Category Archives: Uncategorized

Time to Get Real

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

All year in lockdown I’d been thinking that it will do me wonders when I can see my young grandson again. Then, just when you think that nothing is ever going to happen, trees start to bud, bulbs push up, and one by one, day by day, daffodil burst into laughter. It took winter to make me see spring. 

Oh yes, I note, things are moving. I’ll get there. 

Now he only knows me as that gray haired lady on the screen, waving and blowing kisses on Facetime and Zoom through various mealtimes, playtimes, and baths. My husband has a Nanit app and we’ve been known to watch him nap by day and sleep at night. Will he recognize us when we walk in the door, in the flesh and three-dimensional? 

My grandmother loved us with every ounce of her ninety pound being. When we were very young my sister and I made mudpies upon the back stoop of her house, just steps from the kitchen where she twirled about, a calico apron over her dress, making our favorite dishes for dinner: Goulash, and a checkerboard cake. 

We thought she was magic.

At another age we had a singular talent it seemed, of weaving potholders, and apparently couldn’t stop. Potholders in all their bright color palette. Having gifted them to everyone we knew and still toting a stockpile, we had the good idea of stitching them together to make a blanket or a throw for our grandmother. Which she displayed over the back of the sofa, or “divan” as she called it, in her apartment. Whenever I visited thereafter, I knew it was the ugliest thing. 

Yet there it was, for years.

Every summer we piled into our grandmother’s log cabin on a small lake in Connecticut—for the entire summer. Idyllic, free-range childhood memories that have come to mean more to me with each passing year.  Later, when going off to camp, or when boarding schools took us away, she became our pen pal. Drawing on her former teaching experience in the 1920’s—before she was married and became pregnant and had to quit teaching–my grandmother took out her red pen, corrected our letters to her, and sent them back. And no, we didn’t mind, not at all. That was love. 

Little lady. Big shoes to fill. 

I have to wonder, what kind of grandmother will I be? When I get real, I mean.

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When Stories Become Legends

A story about water, time, and knowing when the time is right,” by Maria Michaelson

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

“You’re going to get a truck,” people said when we moved onto the island. Not us, we thought, as I stood solidly by my Volvo wagon of nearly twenty years, and Paul, his Porsche. Two years later a 1989 Toyota pickup rolled into our drive, and this old truck has been my husband’s second mid-life crisis, if you will.

We also heard legend that “women on San Juan Island grow strong.” I now know this to be true. Again and again, I meet remarkable women, often rolling into their eighties or nineties, sharp as a shark’s tooth, with no sign of slowing down. This island is teeming with strong women. 

I’m not suggesting it’s a matriarchy, but perhaps the most egalitarian place I’ve ever known.

So I asked some local women for their stories, and I didn’t have to go far. Chairing the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden, an 82 year old woman has been in charge for more years than she can remember. As volunteers, we strive to keep up with her. Supplying fresh produce to The Food Bank, The Demo Garden is open year-round and throughout the pandemic. Recent wind advisories topped 50mph, and there was our chairwoman, bundled in more layers than Nanook of the North, harvesting kale. 

Historically several large farms on island were run by single women. In researching old barns for an art installation, one woman–who went on to become president of the San Juan Islands Museum of Art–informed me that “Lizzie Lawson (1879-1968) took the seat out of her car, a Liberty, loaded it with sheep and took off for the fairground.” Back in the day, farms on island primarily raised cattle and sheep as well as growing orchards and vegetable gardens. Little has changed. Life is pastoral here and farm or no farm, growing food, a religious experience.

“In the garden one is moving with rather than against the inhalations and the exhalations of greater wild nature,” notes Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With the Wolves. “Whatever happens in the garden can happen to soul and psyche—too much water, too little water, bugs, heat, storm, flood, invasion, miracles, dying back, coming back, boon, healing.” On islands we live by the seasons and the seasons live in us. We share this of course with all the islands in The Salish Sea. Perhaps with most islands everywhere.

When contractors were remodeling our home—young men who had grown up on island—I always heard in their conversations an awareness of what was running: the halibut, the salmon, the season for prawn, crab, and I-hate-to-say-it, the deer. I thought, I want to become like that. Knowing the seasons by what’s in season, as in the garden. 

