Monday, January 8, 2018

It’s A Lot Like Life

It’s A Lot Like Life
            I had to decide. She’d had a reaction to the anesthetic which left symptoms similar to epilepsy. Convulsions. Starvation. A rack of bones loosely held in rags of fur. Put her down. A euphemism by any other name . . . death.

            My tears soaked her fur. I held her last breath. My Cat Ballou, playful, teasing, gentle sweet kitten-cat.

            That night I lay in bed, holding memory, accusations rattling around my brain cage, familiar. Why does everyone, everything I love, leave me? What is wrong with me? Is this my karma? Is there no end? Beating myself. Grieving.

            Finally I heard my wild monkey-mind, the guilt/shame false accusations. If I let it, that silly mind could take response-ability for the Peloponnesian War. Think about it. If I can take responsibility for war, I can avoid responsibility for harsh words spoken in haste.

            Stop it! My good-sense mind finally woke up and took control. I drew on everything I knew, prayer, mantras, meditation. Finally I simply focused on following my breath, in, out. As clearly as if they were spoken, I heard the words, You ask the wrong questions? (I do NOT hear voices.)

            Why not ask, Why have I been given this kitten gift of pure love and fun for four whole months? Oh, the patterns of the past have a strong grip. I was glad to break that pattern, to drift into sleep with a few more tears.

            So this last week has been hard times for me. I spent hours every day in my garden, watering flowers, giving attention to every single plant in my extensive garden, doing what brings me solace. Friends come by bringing comfort and bananas. I accepted their fussing over me.

            In our way of marking time, we left an old year behind and turned our faces into the new year ahead.

            Here on the Rancho we gathered at Julie’s house for shrimp pozole. Julie made the soup and the rest of us brought pot luck. Good food, peaceful ambiance, stimulating conversation. Home by ten. Few of us, if any, stayed up to watch the clock turn around the day.

            If there were a lot of fireworks, I slept through the bangs and crackles. I’m used to hearing fireworks daily, for our people use fireworks to celebrate every occasion, births, deaths, anniversaries, stubbed toes. Fireworks are part of the background noise, like my wind chime at the corner of my house and the trucks along the highway a couple blocks south.

            The sun is shining. It’s a beautiful day. My first amaryllis burst into blossom. In my ballpark, it’s a tie ballgame.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

January 4, 2018

Turning Pages

Turning Pages
            “Sure wish I’d known forty, fifty, years ago what I know today. I might have done some things differently,” I told my daughter. I was bemoaning my financial status, not for the first time, more like a recurring toothache or a grumpy relative one feels obliged to visit.

            “There you go again, bad-mouthing your ‘lack-of-planning’ choices. Most people work their whole lives for retirement and then never end up getting to do anything with it. When you worked, you worked hard. Then when you played, you did what you really wanted.”

            She was on a roll. My daughter gets that way. I could see her snap her eyes even with a twenty-five hundred mile stretch of country between us. It’s a straight shot, north to south so not much spark is lost along the way.

            “Pacific Beach for a week of R & R? Done. China? Done. Retreat on Molokai? Done,” she continued. “You have everything you need in a place you love. Riches in the bank? No, but you have, and continue to have, experiences so many people dream and wish to have. Some race-race-race to keep up with the latest car, newest gadget, biggest house, etc. That was never important. You only wanted to have great experiences. And you have had and still have great experiences and the ability to say you enjoy your life.”

            Whew. That set me on my feet. Guess she told me. And, of course, she is right. If I could have done things differently, would I? Probably not. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, I was never motivated by money or by bigger-better things. Neither way is right nor wrong, just different.

            Let’s pretend our lives are books. Each book is made of chapters and pages—just like old-fashioned tree books. A chapter for baby-hood, one for grade school, and so forth. Maybe your present chapter is titled, “Linda and Gary, from the farm north of Havre” and that is one very, very long chapter. That is good.

            My book seems to consist of many short chapters, such as “Sondra in Etzatlan” and that is good too, just different. Would I like to trade my chapter for your chapter? Very often, yes, I certainly would.

            Since we are pretending, let’s assume we don’t skip to the back to read the last page, to see how the book ends. Oh, you’ve been guilty of that too, have you? So all we can read today is the page we are on, right? We don’t know how many chapters we have. We don’t know how our book will end. Or when.

