Friday, August 19, 2016

Straining Tea Leaves Through My Teeth

Straining Tea Leaves Through My Teeth
            My cousin Nancie will board the plane for her home in Washington today. Three weeks wasn’t enough time for her to finish the long list of tasks she set herself in her new casa. But she painted and made curtains and cleaned and scratched off great chunks of her list. We found time to visit each day, often during work breaks or sharing meals, mugs of coffee, cups of tea.

            Years ago I had a friend in construction work who, with a wink, said that paint hides a multitude of sins. I’m a great believer in paint, for houses, not my face. I never learned how to hide my face. Just as well.

            Nancie has transformed her house with paint and a few yards of fabric she stitched into curtains. I suspect her photos and our progress reports motivated Kathy to arrange an unplanned but short trip the first of September to begin painting in her casa. Kathy will arrive with her sister Crin for show-and-tell.  

            Wielding a paint laden brush satisfies my soul. My wee casita is brick. Brick walls, inside and out, with huge arched windows. My painting tasks have been small, things like cupboards or book shelves or those old metal rocking chairs on the patio. I have splashes of bright color in every corner.

            Both Nancie’s and Kathy’s homes are built with plaster over the brick walls. Nancie’s is—I mean was—stark white. We all like Mexican colors, earthy and vibrant. She has enlivened her rooms, now warm and inviting. Her living room sings in shades of orange.

            The walls in Kathy’s house are already colorful, choices of the former owners. But they are the wrong colors. When I first walked in the door I wanted to cringe. “Well, that’s interesting,” I said.

But Kathy reads me like a well-thumbed book. “Me too,” she agreed. “The colors are from a Gothic movie setting.” In the two weeks she’s here in September, I’ll enjoy helping her mix paint to get the shades she wants.

I wish Nancie could stay longer. The bunch of us women could do serious damage, shopping and painting and laughing and planting. Nancie wishes Nancie could stay longer.

Since Kathy will be here in two weeks, I have a shopping request for her. Last week I broke the clasp on my ancient tea ball. My tea strainer, of unknown vintage, is full of holes. Despite my stingy use of my fill-your-own bags, my supply didn’t last forever. What is a woman to do?

My first choice is a siege-mentality supply of tea bags, the kind one fills oneself. I first found them in a tea shop, now long closed, in Poulsbo, Washington. Mine were of white mesh, from China. One spoons in the amount of tea leaves one desires, closes them like an envelope and plops them into the tea pot. Pour on boiling water. Voila! No muss. No fuss.

Since Kathy’s husband Richard works in Victoria, a mecca of exotic tea shops for tea lovers, I asked Richard if he might find me some tea bags.

Richard said he’s never heard of my tea bags but he can get me a lovely fine-mesh strainer like his. Well, that is sweet, Richard, but for a few pesos, I can pick up a strainer (made in China), not as nice as yours, but serviceable.

This morning over breakfast Nancie admitted she never once, in the three weeks she’s been here, thought about needing or wanting to go home to Washington. We schemed how to convince Kathy and Richard they need to become residents here sooner rather than later. This seems to be a place where all our cares fall to the side. Is it the place? Or is it that we’ve created an atmosphere which allows our spirits to relax.

Come fall, Nancie and Pat, Kathy and Richard, and people I’ve not yet met will be here, occupying their homes through the winter months.

Nancie is on the way to the airport in Guadalajara. I’m waiting for the welder to show up with my new back gate. Tripod, my neighbor’s beautiful shepherd (who had an intimate experience with a weed-eater blade), came for a visit. He likes me to scruff his neck. The kettle is boiling. Maybe I’ll have Richard get me the nice tea strainer after all. Time for my cup of tea.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 18, 2016

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


            The workmen are finished. Thanks to daily rain my damaged lawn is repairing itself. No more mud and crud. My house is in order. Trees are planted. I’m weeding the neglected flower beds.

            Two-or-three-or-several times a week I am rendered speechless with gratitude when a-hit-me-over-the-head-look-at-how-different-my-world-is-than-it-coulda-woulda-been. Whew.

            Think about it. I grew up in Harlem, Montana in the 50’s and 60’s. A trip to Chinook was a big deal. The Harlem News used to report when so-and-so motored to Havre to visit relatives, told us who sat around the table, what the happy family had for dinner and assured us that a good time was had by all. Great Falls was another country. Any place further away was out of our world.

            Life was hard but expectations were easy. As a girl I was expected to marry a Valley farmer like my Dad, have kids, bake bread, grow a garden, put up green beans, all of which I dutifully did. It’s a good life. But after ten years I hit a wall and turned left.

