Friday, December 9, 2016

I Support Tree Love

I Support Tree Love
            I stole the title from someone else who, in turn, had stolen the phrase from a tee-shirt.

            The sentiment fits. I like trees. Leo, the man who helps me with my gardening, might raise his eyebrow. I had him obliterate trees and bushes left and right over the past few months. In my defense, I know the importance of negative space in creating an artistic view and I planted new and different greenery of all kinds with the intent of keeping it under moderate control. Together, we have created a park of art. And, I would say, Leo is a convert to my style.

            But what got me started on this line of thought was a comment of my daughter’s. Her physical therapist who met me a year ago, said to Dee, “How did your Mom and Dad ever get together? They are completely different. Your Dad is so conservative and such a country boy, a home body. Your Mom is easy going, a free spirit; she’s open to exploration. Seems like she would feel at home wherever she landed. They are such opposites.”

            Frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t there to hear Dee’s reply to Tanya. But it got me to thinking about who we think we are and the contrast of how others see us. The two pictures often don’t match.

            Several years ago I was in a training in which one thing we did daily was go around the circle and describe our impressions of each person. At first, we were smarmily complimentary if not exactly honest. Try it. It’s hard to tell another person, eyeball to eyeball, exactly how you see them.

            By the end of the week we were able to give a more balanced picture to one another. I still can’t figure out how people saw me as somewhat of an “airhead”. I’m not sure what that means.

            Moving on.

Oh, and “old hippy”. I would have liked to try on that experience. I even get nostalgic for those days—which I totally missed. While others were “going with the flow” I was hauling buckets of water into our house which had no facilities or running water, canning beans and tomatoes in the summer, washing diapers on a scrub board, driving a team of Percherons to feed cattle in the winter, all without aid of mind-altering substance. I missed out on the happy hippy days and perhaps that was a good thing for me.

            Fortunately, over the years I have had opportunities to know a variety of people. I’ve said “Yes” to a huge number of experiences, not all of which felt wonderful at the time, but all of which added to my growth and understanding of the world in which I live.


            Back to trees. Growing up on the farm south of Harlem, I had my secret tree, a cottonwood with sprawling branches on the banks of the Milk River. When I needed to cry (you remember the teen years), I’d climb into a crotch of that tree, hidden from the world, and pour out my heart.

Many, many years later, when I felt down and discouraged, I often drove across the Hood Canal Bridge to a park along the Quilcene River. Off the river path a ways I had a favorite tree in which I could lose myself. I wrapped my arms around that tree and, always, it revived my spirits.

But don’t take my word for it.

Try it yourself. Alone and in secret, of course. Search out a tree that seems special to you. Quietly. You don’t want anyone calling you an airhead. I won’t tell.

Frankly, I see myself as practical, a woman who has learned how to make the best of whatever situation in which I land.

And, yes, I support tree love.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 8, 2016

Carmen, Cats and Counting Not-Nine Lives

Carmen, Cats and Counting Not-Nine Lives
            Carmen, who had cancer, has recently died. Carmen is one of my Mazatlan friends. I just learned of her death. I grew to love Carmen and looked forward to seeing her each year. But that was not always the way.

            My first Mazatlan vacation, time passes in a blur, but it had to have been at least a dozen years ago, Carmen met Kathy and me at the airport in the resort van. The price of a “free” pick-up at the airport was a promise to give half a day to the time-share sales staff. Carmen’s job was to shuttle us into a committed appointment. She was the predator. We were the prey. We called her “The Barracuda”.

            Carmen was a loud, pushy, take-no-prisoners woman. We were walking road kill. I got to where I would stick my head out the open elevator before exiting, checking to see where Carmen lurked with her appointment clipboard, poised to dash the opposite direction.

            Somewhere along about our third Mazatlan vacation, that changed. I got to know Carmen, learned a few things about her family, her job, her truly loving heart, her courage and tenacity. She mellowed. I looked forward to seeing her, would wait around the corner just to say “hello”. I missed her when she no longer worked at the resort.