“Living here I carry a battery-powered chainsaw in my vehicle in case I have to remove a tree branch from the road,” a friend tells me. She splits and stacks wood for heat in her home in the winter, and with her husband owns a tractor for clearing the road after snowstorms on Mt. Dallas, where they live. Although my friend lived most of her life in a city, she has found her place here. “The wildness and the beauty. The people. The independent shops and businesses. The theatre and museums. The post office and the grocery store. The ferry. And so much more.”

Farming, fishing, kayaking, boating, piloting, filmmaking, acting, establishing a documentary film festival, a community art center, and taming wild mustangs. And behind closed doors, consulting, researching, writing, and making art. Women conducting tireless public service or running businesses, all of it making an illustrious impact on a sparsely populated island. That auto shop you frequented for years on island? The woman who owned it at one time soloed on a sailboat in hurricane force winds in the Pacific for 41 days. Both a book and a film were made of her ordeal at sea.

Many women brought a wealth of political experience and activism to the island. “I have always felt it is important to give back to whatever community I have lived in,” notes one. “From that, I have made friendships that will endure long after I leave boards and indulge in the pleasures of book, garden and sloth.” 

My neighbor moved onto the island from what we like to call “the other Washington.” Professor Emerita of International Migration at Georgetown University, she educates us all on global migration and refugee issues at every turn. Do women on San Juan Island grow strong, or has the island attracted strong women to its shores? Perhaps that’s it. The old pioneer spirit in women, still pushing west and toward Alaska. 

I’ll ask my neighbor.

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Back to the Hut: Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

The commute is short, but the shoes to fill are enormous. My writing hut, a cedar-shingled shed, is but twenty paces from the house, and everything is intact—just as I left it. Actually I haven’t gone anywhere. In June our daughter and her husband came out to the San Juan Islands “for a few weeks” and stayed for a few months. They lived in Brooklyn at the time but after a long stretch of New York City’s lockdown, they packed up their dog and everything they would need to work remotely. 

As Head of Communications for a beauty startup, our daughter dressed chic—at least the upper half—and worked Zoom seamlessly from room to room and often out on the deck. Our son-in-law is the founder and owner of a technology news aggregator, and as he’s encumbered with larger screens and monitors, I gave him the hut. There he worked from 8 am to 11 pm, seven days a week, if we let him.

Summer turned to fall, and fall to winter, before the two of them headed south like seasoned snowbirds. With everything in storage now back in Brooklyn, they are that free. My hope is that they left plenty of their good juju here. 

“You are our eyes and ears and ambassadors,” I mentioned as they were leaving. Indeed, their calls inform us on the state of the country as well as the precautions they are taking in navigating it at this time. 

The more knowledgeable one is, the more dystopian it seems out in the world.

And here we are, relatively safe on an island. Soon it will be a year. But my job is to a. stop counting, and b. move back into the hut with my writing. And that’s where I am now on this dark day in winter, at my pine table looking at a bay that appears like a void before me. Across the water, a dark gray ribbon of trees and a few blurry lights. And ever encroaching fog and clouds like an enormous erasure. 

Winter: when our skies are capable of outweighing the landscape. It’s almost mythic. Anyway, here I am.

I am still the small child on the sailfish before I could swim. Holding hands and wading into the water with a grandmother who wore rubber swim shoes into the lake. And later, fishing and jumping off the dock. These are the small square black & white photographs I have in a frame on my writing table. So that I may never forget my good beginnings. And so long as I’m not going anywhere, I can’t help but wonder whether my beginnings and end days might fold into one.

“We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” Louise Gluck

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A Tale of Two Islands

Photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

Harbors, lighthouses, beaches, wildlife, and farmlands describe both Martha’s Vineyard and San Juan Island, two seemingly idyllic islands at sea. Just off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard is twice the size and primarily a summer colony. North of Seattle in the Salish Sea, just off B.C. Canada, San Juan Island also attracts its share of summer visitors. The climate on both islands is more temperate than the mainland. “The Vineyard” enjoys cooler summers and warmer winters than inland by a few degrees, and San Juan Island, far more sun than Seattle and an unusually dry climate for Western Washington.

