When I first began to speak about Innermost House in public I had no idea what to say. The house had come to us so spontaneously that it preceded any words. It was not a project to be designed or a possession to be described but simply the substance of our daily living. It was the indescribable conclusion to our inexplicable search for Place.
Place, too, was hardly named. It was the longtime object of our heart’s longing, but who can put a name on it? It was not this place or that place that bore a name already, but simply “Place.” Through all the length of our long search I never could explain it. I still cannot.
The same is true of the Conversation. Our talking life was twenty years old by the time we moved to the land, but until we built the house and began receiving guests, it had no name. It was simply who we were and how we lived. It was our talking way of seeking meaning. When our guests began to call it "the Conversation," that became its name.
A house, a place, a conversation. When I look back now I see how much of my coming out has simply been giving names to aspects of the whole and nameless substance of our innermost life.
There is another aspect of our life my husband and I have shared for many years—our walks together. Our unusual way of walking no more had a name than any other aspect of our life, but once Innermost House was built our guests gave our walks a name too. They called them "Being Walks."
Our Being Walks are like any other walks we take, but have more the character of my own native purposelessness—the reason why, I think, I am such a hopelessly impractical person. Everything along the way to everywhere seems to so absorb my attention that it displaces any purpose.
We hold hands or join arms on these walks as we always do, but instead of our accustomed conversation, we walk together in complete silence. When one of us sees something we wish the other to see, we silently direct the other's attention to it.
And we move very, very slowly. We look at every little thing along the way—just deeply, steadily look. After all these years of such walks, when we are silent things very quickly surrender their names. We do not see oak trees, we do not even see trees; we hardly see leaves but see the veins in the leaves and the pores in the veins.
If we should encounter some manufactured object along the way—a car for instance parked at the roadside—we do not see car, nor fender, nor even paint, but the web of hairline marks in the paint, and the dust in the sunshine. We do not see color but brightness. We do not see the colored brightness but the glint of it in the living air.
Julie has spoken of the magnetic effect of the Conversation on sensitive people. I have many times observed its almost magical influence, but the working of it remains a mystery to me. It is as if the human soul, once wakened, were urgent for some satisfactory expression in the language of common life. There is almost an agony of urgency about it that is satisfied in the Conversation.
Now Pam you remind me of our Being Walks with your vivid account of that experience I have known since childhood—the ecstasy of namelessness that lives on the far side of Place, that makes no distinction between Place and Placelessness.
I do not know the how or why of things, but I do have my experience. And from the first I observed what I can only call a bending of nature around our Being Walks, not so much in people as in animals, and especially in the testimony of the birds.
This is strange, and I beg your pardon for mentioning it. The strange part is that the silence of those walks seems to exert something like the same magnetism on birds as the Conversation does on certain people. For a long time I didn't notice it; we were after all only looking at things close at hand. But I would from time to time become distantly aware of the sound of birds seeming to move from tree to tree overhead. I supposed it was only that in silence I became more aware of their presence as I was moving.
But then one night years ago, at a time in our lives when our explorations were very especially intense, we took a walk and I felt quite certain the birds were moving with the silence, though I never unsettled my attention to look up. It was just beginning to rain when we turned the corner toward home and Michael glanced up. I felt a tug on my arm and looked up too.
About a block away an enormous bird was flying very low straight toward us. We just stopped and watched as it seemed to approach so slowly I wondered that it could maintain itself aloft. Then it drew up and settled right before us in the road, not four feet away. It just stood there, staring at us. It seemed as surprised as we were.
It was a great blue heron, among the largest and shiest birds in
There are times in everyone’s life when time seems to hold its breath. Finally a speeding bicyclist rode up and frightened our visitant away. All he could say as he braked to a stop was, "What in the world was that!"
I have observed since that this magnetic pull of silence—whatever it is—seems to wane and wax with the intensity of our Conversation. The two seem to intensify each other in a way I never experienced of the silence alone. Years later, with the events that culminated in Innermost House, I would learn how powerful that emptiness of silence in between words can be.
I have always seen in the silent way. I still see the fender of a car giving way to emptiness in the sunlight in the same way I see firelight in the house fall on the surface of a bowl.
But that seeing is my native element—the half I have always had but not the whole I had once before remembering. I longed for what was missing. I longed for the perfect unity of the silent seeing with the meaning word. That unity was regained to me only after years of searching for the meaning of Place in a world of Placelessness.
I behold the mystery of my life. Being and meaning are in everything. I think there is no single element of Innermost House, no aspect of its existence, which does not share equally in the quality of Silence and Word—of the seeing and the meaning.