            Remembering Carmen inspired me to take a day of quiet and meditation, a day for reflection. I figured Thanksgiving would be good. That didn’t work. People, friends and workers from the Rancho were in and out my gate all day. Friday was a day of visiting, a pot luck dinner, conversation with friends.

            When I finally got my days for solitude and quiet refection, it was not quite the gift I’d planned for myself. It came wrapped in a package with fever, aches, a runny nose and sleepy listlessness. Sometimes we just have to take what we get. No returns.

            Despite my general lethargy and a head filled with cotton wool, I had a good three days of rest and rejuvenation. The “rest” I’m sure of. I use the word “rejuvenation” expectantly.

            Reflecting on the life of sweet Carmen led me to self-centered consideration of my own varied life. Never in a cat’s nine lifetimes could I have conjured up this particular period of my life, not in my wildest imagination. Yet here I am, living in a veritable paradise.

            Like that cat, I’ve lived varied and distinct lives. I file them in boxes. Now and then I open a box to play with the contents. I label each box. “Early Childhood in Indiana” reads the first box, Crayola green. The “Young Montana Years” box smells like sage brush and cactus in August. I attempt not too successfully to keep the next box duct taped and hidden on the top shelf: “Crazy Lost Years”. It’s a small box, painted black holding my shattered life.

Following those disastrous times, were twenty-five years in Washington, “Gift Years”. During this time I rebuilt my life, redeemed myself. This box appears to be wrapped in paintings by Mary Cassatt. Then the “Back to Harlem” years, to the place where I grew up. I returned a stranger, to create a new life in a familiar place I loved. Listen to laughter when you lift that lid.

My lives aren’t so cut and dried as I make them sound. The borders are smudged and unclear. But those add up to five.

Which puts me smack into my sixth box and still collecting. When I moved to Mexico, I came here to make an entirely different life, not willing to live my old life in a new place. I came here with a handful of essential household items. I have absolutely nothing of value. I’ve never been more satisfied.
I’ve taken a tiny brick casita and made it welcoming and comfortable. Friends walk in my door, relax and smile. I’ve transformed the jungle which had surrounded my house into a park, with beauty and order and surprises to delight.

Tomorrow, when life is back to “normal”, I’ll be eager to resume my Spanish lessons and Qi Gong in the park. Elfie, an Austrian woman who lives in Etzatlan, has invited me to her class in weaving.

But on this, my third day of enforced rest, while my head is fuzzy, I’ll stay curled in the sun like a cat, stretch, yawn, and close my eyes. I would purr if I could.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 1, 2016

Friday, November 25, 2016

Wimpy, Gimpy and Off Kilter

                        Wimpy, Gimpy and Off Kilter
            Have you ever had something in your life at which you were afraid to take an honest look? I’m not talking about major life-threatening things here. We generally face up to those after a short dip into denial.

            What I’m talking about is a niggling fear like that which I’ve avoiding bringing under my personal surveillance spotlight for over a year. It terrifies me inordinately to even talk about it. So, here goes.

            My daughter had knee replacement surgery, second knee, about three weeks ago. She’s doing great, healing more quickly than I did with the same procedure. And good for her.

            “Mom,” she said. “I’ve been walking about, both with my walker and without, and I think my new-knee leg is just a little bit shorter than the other.”

            Just hearing somebody else say something like that made me expel a huge breath of relief. “I’ve been afraid to say anything. But I think my hip-replacement-surgery leg is shorter than the other and that is why I still cannot walk without a lurch and a cane. There, I’ve said it. I’ve been afraid to talk about it or even think about it.”

            This is painful for me to admit. It is like when the dentist digs into the tooth I had decided to not mention. Ouch! Worse yet, I don’t know what my problem is. I’m not embarrassed. So I have to use a cane. So do a lot of people. Big whoop.

            I’m not sure when I first noticed something might be “off”. After surgery I had six months of physical therapy. Towards the end, I wanted to ask Arturo if he had noticed any defective parts but I kept mum.

            Every time I’ve been to a chiropractor, he’s said one leg is shorter than the other. Maybe it always has been. I had thought it was something only his eye could see. Again, big whoop.