              After many walls and a circuitous route in and out of Montana more than once, I’ve landed in a mountain valley near Guadalajara. Yesterday I told my friend Jerry in Idaho, “I can truthfully say I’ve never been happier.”

            Happy, yes. An interesting concept. I doubt “happy” has anything to do with geography. Or people. Certainly not with acquisitions and money. I’ve never been more alone. I’ve never had less stuff. It’s an inside job and I have no explanation, logical or magical.

            Today a young woman I know called me to thank me.

“For what?” I asked.

            “You taught me that you cannot put shoes on a shark.”

            My mind immediately conjured a cartoon “Jaws” wearing red Converse high tops.

            I am speechless. I don’t remember saying anything like that. In fact, I’m puzzled what “shoes on a shark” might mean. We never know how somebody else will take meaning from what we say or do.

            But, maybe, just maybe, that is my secret from myself. Maybe I have quit trying to put shoes on my shark.

            It is possible that this person I am, this Sondra, is more myself than I’ve ever been, shorn of any pretense, any need to be or do or appear other than I am. Warts and all.

            Summertime and the living is easy. I look up and the first thing I see is an orange hibiscus blossom. I take a deep breath and smell jasmine. A striped green lizard is crawling along my brick wall. A tub of mangoes sit on the counter, waiting for me to slice and freeze for pies throughout the year. My first guava is ripe. Josue gave me pomegranates from his tree.

            While we were weeding through my flower beds this morning, Leo said to me, “This place looks so different since you came. It is beautiful. I like to just sit and look.”

            Dinnertime this evening I’ll join Lani and Ariel and my cousin Nancie for ribs, Mexican style.

            Know what? If I were still living in Harlem, I’d be saying the same things. Hollyhocks instead of hibiscus. No lizards or exotic fruits. But I’d surround myself with beauty because beauty makes me feel good. I’d be having dinner with good friends. I’d be glorying in the sunset, different sky.

            I like where I am. This woman from little ol’ Harlem, Montana never dreamed she’d end up living in Mexico, no matter how many left turns she took in life.

            Shoes on a shark? I wonder what I meant?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 11, 2016

Monday, August 8, 2016

No Story This Week

No Story This Week
            My mind is a mess.
Twenty three days ago the men began work in my back yard, front yard, patio, and, yes, even inside my house. Twenty three days of mud and crud and cement dust, of men and tools and Mexican music, of piles of sand, water barrels, ladders and stacks of brick across my lawn.
Did you know fresh cement has a distinctive smell? And handmade sun-baked brick has its own flavor?
My wall is complete, my patios are finished. I can sweep, “rearrange the furniture” and “hang pictures”.  Figuratively speaking.
My head and my heart, and, yes, my hands, are in the garden.
I planted all eight of my new trees. Wish I knew the name. They flower twice a year; three with intense pink and five with pinkish white blossoms. The flower cluster is much like that of a butterfly bush or a lilac. My newest orange tree holds place of honor in a corner of a half-wall I asked the men to build, as long as they were slinging brick and mud.
I moved my “kitchen” pots; cilantro and peppers and savory herbs, to the south patio. Flowering beauties and greenery adorn patios on each side of my house. I’m in garden paradise.
For three weeks every time I go to town I returned with plants from David’s Vivero in anticipation of today. My neighbors and the workmen, tripping around my empty pots and burlap wrapped bushes, tease me. I already have flowers everywhere; why buy more?   
There is no such thing as too much. And there is no such thing as done. Friday I went to market to buy mangoes for jam and returned with four stalks of flowering ginger. Ten pesos!
The season is perfect for planting. We get rain every night, sometimes as much as two inches, but usually not such a drencher. Come September I’ll be dragging hose around again, watering daily.  
Nancie, my cousin from Sedro Woolley, Washington, arrived last week. She is doing what I was five months ago, making her new casa her own. We pop back and forth several times a day to check progress or just to take a needed break.
She asked me, “Do we have seasons? When and what are they? My answer, “cold, hot, rainy and nice”. Four seasons. Lani jumped into the conversation to fine tune my answer.
December, January, and February are cold—relatively speaking. No colder than the Pacific Northwest nights but afternoons are hot and sunny instead of wet and gloomy. Let’s not even try to make a comparison to Montana winter.
March, April and May are hot. Hot being hot. Take my word for it. Montana in August.
June, July, August and into September are rainy. Days reach perfection, sunshine and warmth with cool, refreshing nights.
People who live here tell me September and October and November are “nice”. I’ve no idea what that means so I’ll venture a guess that like baby bear’s porridge, not too hot and not too cold; just right.
Sunday I’m going to Tonola to the tianguis to buy more pots and then to a huge vivero outside Guadalajara for more plants. I have this perfect place for more flowers, you see. The stump left from removing an old pine tree, not a pine like we have, but one with huge gnarly roots, is now surrounded with lovely smooth concrete, creating a circle space, perfect for a “stump” garden.

