Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Bubbles From My Fish Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 28, 2016
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Monday, July 25, 2016

Muck’s A Good Thing—Mud Is Just Fine

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

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

            Rainy season is here, an undeniable truth.

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

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

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

            Rain plus dirt equals mud, another undeniable truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 14, 2016
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Life—Ya Gotta Love It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 7, 2016
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Birds and The Bees and Flush Toilets

The Birds and The Bees and Flush Toilets
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
            Every morning at first light a symphony of birds sings me awake. I don’t say it’s necessarily pretty birdsong. The New York Philharmonic it is not. But it is loud. And it is a mixture of voices of whatever birds are hanging out in this part of the state at any particular time. Perhaps a better description is of musicians tuning their instruments prior to the performance. Tuning takes a good hour. At full light each singer flies off to greet the day with its perfect song.

At any one time I look out my windows and see dozens of birds, a bouquet of variety. I wish to know their names. Some I can narrow down to the general family with my “Birds of Mexico”; sort of like, “That one looks like an Ashton but I’m not sure which branch of the family.”

Spring segues into summer. Babies learn to fly and forage; parents shamelessly make more babies. Baby hummingbirds, tiny bits of color, whirr from flower to flower.

Speaking of shameless, I wish you could have seen the rabbits last night, a type of cottontail. They raced over the brick walls of the planters, around the yard in crazy circles, he chasing she, within a meter of my feet, stopped, decided I was friend rather than foe, and continued on their zig-zag chase.

Every morning at first light I race out to gather avocados fallen from my tree before the squirrels find them. Squirrels chew a hole through the flesh in search of the nut in the middle. I keep the ones in best shape, dole them out to my neighbors, keep one for myself and share the rest with the squirrels. Today I gathered avocados, key limes and bananas and cilantro, all within yards of my door.

Lizards and iguanas abound. My personal backyard iguana, who hangs out in a drain pipe, tolerates my presence. Yesterday I surprised Iggy on my patio, nosing my rosemary. Surely iguanas don’t eat rosemary. He gulps hibiscus flowers like they are ice-cream cones. Baby lizards streak by everywhere I look. Lizards, iguanas? Who can tell at that size? Except for the neon green variety, unmistakably lizard.

I saw my first tarantula. That was exciting. Just a baby. “They are shy, don’t bother them and they won’t bother you,” both Leo and Josue tell me. Uh, huh. Okay.

My new neighbors and good friends for many years, Kathy and Richard from British Columbia, flew in for a few days to take possession of their new home, around the corner from me. They are discarding things right and left, going through the whole process like I did, making lists of what they need to bring when they drive back next fall.

We make the most of our together time, sharing meals, long conversations. I’m the “ground-breaker”, they say. My experiences help and guide them. For example, I’m so pleased with my solar water heater, with the boiling hot water it produces. I’ve related my story in great detail, how I needed a new tenaco and then a new propane tank and then a new water heater—but wait!

Both Leo and Josue, my helpers, convinced me to consider a solar water heater. I will recoup installation costs in a year. My propane usage, limited to cooking, is minimal. It may take me a full year to use the amount of propane I previously used every two months. And my water heater, powered solely (pun intended) by the sun, is environmentally friendly. I’m on the cutting edge. Leading the parade. Kathy and Richard have decided to get the same system.

Josue is building (It’s a process!) a new septic system and drain field for my friends, scheduled to be done before they arrived last week. However, Abel, the concrete man (his job, not his description) was delayed and then the monsoon rains dropped out of the sky to create further delay. They have partial use of their system but my friends pop in and out of my house for bathroom and showers.  Their bathroom should be fully functional by this evening.

Meanwhile, my bathroom is supposed to be disabled this afternoon in preparation for new floor tile, a new toilet, and eventually, a new sink cabinet. In a turn-around, I shall be running next door to become acquainted with any quirks in my friends’ bathroom. Good friends cheerfully share the flushes of life.  

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

June 30, 2016
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

One Hundred Degrees of Solitude

               One Hundred Degrees of Solitude
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
            “So, Sondra, why aren’t you married?” Bonnie questions my back. There I am, lying unclothed on a bed, needles poking all over me, getting an acupuncture treatment for sciatica and related pains.

            How can I answer? Her question triggers feelings of discomfort, squirminess. But I don’t dare squirm with needles poking out all over. Okay, yes, the squirmy came from inside, not outside. Still.

            I’m asked this question a lot. Almost everyone I meet has asked me why I’m alone. Alone is not the norm. The rule is two by two, right? Two birds, two bees, two elephants, two iguanas. Adam and Eve.

            Now and then,  like when sitting on a bench at the Plaza Friday night, watching the couples stroll, holding hands, young couples, old couples, two by two, I ask myself that question, “Why am I alone?”

            “It’s not my choice,” I answer. Yet, it must be my choice. I am alone.

            I like marriage, sharing joys and sorrows, sharing. Life is not cakes and roses, at least not in my experience. Going it alone is exponentially more difficult than pulling as a yoked team.

            I’ve been alone many years. I’ve not met a man I want to team up with, at least not after I’ve gotten to know him. Maybe that street has two lanes. I’m awfully independent. I have opinions. Makes a lot of men of my vintage very uncomfortable. So, let’s say no two of us have met who want to pull as a team.

