Thursday, April 13, 2017

Gifts: A Retrospective

Gifts: A Retrospective
            This morning when I opened my eyes, I saw a bird sitting on the roof of the bodega outside my bedroom window—a beautiful yellow-headed, yellow-breasted, shrill-voiced gray bird with a long curved beak; the beak for, I imagine, digging bugs from bark. “Hello, Bird. Hoy es mi cumpleanos,” I told him in approximately adequate Espanol.

            Today is my birthday. I want for nothing more than this peaceful day. Several hibiscus are gaudy with bloom. My five “dead” trees are in full leaf.  The canna lilies are outdoing themselves. The trim on my casita is freshly painted a deep terra cotta, making my home look like a fairy cottage planted in the midst of a magic garden.

            Okay, so my prose is overblown. I’m allowed. It’s my birthday.

            After coffee I opened my email. A note from Kathy: “Meeting Colin and kids for lunch today to hear about his and Colin’s hike to Machu Picchu in Peru for Noah’s 16th birthday. The stakes are different today. I think I got a pair of shoes on my 16th. How about you?”

            Crotchety old woman that I am, whatever happened to cake and ice cream, a few friends, party favors, modest gifts; party at the celebrant’s home, maybe a simple sleep-over? My grandchildren receive birthday loot that cost more than my kids’ Christmas in total. And the party must be held at an event center—at the least, the bowling alley or skating rink, followed by a restaurant meal for friends and parents. How can the parents afford this? See? I’m crotchety!

            Obviously I failed the birthday party chapter of motherhood. I did not, could not, give my children their every heart’s desire. Therefore, true reactionaries, my children swamp their children with everything they themselves wanted and didn’t get. I’m supposed to feel guilt. And they are supposed to spend thousands in therapy getting over my (inadvertent) abuse. (“But, Mom, you should have known how important the Game Boy and my own television was to me.”)

            I admit we didn’t make a lot of fuss about birthdays in my family. Growing up without a mother, in many ways, I was the mom. I made all the birthday cakes, selected and wrapped all the gifts, even my own.

            One time I had a birthday party, when I turned ten, complete with angel food cake and ice-cream, games I had chosen, such as dropping clothespins into a jar from chair-back height. After games and cake, my girlfriends and I went out to play in the yard. The woods beyond the barn sang a siren’s song. Soon we were playing hide-and-seek among the trees. Meanwhile the parents had arrived to pick up their daughters. The yard was empty.

            We weren’t that far away. We weren’t in danger. We were out of shouting distance. I got into serious trouble. That was my one and only birthday party. My gift was four books.

            By my sixteenth, neither my Dad nor my sister remembered. My Dad wasn’t mean; he just didn’t think of those things. Out of a misbegotten sullenness, I refused to mention my birthday. I made cakes for my Dad’s and sister’s birthdays, with a perverse pleasure, but I didn’t make myself one. To my shame, I carried that behavior on through high school.

            Somewhere along the progression of years, I had a lightbulb “ah-ha” moment. Only one person knows the innermost desires of my heart. Only one person has the impeccable taste to choose what most pleases me. I began buying myself gifts; gifts chosen with love. Then whatever other present I might receive was a delightful bonus, even if the gift was an electric skillet or a ratchet driver set.  

            Yesterday I went to an artisan shop in Teuchitlan, along the street headed to the Guachimontones pyramids. While carrying a selection of tourist items, this shop caters to those who are looking for special items.

            I bought myself two birthday gifts. One is a sculptural rendering of the North Wind. I situated him among my potted plants and re-named him the “Northwest Wind”, According to his direction. The other is a replica of a pre-Hispanic goddess of the corn. She sits among my geraniums.

            By the time my kids hit middle school, their birthday ‘cake” of choice was often pie or even cookies. Today I made myself biscuits, simple ordinary biscuits. I ate them with mango jam and drank coffee laced with milk and chocolate.

