Author Archives: a little elbow room

About a little elbow room

Kimberly Mayer received a B.A. from Emerson College, Boston, and an M.F.A from Goddard College. Her memoir, "The Making of a Master Gardener" was awarded first place in the Pacific Northwest Writing Association Literary Contest. She recently completed her first novel, "Black Angels," and is currently at work on a sequel to it. Kimberly lives, writes, and revises in Seattle, Washington. Currently, Kimberly is a Contributing Blogger at "Pyragraph," the online magazine for the arts.


Self Portrait (1970) Bob Dylan

By Kimberly Mayer

They sat next to each other, essentially, in first class. Aisle seats across from each other on a United Airline flight out of Tulsa to Denver. My friend, Karen, and the older man who was the last passenger to board the plane. Wearing shades and a leather jacket. Bob Dylan.

What I love is that for the one and a half hours of the flight she gave him his space and anonymity. Dylan, with a newspaper upon his tray, tearing articles into strips and rearranging them on the page of a notebook where he began writing. Having just toured the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa and seen his many notebooks of songs, rewrites and revisions, she was not surprised by the way he cramped his hand to write so small. His handwriting is miniscule.

And just when you think you are traveling with the gods, Dylan begins dropping things. First his newspaper, later his drink with ice cubes. 

Dylan sold his archive to the George Kaiser Family Foundation of Tulsa in 2016 and there lie unreleased recordings, poems, notebooks, handwritten manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, leather jackets, and the like. Dylan was born in Minnesota, but folk singer Woody Guthrie was an Oklahoman—and a huge influence on the early Dylan. Oil billionaire George Kaiser also founded the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa. “Tulsa is the beginning of the west, but it is also on the edge of north, south, and east,” notes historian Douglas Brinkley. “There is no better crossroads city in America.” 

And didn’t Dylan always like the heartland?

But back to what he was doing on that plane, tearing the articles into strips. What Karen witnessed was a creative process, of course, as well as Dylan’s extraordinary skill at detachment. A master at it, finding a personal domain in which to write. 

I found a U Tube “Don’t Look Back” out take (1965) of Dylan demonstrating a similar process. “I wrote out the song, you know? Then I cut it up on the paper, like into four. I cut it in the middle, then I cut it across. And then I rearranged the paper so it comes out like this.” And then he continues in a song-like manner, “It’s just a technique, which some people say some people invented and other people say other people invented. And some people say it’s a very old technique. 

And I realize it’s similar to how I learned to write papers—on index cards, all over the floor of my room. It’s the only way I’ve ever known. I’ve graduated since to tables, but my notes remain on index cards. I wrote two manuscripts this way. I write my blog posts this way. 

And now I’m going to sound like Dylan and say: some people say they taught me, some people say I made it up. And some people say it doesn’t matter anyway.


Filed under writing prompts


Dining Room in the Country, by Pierre Bonnard (Minneapolis Institute of Art Collection)


Nearly every object in my home has had a perilous existence of late. For a month I’ve been clearing out excess stuff. It began when I came home from the experience of designing a minimalist condo in Southern California and enjoying that aesthetic. Returning to a packed house up north drove me to purge my belongings. And unseasonably cold, stormy weather held me to it.

Apparently I had seen myself as a Pottery Barn branch on island, ready at a moment’s notice for a change of set. Table linens, pillows, candles, and home décor, I thought I had cleared it all out before. Candleholders and glass vases clattered in open boxes in the back of a car traversing a gravel road to the thrift shops. 

Off the wall came an antique pine cabinet, one that I had found to hold spices in a farmhouse kitchen in Pennsylvania how-many-homes-ago? In the years since I’d been coming up with various things to display in it in various rooms, none of them as successful, or necessary, as the cabinet was originally. Goodbye to the collections, and goodbye cabinet.

Still getting rid of all the black & white from our terrace in Seattle. How pretty black & white looked against the red brick of a home in the city, but not here. 

In some instances my “finds” have been returned to thrift shops so they can sell them again. All for a good cause, twice. Proceeds from Friday Harbor Fire Department Thrift benefit the fire department on island. Treasure Hound, our local animal shelter, and Community Treasures, the grand dame of them all, a wide variety of local programs. There is socially conscious shopping and socially conscious unloading, and I like to think they got me both ways. 

