Saturday, May 19, 2018

I Love You—You’re Perfect—Now Change

            I Love You—You’re Perfect—Now Change 
            The delightful musical comedy by the above name is about people in love. It’s not quite the same thing, but, my perfect love is my garden. Not a month ago, I said to Leo, my garden helper, “I’ve now done everything I want to do with my garden. It is perfect.”
            It is. Truly. Leo rolled his eyes and grinned.
            Last week I met a couple from Seattle at the nearby campground. They wanted to know which house is mine. When I described my location, she said, “Oh, you are the garden.”  That’s how I’m known. I am the garden.
            Then—Bingo! Two unrelated incidents have led me to look at my perfect garden with jaundiced eyes.
            Along my north wall, in a narrow garden area, among canna lilies, oleander and a crowd of bushes and flowers, I planted three flowering trees. In the summer they give me months of purple, pink and white pleasure. And no problems.
In the grass along my south wall, I planted five of the same variety trees. Leaf-cutter ants plague these trees. Overnight, an army of ants stripped an entire tree and proudly marched off holding aloft green canopies twenty times their size. I cannot even count the number of times last year we had to apply the stinky yellow poison. I run ant patrol every morning, as if it is war.
“The trees on the north wall flourish. The trees on the south wall are puny. It’s a constant battle with ants on the south wall. Why?” I asked Leo.
“Ants like the easy road,” Leo said. “It’s hard work to eat the trees crowded in the garden with other flowers. They like the grassy highway.”
“Ah, ha! The solution is simple,” I said, “Let’s dig out that strip of grass where the trees are planted, make a border with bricks and plant flowers and herbs. Plants that will fill the space, like mint. ” So that’s my first project in my perfect garden.
            At the same time the ants were munching every leaf from their first free tree-lunch of the season, Jim, a snowbird from Missouri, found a used hot-tub for me. Yesterday he sent me a picture of my tub, tied upside down over the bed of his pickup.
“It’s old like us,” he told me. It was cheap. Nearly a gift. The owner needed to get rid of it. We hope the electronics will work.
            The logical place to put my new-old tub when it arrives next week, is in a patio area to the south side of my house, where fourteen potted plants flourish. Hibiscus, climbing vines with trumpet flowers of yellow and violet. Large plants in large pots.
            I figure the climbing trumpet-flower vines will easily train on my wrought iron fence in the west corner of my yard. We seldom open that gate and all my large projects are finished. I admit to a twinge of apprehension at blocking my gate. But, everything is in pots. Pots are movable.
I’ll put the four hibiscus, natural showoffs, in front of the climbing vines. Smaller, lower pots I’ll arrange around the hibiscus. Beauty and a bonus: the plants will curtain that back entrance with privacy.
I lay out my tentative plan in front of he-who-does-the-work, Leo. I design. Leo muscles the heavy pots and bags of planting soil. Leo suggested we make a concrete slab instead of placing pots in the grass in front of the gate. It will make it easier to care for the plants and he would not have to move pots to mow.
“Oh.” I don’t mow so I didn’t think of that. See how a simple little project to make a perfect garden “more perfect” grew and grew. Oh, well. My projects for improvement might last the summer. I have Leo only a few hours each week.
In Mexican folklore, the cicadas sing down the rain. When they get wound up they sound like a roomful of table saws with crooked blades. They brought our rainy season early this year. I hear them morning and night. The “bedsheets butterflies” have arrived. Those huge white ethereal wings make me smile. The leaf-cutter ants have decimated their first victim-tree.
My love is perfect. And, I’ll always find reasons for changes.
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
May 17, 2018

My Romance with Trains

            My Romance with Trains
            I’m angry. It’s selfish of me, but I worked myself up into a right little snit when I heard Amtrak is cutting service in Havre. Please, no, not an unmanned station.

            Selfish, I admit. In my personal phone and address book, yes, I have one of those old-fashioned black books, under “A” for Amtrak is the number for ticketing at the Havre station. I can phone that number from anywhere, talk to a real person, one with a welcoming voice, make my travel arrangements and know that I’ll get where I’m going with no glitches.