            To answer your question, Kathy, for my 16th I didn’t get a blessed thing. But for my birthday today, I have every gift I could want.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 13, 2017

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Expect The Unexpected

            Expect The Unexpected
            My days are never what I think they are going to be. No, that doesn’t quite express what I’m trying to say. Life is full of surprises. That’s an inane clichĂ©. My tongue can’t find the right words. I’m not in charge. At times I think I am. The joke always turns on me.

            My life is like my bread baking. I glance at a recipe from time to time. But I know the basic ingredients and about how much flour, yeast, sweetening, salt, and butter to mix. Then I might add dry or fresh herbs, potato, egg, chopped onion.  It may contain a surprise flavor or texture, but it is always good bread.

            I’m learning my garden, becoming intimate with the wants and likes of plants strange to me.  Take those five trees, the ones which will bloom with delicate purple clusters, the ones I planted against my new wall last fall. They died. I tell you, they died. Well, no surprise to me. They sat, roots wrapped in their plastic bags, for two months before the wall was finished so we could plant them. They looked fine, well, a little shocked and stunted, until one day they dropped all their leaves.  
David from Centro Vivero, my garden guru, delivered a batch of new geraniums. I dragged him to the back yard and said, “See, dead.” He examined them closely and said back to me, “Not dead. Winter.”

Around the first of March, David was delivering bougainvillea to my neighbor. I grabbed him for another back-yard examination of my five dead trees. “Are you sure?” I asked. He looked carefully at each naked tree. “Another month,” his reply.

I had a serious chat with said trees. “I’ll give you until April first. If I don’t see life, you’re out of here. I’m not fooling.” Sure enough, one by one, each tree burst into leaf, the last one pushed our leaf buds March 30.  Today all are bushy. What do I know? Not much.  
My social life is much the same pattern. I figured once Pat and Nancie went north for the summer, Crin came and left, I’d be alone, like a monk in the desert. This week, which I was certain would be devoid of activity, I’ve met five new people. I went to a party on the Rancho. I went to another party in town. I accepted invitations to two different dinners with different friends, different days, at a lake near San Juanito Escobedo. Some cloistered life, eh?

Mexico operates on the old Daylight Savings Time schedule.  Saturday night we set our clocks forward. What a joke. Clock time is such an artificial boundary. I’m fortunate. I operate on sun time. Because I can. I have no office, no school, no obligation to be up at a certain hour. Except that I do have obligations, of course. I like to think I don’t.

We meet at 8:30 in my back yard for Qi Gong. Our group has dwindled to three: John and Carol and myself. Nancie and Jim both are back in the cold north. We still meet at 8:30. My yard. The sun is up at 6:45. So am I. But this week 6:45 is 7:45, clock time. My body is geared to get up, get dressed and groomed, watch the sun rise, make my bed, and enjoy coffee with a good book. When 6:45 is 7;45, I get up, get dressed, maybe comb my hair, gulp water, get out the door to the back yard in time to meet John and Carol coming in the gate. Clock time and body time are all a-muddle. 

This morning I was set to scrub the bathroom—spring cleaning, one room at a time. Lani called to see if I wanted to go to San Marcos to pick up the obsidian cap I had designed for my antique Chinese paint brush. Clean bathroom or trip to obsidian craftsman? Is there a choice? Then we drove back into Etzatlan for breakfast at the Cadillac Hotel. Ah, life.

Then comes night and I have to stay up an extra hour before I can go to bed because the sun is still bright and I work on the theory that dark equals sleep. Oh, botheration.

But, you know what? I’m not complaining. That misplaced hour translates to several pages in that book I set down this morning. My body will adjust. Friends will come and go. Plants will flourish or not.

Then in the fall I get to gripe in reverse.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 6, 2017

Friday, March 31, 2017

Thoughts on Cozying Up to a Spider

            Thoughts on Cozying Up to a Spider
            “Come visit me in my web,” said the Spider to the Fly. We all know that story!

