Tuesday, December 12, 2017

My Walden Pond Mexican Life

My Walden Pond Mexican Life
              I live a charmed life. Now and then I’m aware of how magical is my life. Most of the time I don’t pay attention. Other rare days, snakes slither in Paradise.  Take recently.

A friend once told me that when a person started chewing on table legs, the cause was always money, job or love life.

            Two weeks ago I chose “money” as the topic for my Writers’ Group.  I set the timer for ten minutes. I don’t remember what I wrote. It’s not important. I felt a need to share with my friends the reason I chose that topic. I had too much negative energy around money to be rational.

            My bankcard had expired while I wasn’t paying attention. To add insult to injury, the ATM absconded with another credit card which had not expired. My stash of pesos had dwindled to a fraction because I hadn’t paid attention. At the same time it looked as though I might lose everything from the sale of a lot I had bought years ago. All this on the same day. That attention thing.

            If I had a million dollars in the bank (I don’t!), a million wouldn’t do me a bit of good if I can’t get pesos out of the ATM. I live in a cash society, a small village in Mexico. Charge cards are useless.

            I told my friends how scared and frustrated I felt. Their words of love and support settled over me like a warm blanket on a cold night.

The next week at Group, Julie asked me about my money situation. I laughed. “You won’t believe this,” I said. “My daughter shipped my new cards via UPS. Four days later, the envelope is sitting in Portland with a notice of lost shipping invoice. I may get my cards next year. All I can do is laugh.”

“You are unreal,” Julie said. “Last week you were in tears and this week you are laughing.”

“It’s a different day. I had to let that go. You all will not let me starve. But I am paying attention to my personal money ‘issues’. And my UPS ‘issues’. I wonder if I was a bad hombre in a past life and looted and killed Pony Express riders.” We all laughed.

My way of “paying attention” may seem backwards and slipshod. I say something like, “Self, there is something weird going on around your attitude to money. What is it?” Then if I don’t obsess over finding an answer, the solution will eventually show up. Or not. Well, the method isn’t Thoreau but it works for me.

Sure enough, in the middle of the night I woke from a “Zen” dream with a realization. My money issues revolved around false pride, envy and resentment. I have learned that once I recognize a pattern, I can change my thought patterns. So I climbed out of bed and made a few notes about my pea-brain-storm. I don’t recall a thing about the dream.

Nothing in the world is wrong with me being rightly proud of my ability to live a simple life, to live on a very small amount of money.

What is wrong is when I let false pride take over, sort of a sneer at money, which turns to envy and resentment; a sneer at people with money. That is ugly of me, a sort of one-down-man-ship, as if to say “Well, it is easy for you. You have more, you have a lot of money.” 

That is an ugly thought pattern that I can change to a silent, “My situation in life is good. Thank you, Self, that you have the skills and ability to live on so little and to live so abundantly.” No comparisons to others allowed. Comparisons always lie. I have no idea what goes on in somebody else’s skin.

The next morning my UPS package left Portland and arrived in Salt Lake City, on the way to Mexico. Money from the sale of my lot landed in a special account for me. My son wired me grocery money by way of Western Union.

My UPS packet with new cards is scheduled to arrive December 14. I’m not holding my breath. Last year my new computer landed 17 places and took two months to arrive. I still haven’t resolved my UPS/Pony Express issues. Maybe I was the rider.

This is my Walden Pond. I live simply, with all the essentials, lacking nothing. When I pay attention, I see that I have all that I need, more than I need. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 7, 2017

Walking In A Winter Wonderland

Walking In A Winter Wonderland
            Admittedly, my wonderland is different than your wonderland.  My wonderland lacks the beauty of new-fallen snow with crystalline flakes painting the landscape pristine and pure. Neither does mine include snow-shovels, car engine heaters, ice on the roads or frost on the windshields. Not that I have a car, but you know what I mean.

            Although cannas and hibiscus continue to bloom and the geraniums look gorgeous as ever, winter snapped us hard and fast a good month ago. Every night my thermometer plunges to 40.  Forty is acceptable if one lives in a heated, insulated house.  My casita is neither heated nor air-tight. It is downright cold. 

