Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Worms Crawl In, the Worms Crawl Out



The Worms Crawl In, the Worms Crawl Out
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            Worms, big fat juicy ones, eensie weensy squeency ones, wriggled and squirmed into my left leg. Each one wrapped itself around a muscle strand and “Zappo!” Turned my muscles from pelvis to knee into tightly strung barbed wire. That’s what it felt like. 

            It didn’t happen overnight. A year and a half ago, I fell and broke my wrist. A nerve disorder (identified by initials) set in. Through physical therapy I dealt with it. At the same time, my hip began hurting. But, hey, who’s paying attention? The major pain was in my arm.  I ignored my leg until I couldn’t. Once I could no longer “cowboy up” I traced the origin and realized it was the exact same pain (with initials) as my arm. It happens. By this time I had trouble walking. 

            What brought this to a head right now? A friend asked, “Now that you’re alone, and even the snowbirds have flown back to the north-country, what will you do in an emergency, like another scorpion sting?” She planted that thought and my mind, which has a mind of its own, said to my body, “Let’s find out.” 

            Tuesday I hobbled my awkward bundle of laundry five blocks to my neighborhood lavanderia. By the time I had arrived, I couldn’t take another step. I sat in the plaza to rest. Rudy, an acquaintance who sells raw opals, greeted me, “Como esta?” 

            “Mal,” I replied. My face told the truth so my mouth might as well follow. 

            He asked what was wrong. I told him. “You need a massage,” he stated. “I’ll arrange it.  Be here tomorrow about this same time.” 

            Almost in tears, I made it back to the plaza the next morning. A pulmania drove up. “Get in,” Rudy said. “This is Carlos.” He introduced the driver. “We are going to see Nana. She is the best.”  

            Carlos drove us to Pueblo Nuevo, a section of town I’d not seen. On a dead-end street near a canal sat a pretty blue house with a small building off to the side, built in the shape of a parallelogram, Nana’s massage parlor. Nana motioned for me to come. Immediately I recognized her, “Medicine Woman,” and gave myself into her hands. She is ancient, beautiful, austere, strong and wiry. I knew she’d find every knot in my body. She did. She beat me up good. Extracting barbed-wire worms takes digging. I could hear them screaming, “Tighten that wire! Tighten that wire!”

With Rudy translating, Nana told me, “Go home. Rest; come back Friday.” The young men delivered me to my doorstep and helped me inside.  

            I slept. Overnight I changed from workaholic to sloth; I curled my tail around my tree branch and slept. All day, all night, slept. On Friday, Carlos drove me for a repeat performance. My pain level had gone from a ten to a seven. Still hurt like crazy. At the end of the second session, Nana gave me a hug and the same instructions, come back Monday. Again, I slept. My pain level dialed down to five. Still, I couldn’t walk without my walking stick. I’ll pick up a colorfully painted cane later, once I can get out and don’t need it. Monday, Wednesday, each session I am better. 

            I’m allowed light activity in the morning; rest in the afternoon. I feel like a Princess. My outlook has improved. I no longer want to crawl into a cave and let the “worms” have me. I’ll be up and about in no time. 

            Rudy stopped by to make sure I’m okay, to see if I needed anything. He will bring me fresh fruit and vegetables in the morning. He is about my daughter’s age; Carlos perhaps ten years younger. I’m sure they will be glad when this abuela is up and about. They seem to have taken responsibility for me, small-town like.

            This is a week of holidays. Cinco de Mayo on Monday and energy on the street ramped up. More importantly, Mexican Mother’s Day is Saturday, the tenth. Mothers and Grandmothers are revered in Mexico.  Looking out my back door, I don’t see cards and flowers. I see the whole town shut down while families gather to honor mothers. Since I seem to be an adopted grandmother, I get the splash-over.

            A couple lessons from my week: I never know where I’ll find a medicine woman/man. When my closest friends are thousands of miles away, help just might come from strangers, and like the worms in the silly childhood song, “they scramble my heart”. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
May 8, 2014
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Living the Minimalist Life and Loving It



Living the Minimalist Life and Loving It
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            Several years ago when I made the monumental move from Poulsbo, Washington to Harlem, Montana with several truckloads of stuff, I unpacked and created a home that was also a library, an art gallery, a virtual grocery, a tool shed, a fabric store and a workshop.  My life was as complicated as that sentence. 

Jokingly, I swore that if ever I relocated again, I would take nothing with me. I would become a minimalist. My life would be defined by sparseness and simplicity. I envied people who lived with few possessions and a minimum of fuss. I envied them but I wasn’t one of them. I was a clutter-bug, a congenital collector of disparate and unrelated beautiful objects, which I arranged, placed, and displayed in pleasing manner. 

Imagine my surprise when I landed in Mazatlan with a van packed with a minimum of clothing, kitchen tools, sheets (wrong size for the bed in my furnished apartment), towels, bathroom necessities and a “minimum” (there’s that word again) of items absolutely worthless to anybody but myself. I brought one painting, one clock, one wall hanging and a deck of cards. Get the picture.  I became one of those whom I envied.

