Nathalie Kelley

Return To Orcas

Last November before leaving Orcas for the winter, Aleph briefly showed me the 100 year old barn on the property. Built for storage and over time partially converted into a loft living space – it was too cold to stay in during the colder months. Aleph and I cuddled in the former milk shed instead. But the barn had remained imprinted in my mind for months to come. He had mentioned the possibility of me cleaning it up and adding my touch – and consequently I had spent a lot of time collecting textiles and making Pinterest boards – this barn was my dream interior design project! I had fantasies of buying paint, plants, fabrics, textiles, ceramics and transforming my new part-time home. An interior design show montage played in my head on a loop, but this vision was shattered before I got there upon receiving some crushing news.

When Aleph told me that the rugs and textiles he had bought us in India would not arrive in time for my visit I was devastated. “What am i supposed to do then?”“There’s still lots to do!” he said. “Yes, but I wanted to decorate not clean!” I was secretly hoping that he would do all the ‘boring stuff’ before I arrived. Sorting through storage, getting rid of old clothes and furniture, sweeping and cleaning the barn etc. In my fantasy I would walk into a blank slate of a room and start painting, arranging rugs and furniture, hanging plants and deciding on throw pillow placement – you know, all the fun stuff!

The timing for my visit could not have been more perfect. Only a week after my zen retreat, Wu De’s words remained in my mind. “80% of Cha Dao is cleaning!” I observed the desire in myself to want to rush through the ‘boring stuff’, to clean and sort through things as quickly and mindlessly as possible. There was a twinge of resentment in my internal dialogue. “Why should I have to sort through this stuff that isn’t mine?” But these thoughts soon dissipated and in their place I began to observe a gratitude for the days of mindful cleaning and organizing ahead. After the retreat I could no longer separate the spiritual and the physical. I couldn’t claim to love meditation and then scoff at cleaning as being boring or unproductive. The cleaning was to be my meditation.

This was a good headspace to be in as it turned out that the task ahead of me was even bigger than I had thought. No one had lived in the barn for more than a year and there were 2 decades worth of storage to sort through – most of which had been stashed away in Aleph’s huge collection of vintage trunks and suitcases. A lot of these items were personal and only Aleph could say whether they belonged in the throw/keep/goodwill pile. I wanted to throw away almost everything. It looked liked mostly random odds and ends, and I couldn’t be bothered to categorize all the little bits and pieces. For example, coins, nails, hooks and safety pins kept turning up and I had to make a real effort every time I found one, to stand up and walk over the their pertinent box and ‘mindfully’ put each pin or coin away. This was a living, moving meditation, I repeated to myself.

The criteria for throwing things away was the following: “Does this item bring me joy?” And while this was a pretty good measure of what to keep and what to give away, Aleph was adamant that nothing be wasted. Aleph of course was not in any rush. He applied his ‘Do Easy’ approach to even the smallest task and the sight of him mindfully handling and assessing each item was enough to melt my heart. With mindful awareness, this painstaking, sometimes intensely physical endeavor was transformed into a sweet labor of love. If I stayed present then even the mundane moments could be full of wonder and joy.

Every suitcase contained a surprise. Sometimes I would come across a chest of treasures – like vintage Indian textiles from Aleph’s many years of travel. Another time I found a list written a decade ago of the ideal qualities Aleph would like in a partner: Must love to dance, must like my laugh, hippy parents (optional) were among them. Besides the hippy parents I was relieved to check each item off the list: Exotic (!) Check. Petite. Check. Speaks another language. Check. :)

When we had finally completed the huge task of organizing, we were left assessing the space itself. Some flooring would need to be put in to expand the loft, but the space itself was pretty stunning, even without a coat of paint. Aleph had been really hesitant to paint over the hundred year old boards and now I could see why. There was beauty in the decay and the imperfections. It aligned perfectly with the concept of Wabi-Sabi and my new Zen Buddhist worldview. Wabi Sabi is defined as “An aesthetic whose beauty is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete”

Part of the charm of the space is the that you never expect to find it there. When you walk up to the barn from the outside it looks as if you are walking into the wood section of a hardware store. Climb up a ladder and you are transported to another realm. A guest described it as a portal, much like the wardrobe that takes one to Narnia. :) After two days of cleaning, our little ‘Narnia’ was finally coming together. Aleph built a section of the floor in an hour I was finally able to embark on my favorite task of all – hanging things! After learning to use a drill at 30 years old, I hung a chair, I hung plants. I hammered nails into the walls to hang lights and we even hung a vintage kudu pelt we liberated from an antique store in Everett. And guess what? I didn’t need Amazon to buy any hooks, nails, safety pins or lightbulbs – because I had mindfully stored them away the day before!! The satisfaction I got from my newfound resourcefulness and thriftiness outweighed any past joy I may have experienced at buying expensive treasures. I was doing multiple dances of joy in our new abode. Aleph just chuckled when he saw how happy I was. This was of course how he and his family had lived their entire lives.

With Aleph’s vintage dowry chests the loft now looked like a colonial, cowboy dream with splashes of African and Indian accents. Not only was it the ultimate living/hanging space but it would now also serve as a showroom for all the textiles and treasures we have collected from our travels around the world. VAQUERO HQ was born. What is VAQUERO? Its the creative lovechild of myself and Aleph’s. An online bazaar of handpicked/handmade goods and textiles from around the world. Our online store will be launching soon, and with it begins a journey that is the manifestation of our lifelong dreams of travel and adventure.

And so this chapter, aka Zen and the Art of Renovating concludes. The story of a frivolous and sometimes wasteful city girl with a love of luxury and the instant gratification of Amazon Prime. How she slowed down and found contentment and even bliss in a sweet little converted barn on Orcas Island. The incomparable joys of learning to use a drill at 30, and realizing that everything I needed to make a magical space was right in front of me. Sometimes in the form of a safety pin, and sometimes in the form of a handsome wood carver who can do and make just about anything. Special thanks to Walter and Rachel for letting me stay and transform this part of your property. Thanks to Quincy and Tony and Kayla for helping out and the sweet house warming gifts. And thanks to Mila for christening our new space with your warmth and joy.

** Additional photos were taken on a later trip to Orcas – after the arrival of the long awaited Indian textiles!! Here I have to thank Aleph again for his impeccable taste and thoughtfulness. I hope you have as much fun witnessing the transformation of the barn as I had participating in it! xx















  • Neha A. Mehta

    The pictures of the transformation are beautiful! Thanks for sharing the process!

  • Cortney

    Nathalie, you are such a beautiful soul. The space is gorgeous and so peaceful looking. You are such an inspiration to me. More than you can possibly know. I love your outlook on life and your delicate way of learning along the way. Glad to live on the same planet as you.

  • Seraya

    Very inspiring. I cleaned and sorted through two boxes of history that I was avoiding. I thought it would feel stressful and a little painful, but cleansing, patience, and clarity flowed through my mind and heart. When I was done four hours later, I felt order inside my soul. It was amazing. All sparked by your blog. I love reading them!

  • Rebecca Asseline

    .. The digital media world sees a great amount of meaningless information spreading around just like ” space junk” is.. It also offers so much beauty .
    What you share, is the embodiement of how good information can be, when driven by the right soul. Thank you for adding layers, colours, and a scent of authenticity to one of the key platform of this new era we’re leaving in. Besos, shining star ✨

  • Julia Turski

    Dear nat,

    I love your blog. And I love the beautiful pictures. Could you tell me, how do you edit them? (Filter or app) I would be so thankful if you answer. You’re an big inspiration to me!