Living With Kids: Kimberly Garner

I can’t wait to show you Kimberly Garner’s breathtaking home on the San Juan Islands. The islands, if you haven’t heard of them, are sprinkled in the water between Washington state and Victoria Island, British Columbia — they are only accessible via ferry. In her interview, Kimberly also talks quite openly about her recent divorce and what that change has meant for her family dynamic. It’s honest and painful and heartwarming and I’m really grateful she chose to share her story. Welcome, Kimberly!

Hi! I’m Kimberly. Three and a half years ago we moved our family from Southwestern Colorado to a little island in the Pacific Northwest. There are no stoplights here, no chain restaurants or big box stores. Those are all an hour ferry ride to the mainland, and it just so happens we live closer to Canada than the United States mainland. Dan teaches high school English and I’m the founder of Dwellosophy.com — a holistic approach to design, inspiring your best life by optimizing the space of your home. 

Dan and I met in Silverton, Colorado, a tiny mountain town situated almost 10,000 feet above sea level, between two mountain passes, and 45 miles from the nearest town, airport, hospital and normal grocery store.

I was 32 and had renounced dating younger men. Dan was 28. I was living in the first house I designed, totally “off the grid” with ski in/ski out only access in winter, 6 miles from my closest neighbor.

I owned my one-woman real estate business after trying my hand at historical restoration (a.k.a. glorified construction), and after owning a coffee shop and bakery.

Dan was a letterpress printer and not your typical mountain man. He is what most would consider a modern day Renaissance man, and in a town full of hardcore mountaineers, social misfits and intellectual outliers, he was an anomaly.

After our second date, a camping trip with pack llamas 10 miles into the Weminuche Wilderness, we were a done deal.

We were married with Auden on the way. Dan taught high school English and I happily ended my 6 figure career to be a stay at home momma to sweet Auden. I was 34 and as my mother-in-law so kindly shared, I was a  “geriatric mom”, a term I still roll my eyes at, even with a head full of gray hair!!

Geriatric or not, motherhood pulled the rug out from under me in ways I didn’t anticipate or prepare for. What I expected new mommy life to look like was a stark and painful contrast to my reality. 

I lost almost everything I identified as me. It was a dichotomy between being in love with our precious baby boy and mourning the only version of me I knew and desperately missed. I felt like a foreigner in my new life.

The clouds, as they do, started lifting after Auden turned two. The second lap of motherhood, after Flora joined our tribe, was gentler on me. Our life flourished and our dream to farm and live closer to water started tugging on our heartstrings. 

We began researching international schools around the world where Dan might teach and our family relocate. On a whim, we checked out a school on Vancouver Island and discovered the U.S./Canadian boundary wrapped around a little cluster of islands within U.S.!!! Intrigued, we rented a VW Vanagon camper for two weeks over the summer and discovered the place we’d soon call home.  

We live about 12 minutes north of Friday Harbor on 6.5 mostly pastured acres. One of my most favorite things about where we live is the natural environment. It feels pristine. The island landscape blends a mixture of rolling hills, meadows, lakes and old growth forests, and then of course there’s the shoreline and surrounding gumdrop islands. 

The forests are diverse depending on where you are on the island, and the island isn’t very big. There are groves of old growth cedars, rain forests with huge ferns, forests of ancient douglas fir, maple and Garry oak. The shoreline is like something you’d imagine in Scotland, while other spots feel a lot like Maine.

Across the street from our house are over 1500 acres of forest and single track trails. I’m a Forrest Gump style trail runner — it’s how I process and recharge. I’m up there nearly every day. I call it my church and sometimes I’ll catch myself talking out loud like the trees are my therapist.  

Our property and home orients to the south capturing a lot of sky, which sounds funny, but it’s a very wooded island with lots of hills, so big sky views are not so common. The winter days here are short, and the big sky helps us soak up as much sunshine as we can.

As the crow flies, we’re about ¼ mile from the water, but you’d never know given the terrain.  It takes us about 6 minutes to get to one of our favorite swimming spots and the same distance to our favorite mussel and clam digging spot. One of the great things about SJI is the access to public beaches, we spend much of our free time playing in coves and on beaches around the island. Dan and Auden are quite the fishermen which is fabulous. In the summer we get our fill of Dungeness Crab and Spot Prawns and depending on the time of year, plenty of salmon. It’s one of the best parts about living here.

It’s kind of like a time capsule, this place. Yet we do have to work a lot harder on the island for things you’d otherwise take for granted living on the mainland — like orthodontist and dermatologist appointments, or having the privacy of going to your therapist. 

Housing on the other hand, is one of the trickiest and most frustrating things about living here, for renters and homeowners alike. The pickings are slim — really slim and expensive. Affordable housing here is anything under $500k; those properties are rare and disappear quickly! We didn’t realize how difficult finding a home was going to be until we got here.