What breaks my heart are the tea sets, a porcelain coffee pot, and linens I purchased thinking: my mother would love this. As it turned out, she never had an opportunity to visit our island home. So all those teas we might have taken were in my head. It’s not about these objects. They’re in my mind’s eye now; that’s where they exist.

In these ways I am not so much chipping away at the life we are living as the lives we once lived, or intended to live. A little more on my mother. Age never really caught up with her. Thus I had a whole scenario, should dad go first. Mom might come live with us and feel remarkably at home on island, just as she had on Cape Cod for many years. Here mom would buzz around in a golf cart on country roads with little to no traffic. I often see it when I’m out walking, her long wave to me as she rounds the bend—off to the market at Roche Harbor, the boutiques, cafe, and the post office out on the wharf.

These are the moments too, the things that never happened. I can let the props go because they are seared into the environment, but the imagined moments I will keep.  Mom running her errands happily, on an island of gray haired ladies as prevalent as the Great Blue Heron on our shores.


Filed under decluttering

The Long Way Home


After nearly nine months away we pulled in the drive and the bank of mom’s daffodils was the first thing to greet us. I call them mom’s daffodils, but in truth she never made their acquaintance.

A few years ago a couple large bags of daffodil bulbs were lying around in my mud room, waiting to be planted, when my mother in Boston was suddenly hospitalized for a major operation. The surgery was to be performed in two parts, and between surgeries mom suffered a massive stroke. The decision was made not to proceed with the operation, and my sister and I moved into mom’s hospital room to camp out for what would be the remainder of her life.

Returning home was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, which I exhibited by lying around, doing nothing. Much like the bags of bulbs in the mud room.

That’s when I heard her voice. She was right there, at my feet, standing at the end of the sofa. My mother, prodding me to get up and get going, and not come undone over this. “Life goes on,” she kept saying. She suggested we start with the bulbs and get them in the ground before winter. So off we went, trowel and gloves in hand, planting all the bulbs together. 

Life goes on.

And now that voice is prodding me to clean up my house and grounds. After the initial display of daffodils it was all downhill for me. I opened the front door, put down our baggage, and was struck senseless by the clutter of our former lives. Our gravel drive looked like the forest floor, and tree branches had been blown upon decks. Everything was everywhere, just too much stuff, covered now in dust. Who lived like this, I wondered?

Every trip to Southern California is a lesson in minimalistic lifestyle and décor for me. This time we lived it by designing a condo as stark and white and natural as can be. I have to say we grew quite fond of the aesthetic, and found that by starting from scratch we could do it. I nearly forgot about all the stuff I had left behind, and grew to think I didn’t need it. Now here it all was, assaulting me. All my carefully curated pots and vases, throws and rugs, books, candles, paintings, sculpture, photographs, baskets, pillows, and did I mention books? Thousands of books. 

I see myself in homes. I can reconstruct my entire life through a home. It is both a talent and a flaw. One place, so minimalist in sensibility, and the other, you could almost call maximalist. I am trying to chip away at it, hoping to strike a balance. Balance being the hardest thing. I mean, where else are you going to go with a chandelier you fell in love with in Venice except to hang it? As well as the Raku pottery school of fish on the wall, all the framed drawings and photographs, Indigenous art, a number of women’s faces in clay by islander Maria Michaelson, and the bow and arrows our cousin carved out of Pacific Yew, a wood prided by Native Americans for its strength. 

Toss in a big old leather sofa, rugs, rustic finishes, cedar stump tables, Pendleton throws, and it all works. Like a lodge house in the Pacific Northwest, a place where so many cultures converge in a harmony all their own. 

That’s what I have come home to. I had forgotten this whole other half of myself, of our lives. 


Filed under collecting

The Place Next Door


Untitled by Ridi Winarno (the David Allen Collection)


This is one of those times when we live twice: in the real world and in the imagination. The task at hand was to design a condo by the sea in Solana Beach, California. My inspiration was “Malibu Style,” neutrals and naturals, light and white. Adhering to this with a cult-like devotion, I have to wonder, did I take it too far? 

