Tuesday, February 16, 2016

My New Home—From Big City Back to Country

                My New Home—From Big City Back to Country
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            Where do I start? At the beginning, you say. That was almost three years ago so let me start with last week and back track to the beginning, what say?

            Last week in Etzatlan I bought a casita. A beautiful brick Spanish style casita with arched windows and doors, tiled roof, and plenty of wrought iron. Sounds like an impulsive buy, doesn’t it?

            Like I said, the process began three years ago when I first went to Etzatlan to visit my new friend Lani. Etzatlan is a small village, about 20,000 people, sprawled in a wide and verdant valley in the mountains north-east of Guadalajara. The town is centuries old with narrow cobblestone streets and ancient adobe buildings. It’s farm and ranch country, emphasis on country.

Etzatlan has no ex-pat community. What it does have is a small section of a working ranch that had been set aside for retired Americans to build two dozen small, Spanish style homes.

            In its heyday most of the residents lived there year round, creating a tiny but active pocket community. Then one died, another became disabled, another moved back to the States to be cared for by family. Any retirement community has such a pattern. It’s life. One after another, people left. But no marketing was done to bring in new residents.

            Consequently, most of the casitas sit empty, some maintained by heirs who don’t want to live there and hope to sell, some abandoned. Lani is not the manager but she wants to see the place built back to former glory. She’s a go-getter. If you get in her pathway, she’ll hook you and reel you in for a look-see.

            Three years ago, I looked. “Lani, I can’t afford any one of these beauties. Besides, Etzatlan is too isolated. My heart is in Mazatlan. Don’t bug me.”

            Lani took me to see another empty casita or two whenever I visited. Each time I drooled but said “no”. A couple weeks ago I hopped the bus to Etzatlan to visit Lani and Ariel and my cousin Nancie and her husband Pat, who had rented Patricia’s casita for several weeks. Two days after I arrived, they bought Patricia’s casita, empty for a couple years, but well maintained. They bargained a sweet deal.

            No, I did not have “buy” fever. I’m a happy renter, privileged to live in a lovely apartment maintained by somebody else. Leave me alone.

            Besides, Joe and Yvonne still lived in the home that most appealed to me. Yvonne has health problems and the couple is moving to Spokane in March. I requested a quick house tour but was denied. Yvonne didn’t feel up to a stranger tromping through her home. I understand. If the house is still for sale, I can see it next trip. I’m not in the market, just curious.

            Two days later Leo, the groundskeeper, brought me a message. Yvonne was having a good day. If I wanted to see the house, come now. Ten minute tour. Why not?

            The entrance patio is stunning, flowers blanketing the high brick walls, with a variety of potted plants. The house is a perfect size for me, has lovely Mexican tile floors and tiled kitchen and bath. The grounds, a virtual park. The spacious roofed patio with outdoor kitchen, sink, plus a barbeque, plus large storage room, plus two storage closets stole my heart. It’s like an extended indoor/outdoor room.

Joe, Yvonne and I sat in the sun, in rockers, on the uncovered entrance patio and visited for an hour and a half. With a handshake, the couple gave me the gift of a home for $5,000. I know. I have never been given anything in my life. It is unbelievable. A fairy story. I must have made it up. A dream I could never have dreamed.

I’m a reader. I read a lot of books. Nothing ruins a captivating novel like an author who wraps up all the loose ends into a neat happy package in the last three pages. Life isn’t like that. So I clutch my gift to me with gobs of gratitude. Life in Etzatlan promises to be another chapter in my adventure.

But, oh dear, how am I going to get packed? What should I take? What should I leave? Where will I find a truck and two strong young men to help me move? What have I done? Help!!!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

February 18, 2016
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Shine On Me Sunshine, Walk With Me World

Shine On Me Sunshine, Walk With Me World
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            Back in the day, I loved that song. I suspect it was my “whistling past the graveyard” attempt. Believe me, I was anything but the “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA”. I was full of pretense and misery, unemployed and broke, a single mom, newly divorced.

            In those days women bore the onus and responsibility for a “broken marriage”. Men were simply labeled “single and up for grabs”. It was not a pretty place for a woman to be.

            So I had a bit of an internal giggle at myself when the words of my once-favorite song looped through my thoughts on the bus from Mazatlan to Guadalajara, and this forty some years later. The monster of fear I faced was an eye appointment, which turned out to be positive in all ways. I am cleared for cataract surgery, but…I’ll think about that later.

            My thoughts on the bus took me to a realization of how content I am. Who would ever have thought a farm girl from Harlem, Montana would one day live in Mexico? I could not have imagined my life, the places I’ve been, the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met and come to love.

