Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Not My Best Day

Not My Best Day
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            Every day should be my best day! There I go, thinking I “should” be grateful and, truly, I am.  However, “Should” can take a hike into the out beyond and stay there. But my reality is that I feel shaky, in pain, and morbidly fixated on possibilities: broken bones, concussion, blood spatters. None of which happened.

            My day started with pleasure. I woke to the musical prayers of the procession of thousands from Etzatlan marching with the Statue of the Virgin from here to San Jaunito Escabedo, about twelve kilometers from here. My casita is a couple blocks east of the road on the edge of town. 

Families, many in traditional regalia, gather at 4:00 at the Cathedral for ceremonies to begin the procession, walking in prayer the entire route. It bestows great honor to be chosen to carry the Virgin. The faithful have made this pilgrimage every second Monday in October for hundreds of years.

Once they reach San Juaniito Escobedo, the Virgin is received with a High Mass. The Presidente of that city hosts a barbeque. Everybody from both cities are invited to the feast.

I did not join the procession. Perhaps I should have. There goes that “should” again.

Leo picked me up for shopping. I had a long list. I don’t see the sense in supporting an automobile. For a few pesos a trip I can ride with friends or take a taxi.

Walking through my garden, I put my foot, toe first, into a hole where it lodged. I could move neither my foot nor the hole.

Consequently I fell on my hunky-dory, my back and my head, in that order. The earth moved. I couldn’t breathe. I lay on the ground for an hour though that time was compressed into two or three minutes. Josue saw me on the ground and rushed over to help Leo raise me from the downed.

Once upright, my knees and ankles went wibbly-wobbly and did not want to work. But with help I made my shaky way to Leo’s car. Nothing broken but my confidence and minor pride.

I had a lengthy shopping list, many stops. I sat in the car, shaking. Leo shopped with my list. I couldn’t keep my thoughts controlled. I have a prosthetic right knee and prosthetic left hip. It could have been bad. I was certainly in shock. I kept telling Leo I was loco-loco. He didn’t argue.

We went to the shoe store to adjust one of my shoes. I say “we” but Leo did all the back and forth work. I handed him a list with my money.

He bought eggs from the egg lady, a woman in her 90’s who lives in a tiny house and has little but her chickens in her courtyard. From there we went to the woman who sells chickens. Leo selected a beautiful chicken, cut into quarters and a handful of chicken livers. Then on to the store for olive oil and cat food. Two cannot live as cheaply as one. At our last stop at my favorite fruteria, Leo gathered pineapple, melon, bananas, spinach and squash for me.  

On the way back to the Rancho I said, “Let’s go to Dona Mary’s for carnitas de puerco con nopales.” The last thing I wanted to do was go home to make lunch. I could feel my bottom turning purple.

Dona Mary’s Restaurante is in one of the little colonias on the road to Magdalena. This eatery is a favorite place, like nothing anywhere in Montana. All the food is fresh, cooked on wood-fired stove, in an open tin-roofed shack. Whenever we pull in front, family faces light up with welcome.

The drive to Dona Mary’s and back helped me to settle down and gain perspective, to be grateful I didn’t badly hurt myself.

Alongside the road are millions of orange flowers that herald the end of the rainy season.  The mountainside above the village looked as if a blanket of orange had been dropped from above. The blue sky, white clouds, orange flowers, green cornfields were the most brilliant colors I’d ever seen. The bedsheet butterflies have returned. The iguanas sunning on rock walls looked goofier. Leaves on trees seemed sharper. All my senses seemed heightened.

Back home, my chicken simmers in broth. Wasps build a nest in the window arch above my desk. (Outside—I’m inside.) I have a good book. I have food. Cat has food. Bruises will heal. The loco-loco part of me may or may not go away. So it’s not my best day. So what!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 12, 2017
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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Day to Day in the Land of Perpetual Spring

Day to Day in the Land of Perpetual Spring
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            October brings on the melancholia of autumn. Even here.

