Friday, April 13, 2018

It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To


It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To
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            Setenta tres. Seventy-three. I bought a fancy chocolate cake yesterday at my favorite pasteleria. I’m invited to dinner at John and Carol’s house tonight. Nobody knows it’s my birthday and I ain’t telling.

But I’m taking my cake to share and will get great and secret pleasure from having a party when nobody else knows it’s my party.

Day on top of day, the years have a way of rolling past. Getting older doesn’t hold the same pizzazz and crackle for me that earliest years held. Remember the day you turned six? That was a real landmark.

Ten is another for me, and I’m not at all sure why. Twelve was a disappointment. Sixteen, for all the hype, was neither sweet nor remarkable. At twenty-one I was two weeks away from having a baby girl.

I have photos of myself when I was thirty-four in which I look to be an old, old woman in her sixties. Photos don’t lie. That was the emotionally most painful, lowest point of my life.

At thirty-eight, my photo shows a young woman who likes herself and has hope. I’d like to say every year got better but life holds too much variety and we all know that would be a lie.

Forty-nine was a blur. All I could think was ‘almost fifty’. When fifty came, I’d already lived the angst. A lot of foo-foo-rah for nothing. What is one more day?

Seventy-three I am and living a life I could never have dreamed at sixty-three. Fortunately, my body is relatively free from pain and that is a huge happiness factor, believe me; I’ve been in the other camp and I know the difference. Emotional pain is every bit as debilitating. When pain is present, celebrating the good stuff takes guts and a heaping helping of denial. My opinion.

Last week I met a woman from the near-by campground. She asked where I lived. I described the location. “Oh, you’re the garden. I walked by your place.” That’s as good a description as any I’ve heard. I’m the garden.

One of my red geraniums is so vividly red that it looks like liquid. I want to dip a paint brush into the flower and paint the world. This morning that cheeky squirrel ran over my naked feet as though I were not attached. Amaryllis, though only a few are yet to bloom, still stand tall in the garden, this their fourth month of show-off trumpets on stalks.  

Magnolia, jasmine and roses mingle their scent with a purple flower that has a cinnamon-like tang. Every day I see something new. A tiny seed settled onto my palm, a gift from the wind, propelled by a feathery plume. I’ve no clue what it is; a mystery seed bearing life.

My five-dead-trees are in full leaf. Again, this year, I insisted, “They are dead. Look, twigs are dry and brittle.”

“No, just wait. They will leaf in March, remember,” Leo said to me. I shook my head, negating the possibility. I am wrong. Buds in March. Leaves in April. Flowers in May. Is that a kind of birthday?

Seventy-three.  Tonight I eat dinner with friends. I share my chocolate cake. Next week Steve and Theresa from Washington will arrive to visit. The dead trees might be in flower while they are here. I can hope. Leo shakes his head, “May.”

No matter. Have you ever seen a mother-in-law-tongue in bloom—beautiful yellow flowers on a tall stalk? Jade and asparagus ferns are flowering. There is no shortage of beauty.

Leslie Gore sang her song of tears at her party and I can cry at mine if I want, but maybe, instead of tears, I’ll have my cake and eat it too.  

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
April 12, 2018
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Iguanas and Other Sentient Life


Iguanas and Other Sentient Life
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            That iguana spit on me today. I stood below him, next to the wall in my front-patio courtyard, watching him soak up the sun. He turned his head, looked me in the eye, and spit. Well, that’s a fine howdy-do.

            No manners. But, maybe, like many a youngster, he had a valid complaint: “She looked at me.”

            There’s a pair of what I call teen iguanas, middle-sized, who sun at the top of that particular section of wall.

            You should see them skitter up—or down—a vertical wall. Yet, despite Velcro feet, often I see, or hear, the iguanas fall from the top of the bricks down to the ground. Maybe they jump.

            I spend an inordinate amount of time watching iguanas, contemplating behavior. Theirs, my friends, my own.

            Julie came by this morning. She is leaving tomorrow for her Minnesota home. We sat for an hour observing tanagers, warblers, hummingbirds and bees in my Bottlebrush tree. Today is the first day for the bees in such great number. They must have a nearby hive. It was a peaceful way to say good-bye. Julie will be gone several months, back in the fall.

            Jim left last week for Missouri. I lost my Qi Gong partner but shifted my pattern and began morning walks with John and Carol. They’ll be here another month.

