Thursday, September 29, 2016

“When The Frost Is On The Pumpkin”
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            “And the fodder’s in the shock.” James Whitcomb Riley, the “Hoosier Poet”. He wrote in dialect and I loved it. I memorized that entire poem in southern Indiana hillbilly style in third grade at Elizabeth. I like to think I was more in love with the season than the poet. No matter where I’ve lived, autumn has been special to me.
            That is, until I got to Mexico. In Mazatlan, on the coast of the Sea of Cortez, with desert a mere short drive inland, where I lived two and a half years, I could barely distinguish one season from another. Summertime brought torrential rains, short lived, usually at night. Summer was green. Winter tended more toward a lesser green with speckles of gray-brown.
            Here in Etzatlan, snugged against the hills in the high Sierra Madre valley near Guadalajara, summer is officially over; the rainy season has drifted away until next June. Corn stalks zoom even higher than elephants’ eyes. By the end of October, men will swarm into corn with machetes and stack the fodder into shocks. Cane reaches upward visibly day by day. Peppers soon will be ready for harvest and shipment all over the world.
            I’ve always been an avid weather watcher; too many Montana years where weather personified is a psychopath which might turn on one in a heartbeat. I’ve lived in many places but Montana is always “home”.
I’ve been in Etzatlan seven months. It’s the beginning of fall and I’m trying my best to find the errant season. Spring, March and April, were hot and dry. That is all messed up! Summer hot and wet with cool nights, ideal. I keep looking for signs of the fall season according to those which I remember best. None have appeared. What I do find baffles me.
            A huge tree at the corner of my garden resembles a floral umbrella, vibrant green leaves patterned with orange trumpet-like bouquets. Plants and bushes which bloomed in the spring are again in bloom, some for the third time. My bottle brush tree is full of red brushes and hummingbirds. How do they do that? Some never stop blooming. Like the lilies. And the roses.
That’s another thing. What are roses doing in this sub-tropical region? Brought here by gringos, no doubt. Yet every vivero (nursery) has a selection of roses. Leaf-cutter ants feast on my roses. These voracious critters form an assembly line and strip a rose bush in minutes. I’ve timed them. Once roses have been reduced to naked stalks, they turn their attention to the young oleander and baby hibiscus I just planted. To stop them I’ve, with requisite guilt, resorted to sprinkling a vile yellow powder while wearing rubber gloves and a face mask. I boil my body afterward.
I’m harvesting my first limes from the baby tree I planted in April. Oranges are forming on my new trees, barely as tall as me. I’ve no idea if they are in season or out of season. What is the season?
Canaries are returning from the north. I’ve seen the first two pairs this week. Ha! There’s another returned bird searching for bugs on my brick wall. He is a variety of woodpecker, the size of a chickadee.
And the “sheets” are back. They weren’t gone long. I call them sheets because this butterfly, the size of a saucer, floats in the air like a bed sheet on the line, gently shifting in the breeze.
Breeze? That’s another difference between here and there. The weather forecast this morning predicted winds from two to four miles per hour. Two to four? Is that measurable? Any self-respecting Montana wind would sneer at such a wimp.
Real winds, when they happen, seem to foretell incoming rain, whipping with intensity for ten or fifteen minutes. Then the wind falls off, raindrops start, the wind moves the clouds on over to the neighbors. I’m just describing what I’ve experienced.
But it is only the end of September. Maybe frost will rime the pumpkin yet. My neighbor told me last year one morning in January the top of his car was covered with frost. Big whoop, right!
I can still recite Riley’s entire poem and if I close my eyes, I can see the changes, smell the season. Birds and butterflies are great. But I’d love to see the gathering of the elk at Slippery Anne. I may have to get a ticket home.
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 29, 2016
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Cross Your Eyes and Dot Your Teas

Cross Your Eyes and Dot Your Teas
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            I like to write letters. I like to receive letters. It’s a lifelong habit for me. While I no longer have a mailbox, I do have an email account and a computer. While the pleasure is not even similar to pulling down the flap of the aluminum container perched on a post at the end of the drive, I have learned to compensate.
            We live in a wondrous and fearful world. Everything—letters, bills, junkmail, spam, appears on my screen without visible means of support.
            Just this week, in addition to daily notes from “regular” mailers, I heard from Lynne, a friend I haven’t seen in over twenty years. While “heard” isn’t the accurate word, she tried to contact me.
            Lynne was my first friend when I moved to Washington in ’84. We met through my, then embryonic, business. Together we crossed the Sound to hear the Seattle Symphony practice sessions, an experience which can be more exciting than the actual symphony. We sat around our kitchen tables and drank gallons of tea. We filled hours with conversation, hopes and dreams and “where did we go wrongs”. We both were alone, knew few other people in the area. In my case, in that first year, she was my only friend. 
            Despite our good intentions, we eventually got busy with our lives and somewhere along the way we lost touch. At that time neither of us could activate a computer. I couldn’t imagine ever using one though my eight-year-old son managed to scrounge one at a neighborhood yard-sale and within weeks was making the relic do things it was too old and never designed to do. He did not inherit his skills from me. I wish inheritance worked the other way around.
            Lynne located me through the Havre Daily News. I realize she didn’t walk into the newsroom and grab a paper. She probably Googled (Is that a real verb?) my name, opened the HDN website, read my column and found my email address at the end of the article.
            She tried to email me and failed to get through. Undaunted (I’m imagining the steps.), she then found my Montana Tumbleweed blogspot. She left a message for me. I am so excited.
            Lest you think I am computer savvy, I confess that my daughter set up and manages my blogspot. Dee Dee relayed Lynne’s message to me. For some reason, operator error, I’m certain, I cannot get into the mysterious innards of my blogspot from Mexico. So I asked Dee Dee to give my message to Lynne and assure her that the email address on my column is indeed the right one.
            I’m fairly certain, imagination again, that Lynne overlooked the dot in my address. It’s easy to do. After all, it is such a little thing, that dot in the middle of my name. A simple dot. One hardly notices it. In retrospect, when I set up the site, I should have simply said sondrajeandotashton, weird at that looks, it is visible.
            Meanwhile, out of the blue and across the miles, this same day, Steve’s wife Theresa emailed me to ask if she still had my correct email address. She said Steve wanted to email me. Ja! Ja! Ja! (That is laughter in Espanol.) Steve and email? That is funny.
I’ve been friends with Steve for years. He has never emailed me though I get occasional messages from Theresa. In fact, when last in Washington, Steve and I had coffee at my favorite coffeehouse, the Waterfront Bakery in Silverdale. He told me then that he was determined to learn to email. I smiled. But I never opened my mailbox to look for a letter. I know Steve.
Lynne will contact me. We have entire decades of time and experiences to share. I will check my inbox with happy anticipation. Maybe her message will await me in the morning.  
Who knows? Maybe Steve will write too.
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 22, 2016
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Monday, September 19, 2016