            I reluctantly crawl out of bed and into long johns, a heavy skirt or jeans, two sweaters and a shirt, sometimes float a zarape over the top. Make boiling hot coffee and go outside and sit in a patch of sun until I warm up. Okay, this is hardly hardship. By 10:30 or 11:00, I’ve generally peeled off most of the layers or am down to one sweater or have changed into my “normal” clothing, cotton pants and blouse.  Around 5:00, I begin adding layers until time for bed.  

             This morning I sensed a difference in the air—perhaps a winter reprieve. The local people wear parkas when it gets this cold. I no longer own a winter coat, so I pile on the layers.

            When I think I have it hard, I look for the iguanas, sunning on the top of the brick wall. Iguanas, immobile in the cold, only crawl out during the heat of the day. No good-morning greeting from my drain-pipe iguana until May.

            Blackbirds by the thousands, including red-wings and yellow-heads, flock across the sky, wings rustling like the noise of a freight train. Dust devils skitter down our dirt driveways.

Farmers have begun the annual burning of the cane fields, preparation for harvest. The night air is smoky, like a campfire with a tinge of burnt sugar smell. Every morning I sweep black curls of ash from my patio.  Huge over-laden cane trucks crowd the highway, moving sugar cane from field to the molasses factory in Tala.

            It’s now been three weeks that I’ve been without my bankcard to access pesos. My own fault; I didn’t keep track of my expiration date. The good news is that my daughter put my card on a UPS truck for delivery to me—eventually. Montana to Mexico—could be a couple more weeks. Meanwhile, beans and tortillas is no joke.

            While my pile of pesos has dwindled to near-nothing, I keep my eyes and my mind on my true riches, the beauty which surrounds me, the peaceful life I’ve created for myself. Nobody is going to let me starve.

            Winter or summer, no matter the season, I suspect that without internet, I would have a more difficult time living here. Or I would be writing a lot of letters longhand. Remember those? I keep in touch with close friends, with my kids, almost daily. We laugh together, cry over crises, share everyday news.

            Last week I met another couple of English-speaking women, Anna and Michelle, who live in Oconahua, just up the road a piece. They opened a weekend pizza place.

Horst, a snowbird who lives in Washington half the year and San Marcos the other half, has returned. Next week John and Carol will be here. Our circle of friends is constantly expanding and contracting. Real riches.

            Sometimes I make it sound like we are one big happy family. Like in any family, we squabble. But we are super-aware of our vulnerability. We depend on one another. So we work out the wrinkles. This week one of us is running all around the mulberry bush trying to gather troops for war instead of going to the source and stating the problem, seeking a solution.

As Jim says, each time somebody stirs up the dust, that person becomes our teacher. I’ve learned (more often) to look at my own reactions, to find my own peace and let the person with a problem work it without my “help”. I don’t need the hassle. Eventually the dust will settle with no dead bodies.

            Meanwhile, my laundry on the clothesline makes a pretty picture with pants and shirts dancing in the slight breeze. My plants are watered. My floor is mopped. Beans simmer on the stove. Winter is here. Life is good.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 30, 2017   

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Thanksgiving—Therapy With Vinegar

Thanksgiving—Therapy With Vinegar
            Maybe it’s the phase of the mountains of the moon. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of Mars with Saturn on the cusp of the night sky in the morning fog.  Maybe aliens from within or without have invaded and sucked my energy into a vortex to be re-used when I am reincarnated as an artist, punished for my past life, forced to paint a thousand renditions of velvet Elvis.

            Such was my state of mind this morning as I kicked myself metaphorically around my casita, wondering why I couldn’t feel more thankful.

            Tis the Season. I’m supposed to feel Thankful. Of Good Cheer. Deck the Halls and Folly Lolly Lolly.

            Fortunately, for my state of muggling mind, this morning Leo showed up early to help me wash windows. My house in tiny but it is walled with windows, not much for walls, just windows, each one five feet wide and arched to four feet high. I bask in the light, refuse to block windows with curtains.

