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. http://www.pyragraph.com/?s=Kimberly+Mayer
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.
Excavator, Crane, Grader, Ariel lift, Front End Loader
A day on the beach with Hunteris 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.
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.
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” (https://alittleelbowroom.com/2022/04/26/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.
It was the only time I ever remember dreading going into town, Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island. County seat to San Juan County, and a major commercial center of the San Juan Island archipelago. Still, it’s a small town. Centered on Spring Street, steps up from the waterfront, the ferry terminal, the Marina, and Fairweather Park where carvings honor the island’s Northwest Coast Indian heritage. And where musicians play in summer.
There was no music now. On April 7th a fire blazed in the night, and although the fire had been extinguished for a couple of days, that block on Spring Street was still sectioned off with emergency vehicles and yellow tape. The fire had caused extensive damage to six iconic historic buildings—some a total loss–two buildings dating back to the 1880’s.
Standing across the street and up a block, I hated to look. It hurt to look then and it hurts to think about it now. The agony of seeing what isn’t there anymore. I hadn’t yet fathomed the interior loss and the loss of livelihoods: a popular tavern, a coffee shop, a real estate office, and a kayaking tour company. Furthermore all of these buildings had had other incarnations through the ages: hotels, grocers, saloon, barbershop, and a silent movie house among them.
Standing there, I was feeling it architecturally in that moment. My first thought was how can this ever be rebuilt without looking like Disneyland? Like Whistler? As Sandy Strehlou, Historic Preservation Coordinator for the town of Friday Harbor said, “The impact on the historical district is irreplaceable.”
Later I determined that the fire in Friday Harbor was causing something not unlike PTSD in me, triggering memories of the town where I had grown up. A small town in northern Connecticut, Suffield prided itself on its Historic District running the 2 ½ mile length through the center of town. 18th and 19th century homes lined North and South Main Street, with the town center and a village green. A Town Hall, Masonic Lodge, bank, fire station, a grocer, pharmacy, luncheonette, and various shops comprised the old town center. I always thought the center comfortable with itself. Everything much as you would expect if this were a predictable story, or a stage set for a play. Every bit as archetypal then as Friday Harbor, my western town now.
And then the most incongruous thing happened—entirely off-plot. These were going away to school years for me, so I wasn’t paying close attention. It seemed to me that on one visit home the town center was there, as always, and on the next visit it was not. It was almost like the center disappeared.
In Friday Harbor a rogue arsonist torched the town on April 7th. In Suffield Connecticut, the town center was demolished by committee in the 1960’s. Bulldozers and wrecking balls right through the heart of the town. I will never understand how it happened.
A suburban shopping center was then constructed in its stead, off the site–not in The Historical District. “Suffield Village” is how they refer to it. Some entries are from the outside, some inside, like a small mall. Initially it tried to hold the businesses from town, but now it’s mostly offices and a lot of empty spaces. As a friend in Suffield notes, “Businesses failed and the building went into some disrepair. It’s just not anything special.” All the parking in the world, and no one wants to go there. (Name a nice town that doesn’t have a parking problem).
The original Suffield Town Center had good bones and charm. It was nothing that fresh paint, new awnings, parking meters, and love wouldn’t fix.
Islanders know this with every ounce of their being. Love for Friday Harbor has been overwhelming. It’s been shared a lot lately but I cannot think of a better way to close than with this ode to Herb’s Tavern, lost in the fire. It was written by Greg Hertel, a retired science teacher on San Juan Island:
It was just an old tavern in an old building…
But it was where I had my first meal when I arrived on island on a late August afternoon to take a job teaching here in 1974
It was where my wife and I went to many dances and shared many a beer with friends
It was where we listened to The Ducks when they would come over here to play
It was the blue-collar meeting place for the construction crews, the boat crews
It was where many college papers were written by students who had rowed over from the (UW) Marine Labs. We met a woman in Zion Park one summer and when we said that we were from Friday Harbor she said that she wrote most of her master’s thesis at Herbs
It was the first place where many kids would have their first adult drink on their 21st birthday
It was where boaters who weren’t yacht club members would meet
It was never high class… and proud of it
It was my image of what a workingman’s bar should be like. The staff was down to earth, friendly
It was where the food was not gourmet but always OK and the portions were real
It was where the commercial fishermen would meet and eat before heading out to the Salmon Banks on those summers when drunken gill netters ruled the streets
It was the place that Realtors would rush by with their customers on their way to more upscale restaurants
It was the place where kids working multiple jobs could afford to meet and eat out
It was the location of many hookups, meetups and even some breakups
It was never on anyone’s 4-star list but always on everyone’s “meet you there” list
It was an old bar in an old building… and it was the heart of the town.
