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.



  1. Thank you, Diana. I have definately experienced beginnings and endings now. Complete joy and deep,painful sorrow. But I feel that everything has a purpose, maybe like a stepping stone to the next purpose in life. Well, I guess it has to be. We can follow the path or stand still. When I look around and don't like where I am standing, then the only alternative is to move. So each place that we end up at has a purpose waiting for us. Maybe that is the way it is with you. You find your "place", do your work and feel the need to move on to the next thing. I am sure that can be scary, but if we are brave, it can be a wonderful lifelong journey. I definately believe that we are all interwoven and if we really pay attention we will find our purpose and know when it is fulfilled.

    I really hope this makes sense, because I actually wrote without thinking!

    1. You make a lot of sense, Sherry. This is great advice! x

  2. Thank you, Diana. This poem written by Rumi came to mind after reading your post.

    "The Guest House"

    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.

    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    as an unexpected visitor.

    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still, treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out
    for some new delight.

    The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
    Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

    Be grateful for whatever comes.
    Because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.


    1. :0D I can immediately conjure up a picture of the dark thought, the shame and the malice standing on the threshold seeking admittance! What a wonderful poem!

    2. Lydia and David, thanks for posting the poem. It is a picture of my life right now. A reminder that many have gone before, yet nothing changes,

    3. Thank you for this one. I have passed it on.

  3. "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."
    Indeed they do! It always puzzles me that people believe they are making life easier and cleaner with all this plumbing and electrical machinery! which is easier to keep thoroughly clean - a chamber pot or a great length of inaccessible soil pipe with bends in it?! And which really makes life easier - a bowl with a wooden spoon or a clutter of electrical machines each coming with its own battery of attachments?

    I also love the point you make about the child's face and the adult face, Diana - this answers exactly for me why I find small cottages so appealing; it's because of the childlike proportions of their faces.

    1. There is also a sort of innocence, mystery and adventure that comes with the idea of a guest house.

    2. The fact that the little houses are easier to clean and maintain... leaving more time and money for more the important things in my life are the reasons I am attracted to little houses. But I also like to live in an aesthetically pleasing space so I understand the desire for quality of quantity.

  4. This is really wonderful, Diana. I so enjoyed reading it. A few thoughts of mine have come into perspective as I'm reminded of elements that I have loved in the various places I've lived or visited. My grandfather, who sadly I never knew, loved building fireplaces apparently, so he built a miniature house in the garden. I used to play in the house as a child - even slept in it a couple of times. Unfortunately I never lit a fire as it was deemed unsafe and the chimney never drew properly as it wasn't high enough. I've often thought about how I loved cleaning and sweeping the little house and pretending it was mine. I also loved my bedsit with small kitchen and loo that I used to live in for 10 years and enjoyed what housework I needed to do there; but living where I live now has been a positive disappointment to me. It doesn't feel at all like keeping house how I imagined it as a child and it is certainly not beautiful, but I can dream... ...and maybe stay in guest houses from time to time.

  5. This is enlightening, Diana. You can be sure I will forever be paying more attention to guest houses. Like Ember, you've taught me the significance of the proportions of doors and windows.

    My mother was fortunate to spend the last years of her life as a guest of a wealthy couple on Long Island in New York. (Amidst the "old money" as she would say.) She loved that little apartment on the back of an old carriage house. She and my father had built a couple of 'dream houses' together, but I think she was as happy in that tiny place as anywhere. I will long remember sitting in the tiny kitchen with almost everything at arm's reach while having a big eye-level window opening to a tiny garden full of flowers and birds.

  6. Diana, the photograph of the old, charming guesthouse heading this entry struck me: a structure such as this one allows a person to let go of the past and not think about it because the HOUSE is the 'holder' of the past for them in its very stonework and historical construction. I lived in a lovely home that was built in 1820, originally as a farm house and then later as an inn and a way stop on the underground railroad for slaves trying to cross the Niagara River into Canada by Niagara Falls The house had foot-thick stone walls and window seats, a cistern in the basement that had been used to store water for the farm animals, a root cellar, a musket that was found under the floorboards in the living room when the house was updated, and a sense of the past that was so strong that I swear the house was haunted! My cats would often stare fixedly at one spot in space near the coat closet in our living room (which had been the origianl main room of the home before an addition was added on) and no amount of calling to them or coming up to them and stroking them would break their attention. Then, all of a sudden they would suddenly break out of their stare (and the stare would have gone on for several minutes!)and they would go to a spot in the corner around four feet away from them and sniff around it like they were looking for someone who had disappeared through the floor! There were bedroom closets under the eaves that felt creepy, a room off the garage that NO one wanted to go into because they would feel like they were being watched, and the root cellar which held a particular vibration that felt as though an act of violence had taken place there. The rest of the house felt fine and it was a great place to raise our two daughters, but I was very aware when I later shopped for a down-sized home for my retirement years to kinesthetically send out feelers in any home for purchase that I previewed to see if it 'felt right' beyond its form and function. (I know, this is totally off topic!). Your approach to picking out guesthomes and searching for a sense of Place reminds me of Frank Lloyd Wright's approach to design. For a couple of years I was a docent at Darwin Martin's summer home on Lake Erie called Greycliff and was always so taken with how Wright's focus was on the space he ENCLOSED (just like you have described in your construction of IH!) and how careful he was to create a sense of intimacy with nature in the use of the materials he chose to construct the house. The house felt so alive,not only with his creative energy and thought, but also with its own living, breathing essence. Yes, the house felt like it was breathing and aware of its visitors! There certainly was a sense of Presence!

  7. This also reminds mey of architect Sarah Susanka's work on "Not So Big" houses. She suggests that we put the money we often put into big McMansions into smaller but well-planned homes with high-quality details. I like to think that this could be done with a little more thought and creativity and not just more money. I think Innermost House helps us see a way.

    1. I have enjoyed her books very much. It was Ms. Susanka who got me thinking smaller.

  8. I loved your comment, Diana, about the bookshelves becoming the walls in guest houses. Two of the walls in my living room are entirely covered floor to ceiling with bookshelves, and I just realized the books are like my 'nesting' material, like a bird uses bits of fluff to line its nest...

  9. Oh dear, Diana. I am afraid I really AM getting the impression that you are a practical and realistic person...hee hee! Thank you for the warning.

    This is all so marvelous. So complete. You have gotten down to the very essence of what a home should be; and the very thing that I have sought. For me, I think, the most compelling aspect of a guest house is that is has been specially built with GUESTS in mind. It is WELCOMING. I confess that I have rarely ever felt welcome in my own home. I have never been allowed the sense of being the lady of the house. I have been viewed as a work-horse rather than a show-horse. But I can be both guest, and host. Now I know that there really MUST, MUST be a tiny sweet place for me to someday welcome my own soul into. I will be so kind to my guest. Yes. This is a MUST.

  10. These wonderful recent posts and comments make me think of so many things...the importance of detail; quality over quantity; slowness; grace; kindness; proportion that adds charm and beauty to both guest houses and much to ponder as I putter around today.

  11. This was a lovely post, thank you. I can see the logic in it, psychologically.

    I would like to point out to any non-US readers that "guest house" quite possibly isn't what you think it is! It was only after reading the post in detail that I realised Diana means it in the sense of a small additional house on a larger property! In British English, we would understand a guest house in terms of a small hotel or bed & breakfast type lodging, which is not at all the same thing!

    Guest houses in this sense aren't very common in Britain or Europe, or only on very grand properties, but I like the idea! Lucky Lorences...!


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