            Take this week, for example. Ariel met me at the bus and became my guide through the streets of Guadalajara, to the doctor’s office and back to the chickens-and-goats bus station, around the corner from the station with the posh cross country buses

We boarded the bus to Etzatlan, a small farming village, to be met by his wife, Lani, my cousin Nancie and her husband, Pat.

            The very next day Nancie and Pat made a decision the buy the house in which we were staying. That’s exciting stuff. It is a beautiful brick casa, built in the old Mexican style. Lani has been trying to talk me into buying a casa here these last three years.

            Life is not all business. The following day we women drove to Tonala for the tianguis, a huge open-air street market. Tonala is known for handcrafts, especially pottery. With a new house to furnish, Nancie geared up to poke around every stall. It is simply not possible. Four hours of shopping filled Lani’s car. I wanted a clay tea pot. I have a specific pot in mind, found it, but left empty handed since the pot came only in a set. Still on the search.

            Every village celebrates Carnival, the Mardi Gras. There is no lack for activities. We’ve watched the dancing horses, the bull riding, fancy roping, precision riding with the young girls in full regalia, the “ugly women” contest, and, ah, the parades, the bands, the costumes, the clowns. We’ve listened to music and munched crispy churros in the plaza. Much of the fun is watching people, especially the children.  

We drove to a mountaintop restaurant which overlooked the valley, sampled churros in the evening at the plaza, bought chocolate croissants from our favorite panaderia. Each village has a day for the city tianguis or market which can take up several streets. After Friday market we ate birria in that special place along the highway. Not that the place is so special but the birria, a goat soup, is the mouth-watering best.

            Now Lani is leaning on me from one side and Nancie from the other, trying to convince me to move to Etzatlan. Being the ultimate tourist is great. Carnival Week and visiting friends and family are only a tiny piece of life. Everyday living is another matter.

            I told Nancie and Lani that moving here would be like moving from Seattle to Harlem. Big city—small town. I’ve done both.

            I’ve lived in enough places to know that place isn’t as important as the person living inside the body I take with me. Most days I’m content with her.

            Most I get out of bed and I can say, Hello, sunsine. Good morning, morning. And if I look in the mirror and see an old grump, well, she is part of my life too. Meanwhile, it’s a skipped-doo-dah day.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

February 11, 2016
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The Good Lord Willin’ and The Creek Don’t Rise

The Good Lord Willin’ and The Creek Don’t Rise
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            Ai-yi-yi, but I had a difficult day. My theory is that misery is contagious. My neighbor Ted from Edmonton was griping about the rock bottom value of the Canadian dollar, which has been on a steady decline for weeks. Frank on the other side of my door kept up a steady whine (steady decline-steady whine—that’s called internal rhyme) about the plunging value of his investments. Both of them moaned about the rising cost of living in Mazatlan.

            I stood in my doorway and listen to the men natter and fuss. I don’t have a business like Ted, two pensions like Frank or even a skinny investment portfolio. Usually I smile and nod and ignore their negativity. Generally I know that my simple life is right for me. And most of the time I celebrate what I see as the healthy economic growth in Mazatlan.

            But today I caught a bad case of the “poor-me virus”. There is no medicinal cure or magical inoculation. The disease is lethal. It starts out on a gentle but slippery slope and often involves comparing my insides with your outsides. I always lose. My monthly pension is a two digit fraction of Frank’s. I have no net worth and can no longer physically “work” like Ted, who, in his 80’s, still climbs on a tractor and runs his gravel business.

            After a couple comparisons in which I, predictably, come out on the short end, then I play the “what if” game. This game can take one around the world of disasters, natural and self-made. What if I get the Big C? What if there is a world war? What if we fall into the sea with an earthquake? What if drought and plant disease create such a food shortage that we all starve to death? Or worst of all—What if I can no longer afford my little casita and have to live in a cardboard box under the bridge, scrounging food from garbage cans?

            So that is how I play that game. The first solution, of course, is “don’t play the game”. So I must get some sort of pay-back, some sick satisfaction from playing. Fortunately the game never lasts long.

            I called my daughter. “I sure wish I’d made better financial decisions. If only I had been a business person instead of an artist.” (Obviously I’m still infected with the disease.)

            She flat out refuses to play my game. “Cripes, Mom, look at the life you have, living in the sub-tropics. By the way it is minus 31 F with a north wind gusting to 38pmh. Look at the adventures you’ve had. You’ve traveled all over the US and Canada. Now you are hopping buses all over Mexico. You’ve spent time in India, China and Japan. You’ve directed how many plays. Look at all the friends you have. You’ve enjoyed yourself in ways most people never get to experience. . .”