Whaling brought Martha’s Vineyard to prominence in the 19th c, while a booming timber industry coupled with lime kiln operations nearly devastated old growth trees on San Juan Island. Today both islands are extraordinarily sensitive to fragile, vital ecosystems on land and water. On Martha’s Vineyard, approximately 65% of the island has been designated “Priority Habitat” for rare and endangered species of plants and animals. Similarly, San Juan Preservation Trust purchases and receives donations of land, protecting saltwater shores, woodlands, and one of the last remaining native prairies. 

Originally inhabited by indigenous people—Coast Salish peoples in the San Juan Islands, and Wampanoag people on Martha’s Vineyard where there is still a small population. Coast Salish tribes moved about all the San Juan Islands, following the seasons in what archaeologists call “a seasonal round,” fishing, hunting, and harvesting. As the U.S. government claimed the islands, it opened the land to homesteading for U.S. citizens, running Native Americans off the land they knew. 

Meanwhile over on Martha’s Vineyard, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head is embroiled today in a court battle over the transformation of a community center into a casino on their reservation. So it’s not all roses there either. 

Here we are, two islands at sea all these years later without getting the first thing right: our relationship with indigenous peoples. We’re all on borrowed land.

Never forget that, we are all on borrowed land.

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Something Blue

ChagallAutour D’Elle by Marc Chagall (1945

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

We ought to think that we are one of the leaves of a tree, and the tree is all humanity. We cannot live without the others, without the tree.

–Pablo Casals

 

I can’t seem to step away from trees. I move; they stay. And I keep coming back to them. In Philadelphia it was the gingko tree. On San Juan Island, where I live, it’s the Pacific Madrone. In Massachusetts recently, dogwood trees spoke to me. We were there for a wedding and I fell in love with dogwood trees, their draping boughs abloom in big full skirts—looking to my eye like brides, up and down every green leafed well-appointed street in town.

Our younger sister was getting married, and my other sister and I were falling all over ourselves trying to fill our mother’s shoes for the bride. This wedding was, after all, mom’s last wish. Anyone gathered around her hospital bed in those final days was witness to it. Having lost the ability to speak after suffering a severe stroke, she nevertheless made her intentions known. Pointing with her finger and darting her eyes, back and forth from our youngest sister to her beau, over and over. He got the message alright, and five months after the funeral he proposed.

Now the stage was set for the wedding in a Wedgewood blue manse outside Boston, at the home of the great grandson of Pablo Casals—which has nothing to do with anything, but just knowing that made it all the more heavenly, I thought. On a day in spring so temperate, it should have been bottled. All the dogwood trees, as I mentioned, in full bloom and finery.

There was something about the light that day. Anyone could have told you, it touched us all.

Fifty-five guests filed up the front steps entering a high-ceilinged foyer, which led to a grand dining room, which led to a grander-still living room. A house that told the story not only of its past, but of the vibrant people living there today as well. Accompanied by an acoustical guitarist, the guests took their place in folding chairs facing a staging area. Our father sat quietly up front in his wheelchair. And what held him for hours–all afternoon–we now know.

There was something about the air that day too, it touched us all. We were all drinking in the scene as we breathed.

The ceremony began, the officiate standing to one side, bride and groom to the other. Between them a tall window looking to green, light through the leaves. With each word and each vow exchanged, the breeze which had been so gentle became a declarative wind. The window treatment puckered, billowed, and ultimately blew straight out to the side.

Something was coming in.

In my family we’d all been wondering when our mother would appear. It had been a long time for us since her death, but we had to understand she was trying to find her way around. And until now, mom had never been on her own. But how else can we explain that it all went so flawlessly well, our youngest sister’s wedding?

It had to have been our mother.

 

 

 

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In Remembrance of Ladies Who Lunch

photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

The year was 2018, and regardless of the fact that every one of these three well- heeled Republican women in their day had passed away, they insisted on another matinee movie date. It isn’t every day Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Book Shop is made into a film. Now they’ve moved into a restaurant to talk about the film.