I walk every day leaning into my cane. I know better. I’ve relearned how to walk after four other surgeries on a knee that looks like a road map. I figured out a cadence which matched numbers, one through four, each to a specific movement and hung in there until I could walk without counting. This surgery, I ignored what I know works.

Fear entered early. I was terrified of falling, of throwing my hip off or out or under. Irrational, I know. But such fear has direct cause/effect on the muscles. I held my muscles tense and tight, slowed healing through the strength of my fearful mind. I can see that clearly—now.

Evidence mounted, albeit slowly. When I sat, one pant leg lurked lower—or higher—than the other. But when I put my knees together, I couldn’t see a difference. Same results when I stood. But to feel balanced, I lift my left heel slightly off the floor. My solution: I wear skirts and dresses. Out of sight, out of . . .

At my local farmacia, I bought those thin padded inserts for shoes. Threw away the one I don’t need. That helped when I wore shoes, which I wore only when I went walking.

My daughter said, “I’ve been looking at orthopedic shoes online.” She waited for me to respond.

“I thought about them,” I admitted. “But most of the time I go barefoot or in sandals. I can’t stand the thought of my feet enclosed in those clunky hot shoes all day.”

My mind held a clear picture of orthopedic shoes. They were black or white, with a four-inch sole and built to withstand nuclear attack.

            “Mom, you’re stuck in the olden days. Orthopedic shoes come in sandals and every style imaginable. Go online and look. Have a physical therapist check for what you need. Have your young friends search for a store in Guadalajara.”

            “I haven’t mentioned this defect to anybody else,” I told my daughter.

            “Write about it,” she responded. “It will be cathartic.”

            I hate it when she’s right. Go ahead. Laugh at me. I’m laughing at myself. But my laugh is sickly and weak, off kilter.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 24, 2016

Our Story As We Write It

Our Story As We Write It
            I like to believe we are writing our story, a few words each day. I like to believe it is our love story.

            I like to believe we don’t have to choose sides, that there are no sides. No right. No wrong. No left. No right. Just we pilgrims, searching for our path, aching to love, sometimes lost along the way.

            I like to believe we are one huge dysfunctional family, a human soup, each scrap of humanity adding to the flavor, never losing character. A huge spicy, yummy soup, a perfect blend.

            “You is sooo-o naïve,” one friend tells me.

            The first national election that made an impression on me was in l952. I was seven years old. Dwight D. Eisenhower trounced Adlai Stevenson. There were a lot of reasons Eisenhower won in those tumultuous times. But the reason Stevenson lost, the reason that sticks in my child’s impressionable mind, is that Stevenson was labeled an “egghead”. I remember being astounded that intelligence was a trait to disdain.

            The American people in 1952 were uncomfortable with “intelligence”. Nothing has changed. Maybe our list of things that cause us discomfort has expanded. Maybe not.

            What bothers me more is the list of what makes us comfortable. Bigotry, hate, guns (those used to shoot people, not food), violence, women as sex objects, children as property, ignorance, bullies, decision making by television and Facebook. We are used to these things. Comfortable. I’m not talking about a Democrat-Republican split here. I’m talking about a cultural trend, as I perceive it.

            Our country seems tilted on the edge of Revolution. Maybe it is time. I’m not talking guns-and-bombs revolution. I’m talking revolution that takes guts, revolution in which we stand against bigotry. Be uncomfortable. Stand up to the bully, whatever form the bully takes.

            Another friend says to me, “I’m not bigoted. Why, one of my best friends is _______. You fill in the blank. What? Black, Indian, Jewish, Republican, Rich, Crippled, Catholic, Gay, Old, Mexican, Muslim, Democrat, or, God help us, White?

            Her statement is one of the most bigoted I’m able to bring to mind. I’ll go out on a limb and risk falling and breaking every bone in my body: there is no truth in such words. Once I, and I’ll use myself as an example since we each are bigoted to some degree, let go my need to feel superior, a need fueled by fear, then my friend of “otherness” simply becomes “my friend”. No category. No convenient box in which to stuff him when he’s out of sight.

            Once I let go my fear, then I simply want that person to love me and I want to love him. I use the word love here to mean respect, appreciate, accept, warts and all. Once such a transformation has occurred, in my experience, I no longer “see” our differences. Sure, they are still there. I’m not blind. But they no longer matter. Differences are spices for our “soup”.