            About fifteen years ago, when calling the 800 number for ticketing, I was told that there is no Empire Builder running from Seattle to Havre. Another time, at the ticketing counter in the King Street Station in Seattle, the agent told me that the Empire Builder doesn’t stop in Havre. Given that kind of don’t-care misinformation, today, I might learn there is no Havre. Try to get around those derailments, if you will. 

            My very first train ride was on the Empire Builder in the summer of ’59. Grandma took me and my sister to visit family in Indiana. What an eye-opening experience. I loved the train. In Chicago we caught a cab, another “first” for me, from Union Station to Dearborn Station where we boarded the Monon to Louisville, Kentucky.

            The Empire Builder was a fine train, to my eyes, but the Monon was plush, with maroon velvet mohair-covered seats and lace antimacassars. I remember the Monon as being a little more old-fashioned, almost antique in comparison to the Empire Builder.

            So Havre will be an “unmanned” station. I’ve had grim experiences with those, too. One year I took the train from Havre to Sandpoint, Idaho, another unmanned station. The train arrives around Midnight.

            The Sandpoint Station, an architecturally lovely building, sits in the middle of nowhere. None of the town is within walking distance in the dark. No taxi sits, motor running, driver eager for a fare. It was nearly sunrise before I was able to find a way to my destination and I don’t care for a repeat trip.

            In China, a friend and I rode a train from Suzhou to Hangzhou to see the tea plantation museum and a silk farm. We were told that when the train stopped, for us to push and shove and get on quickly. The train waited for nobody. In reality, the passengers around us were friendly and helpful and assisted us to board.

            In the back of the car was a square cast-iron stove with a huge kettle, simmering water for tea. A woman passed among us with teapot in one hand, about ten teacups in the other. We bought tea for the equivalent of a couple pennies. The seats, however, were hard wooden benches, the floor un-carpeted metal, the open windows let ash from the engine enter the compartment.  Fortunately, it was a short trip.

            I don’t want to lose passenger rail travel. I’m not asking for the return of the cow catcher and the caboose (though that would be nice). I just want to be able to go from Seattle to Havre to Wolf Point and on to Chicago in comfort, with no fuss.
            Come September I’ll be riding the train from Seattle to Havre, that is, if the train still runs, if the ticket master can find the route, if the train still stops in Havre. 
I wrote this following tribute to our train about 20 years ago:

            The Empire Builder

I grew up with that train
rumbling across the Valley,
parallel to the Milk River.
While out in the fields, I’d hear
a whistle, the Eastbound or the Westbound,
would wonder why when the train ran late,
worry when I heard news that the Empire Builder
had derailed in heavy snows in Glacier
or that a freight had jumped tracks
near Shelby and crews worked ‘round the clock.
When Dad sold the farm and moved to town,
he built his house across the road from the tracks.
Freights roared through my bedroom
when I visited, though I slept, comforted.
Everything seemed good when the trains
ran on time (but I know an entire country
was hoodwinked by that sentiment). Now I ride
that train every year, through the mountains,
across the plains, to home. Pinching pennies
has always been my necessity but this year
I lived high on the hog. I rode the luxurious
sleeper in comfort, blanketed, fed and waited on,
my wishes granted before they’d formed.
I was Queen of the Road.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
May 10, 2018

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Out Behind the Barn

Out Behind the Barn
            Broken bones. Missing parts. Titanium joints. Scraped eyeballs. A gimp, a limp and a cane. Moving more slowly every day.

            “Pain is a brute dictator,” said Dr. Backman, the quiropractico I saw this week in Mazatlan. “The more we hurt, the less we move.”

            He didn’t say—and—the less we move, the more we hurt. But I got it.

            And, yes, that is his real name. Dr. Backman, the man who works with backs.

            To my shame, I put myself in the shape I’m in today. After hip replacement, three years ago, my physical therapist, sweet, young, Arturo, told me I’d need to do exercises every day for the rest of my life.

            To my shame. He was young. I am an older woman. We older women here in Mexico are respected, almost venerated. I quickly learned I could bully Arturo with a look. A grimace of pain and Arturo backed off, let me slide. My physical therapist in Havre never would have let me get away with that. Quite the contrary.

            Yes, to my shame. After six months of gentle exercise with Arturo, I took a tip. Gone five weeks. Did I exercise during those weeks? Come on. What do you think? Did I resume workouts on my return? Shame on me.