            There is constant coming and going on the Rancho. Three winters ago, Lani and Ariel were the only full-time residents. Within a few weeks of one another, Pat and Nancie, Carol and John, Jim, Kathy and Richard, Crin and I purchased homes. Another several months and we were joined by Tom and JRae and Julie and Francisco. All but Lani and I have homes elsewhere. Thus, the constant coming and going.

            My first two years, I pretty much had April to October to myself. I’m used to solitude. I lived the same pattern during my years in Mazatlan so I was used to being alone. This year the pattern is broken. A strange tantrum is being pitched inside me.

            I love my friends. I do. I’m sad when they leave. I am delighted that I will have my neighbors back, one or two at a time, in April, May, and June and July. August is unknown. September I’m gone. October and November most of my friends return for the winter.

            My strange little temper tantrum within is because I also want my solitude. Well, that’s me. I want it all. Given a choice between cake and pie, both with ice cream, my answer is “Yes”.

            So, there. Now that I’ve said it, it all sounds rather silly. Truth is, we don’t live in one another’s pockets. We each have our own lives, our own interests. When we get together, we do so because we want to be together.

            I like my friends and neighbors. And they like me. When they are gone, I console myself that I have my iguanas. I’m not sure the iguanas like me. Not one of my friends has ever spit in my eye.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
April 5, 2018
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Monday, April 2, 2018

My Simple Life in Purple Contemplation


My Simple Life in Purple Contemplation
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            This morning after Qi Gong, I told Jim, “I write my column today and my mind is blank.

            “Easy,” his reply. “Write about purple.”

            We were beneath the Jacaranda, which this week is a purple umbrella, sheltering fifty shades of birds burying their heads in each blossom, milking the honey-nectar.

            In that disconnected way that one thought leads to another, I knew that what I really wanted to write about is my simple life.

            “Jim, the more I pare down my life, the more important small things become. I see little things, always there, that I wouldn’t have noticed when I was so busy. Like last night, about the time you were watching the movie with Bonnie and Sam, the birds were performing a symphony so powerful that my knees collapsed me into a chair to sit and listen.

            “Or the three geckos I saw yesterday. Or the white amaryllis, the only white one. Or the large gray snake that slithered through my front yard and back out last evening.  Ordinarily, snakes terrify me. But that one was beautiful. I had to get closer to her just to look. Those little bits of beauty touch me deeply. Things that in my busy life I would not have noticed. Or not had time to notice. Same thing, maybe.

            “Purple, huh? Well, I’ll think about it.”

            My intention, in moving to Mexico, was to create a new life, not to pack my old life and drag it behind me when I crossed the border.  I’ve done it. My life is small. Pared down to minimalist proportions.

            For example, I brought with me one electric appliance, a food processor. I left behind a kitchen full of gadgets. My new juicer is a metal device with a cups at each end. Squeeze half an orange by bringing together the halves. My mixer is a wire whip. Or a large spoon powered by elbow grease. I do have a washing machine, quite old, non-electronic. My dryer is our ever-present sun. One hour on the clothesline or two hours in winter; clothing is dry. I do own an iron.

            I have one cupboard, two shelves, with dishes. Sigh. I do love dishes. But, I have all I need, all I can use, all local pottery.  Same with pots and pans.

I brought fifty favorite books, including my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Kindle satisfies my book obsession.

            Not feeding and maintaining an automobile has more than economic benefits. For example, yesterday Lani, Carol and I spent a good many hours in San Marcos, just up the road. In exchange for the trip, I bought lunch, a two-hour sojourn at El Parrel, hidden away on a back street. The food is always excellent; companionship a bonus.

            Kristen, my son Ben’s special woman-friend and sweetheart, said, “What about your one-hundred-plus potted plants, which take hours of watering every day? Doesn’t sound simple to me!”

            Oh, yes, that. I can explain. “Kristen, it’s all about containment. Plants grow here at a prodigious rate, obscene almost. When I got here, the yard was a jungle that I cut back mercilessly and started over. I figured the alternative to wild jungle was to contain plants in pots, especially things like jasmine, bamboo, mint and oregano. Otherwise, one day a lovely flowering plant; next day, one is out in the jungle with a machete hacking back the monster before it strangles you and eats your body for breakfast. So my hundred-plus pots are for containment. Which works. More or less.”

