Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Seven Deadly Sins?

The Seven Deadly Sins?
            “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

Tequila Lifts Her Skirts

Tequila Lifts Her Skirts
            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

Friday, September 1, 2017

It’s A “Fur” Piece

            It’s A “Fur” Piece
            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

Monday, August 28, 2017


            What a precious two weeks in Poulsbo, Washington, while I stayed with my son, Ben. 

            Ben and I had always been close; we’d weathered some tough early years together. Ben, at thirty-five, a responsible family man with the best computer job in the world, working for a toy company where he went to work to play games, hit some extremely painful emotional times. He chose to opt out of the pain. At that time, Ben pushed me out of his life and, in retrospect, I’m glad he did so.

            It took a while for our family to piece through his lies and figure out what he was doing. Addiction is a terrible thing. His addiction stripped my son of his job, his wife, his daughter, his home, his health, possessions and self-respect.

            I am proud to say that two-and-a-half years ago, Ben hit bottom, changed direction and chose a different road on which to walk. Jail wasn’t his “hitting bottom” but he was in jail when he chose to climb the long, hard road to sobriety. This took courage I cannot even imagine.

            Kitsap County had instituted a new program for drug treatment for people while incarcerated. Ben qualified for the rigorous program, with hours of daily counseling sessions, group therapy, meetings, and service work. My son finished out his jail time in the program, months-long intensive work.

            His first six months out of jail, he continued the program in a group home. During this time, he was offered a job but his counselor said, “No, I don’t want you to work a job; I want you to work on yourself.”

            And hard work that has been. Trust is not an easy thing to rebuild once it is shattered. Slowly, Ben has evolved a working relationship with Shea, his former wife. He has earned ever-increasing time to spend with his daughter, Lexi.

Ben has built a new spirituality upon which to base his life. He has found a solid support base of friends he can turn to for help. He has reconnected with family.

            Ben works a manual-labor job, repairing and renovating houses for a man who may be the best boss in Kitsap County. He has learned every phase of remodeling while building physical strength and endurance. Because of his degenerated health, Ben arrives home from work exhausted, yet he is determined to push through, to meet his obligations and support himself and family.

            His back-trail is littered with the debris of his past, including bills, taxes, and medical expenses. It’s not easy. He tackles them one-by-one as he is able. The trail ahead will be cluttered with serious medical issues for a long time.

            When I look into my son’s eyes, I see love and determination and self-respect and pain. I see gratitude. He said he experiences glimmers of what it might be to be happy again. He forges ahead. None of this is easy for him. It is a long, tough road upon which he has embarked.

            I am grateful for Kitsap County’s innovative approach to treatment that helped him get started on his road to recovery. He’s definitely one of a lucky chosen few.

I am grateful my son changed directions, chose the harder road. During this time, Ben began communicating with me once again. My recent trip to Washington was the first time we’d been together in four years.

Every moment of time spent with Ben, my grand-daughter Lexi, my forever-daughter, Shea, was a sweet gift. I treasure time spent with Kristen, especially our afternoon mucking about, transplanting, gardening.

A poetry reading at the Poulsbohemian, a visit with Havre’s Dick Looby in a Care Center in Bremerton, dinner and many talks with my forever-friend, Gary as well as gallons of good Seattle coffee I savored with other friends from my past years in Poulsbo, especially Al, Steve, Kathy and Cass; all are experiences which will be treasured memories. I’d rather forget the blackberry attack but life isn’t all sugar.

            My son is back, only better. Only someone who has been through similar trauma can understand what I mean by “better”. Ben says it helps to have Kristen in his life, a woman who has had similar past experiences and trials. And Deckard.  “Despite his crazy hair shedding,” Ben told me, “sometimes a doggy hug is what keeps you going at the end of a long day.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 24, 2017

Felled By A Blackberry Bramble

Felled By A Blackberry Bramble
            I certainly never expected to spend an afternoon in the emergency room of the local hospital on my holiday with my son and granddaughter. Just an innocent scratch, I tried to tell myself.

            Lexi and I, along with Deckard the Dog, had walked the newly-hacked trail to the “Fort” in the woods, constructed by Lexi’s grandpa and father. If you’ve never been around wild blackberries, you need to know, the vines are indestructible.

            Left to grow uninhibited, blackberry brambles will eventually push out the holly, salal, ferns and all other woods growth. Wild vines can and do take down entire buildings, including abandoned barns and houses. I’ve seen it.

            When I first moved to Washington back in the early ‘80s, I didn’t understand this phenomenon. I was appalled when I saw my neighbor out hacking away blackberry bushes at the edge of his yard. Coming from Montana, where chokecherries, a poor excuse for fruit, requiring extreme measures to harvest and use, are revered, I learned any fruit is sacred and blackberries are rare treasures.