            Desperation got me to finally seek help—not the direct pain but a side effect of the pain. I had begun moving more slowly, feeling weaker. Fueled by my fear and that same stubbornness with which I quit exercising, I will bully myself into following directions.

            Frankly, what I must do looks like a full-time job. But, Dr. B said for me to begin slowly, start with a couple. Walk every day, small walks. Climb stairs. Slowly. And I can alternate dreaded workouts with lovely moist heat treatments. I’ll use heat as my carrot.

            A couple things on the illustrated list terrify me. “Do you imagine I’ll ever be able to do that>” “You’ll be surprised how quickly,” he answered. Easy for him to say.

            What does surprise me is to learn just how lazy I have become. Sure, I am busy every day with my housework, with gardening, pruning and watering my extensive collection of flowers. Did you know that a person can train herself to do all those daily chores without using muscles of one specific leg?

            I see by my clock that it is time for another small walk. I’ll take the long way around to the only two-story house on the rancho. I have permission from the owners to the outside climb stairs. When I return to my casita, I have this stretchy thing I will do with an elastic band. Then the heavenly heat. However . . .

            Hip shot. Spavined hocks. Sway-backed. If I were a horse, I would have to take myself out behind the barn and shoot me.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
May 3, 2018

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Simply Life and the Little Things

Simply Life and the Little Things
            My friend Dick is gone from our lives. We feel sad. We feel relieved he no longer suffers. We feel guilty we couldn’t take away his pain and confusion. We will miss him, his kindness, his motor cycle rides to Malta for lunch, his incredible stories.

            Dick and Jane. Who would have thought I’d have ready-made such good friends when I moved from Washington to Montana. Dick and I were in the same class in school but we didn’t hang out together. We’d reconnected when I visited Dick at the VA Hospital in Seattle where he’d had surgery. We kept in touch by phone. Dick told me stories of Jane, with wonder in his voice, long before I met her.

            Dick tried to talk me out of moving from Washington. Montana is too harsh, too drastic, he told me. Well, there is truth to that. But truth is what I needed and I had to find a piece of that in Montana.

Dick and Jane “took care of me”. They made sure I was okay. When roads were icy and I needed to go to Havre for physical therapy, Dick drove to Harlem, picked me up, fed me after therapy and took me home. Now that is a friend. As Jesse, another classmate of ours said, “Dick is a good man.”

Shortly after Jane told me Dick had died, I was in the Cathedral in Etzatlan with other friends, three of whom also knew Dick. I sat for a while in the front pew thinking of him, tears streaming my face, tears I could not stop. Ah, Jane, it is hard.

Meanwhile . . .

Today sand sifts between my toes, surf caresses my ankles, while Steve, Theresa and I walk to Tony’s On The Beach for breakfast. We have only four days for me to show them my Mazatlan. Already, they love Mexico like I love Mexico. Today we designated as a beach day. We’ll settle under a palapa, talk, read and fend off beach-junk vendors. Perhaps, if we are hungry enough later, we’ll walk the other direction to Pancho’s for coconut shrimp. 

It’s the little things that matter. On the bus trip from Zapopan to Mazatlan, Steve put his water bottle in in a cup holder on the seat down by his calf. I saw that. Looked down by my seat and I had one too. My eyes bugged. “How did you find that? I asked. “On all the bus trips I have taken, I never knew there was a cup holder.”

“I learn something new every day,” Steve told me.

“Me, I’ve always tried to corral my water bottle and juice can between my feet to keep them from rolling all over the bus.” I had an empty seat beside me so that gave me two cup holders. I felt rich. It’s the simple little things that matter most.

Simple things, like a Montana sunset which cannot be beat for size and glory. For intensity, I’ll put up tonight’s Mazatlan scarlet sunset, smaller, more contained than a Montana sky, but unmatched as the fiery globe dropped into the Pacific.

Simple things like taking three hours to dine on a patio on the beach; three hours that flew by as a minute.

Simple things like remembering stories of Dick. One time Steve came to Montana to help me with a large work project.  Dick met him, holding a cardboard sign with his name printed in black marker, at the train station in Havre. Dick drove Steve over the icy roads to Harlem to my home. By the time they arrived, they were friends.