            In some ways, my life has always been rather simple. I never wore makeup or dyed my hair. No tattoos or body metal ornamentation.  But I like the looks of a streak of vibrant color in a woman’s hair. Kristen promised me she’ll make it happen when I visit next fall. 

            Which brings me back to purple.

Now that my hair is more silver than brown, I’d like to give a streak of color a try. It’s not forever. I’m leaning toward purple. A discrete steak of deep purple.

The sun is lowering in the sky. I shall change into my only purple dress and go sit beneath the Jacaranda, heavy with purple blooms, and await the avian sundown serenade.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 29, 2018
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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Spring Blooms, Breathes, and Blows Recklessly


Spring Blooms, Breathes, and Blows Recklessly
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            Two weeks ago the neighboring trees out my east window were naked sticks. Today the same sticks are tricked out in every shade of leaf, heavy with green.    

Most trees here shed their leaves in spring; the old brittle leaves pushed off the branch willy-nilly by the new sprouts. The Jacarandas are still naked, just budding into flower. By next week a giant purple umbrella will fully cover the northwest corner of my yard. The Prima Vera wear great daubs of primary yellow. And over to the west I see sky-reaching stalks holding hunter-orange bouquets.

Around the perimeter of my yard, bushes, blue, purple, pink, yellow, orange, red, white. Flowers in hues un-named, combinations which shout, “Look at me.”

Perfume: jasmine at my door, roses in back, a cinnamon-vanilla scent from a purple flower, name unknown. The air is heavy with scents, ever changing with the heat of the day.

Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? Don’t you believe it! There is a snake in every garden.

I’m not prone to allergies. I’m not. A couple morning sneezes clear the passages and I’m good to go. But every few years . . .

Maybe it started at the Monday night weenie roast around the open fire-pit. Fire equals smoke equals dry membranes. Wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Good food and good neighbors.

Tuesday morning Jim and I loaded rocking chairs, water and snacks and drove to a clearing on the way to Piedras Las Bolas, up the mountain.

We took my metal rocking chairs because there is something about a rocker. Once you sit down and lean back, the cares of life simply fall away. The chairs were his idea.

Poetry was my idea. Jim had said he’d like to hear some of my poems in my voice. He’d read a few but hadn’t heard me read my own work. The mountain seemed the perfect setting.

We unloaded the rockers, moved through our morning Qi Gong, then sat and alternated a poem or two by me with stories by Jim, punctuated with stretches of silence, rocking, listening to the rustle of the dry oak leaves.

I read a couple poems. Jim, who is smitten to insensibility by a mutual friend, told me his latest story in his saga of lovelorn romance. We ate an apple. I read a couple more poems. Jim told me the story of when he was kidnapped. His life is much more exciting than mine. And so the day went, alternating confidences.

When the breeze came up, the oaks rained leaves. These particular oaks grow only at this higher elevation. The air was golden with sunlight reflecting through the pollen. Yes, pollen. Exactly.

Back down the mountain, cane fields were burning prior to the following day’s harvest. Dust clouds rolled across newly plowed fields.

We are surrounded. Our air is filled with particulates from farming, cane burning, construction dust, pollens high and low.

Whatever the cause, this morning I woke sneezing, coughing, dripping, swollen-eyed, raspy-throated, and thoroughly miserable.

You may wax rhapsodic about Spring if you wish. I don’t have the energy. I’m going back to bed.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 22, 2018
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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Dona Mary


Dona Mary
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            I feel sad. This morning I made a list of things I wanted to buy in Etzatlan. Since I don’t have a car, I rely on taxi service or a friend or one of the workers here on the ranch to take me around.

            I had asked Leo, my gardening helper, to “bring your car and let’s go have breakfast at Dona Mary’s before we shop.”

            It’s been easy for me to swing into the Mexican way of eating. Early morning coffee with a small snack, fruit or a biscuit.  Mid-morning, a breakfast meal, something substantial, and then somewhere in mid-afternoon, the main meal of the day. If I were really Mexican, I would also have a light meal, perhaps left-overs, after dark and work is done. For me, the mid-afternoon meal is enough. I don’t get hungry, or if I do, a piece of fruit or something sweet satisfies me.

            Dona Mary’s Restaurante is out of town, on the edge of the Ehido, San Pedro, on the road to Magdalena. It’s an open-sided, ram-shackle affair. The roof, such as it is, has been cobbled together with pieces of corrugated iron and plastic panels. The floor is concrete and the roof rests on concrete pillars. Guessing from the adobe oven and the giant wood-burning cookstove, the restaurant has been in this same place at least fifty to sixty years, generation to generation. There are perhaps a dozen ancient metal tables, each with four chairs.