            Window washing is my least favorite chore. I make my bed as soon as my feet hit the floor. I cheerfully mop my floors almost daily. Dirty dishes are NOT left to pro-create in my sink. But I put off—avoid—ignore washing windows as long as I can.

            Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, Leo, who helps me keep my little corner of my world looking like a magical garden-park, thinks I should wash windows once a month. I can successfully outwit him and procrastinate for three or four months.

            So last week I committed to this week, grumbling all the while. Today is the day. The deal we struck is that I would wash the windows inside and Leo wash them outside, which requires either ladders and/or arching one’s body over large pots of foliage.

            Armed with spritz bottles of vinegar and piles of cotton rags, in tandem, we attacked the dirt, dust and window grime. Leo cranked up his boom box with Christmas tunes, in English. I growled, under my breath.

            As a therapy, window washing might be under-rated. As the windows began to sparkle, I began to sweat, also good therapy.

            When we finished the windows, Leo, young enough to be my grandson, said to me, “Do you feel better now?”

            “I didn’t know it showed.”

            “You lonely, Sondra. You lonely.”

            No man that young has the right to be that perceptive.

            It’s a feeling. It will pass. My windows sparkle. I won’t have turkey for dinner but I could if I wanted. I’m hardly suffering.

Mostly, I’m content. Holidays aren’t always the best time of year. I’m surrounded by all kinds of goodness, living in Paradise. My family is battling Northern elements.

So, yes, Leo. Today I feel lonely. I feel separate.

Not lonesome enough to hop a plane to the frigid north. But should you want to come south, I’ll meet you in Puerto Vallarta.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November Thanksgiving Week November 22, 2017

Some Days (I’m) More Crazy Than Others

Some Days (I’m) More Crazy Than Others
            Q: Does that mean I’m crazier some days than others or does it mean that I’m crazier than other people?

            A: Yes

            I dread to tell this story on myself. I could keep it secret. I’m committed to honesty in my writing. So, here’s today’s story, warts and all.

            My day began peacefully. I felt tranquil. Almost blissful. I had decided to write about how crazed we Americanos become when things do not go our way, based on my observations—which I felt to be valid because after four years living here, I’m almost Mexican.

            Culturally, we Americans have decidedly different attitudes than Mexican people.  Nowhere does this seem more obvious than with our expectations.

            Typically, we from up north figure out ahead of time just how we think a situation should unfold, in elaborate detail.

Typically, Mexican people wait for a situation to unfold with no expectations, shrug their shoulders when there are detours in the road and accept the outcome with grace. 

Let me give you an example. A few years ago four of us gringos went on a Christmas tour bus from Mazatlan to Guadalajara. On the return trip, at two in the morning, our bus broke down, leaving us stranded outside of Tepic, several hours from Mazatlan. We sat alongside the highway until mid-morning, around ten or eleven before another bus arrived to shuttle us to Mazatlan.

What was glaringly obvious to we four Americans was the different attitude. Our Mexican fellow-travelers took the whole breakdown in stride. Nobody got visibly upset. People napped, shared food, laughed and talked quietly, in murmurs. Not one person raised his voice. There was no cell service. It is the way it is. We’ll get there when we get there.

We speculated that, were the situation reversed, we’d likely hear, loudly, “What do you mean we can’t get help immediately?” “I have a conference to attend.” “I have to be at work in the morning at eight.” “What are we going to eat?” “I demand a refund and compensation for my discomfort and missed work.” “This is unacceptable. I demand . . .” Everybody would have a cell phone activated, making frantic calls, sharing their calls with one and all.

Today I had intended to describe how my friends, when they arrive for a short period of time, expect everybody who works and lives here to drop their own schedule and cater to the “short-timer’s” special needs. After all, Sondra, you live here full time, so you can get your work done anytime and I need this built, painted, tore out, remodeled, installed right now, while I’m here a mere three weeks.

