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 it—to 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 sky—everything 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 house—the 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.