Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Evolving Together


Leah, you have asked some very good and sensitive questions.  I want to try to answer at least a couple of them tonight, and more on Friday.

You ask about our many moves, and if I would now prefer to have “figured it all out” sooner and saved myself some time and energy.  I know it is hard to believe it could take twenty years, but we were actually going as fast as we could!

It was more than that, of course.  I realize now that through all those moves I was working something out inwardly.  Or perhaps I should say we were working something in outwardly.  Really it was both.

Our moves served two purposes so closely bound together they were only distinguishable in retrospect.  For my husband they served to work toward a wholeness of meaning.  His was an outward search, where he worked that meaning into himself until at last he came to embody it.

For me those moves served the purpose of working through inner distress, an inner search for a feeling I could not forget and I could not find.  It was a working things out of me inwardly, until I reached the emptiness I remembered, the “white room” I left home looking for more than thirty years ago.

Our many moves and homes certainly permitted us to work through a world of trials and errors.  We evolved together, my husband, our room, and I.  We began over and over again together.  Moving our entire life so often had many practical disadvantages, but one advantage it had was that it permitted us to start completely afresh many times.  We were forever rethinking the whole of things back to the beginning.

That is I think what Sherry and Julie and Dewey are doing now, thinking things back to the beginning.  It is an outer and an inner movement.  I don't know how else to do it.  And, for us at least, I don't think we could have come at it more abruptly and remained whole.  We had to untangle a thousand knots, and tie up a thousand loose ends, to put the beginning back together again.

You would like to know what kind of a relationship it is that exists without ordinary internal conflict in such a small space.  And Bri, you very reasonably ask if I somehow surrendered my identity to my marriage—if my husband and I are not still different people?

Pam and Julie, you have each offered very generous and compelling explanations of this strange state of things.  I cannot improve on what has been said already.

We have spoken of how Michael and I are really just one.  Now you have me wondering with your explorations if it would not be more accurate still to speak of three of us as one—of my husband and me and Innermost House together.

Out in the separate world, my husband has a great deal of what you might call savoir faire.  He always has a feeling for the center of things, so he is not thrown off balance by unexpected or even desperate situations.  He carries a kind of moving stillness around with him.

I am the opposite.  I am always off balance in the world.  You never know what I'll say next.  I never know either.  That can make for some awkward situations when you have practical business to transact.  So when it is necessary to negotiate a difficult practical situation, it is best that Michael deal with it alone.

Together at Innermost House it is different.  Our relationship there is centered and intensified without complication.  It is the complication of worldly life I find so disorienting, so incomprehensible.  On the other hand, it is the undivided intensity of life at Innermost House that I most miss in the world.

In worldly ways my husband and I are not extraordinarily alike, we are extraordinarily different.  It is just that the nature of the difference is somehow such that we make one person between us at Innermost House without any pieces left over.  So you might say that the one person we two are between us is more the one existence we three are together.  Oh dear!

But before you despair of my explanation having gone from bad to worse, let me try once more.  That same one existence that we three are together has proved again and again capable of absorbing others into its oneness who enter into it in spirit.

So in a way it has nothing to do with me or us or anyone else as persons, and more to do with oneness.  It is as if what you leave behind you at the door of Innermost House is your identity, your person-ality.  That is the character of our marriage, and that is our way of receiving guests.

We three and our guests evolved together.  There have been as many of us as there have been homes along the way.  For each home was the Innermost House of that stage.  With each one we left as much of our personal selves outside as we could, as much as the house made possible.

There are important questions remaining, especially concerning the inner character of the Conversation and about changes in the next Innermost House. Those I look forward to addressing soon.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Reality Keeps a Ledger


It is raining today.  The tropical storm that is sweeping up the eastern shore bears with it the weather of change.

I feel strangely at home in the rain.  And lately, though I never thought I would say it, I feel strangely at home with change.

Dewey, thank you for helping me refine my use of these familiar words.  You are right that I have lived with them so intimately and so long that I find it difficult to separate them out from the substance of my life.

I thought about this question of meanings over the weekend.  Today I want to try and answer some questions.  But first, if it's all right, I would like to expand just a little on our definitions.