            All the time, my friends, even strangers, ask me, “How long do you think you’ll stay in Mexico?”

            “For the duration,” is my usual reply. But what do I know? I like my chapter, living here in Etzatlan, frequent trips to Guadalajara, to Mazatlan, to smaller towns. It’s a restful chapter, rejuvenating. I get to look at the world around me without preconceived notions of what it should be. Every day things appear to sparkle, refreshing.

            But every now and then I get a niggling feeling there might be another chapter ahead, a different place to write different pages. I’ll tell you, that thought scares my liver right down to my toenails. So I shove the thought back into a high shelf in my closet and hide it under blankets. It doesn’t do me a bit of good to think about it. What do I know? Nothing.

            A New Year’s a-coming. Each day another page. My today page is mopping my floor, watering my extensive garden, making beans and biscuits. I think about you north of town, throwing feed to the cows, or you, over there on 3rd, changing that flat tire in the ice and wind, or you in the blue parka, walking in the dark, going to work at the bakery. I think about you.    
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 28, 2017

Friday, December 22, 2017

“I Couldn’t Sleep A Wink Last Night”

“I Couldn’t Sleep A Wink Last Night”
            “I couldn’t sleep a wink last night,” it’s true. It’s silly to be lovelorn and at my age too.

Oh, no. Don’t get excited. It’s not what you think. More’s the pity.

I swear, I can hardly believe myself. An animal. A dumb animal. Well, not so dumb, it turns out. Saturday, the chosen day, finally arrived—Cat Ballou took an anticipated trip to the veterinarian for the essential surgery, the one to prevent an unending series of duplicates. 

Surgery went well. Ballou returned home comatose with a plastic halo around her neck. Within a couple hours after she woke up, groggy though she seemed, my cat managed to figure out how to slip her head out of the cone.

The veterinarian had let me know the cone was the most important part of recovery. If my cat could reach her stitches with her teeth, there would be nothing he could do, dire warning, but put her down. That is a euphemism for the “final sleep”. Gulp, another euphemism.

As long as I held my cat in my arms, she slept. I went to bed. She slept on my chest. I cannot sleep on my back. I’d shift her to my arm. She slept. I lay awake. My arm went to sleep. Does it count if a body part sleeps? Thus my night passed, feeling the vibration of the cat, listening to the rain and wind.

To follow the song, “I thought my heart would break the whole night through.” Sunday morning, bleary eyed, I put food down for Cat Ballou. She ignored it, sat at my feet with piteous meows until I picked her up. In my arms she promptly went back to sleep. Thus my day.

Leo came to see if I needed any help. We modified the cone and replaced it around her neck, feeling quite pleased with our job. In fifteen seconds, Ballou pulled her head out of the noose. Julie came over a couple hours later. We tightened the cone more, and, using man’s best friend, duct taped it together. And very proud we were of our expertise. Ten seconds. Ballou won her freedom.

As long as that cat was in my arms, she slept. If I put her down, she cried, like a colicky baby. Neither of us ate. I sat. She slept.

Sleepless nights. Bloodshot eyes. In desperation, using scissors and massive amounts of duct tape, I further modified the, here-to-fore useless, plastic cone.

Voila! My little escape artist is finally corralled. She still insists on my lap, continuously. But when I ignore her pitiful cries, I can eat a sandwich, or mop my floors, or hang laundry. Other than necessary chores, I sit, I read, I hold my cat. I read a lot.

 At night, I get an hour or two of sleep at a time. You would understand if you had a plastic cone on legs try to wriggle under the blanket with you.

Three weeks. The vet said three weeks. I’m not sure I’ll last the full run.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 21, 2017

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Cold House Pizza

Cold House Pizza
            The same Arctic cold that swept down through the southwest and snowed on Houston brought to Jalisco, inland Mexico, our own cold snap, minus snow, just short of freezing. At the same time, the fires of southern California created winds that pushed clouds our way to hold the frigid air close to the ground.

            I can cope with an ordinary cold winter day. By 10:30—11:00, the sun has warmed the air, the ground, and my body—and my house. By afternoon, I’m togged out for summertime, only to add layers of warm duds while the sun goes down. Then it’s dark, time for bed, to snuggle under my down comforter, Cat Ballou curled at my feet.