            But maybe, that is begging the question. I wonder if the question behind the question, is, “How can you do the things you do, live in a foreign country, travel, do everything by yourself?” Generally followed by, “Aren’t you afraid?” Ah ha—the real question!

            Now that one I can answer. Let me illustrate my situation.

            The rainy season started last week. It was like Somebody drew a line on the calendar. Up to Monday, every day beamed unremitting heat and sunshine, dry, dry, dry as dust. Then Monday night the Mother of all Storms hit, drenching us with refreshing rain.

            Every night the sky opens up, washes and rinses and squeezes until the clouds are wrung dry. Most nights flashes and booms accompany the downpours.

            Last night the Grandmother of all Storms visited, gifting us with an explosion of thunder that quaked the bed beneath my back. I lay, holding my breath, eyes wide open, heart pounding, skin tingling. Fear!

            Lightning and thunder, these mountain storms, don’t scare me. But at the same time, some moments are scary, if you can see the difference.

            That’s what being alone is like for me. I’d rather have a partner holding my hand when life lights up the sky and quakes the earth. But I don’t. I’m not afraid. But sometimes it is scary. If I let fear rule my life, I’d never do anything. What? Sit and knit?

            Bonnie, if you really are simply curious why I don’t have a man, I could say, “I grew up old-school. Men seem to not lack for partners and in today’s culture it is okay for a grizzled old man to sport a teenage girl on his arm. I’m realistic. Nobody, young or old, is knocking on my door, floral bouquet and diamond ring in hand.  Maybe I want too much but I can’t imagine this seventy year old woman going through life with a partner who does not, cannot share similar life experiences. Now that would be scary!”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

June 23, 2016
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

When A Crisis Isn’t A Crisis Is A Crisis

When A Crisis Isn’t A Crisis Is A Crisis
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
            Back when people first began using e-books, I guess that is what one calls them, my daughter, Shea, said, “Mom, you are such a voracious reader. You should get one of these. You’d like it.”

            “And lose the visceral pleasure of a book made from trees? The thickness of the cover, whether hard or soft? The texture of the pages? The smell of ink? The smell of a new book? Or old? The satisfaction of physically turning the pages? Being able to write in the margins should I choose? Lose the sacredness of a book?

            No, thank you. I can’t imagine life without real books.”

            Then one day I moved to Mexico, left behind my extensive library, and bought a Kindle Paperwhite e-reader, in reverse order.

            I read a lot. Not a day goes by without reading. Reading is a piece of who I am and always has been. I remember sitting on the floor at my Dad’s feet with the Sunday “funnies”, picking out the words (I especially liked Pogo), long before I started school.

            By the time I was a sophomore I’d read everything in the school library. Then I discovered the tiny but crammed city library, up narrow stairs above the old Civic Center building in Harlem. Wherever I lived, I had the library.

            My children listened to me read stories while they nursed. Now and then, once they were older, we all sat at the dinner table with a book in hand while we ate. Those were special times, separate but together, bonded with our individual passions. 

            Morning coffee tastes better with a book. I water my plants, then sit and read a half hour. Trim and prune and plant, stop and read. Hang laundry, mop the floor, get in a few more chapters. So goes my day.            

            When I made the switch from paper, it took about three days for me to get used to my Kindle reader, to make it an extension of my skin. I still love books made from trees and occasionally read one, but the Kindle is so handy. So easy to use, so lightweight, so portable, so easy on my eyes. I named him “Kin”. We became, well, intimate.

            One day last week Kin up and died, gave up the electronic ghost, expired, bit the dust, bought the farm, went West, kicked the bucket, assumed room temperature and closed the book.

            I knew Kin wasn’t well. He seemed to suffer a general feeling of malaise. He became sluggish, difficult to open, paused overlong before turning a page. He didn’t respond to electronic CPR. His condition quickly accelerated. Kin refused to open at the last page read but insisted on reading over two previous chapters while at the same time refusing to go beyond a certain page. E-book Alzheimer’s. Finally, he simply refused to open at all. The End.

            I had logged a lot of hours with my friend, my constant companion, my solace in times of trouble. May he rest in peace.

            I did what any self-respecting reader would do. Panicked.

            Once I got my breathing, pulse, heart rate, blood pressure and imagination under control, I ordered a new reader, he whom I shall call Kin II.

I tried to ship Kin II to friends in British Columbia who are arriving in Etzatlan in a few days. Turns out I can only have it shipped to the States. I knew that. Ordering from another country is complicated. So I shipped it to my daughter, Dee Dee, post haste, spare no expense. Time is crunched, remember.

“Daughter, I have an emergency.” I explained, asked her to relay it on to my friends the moment the package showed up in her rural eastern Montana mailbox. “Send it express.”

Meanwhile my Canadian friends sold their home, frantically packed and moved to temporary digs in preparation for their eventual move to Mexico but that is a year in the future. Meanwhile, their address is no longer their address. “Send it to Richard’s office,” directed Kathy. “If the package is delayed, we’ll pick it up on our way to the airport.”  Best case scenario, right?

We all are laughing at me. I know full well this is not a real crisis. It’s a small inconvenience.

Meanwhile I am re-reading a few favorites in old-fashioned paper book form, the few real books I brought with me.

When I meet my friends at the airport in Guadalajara, I shall rip Kin II out of Kathy’s clutches and embrace him like a lover.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

June 16, 2016
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________