Thanks to this welcome exercise, I have come to see that what I call the Innermost Life is a hidden place at the heart of life which has to me the defining character of reconstituting the world upside-down and outside-in.

What I mean is that the life we gained at Innermost House was something actually very different from anything we could have arrived at merely by elimination and simplification.  We did eliminate and simplify, certainly, until we finally moved to Europe with only a suitcase apiece of belongings.

It was only after two years of belonginglessness that we received the invitation that would become Innermost House.  So that the house itself was, in every way, not an elimination but an addition to what we had.  And in building it we found ourselves, step by step, reconstituting the world we had left behind, but with a difference.

The difference took us by surprise.  There it all was—the world both we and our guests recognized—but somehow so constituted as to reverse all the relationships of ordinary life.  Little became large, lowly became high, less became more, last became first, and outside became inside.

The very elements most conspicuous and honored of the world became the leastmost, hiddenmost things in Innermost House.  The world did not go away there. It was turned inside out.  And that inside-outness, whatever it is, is what I call the Innermost Life.  I think I'll leave refining the definitions to you Dewey!

Let's go back to your comments.  You raise an important question about which I think much has been misunderstood—the economics of Innermost House.  This is a good time at least to begin to try to understand it.

I'm afraid I am the last person to talk about economics!  I can't even dependably balance a checkbook.  But I have been through this so many times that I have acquired a feeling for it, and I want to share with you what I hope will be words of encouragement.

Getting all the way to Innermost House took us a long time.  There were very many steps and stages along the way.  At every stage we were somewhere, and at every next stage we were further on.  It is true that in the end it had a kind of all-or-nothing, here-or-nowhere feeling about it, but I can see now that every step we took made the next step possible, and all were necessary.

We had some advantages.  I will mention three of the most important ones because I believe I recognize the same ones in you.  First and most important of all, we were on fire.  I don't mean we were determined or committed, I mean we were on fire.  That is different.  When you are on fire you can do things that otherwise just never seem necessary enough to be possible.

If sometimes you feel a little "grumpy" maybe that is why.  Maybe you are just feeling a little singed around the edges.  I know that feeling.

And like you, we had a high expectation of life.  My expectation was something that had haunted me through every day of my life from childhood.  I could not justify it and I could not explain it.  I still cannot.  I think people come by it in different ways.  As you say, some acquire it through formal education.

But whatever it is and however you came by it, it always made the actual world incomprehensible and unacceptable to me.  And alone I could do nothing at all about it.  I was stuck with it.  My husband was the first person I had ever met who could do something about it.

And then, in a way that was most unwelcome to me at the time, but to which I look back with gratitude, we began our married life very deep in debt.  My husband was more idealistic than realistic in those early days, and he set off on his own with no capital and too little worldly experience to build an ideal village to solve the problem of Place in America, and of course he failed.

But in that failure lay the seeds of all our success at last.  For against the advice of those who wished us well, he assumed the debts of the venture personally, and we were thirteen years paying it all off.  I thought it would never, ever end.  But that made no difference to him.  Our years of living in one tiny rental after another while he worked hard only to pay almost everything we made away to debt formed us toward the Innermost Life.

So it was inward fire, outward debt, and a high expectation of life—all these pressures together at once—that made it possible for us to break through over time.  In my experience at least, those are inestimable advantages, not disadvantages, in the pursuit of the Innermost Life.  Perhaps you are closer than you think!

There are a few particular points I want to address.  We did certainly meet some very interesting people around the fire, but we have always been fortunate to know interesting people, I think perhaps because we are interested in them. Still those seven years were lived very largely in solitude, and we often passed weeks at a time without receiving a guest.

Michael has always supported us solely with his work in the design fields, nothing else.  People who came for his Conversation believed they had finally found in him “the real thing,” and as one regular guest said, they “would not think of touching Michael with money.”  I will not say that this was not sometimes a little inconvenient!

Through our years at Innermost House our needs were so exceedingly few that Michael would go months without visiting clients, and they were willing to wait for him.  Of course both before and since that time he has been more active in his work, but our Conversation has always been the highest priority of our life.

I think my grasp of modern America has not so much evaporated as it never materialized in the first place!  I have always found the modern world incomprehensible in its motives and in its means.  I cannot walk down Main Street without encountering a hundred occasions for wonderment. Why would anyone do that?  Why would anyone want that? Why would anyone be that?  And I'm sure the world looks back at me and asks the same questions.