            You must understand, nobody’s house is heated. Nobody’s house is insulated. The walls of my small house are all brick, one layer of brick, with not even the benefit of a slathering of plaster. Windows, not bug-tight, certainly are not airtight. So on a cloudy, cold and windy day, the house is cold. I wear long-johns, wool socks, a shirt and three sweaters. That’s when I’m up and moving around.  If I sit down, I wrap a zarape around my shoulders and a toss a wool lap-blanket over my legs.

            Count them; five cold, cloudy, windy days with no heat. The bus to Puerta Vallarta looks mighty fine. But I’m tight budgeted right now. Sadly, a trip to the coast is out of the question.

            I bake bread, rolls, make a baked pineapple pudding—anything that allows me to keep the oven burning. I make capirotada, a traditional Mexican bread pudding with nuts, apples, raisins and cubed cheese. I give food to the neighbors. I stuff my refrigerator. I eat my fill. I’m still cold.

            Lani phoned, “Ariel and I are going to Oconahua for pizza. John and Carol are coming. We’d like you to join us.”

            We’ve recently made the acquaintance of Anna and Michelle, who live in Oconahua and, “for something to do,” opened a shop, hung out a sign, Coffee Pizza. No, not coffee pizza, but good coffee and good pizza.

            Oconahua, about the size of Chinook, hugs the mountains, eight kilometers up the road. Like Mexican towns of any size, it has a beautiful plaza and Cathedral.

            Ordinarily, I’d have been onboard in a heartbeat. Not so much for pizza, a treat that doesn’t excite me, but for the trip, the social outing. But my bones were cold. I’d envisioned crawling under that comforter at sundown. “I don’t want to go this time, Lani.”

            Lani is persistent. She bullied me, in a good way. She bribed me.  She promised a pre-heated car ride. And a pizza-oven heated restaurant. I whined but I assented.

            We arrived shortly after the women opened for business. Anna had the ovens roaring. Michelle manned the coffee bar. Once we’d settled ourselves at a table, I forgot my discomfort, relaxed and enjoyed the company of the two couples and our new friends.

            Me, I drank hot chocolate, Mexican style, frothy and topped with cream. The thick, smooth drink comforted me better than any food.

            The Coffee Pizza House is a cheerful place, walls painted purple, turquoise, orange, green and pink. Townspeople walked in, some came for take-out, some came to eat in. The music cranked up. More folks came and went. We were made welcome, felt part of the community. There is more than one kind of warm.

            Another cold, cloudy day, no end in sight. What can I put in the oven? I scan my cupboards, my refrigerator. Three beautiful purple Mexican sweet potatoes. If I bake them one at a time . . .

            Pizza—this afternoon, I’ll make pizza, cold house pizza.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 14, 2017

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

My Walden Pond Mexican Life

My Walden Pond Mexican Life
              I live a charmed life. Now and then I’m aware of how magical is my life. Most of the time I don’t pay attention. Other rare days, snakes slither in Paradise.  Take recently.

A friend once told me that when a person started chewing on table legs, the cause was always money, job or love life.

            Two weeks ago I chose “money” as the topic for my Writers’ Group.  I set the timer for ten minutes. I don’t remember what I wrote. It’s not important. I felt a need to share with my friends the reason I chose that topic. I had too much negative energy around money to be rational.

            My bankcard had expired while I wasn’t paying attention. To add insult to injury, the ATM absconded with another credit card which had not expired. My stash of pesos had dwindled to a fraction because I hadn’t paid attention. At the same time it looked as though I might lose everything from the sale of a lot I had bought years ago. All this on the same day. That attention thing.

            If I had a million dollars in the bank (I don’t!), a million wouldn’t do me a bit of good if I can’t get pesos out of the ATM. I live in a cash society, a small village in Mexico. Charge cards are useless.

            I told my friends how scared and frustrated I felt. Their words of love and support settled over me like a warm blanket on a cold night.

The next week at Group, Julie asked me about my money situation. I laughed. “You won’t believe this,” I said. “My daughter shipped my new cards via UPS. Four days later, the envelope is sitting in Portland with a notice of lost shipping invoice. I may get my cards next year. All I can do is laugh.”