We had a longstanding dream to own a sailboat and that was definitely part of the vision we shared for our life in the San Juans. Some creative financial acrobatics were required in order to purchase a home on the island. So we decided to reverse-engineer our dream and buy the sailboat first. We figured we’d have a place to live until we could find a house — and living on a sailboat sounded so idyllic. 

We bought a 32’ sailboat that just happened to be for sale at the marina in Friday Harbor. By the way, I should also add, that 32’ I mentioned includes the bowsprit (section that extends beyond the front tip of the boat) and the cockpit (the outdoor sitting area where you steer, eat most of your meals, relax and have a normal conversation while the kids are sleeping — it’s also the “front porch” for the liveaboard lifestyle). 

So the four of us and our dog lived in an approximately 20’x8’ space for 5 months, 2 weeks and 3 days, tethered to a floating dock, with no hot water, foot pumping for cold water, coin operated family style “get it all done within 6 minutes” showers, and a laundromat about ¼ mile up the dock from our slip.

Disclaimer: I am NOT the person to ask about “tiny homes” or “tiny living” or “tiny” anything — I like small and cozy, but not tiny.

At the end of October, just after the rain and wind season began, we moved into our current home which was almost twice the size of our Colorado home, much more house than we ever needed. Coming from living on the sailboat for 5 months, 2 weeks and 3 days, living here felt SO good, yet also took some getting used to. Our bedroom was on the main level and the kids rooms were downstairs. Having them sleep so far away felt uncomfortable for all of us, so they slept in our bedroom for longer than I’ll admit. 

There’s one thing I learned about finding a home in the San Juans, you get your choice of 2 out of 3 things: Price, location, or aesthetic. You don’t get all three. With this house we got our aesthetic and location, but we didn’t get our price. It was a reach — a big reach. We were hoping to stay in our price range of $500k, but we maxed out at over $675k.

I called our new home “Jane’s house” for a long time, Jane built it for herself and her three children years ago, then sold it to us after her kids were in college. It felt very much like the home I designed in Silverton with lots of windows, southern exposure, open layout, etc..

I think part of the reason I called it “Jane’s” for so long was because it just didn’t feel like an expression of me; it didn’t feel like our home. Partly because we owned furniture that filled an 1800 sq. ft. house, and now we had over 2800 sq.ft. to fill. 

The downstairs felt sparse and that’s where the kids bedrooms were. I found myself not wanting to have people over. I didn’t like how the house felt, which is really interesting because my work and passion is all about the importance of home feeling like a reflection of our life. 

In actuality, the house was a reflection of our life. It mirrored exactly what was going on at the time. The kids sleeping with us magnified the sobering fact that they were the only thing keeping us together. The house didn’t feel settled, and I wasn’t settled. I spent one week every month commuting to Colorado for work, which wasn’t part of the plan or our dream. I’d never spent so much time away from Auden and Flora, but my work was lucrative and we needed the income. Island life was much more expensive than we anticipated. The fabric of our life was growing threadbare.

Dan and I were officially divorced on our 13th anniversary in 2019. 

Prior to our move, I never would have imagined we’d ever get divorced — neither one of us saw it coming. The move, and living on “the boat”, marked the beginning of the end for our former storybook life together. I imagine we all have little fissures in our relationships and they mostly go unnoticed, or at least aren’t such a big deal in the scheme of things, especially when “the scheme of things” is creating a sweet life with two adorably lovable children. The move did “us” in.  

On our anniversary in 2018, Dan and I realized our marriage was over, but we weren’t ready to end our family, that idea was too heartbreaking to consider. We decided to stay married, but knew as a couple, we were done.  We entertained ideas like “bird nesting” — getting a shared apartment and alternating times at home with the kids.

We didn’t want our failure to impact their experience of life — living at home, their home, with both their parents. We wanted some semblance of “normal” for them. Dan and I were really mindful of making sure Auden and Flora remained the nucleus of their world, our family. We’re still a family and that’s been our message since we decided to split, even during the chapter where we didn’t like each other very much. 

The night we told our kids we were getting a divorce was the worst night of our life. Flora just dropped her face into her sweet little hands and stood there quietly crying, and Auden went into a rampage that lasted almost 2 hours. Dan and I took turns being with each of them.

Flora’s experience was soft, raw and tender, Auden’s was physical and angry and desperate. He wouldn’t let us touch him — he was yelling and crying, “Why?!! Why are you doing this?! I hate you. You’re the worst parents ever. Please don’t do this! Just try harder.”

It’s impossible to relive this memory and not feel it on a very cellular level.