White linen tablecloths touch the floor and they were led to a table with a view. Barbara is in a wheelchair, my mother, Lois, on a walker, and my Aunt Marcia walked, pushing Barbara. Compared to the others, Marcia was eternally young. A born redhead, she stayed a redhead. Whereas both Barbara and Lois had been brunettes in their day, they were both a light–almost white–silver today. One might say iridescent.

Barbara had climbed out of one of her velvet workout outfits to put on a blue skirt, blouse, and tweed jacket. I don’t need to tell you she wore pearls. Kenneth Jay Lane faux pearls, as she was always proud to say. Lois wore a heathered gray cashmere sweater over black knit pants, a pair of comfortable pumps, and a sterling silver choker. Talbots was the word for her. Marcia, it seemed, was born knowing what to wear. Outfits hung in her closet with their tags still on, waiting for the right occasion. Today she was dressed in heels and a black and white St. John Knits. A trio of Chanel inspired chains draped around her neck, pooling upon her lap. Marcia looked glamorous, much like Violet, the grand dame in the film.

You might say Barbara is a Lincoln, my mother, a Subaru, and Marcia, more of a car than she could ever afford.

Barbara introduced her friends to the waiter as “Mar” and “Lo,” and herself as “Bar.” The waiter raised one of his eyebrows and Barbara put her hand up to stop his thoughts.

“Now don’t go making any comparisons to Mar-a-Lago,” she said disdainfully. “Because there are none. These were our names long before he ever laid his beady little eyes on Merriweather Post’s gaudy place in Palm Beach.” Her friends smiled.

Lo wants to tell her friends that she has asked her daughter—the writer daughter–to take her to the next women’s march in D.C. “… even if you have to push me in a wheelchair,” she had said. But Lo can’t figure out how to say it without hurting Bar’s feelings. She was still wrestling with that when Bar raised the topic of the march herself and blurted out, “I’d be there myself if it wouldn’t cause such a ruckus with the Secret Service.”

The waiter came with appetizers and poured a bottle of Pellegrino into large wine goblets. They were all on mineral waters now, with a twist of lime.

“I want to say something about that line, a town without a book shop is no town at all,” says Mar. Bar, who had lived in more places around the globe, smiled like it had been her line.

But Lo said, “We lived in such a town, not Hardborough, not that quaint, but Suffield, Connecticut. Except for the library, the kids had no resources for books. Now I don’t know how we did it.”

“Well that was one well used library, that’s how,” suggested Mar. “I know, I was forever in and out of mine in Cheshire, checking out and returning on the way to and fro every other errand and event.” Remembering for a moment the busyness of those years, she added, “The remarkable thing is that I got so much read.”

“We were all remarkable,” suggested Bar.

And she told them about the towering wall of books behind their headboard in Kennebunkport, both of them reading into the wee hours of the night and sometimes, until the first sign of light over the water.

“George was always putting it in his prayers every summer that coastal Maine be spared any little earthquakes,” she added.

Her friends love her little stories about George. All three had husbands that anyone would characterize as kind. Republican men. None of them ever thought to demean women, or bully other men for that matter. It was another time.

“To the Landline Ladies,” cried Bar, and they all raised their mineral waters before anyone could get too lost in thought.

“One good life and one good line, and you will live forever!” she proclaimed. “Here’s mine,” she added in case anyone forgot: “I don’t see how any self-respecting woman could vote for Trump”.

No one would ever forget that line. It’s just a shame not every woman listened. Mar would spend the night going over some of her own lines, searching for the best. Lo was sure she must have misplaced hers somehow. But Bar was confident in hers.

“I think I can say, truthfully,” she continued, “that not one person in the Bush family voted for Trump.”

It took a second for that to sink in. A Republican dynasty like that. One had to mull it over.

“I just hope everybody voted,” Bar added, almost under her breath.

“Well you can say that about our clan too,” Mar added, although she wondered, can any of us ever really know about our husbands?

When heads turned to Lo, wanting so to join in, she began to choke. Lightly, slightly, on a cracker. There’s some in every family, she told herself.