            The following year, and every year thereafter, in the spring and again, in the fall, after I had picked all the plump juicy berries I wanted for pies and jellies, machete in hand, I hacked the vines into pseudo submission. Blackberries always win.

            So even though Ben had cleared the path through the woods to the Fort, errant vines lurked. As I followed, Lexi ran ahead along the uneven ground, with Deckard tugging on his rope in my left hand and my cane for balance in my right hand. An errant blackberry vine whipped out and sliced through the back of my calf.

            My leg was bloody but I was on a mission so paid no attention. Lexi gave me the grand treehouse tour, we poked around the base of the tree a while, then returned home. After I cleaned my messy leg, I considered I might need stitches but could probably get by without them. What’s one more scar? I smeared Bag Balm, my go-to cure-all, on my leg and promptly ignored what was obviously not a mortal wound.

            Three days later, while having coffee with Kathy Currie and Cass Quinn, friends from my theatre days, Kathy noticed my cut leg with an expression of horror. Remember, this thing is on the back of my calf, not terribly painful, out of sight, out of mind. I twisted around to look. Ewww. My leg sported a nasty purple gash, discolored an inch around the edges of the actual cut.

            My son Ben, who’d worked several years in nursing homes when younger, cleaned the cut, disinfected a needle and broke through the crust, expressed the discharge, and smeared on an antibiotic cream, hoping for the best. By this time my leg looked as though it were being eaten from the inside out.

            On the second day of home treatment, Ben and I looked at my leg, looked at each other, and without another word, climbed into the car and took my infected leg to the Emergency Room at Harrison Hospital. I’m terrified of infections with good reason. I have a prosthetic knee on one leg and prosthetic hip on the other.

            That’s why I’m taking a horse-pill antibiotic, my mouth tastes like metal, food turns my stomach and I must rise up in the middle of the night to swallow another pill, rigidly adhering to the doctor’s precise instructions.

            The good news is the pills work. Yes, I should have gone in for stitches. I’ll add one more scar to my growing collection.

            Now, please understand I’ll probably not act on impulse. I’ve never been one to consider tattoos. I can admire good tattoo work on you but have never been tempted to deliberately jab needles into my own skin. However, my legs are criss-crossed with scars.

Recently I’ve thought about creating a “roadmap” tattoo, utilizing my natural “lay of the land”, complete with scars, dips and doodles. Towns along the “route”. Mountains and valleys. Perhaps add a lake here and a railroad track there. I could create an entire mythical country from my natural scars of life lived.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 17, 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Culture Shock, Shock, Shock

Culture Shock, Shock, Shock
            “Mom, I keep telling you. You’ve gone native.” After spending all but a few weeks of the last four years in Mexico, immersed in a different life, what is one to expect?

            My first intimation that I needed to be alert to where I am, “one world” notwithstanding, came when the man who assisted me at LA International with a wheelchair, zoomed me through customs, held my hand through security and escorted me to my next gate, gave me a raised-eyebrow, incredulous stare, when I gratefully proffered a handful of pesos for a tip. Oops, wrong money.

            Since I carry two wallets when I travel, one stuffed with pesos, the other with credit cards and a few US twenties, I soon remedied my mistake.

            Cash and credit. In Mexico, in the small town where I live, I have no use for a credit card except to extract pesos from the bank machine. I purchase everything with cash. My needs are few. Even when I lived in the city, in Mazatlan, I seldom had need or opportunity to use my card. In Etzatlan, I don’t carry a card.

            My son met me at Seatac with a surprise: my granddaughter Lexi awaited me in the car, a joyful reunion. I got to meet Ben’s new girlfriend, Kristen, but with Lexi motor-mouthing the entire drive home, giving me with updates of her life, the rest of us had to squeeze words in edgewise. Once we got to the house, situation normal.

            Ben lives a mile from our first home in Kitsap County and another mile from the home we bought and in which we lived longest. We always lived in the country, surrounded by towering trees. I love the combined scents of Douglas Firs, majestic cedars and maples with the underbrush of impenetrable Holly and blackberry thickets. I know this country intimately. I feel at home instantly.

            The “kids” (Well, they always will be our “kids”.) had made arrangements for me to have a car and a US cell phone. I’m so used to life without either, that I decided to do without. Unheard of deprivation. Right?

            Truth to tell, it’s no different in Mexico. Everyone has an implanted hand-held device that requires total attention. Despite the fact that many a caballero rides his horse into town and ties the reins to a tree branch, he probably has a cell phone in his back pocket. Most families own a car.  

            My first trip to the grocery reminds me of how differently I’ve come to live. In Etzatlan, I go to the fruitera, a small basket in hand, and fill it with enough for a few days, all for a handful of pesos. I haven’t forgotten how I used to fill my cart as though the Barbarians were at the gate and wonder if I’d need a bank loan to get out the door. But tell me, who needs forty-two brands of corn flakes from which to choose?

