Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Some Like It Hot

Some Like It Hot
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            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
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Friday, November 3, 2017

Some Things Stay The Same

Some Things Stay The Same
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            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
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Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Importance of Negative Space

The Importance of Negative Space
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            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
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Monday, October 23, 2017

She’s An Angel—She’s A Devil

            She’s An Angel—She’s A Devil      
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            It is dangerous to invite a stranger into one’s home, one’s sanctuary. Can the guest be trusted to display simple rudimentary manners? What if we’re not compatible? What if our schedules don’t mesh? Will there be food issues? What if we end up eye-balling one another with death wishes?

            A thousand considerations must be addressed. Yet, on impulse, I invited Cat Ballou into my home a mere month ago. Fortunately, she is bi-lingual.

            Unfortunately, within a couple days I found myself cuddling the little fur-ball beneath my chin, while making baby coo noises in her ear, a habit I find repulsive in mature, adult women. Strike One against me.

            I also think it tacky, tasteless and pathetic when people write about a pet animal giving it human characteristics.  So far I’m not doing well on my pet-owner scale.

            To my credit, Cat Ballou and I had several serious talks, in adult language, those first days. I talked; she listened. She is pure cat and gave me no hint of her perceptions. Probably, if cat thought could be translated into human language, she saw my mouth flapping and heard blah, blah, blah, Kitty. 

            I don’t mind. Intonation is everything. Ask my children.

Nevertheless, I set my boundaries; after all, it is my home. My commandments are simple.

1.     Thou Shalt Not Shred My Furniture.

2.     Thou Shalt Not Shred My Tissue Paper Skin.

The Tooth and Claw commandments have been obeyed since day one. Like her namesake, Cat Ballou is an angel; she is a devil. But she plays gently and respects my furniture and my fingers.

3.     Thou Shalt Not Jump on The Table. 

This simple directive includes my computer desk and countertops. A cat’s nature is to be curious, to inspect every inch of territory. Whack! Physical removal coupled with harsh words did the trick. Quick learner, that girl.  Who knows what happens when I’m not around. (Sigh.)

4.     Thou Shalt Not Require In-house Litter Box.

           Smart cat. She quickly adapted to outdoor facilities. She tells me when she wants in. She tells             me when she wants out. Let’s not discuss who trained whom.

5.     Thou Shalt Be True to Thy Hunter Nature.

My preference is an outside cat with indoor privileges. No pampered freeloader lives at my house.

On the ranch we are surrounded by corn fields. Mice and other rodents have no respect for fence lines. Soon, Cat Ballou will begin to leave trophies of her prowess on the doorstep. Soon, I’ll open the door in the morning to mouse tails, lizard legs, or bird feathers. Meanwhile, she is a kitten, in elementary school, so to speak.

One evening as the moon was waxing full. Squeaky, Lani’s nasty male cat showed up at my door, full of curiosity, wanting to be social. Squeaky had never before set paw on my patio. Squeaky, though neutered, exhibits a disgusting tendency to want to paw the merchandise. He’s much older. He’s been around the block more than once, the cad.

Cat Ballou arched her back, every hair stood high. She spit. She snarled. I praised her good sense. I’m trying to raise a good Catholic girl. Hail Mary.

Squeaky yawned. He glanced back at me with, I swear, a cunning smirk.

That night the little tramp didn’t slink home until 1:00 in the morning. Then she rubbed against my back the rest of the night, purr motor rumbling on high.  

The next night Squeaky showed up at sundown, looking forlorn and abashed, a typical suitor. The night was beautiful. Full moon. I walked the floor. Ballou didn’t come home until 2:15.

I added a new directive.

6.     Thou Shalt Not Consort With Lowlife Neighbor Cats.

My Little Missy is grounded. Some nights she foils me and refuses to come in at dark. Some nights she saunters in at dawn’s early light. Well, it didn’t work for my children either.

Next week we return to the vet for booster shots and to set a date for that essential surgery. 

That day cannot come too soon.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 19, 2017
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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Not My Best Day

Not My Best Day
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            Every day should be my best day! There I go, thinking I “should” be grateful and, truly, I am.  However, “Should” can take a hike into the out beyond and stay there. But my reality is that I feel shaky, in pain, and morbidly fixated on possibilities: broken bones, concussion, blood spatters. None of which happened.

            My day started with pleasure. I woke to the musical prayers of the procession of thousands from Etzatlan marching with the Statue of the Virgin from here to San Jaunito Escabedo, about twelve kilometers from here. My casita is a couple blocks east of the road on the edge of town. 

Families, many in traditional regalia, gather at 4:00 at the Cathedral for ceremonies to begin the procession, walking in prayer the entire route. It bestows great honor to be chosen to carry the Virgin. The faithful have made this pilgrimage every second Monday in October for hundreds of years.