I can see it, succulents nestled among the roots and flowers I’ve yet to discover painting patches of color here and there and overall.  Dirt beneath my fingernails but no story. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 4, 2016

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Bubbles From My Fish Bowl

Bubbles From My Fish Bowl
            I’m the fish, pacing my casita. I feel like I live in an aquarium.  Bubbles rise from my mind. Occasionally I gasp for oxygen.

            Three weeks, every day but Sunday, blessed reprieve of Sunday, workmen swarm my yard. The projects creep forward.  Abel and his nephew, also Abel, called Pelon, which nickname translates “bald” along with Josue show up at eight in the morning and work until four or five in the afternoon. Pelon, a teen, has beautiful dark hair. I wonder if he acquired his name when a baby, born without a hair on his head. Sometimes it works that way.

Together they have built my handsome new brick wall. They have poured three sections of concrete patio. Now, they are tearing out a wobbly dangerous brick pathway along the other side of my house in preparation for laying a new walk and finishing the final section of patio.

My casita has wrap-around windows, high, wide and handsomely arched windows. My widest sections of windowless wall measure slightly more than two feet. First thing I did when I moved in was tear down the curtains and remove the rods. I love the openness. Whether indoors or outside, I live in my garden.

I’m a private person. Sometimes days go by without human contact, just me and the birds and iguanas. I like the silence, which is not silent, but filled with critter voices, wind moving rustling leaves and growth, when one learns to listen.

Suddenly, six days of the week my life is on display. I watch the workmen and the workmen watch me. Mostly we ignore one another. But we are aware.

The men arrive. We exchange “Buenos Dios” and “Como esta?s”. The CD player is plugged in at top volume and the fun begins. Clanging and banging and hammering, rip and tear, then put together anew, all to rousing Mexican dance music. 

I like the music. I’m learning to distinguish individual words more easily. And my accent is improving. However, six days a week, morning till night, same songs, over and over, seems a bit much. Sunday I’m back in my muted world.

My friend Jane wrote me to let me know Dick fell and broke his hip. He had been living at the Manor.  His son Ed came from Washington and helped get him moved into the Care Center for now. My heart hurts for my friend.

If there were a scale to measure independence, Dick’s score would be off the chart, much higher than mine. I struggle to imagine how difficult it is, and will continue to be, for my friend to live in a smaller fishbowl, perhaps forever, nevermore to have freedom over his most personal needs.

Three weeks of mess and noise and workers and lack of privacy. Suddenly it doesn’t seem such a long time.

I’m going to mix up a batch of bread, a personal therapy that always raises my spirits, a necessity since for two days my propane tank will be disconnected and I’ll live on sandwiches. Such a puny inconvenience. Once my bread is baked, I’ll slather a few hot slices with butter and share them with Josue, Abel and Pelon.

Next week Leo will help me plant my trees and bushes against my new wall. We’ll fill my new pots with flowering lushness and place pots around my new patio areas. My world will be restored to quiet. I’ll miss the music.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 28, 2016

Monday, July 25, 2016

Muck’s A Good Thing—Mud Is Just Fine

Muck’s A Good Thing—Mud Is Just Fine
            And “the best things in life are dirty”, the gospel according to Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) and Pardner (Clint Eastwood), words to live by from “Paint Your Wagon”. Amen.

            A lot of spiritual truths hide in songs and when I’m up to my knees in mucky ol’ mud, and the song, even a song from a cringe-worthy musical, makes me smile, so be it.

            Rainy season is here, an undeniable truth.

Josue and Abel are building my new wall between my casita and the neighboring property. The man who sold me my place owned both plots, requiring no division except for lines on a property map.

            Following measurements from said map, my property line bisects diagonally a low brick planter. It’s a long planter, running from my gate to the connecting wall at my patio, a distance of about 30 yards. In order to build my new wall, the planter had to be dismantled, brick by brick, then the men sliced good ol’ dirty dirt down lower than the planter base so the concrete pad could be poured on which the brick wall will be built. Clear as mud?

            Did I mention the rainy season? Locals call it the “monsoon”. Rains for hours every night. Every night for four months. (Near as I can tell, after October it never rains again until June, but I’ve not experienced the whole year in Etzatlan, so what do I know!)