“Inside myself is a place where I live all alone and that’s where you renew your springs that never dry up.” Pearl Buck
Traveling east in a van on Rt. 188 the earth turned red and glacial boulders, large and rounded, studded the hills. Behind us was San Diego, ahead was more of this mountainous landscape as we twisted on a narrow winding road between the desert and the sea. Tecate, a city that straddles both sides of the border, is where we disembarked. And there, with Customs officers and the formidable wall behind us, we were ensconced for a week in Rancho La Puerta, a sprawling Wellness Resort and Spa in Baja California, Mexico.
It isn’t on every trip that we carry intentions, but that’s precisely what I’d brought with me. The intention to resume daily meditation practice after all these years, and to paint and draw again. In this way I arrived at a place I’d never been before in hopes of finding some things I’d lost along the way: a Transcendental Meditation(TM) mantra long forgotten, and a hand in art that, over the years, had given way to writing.
There began the inner journey. “When we engage in a creative recovery,” writes Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, “we enter into a withdrawal process from life as we know it. Withdrawal is another way of saying detachment or nonattachment, which is emblematic of consistent work with any meditation practice.” Much like checking passports into the safe, our cell phones were tucked away for the week. I know I’m not alone in saying I left sleepless nights over the war in Ukraine back in the states. War doesn’t go away; we were just less embedded in it.
Brick paths wound through 32 acres of naturalized gardens in the 4000 acre chaparral landscape, and our casita was a good distance from everything, by design. Walking like that, in nature and by oneself, is meditative in itself. The rituals I treasured all week were Morning Pages, Meditation, Poetry as meditation prompts, and Sound Healing. I learned the simple truth that all meditation works, it needn’t be TM. I bypassed spa treatments, avoided arduous exercise, and walked endlessly.
A labyrinth in the woods called to me. My creative life was nothing if not a spiral path.
Every writer will know that The Censor is something we deal with constantly in an effort to keep her out of the room. The Censor is perfectionism. So what did she do but grab her post over the years as guardian at the door of artwork. I couldn’t get in. Here at The Ranch sat a sweet little art studio, empty most of the time, full of supplies, and a sympathetic instructor who strolled through now and then. Somehow I gave myself permission, and from then on nothing could keep me out.
There is so much joy in painting like a three year old again! Drawing is harder, but I worked at it, loving that the instructor called gum erasures “Prozac for artists.” Like Morning Pages there were no good drawings or bad drawings. It doesn’t matter at all; it only matters that I’m doing it. I’ve got this! I thought.
I had to come all that way to unblock—and now I had to figure how to bring it all home with me: the meditation practice and the practice of making art. The week was ending and as if on cue the climate was warming, time for me to migrate north. A writing hut awaits me on San Juan Island, which will now be shared with sketchbooks, charcoal, kneeded gum erasures, blending stumps, brushes and watercolors. Oh what a happy little hut it will be.
Like the Englishman who went up a hill but came down a mountain, from here on out I’ll be painting and drawing if not writing.
We have seen dystopia. Having driven the west coast recently from the northernmost border near Canada to the southernmost border near Mexico and back up again, we know it’s real. In city after city, Seattle to San Diego, thousands of homeless encampments alongside freeways and in the underbelly of overpasses and bridges. It’s real and has grown considerably since the last time we left the island and went anywhere.
This is the picture I am left with in my mind’s eye: tent after tent, tarp upon tarp—a collage of colors jammed against chain-link fences and concrete pilings like a mural. Flying by, it’s unusual to see anybody in the camps. But I don’t know what it says about us that we did just that, drove on by.
This now, is our country.
Homelessness in the US was on the rise even before Covid struck. “And we know the pandemic has only made the homelessness crisis worse,” said HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge. The pandemic has severely slowed efforts to house the homeless in temporary housing, while land and construction costs are only soaring. Even the count of the homeless has been delayed due to Covid.
An estimated 800-1,000 now make their beds or set up tents on sidewalks or alleyways in downtown Seattle, according to The Regional Homelessness Authority. Emily Cohen, Deputy Director for Communications and Legislative Affairs San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, states “…for the average citizen, unfortunately, homelessness is still very visible and that drives the conversation.” And in Los Angeles, the number of homeless residents exceeds 66,000, making it the ‘homeless capital’ of the country. Ron Galperin, Los Angeles City Controller, speaks for every city in saying, “It is a moral crisis, a humanitarian crisis, it’s a public health crisis, and it is the existential crisis we have here in Los Angeles.”
Two weeks ago Russia invaded Ukraine and it’s impossible to write about anything without Ukraine folding in. More than two million people have fled Ukraine by foot, bus, and rail, what the United Nations calls “the fastest and largest displacement of people in Europe since WWII.”The refugee crisis in Ukraine is not the same, of course, excepting everyone needs shelter.