I recently read an extensive political and economic history of Mexico. Early Spanish invaders called this area in which I live, the land of perpetual spring. I’ve lived here close to two years. I have to agree. The description is apt.

I hesitate to even talk about what it is like here when my Havre friends are digging out from under unprecedented snowfall.

Though seasonal changes in this area are subtle, hardly noticeable, my mind reacts as though I can look out my window to see cottonwood trees along the river, golden yellow, dropping leaves in the winds of autumn. I’m not stockpiling firewood nor changing bedding to winter down comforters. But I seem to be mentally winterizing my soul, preparing for the winter sleep without which there can be no spring awakening.

Little things contribute to this feeling. Four years ago I bought a new address book. Pages in my old book were shabby, full, messy with addresses crossed out, re-entered as friends changed address. Replete with more permanent address changes. Perhaps it was the latter which put me off the chore for so long a time. Too many friends have died, a risk one takes when one lives. I’m aware of this is the autumn of my life.

I finished the address chore in three days. That put me in a mood. Then my internet, my chief communications tool, went on walk-about. Some people in town went without service for three weeks while Telmex upgraded service.

Laughing, I told my kids I might have to resort to smoke signals or carrier pigeons. My daughter replied that nobody in Montana would pay attention to smoke signals after the Summer of Fire and Pigeons would need Papers to cross the border. As it happened, I lost service a mere two days.  Yet I felt disconnected from the greater world. (Not a bad thing.)

Next sciatica punched me in the back. I’ve had sciatic pains off and on for some time. But this attack laid me low. It hurt to breathe. It’s hard not to panic. General free-floating worries and fears about conditions in the world, the state of my bank account and my health contributed to the pain, perhaps triggered it for all I know.

Stretches and rest, the cure. No, not cure, but eventual relief. I quit reading the news. That helps. Resting is difficult, there is so much to do. The gardening that I love to do must wait.

My new “garden helper” contributes to my work load. Cat Ballou has discovered she can jump-flip loop-the-loops in attack of prey only she can see. In the process, she “pruned” several pots of geraniums, which needed pruning, but not this very moment in time.

Then Bonnie called me to see if I’d like to go see a Holy Woman for a Blessing Ceremony. Why not? I wanted all the blessing I could get. We drove to Santa Rosalia, about ten miles from Etzatlan, for an experience both moving and beautiful, much like a merging of Catholic ceremony and Indigenous traditions.

Among other things, the Holy Woman, an ordinary everyday person in appearance but with an inner glow, told me to quit worrying. She said that even were I to lose everything, the Mexican people would fold me into their families and take care of me. She saw me not as an Anericana stranger but as one of her people.

Within hours, four other Mexican friends told me the same thing. No matter what happens, they will share their frijoles and tortillas with me. It’s hard to stay worried and afraid in the face of that kind of caring.

So I’m resting between stretches, watching Leo do the pruning my hands itch to do. My house is filled with the scent of roses from the flower bed behind my casa. Iguanas bask in the sun on my brick walls. Quail doves cavort in the flower beds and lawn ignoring my stalking kitten. Hummingbirds flit from bottle brush tree to never-ending flower blossoms.

The world is full of sadness and gladness. I’d like to say I’ve put all my fears and worries to rest. Easy to say, harder to do. So I mix my autumn melancholy with spring renewal, day by day, little by little. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: October 5, 2017
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A Simple Can of Tuna Fish

A Simple Can of Tuna Fish
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            Are you safe? Are you in the earthquake zone? Did you feel the quakes? Is there flooding in your area? What about the hurricanes—do they reach you? The volcano?

            What has reached me are the concerns of many friends. Yes, I am safe. I didn’t feel the earth move. We’ve plenty rain but the elaborate system of canals, I am told, diverts run-off water quickly into the lakes and lagoons with which this area abounds. No active volcanoes live in this valley. Hurricanes? No, we are surrounded by mountains so what we get are the rains that tropical storms push over the peaks.

            Yes, I am safe. But not smugly so. Disasters pay no attention to boundaries, to known predictions of invulnerability.

