, appear larger in itto which we seem naturally to respond as to a more elemental beauty.  

The doors and windows are likely to be of a similar size and character in a guesthouse as in the great house next door, but in the guesthouse they appear much larger because there is so relatively little wall.  It gives guesthouses an altogether different feeling, as though they preserved more of the original character of "house."  They have not grown up and spread out yet.  

On the other hand, certain things in traditional guesthouses get much smaller, most conspicuously kitchens and bathrooms.  I am afraid this will be a little disappointing to some people, and I'm sorry.  But I have observed it so many times that I do feel it forms a kind of pattern, and even a lesson.

Bodily functions are not neglected in guesthouses, but they are minimized.  They are simply less important, or perhaps I should say they are importantly simpler.  Most of all they are less industrialized.  It takes very little room for my husband and me to eat and bathe even luxuriously, and still less does it require machines.  Kitchens and bathrooms are the most expensive and mechanical spaces in a modern house, and to me they are the rooms that make simplicity most difficult to maintain.

My favorite guesthouse kitchens have been truly tiny.  One had perhaps six square feet of standing room and was so darling that my husband's client's wives would come from their 10,000 square foot houses to take pictures of it.  Another was not really a room at all, but consisted of a small closet about two feet wide next to the fireplace.  I loved it with all my heart. 

Another element that often becomes very small in guesthouses is the sleeping arrangement.  It might consist of nothing more than a futon that is stored in a closet during the day, or as we did in one guesthouse, in the little shower stall.  (We bathed at night so the stall was perfectly dry by morning.)

Or it might be a little room perched on the roof, as was one of my most beloved bedrooms in Carmel, California.  That one was perhaps seven by six feet in size, just tall enough to stand up in, with old adobe walls and wood casement windows on two sides that opened directly onto the Pacific Ocean.  Outside the Spanish tiled roof was edged all around by deep red bougainvillea.  Sea and garden, fresh air and skyeverything seems to lie so very near you in guesthouses.  I have lived such a happy life in our small homes!

As the kitchens and baths become much smaller, two things become much larger in proportion to the whole of the housethe fireplace and the bookshelves. The books become the walls and the hearth constitutes the heart of a guesthouse.  

In so small a space, you live in much greater intimacy with the fire in a guesthouse than in the main house.  Such spaces are often so small in relation to the hearth that it is perfectly practical to heat with fire alone, and the fire assumes something much more like its original relation to shelter.  It becomes the heart again, the living spirit of the house.

Books and fires seem to go together.  Around the fire you naturally find yourself talking and reading and dreaming.  From our earliest beginnings my husband and I have read aloud to each other, and there is nowhere one falls so easily into that state of reverie so right for reading as beside the fire.  I think writers and scholars must have loved their guesthouses and garden buildings all through the ages.

And pictures.  I don't care for galleries of pictures.  Museums often put me to sleep.  But one picture in the framed space of a guesthouse wall becomes a thing to be pondered over, and a companion of intimacy. 

With a small kitchen and bath, with large windows and a fire, with books to read and so little housework to do, electricity becomes much less important, almost insignificant.  It just falls away.  We have never lived for austerity.  We just weren't interested in the the things of big houses. 

We would go on to remodel rooms and furnish spaces for ourselves many times, and at the end of it all we would build Innermost House.  Every new home was a healing, a drawing together of things ever nearer to a living wholeness.  I think we learned how to live in guesthouses. 

Guesthouses gather together the things that matter to me into a whole that leaves little room for superfluity.  Place, aliveness, beauty and quality, nature and garden, art and thought and books and feelings and fire.  These are the things of guesthouses.  To me they are things of the soul.

I suppose the soul is always a guest in the world.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Be Thou Whole

Most of my life people have treated me very kindly.  I think I am treated a little like a foreigner towards whom kind people naturally feel considerate.  It doesn't seem to matter where I am, in this country or abroad.  I  always seem to be from somewhere else.

This afternoon Ember shed her light on us again with a new greeting from an older time.  "One of the oldest English greetings, from which come the greeting "Hello!" and "Hallo!" is the phrase: "Wes hal!" It means 'Be thou whole'." 

Be thou whole.  I can hardly think of a more beautiful greeting, or anything I would sooner wish for anyone.  It is lovely to think that is what we are really saying when we say hello.  If I greeted people on our walks with a smiling "Be thou whole!" or even "Wes hal!" I could hardly be received with more kindly curiosity than I am now.  Thank you Ember.

