Friday, October 5, 2012

A Question Of Balance

Tonight I want to try to answer a number of your questions about material life in Innermost House.  Julie, you sound so near to beginning that I want to address you in particular.  We had a such a long time and so many opportunities to answer these questions that the thought of doing it once and for all the first time is quite terrifying.  But exhilarating!

To begin with you ask about moisture.  It is a serious concern, and a timely one for me since we have just passed through our first eastern summer in ten years. I was happy to find how much I enjoyed it, but I was surprised to have to contend with mold at home.  California is mostly so dry that it is not a concern except by the ocean.  

We first built Innermost House with the expectation of showering there.  So we built the little compartment for the shower and toilet using waterproof cement boards for the walls, which were then plastered over and painted with a slow-drying, moisture and mold resistant paint.  We finished with a tile floor which I put in myself.  Three times.  But it came out all right at last, so be encouraged!  We never had a moisture problem inside the bathroom.

But we did have a problem outside.  Without electric exhaust fans we just could not evacuate enough of the steam from the shower.  We found that the windows in the house would fog up when we showered even though the bathroom window was open and the door was closed.  It seems astonishing, but just the use of hot water at the sink produced too much steam.  After all, the interior of the whole house is smaller than many people's bathrooms in this country. 

This gets a little complicated.  When we built the house we fitted it with a small, on-demand water heater powered with propane.  I didn't like it.  First I didn't like having the propane tanks, and I didn't like having a machine.  And then it took us a little while to succeed in excluding the mice from the heater. But most of all, the heater only engaged when we used a much higher water pressure than we would otherwise, in the shower or the sink.  I didn't like using all that water.  

Then we were concerned about the effect of the steam overall, and to the books in particular.  Within a few weeks of moving in we decided to stop using hot water entirely.  The cold-water-only life suited us, but when we someday rebuild, a detached bathhouse would be a welcome addition.  

The only mold problem we ever encountered was in the loft.  Fortunately it never got further than just beginning.  At that time we slept on a cotton futon directly on the loft floor, and I caught the scent of mold early.  We immediately disposed of the futon, scrubbed the floor, and started over.  We made simple slats to elevate the new futon just an inch off the floor so air could circulate, and we never had another mold problem.  Innermost House was the cleanest, freshest-scented house we have ever occupied, and much the easiest to keep clean.

You and Pam also asked about our trivet.  We bought that for a few dollars at a garden shop.  It is meant to hold a potted plant.  It stands about six inches tall and is a little smaller than that in diameter, making it perfect to hold a handful of charcoal together underneath and our cast iron teakettle above.  

Pam, you ask about the hearth and candles.  It sounds like Julie will not have to contend with building regulations where she is, but Innermost House is built to code.  Most such regulationsthough of course not allare meant for our safety, and probably it is good idea to build as soundly as possible wherever you are.  

Our hearth extension is built of firebricks (which we successfully laid ourselves—by candlelight—and despite running out of mortar—more cause for encouragement!) and is a little more than a foot and a half deep.  The firebox depth is about a foot and a half more.  We built the entire hearth to be as small as possible.  It was always perfectly serviceable and a joy to use.  

I have always found firescreens an intrusion.  I like to look directly into the fire.  But of course if you have a larger house than one room, or if you cannot stay settled while the fire is burning, then you must have a screen for safety. We have burned thousands of open fires and never used a screen while we were in the room.  We live with fire, and are accustomed to it.  But as Pam says, an open flame is something to be taken very seriously.

The pewter pitcher that is often on the little table to the left of the hearth is for tea waterpart of our nightly ritual.  Fortunately we never had to try to douse a fire with its contents.  We always keep a few proper fire extinguishers handy just in case.  

By the way Pam, I think you asked about who sits where?  The trivet and the pitcher are on the far side of the hearth because that is where Michael sits.  He makes our tea, and the ritual revolves around his chair.  He sits to the north and I to the south.  

Our candles are made of beeswax because they are the cleanest.  They also have a wonderful, honeyed scent.  And the cotton wicks make them burn long and bright.  In the winter we burn perhaps twelve or fifteen tapers a week, and a pillar every few weeks.  Beeswax candles are expensive even when purchased in bulk as we do.  But to me, that distinctive light in the darkness is one of the dearest possessions of civilization.

Showers and mold and sponge bathing.  Houses and fires and firescreens. Candles and darkness.  It is all a question of balance.  I suppose it is possible to have everything, or to appear to have.  But somehow having everything seems to reduce what you have to little more than appearances.  We have always been willing to do without, and to work
for having the whole of the things we have.


  1. the beautiful idea of balance in everything.
    in all of life. it shouldn't be so hard.
    but for some . . . maybe for many . . . it is.
    it's interesting to me how just seeing a picture of the little innermost house is nourishing to my soul! thanks diana.

  2. I thought the hint about the slatted suport under the futon to be the best hint in this post. I would never have thought that mold could develop under the mattress without some air circulation! ialso liked your statement: "We have always been willing to do without, and to work for having the whole of the things we have." Learning to fully appreciate the objects and events of our lives is so key to leading a whole life in which the sum of the individual parts are equally as important as the whole of a thing, because without this care and attention to the details the subtle sweetness of life can be missed. Diana, I'm fascinated by the trivet for your pot. How clever of you to have noticed it at a garden store and to have thought outside of the plantholder 'box'!