What concerns me is the grief of the friends and families of the hundreds of people who lost their lives in the earthquakes and tropical storms in Chiapas and Oaxaca south of us, the quakes in Mexico City and surrounding area to the southeast. What concerns me is the fear, frustrations, the despair of thousands who lost their homes and their livelihood.

            Add to that the hurricane damage in the Caribbean Islands, Florida, Texas, and the Gulf Coast.

How do people have the courage to pick up and rebuild their lives? It seems a dark cloud of despair has loomed over North America the whole month of September.

            What heartens me is the courage of the People. I’ll give you a small local example. Two days after the earthquake to the south of us, Leo came to me to see if I wanted to donate food. Canned goods such as tuna and corn, easy to eat, things that don’t require cooking are especially desired. Rice and beans and maseca to make tortillas are also needed. Add essentials such as water, bathroom tissue and baby diapers.

            “It is put on my heart to give food. I’m getting donations from everyone I know,” Leo told me. “The city is asking for foods. They are filling trucks which go to Guadalajara and from there down to the quake areas.”

            I emptied my pantry and bodega of canned tuna and chicken, beans and rice and other food stuffs. I added a donation in pesos.

            “They don’t want money,” Leo said. “Just food. I’m going to buy canned food, tuna, baby formula, that kind of thing with my donation.”

            I knew what he meant. Even the local government admits the money will never make it to the intended destination. Mexican people are practical.

            “Leo, please go to the store for me and add whatever you think best to my small pile of food.”
            How do people who have lost all pick up and go forward? I don’t know. What I do know is that small actions mean a lot.

            Maybe a can of tuna equates with hope. Maybe that can of tuna, small though it be, is shared with children or with a neighbor.

            Yesterday five of us went to lunch at an isolated thatched roof hut alongside the lagoon out by San Juanito Escobedo, a few miles from Etzatlan. I walked out to the edge of the yard where the waters lapped against my shoes.  Summer rains have filled the lagoon. Hundreds of white pelicans dotted the surface, scooping for fish.

            I thought about the on-going food drives of our little town, by no means a place of wealth. I thought about the cars and vans filled with my neighbors, going to disaster areas to help with clean-up, to help in any way they can. 

            I thought of that can of tuna with tears in my eyes. That magical can of tuna.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 28, 2017
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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Times When You Wonder

Times When You Wonder
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            Do you ever have times when you wonder who you are? I mean, you might be sitting under the cottonwood tree, perfectly content one moment; the next moment you feel like the essence of you is outside your skin, looking at your body askance, as if to say, “Now who are you?”

            You might follow that observation with the notion that who you are is not who you ever meant to be.  Well, that’s my story. Given some of the wrong turns and dead ends in my life, I guess I’m lucky. I never came anywhere near the life I imagined for myself. Luck, huh?

              I’ve always said I never have any luck. I’ve never won anything in my life, not even a door prize at a fundraiser or community raffle. Consequently, I’m not tempted to buy lottery tickets or hang out at the casino. Lucky me.

            None of the jobs I’ve had were on my list of what I wanted to be when I grew up. But I learned to find satisfaction in the lowest kind of chore. I learned to make a living using skills I learned on the way to that “grown-up’ place.  That’s one back-handed kind of luck.

            That’s not me tooting down the highway in the big Cadillac convertible, stock portfolios stacked on the seat behind, mink coat warming my shoulders and diamonds glittering in the sun. Not even in my imagination would that be me. Certainly not the me sitting in the shade wondering who I am.  I’ve never had those wants or that kind of luck, if luck it is.

            This week I got lucky. I got something I never thought I’d have—a companion to share the rest of my life. Someone with whom to talk. A warm body to share my bed.

            Samantha’s friend Elda knew a woman who needed to find a home for a kitten. She’s a two-month old Calico. Elda brought the little fur-ball to me and put her in my arms. I was a goner.