Tonight I am greeted by a very interesting question, "I'm hearing from you that time cannot exist OUTSIDE of place because the only opportunity we have in which to experience time is right where we are, and that to truly experience the present moment one needs to be anchored in the body which is the primary place of beingness/sensory awareness... The BODY is the primary experiencer of time and not the mind, so the body is an inseparable 'part' of place, and when place is experienced, time is experienced as well?"

Be thou whole Pam!  I have read your question over and want to try to answer it as well as I can, begging your pardon first that I am a foreigner to some of these ideas. 

The experience of ordinary time to me has always been a source of suffering.  When I find myself caught outside the enclosure of what I call "Place" I feel trapped, like I cannot breathe.  There is never "room" enough in such time to me.  How strangeanswering your question makes me see it for the first timeI feel trapped when I am outside of "Place," as another might feel trapped inside.

In "Place" I experience time very differently.  In some ways it makes more sense to say that in Place I simply do not experience time.  My word for it is "timeless time."   It is not as if day does not pass into night, or summer into winter.  But in the bounded space of Place time seems to forever circle round upon itself without breaking free and running wild. 

This is the time of the woods.  I think a great many people experience the same thing in nature.  Perhaps that is what Laurel and her husband go to seek in beautiful Vermont.  You can almost see the difference in the eyes of those you meet in the woodsa reflection of the ancient of days.

The very great difficulty seems to be maintaining this older day in the midst of modern life.  It is what I first glimpsed at the heart of the ancient cities of Europe.  The heart of Paris in spring had that quality.  Salzburg in winter.  Burgundy at harvest time.  It is what my husband achieved for me at last in Innermost House. 

So in a way I am only aware of time when I am out of Place.  Then time seems to blow through the landscape and literally make me restless, like the "ill winds" called the Santa Ana's in Southern California where I grew up.  To me the Santa Ana winds are bearers of a dry desert sickness and hot weather wildfire.

Such time seems to do something to places.  It is really what set us on our search for Place.  Most modern landscapes of suburb or city feel to me as if an ill wind had blown all the life out of them.  I cannot perfectly explain this, but to me it is a landscape of suffering.  I do not mean that the people in it seem to be suffering.  Mostly they seem not to be.  It is as if the landscape itself were suffering.

But I have learned to take shelter, and shelter is always to be found or made.  In the enclosure of nature.  Within the walls of ancient towns.  In an old beloved house.  Around a fire.  In a room conceived for the purpose.  In the corner of a room.

If it is the body that is the "primary experiencer of time"and I almost think I know what you meanthen to me it is when the body of Place encloses time inwardly that I am at rest.  That is what I call timeless time. Then in my whole body of experience I am at peace.

Tomorrow I want to talk about some of the ways we have taken shelter and found, even in the midst of the modern world, sanctuaries of timeless time.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Beyond Me

How important is a place like Innermost House to having a rich inner life and deep conversations, and how much - once we learn how - can these be enjoyed no matter where we are? Can time substitute for place? Some set aside sacred places, others set aside sacred time. I think taking a sabbath from this crazy world is in some ways like going to beautiful place.       
~ Al Mollitor

That is a very large question.  I cannot find a place to stand in my mind outside of it.  I think it is only within my reach from inside.  Perhaps I can talk about how it feels to me from withinside my own life.

For me bodily experience has always been necessary.  Not at every moment, but somewhere in my life at all times.  My husband and I have occupied a long and varied succession of houses over many years, and somehow we have always found a way to have that place of experience. 

All of my life I have been guided by a feeling.  I would say it is like a memory, but it is more present than a memory.  It is more a kind of enclosing dream through which I see and hear everything that lies beyond it.  I cannot see apart from it.  I cannot see around it. 

It has been a source of great joy and much suffering to me.  From even before I entered school it held the world away from me at a distance of incomprehension and confusion.   I could make nothing of the world then, and I can make little of it now.  

I cannot understand with an answering instinct why things are the way they appear to be.  I don't know why people want what they want, or say what they say, or do what they do.  But the incomprehension goes both ways.  Through all the years of my childhood and youth I heard one thing most of all from well-meaning adults and friends, "What is wrong with you?"

My husband was the first person who did not think anything was wrong with me.  He shared the same dream, but in him somehow it was different.  What was weakness in me was strength in him.  What was stubbornness in me was reasonableness in him.  What was like memory in me was in him something more like a kind of clear-eyed and determined imagination.  

Our many moves together were searchings.  We sought with the feelings we shared, but also with the reason I reflect from him.  We shared everything.  Most of all we shared a common hunger that was too desperate to be satisfied with names or appearances.

