Thursday, January 12, 2017

Sleepless Nights and Rocky Days

Sleepless Nights and Rocky Days
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            Three nights ago I couldn’t sleep. Rather than crawl out of bed, slump into a comfy chair and grab a good book, or even a boring book, something conducive to sleepiness, I chose to review every dumb, ignorant and bad decision I’ve made throughout my entire seventy-one years.

            Unlike in the past, now that I’m hopefully wiser, I rarely waste my time in such ways. But that night I simply couldn’t close the door. So I hosted the entire troop, which had been under lock and key for so long that they were delighted to be out of the closet entertaining me.

            I was explaining this to Carol, one of my neighbors, and she responded, “You were able to do all that in only one night!”

            We were cramped in Jim’s cup-o’-truck, a hardy four-wheel drive vehicle, on our way up the mountain to Las Piedras Bolas. My knees were indenting the dash in front of me (I exaggerate slightly) while John’s knees were indenting my back. ‘s truth.

            Comfort wasn’t the goal. We were in search of the experience. Our unspoken agreement amounted to, “whatever it takes”.

            It took bouncing up a terrifying excuse of a road, water washed, stone littered, peering over immense drop-offs, holding our collective breaths when the wheels slewed around. We stopped several times to stretch, to peer out over the track of unmanned zip lines, to walk several meters along a bridge, made of a plank supported by cables. They walked. They swayed. I sat on a stone at “home base”. I justified my squeamishness, “There’s gotta be a witness.”

            Las Piedras Bolas is a geologic mystery, as far as is known, in all the world, found only at the top of this particular volcanic mountain near Ahualulco. Theories vary as to how these gigantic lava balls were formed.

            Whatever the history, the bolas or balls seem magical. Some were small enough for me to drape my body over, hugging them while I marveled. Jim climbed atop one of the larger bolas and stood, arms akimbo. He looked diminished. The smallest I saw was over three feet in diameter.

            The government has set aside a huge area as a park, in order to preserve and protect the bolas as well as the flora and fauna within the park. The park is only about thirty miles from the rancho colonia in which we all live.

            Jim cajoled his truck, through scrub oak and varieties of pine, all the way up to the amphitheater where the lower bolas are found. From there we picked our way further up the mountain. We didn’t go all the way to the top but we spent several hours among the bolas, picnicking, marveling and speculating.

            Imagine a giant standing atop the mountain with a fist-full of marbles of various sizes. He opens his hand and lets the marbles roll down the ravines, only to stop at trees, in a choked gully, or to land in a pile of ash. I like to imagine the giant grinned, said, “This is good. Let them figure it out!”

            When we came down the mountain, late afternoon, we had too much energy to go home. So we stopped at a favorite local restaurant for a leisurely meal. One cannot chip apart and quantify experience. But in one day, I had my arms around rocks known as a rare phenomenon and got to know Jim from Missouri and John and Carol from Michigan, three neighbors who were, up until that day, practically strangers.

            Last night I couldn’t sleep. This time it was caused by honest terror. Tomorrow I go to Guadalajara for cataract surgery. Of course, I know it is rare for anything to go wrong. But I’m a voracious reader. Of course, I’m scared.

            I’ve been accused of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses by more than one critic. That’s not a bad thing. I’m looking forward to simply seeing the world clearly again. And if there is a rosy tint, I’ve put it there with my own paintbrush.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

January 12, 2017
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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Just In Case You Think My Life Is Exotic

Just In Case You Think My Life Is Exotic
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            Routine. My life is routine. I don’t live on the beach, lounging beneath a palapa, tanning my skin into leather, holding a fruit-filled drink, serenaded by mariachi bands. Ha.

            So, I just returned from two weeks in Mazatlan where I stayed with friends in a high-rise resort hotel on the beach. I never made it to the beach palapa. I had one thoroughly enjoyable beach walk. Mostly, I visited old friends from when I lived in Mazatlan, had medical tests in preparation for cataract surgery later this month, wandered the market in El Centro, shopped for traditional Mexican blouses.