“You are unreal,” Julie said. “Last week you were in tears and this week you are laughing.”

“It’s a different day. I had to let that go. You all will not let me starve. But I am paying attention to my personal money ‘issues’. And my UPS ‘issues’. I wonder if I was a bad hombre in a past life and looted and killed Pony Express riders.” We all laughed.

My way of “paying attention” may seem backwards and slipshod. I say something like, “Self, there is something weird going on around your attitude to money. What is it?” Then if I don’t obsess over finding an answer, the solution will eventually show up. Or not. Well, the method isn’t Thoreau but it works for me.

Sure enough, in the middle of the night I woke from a “Zen” dream with a realization. My money issues revolved around false pride, envy and resentment. I have learned that once I recognize a pattern, I can change my thought patterns. So I climbed out of bed and made a few notes about my pea-brain-storm. I don’t recall a thing about the dream.

Nothing in the world is wrong with me being rightly proud of my ability to live a simple life, to live on a very small amount of money.

What is wrong is when I let false pride take over, sort of a sneer at money, which turns to envy and resentment; a sneer at people with money. That is ugly of me, a sort of one-down-man-ship, as if to say “Well, it is easy for you. You have more, you have a lot of money.” 

That is an ugly thought pattern that I can change to a silent, “My situation in life is good. Thank you, Self, that you have the skills and ability to live on so little and to live so abundantly.” No comparisons to others allowed. Comparisons always lie. I have no idea what goes on in somebody else’s skin.

The next morning my UPS package left Portland and arrived in Salt Lake City, on the way to Mexico. Money from the sale of my lot landed in a special account for me. My son wired me grocery money by way of Western Union.

My UPS packet with new cards is scheduled to arrive December 14. I’m not holding my breath. Last year my new computer landed 17 places and took two months to arrive. I still haven’t resolved my UPS/Pony Express issues. Maybe I was the rider.

This is my Walden Pond. I live simply, with all the essentials, lacking nothing. When I pay attention, I see that I have all that I need, more than I need. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 7, 2017

Walking In A Winter Wonderland

Walking In A Winter Wonderland
            Admittedly, my wonderland is different than your wonderland.  My wonderland lacks the beauty of new-fallen snow with crystalline flakes painting the landscape pristine and pure. Neither does mine include snow-shovels, car engine heaters, ice on the roads or frost on the windshields. Not that I have a car, but you know what I mean.

            Although cannas and hibiscus continue to bloom and the geraniums look gorgeous as ever, winter snapped us hard and fast a good month ago. Every night my thermometer plunges to 40.  Forty is acceptable if one lives in a heated, insulated house.  My casita is neither heated nor air-tight. It is downright cold. 

            I reluctantly crawl out of bed and into long johns, a heavy skirt or jeans, two sweaters and a shirt, sometimes float a zarape over the top. Make boiling hot coffee and go outside and sit in a patch of sun until I warm up. Okay, this is hardly hardship. By 10:30 or 11:00, I’ve generally peeled off most of the layers or am down to one sweater or have changed into my “normal” clothing, cotton pants and blouse.  Around 5:00, I begin adding layers until time for bed.  

             This morning I sensed a difference in the air—perhaps a winter reprieve. The local people wear parkas when it gets this cold. I no longer own a winter coat, so I pile on the layers.

            When I think I have it hard, I look for the iguanas, sunning on the top of the brick wall. Iguanas, immobile in the cold, only crawl out during the heat of the day. No good-morning greeting from my drain-pipe iguana until May.

            Blackbirds by the thousands, including red-wings and yellow-heads, flock across the sky, wings rustling like the noise of a freight train. Dust devils skitter down our dirt driveways.

Farmers have begun the annual burning of the cane fields, preparation for harvest. The night air is smoky, like a campfire with a tinge of burnt sugar smell. Every morning I sweep black curls of ash from my patio.  Huge over-laden cane trucks crowd the highway, moving sugar cane from field to the molasses factory in Tala.