As for children and schools, health insurance and hospitals, we have mostly gone without them.  That is too high a price for many to pay, I understand, but every expression of what I now recognize to be the monastic instinct requires similar renunciations.

Still, one has responsibilities.  Ours were to Michael's parents, whom we helped support each month of the last fifteen years of their life.  We lost them the year before Innermost House was built.

Al, you too have raised some important questions I want to try to answer, beginning with my unseen husband.

Let me say this much about Michael, who is the innermost dimension of my undivided Innermost Life.  If his example has any meaning beyond our own circumstances, then it means that a man must sacrifice far more than a woman for this life.  He must willingly surrender his pride, he must bury his powers in the heart of the earth, he must yield to the darkness and die to the world in a way a woman need not.  I am not what he is.  I could not have done what he did.

Nothing of the world magically melted away at Innermost House.  The garden we do not tend, the animals we do not care for, the loads of laundry we do not do, the property tax we do not pay, all are the result of deliberate choices we have made on our way to the Innermost Life, and every one has cost us something else.  We have both always been willing to pay.  We have been glad to pay.

As you say, Reality keeps a ledger, and payments are due.  That to me is the real meaning of economy.  I have never liked fantasy, not even as a girl.  I always wanted reality, if only I could find it midst the confusion of appearances. The Reality I found at Innermost House I loved with all my heart, even if I chose to leave it.

I am moving outward now in a new direction.  My life is changing.  Innermost House was the price I paid for this new life, and I would pay it over again for all I have since gained, most of all for the earnest Conversation I share here steadily with you.  

I trust in what is happening.  This too is Reality.  I do not believe the world and the Innermost Life are irreconcilable at last.  I think that is what we are all struggling toward together.

Leah and Pam, Bri and Sherry, we have this stormy week still to talk about your questions, and I look forward to it!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Coming to Terms


Dewey and Al, you raise so many questions of such importance that addressing them properly is beyond my organizational ability.  You should see what a mess I can make of a kitchen drawer when I go to organize it!  

So I want to beg your pardon and everyone else's patience while I try to make a start on your many excellent points.

Dewey, in your last comment you make me aware of how poorly I would have fared in philosophy class.  But here we are, and I'm sure you're right that clearly defined terms would be helpful.  


So I am going to at least try and say briefly what I mean when I speak of Innermost House, the Innermost Life, the World, and maybe I can say a little about spiritual paths and practices.

Innermost House is first of all the twelve-foot square house we built ourselves and lived in for seven years.  The words came to me spontaneously the first time I stepped inside and had a makeshift door to close behind me.  The name has since taken on a life of its own, so that now friends here speak of their own inward-most home, even if yet in prospect, as their own Innermost House.


Over the course of our early years in the house, the name came to suggest to guests our inward way of living there.  That gradually became what I call the Innermost Life.  In the same way friends here now speak of their own inward-most way of all life as an Innermost Life.


I find myself saying "all" life, and I realize that is significant to me.  I think I mean to signify more than just an inward way of thinking or feeling or meditating, but an inward way of reconstituting the whole circle of material and mental culture—of all life, so far as it enters into my domestic sphere of home.


By the World I realize that I mostly mean the modern world that is disconnected from traditional ways of life.  So I suppose the World to me exists in degrees of "Worldness"in degrees of fragmentation and dislocation from what I call Place.

Oh dear, there is another term!  I suppose we should not dwell on what I have already failed so often to communicate, but 
Place to me is a kind of outward mirror image of Innermost House and the Innermost Life.  Or I suppose I should say that Innermost House and the Innermost Life are inward reflections of Place.  

For Place too is a way of all life, enclosing the same whole circle of material and mental culture, but constituted communally rather than individually.  It was the civilization of towns we were seeking, not withdrawal to the woods.  That is what I mean when I sometimes speak of Innermost House as the inward city that arose at the end of our search.

The inward city.  This brings me to the ideas of spiritual paths and practices.  I thought a long time, trying to remember when those ideas first entered our married Conversation, and I feel I can say for certain that it was not until our search had come to an end
just before Innermost House was built.  