            I live inland, in a farming village where people wear, buy and sell modern clothes. Think Wal-Mart. I like traditional blouses. I wear them into rags.

            I live where men ride horseback into town to pick up a part to fix the John Deere corn picker. I live where one field is harvested with modern machinery, the adjacent fields by men with burros and machetes.

            My home is tiny, rustic. I might have the only casa in Etzatlan, in all Jalisco, without a television or microwave. I live like a rich poor person. While beans are simmering in the olla, I make my own tortillas.

            Nevertheless, a two week holiday in a seaport town is admittedly exotic. In the way one might hold a chunk of coal in one hand and the Hope Diamond in the other, I found myself missing my routine. I wanted my familiar life around me. I wanted to putter in my flower beds, to trim the hibiscus, to pull weeds from the amaryllis.

            I tired of rich meals. I wanted simple beans and tortillas for lunch. I wanted my own sheets, fresh off the line, smelling of sunshine rather than sheets the texture of sandpaper, smelling of disinfectant soap. Metaphorically, you understand, I wanted to relax, to pick my nose (metaphorically!) in peace.

            Saturday morning, boarded the familiar bus, heaved a sigh of relief—I now could reduce my life back to the routine I know. I know the route. I know the hills, the towns, the vistas, the rivers. From Mazatlan to the station in Zapopan is a five hour trip.

            Just out of Tepic in Nayarit, the bus driver pulled off the road, opened the separating door and informed us that up ahead was a tragic multi-vehicle accident, causing a four hour delay. Rather than join the parking lot of frustrated holiday travelers, we would leave the cuota (toll road) and take the libra, the free road. There is a reason it is free.

            In a snap, my routine, which I had settled into like a cat, disappeared.

            The cuota is similar to our interstate roads, except one pays as we goes. The libra follows original cow paths across the mountains. A narrow rat’s nest of a road, it has neither a straightened section through the entire mountain range, nor shoulders nor a turnout.

            But, oh, the vistas! The sheer drops! Villages like nests in trees. Diamond willow-like twig fences. Slab-sided cattle. Goats and chickens running loose. Impossible mountain fields worked by hand. Women in real traditional clothing, not tourista garb, sweeping dirt patios with a straw broom. Boys on bicycles. Men on horseback, oh, the Spanish blooded horses, the silver on the saddles.

            There we were, a thousand-thousand cars, trucks, buses, and one ancient Farmall, all in a row, an articulated snake slithering along the serpentine highway, cut-backs, hairpins, twists and turns across the Sierra Nevadas until, finally, we dropped down onto the plain near Magdalena. We rolled into Zapopan, two hours late.

            I’m glad I had that experience. I never want to travel that dangerous road again.

            At home, I dropped my gear inside my door. There’s no place like home; there’s no place like home. The next hour I toured my garden, talking with my flowers, my trees, my plants. We’re back in Kansas, Toto.

            Know what? We all have an exotic life. We all get to touch and taste bits of the exotic, the mountain passes of Oz. But most of the time we hoe corn in our fields in Kansas, metaphorically. Shovel snow in Montana, realistically. Routine. Routine is not a bad thing.  

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

January 5, 2017
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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Prospero Ano Nuevo 2017

            Prospero Ano Nuevo 2017
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            The oft-heard greeting during the Mexican holiday season is the well-known Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano Nuevo. I’m not much for resolutions but my wish to you for the coming year is sincere.

            Last year I concentrated on asking my amorphous Higher Power not for what I wanted but for what would make me grow most. I suspect that is exactly what I got. I don’t recommend it. This year I’m trying to keep my mind blank, to not even form a vague wish (not that HP is Santa Clause)  for anything which might leave me hanging by my fingertips for the ride of my life.

            My memory, not the exact quote, of W.P. Kinsella, one of my favorite Canadian authors who will never die, I don’t care what you say, is somewhat as follows: “Unless we’re being held hostage or dying of a dread disease, what we have in life is pretty much what we want.”

            I’d like to argue that, but, in general, I have to agree.