            I’ve been called a stubborn woman. Maybe I am. I don’t understand why I can’t learn a life lesson once and for all. Some lessons make me feel like a mouse on a treadmill; Every time I roll around the wheel, I get smacked with the same lesson.  

            I like people. People generally like me. I like for others to like me. Some wise men (and women) claim that all we really want is for someone to love us. Sometimes we go about finding love or liking or approval in strange ways.

            An aside that still has me giggling, I just discovered that a Harlem man who doesn’t like me and never made that a secret, has the same birthdate as me! The man says I’m crazier than a coot. Who am I to argue?

I came to view that man with compassion, while staying out of his way. I’ll bet anything he only wants people to see things his way, but when they don’t, “Off with their heads!” (Metaphorically speaking.)

Back to my treadmill. This time the shoe is on the other foot. The person acts as if he likes me, as far as I can tell. But I feel uncomfortable. Squirmy. I locate the closest exit.

I don’t like to not like someone. I want a good reason. I want to like everyone. Impossible, I know. And I do believe people are put in our path to teach us. I try to be open to the lesson.

What got me started telling this is that I cannot seem to let go my discomfort. I keep mulling over my situation as if I could/should “fix” it. I’ve gone to bed too many nights pondering—what lesson am I supposed to learn? I’m assuming, since person is in my life for a reason, a light-bulb will suddenly appear, bright and shining, above my head, illuminating a parchment scroll with problem and solution laid out in an orderly manner.

Ah, patience. Ah, tolerance. Ah, live and let live. That’s all well and good.  Fortunately, for me, I don’t have frequent interactions with the person.

In the night, one of my muses, the plain speaking one, shook my shoulder, “Wake up, Dummy. You know that little problem you’ve been turning over and over with no solution? I can’t stand it when you are so obtuse. Listen up. If I handed you a poison mushroom, would you eat it?”

“No, of course not.” I sputtered and rolled over, still half asleep.

“Don’t ignore me. I’m installing your lightbulb,” insisted my Muse. “If a person is toxic to you, do you keep hanging out with that person? Do you willingly want to be poisoned?”

The Muse handed me a scrapbook. For a moment, he looked like the Ghost of Christmas Past. I sat up in bed and turned the pages. 

“Oh, yes, I remember her. Gosh, I had forgotten all about him. And this one.  Ouch! I see what you mean. Toxic relationships. Spiders and poison mushrooms and such.”

“Now you get it,” said my Muse. “It’s the nature of the spider . . .:

“To spin a web to poison the fly.” We finished together.

The pictures in the scrapbook were from my past, persons who had not been good for me, who were “poison” to me in some way. Once I had recognized the toxicity, I realized each person was a gift, to teach me what I needed at the time. I remained polite, respectful, but didn’t have make them best friends. The lightbulb shone brightly.

“Thanks, Muse.”

“Da nada.”

“Hey, You there, Spider. Go spin in your own tangled web. I have better places to be.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 30, 2017

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Oh, Dear, What Can The Matter Be

            Oh, Dear, What Can The Matter Be
            This morning at Qi Gong, a practice which requires focus, every bird in the tree, wisp of cloud, skittering lizard robbed my attention.

            Where’s my focus? I have a bad case, not fatal, of “I want it all”. Crin left this morning. We shared cafĂ© con leche before she took off for the airport. Nancie left a couple days ago. As long as I’m wanting that which I cannot have, I want all my friends here with me all the time. When they are here, I want, please, just a few minutes to myself.  Sound familiar? Like a two-year old?

            “Oh, dear, what can the matter be, Johnny’s so long at the fair.” Comfort music from childhood. I could curl up with a blankie.

Instead, I wander in a daze, inside, outside, in my lady’s chamber. So to speak. I clip a geranium and plunge the stalk into a pot that has a spare space. (In a few days the thing will be rooted and bloom.) Then I go inside and dig around in my bread recipes, choose potato bread, leave the book open on the counter. Next I wander around back of my house to my rose bed, cut three buds for a vase on my table. Back inside, I wander from room to room before I set up my ironing board. Back outside, a dead yellowed leaf off my giant-leafed philodendron distracted me. I pluck it off and throw it in my garden trash can.