I am pretty sure that we never spoke or thought of our life's search for Place as what people today call a spiritual path.  It was a search for meaning through culture.  It touched everything from hunting and farming to food and dress to the arts and sciences of east and west.  


Its "everythingness" held practically every particular academic or career path at an inaccessible distance from us.  It certainly made us differentwe were different everywhere we went, and since we went just about everywhere, that was a lot of differentness!but it did not make us "spiritual seekers," either in our own eyes or, I think, in anyone else's.

The only "practices" we had were our Conversation and our walks, our eating and dressing, our writing and reading, our rooms and our fire.  We took all of them very seriously, but we certainly never thought of them as "spiritual practices."  Those were the practices which, over time, changed the shape and character of our whole life.

I think we would have pursued a very different course in a traditional world. But we were born into the world of modern America, and a high and deep experience of Place was what we felt was most missing, so it was Place we went seeking.  

We sought not only Place itself but a way of being human that seems to require Place to bring individuals to maturity.  So you might say that our path was a search for the wholeness of Place and a whole way of being human.  It is that search and not some other that concluded in Innermost House.

This is starting to look like my kitchen drawer project!  It is at about this point that my husband normally comes into the room, and we look despairingly at the mess I've made and at each other, and we both start laughing.  

So before I quite surrender to the situation, let me try to say what I've said again as simply as I can.  Innermost House is the name of my house and of anyone else's room or house created to enclose an inward way of all life.  The Innermost Life is my name for that way of living.

The World to me is a state of fragmented places and people, where wholeness is sacrificed for what to me are the incomprehensible successes of modern life.

By Place I mean that wholeness of culture from depth to height that is capable of supporting the growth to maturity of whole human beings.

There, I have at least said some things I have never said before, thanks to your suggestion, Dewey.  I hope some of it makes some sense.  I'm sure I haven't said it all yet, or got it down quite right.

And I'm afraid I haven't even begun to answer your or Al's questions.  If I may, I'll let it rest for the weekend, and return to this next time.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Safe and In Control



How do you do Jennifer, it is such a pleasure to hear from you.  Rowdy Kittens seems a long time ago now.  Thank you very much for staying with me! 

Thank you all so very much.  I continue to think about all your insights concerning the unbelievability of Innermost House.  This is such a help to me, and I hope it is to you.


A couple of days ago Ember's and Pam's responses led me to feel that it makes much better sense to think of the "we" of my marriage as the "me" of my self. Then the Conversation becomes an internal dialogue, which I think is both more true and more useful.   


Today I want to address Pam and Sherry.  Pam, here are the aspects of life at Innermost House you believe may sometimes appear unbelievable to others


1. living a life that has an absence of grasping or desire for outer things

2. experiencing self-born contentment that appears to be constant, without fluctuation
3. feeling an harmonious and integrated connection with all aspects of life in a seamless way, so that you are consciously aware the movement and stillness coexist within each other, even in the simplest acts
4. staying anchored in the present moment without reference to the past or future
5. having a one-pointed vision and intention for your life that cannot be swayed or compromised
6. stubbornly refusing to settle for the fractured life of contemporary society that the rest of the modern world has been taught is 'normal'
7. being able to easefully remain centered and at peace with the notion of being no one in particular and wanting nothing more than what the present moment holds
8. having a relationship with another person that is unguarded because it is unconditionally accepting of the other as one's own self
9. coming home to yourself in a way that most people will never know

Reading over your kind words I think to myself, I must be a pretty amazing person!  Then I look out our little window on the street scene below. There a father stands holding his baby girl.  She has a pink ribbon miraculously suspended in her few little wisps of baby hair.  She is the picture of contentment, and her father with her.  

As I watch, I think, here is a perfect absence of grasping for outer things, a true self-born contentment, a seamless connection with all aspects of life, a living present without future or past, a vision that will not be swayed, a refusal to settle for a fractured life, a being no one in particular, an unconditional acceptance, a constant coming home.


I am not really an amazing person at all.  I am exactly like everyone else was once, only I am crippled in a way that prevented me from becoming different.  I know I do not look crippled, but I am.  You would only have to meet me to know. 