But, I said, with caution, I’d take her for a test-drive for a couple days. My criteria were that she not be one to claw my cushions to shreds and she had to like being outdoors.

            The kitten let it be known that from her standpoint, she had to like me equally well. On the second day in my home, she climbed into my lap, purred and curled up for a nap, our mutual agreement sealed.  Cat Ballou found a home.

            Lucky, see? That‘s what I mean. I’ve never been lucky in the big things in life. I don’t have much but my everyday needs are met just fine. At times in my life, I’ve been scared spit-less but those day-to-day needs for me (and my children) have always come.

            So who is that woman sitting out on the back patio under the Jacaranda tree? Is that little bit of fluff curled in her lap Cat Ballou?

            I have to answer, that is one lucky woman. If it took every wrong turn and dead end to lead her to the life she has today, she’s lucky.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 21, 2017
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Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Seven Deadly Sins?

The Seven Deadly Sins?
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            “Can you name the seven deadly sins?” she asked. I lay on Bonnie’s table, my body full of acupuncture needles.

            “I hope there is no wrong answer,” I countered, considering my vulnerable position. “At one time, in my youth, I could have rattled them off easily. Why do you ask?”

            She shrugged. I know Bonnie to be a thoughtful, introspective person, so I don’t accept a shrug but put her motivation on hold as none of my business unless she chose to share.

            “Pride?” I asked.

            “That’s one. What is it in English when you want money, power and other people’s things?”

            “I think you mean greed. Is gluttony another?”

            “And the sex one—lust,” she added.

            ‘Anger.” We spit that one out one at the same time.

            A couple days later I saw Bonnie again. “Envy and sloth,” I greeted her with a hug and the two missing deadly sins.

            Since I have no pretension to or illusions of theological expertise, I decided to explore the seven deadly sins from a practical standpoint, keeping any religious controversy to those better equipped. I determined to look at each deadly sin in relation to myself and to my fellow humans.

I grew up practicing what we called “an examination of conscience”. It is a habit that has served me well and kept me from making a few disastrous decisions along my life’s journey. The disastrous decisions I made on my own, well, I ignored my own advice.

Let’s begin with pride. Immediately I bumped into a wall. What is wrong with a little pride in doing something well, to the best of my ability and admitting to myself, “That is good?” 

Thinking is hard work. For a distraction, I wandered to my garden, returned with a dozen key limes, an orange, a stalk of ginger flowers and clarity. While it would be wrong for me to deny that I had done a good job out of a false humility, it would be equally wrong to think I was the “best” just because I’d done well. Yes, I see the dangers of pride, both directions, and must admit I’ve stumbled and fallen and probably will again, being human.

Next? Greed or covetousness. Unfortunately, I’ve never been motivated by money or stuff. My greed must take another definition. I was the Cinderella of my family, so I admit to greed to be noticed, to be liked. I can tell you, this form of greed can be deadly.

Lust? Well, who hasn’t, in times of youthful stupidity? Age is a great tempering tool. Moving on.

Anger—oh, now that’s a deceptive human trait. In my experience, I can generally figure out a way to justify anger and clothe it in self-righteousness. I’ve had to learn how to recognize the stench of “righteous anger” and replace it with awareness that I don’t know the full story. It’s hard to stay angry when I can put myself in your shoes.

Gluttony. I’ve never met a food I didn’t like. That includes many of which I learned that it’s best not to ask the origins. I suspect what makes this sin deadly has less to do with food and more with a desire to consume beyond one’s immediate needs. Does “siege mentality” come under this heading? I bought twenty kilos of strawberries recently and made jam. I gave most of it away but I still have more than I can use myself. Minor example, but if I am scrupulous, I think this is gluttony. Not that 106 flower pots would enter the equation.

Envy.  I’ve said it before; I want it all. I want your abilities, talents, youth, beauty and means to travel. I don’t obsess about it. I’m grateful for what I do have, but, really, if only . . .

When I’m being judgmental, critical and back-biting, is that an inside-out form of envy?

