The Simplicity of Scale

First week in an old island cottage --- which although new to us was partially built in the 1880s --- and I am feeling things about scale I don’t normally feel.  I want to learn about who built this little shelter, and why the design grew the way it did. Volumes of space are stitched together in an organic patchwork of rooms across the west facing hilltop in what looks to be a haphazard design from the outside, but lives sensibly from within.

I can see how it was built, which leaves us with quite the conundrum for the future. But more about that later.

It is small here. The ceilings are kind of low, and the ever-present wind skips off the simple rooflines in search of higher structures to disturb. I look at the Block Island landscape, which I have painted for 20+ years, and see that the roofline of the house mimics the wind-sheared vegetation all around it. Nothing here gets to grow very tall, at least not naturally. In 1880, folks were not building their homes for self-expression, and the dwellings mostly hugged the hillsides. Farmers & fishermen in those days lived their lives within nature, and within the seasons.

Light pours into every room from at least two exposures. The sun’s arc across the sky lives in patterns of yellow light on every dresser top or floor, stating the time of day as plainly as a digital clock. It is fantastic to be inside here, even on a perfect beach day. One small bedroom is so gloriously sunny that our girls decided to sleep in there together, in side-by-side twins, which they have not done for years.

Our family is at a tender moment: two still married able-bodied parents of  two independent/adult/working/single children who are occasionally available to get together as a family nucleus. This moment will not last long. We have spent five wonderful days together getting acquainted with our little cottage, saying how-do-you-do, and allowing it to imprint upon us. We found our quad often gathered within the same small room because, well, all the rooms are small. They are also cozy, and just about right for everything we need to do or accomplish, like togetherness.

The small scale promotes fewer cell conversations and group decision making, like which video-taped film to watch. Nothing here is fabulous, or modern, or state of the art. There is nary a DVD or CD player to be found, no surround sound, no dock for an iPod. Air conditioning has not been invented yet on my island and dresser-top fans are used only on the hottest nights. There is the ocean to cool off in, after all, and it works.

The three original circa 1880 rooms were heated with a fireplace and water was brought in from a well pump. For the other necessities of human life, there was the outhouse. Now there is a washer & dryer! Flushing toilets! And hot water showers --- one inside and one out! How we appreciated these basic luxuries over the past few days. I have washed dishes by hand, and felt time slow as my mind had time to wander or I had a conversation with a daughter. I swept the floor, without an effective vacuum on hand, and without using a single kilowatt.  It took less than an hour to sweep up the whole house and do a pretty good job.

I have to go now; my clean sheets need to be hung on a clothesline to dry in the breeze of a glorious blue-sky August morning. I will smell the freshness of today again tonight when I crawl into bed. There’s more, I am learning, about a scale that delivers less.


My mind empties, deflates almost, as soon as my ears fill with the rhythm of waves lapping sand. Suddenly, nothing in there. The traffic to the shore, the concerns of work or marriage, the heat, the funny sound coming from my car, the to-do list of life…all blank.  Leaning against a log, feet bury into cool sand: what is it about the repeating tempo? Scent of beach roses, touch of breeze against skin, song birds calling. At the waters’ edge, place of mysterious depth where life on our planet was pushed forth into being…this is the place where I give my self up, effortlessly. Every time. Just happens: I empty. I am. I walk and look, see, but don’t think.

 There is color, and another. I put color in my pocket. Back on the porch, I see my meditation yields a banquette, a feast of time and weather on material.