Approximately four miles off the white sandy coast of Coronado Island in Southern California, sit cruise ships, including Celebrity Millennium and Celebrity Eclipse, in anchorage. They’ve been part of the view from here ever since the CDC suspended cruise ship sailings around the US. Every couple weeks one will go into the Port of San Diego for supplies, otherwise they are not going anywhere. On overcast days the ships appear like small far-off islands, and on clear days, like beach toys that floated off.
Beach toys with all the amenities. Beach toys with staff at a minimum, mainly engineers and captains. Also, ship doctors on board as well as medicines. Beach toys with booming foghorns when they need to make their presence known to other ships at sea. Beach toys waiting out the pandemic in an outer anchorage area managed by the US Coast Guard.
“It kind of harkens back to the 1800’s,” notes Adam Deaton, cruise business manager for the Port of San Diego, “when ports used to provide a secondary function protecting communities and protecting infections from other locales.” (The Coronado Times, 9/01/2020)
Interesting he should say that, for I’ve been feeling nothing but nostalgic during my stay on Coronado—back to a time when my grandparents first began to winter in Naples, Florida. Back when traffic there was light and elderly ladies wheeled big Cadillacs about like boats. My grandmother wore Lily dresses and brightly colored beads there, and when they built their home in Naples, she specified all pink appliances for the kitchen. While my grandfather clad in cardigans insisted on a massive brick fireplace and hearth in the living room, like no other house around. Florida: where every garage was immaculate, and poinsettia plants grew into shrubs or trees, much to my amazement. Where people risked their lives to live where coconuts could fall on their heads and kill them, or so I thought. But somehow it seemed worth it.
Coronado is much like that. The traffic is slow and crosswalk lights, extra long. The children all ride bikes and scooters, residents drive golf carts on the roads, and every dog is picked up after. Where all the ice cream is gelato, parks are aplenty, and everybody’s got the beach. And now I’m the grandparent.
This is the pandemic pause. We’re all on these ships lately, stuck in time and not going anywhere. We can choose to mask up or not, vaccinate or not, but we’re all in this together. The same boat.
This is how it happens. Day after day, a boy steps out back to pound nails. After a while he decides he’s pretty good at it. The boy grows up to be a carpenter. A young girl hears again and again, “Go to your room, young lady!” and there she hones certain skills. For me it was making mazes. All I needed was a pad of graph paper, pencils with good erasures, and the sanctuary of my room. There, I was free to lose myself–and find myself–in the mazes of my own making.
In some inexplicable way they meant everything to me.
Like Anna Shechtman who started constructing puzzles at fourteen in “Escaping into the Crossword Puzzle” (The New Yorker 12.20.21), “I retreated into the grid.” Here we found our solace. “A grid has a matter-of-fact magic, as mundane as it is marvelous,” she explains. “From sidewalks to spreadsheets to after-hours skyscrapers projecting geometric light against a night sky, the grid creates both order and expanse.” Anna moved letters onto the page, while for me the squares became paths of entrapment and escape.
In time Anna became assistant to Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times. For me, maze making led to the drawing of floor plans and interior design—for aren’t they both about how we move through space? That was the sequence for me, and mazes were my portal.
I have also lived on a fair share of islands:
St. Thomas, USVI,
Mercer Island, WA
San Juan Island, WA.
And this winter, Coronado Island, CA.
At some point, it seems, islands and waterways became the grid.
Will Shortz believes people have a natural desire to fill empty spaces. I see the empty spaces as paths. Both order and expanse, entrapment and escape. And how we move through space.
The way land breaks up and becomes inlets and seas and islands, one after the other,
like jigsaw pieces when the box is first emptied and all the pieces turned over.
Never one to underestimate the power of books, I recently gave it a good test. “This will be the strongest storm in Northwest history,” they said. “A record-breaking monster storm,” “A bomb cyclone!” was heading our way. It was all we heard about. Winds roared day and night, limbs cracked, and branches flew like arrows. Trees were uprooted, power lines downed. And where was I? Immersed in The Great American Dust Bowl with a hardcover copy of The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan.
“What is it?” Melt White asked his daddy.
“It’s the earth itself,” Bam said. “The earth is on the move.”
“Look what they done to the grass,” he said. “Look at the land: wrong side up.”
For the longest time I didn’t know the difference between prairie and plains. Now I know that plains are flat and treeless. And although “The Great Plains” is often used as an umbrella term to encompass plains, prairies, and steppes, prairies are flat or rolling grasslands of tall grasses, sedges and rush, shrubs, and sometimes trees.