Once they reach San Juaniito Escobedo, the Virgin is received with a High Mass. The Presidente of that city hosts a barbeque. Everybody from both cities are invited to the feast.

I did not join the procession. Perhaps I should have. There goes that “should” again.

Leo picked me up for shopping. I had a long list. I don’t see the sense in supporting an automobile. For a few pesos a trip I can ride with friends or take a taxi.

Walking through my garden, I put my foot, toe first, into a hole where it lodged. I could move neither my foot nor the hole.

Consequently I fell on my hunky-dory, my back and my head, in that order. The earth moved. I couldn’t breathe. I lay on the ground for an hour though that time was compressed into two or three minutes. Josue saw me on the ground and rushed over to help Leo raise me from the downed.

Once upright, my knees and ankles went wibbly-wobbly and did not want to work. But with help I made my shaky way to Leo’s car. Nothing broken but my confidence and minor pride.

I had a lengthy shopping list, many stops. I sat in the car, shaking. Leo shopped with my list. I couldn’t keep my thoughts controlled. I have a prosthetic right knee and prosthetic left hip. It could have been bad. I was certainly in shock. I kept telling Leo I was loco-loco. He didn’t argue.

We went to the shoe store to adjust one of my shoes. I say “we” but Leo did all the back and forth work. I handed him a list with my money.

He bought eggs from the egg lady, a woman in her 90’s who lives in a tiny house and has little but her chickens in her courtyard. From there we went to the woman who sells chickens. Leo selected a beautiful chicken, cut into quarters and a handful of chicken livers. Then on to the store for olive oil and cat food. Two cannot live as cheaply as one. At our last stop at my favorite fruteria, Leo gathered pineapple, melon, bananas, spinach and squash for me.  

On the way back to the Rancho I said, “Let’s go to Dona Mary’s for carnitas de puerco con nopales.” The last thing I wanted to do was go home to make lunch. I could feel my bottom turning purple.

Dona Mary’s Restaurante is in one of the little colonias on the road to Magdalena. This eatery is a favorite place, like nothing anywhere in Montana. All the food is fresh, cooked on wood-fired stove, in an open tin-roofed shack. Whenever we pull in front, family faces light up with welcome.

The drive to Dona Mary’s and back helped me to settle down and gain perspective, to be grateful I didn’t badly hurt myself.

Alongside the road are millions of orange flowers that herald the end of the rainy season.  The mountainside above the village looked as if a blanket of orange had been dropped from above. The blue sky, white clouds, orange flowers, green cornfields were the most brilliant colors I’d ever seen. The bedsheet butterflies have returned. The iguanas sunning on rock walls looked goofier. Leaves on trees seemed sharper. All my senses seemed heightened.

Back home, my chicken simmers in broth. Wasps build a nest in the window arch above my desk. (Outside—I’m inside.) I have a good book. I have food. Cat has food. Bruises will heal. The loco-loco part of me may or may not go away. So it’s not my best day. So what!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 12, 2017
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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Day to Day in the Land of Perpetual Spring

Day to Day in the Land of Perpetual Spring
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            October brings on the melancholia of autumn. Even here.

I recently read an extensive political and economic history of Mexico. Early Spanish invaders called this area in which I live, the land of perpetual spring. I’ve lived here close to two years. I have to agree. The description is apt.

I hesitate to even talk about what it is like here when my Havre friends are digging out from under unprecedented snowfall.

Though seasonal changes in this area are subtle, hardly noticeable, my mind reacts as though I can look out my window to see cottonwood trees along the river, golden yellow, dropping leaves in the winds of autumn. I’m not stockpiling firewood nor changing bedding to winter down comforters. But I seem to be mentally winterizing my soul, preparing for the winter sleep without which there can be no spring awakening.

Little things contribute to this feeling. Four years ago I bought a new address book. Pages in my old book were shabby, full, messy with addresses crossed out, re-entered as friends changed address. Replete with more permanent address changes. Perhaps it was the latter which put me off the chore for so long a time. Too many friends have died, a risk one takes when one lives. I’m aware of this is the autumn of my life.

I finished the address chore in three days. That put me in a mood. Then my internet, my chief communications tool, went on walk-about. Some people in town went without service for three weeks while Telmex upgraded service.

Laughing, I told my kids I might have to resort to smoke signals or carrier pigeons. My daughter replied that nobody in Montana would pay attention to smoke signals after the Summer of Fire and Pigeons would need Papers to cross the border. As it happened, I lost service a mere two days.  Yet I felt disconnected from the greater world. (Not a bad thing.)

Next sciatica punched me in the back. I’ve had sciatic pains off and on for some time. But this attack laid me low. It hurt to breathe. It’s hard not to panic. General free-floating worries and fears about conditions in the world, the state of my bank account and my health contributed to the pain, perhaps triggered it for all I know.