            “Okay, okay, I get the picture.”

Immediately I thought back to a woman I met years and years ago who gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life. I was at her house talking about recovering her favorite chair. In the process she began telling me about the death of her husband, tears running down her face. Her pain was so fresh, the details of her story so vivid, so bitter, that my heart hurt for her. “My dear woman,” I said, taking her hand in mine. “When did your husband die?”

“It will be twenty-three years ago in August,” she replied.

That took the wind out of my sails. My heavens, I remember thinking, this woman has never moved past that day in August, nor, does she want to move.

Like a lot of life-lessons, I get to learn this one over and over again: Love the life you have instead of the life you lost. Or the life you left. Or the life you thought you should have had instead.

I am a very lucky woman. I put on my shoes, grabbed my bag and headed out the door to get some fresh air, a bit of exercise, café con leche at the Rincon and a different perspective on my day. I have enough!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

February 7, 2016
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Eating Crow and Liking It, Baked In Humble Pie

Eating Crow and Liking It, Baked In Humble Pie
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            I thought it wouldn’t matter. Under Arturo’s guidance I had been doing physical therapy twice weekly, for almost six months. I was walking strong and sure. When walking along the street I used my handsome walking stick, which I had purchased many years ago from a S’Klallam gentleman in Port Gamble, for balance.  

            Now comes the really stupid part of my confession. I paid lip service to Arturo in August when he told me I would need to continue my exercises, especially the ones for strength, for the rest of my life. Yes, indeedy, exercise the rest of my life, yes, sir. You betcha.

            You probably don’t know how it is. You probably don’t have a rebellious voice which lives in your head and whispers, yes, that is true for everybody else but, me. I’m different. I know my body. I’m active and I know best what is good for me.

            Then I hied off on a summer vacation to Montana and Washington and for several weeks didn’t do a single exercise. Well, I didn’t have time. Or an appropriate place. Or opportunity. I mean, really, I hate exercise, especially the routine one, two, three to twenty, three reps four times a day. You gotta be kidding. Letting my routine go was easy.

            Consequently, I began leaning into my walking stick, using it for strength. Slowly I developed and perfected a limp, drag, limp, drag, limp drag style of walking. Well, my leg hurt. Back to my casita in Mazatlan, where I had time, place and opportunity, I continued to resist that which I knew I ought and did a lot of what I ought not, feet up, book in hand. The only things missing were wine and bon-bons.

            Visiting Montana in December capped my experience. Walking on snow and ice, I held every muscle in my body tense. My limp, drag got worse. So did the pain. I needed help. My daughter’s physical therapist suggested I revert to using my walker for a short while to relearn what real walking felt like.

            Back in Mazatlan again I pulled my walker out of the shower where it had lived and provided stability since the first couple weeks after my hip surgery. So for two weeks I faithfully used my walker. In the house. No way was I going out on the street where everyone would see me. (Like that mattered.)

            Meanwhile, I eye-balled Gary’s walker. Heidi and Gary live around the corner from me. Gary has the Cadillac of all walkers, a veritable hot-dogger of a walker. Sparkly maroon, it has four wheels, brakes, a seat he can flip down when he gets tired, and a carrier for a bag.

            My walker is your basic manual model, industrial gray, four legs, corroded joints from living in my shower. Pick up and step. Pick up and step. Pick up and step. Basic.

            Every day Gary walks his Cadillac around the neighborhood for several blocks. He’s looking good, making progress. Gary has severe arthritis. My problems are post-surgical and self-generated.

            Last night I took a deep breath and walked my Model A Ford walker outdoors, up the street to my neighbors and around the corner to have dinner out with them. I lived through this “coming out” without blushing but feeling awfully stupid for hiding in the house for two weeks.

            This morning I went to the walker store, determined to buy a Cadillac. The store owner, a physical therapist, shook his finger at me, no, no, no. After a few questions he handed me a cane, explaining that with my problems the walker would make me dependent. He watched me walk back and forth across his store, took my cane back and handed me a slightly different model cane.

            I walked out of his store with a 1960’s model Buick old-woman cane. I walked straight, no limp, no drag, no pain. His parting words rang in my ears, exercise, exercise, exercise. I think I will.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

January 21, 2105
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The Fable of The Magnificent White Stallion

            The Fable of The Magnificent White Stallion
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            I can imagine life without my right arm. I experienced that for a few months. I can imagine life without a leg or even two. My experiential months altogether add up to a couple years. I coped.