I felt rather smug that I’m flexible; I take daily boulders in my path in stride. Almost Mexican. When the man scheduled to fix a small problem with my oven didn’t show up Friday and rescheduled for Wednesday, no problem. When I discovered my debit card had expired, I shrugged. I’d have my daughter chase down my new card and UPS it to me. No problem. No worry. I have a small stash of pesos.

Smug. Operative word is “smug”. I should have known I’d get instant karmic payback. 

Coming Saturday I’ve been invited to go to Mazatlan, to be a tourist for a week.  

I‘d better count my pesos. Oops. Not enough. Gulp.

 So I contacted American Express to let them know I’m in Mexico and wish to use my AE credit card to access cash from the ATM.  Everything is good.

Until an hour later the ATM in town confiscated my credit card, chewed it up and refused to spit it out. Surprise!

Frantic, I knew I needed to let AE know what happened and to respectfully request they issue a new card. That chore took a mere two hours. Do you hear my sarcasm? Is that a growl in my throat?

My serenity tanked. Tranquility—a joke. Bliss, not in this lifetime. My American Self reared her head in near-panic. Slammed said head against the boulder in her path. No shrug. No acceptance. Frantic. What am I going to do? How will I have enough money to last me until one of my cards arrives, which I know from past experience could take weeks? Customs can be a bear-trap. Will I have to cancel my trip to Mazatlan? Beans and tortillas on the menu?  

In the grand scheme of life, I know this is not even a pimple. But it is my pimple.

Sigh. Culturally, I’m still very much a crazy American who wants things to go the way I want them to go, and I want it now, much to my shame.  

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 16, 2017

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Some Like It Hot

Some Like It Hot
            I’m not sure when that vague wisp of an idea began to seem do-able. What I can tell you with certainty though is that once “vague wisp” grows to “might be do-able” and then morphs into “desire”, I’ll figure out a way to make it happen.

            Care and feeding of an idea is important. Some of my best ideas never grow past the embryo stage.  Getting outside information is important. Some of my best ideas won’t work. It helps to know that before I sink money, time, blood, sweat and tears into a project. I’ve approached ideas both informed and blindly. Informed works better.

            I began with looking at my bank balance. If I eat beans and tortillas for six months, I might be able to do this. The dollar to peso exchange rate is good.

            I walked around my yard and envisioned a hot tub under the patio roof. Nix. In the back corner patio? Nix. On the west side? Nix. On the south side, snugged between the tall wall and the half wall. Eureka! I could see my beautiful tile tub, surrounded by lush plants to shield me from prying eyes on the driveway.

            Next I talked with Josue. He’s my contractor. “Josue, I’m thinking about a hot tub. Not this year; I can’t afford it.” “Good,” he said back. “I don’t have time to do it this year.”

            But he didn’t say I couldn’t. Two days later Josue walked over to see me. “I’ve done some research. Where do you think you’d like to put it?” I pointed to the south wall. “Good.” He then gave me a possible cost, much less than a similar tub in the US. However . . .

            Once I revived consciousness and got past my heart palpitations, I said, “Beans and tortillas for a year.”

            Did I mention “justification”? Give me time and I can justify anything. It is a special skill at which I excel.  I love soaking in hot water. When I lived in Missoula, once upon a lifetime, I had easy access to several area hot springs. When I lived in Poulsbo, Washington, I had a hot-tub on the back bedroom deck of a three-story house, up in the cedar trees.

Unlike most people who buy a hot-tub and seldom use it, I climbed down into the steaming waters every night. One of my favorite memories is a dark night of pelting rain, after a play rehearsal, when, umbrellas overhead, Joyce, Billie and I soaked and laughed and told stories for an hour.

When I moved back to Harlem, I sorely missed my soaks. So I bought a horse watering trough and installed it in my bathroom in place of a tub. The price was right and it worked. I could sit in hot water up to my neck.

For me, hot water is pain therapy. It is also pleasure therapy. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Next I consulted my son and my daughter. “Great idea, Mom,” they each responded.