Then Pam you go on to say, "you can be sure that IH is the perfect foil for the ego's defense mechanisms in both blatant and subtle ways, and most people don't want to look at the defense mechanisms that help keep them feeling safe and in control."

Yes, safe and in control.  I must say the last thing I ever expected to be in my life was a threat to anyone's defense mechanisms!  Maybe having so few defenses myself is why I have been willing to let the rest go.

I know that such a life is not for everyone.  But the Innermost Life to me is the most secure whole life I know.  I may outwardly gain it and again lose it, but the truth of it remains, nevertheless secure. 

Sherry you ask the question—But what would I do without my husband?  I have often been asked that question at presentations.  My answer is always the same.  I do not know.  I am not prepared. 

How can one such as I, who has never been able to prepare for tomorrow, prepare for the unimaginable end of existence?  I am not safe and I am not in control.  And that is acceptable to me.

What my husband and I have and are together is not quite the love between us—of course there is that too—but more the consequence of love, like that little girl.

Or maybe it is more like the inward unity that comes sometimes to an individual soul in consequence of perfect self-acceptance.  After all, everyone is born of a man and a woman together.  We must all have both in us. 

I do not think of my husband and myself as an extraordinarily close couple, but more as an extraordinarily separate individual.  It is unusual to have two bodies!

I look again at that little baby.  A thousand joys and a thousand sorrows await her, but she neither seizes on them nor recoils.  She does not prepare.

I do not know what I shall be given or what I shall be required to give away.  I have never known.  But I feel a feeling.

Next time I would like to try to address Dewey and Al.



Monday, October 22, 2012

Ourselves Alone


Thank you all for a very interesting and insightful weekend of thoughts.  It is wonderful to be greeted by such a lively and earnest conversation.

When I wondered aloud about the unbelievability of Innermost House and invited you to wonder with me, I had a feeling in the back of my mind.  I have observed how near some of you are to entering the experiment of the Innermost Life, and I am aware how little help I can be.  


I am speaking and writing at all now because I wish to be of some use to those who feel a little of the frustration and lostness I have felt.  But I am not an expert in anything.  I have only the example of Innermost House to offer. 


And an example is no help to anyone if it is unbelievable.  My experience of giving talks has taught me that Innermost House is always a little unbelievable to some people.  I have a feeling that if I could just understand the nature of the unbelievability, it might unlock some key to making use of my experience.


I know what it is like to be crippled by disbelief.  I have never been able to believe in the world, and it has prevented me from taking the first step toward gaining a place in it.  But I more than believe in the Innermost Life.  I live it.  It is me. 


Every one of your comments is helpful to me, every one an insight.  I want to begin at the beginning and, through the course of the week, address you each in turn as best I can.


Ember you begin with a suggestion I have encountered before in the form of a certain doubt that anyone could live as we do all the time without getting restless or tired of each other.  Pam you frankly confess you would find such a life pretty stressful!  This is a perfect beginning.


I have my own confession to make.  In thirty years I have never been bored in my husband's company for five minutes.  In the company of others I sometimes become so restless I could cry.  But not when my husband and I are alone.  That did not come with Innermost House, but has been the character of our relationship always.


Now, even I know that is very unusual, not because it feels unusual—it feels perfectly normal to me—but because so many people have remarked over so many years that we are really like two halves of one whole person.  Even strangers remark on it.


If it helps to know this, I never felt at peace with the otherness of anyone in my life before I met Michael.  I had accepted that it would never happen by then. Otherness was the problem, and it was everywhere.  I was so alone for so long that when Michael came into my life I hardly struggled to maintain my "self" in our relationship, and for his part he never gave me occasion to.  Almost immediately I became "us" and could at last relax into unity.


The idea of "being my own person" makes no sense to my feelings at all.  To be my own person would first mean to become a person, which for me would ruin everything.  I don't like being a person.  If either my husband or I were to become our own separate persons we would not have the marriage we have always had.  We are "our own person."


I never thought of it quite this way before.  Pam you speak of reading and writing and walking in the woods as things you would choose to do alone.  These are the very things we do alone together.  When we read aloud it is much more like one person reading to themselves than like two people reading separately in one room.  When we write it is the same.  And we never take a walk except together.  Always arm in arm or hand in hand.