  3. Love this post and the practical good sense of it. I have a floor bed too, and agree it's really important to make a slat base (which can be done very cheaply form any kind of gash wood - the first one I had was just nailed together from bits of a fence we took down. The trivet - brilliant idea to pick up a plant-pot holder - I'd never have thought of that. Blacksmiths make them too, especially those who make equipment for re-enactors. I got mine at a very reasonable price from a blacksmith who sells through eBay, here:

    1. Thank you much for this link, Ember. It's just the thing.

  4. I have just spent an hour composing a reply today and the internet went down at the moment I hit "Publish". I'm so discouraged. I now have to go into town to get medication for my husband. You have been spared for the moment.

  5. Diana, when you replaced your mattress, did you choose a different type? - wool perhaps for its ability to move moisture away from the body and then release it from the mattress?

  6. I hope this isn't a silly question: Is the charcoal that is used for heating water and stews actually left over coals from the previous day's fire or are they purchased charcoal?

  7. Dear Diana, Thank you for this very practical post. You are fairly egging me on toward my dream, Dear. I think I'm not really having to decide too much at once because my most essential choices have been made by my Innermost Mind for me over a period of at least 50 years. I'm down to details now, but I hope I will have my husband with me for a good long time, and these things will iron themselves out. I realize that no matter how perfect I try to make my house, in the end there will surely be some quirks in the works; small boo boos for me to make peace with. I might love my house more because of them.

    I'll also be building more or less to code even though there aren't restrictions here. Many regulations are in effect throughout the country as an eye toward energy efficiency though, and these won't really apply to my situation as I will not be using any energy. You can't get any more efficient than that.

    How ingenious of you and Michael to shop in the garden center. I believe you told us that that's where you got your fine chairs also. You've reminded me of a garden item my dad gave me--a big wrought iron bracket for hanging a plant that would be wonderful to suspend a hurricane candle lantern from on the porch. How lovely to sit outside and listen to the water and the crickets and frogs while reading a book--and night visitors could find my place easily.

    I took a page out of your book last night by sleeping on the floor. We'd had our first fireplace fire and I didn't want to leave my dazzling friend, the fire, while he was still speaking. So I put a one and half inch thick mattress topper on the floor and went out like a light. Normally I thrash around and walk the floors all night long, but I slept right through till first light and awoke with the spine of a sixteen year old girl! I'm sold.

    In nature, precipitation occurs when cold air collides with warm, moist air. My son and one of his buddies once "found" a pack of cigarettes just lying on top of the snow...(As if! That was his strike one.) He went into our bathroom and opened a window to smoke one of these (strike two)and took his shower with the window open hoping to get rid of the smell. I was alerted shortly by him stomping around in there and hollering "S***! S***!" (The cussing was strike three.) I burst in to the horror of it literally raining SHEETS from the ceiling and two inches of water on the floor gushing out the doorway. It was very nearly an electrical storm as the outlets were filling up with water! Little Dude's whole game was called for the next 2 weeks on account of rain. He was SO GROUNDED. So never take a shower with the window open, I'm just saying...

    I'm wanting to live according to the natural rhythm of the daylight. Up with the sun and down with it to. So I'm attempting to arrange the house and its window around what time of day I might want to be sitting here or there. It's really just one room anyway. I think just a couple of hours of candlelight of an evening will suit me unless I get my nose caught in a really good book or my grandchildren are visiting--then we will stay up very very late telling stories and eating treats by the light of many candles. Uber cool.

    I see I've gone on too long here, even having left out the racy parts of my previous post. Thank you, as always, for your kindness and advice. Without you and my friends here I know I would still be casting myself about in a panic.

    1. Your plans sound lovely, Julie. -- and thank you for the endearing stories as well!

      I am confused when you say this was your first fireplace fire. You have a fireplace but never used it before? -- just curious. :)

    2. My husband always says that the fireplace pulls too much heat out of the house, so it is rarely used. My whining about it does no good. It makes for great conversation, though, just like Diana and Michael say. We use our wood stove for heat. It's in operation right now.

    3. Fires do speak. I would love to know what they say! Maybe they just lull you into a place where your inner primal mind is loosed and deep thinking is not only possible, but unavoidable.

      I don't have a fireplace, but I do have a big screen TV and I could always get a "fireplace" dvd. I don't have cable anymore so I cannot think of a better thing to use it for! Don't laugh, they make them!

    4. "while he was still speaking", yes Julie so truth. The fire speaks an ancient language, as the trees do and the mountains and clouds. And it is a language we all understand, no matter where we came from and when we are in silence. It's another world, it's the thing we share. You lay by the fire, falling peacefully asleep, I sat by the fire contemplating on a poem. The fire spoke to all of us, isn't that a wonderful thought?

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  9. Sorry - I had a type that was making me 'wonder' around from task to task..." :)

    There are some interesting fireplaces designed to retain the heat and slowly release it into the room(s). One company that looks reputable and that seems to offer a quality product, although at a price that is much higher than a simple wood stove, is Tulikivi. I have coveted their fireplaces for many years. They are made of soapstone and the design allows the box to be airtight and burn at a high temperature - although, with the exterior staying just warm to the touch! The heat gets circulated through many channels before the smoke (with very little soot) is released up the chimney. They even come with bake ovens and different configurations that also allow them to be used as room dividers with the oven accessed from one side and the firebox viewed from the other through a large glass door for safety. The glass door would probably satisfy my desire to view the fire without the danger of sparks (I tend to wander around from task to task and would forget to watch an open flame!)

    I don't have any first-hand experience with these fireplaces and would love to hear if anyone else has any experiences to share.

    1. I don't have any experience with them either, Leah, but I've coveted one myself for years!


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