Sloth. Guilty again. I have become a fan and practitioner of the concept of “manana”. There is a lot to be said for putting off what can be done today until tomorrow. Sometimes in the interim a better idea is born.

Well, that exercise certainly made me feel immoral, shiftless and self-gratifying. I am guilty, guilty and guilty times seven.

After I finish watering my plants, I’m going to make a key-lime pie. If I want to, I’ll eat the whole thing myself.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 14, 2017
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Tequila Lifts Her Skirts

Tequila Lifts Her Skirts
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            Sunshine! After a solid week of all-day, all-night rain, the sun shines. Tropical Storm Lidia whooshed unrelenting rainclouds our way before veering off with a huff into the Pacific, energy dissipated.

We nestle in a mountain valley dominated by Volcan de Tequila, or Tequillan, “the place where they cut”. Volcan de Tequila has been inactive for 220,000 years but once spewed obsidian throughout an extensive area.  People have mined obsidian here since ancient times.

            Since she no longer threatens to erupt in temper, blue agave plants, the main ingredient in the Mexican drink, tequila, cover her magical gentle slopes.

            After a week of modestly hiding her feet in thick clouds, today Volcan de Tequila lifted her skirts. She coquettishly hides her face behind a white-cloud fan. We turn our own faces toward her, with ancient veneration.

            I take a break from chores to sit on my patio and breathe in the rain-cleaned air. I cannot get complacent about the quality of light. Colors appear deeper. I’m more acquainted with the washed colors of the sun-drenched plains. I marvel at this phenomenon, difficult to describe.

            The greens are greener. The red of the red geranium petal is more intensely red. It is as though the light shines onto and through, penetrating every leaf, every petal. The common yellow butterfly is more yellow. Nothing looks drab. Every color is “in-your-face”, shouting for attention. These are not prairie wildflowers, hiding behind gray-green leaves, afraid of sunburn. I know; I just anthropomorphized plant-life but that comes close to how I feel.

            My sheets hang on the line, wafting in the breeze. I keep an eye on the eastern horizon, birthplace of afternoon rain clouds. (There is balance to this strange nature; if I leave my clothing too long on the line, bright blouses will sun-fade to shadows of former color.) I unpin laundry as soon as it is dry. Showers spring overhead in minutes. If clothes get wet, oh well, they’ll dry again.

            I’m reminded of a strange practice I grew up thinking important. We used to line-dry the laundry, bring it indoors, sprinkle each item with water, roll it burrito-shaped and place in a basket to await ironing. We ironed the damp clothing dry! Does anyone else remember this quaint practice? Does anyone remember ironing? Why did we do that? Why did we quit?

            While I check if my laundry is dry, I see a new iguana has taken residency in my drain pipe by the clothesline. Nobody I ask remembers why the useless drain pipe to nowhere was installed or what purpose it fulfilled. I found last year’s iguana, old and gray, dead behind a brick wall several months ago. This new iguana is darker, younger than the grandfather I first met. The old man tolerated me with a cold eye and turned his head, unmoving. The youngster scurries into the crook of the pipe, unsure of my intentions.

            A crop of new-born iguanas scurries among my plants, crosses the patio, suns on the wall, gorges on hibiscus and canna lily flowers. If all lived to maturity, I’d need to declare open season. I’ve not seen proof, but I imagine the young creatures are food for birds, especially the ever-present vultures.

            I see another crop of leaf-cutter ants, carrying bits of hibiscus flower to their storage center. No mercy; I add ant poison to my two-page-long garden list.

 Just when I think my garden has reached ultimate perfection, I notice that the ice plant flanking my front door needs to be repotted; the lavender has exceeded its use-by-date.

I plan to huck out the rock-garden surrounding the stump and roots of a once dangerous pine. I’ll enrich the soil, discard some original plants, especially a creeping vine, too vigorous for the small space. I’ll add moss roses.

My “five-dead-trees” have black leaf. A trip to Centro Vivero to consult with David heads my list. I’ll replace oregano and basil, decimated by the ants.  This time I’ll put them in pots, along with the rest of my herbs. That means I’ll buy more pots though I said I wouldn’t after I shamed myself by counting 97 pots around my patio.