            I’ll climb down off my high horse and admit I am naïve enough to believe that one person’s tiny act of beauty or compassion is more powerful than guns and bullies and ignorance. I can’t prove any of this. Go ahead and snort. You’ve a right. I’ve been told my head is in the clouds.

            I’ll still dream. I’ve thought about getting a sleeve tattoo and dying my hair purple on one side and blue on the other, a kind of yin/yang. Sure, I probably won’t do it. It’s one of those fleeting rebellious thoughts without energy. I know you’d change your opinion about me, not that it matters much. My world is small, my influence negligible. I can be bullied too.

            I don’t know how much sand is left to sift through my hour glass. Outside my window, clinging to a yellow canna lily flower cluster, is the brightest red-orange bird I’ve ever seen. James Taylor said “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” I think I will.  

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 17, 2016

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Pollyanna Platitudes, Penance and Chocolate

            Pollyanna Platitudes, Penance and Chocolate
            I did a terrible thing. A generally cheerful friend was in obvious pain. Be it emotional, physical, grief, imaginary—doesn’t matter. Pain is pain. Pain twists one’s guts and simply must be passed through. I hugged my friend, opened my mouth and out rolled a blah, blah, blah, blah, useless platitude. I cringed while speaking the words. But once out, there was no cramming the words back where they originated.

            I hate myself for that. I know better. When I’m hurting I want someone, anyone, to fold me into their arms. I want a heart-felt hug. I don’t want to hear, “Oh, Honey, time will erase the pain.” Or, “Perhaps what happened was for the best.” Or, “Better to find out now than later.” Or—any one of a million other well-meant platitudes.

Platitudes might even hold an edge of truth. But when I’m in pain, I want neither platitudes nor truth. Comfort me with silence. And chocolate.

That’s me. “Why?” you ask. “We mean well.”

Yes, I believe you. I meant well when the useless cliche automatically rolled off my tongue. We learned these commonplace banalities honestly, probably at mother’s knee. We use them when at a loss for words, when we want to be helpful, and sincerely want to give comfort. Try chocolate instead. Not just any chocolate. Designer chocolate.

            My theory, not substantiated at all, is that platitudes come from a place of smug righteousness. “Well, I’ve been through something like that and I know what to do.” Or, “I’m so glad it’s you and not me. Dodged that bullet.” Or, “I can’t wait to spread this tidbit of news. So we can comfort you, of course.” Stinks, doesn’t it? 

Enough of my rant. For me (and hopefully, for you) it is better when I acknowledge your sorrow, and keep my lips zipped. So, what got into me that day? I wanted to rip out my tongue.

            Hence, guilt. Also useless. Hey, I grew up in the Catholic Church. I know how to do guilt. I spent a day mea culpa-ing all over the place.

            Chocolate can heal guilt too, by the way.

            So that’s my guilty story of the comfort I failed to give. Once I quit beating myself I turned to another kind of comfort—my lovely king-size goose-down comforter.

            Winter is on the way—I say this when it is 80 F. this afternoon. I’m told nights are in the 40’s in December and January and houses aren’t heated in this southern country. It is toasty warm by mid-morning, so why spend money on heat?

            My problem is that my down comforter is huge and laps across the floor in all directions when I plunk it onto my double-size bed. This is a problem I can fix with action: scissors, needle, thread and time. I hauled my comforter and a box of straight pins out to the patio and cut off the outer section all the way around. The bedding is constructed in such a way that the perimeter was (mostly) stitched and could be down-sized, pun intended, losing feathers only on the throw-away section (mostly).

            To finish my comforter, I’ll roll a hem and secure it with a blanket stitch, by hand. It will take several days. I don’t mind. Hand work is meditative. Penance for platitudes?

            It’s justice. It’s kismet. It’s fate. It’s the way it’s meant to be. It happens for a reason. It’s God’s plan for me. Life has not given me more than I can handle. Blah, blah, blah. And so on.

Stitching the perimeter of a comforter, each working of the needle and thread, through, up and around, might help remind me that it is not my business to be one of Job’s comforters.