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Rock of Ages

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

A bench. A book. A cup of tea or coffee, and there you go. It’s been true since time as we know it. Indeed, it may be the one true thing. Yet the gray-green of winter still lingered in March. Winds had not yet subsided, and slapped with exceptionally cold temps, we were looking to do things indoors.

When we lived in the city, we frequented the theatre. Now on island, it is events like the Annual Rotary Spelling Bee that have us in the audience at the San Juan Community Theatre on a Thursday afternoon. Attending is a way of coming to know some of the children, 4th—8th grade, growing up amongst us.

You know the drill: a word is pronounced, used in a sentence, and repeated. If requested, a definition of the word is also provided. The contestant is now on her own to repeat the word, spell it letter by letter into the air loud and clear, and state the word once again. Then sit back down or leave the stage.

Here the mic had to be lowered and raised as much as two feet with the varying heights. After every successful round a couple girlfriends seated side by side exchanged hugs. One girl’s large sneakered feet pigeon-toed as she concentrated on each word on stage. And when it was his turn, a boy in big glasses spelled out letters with his fingers on his arm. In the end an extraordinarily poised girl, her shoulders wrapped in a shawl, took home the grand prize.

I have to hand it to them all. This is a generation that grew up with Google and spell check, and may not have ever looked up a word in their life. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that all the learning happened in those steps to the dictionary, and then in locating the word within that vast book, which could take some time. One almost needed to know how to spell it to find it.

“That’s a good question, you should look it up,” rings as a parental refrain from my childhood. And to make it easy, the den was equipped with dictionaries, World Book Encyclopedia, and Year Books to keep us all up to date.

One grandmother, a former teacher, corrected our letters from camp with a red pen—the spelling most likely—and sent them back to us. I didn’t mind. English is not an easy language, and we were expected to struggle with it.

In my own home as our daughters were growing up, a dictionary stand occupied a corner of the dining room. That was where they did their homework, and it was at meals that words frequently came up and were discussed. I know this sounds as old fashioned as parlor games, but people were not individually armed with smart phones in those days.

One thing is for certain today, these Spelling Bee students must be readers. That, I’ve decided, is how they know their words. Bravo.

 

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Flip Flops in January: Three Girls and a Truck at Village Nurseries, San Diego

photo credit: Jackie Mayer Blum

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

We are wintering in San Diego, living on a mattress with a small bistro table, a couple folding chairs, and two bright Hawaiian printed Tommy Bahama beach chairs in an otherwise empty house. The house is a job site. Our daughter and her husband purchased a new home in North Park, San Diego. A remodel, and we are here to help.

While the men are at home swinging hammers, we are on a landscape mission. My daughter is commandeering a pickup truck, bouncing over dirt roads and splashing through puddles at Village Nurseries Wholesale Plant and Tree Grower. Thirteen acres of planted bliss, a Disneyland to me. No lines, no crowds (to-the-trade only), and free of all the commercialization.

The bed of our truck is brimming with potted plants: 5 tall Barbara Karst bougainvillea, Mister Lincoln white rose shrubs, “bartenders choice” Mexican Lime Tree, a 15 gallon Strelitzia retinae Bird of Paradise shrub, and enormous agave plants anchoring them all. Clean and new at the U Haul lot, the truck will be returning with all the mud and markings of having taken the Indiana Jones ride at Adventureland.

You had to know my mother would be on board; she must have slipped onto the bench seat. It wasn’t until we turned into the nursery that we realized she was with us. https://alittleelbowroom.com/2017/12/05/my-imaginary-mother-in-winter/ Her breath, like ours, was taken away with the vastness and the serenity of the place.

Rounding Succulents and Drought Tolerant plants, I am back in the gray/greens with Mediterranean plants. Heaven for me once, for at one time I lived in Southern California. Today I recognize some full well, yet can’t recall their names. Other names I know, but can’t picture. My daughter is reintroducing me to some old friends.

Discombobulated I fumble forward. A Master Gardener from Climate Zone 4 (San Juan Island, WA) in Zone 24 (San Diego, CA), I try to be helpful. “Seasonal amnesia,” is there such a thing? All I know is that in a rush I just mailed a Valentine’s Day card–one month early. I recall that when living here: waking and having to orient myself with the season, with the month, before stepping out of bed.