These are my people.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
April 26, 2018

Seeing Through Other Eyes

Seeing Through Other Eyes
            We don’t see ourselves. We aren’t able. Even surrounded by walls of mirrors, we only see glimpses and reflections. And I’m talking broad scope here. Not just the outside package of who I am. But the me beneath my skin and the life I create.

            So I delight in being able to share bits of my daily life with friends from afar who come visit. Sunday morning Steve and Theresa from Washington arrived tired and bedraggled after an overnight flight.

            Steve and Theresa are beneath the skin kind of friends; we’ve, over the years, shared blood, sweat and tears. We know where the bodies are buried. There is ease and comfort with this friendship that we’ve built simply, on daily life, no pretensions.

            “Mi casa es su casa” means more than mere words to me. I delight when people walk in to my place and are as at home as in their own place.

            From the entrance gate through patio and into my casita, my friends were entranced. And, like other friends who’ve been here, one look and they quit worrying about me, quit thinking I might be stranded in a foreign land.

            We are packing a few things into a few days. This is their “first” trip here. Next time, they said, after being here a mere day, they will stay at least a month.

            Imagine, coffee, croissants and fruit on the patio in the mornings. Dinner at the plaza while a group of musicians from Guadalajara performed on a stage set up in the street. A drive up to the Mirador, the overlook on the mountain with a view of the whole valley. Eating shrimp beneath the palapa on the edge of Laguna Colorado out by San Juanito de Escobedo. Egrets, cranes and white pelicans fishing in the lake. Cattle grazing across the fence.

            Come with us to the pyramid site of the ancient culture of Guachimontones. Afterwards, a stop to see Carlos and Brenda and their reproductions of artifacts and musical instruments of several native cultures.

Or a day in San Marcos where we go, shop to shop, to Don Ramon, Don Chuy and Don Chonito, all masters of clay pottery, each with his slightly different style. The sadness is that none of these men’s children or grandchildren wish to carry on the culture. Technology and making real money is more exciting.

The obsidiana shop is a different story. Two young men use the old ways modified with a foot-powered grinder, to produce tools, reproductions of artifacts and jewelry from beautiful volcanic obsidian. They travel the area to festivals and events to display and market their wares.

I love to take my friends to Tonala, to the tianguis, the street market where artisans of every imaginable craft display their handcrafts alongside tourist-junk imports from China. Even when I say there is nothing I need, I always buy something, this trip no exception. I bought a half dozen large clay pots for replacements. Two of my older pots with cactus are cracked and one is falling apart. 

We always try for a group gathering at Restaurante Don Luis, up on the mountainside. Kathy and Richard, Lani and Ariel, John and Carol join us for gab over huge plates of nachos. 

The best times of the week were sitting on my patio in the evenings, quietly sharing our hopes and concerns. With the new moon just past, the sky is dark velvet with stars hovering like low-hanging fruit we could reach up and pluck.

Seeing myself through the eyes of Steve and Theresa makes me feel rich and blessed and warm and much loved.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
April 19, 2018

Friday, April 13, 2018

It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To

It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To
            Setenta tres. Seventy-three. I bought a fancy chocolate cake yesterday at my favorite pasteleria. I’m invited to dinner at John and Carol’s house tonight. Nobody knows it’s my birthday and I ain’t telling.

But I’m taking my cake to share and will get great and secret pleasure from having a party when nobody else knows it’s my party.

Day on top of day, the years have a way of rolling past. Getting older doesn’t hold the same pizzazz and crackle for me that earliest years held. Remember the day you turned six? That was a real landmark.

Ten is another for me, and I’m not at all sure why. Twelve was a disappointment. Sixteen, for all the hype, was neither sweet nor remarkable. At twenty-one I was two weeks away from having a baby girl.

I have photos of myself when I was thirty-four in which I look to be an old, old woman in her sixties. Photos don’t lie. That was the emotionally most painful, lowest point of my life.

At thirty-eight, my photo shows a young woman who likes herself and has hope. I’d like to say every year got better but life holds too much variety and we all know that would be a lie.

Forty-nine was a blur. All I could think was ‘almost fifty’. When fifty came, I’d already lived the angst. A lot of foo-foo-rah for nothing. What is one more day?

Seventy-three I am and living a life I could never have dreamed at sixty-three. Fortunately, my body is relatively free from pain and that is a huge happiness factor, believe me; I’ve been in the other camp and I know the difference. Emotional pain is every bit as debilitating. When pain is present, celebrating the good stuff takes guts and a heaping helping of denial. My opinion.