I shared my idea with a few friends. Their eyes lit up and I could mentally see them locating beach towels and mixing pitchers of margaritas. Oh, no. Call me selfish, but I don’t want to host the social center on the Rancho. Therapy, remember, therapy.

My son told me about a hotel where he and his wife stayed in Vallarta. Out on the deck, the hotel built a two-person tub that they filled and heated only when it was to be used. A staff person told my son that it was easier to clean, cheaper to maintain than a regular hot-tub. And it didn’t require chemicals.

So here’s my idea. Build a concrete surround, line the inside and outside with decorative Mexican tile. At each end of the rectangular tub, build in a bench seat. Add a pressure pump to the drain so the drained water can be re-used on the lawn. No chemicals. Cheaper to build. Beans and tortillas for three months.

Hot diggity-dog. A two-person therapy tub to be shared by invitation only. Tomorrow I’ll ask Josue if he can make this work.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 9, 2017

Friday, November 3, 2017

Some Things Stay The Same

Some Things Stay The Same
            Back when I was young and filled with angst and drama, certain my life would end if I didn’t get what I wanted or if the heartache of the day didn’t cease or if I thought you looked at me critically, I had a good friend who didn’t mince words.

            Gino laughed at me, a lot. He often said, “Don’t worry. Tomorrow will be different. It may not be better but it will be different.” Generally he told me this over gallons of coffee, sitting around a table in a restaurant that didn’t serve good food but was open late, surrounded by friends who all laughed. I often mulled over the meaning with a frown or worse yet, tears.

            He was right. Usually the “tomorrow” was different or my feelings were different. And different seldom meant “better”. But somehow I could carry on another day.

            I think of Gino and those other friends often. I moved away and lost touch years ago. I seldom visit that kind of angst today. I’m more apt to entertain nostalgia.

Some things stay the same, even when they are different.  Don’t try to figure out what I mean. It will only confuse you.

Here in Jalisco the clock fell back an hour over the last weekend. I grind my teeth twice a year over this senseless (to me) messing with my body clock. I have no particular schedule running my life. What should the clock matter? And it doesn’t, really.

Falling back is not the only sure sign of autumn. I cannot walk out my door without sweeping cobwebs from my face. Every kind of spider is spinning miles of webbing, crocheting the end of one season onto the beginning of the next.

The most important festival of the year in Etzatlan, a combination of religious observances and celebrations of harvest, is held for ten days toward the end of October. People who have moved away return. The streets blossom with colorful decorations, banners and flowers decorate streets, homes, and municipal buildings.

This year the women of our town crocheted doilies of every color and connected them into a gigantic spider’s web which spans, overhead, the entire main intersection at the Plaza and runs up the long block to the Bank.

My cousin Nancie ad I went to the Farmer’s Parade, honoring our farmer roots. Men and women from Etzatlan as well as outlying villages, marched. Each person carried nine and ten feet long stalks of corn, most decorated with ribbons and flowers. Marching bands, singers and dancers dotted the parade like beads on a necklace. Eight men carrying the Crucifix from the Cathedral on a platform on their shoulders formed the pendant on center of the chain. Leo told me this parade is the only time the Crucifix is removed from above the altar. Tractors, spit-shined and decorated, follow the farmers. Last and no less beautiful are the horses, among them a few mules, donkeys and burros. The parade (all parades) ends at the Cathedral where the Bishop blessed the crops, the people and prayed for continued bounty.

My favorite event this past week had nothing to do with festival but with “family”. In Teuchitlan Carlos has an artisan shop where he sells replicas of archaeological artifacts and traditional art from several Mexican States. Carlos makes indigenous musical instruments of all kinds. His drums are incredible. Carlos and Brenda have become our friends.

Brenda’s brothers, traditional dancers, are visiting.  The whole family came to the Rancho and, on Lani’s patio, preformed traditional Indio dance from the State of Chiapas. These young men began with a blessing and cleansing ceremony during which copal, like our sage, was burned. They honored the four directions, the earth and the sky as well as the drum, the Grandfather, using the copal, the conch shell and a clay birdsong instrument. Then the young men smudged those of us who wished this blessing.