Hugs, your presence, a hot dish and goose down. All provide me comfort. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 10, 2016

Building Community, Person By Person

Building Community, Person By Person
            Last week Bonnie called the Rancho Esperanza residents together for the first meeting in years. Understandably, it is difficult to have a meeting when the casas are, for the most part empty. This year has brought changes. Do hotcakes sell fast? Well, these casas are selling like the proverbial breakfast staple.

            The meeting was called to announce that we would have meetings. Oh, yes, there’s more. First, the nuts and bolts—choose officers to preside. Bonnie’s vision is to follow her father’s dream. Together, we will enhance our smaller Rancho community and contribute to our larger community of Etzatlan.

            What I know, because I’ve lived longer than Bonnie, is that we will create a vital community. And, yes, we will be a participating element in Etzatlan. But we will not recreate her father’s dream, at least not fully. Certainly, in part, yes. We are different people; these are different times.

            Each one of us perked up. Each one of us has a different dream. Like any normal, dysfunctional family, we’ll figure out how best to live together.  

            Community happens in small ways. Yesterday I went with John and Carol to Tonola for a day of exploration and shopping. We left early in the morning, on the first day of time’s “fall back”. We returned just as dark pulled the shade over what light remained. We returned tired, weary, happy, muscles screaming from hours of walking on cobblestone streets, standing, waiting—shopping. (I didn’t buy anything. There was nothing I needed.)

            I’d been in bed an hour when I heard Lani calling my name from outside my window. “Are you home? Are you okay? Is anything wrong? We were worried when you didn’t come home.”

            I assured her we’d had a fun day, a long day; all is well in my world. I think this kind of caring is the essence of community.

            Last week Teresa and her friend Chris were here. Long-time friends, they both lost partners to cancer mere weeks ago. They came to regroup, to grieve, to reassess their lives. At Josue’s and Erica’s suggestion, about fifteen of us gathered for a community (that word again) potluck of welcome. Before they flew home, we met again for dinner at a mountainside restaurant. Community.

            A mere three days on the Rancho and Chris leased the “Peanut” casa with the hopes of buying it in a few months; if not it, he’ll choose another. He’s going back to Portland to expedite his retirement and sell his house. (I keep saying, there is “something” in the water and that something is tricky.) Pamela, my friend who came here a couple weeks ago, has her name on “Charlie’s” place. Milo, Bonnie’s brother, returned from the States and bought a place. I count only five or six homes left empty.

            We are in our fourth week of Qi Gong in the Park, taught twice weekly by Samantha, with participants from the Rancho and from the City. Community. We meet every morning in my back yard for practice. Community.

            Saturday was the “Farmer’s Parade” in town. Farm families, men, women, children, babes in arms, marched carrying corn stalks, sugar cane, flowers or chili peppers, led by flag bearers, accompanied by dancers in traditional regalia, a “drum” much like we are used to seeing, hearing, by religious leaders bearing a Statue, ranchers on dancing horses, and tractors.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. Next to me stood Martina with her family. Martina is one of our Qi Gong friends. The parade ended at the Cathedral where people, crops and animals are blessed and thanks is given for bountiful crops and good seasons. It’s a beautiful ceremony. I cried. I’m easily sentimental.

We from the Rancho went to watch Leo march with his people. Leo, who helps us all, has a small farm with cows and sheep on the edge of town, in the hills.

            Next week Crin will be here to determine what needs doing in her new casa. She’ll be back and forth several times a year from Victoria, B.C. The first of December Kathy and Richard will arrive, perhaps for a short stay, perhaps with early retirement.

            We are a community being birthed, in transition, smaller than the smallest town. And we all know what that’s like. My Dad told me years ago when he had made a particular difficult decision. “Some will be happy. Some will be angry.” And in some fashion, like a dysfunctional family without the blood connection, we will work together. Some grumbling. Some smiling. Grumbles and smiles will shift with each new decision. Grumbles and smiles—the cement with which we shall build. 


Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 3, 2016

Friday, October 28, 2016

Refrigerator Karma and Mexican Business

Refrigerator Karma and Mexican Business
            Back in March, the first day I moved into my wee casita, a noise, like a 747 on the runway awaiting clearance for take-off, startled me into combat position. (It ain’t pretty.) Once my heart quit pounding in my ears, I realized the racket came from my refrigerator. Three days later I began accompanying the noise with pilot to control tower “conversation”. Another three days and the sound was background noise, like cars on the highway, ignored.  

Something is wrong. The fan rattles? The motor is on its last legs? I don’t know. I consider buying a new one but delay action. My food stays cold and fresh. 

A month ago, Leo asked, “Would you like to sell your noisy refrigerator and buy a new one?”


“My cousin Eddie just got married and he and Anna don’t have a refrigerator.”

“Maybe. What do you think my refrigerator is worth?”

Leo hemmed and hawed, wanting me to give a price. I refused. Finally he said, “$1500 pesos.”

“No, I said. Too much. I don’t know if this fridge will run for five days or five years. How about $1,000?” Reverse bartering. We sealed the deal.

At the local mubleria where I had purchased my bed and my stove, on a Wednesday, I bought a refrigerator. Delivery on Friday. I followed directions: let the gases settle for twelve hours, then plug it in. Sounded strange but what do I know?

I was busy. I plugged in the new fridge late Saturday. I’d moved my old fridge, filled with food, to the outdoor kitchen, so no hurry. Sunday morning I began to transfer my food.

Oops! Opened the freezer door and felt hot air. Opened the fridge. Decidedly warm. The “frost-free” aspect certainly worked overtime! But no refrigeration. Maybe I could use it as a stove in winter.

Business is different here. Working with both Leo and Josue, because of my language deficiencies, we contacted the store. “Refrigerator doesn’t work.” “Not our problem. Call Mexico City.” There is a process. Mexico City to Guadalajara to a company repairman. I don’t want a deficient model repaired; I want an exchange. Doesn’t matter. Follow the process. He’ll be there manana.

The man didn’t show. More calls. Reschedule. A week later, the repairman came in, plugged the machine in, wriggled his hand inside the freezer compartment. Warm air. Called his supervisor. Josue was translator that day. The repairman didn’t acknowledge me. I was wall paper. He explained the next step in the process to Josue. Supervisor had okay-ed an exchange. Repairman would email a report. Order would go out for exchange. No problem.

Ha! On Friday, delivery day, no truck appeared. Called the store. Shrug. Start entire process over from Step One. Many phone calls.

Week Two Plus: Repairman said, “I’ll email exchange approval form. You print. Take it to the store.” Leo delivered form.

 Moving into Week Three. Still no refrigerator. Store response: Shrug. Not our problem. Both Leo and Josue got ornery for me. “Firm words”. Fortunately, not easily translatable.

Meanwhile, my patience wore thin. I don’t have a new refrigerator. Eddie, remember Eddie the newlywed, doesn’t have any refrigerator? I’m ready to remove the doors on the $5300 pesos fridge, paint Mexican designs around the body and make a garden planter. (That is the least offensive of my creative ideas.)

Then I got it. Karma. Refrigerator Karma. Back around 1990 we bought a house in Poulsbo, Washington. No fridge. We charged a new one at a mall store and in order to save delivery fees, my husband and my son loaded the refrigerator in the back of the pick-up. It’s a short drive. They didn’t tie it down. Going down the freeway, the refrigerator, which even then cost more than $5300 pesos, bounced out of the back of the truck and landed upright in the middle of the highway, still on the attached pallet.

We removed strapping tape and cardboard, lifted it from the pallet. Yep, large scrape and dent. We called the store to repair it. Here is where my story gets confusing. Evidently, the men from the store thought the refrigerator had been damaged in shipping. Evidently, nobody corrected their assumption. They delivered a replacement, post haste.

Interestingly, we never were billed for the refrigerator, which we had charged at the store. Time passed and we, I confess, sort of “forgot”. Well, it was easy to forget. Easy but not honest.

Today, three weeks from purchase, my newly replaced refrigerator, delivered last night, is filled and silently keeping my food cold.

I think I just paid my “Refrigerator Karma Debt”.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 27, 2016