            When I was vaguely agreeing to “growth” a year ago, I had in mind, perhaps, becoming better at meditation. Something fuzzy and difficult to measure.

            What I got was a new home, an ongoing course in semi-tropical gardening, a social life, and for something fuzzy and difficult to measure, I’m the most content I’ve ever been.

            I liked my little Mazatlan apartment near the sea, my small routine, my solitude, my few friends I greeted each day. I harbored no wish to change.

            Then, boom!, following an innocent visit to friends, I now have a rustic brick Spanish-style home in the mountain valley in Etzatlan, a garden that,  by my design, looks like a manicured park, friends who insist I go here and there, do this and that, with them. And I love it. I am seriously committed to my Qi Gong practice and to learning Espanol. What’s not to be happy?

            This week I am back in Mazatlan, visiting former neighbors and exploring my old neighborhood by the sea.

            Last night I went with friends Kathy and Richard to El Terrazo at the Marina for dinner. I don’t often get octopus in Etzatlan, a beef and pork kind of village. So I ordered raw octopus drizzled with a spicy dressing, seared (that means mostly raw) tuna steak with eel sauce, served over a gigantic hunk of Portobello mushroom with slab of goat cheese. I savored every bite. I wanted to lick my plate but it wasn’t that kind of place.

            It might not be your idea of the best meal one could have. I understand. I came to appreciate raw fish slowly. And, I suspect, the fact that my seafood flopped from the ocean in the morning to land on my plate in the evening has a lot to do with how wonderful it is.

            So you see, that is one example of “contented”. I don’t want to rock my boat. I want to float along. Other streams look dark and dangerous, filled with alligators and overhung with jungle snakes.  
            One problem is, other people try to interfere in my wants. Leo, that sweet young man who helps me garden, has recruited my best friends to help. He tells them, frequently, “Sondra needs a good man. You find her a good man.”

            I say, “You keep your thoughts of my needs to yourself.” It won’t work anyway. I’m beyond help.

            For example, on the way to the lobby to meet Kathy and Richard, there was a man on the elevator. I got on at the 22nd floor. He looked west. I looked east. About half way down, he said, “Tide’s coming in.”

            I looked out the window at the waves and grunted. If I were serious about changing my life, I would have pinned him to the wall and asked, “Are you married?” And had commitment by the time we reached the lobby.

            We exited the elevator and walked different directions. As we should.

            I’m not afraid of men. Some of my best friends are men. My fear is that my request of Life last year doesn’t have a use-by date. Who knows what is in store as I float gently down that stream. 
  
            Have a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year and may we tie up in the same harbor.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 29, 2016
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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

When A Lump Is Just A Lump

            When A Lump Is Just A Lump
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            For the first time since I moved from Mazatlan to my casita in Etzatlan, nine months ago, I boarded the bus for the trip back across the mountains to the sea.

            Carlos, my friend with the pulmonia, met me at the bus station with a hug and kiss. We exchanged excited chatter about our lives, our children, our plans, while Carlos drove me to the resort where I would stay for the next few days. I forgot to pay him. He forgot to ask me. But he would come get me both Monday and Tuesday, so no problema.

            The following day I walked up the street to my old neighborhood and knocked on Ted’s door. He was in the back courtyard, but Vern heard me knocking and invited me through. For the next two hours, eight of us, former friends and neighbors, sat in the courtyard and caught up on news, gossip and scandal. There was little of the latter.  

            I walked further up my old street and spent another hour with Dorothy and Don, then met them later in the evening for dinner, a three hour affair. Part of the magic of Mexico is the transformation when nobody is in a rush.

            A strange thing happened to me when I returned to my room. While preparing for bed I noticed an anomaly with my hips. Now, you must understand that in my casita, I have two small mirrors in my bathroom, head height. Consequently, I never see my body.

A full mirror is a deadly thing. My right hip looked normal, a smooth curved line from waist to knee. My left hip had a huge protrusion, jutting to the side, the size and shape of Mt. St. Helens.