We were searching for a kind of living unity of things.  Our many moves were a way of remaking the whole of our life again and againthe whole of our communal, social, public, private, commercial, cultural, material, intellectual, marital and domestic relation.  With every move that whole grew denser and warmer and more nearly alive. 

I have never really been able to identify with time.  I learned history in school, but it seemed unreal to me.  In our very early days together my husband observed that I do not "believe in time."  To me ordinary time is part of the mystery of the world.

But time had something to do with what we were seeking.  We always sought for ways of living where place "enclosed" time, if I may put it that way.  Place separate from time is a lifeless object to me.  Time unbounded by place is time run wild.  

The strange thing is that our feelings for that something led us into greater and greater intimacy with the past.  Our first trips to Europe, and especially to Paris and Oxford and Cambridge, changed my life forever.  For the first time I felt at home in the world.  I was at home in a past that was all present to me.

There was unity in the heart of those places, that is what made the difference.  A unity of mind and body, of inner and outer.  A unity of time and place.

I have never been able to separate time from place.  This is hard for me to understand or explain, but it is my lifelong experience.  To me their separation marks the world that lies beyond the atmosphere I occupy.  It is the thing I cannot identify with or understand.

The Conversation has never ceased for us, not for a day, not from our very first night.  And it has continually gained strength with our enlarging experience.  But it changes in character with the places we live.  Sometimes it assimilates our joy and unity of circumstance.  Sometimes it focuses disunity and suffering. 

So for me the answer is as it has always been.  I can make no use of places or times or inward or outward riches.  They all lay beyond my reach.  The only air I can breathe is their unity.

Sometime soon I want to try and talk about some of the ways we have found of making places of unity outside the woods in the world.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Tea Is Preparing

After a time away I always approach Innermost House with a feeling of high expectation.  It is always the same, as if with each step along the way I approach more nearly to our place out of time.  We cross over the creek and walk along the winding dirt road.  We climb the hill and pass into the woods. We are on our way home.

Most guests visit us only one once.  You enter the land and leave the world outside.  You wind through the orchards beside the stream.  You follow the markers of stones, turn left, turn right, turn right again.  Oftentimes we hear tales of curious deer or wandering turkeys or even a bobcat encountered along the way.  From time to time a guest will get a little lost, but step by step they find us out, or we find them.

The woods are like a listening ear held up the land.  I sometimes hear a guest's footsteps hundreds of feet away, long before they see the house.  There is something strange in the sound, so near at hand but somehow still inexpressibly distant.  You are almost upon the house when at last you see it.

It is the custom to stop and refresh yourself on the porch.  There you can pause and catch your breath, wash your hands and pour yourself a bowl of water.  There is never a sound from withinside.  There are only the unceasing sounds of the forest, and the light, sweet scent of fruitwood smoke from the fire, and the slow moving shadows.

As you enter the house the first thing you feel is the cool of the air.  You feel it on your face.  I have felt it elsewhere only in caves.  There is a freshness in it that precedes the time of houses.

Tea is preparing.  As your eyes adjust to the low light the shapes declare themselves
the black cast iron kettle over fire-mottled coals against the almost-white of the ash.  The books, the chairs.  Myself.  I'm so glad you're here.

The tea water comes to a boil with a sound like soft rain on the worn cedar roof shingles.  I lift the kettle off the coals and set it on the forebricks of the hearth.  I have watched my husband do all of this so many times that I can feel him moving through my own hands.  Quick off the coals then slow to descend.  The slightest ring of iron upon iron as the pot touches the resting plate.

The tea powder is as fine as dust and bright green as the spring.  It is kept in a little container made from a cherry tree.  The outside preserves the heavy brown-gray underskin of the tree that might be taken for ancient leather.  Inside the container is streaked through with the polished deep red of the heartwood.

I scoop a little powder out into your bowl on the hearth.  The plain bowl is the color of stone.  The dull glaze is crackled with fine lines from the kiln.  The drinking edge is burnt brown and deep green and rust red.

I do my best to hold the full heavy kettle steady in my hands as I pour out the hot water over the tea.  The steam that rises is like smoke from a fire, all white against the darkness.  For a moment I cannot take my eyes from the steam.  There is an urgency and relief in its rush, like a spirit released from its body.

Again I feel my husband's hand as I take up the smoke-darkened bamboo whisk and mix the tea and water.  All slow, then quick, then round and slow again and out.  It is finished.  A chocolate star shell sits among green leaves on a treen plate next to you.  I mix my own tea and put the kettle back on the fire.  Now is our time for talking. 