When Native people lived on the prairies and high plains they moved across the land with the seasons. White men drove off the Indians, hunted the bison to the brink of extinction, brought in cattle to over-graze, tractors to over-plow, and gambled on grain with the over-production of wheat. Stripped of native grasses, a good perennial, and replaced with wheat, a weak annual, the topsoil peeled off in the winds. “The great unraveling,” Egan called it.
On top of that, a drought—for years. “And what came from that transformed land… the whole experiment of trying to trick a part of the country into being something it was never meant to be was a colossal failure,” writes Egan.
On Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, birds, animals and insects migrated ahead of the biggest duster yet, nearly two miles high and two hundred miles wide, carrying “twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal,” according to Egan. Some described it as “a black blizzard, with an edge like steel wool.” Farms were abandoned or blown away, the land looked lunar, folks who were still there were forced to eat tumbleweed—and I barely came up for air in reading The Worst Hard Time.
There was no comparison, of course, between “The strongest storm in Northwest history” and The Great American Dust Bowl. Our storm blazed through quickly like a hurricane—and onward to the Midwest, powering tornados in Missouri, and becoming a nor’easter in New York and New England. And I never lost my reading light.
Now come what may, whatever’s next, I’ve a mind to read Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague.
We were trailing Jenny Harris of Catkin Horticultural Arts around the garden she created at the Family Resource Center on San Juan Island, beginning in the back and slowly winding our way around to the front, for this is a garden on all sides. I’d watched it come into being from the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden next door. I don’t know that any of us had ever seen anything like this, a garden planted in sand.
“Marilyn,” I mentioned to my friend. “You could garden like this in Tucson.” Marilyn would be leaving the island soon as she and her husband wintered in Arizona every year.
Why sand? Jenny anticipates everyone’s question, “Sand is permeable, it is weed free, it is warm. It holds moisture without being waterlogged. It is low fertility but can still host good soil elements. It is nice looking, clean, and will not go away or be digested like organic matter. Most plants love to germinate and grow in sand and gravel.” A layer of gravel was placed over the sand after planting to prevent erosion from rain. The only mulch being sand and gravel.
“This is the final stage of mineral mulching,” adds Jenny. And there you have it. A self-described “grower of plants, teacher of gardening,” Jenny had something to teach her neighbors peering over the fence, the Master Gardeners. But that wasn’t her intention then, and it isn’t mine now in writing this piece. What Jenny sought to do in her garden at the Family Resource Center was more along the lines of creating a healing place.
“The people who seek the services (of the Family Resource Center) are struggling in one way or another,” notes Jenny, “quite possibly without a lot of joy, hope or beauty in that moment and it was our goal to create something lovely, colorful and immersive…”
I don’t know how long we were there that day. And if our little tour of her garden is any indication, four mature women, spellbound, looking at bees’ behinds—their bottoms bright yellow as they clambered upon blossoms feeding on nectar. And watching solitary sand wasps burrow to their nests in the sand. It had been a long time since I had watched the comings and goings of insects close-up like that. As another island treasure, Thor Hanson, wrote in Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees, “Much depends on us—taking notice, taking heed, and taking action.”
Bembix sand wasps, I don’t believe we’d ever been introduced before. I now know a little more about you.
Summer bowed out and color is fading fast on island. It was one of those days, a prelude to the gray season. Yet I thought there more color in this garden than anywhere. Goldenrod in all its brilliance, bright orange poppies, the lavender of Douglas Asters, and soft pink Yarrow to name a few. But that too could be the charm and the magic of observing closely. I think that’s it. Children have this relationship with nature, and as we grow older we tend to lose it.
Camas, allium, narcissus and fritillaria bulbs, native bare root perennials, native wildflowers and grasses–like a meadow planting, wrapping around the Center. Jenny had in mind “a self-sustaining kind of garden design that is supportive of all the natural processes and biological organisms involved, such as insects, birds, mammals, and pollinators as well as the plants themselves.”
Here and there are tidy log piles, much like firewood stacks, in shady spots. I assumed they’d been placed about as environmental art, but they’re there for biodiversity. “Log pile waves,” Jenny calls them. The deadwood logs simulate fallen trees on a forest floor growing moss, fungi, and lichen, as well as hosting frogs, birds, beetles, and bees. The Wildlife Trusts considers log piles “a minibeast village.” Jenny turns a log over and smiles knowingly.
Thistle may be the emblem of Encyclopedia Britannica, but it was always an outliar in my book. So why should I be surprised to see the native Indian Thistle (Cirsium brevistylum) growing proudly, standing as stately chocolate brown stalks this time of year? Jenny tells me “It is not so common here but maybe once was… The stems are eaten by humans and the flowers and seeds beloved by birds and insects… This one is very soft and not aggressive. Lovely.”
I have everything to learn in gardening.
For more on Jenny Harris of Catkin Horticultural Arts visit her website.