That was never my intention. I figured I’d scout the area, buy a house and proceed to fill it with wonderful art items, heche en Mexico. The longer I camped in my little rented apartment, the less I wanted a house with all that home ownership entails. Then I unpacked my boxes and took possession of my rental space. 

In that process I pared down even more. “Why did I bring this 3,000 miles? What was I thinking?” Unwanted items placed at the curb soon disappeared. I renegotiated rent and paid a year ahead. When I see Oscar, the handyman, I’ll ask him to remove the television, the lamps I don’t want, the window blinds and, maybe, even the bed. Spare. Simple. 

Friends had asked me, “How could you do it? You have so much that is wonderful and precious.”

“Yes, true. I treasured and enjoyed every bit of it. Now it is time for me to try something different. Stuff is just stuff. Stuff accumulates like iron filings to a magnet. But I’m seeing things differently. How much do I need?” 

Brave words, I thought to myself. It’s possible I’ll end up screaming at myself, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” 

Was it painful, walking away from a lifetime of accumulations and memories? I felt twinges, more like irritating mosquito bites than amputating a leg. Now and then I wish I’d brought this or that with me. Mostly I improvise with what I have. 

I’m going to paint my walls a muted shade of clay, to warm the atmosphere and soften the backdrop for the dark wooden furniture, sturdy but ugly against white. Other changes I’ll make with fabrics and plants. 

Overall, I feel lighter, free, like I have a new set of glasses. I’ll not recreate my former life. Minimalism fits my skin for now. Rather than buy art, if I feel a need to spend, I’ll buy travel and experiences. 

A friend helped me to be able to make this big move to another country, a move I had wanted for years. He helped me find my way around town, explained unfamiliar customs and conventions. I would have had a harder time without him. We had hoped our friendship would develop into something permanent and loving. Sadly, too many small differences accumulated, cluttered up our time together, eventually eroded into a rift that separated us. 

To me, the most important thing is to be able to share a sense of humor. I find that humor is hard to translate. Maybe my brand of wry, deadpan wit is even harder to bounce across language barriers. Misunderstanding was often out of control by the time I realized translation was necessary. So I move forward, alone.  

I didn’t realize I had embraced a minimalist life until I was living it. Would I recommend it to others? Heck no. A change like this is an inside job. One must be ready, even chomping at the bit, to transplant one-self like I have. 

If one is not ready, one’s experience would be similar to outsiders buying property in Montana for a “get-away” retreat. Generally newcomers stay the summer the first year; one month maximum, probably September, the second year, and skip the third year. The fourth year the owners pound a “For Sale” sign next to the front gate. There is a wide world of difference between a change of pace and a change of life. Me? I’m happy. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
May 1, 2014
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This Week in Havre, With Me and “Cupcake”



This Week in Havre, With Me and “Cupcake”
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            This morning I walked into the Grateful Bread and asked Rick if I could hog a table and sit a spell with my computer, hoping to get inspiration for my article. Cinnamon rolls, hot out of the oven made my mouth water. In the few minutes it took me to get my computer and return, the rolls had disappeared. Does that say anything about how inspirational are the cinnamon rolls at the Grateful Bread, warm from the oven, drizzled with brown sugar. 

            But, hey, a cookie, generous with butter and chocolate chips is equal to the job. Ask my mouth. 

            The wind blew me into Havre, where I knew I could mooch on good friends, Dick and Jane. A few weeks ago we had a scare when Dick suffered a stroke. Thanks to the VA doctors here, in Helena and in Denver, with equal measures to Dick’s willingness to do the hard work of therapy, he is recovering, getting stronger. This is not to slight Jane’s good care. She and I have had conversations in the past where we agreed that neither of us is nurse material. Jane is a saint in my eyes, despite her wee lie. She is an excellent nurse. She disagrees. “I’m too impatient. I just do what’s in front of me to do.”

            Kris, at the High Plains Gallery and Frame Shop in the Atrium, headed my long list of people to see. I first knew Kris’s mother-in-law, Anne Shaw, founder of the Book Exchange. I felt personally devastated when I learned the book store was closed. I wanted to jump right in and take it over. Sadly, a book store will not flourish when open only during summertime, especially if run by someone with her nose in a book, reading all the merchandise before it hits the shelf. And having experienced winter in sub-tropical climes, I would not flourish in another Montana winter. I have a trunk full of great ideas that won’t work. 

            Kris hinted, rumor has it, maybe (see how I hedge my bets), just maybe (hold your breath), some crazed book lover (cross your fingers) may come forth to rescue the bookstore. Maybe a co-op of local writers and readers. I cannot imagine Havre, nay, the whole of north-central Montana, without a book store.

            Yesterday, after missing him at his office six times, I finally saw Clay Vincent on the street. Clay is Hill County Sanitarian, a job which covers a lot of territory. “Clay, you’re on my list of people to see. I really miss the Unified Landfill Board meetings.”

            “If you miss those meetings,” Clay replied, “you must be crazy.” Surely he didn’t mean it, me crazy? Ah, well, maybe so. Define the term. 