The regalia was fascinating to me, all made with feathers, shells, gourds, seeds, animal skins and even turtle shells. The beat of the drum, many of the steps were familiar to me. For a moment I was in two places, in Chiapas and in Montana. Imagine the traditions passing from tribe to tribe over the centuries. Different yet similar to our pow-wow dancing. They danced for us for an hour. It was a holy time. Then, in traditional fashion, we feasted.

Some things stay the same, even when they are different.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 2, 2017

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Importance of Negative Space

The Importance of Negative Space
            Many years ago I took oil painting classes with Julanne Campbell in Suquamish, Washington. I like everything about painting. Oil painting, water colors, painting the walls of my house. I like the smells of paints and turpentine. I like the feel of the brush stroke against a blank surface. I’m a tactile painter; my fingers often ignore the brush and create a smooth stroke here or a smudge there.

            I don’t spend enough time drawing to be good. But in any endeavor, there are the professionals, the adequate and then there is me. In any group that is ranked, somebody is first and somebody else is last. I’m perfectly willing to be last for the pure pleasure of painting.

            One essential lesson I took from Julanne is the importance of negative space.  The space surrounding the vase of flowers in the still-life is as important as the emerald vase filled with flowers, including the dying rose petal which fell onto the yellow tablecloth.

            Over time I realized that I, consciously or subconsciously, apply the rule of negative space to other aspects of my life. In planning my garden or arranging objects in my patio or in my casita, I consider the object, the placement for effect and the empty space around the object. I think without thinking.

            Yesterday I made the comment to Julie, my newest neighbor on the Rancho, that there is not space in my casa for another person. We had been discussing men in our lives. Women here seem concerned that I have a partner. I suspect one woman is scheming to hook me up with a particular man. Neither of us is interested in a more intimate friendship.

            My life has just the right amount of negative space. I have solitude that I treasure. I am surrounded with beauty. I have raised my children. I have known the love of a good husband. I have kissed a frog or two who turned from prince to pauper. At this stage in my life, I’ll settle for the talking frog, no prince, thank you.

This morning while hanging sheets on the line to dry, I thought about the many families who made a life in a cabin on the Plains and made that life work. My casa is 465 square feet, an opulence of space compared to many homestead cabins. Those cabins, to we of privilege, are in our history. Families are still being raised in smaller spaces.

After hanging my wash, I stood in the middle of my two room house. With a smidgeon of imagination and judicious rearrangement, I can see a table with benches, cots instead of couch and chairs; bookshelves become dressers. Room for a mate and four children to live in relative comfort. Luxury with indoor shower and flush toilet.

I surprised myself at how easily I could make these purely imaginary adjustments. 

These last several days I’ve crammed my “space”, space being more than physical surroundings, with activities with friends, trips to the Plaza, to San Marcos, to Tequila. In the summertime, by contrast, I’m often the only gringa on the Rancho.   

Taking advantage of opportunity, I started a writing group, Tuesday evenings. Five people from the Rancho and one woman from town showed up, nervous, curious, all non-writers, willing to try something different. My intention is purely selfish. I miss my old groups. Our format is simple.  We grab a topic out of thin air. Pencil to paper, no crossing out, no fixing, no hesitations, write for ten minutes. Our first topic—Black boots. We read aloud what we wrote. My friends surprised themselves (but not me) with their brilliance.  

Restlessly, I’ve been thinking, wanting, resisting putting a regular meditation practice back into my life. Why did I drop meditation? A combination of stubbornness and laziness. I don’t want to talk about it.

Since I feel a need for that kind of formal negative space, and now that I’ve shared my need with you, I suppose I’ll have to quit procrastinating and just do it.

I’m not holy. I’m flawed and human. No shaven head, no saffron robes, no exotic chants. Fifteen minutes to start is easily doable. Today? Sheesh. Not tomorrow? Today? Right now? Okay, okay. I’ll do it. Sheesh.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 26, 2017