            I didn’t panic. We all have to go sometime. Looked like a tumor to me, that saddlebag on my hip atop the barely visible surgery scar from my complete hip replacement two years ago. Might be harmless. Might be the “Big C”. Don’t worry; Be happy. Yeah, right.

            After a restless night in which I had added “see doctor” to my list, Carlos picked me up.

            The government of Mexico seems to have this crazy idea that all people should have access to medical care. So, in exchange for subsidized medical training, doctors serve a number of hours for low pay in clinics. The price for a consultation is thirty pesos, approximately a dollar and a half at today’s rate. It’s not perfect, but this system has saved a lot of lives.

I’ve experienced excellent care from these clinics and had in mind to see one of these doctors who would either assure me the swollen area on my hip, which I swear was larger by the minute, “is normal” or send me for tests.

            Carlos had a different idea. “Let’s go to Dr. Epifanio. He asked about you two weeks ago.” Dr. Epifanio treated me prior to my hip surgery. “Yes!” I agreed. I like Dr. Epifanio.

            I have no shame. I lifted my dress to show my hips. Dr. Epifanio is a kind man. He listened to my tale of woe, assured me I had no tumor, no inflammation. With a twinkle in his eyes, he made two fists. In one he wadded a tablet of note paper. “These are your hips. This one is your own bones. The hand with the paper is your prosthetic hip.”

            “Oh.” I guess the prosthetics must be “one size fits all”.

He is a kind man. He didn’t roll on the floor with laughter. I would not have faulted him. I thanked him and gave him a huge hug even though his consultation cost more than thirty pesos.

            Tomorrow Carlos will take me to Dr. Landazuri to see if my eyes, which to me seem to view my world through waxed paper, are ready for the dreaded cataract surgery. Surprisingly, I’m not nearly as afraid of eye surgery today as I was yesterday.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 22, 2016
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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

It’s The Only Dance There Is, So Dance, Dance, Dance

               It’s The Only Dance There Is, So Dance, Dance, Dance
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            Seventh Grade. 1957. I don’t know why I went to our first junior high dance. I couldn’t dance, not even a two-step. Didn’t know how. We were all “expected” to go and most of us showed up. For me, the experience felt like I imagined showing up for the guillotine. I knew more about Marie Antoinette than I knew about the waltz. 

The dance was held in “the pit” at the old grade school. The pit had a gym floor, a raised walk around area, and perhaps once was used for little guys’ phys ed. At that time, the pit was most often used for punishment. “Trouble in the classroom—go sit in the pit and think about your sins.” Teachers back then could talk that way.

Cookies. Kool-Aid and canned juice punch. Twisted crepe-paper streamers. Girls sat in folding chairs along one wall. Boys stood along the other and punched each other. An excruciating affair.

Those lucky students with older brothers and sisters to teach them, eventually managed to stumble across the polished abyss, select a partner, and dance, mostly to music of the ‘40’s but one current tune I recall was “Purple People Eater”. “Dance” was generally two-step and jitter-bug.

A couple students in my class were Latter Day Saints. Their church had social nights. Those two could whirl. They were the envy of, well, of me. And Tony made the rounds, generously making sure every girl had a chance on the floor. I watched how gracefully he and Linda moved. I wanted to go home.

When Tony stood before me and asked me to dance, I mumbled, “I can’t.” He said, “That’s okay. I’ll help you.” I shook my head, eyes shiny with tears of fear and humiliation. Tony went on to some other partner.

A few minutes later Jerry sat in a vacant chair next to me. “You should have danced with Tony. It doesn’t matter if you can’t dance. That’s why we are here, to learn.” I don’t know how Jerry got so smart. “Always say ‘yes’. He’ll never ask you to dance again.”

Tears spilled out and rolled down my cheeks. Of course, Jerry was right. Tony never asked me to dance again.

That year or the next, I’m not sure, a young couple at CYC (Catholic Youth Council), after religious classes and cookies, taught us to dance on the concrete floor of the dining area of the St. Thomas Church basement. I’m forever grateful.