Our family gathered in the condo over the holidays. The NFL playoffs were underway on a flatscreen television playing soundlessly in the living room. I was holding our six month old grandson, trying to keep his eyes off the giant screen. Walking up and down the stone floored white hall, round and round the bleached dining table, his eyes searching–and before long I realized he’s looking everywhere for color. The baby was color starved. I am color starved. How did I not know this?

Everything I’d appointed was whites, naturals, some browns and black. I wanted to bring serenity, like a spa or sanctuary. Like a nest. But I caved when it came to the guest room, throwing in a stroke of light terracotta or clay because I thought I would crack without color. 

It must have been at this time I started designing another condo in my head, taking the same footprint and color saturating it. And there it exists, mentally, alongside this condo. Come on in, if you will.

Man Jong by Roche Bobois

Deep green trees greet you on the patio, and because in my mind I live here year-round and can tend plants, they are carried through inside, blurring the distinction between interior and exterior. Each room steps outside. The living room is landscaped in Missoni fabrics on Mah Jong, the modular sofa by Roche Bobois. Sprawled, stacked, and juxtaposed to make any composition, it’s like a visual collage on the floor. Blues, saffron, rust, reds, pinks, and greens, you might think you stepped into a Moroccan riad. You will want to take off your shoes.

Baths are papered in large lush tropical prints, and everywhere there will be potted trees and plants. I’ll grow fruits of color: oranges, lemons, and lime. A wall of books arranged by color, and everywhere art. I’m presently looking at large, brilliantly colored canvases by Ridi Winardo, Indonesian Asian modern and contemporary painter (David Alan Collection, Solana Beach CA). I would love to live with his work. 

Again and again from our condo of all-the-earthy-tones-I-could-get-my-hands-on, I frequently retreat into this color saturated condo in my mind. And then I slip back again, from the plethora of color to a monochromatic meditative state, and I am at rest. But that’s just me.


Filed under color vs. naturals, interior design

Ode to a Pen

By Kimberly Mayer

New Years can be daunting, but this year I was fortunate to have David Whyte’s poem, Start Close In, in my head.

Start close in, 

don’t take

the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in….

Looking at my hand, I knew, that would have to be my pen. And so in my head I started to compose a homage to pens.

A writer’s needs are really very simple: a pen and paper, chair and table. My loyalty in pens goes back a number of years when in every trip to Costco, I’d pick up a packet of Uni-ball Signo 207 gel ink rollerball pens and toss it in the cart. It’s hard to believe anyone would use so much ink, but I do. Black ink. 

The Uni-ball Signo was bold and smooth, with a textured grip. If I had any complaint, its rolling ball tip had difficulty going from a left- handed person to a right-handed person, and back again, or vice versa. Being a lefty, I had to stash my pens from my right-handed husband.

Then, when asked for my signature on something in California, I fell in love with the pen provided. It looked innocuous, bland, but it felt like second nature—almost like it wasn’t even there. Soft and comfortable all over, if your hand happens to turn and walk up and down the pen, while “thinking,” as mine does. The name on the pen was obscure, TRU RED 0.7, and because I imagined it might be hard to find, I snitched it.

Turned out to be 1, 2, 3, easy on Google. A Staples pen, and the next thing you know, a dozen of them in a box at my door. Amazon. Uni-ball or TRU, I’m fine either way, but all this is to say I am working my way to my father’s Mont Blanc pen, which I left at home. I had convinced him to purchase it on an overseas flight years ago, assuring him it would be worth it.

We both aspired to be writers at the time. Dad wrote a memoir during his retirement on Cape Cod, and inspired me to write mine. With a book he never intended to sell, only gift, dad went the self-publishing route. Numerous boxes of One Man’s Journey slowly dwindled in his garage. Not too many years earlier, the same garage contained stockpiles of children’s books, collected on The Cape. These he shipped in a container to schools in Nepal, following his trek in the Himalayas at 62 years of age.

Yet another life-changing example of someone having climbed the Himalayas. My husband too came down his first mountain in the Himalayas, and has been committed to public service ever since, from meals for children on island at home to computers for schools in Honduras.

Dad is gone now, but I have his pen. Heavier, larger, and more rotund, the last words the pen wrote were his. When I get home I am going to fill his Mont Blanc with black ink and make it my every day pen. Using his pen will be like holding his hand. 