            It’s now been three weeks that I’ve been without my bankcard to access pesos. My own fault; I didn’t keep track of my expiration date. The good news is that my daughter put my card on a UPS truck for delivery to me—eventually. Montana to Mexico—could be a couple more weeks. Meanwhile, beans and tortillas is no joke.

            While my pile of pesos has dwindled to near-nothing, I keep my eyes and my mind on my true riches, the beauty which surrounds me, the peaceful life I’ve created for myself. Nobody is going to let me starve.

            Winter or summer, no matter the season, I suspect that without internet, I would have a more difficult time living here. Or I would be writing a lot of letters longhand. Remember those? I keep in touch with close friends, with my kids, almost daily. We laugh together, cry over crises, share everyday news.

            Last week I met another couple of English-speaking women, Anna and Michelle, who live in Oconahua, just up the road a piece. They opened a weekend pizza place.

Horst, a snowbird who lives in Washington half the year and San Marcos the other half, has returned. Next week John and Carol will be here. Our circle of friends is constantly expanding and contracting. Real riches.

            Sometimes I make it sound like we are one big happy family. Like in any family, we squabble. But we are super-aware of our vulnerability. We depend on one another. So we work out the wrinkles. This week one of us is running all around the mulberry bush trying to gather troops for war instead of going to the source and stating the problem, seeking a solution.

As Jim says, each time somebody stirs up the dust, that person becomes our teacher. I’ve learned (more often) to look at my own reactions, to find my own peace and let the person with a problem work it without my “help”. I don’t need the hassle. Eventually the dust will settle with no dead bodies.

            Meanwhile, my laundry on the clothesline makes a pretty picture with pants and shirts dancing in the slight breeze. My plants are watered. My floor is mopped. Beans simmer on the stove. Winter is here. Life is good.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 30, 2017   

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Thanksgiving—Therapy With Vinegar

Thanksgiving—Therapy With Vinegar
            Maybe it’s the phase of the mountains of the moon. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of Mars with Saturn on the cusp of the night sky in the morning fog.  Maybe aliens from within or without have invaded and sucked my energy into a vortex to be re-used when I am reincarnated as an artist, punished for my past life, forced to paint a thousand renditions of velvet Elvis.

            Such was my state of mind this morning as I kicked myself metaphorically around my casita, wondering why I couldn’t feel more thankful.

            Tis the Season. I’m supposed to feel Thankful. Of Good Cheer. Deck the Halls and Folly Lolly Lolly.

            Fortunately, for my state of muggling mind, this morning Leo showed up early to help me wash windows. My house in tiny but it is walled with windows, not much for walls, just windows, each one five feet wide and arched to four feet high. I bask in the light, refuse to block windows with curtains.

            Window washing is my least favorite chore. I make my bed as soon as my feet hit the floor. I cheerfully mop my floors almost daily. Dirty dishes are NOT left to pro-create in my sink. But I put off—avoid—ignore washing windows as long as I can.

            Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, Leo, who helps me keep my little corner of my world looking like a magical garden-park, thinks I should wash windows once a month. I can successfully outwit him and procrastinate for three or four months.

            So last week I committed to this week, grumbling all the while. Today is the day. The deal we struck is that I would wash the windows inside and Leo wash them outside, which requires either ladders and/or arching one’s body over large pots of foliage.

            Armed with spritz bottles of vinegar and piles of cotton rags, in tandem, we attacked the dirt, dust and window grime. Leo cranked up his boom box with Christmas tunes, in English. I growled, under my breath.

            As a therapy, window washing might be under-rated. As the windows began to sparkle, I began to sweat, also good therapy.

            When we finished the windows, Leo, young enough to be my grandson, said to me, “Do you feel better now?”

            “I didn’t know it showed.”

            “You lonely, Sondra. You lonely.”

            No man that young has the right to be that perceptive.

            It’s a feeling. It will pass. My windows sparkle. I won’t have turkey for dinner but I could if I wanted. I’m hardly suffering.

Mostly, I’m content. Holidays aren’t always the best time of year. I’m surrounded by all kinds of goodness, living in Paradise. My family is battling Northern elements.

So, yes, Leo. Today I feel lonely. I feel separate.

Not lonesome enough to hop a plane to the frigid north. But should you want to come south, I’ll meet you in Puerto Vallarta.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November Thanksgiving Week November 22, 2017