My list is long. But where would I be without the pleasures of my garden, constant attention though it requires. The sun still shines. My sheets are dry. Drain-pipe Iguana poked his head out of the pipe and gave me the stink-eye but didn’t scurry back underground. Volcan de Tequila winks shamelessly in the distance.  I see a whole world of wonder when I choose to look.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 7, 2017
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Friday, September 1, 2017

It’s A “Fur” Piece

            It’s A “Fur” Piece
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            From there to here. I’m not sure what sparked my curiosity, but from Havre in Montana to Etzatlan in Jalisco, Mexico, the distance is 2449.9 miles. That mileage does not take into consideration any deviation from the route: no searching for a better hotel or non-franchise-plastic-food eatery, no side-trips to see friends or relatives close to the route.

            Imagine a human automaton, hands glued to the steering wheel, eyes on the road, single-mindedly moving forward, only forward. Such a one might conceivable collapse on my doorstep emaciated from lack of food and sleep deprived. Any way you slice the distance pie, 24449.9 miles is a “fur” piece.

            But, if you’ve a mind for exploration and adventure, if you are willing to add miles and time to the trip, the drive can be an incredible experience. Add a weekend visit with Uncle Jack and Aunt Mable in Denver, a side trip to the Grand Canyon, why not, and a jog to Houston, once the flood waters have receded, to visit that old school chum you haven’t seen in forty years. Now we’re talking a real trip.

Once you cross the border, I guarantee you’ll want to spend a couple days in Monterey. Better drive the pick-up truck. You’ll see plenty of un-resistible roadside treasures.

            If you are not up for a road trip, you might fly. Airplanes are not as much fun as a cross-country drive, but if you are on a time budget, a plane will get you here quickly. I’ve made more than one flight without as much as a word to my seatmate. But on my last trip I met Rodrigo and we chatted from LA to Guadalajara.

            My newest friend Rodrigo is a recent graduate in film and photography and had been in Los Angeles for a “shoot”. He invited me to let him know when I’d be in Guadalajara and he’d be pleased to show me around. Not empty words. This young man meant it. He likes people and has learned that each new acquaintance expands one’s life.

            Older friends, both in age and length of friendship, Crin and Kathy, fly home to Victoria tomorrow. We’ve never lived in close proximity until this past year when we became next-door neighbors. Cousin Nancie from Sedro Woolley, Washington, arrives in two weeks. Distance is what we make of it.

            The technological world being what it is today, keeping in touch on a regular basis is made easy. A mere fifty years ago, in my family, long-distance telephone was used only for announcing a death in the family. In fact, fifty years ago, I lived on a ranch south of Dodson with no telephone service. Today, if I were so inclined, I could let you know each time I belched.

            I need to know if my friend Dan in Houston (I really do have a friend in Houston.) is safe.

  I’m overdue for a long “visit” with Vidya in Port Townsend, Washington. She’s one of my friends with whom it always feels like we just saw each other a few minutes ago.

            I’ll let Lola in Idaho know that I tried a quick and easy “Mexican pie” made with corn tortilla shells, bottom and top, instead of pie crust. Lola is allergic to wheat flour. This is not a traditional dish though a Mexican friend gave me the idea. I used apples, pecans, brown sugar and cinnamon for the filling, baked it like an ordinary pie and it is delicious. Imagine this Mexican pie with blueberries!

            My friend Cheryl from Tillamook, Oregon is having a medical procedure. Our email group of gals who grew up and graduated together are all waiting to hear her news.

            Much as I want to, miles mean I can’t simply walk cross the back yard and have coffee with you, my Montana, Oregon, Texas, Colorado, England et al neighbor. We can still exchange everyday news. When is the last time you had coffee with your next-door neighbor? It’s not that far.

            The longest distance cannot be computed by miles. The longest distance between two hearts is silence.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 31, 2017
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