            Speaking of Barbarians, they arrived in the night and conquered. The brought mountains of useless, redundant and unnecessary items, seductively placed to lure one to purchase, take home and wonder, “Now, why did I think I wanted this?” Had to be the Barbarians.

            My first morning here I awoke puzzled. Where have all the birds gone? In Etzatlan I awake at first light morning to a symphony of birds, birds which sing to me while skittering through my yard and trees all day. Here I awaken to silence. Though I spend a good deal of each day under the trees, I hear and see only the occasional crotchety crow or marauding jay.

            The first week here I awoke at 5:30, courtesy of the two hour time difference coupled with longer hours of sun. (In Etzatlan we are close to having twelve light and twelve dark hours.) When I return, I’m guaranteed a week of sleeping in until 9:30. I’m usually up with the sun, between 7 and 7:30 in Etzatlan.

            Friends, they are the same. I flew north to be in the arms of my family, for snuggles with my granddaughter, to renew communication on a deeper level with my son, Ben, whom I almost lost. A morning teaching the Dancing Crane movements to Lexi. Gardening all afternoon with Kristen. That’s what life is all about.

I treasure hours of conversation with theatre friends over buckets of steaming coffee. How can one measure the good times. Good timing is easier. I attended the monthly poetry reading at the Poulsbohemian Coffee Shop where I got to meet old friends and new poems. I wish I had brought one of my poems with me for open mike. Next trip.

Best moments so far: Sitting beneath the trees at night with Ben and Kristen, listening to their stories. Waking up next to Lexi’s snuggly little body.

But where are the birds and butterflies?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 10, 2017

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Eager, Reluctant Traveler
            My suitcase perches, mouth open, on my sofa, poised to swallow piles of clothing and jumbles of travel essentials: toiletries, Kindle, laptop, gifts.

            Mine is not a planned trip. The “plan” was for my son, Ben, to visit me, grand-daughter Lexi in hand.  It’s still a plan, delayed by the IRS.  That fearsome entity is auditing my son’s taxes for the year he sent his life veering off the rails. Evidently, they fear he might come to Mexico and never return.  Once the audit is finished to the IRS’s satisfaction, Ben will be free to visit.

            “Mom, it has been four years. I need to see you now that I have you back in my life.” What mother could resist such a plea?  Ben is two and a half years clean and sober, working hard to re-establish a good life, one based on a realistic foundation.

            I’m eager to see my son, my Washington family, my friends of years’ duration. I lived in Poulsbo, Washington, more years than anywhere else in my life. That community grew me in good ways. Mine is a short trip; I’ll pack it full of love and experiences.

            “I’m reluctant to leave,” I confessed to my daughter via phone. “It’s crazy. I’m anxious to spend time with Ben but I wanted him to come here. I’m mentally stomping my foot. Like a spoiled child, I am.”

            “I don’t call that crazy,” she told me. “You’ve made a strong home. You are settled into the community comfortably. Besides, you live in Paradise. Who would want to leave?”

            I gazed out my windows at the hummingbirds sucking honey from the canna lilies, the iguana perched on the ledge, the green lizard scuttling across the patio, my roses which I’ve nourished from babies to full glory.  I sighed. Paradise. It’s easy to forget that this morning, while watering hibiscus along my west wall, I stepped onto a hill of red ants. They are the flesh-eating type. Hurts like fire.

            Lani came by and abducted me to go to San Marcos with her to buy a pottery plant holder she wanted. On our return, we drove previously unexplored streets of Etzatlan. I really do love my little town, cobblestone streets, every doorway begging to be explored. The street fronts may look rugged but hide a sumptuous interior or a chicken yard or a corn field, all side-by-side.

            We stopped at the square, bought ice cream and sat in the plaza, watching people, not talking, at peace with ourselves and our world.

            Back home, I went into a flurry of messaging, letting friends know I’d be leaving. “Jim, please bring me a dozen pint canning jars. Sorry I’ll miss your visit. Our trips coincide. I’ll see you in October.”

            “Kathy and Crin, I’ll be gone the first week of your visit. Back the 15th. We’ll still have a couple weeks to eat our way through Etzatlan, what we do best!”

            Crin responded, “I’ll come sing to your flowers to keep them happy. What is their favorite music?”

“Nursery rhymes, the ones we both grew up loving.”

“I’ll start with ‘Mistress Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?’”

While I’m gone, Erica will wash down my walls, a job better done with me out of the way. My walls are brick—imagine the dust! Josue will install an electrical outlet on the outside back wall, a small but needful project. Leo will keep my lawn trimmed and potted plants watered.

My world is in order. I’m as ready for my trip as possible, both eager to go and reluctant to leave.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 3, 2017