The first time I ate here, I had carnitas con nopales, small chunks of pork rib browned and stewed in a delicious sauce with slivers of nopale cactus. I was hooked. I’m an adventurous eater. I like to order foods I’ve never before tasted. But, I’ve had the same meal every time I go to Dona Mary’s. I go when I get hungry for carnitas con nopales. It doesn’t hurt that she also makes the best hand-patted tortillas I’ve ever had. Makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?

The food is simple and good; the ambiance transports me to yesteryear in Mexico. But what makes Dona Mary’s special is, well, Dona Mary. She is a woman who enjoys feeding people. She watches to make sure we like her food and is inordinately pleased when we eat with obvious gusto.

Each time I go there, Dona Mary sees me get out of the car and her face lights up with a smile of pleasure. One can tell when a smile is genuine. Her eyes smile even more than her mouth. Dona Mary’s welcoming smile always made me feel warm, at home.

Her husband, Jose, would be there too, a nod, a wave of his hand. He kept the wood pile replenished or sharpened knives, or sat with his own cup of coffee. A daughter helped with the cooking and a grand-daughter waited tables. Whoever was available when the plate was ready, served the food. And Dona Mary always stopped by the table to talk.

This morning, Dona Mary was not at her usual place, large wooden spoon dripping juice while she waved us inside to a table. The young woman who cleaned the table for us was not the usual grand-daughter. We ordered our usual meal, carnitas con nopales. The sauce was different; still delicious. Today’s re-friend beans were flavored with chorizo. The corn tortillas, were, however, the same delicious, hand ground, hand patted rounds, hot and tasty from the grill.

We felt a premonition but we had to ask, “Where is Dona Mary?”

Dona Mary has cancer, the answer we didn’t want to hear. It seems to have started as a tumor in her brain but has taken over from there. There is no good news. I mourn this woman I don’t really know but whom I like.

Things change. If the restaurant continues, which I imagine it will, the people working will be family, but a different branch of the family. I’ll continue to go. The food is good. It’s just not the same. Unreasonably, I want Dona Mary to be standing at the stove, her daughter patting out tortillas and the young grand-daughter slicing oranges for fresh juice.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 15, 2018   
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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Symptoms of Being Human


               Symptoms of Being Human
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            Several of us here on Rancho Esperanza begin our days with Qi Gong, a Chinese energy-movement routine; good for balance, stretching and breathing. Breathing is a good thing.

            We have learned the form, Soaring Crane. Most of us are in our seventh decade. Samantha, our teacher, goes through each of the five separate movements with grace and beauty. We do the best we can. I would say I look more like a Crippled Crane. But I keep going. It makes me feel good.

            The last few weeks I’ve noticed flocks of birds flying over when we begin. In the second movement we arch backward, arms open to the sky. I watch the birds and keep my mouth closed.  Each day there are more birds. Each day the birds fly closer.

            Yesterday, I swear, they were laughing at us. “Look at those humans. They think they imitate birds. What a hoot.”

            Laugh at me, they will. But I’ll continue my routine. Like I said, it makes me feel good.

            One day Jim drove to Guadalajara and I rode shotgun. We’ve become good friends, use one another to bounce around ideas. He makes me laugh.

            “It’s a good thing you are not my boyfriend or whatever we call it when we get this age,” I told him. “We are not compatible.”

            Jim said, “Nobody is compatible. It’s a myth.”

            He might be right. We agree that the best trait for friendship is tolerance. And maybe notions such as compatibility and that really strange new-age idea of soul-mates, are really nothing more than desperate wishes that eventually morph into myths.

            The greater Guadalajara area is huge with a population of over six million. Every trip to the Big City is an adventure, to me. Our second stop was at Sundance Hot-tubs and Spas, to get information. I would like a small hot-tub for therapy. A hot water soak makes me feel good.

We found the address, finally, down the center of a dicey looking alley with Federales standing guard at each end. The entrance is a large metal slide-up door. We found it locked down. The store must be around on the main street, we reasoned. So we walked around the block—no such store front. It’s a mystery.

The auto shocks and brakes business next to where we thought the spa store should be was open. When I finally remembered to pronounce Sundance the Spanish way, soon-dawn-say, the man pointed us through his garage back to the alley. Okay.