            So I’ll allow myself a time of mal-content, restlessness, sadness. The good news is that I love my friends enough to feel sad and abandoned when they are go north. I usually get my focus back before the day runs its course. Discontent gets boring quickly.

            Ah, rescued by Lani. “I’m going into Ahualulco. Need anything? Want to come along?”

            “Don’t need a thing, but let me ride along.”

            In the Mercado I buy four tomatoes for four pesos. I know what you are paying for tomatoes so you probably don’t even want to know the exchange rate. And, my tomatoes have garden flavor.

            Further along I spy a stand with mangoes—twelve pesos a kilo. First fresh mangoes of the season, probably from further south, probably Oaxaca. Ours are still a couple weeks coming.

            Sure, I don’t need anything, but a kilo of strawberries for twenty pesos, yes.

            Gracious me, is this food therapy? Perhaps.

            The childhood song continues to haunt me. “He promised to buy me a trinket to please me, and then for a smile, he vowed he would tease me. He promised to buy me a bunch of blue ribbons, to tie up my bonnie brown hair.”

            Back home, I slice my strawberries for later, put my mangoes in a pretty dish and eat a tomato sandwich.

Trinkets, indeed. Well, why not? I mix my bread dough and set it to rise. It’s foolish of me to make bread. I can buy great bread cheaply. I bake it because I love the process and the product.

While humming, I smile at the thought of blue ribbons to tie up my bonnie brown hair. It used to be brown. And long enough to tie.

            Early evening is my favorite time to sit on my patio, watch the iguanas and lizards vie for territory on my brick wall, watch hummingbirds flit from star jasmine to geraniums to orchid cactus to plumbago, mining every sip of honey. l grab my book to read while the loaves are in the oven. Maybe I’ll iron manana.  

            “He promised to buy me a basket of posies, a garland of lilies, a gift of red roses.” Silly me. I have all that right in my back yard. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 23, 2017

Saturday, March 18, 2017

I Love A Rainy Night

I Love A Rainy Night
            “I love to hear the thunder; watch the lightning when it lights up the sky.” Eddie Rabbit sang it true.

            This week I determined to be a time of easing back into my “normal” routine. Ha! Not even the weather in this, the dry season, has cooperated. It seldom rains in March. Yet, here it is, rain in bucketfuls.

“It’s such a beautiful sight. I love to feel the rain on my face; taste the rain on my lips. In the moonlight shadows, showers wash all my cares away.”

 Routine has slipped my grip.  While I’ve managed to spend several open-the-morning hours in my garden, weeding and pruning, from there my schedule gets ragged.

One day Nancie came over while I was dragging out the ironing board and asked if I wanted to go to the vivero. The vivero, the garden center, supplies my drug of choice. “Need you ask?” David and his wife always make me feel welcome.

In twenty minutes I chose three small-leaf basil, the kind that grows tree-like, three climbers for my south wall, and fifteen ground covers with flowers of red, blue, white and purple. Ah, nirvana for approximately $15 USD. Manana for the ironing.

Last week the season turned from winter-as-we-know-it into spring. Birds of every hue and cry flit through my trees. Jacaranda trees wear an umbrella canopy of purple. Hummingbirds fight for territory in my ever-blooming red bottle-brush. Some species set up housekeeping. Some pause for sustenance on their way further north. Great flocks of yellow-breasted blackbirds whoosh and rustle like a storm-cloud; flying your direction.

My amaryllis sings spring in full chorus. Yes, this is the flower we Montanans patiently nurture into bloom in its tiny dish-garden on the dining table, hoping for Christmas color. Then they go wherever good plants go, never to be seen again.