            The age of the dreaded cataracts has come upon me. With terror I imagine life without the sight of my eyeballs. Yesterday, after a sleepless night, I met my highly recommended surgeon. He put me at ease. That is good. He said I am not ready yet. Mucho bueno! Maybe six months, maybe a year. That is bad. He referred me to a retinologist in Guadalajara because of evidence of pressure on my retina in my left eye. Mucho mal!    

            In my wallet I had a newly purchased bus ticket for a planned trip to Guadalajara in three weeks. That is good.

            I went to bed, exhausted, wondering why I couldn’t fall asleep, when I recalled a story I heard thirty-five years ago which changed my life. My problem is I forget to remember the story.

            Once upon a time there lived a wise old man at the edge of a village in a remote and forgotten European country in the mountains. This old gentleman had two precious possessions, his young son and a magnificent white stallion.

            On a dark and stormy night (All writers wish to write that phrase!) the wind howled and trees toppled. The storm raged and took out a portion of the enclosure which housed the beautiful stallion. Search as they did, the man and his son could not find the horse.

            The next day the villagers rushed to console the old man, “Old Man, the storm came and your stallion has disappeared. This is a bad thing.”

            The old man replied, “I don’t know that it is a bad thing. I only know that the winds blew and knocked down a wall and my stallion is gone. I don’t know that it is a bad thing.”

            Weeks passed and the old man and his son repaired the storm damage. One morning they woke up and the magnificent white stallion had returned, leading six beautiful horses behind him.

            Once again the villagers rushed to the old man, “Old Man, you were right. It was not a bad thing. It was a good thing. Your stallion has returned, bringing six new horses with him. It is indeed a good thing.”

            The old man said, “I don’t know if it is a good thing. I only know that my stallion left in the storm and he has returned, bringing six horses with him.”

            The man’s son began breaking the horses to ride and one morning a frisky mare threw him to the ground, where he landed on a rock and broke his leg.

            Again the villagers rushed to see the old man, “Old Man, you were right. It was not a good thing that your stallion returned with six new horses. Now your son has a broken leg. It is a bad thing.”

            The old man said, “I don’t know that it is a bad thing. I only know that my stallion disappeared and returned with six new horses and my son has a broken leg. I don’t know that it is a bad thing.”

            That week the little country in which they lived declared war on their huge and powerful neighboring country and all the young men of the village were conscripted into the army where many would die fighting. Because he had a broken leg, the old man’s son did not have to go to war.

            Once more the villagers rushed to see the old man, “Old Man, you are wise. It is not a bad thing that your son broke his leg. Our sons are marching to their death and your son is safe at home with a broken leg. It is a good thing.”

            The old man said, “I don’t know that it is a good thing. I only know that my stallion disappeared in the storm, returned with six new horses, my son broke his leg and does not have to go to war. I don’t know that it is a good thing.”

            And with that story, I realized that I know nothing. All I know is that in three weeks I will see a retinologist in Guadalajara and sometime in the future I will have cataract surgery on my eyes. When I label my life with “good” and “bad” I limit all other possibilities.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

January 14, 2015 
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Saturday, January 9, 2016

Next Year Country—Next Year People

Next Year Country—Next Year People
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            While I have great respect for the past, I am not one to yearn for olden days. Not for me the re-enactments of historical events. I’ve no desire to escape today’s trials through romanticizing the past. I’ll happily trade your retro calico bonnets, buffalo robes, corncob pipes, and bushy mustaches for my flush toilets, electric lights and a full set of teeth.

            As the New Year approached, my group of women with whom I graduated high school sent one another wishes. We ignored prosperity, health and happiness. Yet each and every one of us mentioned without dwelling on details, that 2015 had been a rugged year. Our common theme, we each in our own words declared, “Enough already. 2015 was a big dose to swallow. Let 2016 be a better year!”

            While I read my friends’ messages a picture from my memory flashed in vivid detail, a picture that to me illustrates the concept of “Next Year Country”, a concept familiar to all of us raised in contrary eastern Montana.

My Dad stood knee deep in rushing water in the sugar beet field north of our house, irrigating shovel in hand. He wore farmer overalls and a red-plaid flannel shirt though it was a hot day in August, protection from mosquitoes. He wore gray irrigation boots on his feet and a straw hat covered his head. His gloves and a pair of pliers stuck out of his back pocket. His neck craned back while he watched a covey of puffy white clouds swan across the open sky and disperse into nothingness. As the clouds disappeared the wind picked up dust from the gravel road to the east and scattered it in our faces.