I know that many of you are serious thinkers and meditators.  But the beating heart of our relationship is our married Conversation, and that is much more like a solitary contemplative person thinking or meditating inwardly than it is like any two people conversing that I know.


So you make me realize that it is misleading to speak of my husband and me as a couple.   We are unbelievable as a couple because we are not a couple.  I wouldn't believe it myself. 


It is much more true and I think also more useful just to pass over my unavoidable mention of my husband from time to time as a peculiarity of speech.  Think of us together as yourself alone and make what you will of us. Of me I mean, I suppose. 


As for boredom, Ember you very rightly understand what I have heard many times.  Once years ago a young mother, weary for a moment of her too-numerous and inexhaustible children, said she would like to live as I do, only..."What do you do all day?"  I answered her as best I could.  She paused for a long moment, then said, "I think I'll have another baby!"  


Pam you speak of a period of adjustment.  I think that is a key.  I have never found the Innermost Life boring or uncomfortable, but then I'm stuck on the other side of the line.  If I may say so, it is much, much more interesting in fact than it is in prospect, for a day or for a year.  


I do not mean to say that a little time might not be required.  I only mean that once you are there, once you have grown accustomed to the woodland sounds and low light and timeless time, it is endlessly interesting.  

If there is anything at all to share in this, I think it is not the hope of getting along with each other, but the prospect of getting along with ourselves.  That to me is where the Conversation really begins—within ourselves alone.  And the solitary Conversation of inward thought is why I am never bored and never tired all day and night at Innermost House.



Friday, October 19, 2012

Seeing is Believing


Welcome Marianne, I am delighted to hear from you.  My husband and I have spent some happy time in Bavaria.  I hope you come to love your simple life there.

My life in Innermost House was almost unbelievably simple.  It seems many people simply cannot believe it.  Even those who knew us during our seven years in the woods sometimes expressed something approaching disbelief about it.  

When my friend Kent Griswold of the Tiny House Blog visited us during our last weeks in the house, he admitted that he had a little trouble believing it before he saw it with his own eyes.  He entitled his article about his visit, "Seeing is Believing."  

After we left, the nice people from whom we rented our little writing room down in town finally confessed that they considered our life at Innermost House a fabulous fiction.  They would not be persuaded that it was real.  

I have sometimes wondered exactly what it is about Innermost House that is so unbelievable.  It cannot be that the house is small, since a whole movement of small houses has arisen since we built it.  It cannot be that we live without electricity, because after all, tens of millions of people in the world—and millions here on this continent—do without it.  

It cannot be that it is the woods; thousands of people still live in the woods even in our own county.  It cannot be that we live by fire, for that too is still common enough in rural areas.

I think it cannot be that our house is neat and clean, because thousands of pages in hundreds of magazines are published each month showing rooms just as cleanly.  And most of our own houses—or at least our parents' houses!—are just as tidy.  

It cannot be that we live with books, for everyone has seen pictures of home libraries with many more books than we have.  It cannot be our cultivated rusticity in a world with whole magazines devoted to log cabin life.  It cannot be the food we eat, judging from the crowds at the farmers market!

It cannot be that our life is too simple, when there is always someone to object that it should be simpler.  It cannot be that it is too spiritual in a world where monasticism still has currency.  It cannot be that it is too self-reliant when I don't grow so much as a green bean. 

I cannot think of a single element or aspect of Innermost House that is in itself more than just a little unusual.  It is not an invention.  It is not any kind of wonder of modern society.  It is not unnatural and it is not supernatural.  From the moment we moved in I have felt that it is the most natural thing in the world.

When I look back, I remember my own complete inability to foresee Innermost House before we built it.  Not even my husband could foresee the result of the structure forming in his hands.  It was the seeing that finally made the believing.

I remember when we returned from Europe, where our years of searching had finally accelerated toward a steep center until we seemed to fall down a hole to the heart of the earth.  We were in Iowa.  It was the dead of winter.  

Michael stood at a high window in a hospital overlooking the frozen town of his birth.  He paced the floor back and forth and said there must be some veil—something—that still stood between us and the answer, concealing it from us in plain sight.  He could sense it, but he could not see it.  