Mine grow outside (I know you don’t want to hear this.) in my border garden, plunked helter-skelter. The only care they get is admiration. Today fifty stalks (out of four hundred bulbs) stand tall, flowers like trumpets.  I prune the stalk low when it has finished its song and, crazily, another shoot springs upward. If last summer is indicative, I can expect amaryllis flowers for four months. Next year there will be twice as many.

See how easily distracted I am? Routine? Today I intended baking bread. While mopping my bodega, I ripped a gash along my finger; raked it along a protruding nail. I don’t fancy blood in my bread, so that chore is put off.

Nancie leaves for her northern home this week. So we squeeze in drives to our favorite restaurants where we dawdle for hours over good food. A trip to the hot springs at Amatlan de Canas, over the hills into Nayarit. Of simply lounge on our patios, talking.

I try for routine. Qi Gong is back in my life. I’ll miss Nancie but still have three other friends with whom to jump start the mornings.

After a holiday from my Espanol lessons, I feel good re-instituting study. I got downright excited when I understood the recorded Mexican voice on the phone yesterday, telling me the number I dialed (Dialed?) did not exist. Kathy had given me half her daughter’s cell number and half landline. Although it seems like my understanding is slower coming than the ice age, I’m learning.

Maybe this week I’ll be able to get back into my rhythm, my comfortable routine. Housework, gardening, reading, that dratted pile of ironing, or simply sitting in the sun. Ah, yes, the sun.

“I wake up to a sunny day, puts a song in this heart of mine, puts a smile on my face every time.” This morning I woke to a glory sky shouting hallelujah; oranges of every shade backlighting wispy mares’ tails.

This afternoon another surprise rain pelts my metal-roofed patio. I love rain, day or night. My garden loves it. We sing the same song.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 16, 2017

Thursday, March 9, 2017

            The Three Day Slump
            Typically, I go into a three-day slump, depression, the doldrums, call it what you will, when a friend leaves.

            Karen flies back to Floweree (a few houses perched at the end of that gravel road on the way to Great Falls) tomorrow. Ten days later my cousin Nancie leaves for Sedro Woolley in Washington but she’ll return in June. I’ll barely have recovered from Nancie abandoning me, when Crin, who arrived last Monday, goes back to Victoria. Jim plans to drive back to Missouri that same week.

            Carol said she probably will be here through April. She also said she will tie me down and keep me away from heights and sharp objects.  Fortunately, about the time Carol and John fly out, Kathy will fly in.

            Doesn’t matter. I’ll still go through three days of feeling abandoned when each friend leaves.

            Our small community of Americanos here at the Rancho becomes “family”, almost by default. Interestingly, five of us actually knew each other before establishing homes in this corner of our quite traditional Mexican town. I’m getting to know the rest of the group. (“Getting to know you, getting to know all about you”—a two-edged sword if ever there was one.)

Our situation is similar to homesteading. We have plots instead of acreage. We live across the street or around the corner from one another. We are all busily improving our places. How are we like homesteaders? We depend on one another, that’s how.

This afternoon Nancie cooked a simple but delicious meal for all the women, a going away party, for Karen. We filled our plates but had to wait for the photographers, one and all, to take pictures. Crin said, “This isn’t a meal; it’s a photo shoot.”

Jim came by to see when Karen was leaving so he could say good-bye. He had gotten a call from Martina, a woman in town he’s known for three years. She was having an emotional crisis. They are good friends but neither has much of the other’s language. “How do you communicate?” I asked.

“Hugs are the same in any language.” That’s the kind of person Jim is. That’s the kind of people we are.

I’m not implying we are all kootchie-koo with one another. Like it or not, we are “family”. We are well aware of one another’s warts, wrinkles and fault lines. 

Just ask me; I can tell you. (Oops, yes, that is one of my own character defects.) But we have managed to develop a great degree of acceptance. When any of us need help, my neighbors rush to the rescue.

This is just my opinion. I think we start with tolerance, move into acceptance and finally evolve into community. The people who years ago built the casitas we now inhabit were all of similar background. We newcomers couldn’t be more diverse. And we actually like each other, snarls and all.