Left to our own devises mom and I might have gone crazy, but my daughter was specific. A wall of her courtyard would be draped in bougainvillea. She knew the color. A lime tree would round out their citrus collection. And white roses and giant Blue Glow agave look exquisite together. Who knew?

And who knew about my daughter’s newfound passion for plants, and in the same place where I first got the bug? Her grandmother may have been the only one to have seen that coming.

 

 

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Cut Flowers

 IMG_8817

photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

Cut flowers. You see them at the market, the farmer’s market, and flower stalls. They are given and received as gifts, and they are, of course, lovely. Fresh. Ephemeral. I’m OK with the whole thing now, but for the longest time—nearly all my life–I thought it wrong to cut off a flower in bud or bloom.

My mother wanted a debutante and what she got was a hippie. A naturalist from the get-go. Truth be told, I always preferred the wildflowers. The Queen Anne’s lace that seeded itself aside the highway to the heirloom rose. And to my mind, planted or wild, all flowers deserved to grow.

Pity the date who came to my door with a bouquet in hand. One look at the stemmed beauties wrapped in cellophane and I’d think, the poor things… When a relationship was lasting, I clarified my preference for potted plants. As it happened, my husband hung in the longest and our lives have been full of plants I have tended for months, years, and occasionally transplanted outdoors.

I was this way about cut flowers right up through becoming a Master Gardener. Now any gardener worth her salt will know that plants benefit from pruning, and cutting may keep some plants vigorously in flower. It just wasn’t in my nature.

I never knew where this came from until my mother lay dying last week. She was 89 years young and suffered a stroke in the hospital following a surgical operation. The stroke evolved, and there was nothing to do but keep vigil. And that is what we did for days.

I read to her from the book I had on hand, Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. Chapter after chapter of this horticultural memoir became intensely personal. I read how Hope’s strongest memory of her childhood garden was not how it smelled or looked, but how it sounded. “It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest,” she wrote.

When we came to the part about her mother’s peonies the size of cabbages, I put down the book and spoke of my own mother’s peony garden of many years ago. Closing my eyes I could see her on hands and knees tending her border alone.

“I’m sorry, mom, I never got down to help you,” I cried. “I was always running by, not interested in gardening yet. But I want you to know that I noticed how beautiful…”

And she nodded; she understood.

Suddenly I realized, right there by her hospital bedside, that in all those years of magnificent summer blooming peonies, we never had an arrangement in the house that I can recall. That’s where I got it, I thought! From my mother, who never cut the flowers she tended so lovingly.

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Indigenous Design

Pillows on chairs

By KIMBERLY MAYER

 

Do you remember it? All around New York City in the 1980’s people were hoisting lodge poles into their apartments, redoing floors in Saltillo tiles, hanging antler chandeliers with forged iron hardware, trying to grow specimen cacti in native baskets, and trading in their Limoges, Waterford, and Baccarat crystal for Indian pots and Mexican glassware.

Meanwhile, Christine Mather’s design book Santa Fe Style was selling like hotcakes off the shelves. I know, for I purchased a copy.

I remember too when my mother hired an interior decorator who remodeled a graciously large bath in our Georgian Colonial home c. 1823 in an abstract modern blaze of turquoise and aqua, papering even the cupboard doors.

I knew then, as I know now, something was not right.

Much as we have learned to prepare foods fresh, farm to table, we need to design our spaces with a sense of place. Local is the new exotic.

It doesn’t mean we can’t throw in a dash of turmeric or smoked paprika. In interiors too the excitement is often in juxtaposition, such as industrial steel with rustic. But to pull that off we must keep one solid foot, at least, in where we are—otherwise, the “other” won’t come off at all.

You can’t pretend you are living on Canyon Road in Manhattan.

You can’t make a vintage bath, in tiles, fixtures and architecture, suddenly modern with wallpaper.

And Tommy Bahama prints on retro rattan furniture are only going to fly where it’s barefoot and warm and by the beach. Preferably in Hawaii.

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