Over the weekend I was asked a question, "How important is a place like Innermost House to having a rich inner life and deep conversations?"  Tomorrow I want to try to answer from my own experience.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Handful of Dust

I am so glad you decided to come, Gale.  I cannot be glad for your frightening situation, but I'm glad you're here.  I wish you well.

Jen, you are woman of few words!  Celeste, how are you?  I am delighted to see you.

These days of late summer have a feeling in them, full of change.  I feel it in the evening most of all.  For the first time in three months there is just a hint of chill in the warm summer air.  It all happens so slowly here.

I have been thinking about what it can mean in the world to be "around the fire."  I have always turned toward the long succession of fires my husband and I have lived around.  But I think it is different in the world.

It was Al again who wrote, "Unguarded openness sounds terrifying. To expose and share our deepest fears, insecurities, pain, hopes and dreams seems so risky, if not dangerous. Those around us are always judging us, manipulating us, examining us and making demands on us. I can understand why it would be hard for many, and impossible for others, to sit around the fire." 

Yes, I think that is right.  It sounds terrifying and it is.  I have seen self-confident, worldly adults sit on the floor and cry at the prospect of it.  

People sometimes approach the fire a little proud of their fearlessness.  That can be difficult to get past too.  It is as though the fear in them were turned inside out. 

I have never been able to make sense of the world.  It all seems inside out and upside down to me.  But then I know I seem all inside out to the world!

In the Conversation we seek to make sense of what does not make sense.  Every Conversation is a journey through strange lands, a homeleaving and a homeseeking.  We seek through silence, but very much through words as well.  We seek through feeling, but also through reason.

I always approach a formal gathering of the Conversation literally trembling.  To be around the fire is to sit in a terrifying openness.  But it is more terrible at the door.  Once truly inside there is a strange alert peace there.  I have known it a thousand times.

Who can say what fearlessness really is?  "I will show you fear in a handful of dust," I have heard my husband quote to a guest.  I have heard him say, from where we now stand in the world, an honest fear is the beginning of wisdom.

Here I am in the world.  It is different here.  In the world I face confusions I didn't face in Innermost House.  

I am trying to grow accustomed to a world of even little responsibilities.  Yesterday I found myself crying over trying to figure out how to pay bills.  There's always something.

Maybe it is wise to fear sometimes.  Maybe it is a beginning.   I have to make a beginning.

I am still growing accustomed to the eastern seasons I find so beautiful.  I still blink a little at the summer light.  I am going slowly to keep hold of the halflight of the woods.  I am feeling my way in a world where so long a space stands between light and darkness.

What am I saying?  If you come to the Conversation without fear, you probably are not there.  And if you cannot go into the place of fear, then you have missed an opportunity.  

Perhaps it is so for me in the world.  This is where I belong at this time of my life.  I am a little afraid.  There are responsibilities now I didn't anticipate.  But I don't want to miss this opportunity.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dear Sherry

Dear Sherry, I know from our friends on the Facebook page how loved you are by everyone here.  I am so very sorry to hear that you have lost your dear husband, Dale.

This afternoon I slowly read through many of your comments.  It was a moving experience to see your story unfold. 

You are such a delightful, high spirited woman, so full of kindness and good cheer.  Reading your words it took me awhile to understand what the DDs and DHs were, but finally I realized that these were your dear daughters and dear husband.  I see that people are very dear to you!

There is a story of you as a young woman that I especially love, from a time when you were a world more carefree than you feel now.  "I tossed my poodle into the basket on my bike and off we went."  Those were days in the sun.

These are days around the fire.  Yesterday, which I now know was your last day together, we were talking here about what it means to be around the fire.  It means the kind of openness we only share when we accept the darkness together.  It is what I mean by the Conversation. 

Reading your words and between your words, I feel that kind of conversation opened up between you and your dear husband once you both accepted what was to come.  You spoke as if these last weeks were among the most sacred times of your whole married life together.  

I hope someday you will be able to look back on these times and even be glad for them.  Not despite the loss, but because there was someone so dear to lose.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Around the Fire

We receive many private notes each week.  I think of them as addressed to the house and not to me. 

Often the notes are heartbreakingly beautiful.  They are almost never anonymous, yet their writers seldom wish to be published or named. 

A private message was forwarded on to me today, asking why I am doing this and what we are doing here on the internet.  It is a good question.  I have been asked it before, and have never known how to answer.  Or as my husband would say, I can answer some of the "why," but not the "wherefore."