I don’t think there will be a time or space where this pain absolves. Breaking your children’s hearts never gets better.

Auden finally let me in, and I held him and just kept repeating “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” We just held each other for several moments, then Auden said, “Mom, can I ask you something?” Of course, you can ask me anything.  I was so happy to be on the other side with him. He said, “I’m afraid you’re going to say ‘no’”.  Sweetie, you can ask me ANYTHING, I’m not going to say ‘no’.  So my heartbroken and very clever 11 year old son asked, “Mom, can I get an XBox?” Long pause…(& within a split second, this runs through my mind, ‘Shit!!’ I can’t say ‘no’…I’ve been saying no for months and months and now he’s got me…I just shattered his world and turned the narrative for his life upside down and inside out)…”Yes! Of course, you can have an XBox!”. “ So does that mean Flora gets a present, too?” Yes, Flora can get something, too. Flora added 2 hamsters to our 13 chickens, one bunny, two goldfish and one dog.

Fast forward three months, we were approaching Valentine’s Day and the end of Washington’s mandatory 90 day waiting period for divorce.  I mentioned to Dan we might want to make sure our divorce isn’t finalized on Valentine’s Day. 

He offered the idea to get divorced on our anniversary, it felt like a dagger, but only for a split second, then he explained his thinking. So we did. We finalized our paperwork at the Courthouse on February 25 and the four of us went out for an early dinner together.

I asked Dan if the kids knew what “today” was, he said “I don’t think so, I haven’t told them”. So we explained to the kids that 13 years ago, at almost that very moment, mom and dad got married under a huge oak tree at the end of a very rainy day on another island called Cumberland Island. 

Auden’s response was, “That’s weird. Did you mean to get divorced on the same day you got married?” We explained the symbolism of ending our life as a married couple, but still continuing our life together as a family. They seemed to get it, but didn’t cling so much to the comforting significance as Dan and I had. 

At that very moment, 13 years later, to almost the exact minute of our first dance together, the same song began to play at the restaurant. Dan and I just looked at each other and could not hold back the tears. As he so eloquently said, “It’s the cosmic bookend”. It felt like a Divine embrace and reassurance that we did the right thing and everything really was going to be okay.

I thrive in smaller spaces, so after Dan moved out, I moved the kids into the loft together. Now we live on the main level which is essentially a two bedroom, one and a half bath home. Ever since they started sharing a room and we began inhabiting the smaller space, home life has taken on a magical sparkle. I think it also speaks to the proximity we as humans innately crave. Our home feels like a true reflection of us, our lifestyle and our values.

The last three years were difficult on them and I think their renewed buoyancy speaks to feeling settled again and “at home” on a lot of fundamental levels.

Looking back, I wish I’d been nicer to Dan during the tough spots. I wish I didn’t project so much of my own inner pain on him. I wish I’d taken a moment to see his humanity and his loving me the best way he knew how.

Fortunately for all of us, we’re closer and better friends now than we’ve ever been. The kids feel it and ultimately, I think that’s what will make them feel at home no matter where we live.

I discovered my passion for design when I was in my early 20’s. One of my first mentors, Bill Plotkin, turned me onto “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander. It became my bible. I began designing homes on graph paper in my free time — it was really easy for me to see a two dimensional space and experience it three dimensionally.

For the next 20 years, I studied various disciplines that eventually developed what I call Dwellosophy, a holistic and results oriented approach to design. In a collaborative process, we curate a space that reflects their true self, their lifestyle and what they want more of in life. It’s what separates a home from a “sanctuary”.  The home becomes a true reflection of self. 

When we’re supported at this level, we open up a new potential for our life.

The quality of our well-being is influenced by the quality of our life; home is an absolute part of that equation. Taken further, home truly is the living vision board for our life. This means we can superimpose what we want for our life, seed it within the space of our home and watch those goals and intentions take form. 

My clients end up being some of my most favorite people. I think that naturally happens when two people allow themselves to be safely seen on this level. I love my work. 

Being self-employed and relying solely on myself for our family income keeps me on my toes. I’m really mindful with how I spend my time. When Auden and Flora are with me, I’m in full momma mode. When they’re with Dan or at school, I’m working and making time for running on the trails and jumping in the sea. 

I try to maintain balance, otherwise I have a tendency to get mentally hijacked by the idea of going it alone. One of the great things about marriage is getting to lean in. For now, there’s not a lot of leaning in available. 

It’s okay. I trust and I wholeheartedly believe, that when we follow our heart and take the big risks for the sake of our dreams, life’s got our back.

My kids have watched my business grow and watching them celebrate my successes is one of the sweetest things I’ve ever experienced, we’re a team and that carries a potency that inspires me to push through the moments when life feels overwhelming.