Fortunately for me, I took Jerry’s words to heart and applied them. If life is the dance, then I’m either sitting in the bleachers pretending to be wallpaper or I’m out on the dance floor.

I’ll admit, there are times to flit down the hall to the Lady’s Room. Not all dances are a waltz. Unfortunately, knowing when to dance and when to sit one out comes with time and experience. Time happens without our input. Experience comes with saying “yes”. My feet have been stomped flat but I don’t regret having had any particular dance. I learned.

Whether “good”, “bad” or “indifferent”, I learn something each time I stand up and walk out onto the dance floor.

Some days I learn that I say “yes” to too many dances and blister my feet. Take today, for instance. I begin my day with Qi Gong. Then I had to water all my flowers and trees, takes two to three hours.  I should have watered half of them yesterday, but I had chosen to go over the mountains to explore the city of Ameca with friends.

Raspberries are simmering on the stove for jam. My pineapple, which is perfect today, might turn to either wine or vinegar tomorrow if I don’t get it prepped to make empanadas. I planned to go to the parade in town this afternoon. And to movie night at my friend’s home this evening. It is mid-afternoon and I haven’t eaten yet. Help!

I still have my Spanish on-line class to attend. Oh, oh. Leo just brought me two kilos of English peas from the market. He knows I like fresh peas. Peas are rare in our market. I have to shell and blanch them to pop into my freezer. Help!

Some dances I should sit out and watch other’s twirl. Today the music seemed to be controlled by a manic whirling dervish.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 15, 2016
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Friday, December 9, 2016

I Support Tree Love

I Support Tree Love
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            I stole the title from someone else who, in turn, had stolen the phrase from a tee-shirt.

            The sentiment fits. I like trees. Leo, the man who helps me with my gardening, might raise his eyebrow. I had him obliterate trees and bushes left and right over the past few months. In my defense, I know the importance of negative space in creating an artistic view and I planted new and different greenery of all kinds with the intent of keeping it under moderate control. Together, we have created a park of art. And, I would say, Leo is a convert to my style.

            But what got me started on this line of thought was a comment of my daughter’s. Her physical therapist who met me a year ago, said to Dee, “How did your Mom and Dad ever get together? They are completely different. Your Dad is so conservative and such a country boy, a home body. Your Mom is easy going, a free spirit; she’s open to exploration. Seems like she would feel at home wherever she landed. They are such opposites.”

            Frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t there to hear Dee’s reply to Tanya. But it got me to thinking about who we think we are and the contrast of how others see us. The two pictures often don’t match.

            Several years ago I was in a training in which one thing we did daily was go around the circle and describe our impressions of each person. At first, we were smarmily complimentary if not exactly honest. Try it. It’s hard to tell another person, eyeball to eyeball, exactly how you see them.

            By the end of the week we were able to give a more balanced picture to one another. I still can’t figure out how people saw me as somewhat of an “airhead”. I’m not sure what that means.

            Moving on.

Oh, and “old hippy”. I would have liked to try on that experience. I even get nostalgic for those days—which I totally missed. While others were “going with the flow” I was hauling buckets of water into our house which had no facilities or running water, canning beans and tomatoes in the summer, washing diapers on a scrub board, driving a team of Percherons to feed cattle in the winter, all without aid of mind-altering substance. I missed out on the happy hippy days and perhaps that was a good thing for me.

            Fortunately, over the years I have had opportunities to know a variety of people. I’ve said “Yes” to a huge number of experiences, not all of which felt wonderful at the time, but all of which added to my growth and understanding of the world in which I live.

            Airhead?

            Back to trees. Growing up on the farm south of Harlem, I had my secret tree, a cottonwood with sprawling branches on the banks of the Milk River. When I needed to cry (you remember the teen years), I’d climb into a crotch of that tree, hidden from the world, and pour out my heart.

Many, many years later, when I felt down and discouraged, I often drove across the Hood Canal Bridge to a park along the Quilcene River. Off the river path a ways I had a favorite tree in which I could lose myself. I wrapped my arms around that tree and, always, it revived my spirits.