What is it that conceals from us the humble object of our hearts' desiring?  Why should something so simple be so mysterious?  This weekend I would like to invite your reflections and questions about any aspect of the mystery of Innermost House, the life we lived in it and the path that led to it.  

What is so difficult to believe about life in Innermost House?  


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Song of Birds



Where I live now, we back onto a little urban forest.  I wake to the song of birds here just as we did at Innermost House.  In our back yard we meet a wide variety of guests I remember from our years in the East, a land of songbirds.

We hear mockingbirds and cardinals, catbirds and robins, fish crows and blue jays, rock doves and mourning doves and woodpeckers, chickadees and titmice, warblers and waxwings, nuthatches and wrens and bluebirds, flickers and thrashers, juncos and finches and sparrows.  Overhead we see hawks and harriers and vultures, swifts and swallows and martins, ducks and geese.

For all their sounds and songs, the birds embody silence.  They have no words. Perhaps that is why we here on this page feel such a connection with birds. The simple half of the Innermost Life is silence.


I made my way to this life by saying no to the world.  I just would not have it, and I suppose I would have nothing now were it not for my husband.  He has the art of giving substance to nothingness, and that is how we built Innermost House.


Dewey you mentioned caves.  When we first came to the land I wanted to live in a cave.  By that stage in our long journey we had eliminated everything else. We actually went so far as to make inquiries into the possibility.  There were no naturally occurring caves on the property, so it would have had to be excavated.  In the end we chose against it for practical reasons.


And Pam you asked about earth-bermed houses, which we also considered for the way in which they merge with the land.  But as it happened there was no tradition of such structures in our region, and to me tradition is a kind of second nature for preserving peace with the landscape.  


Thinking of caves calls to mind those haunting animal images painted on cave walls in prehistoric times.  There is a great silence about those images in darkness, a stillness of mind I think we can hardly penetrate in a world so full of inventions.


Were it not for my husband's artistic gifts we would probably have had no art at all on our walls at home.  I love the beauty of nature and craft, but nearly all art I had ever known made too much "noise" for me to wish to live with it.  So in our past houses we mostly confined ourselves to very small and sober hangings, things like engravings or ink drawings on plain white paper.


But when we lived in Los Angeles my husband often took us to the Los Angeles County Museum to visit their really wonderful Japanese Pavilion.  Inside it is a very quiet place, lowly lit through shoji glass in the walls.  The screens and scroll paintings there were my first real introduction to my husband's love of classical far east Asian art.  I loved them too for their beautiful feeling of transience and unsubstantiality.


Michael became acquainted with the director of the museum.  On one of our visits he had just returned from Japan with some scrolls, and he offered us the chance to choose one if we wanted it.  I never wanted to own anything so I was prepared to say no thank you.  


But when I walked into the empty room where he had them displayed my eye fell on one and I immediately loved it.  It was of a standing heron painted in ink wash by a Buddhist monk of the 18th century.  A heron!
Pam and Leah, Julie, Al and Dewey, you do make me wonder about totems!  It became the first of our scroll paintings with which we would later illuminate the bookcase alcove at Innermost House.

For all my love of emptiness, I find a special peace in these beautiful paintings. We go days and weeks without displaying one, but then when we do they introduce something into our home that does not compromise our silence.  It is almost a kind of intensified emptiness.  


We were saying the other day how the intensity of our talking life only seems to intensify the intervening silences.  It is somehow the same with these pictures. The room is even quieter with one displayed, the emptiness even emptier.  It is as if the silence becomes audible, the emptiness substantial.  Does that make any sense to anyone?

It is like the art in those ancient caves.  There in a darkness where no daylight penetrates, a lamp is kindled and of a sudden those painted images appear. They do not speak.  They have no words.  A thousand human generations stand between their artists and ourselves.  Their silence is like the song of birds. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Heron in the Rain



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
North America. It seemed almost as tall as I am.  The posture of its long pointed head had a look about it I will never forget.  It was something between surprised curiosity and almost a longing, if I may say so, as if it would somehow, in one thrust, pierce the immeasurable distance between our natures.

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.