Stretches and rest, the cure. No, not cure, but eventual relief. I quit reading the news. That helps. Resting is difficult, there is so much to do. The gardening that I love to do must wait.

My new “garden helper” contributes to my work load. Cat Ballou has discovered she can jump-flip loop-the-loops in attack of prey only she can see. In the process, she “pruned” several pots of geraniums, which needed pruning, but not this very moment in time.

Then Bonnie called me to see if I’d like to go see a Holy Woman for a Blessing Ceremony. Why not? I wanted all the blessing I could get. We drove to Santa Rosalia, about ten miles from Etzatlan, for an experience both moving and beautiful, much like a merging of Catholic ceremony and Indigenous traditions.

Among other things, the Holy Woman, an ordinary everyday person in appearance but with an inner glow, told me to quit worrying. She said that even were I to lose everything, the Mexican people would fold me into their families and take care of me. She saw me not as an Anericana stranger but as one of her people.

Within hours, four other Mexican friends told me the same thing. No matter what happens, they will share their frijoles and tortillas with me. It’s hard to stay worried and afraid in the face of that kind of caring.

So I’m resting between stretches, watching Leo do the pruning my hands itch to do. My house is filled with the scent of roses from the flower bed behind my casa. Iguanas bask in the sun on my brick walls. Quail doves cavort in the flower beds and lawn ignoring my stalking kitten. Hummingbirds flit from bottle brush tree to never-ending flower blossoms.

The world is full of sadness and gladness. I’d like to say I’ve put all my fears and worries to rest. Easy to say, harder to do. So I mix my autumn melancholy with spring renewal, day by day, little by little. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: October 5, 2017
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A Simple Can of Tuna Fish

A Simple Can of Tuna Fish
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            Are you safe? Are you in the earthquake zone? Did you feel the quakes? Is there flooding in your area? What about the hurricanes—do they reach you? The volcano?

            What has reached me are the concerns of many friends. Yes, I am safe. I didn’t feel the earth move. We’ve plenty rain but the elaborate system of canals, I am told, diverts run-off water quickly into the lakes and lagoons with which this area abounds. No active volcanoes live in this valley. Hurricanes? No, we are surrounded by mountains so what we get are the rains that tropical storms push over the peaks.

            Yes, I am safe. But not smugly so. Disasters pay no attention to boundaries, to known predictions of invulnerability.

What concerns me is the grief of the friends and families of the hundreds of people who lost their lives in the earthquakes and tropical storms in Chiapas and Oaxaca south of us, the quakes in Mexico City and surrounding area to the southeast. What concerns me is the fear, frustrations, the despair of thousands who lost their homes and their livelihood.

            Add to that the hurricane damage in the Caribbean Islands, Florida, Texas, and the Gulf Coast.

How do people have the courage to pick up and rebuild their lives? It seems a dark cloud of despair has loomed over North America the whole month of September.

            What heartens me is the courage of the People. I’ll give you a small local example. Two days after the earthquake to the south of us, Leo came to me to see if I wanted to donate food. Canned goods such as tuna and corn, easy to eat, things that don’t require cooking are especially desired. Rice and beans and maseca to make tortillas are also needed. Add essentials such as water, bathroom tissue and baby diapers.

            “It is put on my heart to give food. I’m getting donations from everyone I know,” Leo told me. “The city is asking for foods. They are filling trucks which go to Guadalajara and from there down to the quake areas.”

            I emptied my pantry and bodega of canned tuna and chicken, beans and rice and other food stuffs. I added a donation in pesos.

            “They don’t want money,” Leo said. “Just food. I’m going to buy canned food, tuna, baby formula, that kind of thing with my donation.”

            I knew what he meant. Even the local government admits the money will never make it to the intended destination. Mexican people are practical.

            “Leo, please go to the store for me and add whatever you think best to my small pile of food.”
            How do people who have lost all pick up and go forward? I don’t know. What I do know is that small actions mean a lot.

            Maybe a can of tuna equates with hope. Maybe that can of tuna, small though it be, is shared with children or with a neighbor.

            Yesterday five of us went to lunch at an isolated thatched roof hut alongside the lagoon out by San Juanito Escobedo, a few miles from Etzatlan. I walked out to the edge of the yard where the waters lapped against my shoes.  Summer rains have filled the lagoon. Hundreds of white pelicans dotted the surface, scooping for fish.

            I thought about the on-going food drives of our little town, by no means a place of wealth. I thought about the cars and vans filled with my neighbors, going to disaster areas to help with clean-up, to help in any way they can. 

            I thought of that can of tuna with tears in my eyes. That magical can of tuna.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 28, 2017
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