But don’t take my word for it.

Try it yourself. Alone and in secret, of course. Search out a tree that seems special to you. Quietly. You don’t want anyone calling you an airhead. I won’t tell.

Frankly, I see myself as practical, a woman who has learned how to make the best of whatever situation in which I land.

And, yes, I support tree love.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 8, 2016
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Carmen, Cats and Counting Not-Nine Lives

Carmen, Cats and Counting Not-Nine Lives
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            Carmen, who had cancer, has recently died. Carmen is one of my Mazatlan friends. I just learned of her death. I grew to love Carmen and looked forward to seeing her each year. But that was not always the way.

            My first Mazatlan vacation, time passes in a blur, but it had to have been at least a dozen years ago, Carmen met Kathy and me at the airport in the resort van. The price of a “free” pick-up at the airport was a promise to give half a day to the time-share sales staff. Carmen’s job was to shuttle us into a committed appointment. She was the predator. We were the prey. We called her “The Barracuda”.

            Carmen was a loud, pushy, take-no-prisoners woman. We were walking road kill. I got to where I would stick my head out the open elevator before exiting, checking to see where Carmen lurked with her appointment clipboard, poised to dash the opposite direction.

            Somewhere along about our third Mazatlan vacation, that changed. I got to know Carmen, learned a few things about her family, her job, her truly loving heart, her courage and tenacity. She mellowed. I looked forward to seeing her, would wait around the corner just to say “hello”. I missed her when she no longer worked at the resort.

            Remembering Carmen inspired me to take a day of quiet and meditation, a day for reflection. I figured Thanksgiving would be good. That didn’t work. People, friends and workers from the Rancho were in and out my gate all day. Friday was a day of visiting, a pot luck dinner, conversation with friends.

            When I finally got my days for solitude and quiet refection, it was not quite the gift I’d planned for myself. It came wrapped in a package with fever, aches, a runny nose and sleepy listlessness. Sometimes we just have to take what we get. No returns.

            Despite my general lethargy and a head filled with cotton wool, I had a good three days of rest and rejuvenation. The “rest” I’m sure of. I use the word “rejuvenation” expectantly.

            Reflecting on the life of sweet Carmen led me to self-centered consideration of my own varied life. Never in a cat’s nine lifetimes could I have conjured up this particular period of my life, not in my wildest imagination. Yet here I am, living in a veritable paradise.

            Like that cat, I’ve lived varied and distinct lives. I file them in boxes. Now and then I open a box to play with the contents. I label each box. “Early Childhood in Indiana” reads the first box, Crayola green. The “Young Montana Years” box smells like sage brush and cactus in August. I attempt not too successfully to keep the next box duct taped and hidden on the top shelf: “Crazy Lost Years”. It’s a small box, painted black holding my shattered life.

Following those disastrous times, were twenty-five years in Washington, “Gift Years”. During this time I rebuilt my life, redeemed myself. This box appears to be wrapped in paintings by Mary Cassatt. Then the “Back to Harlem” years, to the place where I grew up. I returned a stranger, to create a new life in a familiar place I loved. Listen to laughter when you lift that lid.

My lives aren’t so cut and dried as I make them sound. The borders are smudged and unclear. But those add up to five.

Which puts me smack into my sixth box and still collecting. When I moved to Mexico, I came here to make an entirely different life, not willing to live my old life in a new place. I came here with a handful of essential household items. I have absolutely nothing of value. I’ve never been more satisfied.
I’ve taken a tiny brick casita and made it welcoming and comfortable. Friends walk in my door, relax and smile. I’ve transformed the jungle which had surrounded my house into a park, with beauty and order and surprises to delight.

Tomorrow, when life is back to “normal”, I’ll be eager to resume my Spanish lessons and Qi Gong in the park. Elfie, an Austrian woman who lives in Etzatlan, has invited me to her class in weaving.

But on this, my third day of enforced rest, while my head is fuzzy, I’ll stay curled in the sun like a cat, stretch, yawn, and close my eyes. I would purr if I could.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 1, 2016
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