Friday, October 12, 2012

An Extraordinary Ordinariness


Merriam-Webster: Extraordinary -

1a : going beyond what is usual, regular, or customary

Synonyms: aberrant, aberrated, abnormal, anomalous, atypical, especial, exceeding, extraordinaire, exceptional, freak, odd, peculiar, penomenal, preternatural, rare, singular, uncommon, uncustomary, unique, unusual, unwonted


Ember, my heart has leapt with yours a thousand times at the prospect of Place, and despaired with yours at the Placelessness around us. You ask the question we only came to asking at the end of our search—"How can one bring all these elements into harmony alone?"

Place to me is a harmony of all the necessary things living together as one whole. Dark and light, night and day, spring and summer and fall and winter, earth and sky, land and sea, insect and tree and flower, fish and fowl and beast, woman and man. All my instincts tell me that this harmony is ordinary.


And my sense of Place requires a culture of inhabiting that harmony—in the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the house and town in which we live, in the way we heat and light our way, in the books we read and the pictures we admire, in our words and thoughts and feelings. My instincts tell me that to live this way is ordinary.


The condition of ordinary life I remember before remembering was not something in which I believed, it was an actual experience. That experience guided Michael and me through the world in our search for Place. We did not have to believe in Innermost House. We had experienced it before. It was only the form that took us by surprise. In Innermost House we both immediately recognized the beginning we remembered.

What I remembered and what we found in the end was something so ordinary to the soul that it took me a very long time to acknowledge how extra-ordinary it is today. How aberrant, how anomalous, how rare. In some ways that was our greatest frustration and greatest difficulty. How can something so ordinary have become so extraordinary? How can such an ordinary human experience be missing?

Place is natural. It is what happens of necessity in all traditional communities, vernacular or classical. I would never have believed it could be so difficult to live naturally today if I had not tried myself and experienced it myself.


There is nothing very extraordinary about eating the fruits your neighbors grow. What is extraordinary is eating fresh fruit from the other side of the earth. But it is actually cheap and easy to eat exotic fruits from the grocery store today and often expensive and difficult to eat food from the place you live.


So also there is nothing extraordinary about building a house that makes sense in every part and as a whole in Place. It is natural to make a house of local materials formed into sizes and shapes that make local sense. Only the very rich in the highest traditional times had the opportunity to build in an extraordinary way, and their ambition was mostly satisfied simply by reaching back to the classical forms of their own civilization.


But it is often very expensive and difficult today to build a house built that makes local sense. For the most part only the very rich have the opportunity to build naturally. So what is ordinary and what is extraordinary?


Strange as it sounds and unbelievable as it remained for a long time to me, in our experience, Place has no place in the ordinary world today. It is out of context. Place is extra-ordinary.


But what then? Is there a way of making a harmony of Place alone in a Placeless world?

Dewey, you ask a question that to me suggests the answer we found"How important is Space/Place and how important is a spiritual state of mind?" Your question and Ember's lie intertwined with my experience at the roots of Innermost House.

At presentations people often ask about our "spiritual practices." I always answer we have none. Michael and I did not perceive ourselves to be on a "spiritual path." We were simply struggling for the breath of life.


But now I realize we did have a spiritual practice, that our life was a spiritual path I did not know to recognize. We searched for the living quality of Place in every single circumstance we met. For us, life in Place and the spiritual state of mind proved to be the same thing. Our search for the missing truth of Place drew us out of ourselves and rooted us in something older and deeper.


The search for Place became our spiritual path, and our Conversation along the way became our practice. Together they changed our minds continually in one direction, until at last Innermost House grew up around us like a shell around a living seed. It was the seed of an extraordinary ordinariness.

I know from experience that it is possible to draw all the elements of Place into one harmony alone. But that harmony came for us of seeking the truth of Place in the substance of a community. We did not think of ourselves or our style or even at last of our happiness. We thought of Place itself.

So Ember I would answer your questionHow can one bring all these elements into harmony alone?by saying that in my experience the only way to do it is to make Place your spiritual path and practice.

Dawn and dusk, day and night, summer and winter. Waking and sleeping, bathing and eating, speaking and listening. The light of fire and the fall of rain. The remembering and the dreaming. The thinking and the feeling. These are the things of Place. They are the things with which we sought a way to live in harmony. 

We sought for ordinary Place in an extraordinary world until it became Innermost House. It was an extraordinary ordinariness.