            Rain plus dirt equals mud, another undeniable truth.

            Clumps of mud litter my patio. The area between construction and my house is a muddy soup. Wide swaths of grass in my back yard wear mud overcoats. It’s a mess.

            I tend to be a teensy bit house-proud. I dust and sweep and mop daily, because I like a clean house. I also like to go barefoot but don’t like dirty feet. Ergo . . .

            This morning I woke intending to start my day with the usual housekeeping chores before giving my attention to the weeds among the flowers. My toilet wouldn’t flush. No problem. I know how to fix it with button twine and twist ties. So I did. I fixed it. And while the lifter thingy worked, the rubber flopper refused to seal.

            Josue and Abel showed up at 8:00 to work on the wall. I pulled Josue aside and showed him my problem. “I don’t mind flushing a few days with buckets of water, but could you please move the bathroom tile and new toilet installation forward on your project list. I don’t want to fix this one while I have a brand new toilet sitting in my bodega. I understand my new sink cabinet must wait until the rains are over.” (Josue’s workshop is partially outdoors so he sets aside carpentry during the monsoon.)

            Josue grinned. Personally, I wasn’t finding my situation amusing. “The brick delivery has been delayed. The truck sunk to the hubs in mud in the brickyard.” 

            In minutes the men had my water shut off and my bathroom dismantled down to the bare floor. Abel is on his knees laying tile. (Don’t you just love a man on his knees?) Josue is cutting tile and otherwise generally helping. If all goes well, tomorrow Josue will install my new toilet. By tomorrow night, hopefully, finger crossed, I’ll be able to use my bathroom.

            I’ll drag in a patio table to hold a wash basin and my toothbrush. It’ll be like the olden days but with a modern shower and flush toilet.

            My screen door is wide open for the men to easily move back and forth with materials. My floor is littered liberally with mud and debris. Flies swarm in and out. Chunks of old cupboard and an ancient toilet have joined the mud clumps on my patio. I set up a table and basin outside to wash dishes. I walk to my neighbors to use the facility.

            I don’t know that the best things in life are dirty but I know I’ll have a new tile floor and a new toilet in my bathroom before many more rains. Mud? I’ll mop manana.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 21, 2016
Oh, No, Don’t Let The Rain Come Down
            The lyrics, “Ah, ha, oh, no, don’t let the rain come down, my roof’s got a hole in it and I might drown!” woke me as once more waters pounded my roof and the lake of run-off lapped against the west side of my casita. Early 60’s, voice of Ronnie Hilton crooned into my ear, silly lyrics to a slightly calypso beat.

            Every night, every single night, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, count on it—the rain falls freely.

“So, you who have lived here your whole life, how long will this rainy season last?” “From June into September. Sometimes October.” I smile, weakly.

            Don’t get me wrong; Etzatlan is nothing like Seattle where unrelenting gray skies and drizzle prevail nine months of the year, where summer never arrives before July 17, where seasonal depression is a way of life.

            Yes, it has rained every night, so far, since early June. Mornings are delightfully cool. Clouds burn off around 11:00 and sunshine rules the afternoon, hotly, until evening storm clouds roll down off the mountains to drop another night’s precipitation. Except for the leaking roof, my life is idyllic.

            “They” told me: Lani, Ariel, Josue, Erika, Leo, and They all told me the warmest months are April and May. Rain falls June through September. I must be hard-headed. It didn’t make sense. Now I’m a believer. Now I’m living it.

            I’m patient. I’m not climbing up to patch my roof in the rain.  I don’t expect that of someone else. I pushed furniture out of the way and threw down towels and placed a bucket under what seems to be the prominent waterfall.

            And I’m angry. I’m not angry at the rain. Or the delays in repair. Or even that my roof has a hole in it. I’m angry at Joe.

            In the beginning I didn’t recognize my anger. It built up slowly, in bits and pieces as I moved in and learned the breath and bones of my new home.

            I moved into a filthy house. “It will be cleaned,” Joe had told me. A small irritation. I bought it with all possessions but then walked into a house that had been stripped. No matter. I have my own junk. I threw away what little remained. Toilet leaked. Faucets didn’t work. The shower dribbled. Cupboards crumbled and were unusable.

            I recognized a masked blessing. I could build exactly what worked best for me, fix cupboards exactly to my exacting specifications. Exactly! (Not outright anger, yet, slightly miffied.)

            The pressure tank hadn’t worked in years. No matter. I’m used to gravity flow. Parts for the rotisserie in the outdoor kitchen had gone walkabout. Shrug. Water heater on its last gasp—I all but worship my spanking new solar water heater.