Last week I met a woman from the near-by campground. She asked where I lived. I described the location. “Oh, you’re the garden. I walked by your place.” That’s as good a description as any I’ve heard. I’m the garden.

One of my red geraniums is so vividly red that it looks like liquid. I want to dip a paint brush into the flower and paint the world. This morning that cheeky squirrel ran over my naked feet as though I were not attached. Amaryllis, though only a few are yet to bloom, still stand tall in the garden, this their fourth month of show-off trumpets on stalks.  

Magnolia, jasmine and roses mingle their scent with a purple flower that has a cinnamon-like tang. Every day I see something new. A tiny seed settled onto my palm, a gift from the wind, propelled by a feathery plume. I’ve no clue what it is; a mystery seed bearing life.

My five-dead-trees are in full leaf. Again, this year, I insisted, “They are dead. Look, twigs are dry and brittle.”

“No, just wait. They will leaf in March, remember,” Leo said to me. I shook my head, negating the possibility. I am wrong. Buds in March. Leaves in April. Flowers in May. Is that a kind of birthday?

Seventy-three.  Tonight I eat dinner with friends. I share my chocolate cake. Next week Steve and Theresa from Washington will arrive to visit. The dead trees might be in flower while they are here. I can hope. Leo shakes his head, “May.”

No matter. Have you ever seen a mother-in-law-tongue in bloom—beautiful yellow flowers on a tall stalk? Jade and asparagus ferns are flowering. There is no shortage of beauty.

Leslie Gore sang her song of tears at her party and I can cry at mine if I want, but maybe, instead of tears, I’ll have my cake and eat it too.  

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
April 12, 2018

Iguanas and Other Sentient Life

Iguanas and Other Sentient Life
            That iguana spit on me today. I stood below him, next to the wall in my front-patio courtyard, watching him soak up the sun. He turned his head, looked me in the eye, and spit. Well, that’s a fine howdy-do.

            No manners. But, maybe, like many a youngster, he had a valid complaint: “She looked at me.”

            There’s a pair of what I call teen iguanas, middle-sized, who sun at the top of that particular section of wall.

            You should see them skitter up—or down—a vertical wall. Yet, despite Velcro feet, often I see, or hear, the iguanas fall from the top of the bricks down to the ground. Maybe they jump.

            I spend an inordinate amount of time watching iguanas, contemplating behavior. Theirs, my friends, my own.

            Julie came by this morning. She is leaving tomorrow for her Minnesota home. We sat for an hour observing tanagers, warblers, hummingbirds and bees in my Bottlebrush tree. Today is the first day for the bees in such great number. They must have a nearby hive. It was a peaceful way to say good-bye. Julie will be gone several months, back in the fall.

            Jim left last week for Missouri. I lost my Qi Gong partner but shifted my pattern and began morning walks with John and Carol. They’ll be here another month.

            There is constant coming and going on the Rancho. Three winters ago, Lani and Ariel were the only full-time residents. Within a few weeks of one another, Pat and Nancie, Carol and John, Jim, Kathy and Richard, Crin and I purchased homes. Another several months and we were joined by Tom and JRae and Julie and Francisco. All but Lani and I have homes elsewhere. Thus, the constant coming and going.

            My first two years, I pretty much had April to October to myself. I’m used to solitude. I lived the same pattern during my years in Mazatlan so I was used to being alone. This year the pattern is broken. A strange tantrum is being pitched inside me.

            I love my friends. I do. I’m sad when they leave. I am delighted that I will have my neighbors back, one or two at a time, in April, May, and June and July. August is unknown. September I’m gone. October and November most of my friends return for the winter.

            My strange little temper tantrum within is because I also want my solitude. Well, that’s me. I want it all. Given a choice between cake and pie, both with ice cream, my answer is “Yes”.

            So, there. Now that I’ve said it, it all sounds rather silly. Truth is, we don’t live in one another’s pockets. We each have our own lives, our own interests. When we get together, we do so because we want to be together.

            I like my friends and neighbors. And they like me. When they are gone, I console myself that I have my iguanas. I’m not sure the iguanas like me. Not one of my friends has ever spit in my eye.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
April 5, 2018