Because my work is all about home, my work infuses our home and our home inspires my work. I use our home to mirror what I want our kids to know and feel and experience and remember. Our home speaks the narrative I want my children to live and not forget. 

For example, in our bathroom, I’ve placed a picture of each of us, between ages 4-5 by the mirror so we see it at least twice a day while brushing our teeth. These sweet pictures remind us, “We are still that little person. Be kind to yourself because your words are communicating with that little person, even though you’re growing up”. 

The artwork in the entry reminds them, “You are an artist and what you create matters. Value what you contribute to making our world beautiful”.

Dad’s fiddle on the wall at the base of the ladder heading up to their bedroom reminds them, “Even though Dad isn’t living with us, we’re reminded of him and how much music and love he brings to our world. He might not be here to give goodnight kisses and tuck you in, but his love and what he brings to your world still lives here.”

I’m sort of an earth muffin. I have an intrinsic need to be close to nature, so the kids and I have always found hidden spots to spend hours alone in nature. We bring picnics, art supplies, sometimes a hammock or a tent, and we just chill. We play together and we do our own thing. 

I think something beautiful lives on the other side of boredom, so when my kids say “I’m bored”, I typically say “great!”. I think our imagination comes to life once we move beyond boredom and there’s no better place to let the imagination run wild and free than in the natural world.

I want them to carry a sense of adventure and wonder within them wherever they go. That’s something no one can take away and it doesn’t matter how well we’re financially resourced, there’s richness beyond riches within nature and our imagination.

I hope Auden and Flora remember all the games of “Roar” we play, scaring the wits out of each other in the dark! And the fun game of deflated kickball we made up and played on the “field of dreams” baseball diamond we mowed in the pasture — and the family pillow fights to get the ya-ya’s out when the rain and wind storms kept us in.

I hope they forget what it was like the night we told them we were getting a divorce. I hope they hold on to what they felt once their hearts realized they’re still the nucleus of our tribe, we’re still a family, and they are still loved more than all the stars in all the galaxies, no matter what their family looks like. 

Dan and I alternate weeks with the kids, so when they’re with me I want to soak up all the moments. I find the transition times throughout the day really meaningful and fertile ground for memory making. To me those transition times are waking up, school drop off and pick up, then going to bed. If I make those moments sparkle, we all get dividends. 

Mornings and bedtimes are my absolute favorite. I love starting my mornings with them. There’s something innocent about waking children — it’s like they’re at their purest when night turns to day.

The kids sleep in the loft above the kitchen, which is adjacent to my room, it feels like a treehouse up there. At night, I snuggle and read a book to Flora first, then we turn out the lights and I read aloud by headlamp to both of them whatever book Auden is reading for school. I love ending the day together with our little ritual. 

I wish someone had told me to simply follow my heart, to listen to my inner knowing and not be the girl I thought everyone wanted or expected me to be. I wish someone had told me to not be afraid to disappoint another if it meant being true to myself. I wish someone would have told me it’s okay to color outside the lines.

I wish someone would have told me that becoming a mother was going to test and potentially dismantle every bit of self actualization I thought I’d realized, and all the things I thought to be me — and that motherhood was going to be the most raw experience of love and the deepest practice of patience. And to expect sleep deprivation — that the love motherhood grows, you feel deep in the marrow of your bones, and sometimes it drains you from the same depths.

I wish someone would have told me, even though you are a grown up, you’re going to mess up a lot and sometimes you’re going to mess up BIG time, and you’re still going to be okay…eventually. It will even be much better than okay. 

I wish someone would have told me perfection is a fallacy. I wish someone would have told me that being cautious is sometimes a greater risk than taking the risk. I wish someone would have told me my only job on this planet is to simply love myself and love the moments of the life I’m living, the rest will fall beautifully into place, better than you will ever imagine.

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Thank you, Kimberly. What a positively gorgeous home. And I love that idea that our home is the “living vision board for our life.” When our home feels messy and chaotic, often our lives feel messy and chaotic. And when our home is ordered and peaceful, those feelings extend into our lives as well. I love the idea of taking that concept and pushing it even further and making our home the template where we build all of the beautiful things our life can contain.

I really appreciate Kimberly’s frank discussion about her divorce as well. Divorce is always painful, even when it is the right thing to do. But Kimberly’s story is a good reminder that the end of a marriage isn’t necessarily a failure or the end of a life. Families continue, even when the parents are no longer a couple, and often time the removal of the stress of the marriage can make the other parts of the family flow more smoothly.

It’s just another reminder that families come in all shapes and sizes, and that as parents, we are just doing our best to help our kids thrive.

SOURCES



Photo credit to Sara Parsons. You can follow Kimberly on Instagram or check our her website. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram too.

Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at [email protected]

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