 Spray tank for bug spray is broken. Etzatlan has good hardware stores. The gun for silicon sealant is rusted into immobility. Tools? A joke. I laughed and thumbed my nose.

            The trail of broken promises is long. No matter. I love my place. My pleasure has been to renew, refurbish, to recreate it in my own image. Not for a moment have I regretted my purchase. Do you hear the shadow of “however”?

            I’m used to full disclosure in real estate deals. I’m used to honesty and integrity. I’m not completely na├»ve. And, yes, I’ve bought snake oil from snake oil salesmen and clunkers from used-car salesmen. But not everybody waters down the snake oil.

            Joe, all I wanted was honesty. Sell me the house filthy dirty and completely empty. Tell me nothing works. Tell me you hadn’t bothered to fix anything in years, Joe, knowing you were going to move.

Most of all, Joe, tell me the roof has a hole in it so I can fix it before the monsoons. Judging by the previously puzzling stains on the wall and floor, the leak is at least two years old. I’m angry. My anger hurts only me. I’ll get over it. But most of all I lost respect for someone I had liked.  

            My crooked little house with the crooked little door with the crooked little latch will one day be fixed. My crooked little roof will have a crooked little patch. Who knows, I might even have a crooked little cat and a crooked little mouse to keep me company.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 14, 2016

Life—Ya Gotta Love It

Life—Ya Gotta Love It
            This morning I woke up with the mighty discouragums. Actually, that’s not the truth. I didn’t wake up; I never slept. And as mid-morning crawls toward noon, I haven’t eaten either. And I feel very much alone. But, I feel better already, now that I’ve shared with you.

            At 8:45 last evening Kathy, Richard and I were sitting in my back yard, watching the clouds rock and roll over the mountains, our last night together until next fall. The huge puffy whites turned to greenish-blacks. Dark galloped in. We rushed to our casas. At 9:00 the sky hurled lightning and exploded thunderous horizontal hail backed up by bucket-sized raindrops.

            I scurried around, closed windows on the side of attack and got ready for bed. Two windows blew open. Got up, latched and locked the windows and wiped up the puddles. Went back to bed. Phone rang. Ignored it. The third series of rings I got up. “We’re having a monster storm. I’m scared to answer the phone.”

            While talking to my daughter I heard drips. Turned on the lights. One of my plumpy down sofa cushions held a half gallon of water. And over there, a puddle swamped the floor. My roof had sprung a leak. Moved furniture. Laid down towels.

            Back to bed, serenaded by rain, pounding, thankfully, straight down. Every couple minutes the world lit up and thunder clapped in appreciation. I couldn’t sleep. Got up to go to bathroom; stepped into a pond spreading on bathroom floor. Used the last of my towels, tea towels and rags. Might have to break out the bed sheets.

            Wide awake, I listened to the storm which sounded like a grate-your-teeth-untalented garage band, complete with regalia, strobe lights and base.  Water lapped below the windows on the west side like a spring-runoff creek.

My backyard is terraced, with my house sitting on the lower terrace. The yard drain has a screen filter which frequently needs to be cleaned. I thought about that drain. I thought about the dark. I thought about the pounding rain. Mentally, I shrugged. If it floods, it floods.

My back yard entry is a large tri-section solid-metal gate. If the gate isn’t securely locked, it flaps open in the wind. About midnight, the gate began banging. It took me a while to figure out the source of the concussive noise, not falling tree limbs but the iron gate beating back and forth.

The storm raged all night. The gate banged all night. I lay awake all night.

At dawn I wanted to pull the covers over my head. Rain stopped. Sun came out. Blue sky rolled out like someone opened the window shade. Birds sang. Reluctantly, I crawled out of bed.

Water filled my back yard, lapped against the back wall of my house. I considered stocking my new lake with trout and opening it for fishing, small fee, worms for sale in refrigerator.

Instead, I put on rubber sandals and waded through the verge, plunged my hands into the water and raked the debris away from the clogged drain. The lake transformed into a running stream. I splashed through the receding waters to the upper terrace, crossed through my spongy yard, locked the back gate.

I arranged for Josue to fix my roof. He said every three to four years it should be sealed again. “Depends on the world,” he said. “When the earth moves, we seal again.” Makes sense to me.

Buckets of sealant anchor a corner of my patio. We need three dry days; two to dry the roof and one to apply the fix. Every night it rains.  

In the grand scheme of things, my leaky roof is a small irritation. Think I’ll get on with my day, plant another pot of cilantro, trim the cedar outside my front gate, drink lots of water, breathe and go to bed early.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 7, 2016