Filed under climbing, pens, writing

Fee Fi Faux Fum

Jack and the Beanstalk, by Jessie Wilcox Smith


I’d been browsing end tables in a vast and sparsely appointed CB2 showroom in La Jolla for some time before I realized that the potted trees scattered about were artificial. Fiddle Leaf Fig, Dracaena, Palm, Eucalyptus. What once cheapened a room, does it still? Not necessarily. Not here apparently. I’d been pondering this issue for a condo we are furnishing for rental in Solana Beach, California. What can you do plant-wise when you’re not there to care for it? 

Like a skater on thin ice, I pressed my luck and slid over to the Arhaus showroom.  Artificial trees there too. If you weren’t looking for them, you wouldn’t know. There, in a backroom among various items that had been marked down, I took the plunge on a 7’ palm tree. Up close, I could appreciate that the trunk was made of real fiber. The hairy fiber got me, and it came home with me. 

And now I cannot imagine the living room without it. How did this happen?

As a child I used to press flowers and string daisies for wreaths to wear in my hair. I still find dried, preserved, and even wilted plants lovely. Silk flowers not so much. Silk flowers trigger an unpleasant memory for me. I was single, getting a divorce, and living alone in a railroad flat in a brownstone that had seen better days in Midtown Manhatten. A sublet apartment. A closet where I thought about hanging myself. On a dinner date with advertising executives in Greenwich CT our hostess pointed out silk flower arrangements gifted by her mad man husband, one for each child born to them. They, the arrangements, were displayed on bookcases, console tables, end tables and side tables in their elegant living room. All I could think was, as if every flower would be in bloom at once! 

Sorrow for my own marriage engulfed me then. At the time it was like seeing the possibility of a life I’d lost. As if my marriage, might have come to this. As if that was what I wanted. It was not a happy period for me. I see all that in silk flowers. 

Even now, artificial trees were something I had to warm up to. No, I had to push myself. From the disciplines of an architectural/interior design background to writing and Master Gardening, what am I doing now but appointing artificial trees in my interiors. Heaven help me.

Here’s what I’ve learned: The first thing I have to do is to stop calling them “artificial trees.” Stop saying artificial trees, artificial plants, artificial anything. They are faux botanicals. The next thing I learned is to place them where, if they were a real specimen, the light would be right and they might thrive. Give them credibility. Also, give them some distance. Let them hang back. People should be surprised, as I was in that CB2 showroom. 

Call it magical thinking but as soon as you disclose something, you find you are not alone. Think of all the photo shoots in the world of design, and how essential we have come to feel plants are in our environments, our interiors. A photograph doesn’t know faux from real, so we’ve all been dupped a trillion times, I’m sure. 

It’s a dirty little secret, and now you have it.


Filed under faux botanicals, silk flowers,

Just a Beach House


Sundowning at Seascape Shores, Photo by Ashley Mayer

Who does this, disappear for four or five months? We did. Our goodbyes on island in late June were all about going to San Diego for the birth of our latest grandchild in early July. But no sooner did baby Hudson come into the world, we started to look for a condo. A place we might rent out most of the year, and then use ourselves in wintertime. A home away from home to be near the grands and in the sun. That’s the plan anyway. Time will tell how well it goes.

This is the story of where we are and what we’re doing. I’d like our friends and neighbors on island to know, we did not fall off the earth. Although, here too, we’re living right on the edge.

Just north of Del Mar we found ourselves a condominium in Solana Beach. Not a row of condos, mind you, with everyone over your shoulder or elbow to elbow from one balcony to the next, Seascape Shores is instead designed as a village. Maze-like paths and condos that are turned for light, privacy, and abundant outdoor deck and courtyard space, all on a cliff with a shared staircase of 140 steps to the beach. A highly coveted oceanfront community, little did we know how rarely the units become available.

From first sight I have considered this “my beach house.” I want it to be an oasis. Everything in calm neutrals and naturals, following the edict of Malibu Style. I figure we’re both surfing communities, north of San Diego and north of Los Angeles. 

There is a ritual at Seascape Shores of residents coming out to see the sundown every evening. The thought is: if everyone paused like this, the world would be a better place.