Dad looked down at me. A look both grim and wry crossed his face and he shook his head, amused at his own perseverance for farming in such devilish country. I spent a lot of time out in the fields with my Dad that summer. I learned to watch for the clouds, the few, the disappointing. I knew it would not be a fat year.

I peg that summer as the time I learned to shake disappointment and turn a hopeful, if somewhat wishful, eye toward the rain clouds of next year. Surely we’d have a good crop next year. Surely.

Oh, I know we Montanans don’t have any monopoly on hard times. No person is immune from hardship. We might look around and see those who seem to live perfect lives, untouched by tragedy. Don’t believe your deceiving eyes. A person’s outsides don’t always reveal the sorrows and tears of the insides.

 Yet, our plains country more than most geographic areas, yields a hard life for a hardy people. This may sound like sentimental claptrap.

It is a personal prejudice of mine that next year country breeds next year people. We recognize them. It’s the way they shoulder into the task before them. Or it’s the way they scan the sky for a better day. Or it’s that glint of humor, the ability to laugh at oneself.

I don’t want to roll the clock back to any previous time, no way, no how. I just know next year is going to be a better year for you, for me. I feel it in my bones.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

January 7, 2016
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Ready To Be Home

                                                Ready To Be Home
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            Three weeks ago I left the sunny climes of Mexico for the frigid badlands of the Yellowstone River and Glendive, one of the strangest trips I’ve travelled.

            As the holiday season which ends the Old and precedes the New Year rolls around, I tend to introspection. Plunked down in the country where my ex-husband lived out his last years, here for his memorial service, made me even more so. Memories surfaced like snippets of film.

            When a couple have children, there is always a relationship. Then the grandchildren come along, another shared bond. To forestall an embarrassing moment, I asked my daughter to ask Harvey’s wife Pam where I should sit at the memorial. I sat with family. As Pam said, we are all family.

            At a time in my life when I was having a rough go, Harvey suggested Dee Dee live with them a while, the logic being there were two of them to control her (a logical illusion) and only one of me. Made sense. Dee went to high school in Bozeman. I had her for holidays. I got the best of that deal.

            As she will tell you herself, those years our daughter was a rebel. I’m sure Pam cried herself to sleep more than one night. Couldn’t have been all bad because Harvey and Pam ended up adopting five children.

            Right now my daughter is going through her own rough patch. It’s been one thing after another: health, car breakdowns, bills piling up, over-whelming hours at work. She had knee replacement surgery and then her father died. She seemed to me like a puppy lost in the clutter of living.

            I changed my return flight and stayed to pitch in where I could, to drive my daughter to physical therapy appointments, to be there for Christmas. You’d have to laugh to see us; me with my walking stick and she with her walker, a case of the halt leading the lame.

            Needless to say, my girl and I had good heart-to-heart talks. She might have been ready to kick me out a couple times when I cut too close to the bone.

            Maybe because we had the opportunity, Pam and I spent several hours together, our own heart-to-heart talks, a gift. Pam and I share a daughter.

            The day before I left Glendive I got a phone call from my son. Ben had been in jail, heroin related charges, for ten months. During that time he had applied for and was accepted into an intensive treatment program, recently instated in Washington. I knew he had been released December 20th.

            After searching my heart, I decided he had to want to contact me. Ten months of forced sobriety is good but the real test is what happens outside the walls. His phone call gave me hope. He lives in a treatment house for six months during which he has several kinds of therapy, AA meetings three times a day and four hours a day of group counseling.

            He spoke with both is sister and me. Of course, we compared notes. He took accountability for his actions, a real step forward. No excuses. His choices.

            So, my “holiday” in Montana was bittersweet, happy/sad. I carried worries like Santa’s pack. Finally I let them go. I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. I can’t cure it. That goes for all the “its”.

            And I certainly can’t control my next-door neighbor, Frank.

            Firms in Mexico use a unique (to me) method of advertising. A team walks the street, one on each side, taping shiny colorful flyers on each door. It must work. Large chain stores use the method. Small family restaurants use it.

            Today I flew home to Mazatlan. When the cab pulled up to my house, my door was plastered with dozens of rectangles of color. It was the best and funniest welcome home I’ve ever experienced. Frank had gone collecting all over the neighborhood to decorate my door like a Christmas tree. If you need a special treat, a little extra cheer, I’ll send Frank by.

            Let’s live life as fully as we can. Feliz Ano Nuevo. Happy New Year.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 31, 2015
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