            Of all my jobs when I was on City Council in Harlem, I liked Landfill Board best. The board is composed mostly of men who have to get back into the field to tend crops or watch clouds. Meetings are no nonsense. If a new truck is needed, those men understand. They compare specs and make a decision. Things get done.

            I popped up the stairway for a brief visit with Paul Tuss at Bear Paw Development. Paul asked, “Didn’t I see you driving a van painted like, uh, like . . .”

            “A cupcake, “I suggested. “That was me.”

            Driving a van which looks like a cupcake makes me anything but anonymous. At times I feel notorious. Strangers grin, wave and outright laugh at me. My intention was to paint a basket weave design to cover my obsolete business logo. My design sort of got out of hand, took off on its own. But it looks bright and cheerful. If you missed me, I’ll be back in August. 

            Wherever I went this week, I serendipitously found friends and acquaintances. Post office. Bank. The Glass Works for chip repair. The Amtrak office to buy a ticket for this summer. The Havre Daily for a good visit with Pam. A long awaited luncheon, promised for months, with John Kelleher, for stimulating conversation. He brought me up to date on regional happenings. 

            Why is it that when one leaves and returns, the only thing important is time spent with friends?

            Next week I’ll be back in Mexico, basking in the sun, finally thawing my cold bones. I’ll see familiar faces in my neighborhood, acquaintances. Some of them may become friends eventually. Friends take time. Friends make my life rich. See you later this summer, my friend. Meanwhile, I’ll write. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
April 24, 2014
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Return of the Native



Return of the Native
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            Feels good to be back in Montana in the spring-time. One thing for certain, spring in eastern Montana is reliably brown. Other places, other climes, daffodils are popping up their cheery heads, lilacs ready up to perfume the countryside, trees are greening.

            We, who identify with this northern country, appreciate brown hills with intermittent bluffs of gray. Modest glaciers of white bury north-slope coulees. The calendar may declare spring. We know better. Winter will hang on with cold fingers and at least a couple more feisty snows before its icy grip wanes, allowing spring to loose a brief bounty of beauty. 

            Feels good to be back. Never mind that I’m suffering constant chill, having acclimated to consistent winter temperatures in the high seventies, low eighties. Long underwear, two shirts and a sweater along with a lap blanket help insulate my cold bones. 

            This morning I look out my window to an overview of the stark magnificence of the Yellowstone badlands. I love places. My trip back to Montana has included a feast of places: half the length of Mexico, Arizona, east to west, a poke into California, through long Nevada, chop of southern Idaho, Montana, blanketing the state. I pull off the road frequently, simply sit and listen; soak up impressions of the countryside. Feeds my soul. 

            People in our lives come and go. Some are brief encounters like the family in a restaurant in Nogales, with whom I shared pictures of my grandchildren while they shared their sprouts, a yearling boy and a two-year-old girl with a mop of black curls. Or the cafĂ© in Wells, Nevada, for the best coffee, down home food and friendly faces who greeted me as if I were an old friend. I’ll never see them again but I’ll not soon forget them. 

            More than anything, this trip is to see people I care about. I detoured through Arizona to spend a day with Donna and Duane. Donna is one of my high school friends. It is strange how most of us were so self-centered in high school that the world revolved around “me” and I never really got to know “you”.  Donna says, “Thank goodness we grow up.” And she means it. I treasure my friendship with Donna. 

            In Floweree, Karen and I made summer plans for day trips, for our high school reunion, plans for painting and gardening while I camp with her. Karen and I are like a pair of mis-matched old shoes, a little run down at the heel, but comfortable and we fit. 

            Shirley is a cousin I never saw growing up but in the last several years we have come to know one another and to forge strong family bonds. Much of our conversation, as we shake our heads and roll our eyes, boils down to discussion of family traits; some we’d like to ditch but we are stuck with things like stoic stubbornness, a critical eye and serious mien. I like to think we balance those with generous heart, quirky humor and family love. 

            While staying with Shirley in Harlem, I crawled out of bed in the wee hours each morning to have coffee with the boys at City Shop, just like I used to do. My green cup still hung on the nail on the wall. I filled it, took “my” chair and eased into the conversation as though I’d never left. At breakfast with good friends, Mayor Bill and his wife, Mary John Taylor, I felt the same easy welcome. I’ve been places where a six month absence made me a stranger. That is not so here; I’ve been away but I never left. 

            Glendive is home to my daughter and her family. My granddaughter Toni is a fish in another life so my stay in a hotel with pool makes me her favorite grandma this week. The hot-tub gives me a chance to heat my blood for the next leg of my journey. To say we are having a good time is understatement. When I return for the summer, my other granddaughter Lexi and I will ride the train from Seattle to Wolf Point so the young cousins can play together a few weeks.

            When I get to Havre this week I’ll cram in a flurry of visiting with friends. People and place. Both are made up, molecule on molecule, sticks on stone, of stories. For me, stories are what life is all about.

            I hesitate to ask, but, “Would you please turn the thermostat up a couple degrees when I arrive? Seventy-five would me a nice minimum. Oh, and a humidifier, please. Any hot air will work. I appreciate it.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
April 17, 2014
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