As a child of the Sixties, I can do naturals with my eyes shut and hands behind my back. It’s a look and texture I love, and it’s in again, as it should be. Everyone’s got a hanging basket chandelier. Ours is made of rope. Similarly I was going to resist wall baskets for being too trendy. Well now I have two. Over-scaled. Avoiding big box home stores, I comb Cedros Design District in Solana Beach for vintage and rustic tables, stools, benches, pillows, throws, baskets, pottery, and art. 

Basically I waver between “We’re going to make it beautiful” and “It’s just a beach house.” When we first bought the condo all the girlfriends inside my head said, “You’re going to have to paint out the cabinets and replace the ugly brown granite countertops.” I know they were thinking white in both cases. Why then, after upgrading to stainless appliances and pulls, am I so happy with things the way they are? Walking home after sunsets there’s a warmth in the light maple cabinets, and the granite backsplash glows like alabaster lit from within. 

A wall weaving in cream colored string by Leanne Ford pulls everything together for me. I knew I could count on her to get my drift. In the dining there’s a twig composition from Bali, and a manzanita tree branch hung on the wall over each bed. It’s all natural and sculptural. I need to “feel the hand” of textures, to see the scale and the nuanced color. That which cannot be done online.  

So I go with what I love and in the process, fall in love with it. I’m going to have a hard time leaving this beach house. Part of me doesn’t want it to ever be finished. 

 “I hope we get out of here by Christmas,” says my husband.

We missed a summer and fall on island to get this condo in Solana Beach up and running. But I’m seeing the boys grow up here year after year. It’s their beach house too. The way the beach house was like a character in “Beaches” with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey. I had such a summer place at a grandmother’s cabin on a lake in Connecticut in my childhood, so I know the importance of it. 

The boys bounding up and down the stairs in wetsuits, carrying boards and laughing. Their grandfather at the grill, and sun on the patio all winter long. A refrigerator that’s somehow always full and beds made up for them. And when it’s quiet, the sound of the ocean never far off. 

I see all this. And if they love coming here like I loved that lake, well then, that’s what I’m after. 


Filed under beach house, remodel

How to Love a Truck


We all knew it would rock Hunter’s world when his baby brother was born. But no one guessed how indebted we’d be to a toy cement truck to help him navigate it. A construction yellow truck emblazoned with CAT in black that beeps recorded back up noises and churns—making tons of noise, if not cement.

Cement truck, Cement pumper, Skid loader, Tanker 

Who knew how many construction trucks a three year old would know? As I go out into the world and see it through his eyes now, I realize I know nothing. 

Backhoe, Box truck, Flatbed, Frontend loader, Forklift 

“How about a food truck?” I ask.

“It’s not a construction vehicle, Mere,” he says. 

Excavator, Crane, Grader, Ariel lift, Front End Loader

A day on the beach with Hunter is a construction site. He arrives in a red wagon loaded with a convoy of trucks and shovels and proceeds to build. To demolish, and build again. 

Bulldozer, Service truck, Roller, Scissor lift, Cherry Picker

At home Hunter and I work at a table where I write and he draws. Whatever he draws–just as whatever he builds–becomes real. Crayons go fast in his fist, paying no heed to the lines in a coloring book. Whereas I walk the line in my notebook, one at a time. Yet somehow we find our stride, Hunter and I. One fast colorist, and a long, slow proceduralist with writing.


Filed under Uncategorized

Ode to Orange

California Poppies


California Poppies

Chromatics, or colorimetry, is the science of color. This is not about that. Although to the extent that chromatics includes the perception of color, I guess it is, as color can affect both our moods and behavior. My relationship with the color orange goes back a ways. It wasn’t always friendly. It was, in fact, uneasy. Those were the years when if I had to name my least favorite color, hands down, it would have been orange.

I considered orange too assertive. I thought it attention-grabbing. Well sometimes that is just what is needed, and this is such a moment.

The US is the most heavily armed country in the world with the highest murder rate of any developed nation. Since 2021, guns have been the leading cause of death among our 1-19 year-olds. As I write, March for Our Lives rallies are occurring across the nation to advance gun control.

“We don’t have to live like this!” cried Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser at the largest rally of them all.