Perhaps tonight you have given me the answer.  Innermost House is my world, but it is not of the world.  Nothing and no one enters here who has not abandoned some hope of ordinary worldly strength, the kind of strength that relies for its identity on ordinary wealth and power and position.  

I have observed it many times.  It is a place where the seeming strong are often weak, and the weak are sometimes truly strong.  Sometimes of course the strong without are strong within as well.  But even then in some way I find difficult to explain, they lead with their innocence in Innermost House, and in unguarded openness all are strong in the Conversation.

I sit and read these words from Ember, and for a moment I cannot move

"I fear my fellow human beings, and I fear destitution."  

Those wordsfrom an established author of holy books.  Those wordsin this world.  I think they must be among the bravest words I have ever seen written by a living human being.

I read on and Suzanne agrees with Ember, with an exclamation!  I read on, and Al agrees too.  Before the onlooking world, a man!

People come to the house in darkness to sit around the fire.  In the light of the fire that shines out from the caves of our earliest beginnings, we are illuminated inwardly.  But only inwardly.  The darkness to which we turn our backs is the outward world.

At Innermost House we sometimes speak of a guest as being not yet "around the fire."  We mean she is not yet here, she has not yet abandoned hope of worldly strength.  In her mind she still stands at the door.

"Wherefore" do I now appear after these months of silence?  I still am not sure how to answer.  But then I read your words again.  I speak here now to meet you where you are. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Questions and Answers

How do you do, James?  Yes it was a house, but oh what a house!  Hello Sandy.  I am so delighted to meet you.

Thank you every one for your kind words.  The story of why I left my house belongs to my past, but Innermost House belongs to the present.

I would like to try to answer some questions today.  Please forgive me if I cannot answer them all.

Al, you ask "about the meaning and importance of ownership for an innermost house and life."  That is a very good question, though I think in the practical world it is often a very complicated one.  Since I am not good at the practical world, I'll try to say simply what it has meant and how it has felt to me. 

I don't like to own things.  Least of all have I wished to own land.  I don't believe we could ever have made our way to Innermost House without our many moves from place to place.  And the many moves we needed to make were made far simpler by not owning.  I would even say that freedom from owning made the realization of our innermost life possible.

Still as you say, that has sometimes led to complications.  Even then I would not alter events.  I never expect to dwell deeper in the innermost place than our seven years in the house.  But now the spirit of that house is free to speak.  And it could not speak so long as I believed I would always remain there.

There is something more.  It is difficult to express.  Through all those years my husband and I sought the meaning of something we called Place.  We did not seek "our" place.  We sought the ways of Place itself.  I know that in this world it is often necessary to possess our places.  But I sought to be possessed by Place.
Innermost House is the embodiment of what we sought.  I think it is an older kind of relation.  It will always be Place to me.  

I know that is not a very practical answer.  I would like to return to this question again and talk about some of the ways Michael and I have addressed the problem.
"Did ending the relationship (as you knew it) with the previous owners, presuppose the ending of Conversations with the other friends?...Perhaps I am missing some subtle nuance you are sharing."

I'm sorry for my subtle nuances, Leah. The connections are often a little obscure to me!  You wonder what I mean by saying that the property was a retreat no longer, and what it was that caused others' concern for the Conversation.

Private Conversations at the house did not wholly cease with the new owners.  But the situation unavoidably changed. 

For our first years in the house, the property was a country retreat where we lived alone.  Visitors came as guests of the Conversation.  But afterward it was we who were guests.  With our gratitude to the new owners we also felt a natural respect for the privacy of what was now their property.   They are a well known and private family.

What concerned others was the new arrangement offered us by the original owner.  People close to the Conversation felt that so intensely inward an experience required a place apart from ordinary worldly life.

Leah I see you also ask,  "I wonder if it is really the experiences you had in IH that are what you are mourning, and not the house itself."

It is both, it must be.  But it is strange.  To me the experiences I had in the house are inseparable from the house itself.  

I do not miss the house as a "possession."  I do not miss it because it was "mine."  I miss it because it conforms to a certain whole way of life.

It's hard to describe, but easy to see.  It's why desperate people who write letters to me that end in "please do not publish this" tell of finding sanctuary in photos of the house when they can find no other.


"I would really like to hear the details of the Lorences' journey to their new home; both literally and figuratively speaking. How many of us are in the same exact "inner house" that we were in a decade ago, or even a few years ago?"

Or even a few months ago, or a few days?  Sandy you ask the unanswerable question.  At least for today.  It is the "details" part that gives me pause!