While my classmates were here for our reunion, Sharon came to me one morning. She gave me a huge hug and said, “Sondra, we are so glad to see you and your home. Now we know you are safe, happy and have good people to help you. We worried; we were scared for you when you moved, all alone, to Mexico.”

            One by one, in the next few days, other classmates came to me with much the same message. I hadn’t realized they cared so deeply.

            The inhabitants of our little corner of the Rancho took my friends to their hearts, carried us back and forth to town and on trips of discovery in the area. Folks in town did the same; interested in knowing who we are, where we came from, why we are here, even inviting us into their homes. 

            Jim is right. Hugs are the same in any language. I’ll bet hugs are the perfect pill for my three day slump.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 9, 2017

Friday, March 3, 2017

Having a Wonderful Time--Wish you were here.

Having a Wonderful Time--Wish you were here.
            For a group of classmates from Harlem, Montana, none of whom grew up with “advantages”, Harlem being not exactly the cultural center of the world, what an amazing opportunity for us. Here we are, Class of ’63, in a foreign country, soaking up life like the sponges we always have been.

What did we know but hard work and vagaries of weather? Our recreation consisted of school sports (boys’ only), a summer swim in the Milk River, ice-skating in the winter. Most of us knew a touch of poverty, even if we weren’t aware at the time. What one grows up with seems “normal”.

            Travel—Ha!—We never made it further than Havre. Our music was Hank Williams and Marty Robbins, Ricky Nelson, Elvis and The Big Bopper. Dance was the two-step and jitterbug. A symphony or ballet? Not a possibility. The radio took us to foreign places--I used to listen to opera on a station out of Regina Saturday mornings, the most beautiful music in the world, though I was more comfortable with Country-Western.

Many times during these two weeks we talked about how you would have loved the little towns perched precariously on the mountainsides, the ancient Cathedrals dominating each plaza, watching the man make floor tiles by hand from start to finish with a simple but ancient press.

            Or maybe your favorite thing would have been soaking in the sun on the beach, having a shopping party, both treasures and trash, all at your feet, while vendors display silver jewelry with semi-precious stones, Mexican blankets in riotous colors, embroidered blouses from Oaxaca, and wispy beach wraps. Certainly there is something for everyone. Highly polished animals carved from ironwood, turtles from obsidian, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, straw hats, sunglasses, sandals, “Rolex” watches made in China. Treasures and trash, yes, all delightful.

            We went from the sea to the mountains, roamed cobblestone streets of villages reminiscent of old Harlem. We marveled at the architecture, ancient alongside the incredible skyscrapers of modern Guadalajara.

We swayed and jiggled and tapped our toes to Mexican music, especially the mariachi, loved the folk dances, the traditional regalia, the art of various regions. We ate from carts on the street; we dined in fashionable restaurants.

In the tiny village of La Noria, where we happened to be on the day of their street market, I found a broom, made by hand of stiff wide bristles, perhaps bamboo, attached to the stick with wire woven through the strands. This is the kind of broom used to sweep hard-packed dirt patios. I brought it back to the tour van and announced, “New transportation.”

Our only complaint; there were not, would never be, enough days to do all we wanted. Growing up the way we did, hard as it was, I wonder if those early years conditioned us to better appreciate every adventure, even the uncomfortable.   

You know, the stories we told might have been the best part of the whole holiday. I’m not talking about the good stuff, the successes. We shared our past hurts, the real stories, the pains of growing up in difficult times (Though what times are not difficult?). We each thought we alone were awkward, bumbling, made stupid mistakes. We had struggled through rough patches in secret, without a confidant. How similar our experiences! We had known one another only on the surface.

After two weeks of increasing intimacy, our love and respect for each other has grown bonds which can never be broken. Yes, you would have loved to be with us. We missed you. See you soon with, as our guide Leo would say, a thousand-thousand pictures.

Hope you can make it next year. Hope I can make it next year.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 2, 2017