#WearOrange, how it began

One week, fifteen year old Hadiya Pendleton had the privilege of performing as a majorette in a band at President Obama’s second inauguration in Washington DC, 2013. The following week, back in Chicago, she was fatally shot on the playground of her school. To commemorate her, classmates at King College Prep High School started Project Orange Tree and began wearing orange shirts. Their actions helped to create National Gun Violence Day, and the color orange was championed as well by Everytown for Gun Safety. 

Orange demands to be heard and seen and offers a clear emergency and “don’t shoot!” message. Orange is for caution signs and cones, and orange for the vests worn by hunters in the woods to keep themselves from being shot by other hunters. 

Before #WearOrange, I worked on embracing the color. Remember I didn’t care for the color orange. I did it with plants in pots upon a deck. Plants were my color palette. I potted orange dahlia, lantana, viola and zinnia. I found that orange worked well with purples, and planted Salvia Maynight, a dark violet purple bloom. The greens grew in interest against the oranges, everything from emeralds to chartreuse and the deepest of greens. Then at my nursery I stumbled upon Nonstop Mocca Deep Orange Begonia with leaves so bronzed, they look black. It worked. I submerged myself in the color orange and I fell in love.

How had I misread orange so horribly? Today, in light of this crucial movement, I could paint the town orange. 


Filed under gun control, gun laws, orange

When a Writing Piece Becomes a Painting

Suffield Town Center, by Peggy MacKinnon


One of the things I love about writing is not knowing where it’s going. Whether casting off or plunging into one’s internal well, writing is a fishing expedition. When asked what makes a great poem, W.S. Merwin replied, “Following what you don’t know.”

Writing about a recent fire in Friday Harbor, Washington led me to this piece. In the process of writing “What We Lost” ( ) I fell in love all over again, with my old town center in Suffield, Connecticut. Which is like falling in love with a ghost town for the center isn’t there anymore, except in my head. And now in this watercolor painting by Peggy MacKinnon that sits upon my writing table looking out to the bay. 

Peggy MacKinnon is ninety-six years old and still resides in Suffield. At one time my cousin lived just a few doors from The MacKinnon’s home on South Main Street. Best friends with her son Ian, I asked Gil about his time there, growing up.

“Ian was the youngest of six boys, all at least 6’1, and Peggy, their mom, so little. Likewise, all the boys and her husband, Dan, had a wild sense of humor,” Gil recalls. “But Peggy, so quiet … perhaps noticing other things.” The slant of light, the saturation of color. Even as a child Gil knew to detect an artist’s mind in Peggy.  

Peggy had met Dan in high school on a tennis court in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Years later they were a family of eight living in Suffield, and as a couple, frequently played tennis with my folks. In my memory of home my mother is often in her nightgown hanging onto the kitchen wall phone in the morning, and the friend on the other end was very often Peggy. Peggy MacKinnon.

Peggy painted. She painted while Dan was the Director of Prison Industries at a state prison, and when he founded the Maverick Corporation, a work program for ex-convicts and juvenile offenders. She painted as Dan served as Commissioner of Administration under Governor Grasso in Connecticut. She painted when Dan ran for Congress. And she painted for the twelve years he was at Merrill Lynch in Hartford, while at the same time running a small sheep farm in Suffield. She raised six sons, helped in birthing the sheep, and she painted. Peggy never lost who she was.

I don’t think I appreciated any of this at the time, but now I can see why my folks found them so interesting. And over the years I’ve grown to love her work, the delicacy of hand, always working in watercolors. Maybe it was my generation, maybe it was me, but we were anything but consistent. So I’m in awe of Peggy always knowing what it was she did and doing it.

2,444 miles away, I am writing to the painting today. In writing we speak of finding a “voice.” In painting it’s the artist’s “hand,” and I’ve found hers here. 

This is the center of town we all lost in Suffield. There was a sense of importance to the town then that is in none of the new-brick outlying buildings, or the building they refer to as “Suffield Village.” My friend Jane Clarke writes, “I too go back to Suffield to capture something that is so deep in my neural fiber… If I stand on the village green and look out over what the town is now, it seems to quiet my memories and I don’t see myself.”

A disappeared town center, there is no getting it back except in memories, stories, art and writing. And what started out as another cry from me lamenting the loss of old buildings, grew into an ode to a gracious lady and her paintings.


Filed under loss, painting, Writing