Back to the locked door we went. Using my Mexican cell phone, we called the number above the door. Immediately, I knew we needed help. The man who answered wanted to give me a different number and a name to call. I could understand that much. But he rattled on too quickly with even more information.

I know how to ask for help in Spanish. I went to the three Federale men standing next to the door, handed one of them my phone and a tablet and pen. The Man in Blue listened, wrote a name, a number and proxima semana. That means next week. The business will be open next week.

“Jim, we looked up the address online before we came. Why didn’t we call from home?” His answer, “That would be too easy.” I thought I heard a whisper, “Bird brain.”

With much thanks, we then asked to be pointed in the direction of a restaurant. They sent us to the street with restaurant supply stores. Two, three, four blocks of restaurant supply stores. That sort of defined the next eight blocks. We finally found a hole-in-the-wall taco place. The tacos were delicious. But they always are.

On the way home we had a fiery conversation about opinions and myths. “Where do people get their information?” I asked. “I think they make it up.”

 Jim said, “Facebook.”

            Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 8, 2018
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Monday, March 5, 2018

Gardening With Squirrel


Gardening With Squirrel
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            Can you believe it? My third spring in Etzatlan? And, my third year fighting with a squirrel.
            Truth to tell, there might be more than one, but the one I see seems to have the same face and the same cheeky attitude. My first year, when the surround of my casita was all dirt, she burrowed beneath the east corner to build a nest for birthing babies.

            Squirrels are cute. Cute when they are “over there”. When underfoot, I tend to view her as a rodent with longer hair. Imagine a nest of rodents making comfort under MY house, making more tunnels, more nests, and, more rodents.

            In the interest of rodent control, ant control, scorpion control and cock roach control, I paved a concrete patio surround. Mama Squirrel holds a grudge. She frequently stands outside my screen door and chitter-chatters an uncomplimentary attack on my character.

            Last year, after attempting to burrow beneath my patio, she settled in at the neighbor’s.

            This year, to further irritate me, Squirrel planted corn. She’s not lazy. She prefers my well-maintained pot farm for her plantings. By “pot farm”, I mean that on and about my wrap-around patio, I’ve filled a hundred flower pots, and counting, all sizes.

Grain is easy to come by. A huge facility for grinding and storing corn sits three or four blocks to the west; corn fields to the east and north. Squirrel fills her cheeks with kernels, high-tails it to my garden, digs a hole, and spits the seeds and covers them up.

I suspect my flower pots are “storage facilities”. In a normal dry season, when she needs food, Squirrel digs up the kernels and carries them to her family.

However, I thwart her carefully laid plots when, with hose and sprinklers, I make a year-round artificial rainy season. Kernels sprout and begin to grow. She might plant forty or fifty kernels in one hole. So the tender baby stalks create a miniature thicket.

By now Squirrel has forgotten which pots she’s planted. And . . .  that Mean Woman, who won’t let her nest under the house, digs the perfectly tender, juicy, lovely shoots of baby corn stalks out of the pots and, horrors, throws them in the garden trash.

If she’s paying attention, Squirrel will have noticed another rival for her corn stash. Yesterday while having a one-sided conversation with an iguana on the half wall, separating my patio from the yard on the south side, I noticed a disturbance in my basil pot. My basil grows like a miniature tree. But I’d recently pruned it. Otherwise, I might not have noticed the disturbance.

In digging out the squirrel’s stash of corn, the iguana had uprooted half the basil pot—dirt slung far and wide. It looked like a hound had been burying a bone. No wonder he looked so sheepish sitting on the wall eye-balling me while I blathered on. The corn shoots must be delicious to have diverted Iggy from his usual diet of my hibiscus, canna lilies and roses.

Everything must eat. The rabbits, a pair, thus far, prefer amaryllis. They like my yard. Perhaps I’m more tolerant of rabbits simply because they don’t dig holes. They also eat oxalis. Oxalis, whatever its virtues, is, in my garden, a noxious weed with a network of roots like a fishnet. I’ve surrendered to its abundance. I no longer attempt to weed it. Impossible. Rabbits, welcome to oxalis heaven.

Today I found another stash of corn, hidden in a patch of oxalis surrounding some of my amaryllis.  I can either uproot the corn plot or leave it for the iguana, the rabbits or the squirrel. I give up.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 1, 2018
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