Churros In The Plaza—Snakes On The Doorstep

Churros In The Plaza—Snakes On The Doorstep
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            My friends are back home in British Columbia. I signed up for three days of depression, lonely following our whirlwind of explorations and excitement. A vibrantly green lizard perches on my wall, staring down at me, as if to say, “I’m here. Don’t cry.”

            Each day brought choices, where to go, what to see. We drove to Tonola twice for the tianguis (open-air street market). Twice we plucked fruit and vegetables from huge piles at the Friday tianguis in Etzatlan.  

Under the guise of signing Kathy up for phone/internet service, we went to Tequila. Yes, Tequila is the actual name of a town.

            Etzatlan, in the valley rich with black volcanic dirt, is purely farm country. Tequila, in the red-rock volcanic hills, surrounded by blue agave fields, is home to Jose Cuervo Tequilas. The beautiful town, clean and festive, lured us into the museum, gallery, shops and a restaurant, of course, where I had shrimp in Tequila sauce. No, I did not have to go to a meeting afterward.  

            We staunchly resisted temptation though we could have been lured into imbibing tequila every ten meters. People here laugh at Americanos who drink rotgut bar tequila in slammers or sinkers or some weird thing—as quickly down the hatch as possible because it is so bad. Tequila is meant to be sipped and savored. Distilleries guard their secret recipes. Each brand has different strengths, flavors, and ages.  

            Oops—there goes my lizard, Verde, straight down into the giant philodendron, head first. I’ve been abandoned again!

            We saw Magdalena, famous for opal mines. We yielded to temptation, mea culpa, in San Marcos, where artisans make clay pottery dishes and cookware.

            Our favorite baker had a severe stroke so his (the 4:00) panaderia is closed. In our minds his baked goods are the best. So we had to search out other bakeries. We have settled on the 12:00 bakery for fresa (strawberry) empanadas, the 2:00 bakery for the most delicious Mexican cookies and the 5:00 bakery for bread rolls and other melt-in-your mouth goodies. Times refer to when the goodies emerge from the ovens.

These are very small bakeries, no signs over the door. Bread is made fresh daily and often sold out within a couple hours. It’s hard to justify baking when an empanada is 3.5 pesos and a bread roll is 3 pesos.

            About a half hour drive from Etzatlan, in the hills of Teutchitlan, archeologists uncovered ancient ruins of the Guachimontones pyramids. As early as 300 BCE an ancient people built a complex society around circular stepped pyramids. We were allowed to wander around these ancient sites, only a few of which have been restored. This is a “must” trip for everyone who visits me. No argument.

            On the way back from the pyramids, we dined at the three hundred year-old Hacienda La Rivera. I don’t mean we ate. We dined. There is a difference. We savored our choices over three hours. It seemed fitting. Nothing should be rushed after a day in the spiritual ruins.

            One Sunday evening we sat in the Plaza just to watch people and munch churros. There is something which must be respected in a society in which the entire family strolls around the square after church, enjoying one another, enjoying their neighbors.

            Every day brought new experiences, special times. My friends did not want to leave. On the last day we were sitting on my patio when a coral snake curled into view from around a flower pot to the right of my door. Kathy and Crin jumped on chairs. I knew it wouldn’t attack. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t afraid like I was with my first coral snake. But I wasn’t going to embrace it.

Josue and Erica ran over with shovels and dispatched the slinky bugger. What happened with “You’ll probably never see another one”? In Mexico it is against the law to kill the snakes. Don’t tell.

            You might think all we do down here is gallivant around. My everyday life is simple. We over-filled the few days Kathy and Crin were here. It was Crin’s first visit and we had ulterior motives. We wanted to convince Crin to buy a house and come frequently. Will she? A strong “maybe,” “probably,” “almost a done deal”.

            I’ll miss them terribly. Here comes a three-day depression. Three days of rest. My neglected garden is crying for attention. Working in the dirt will pull me together. Oh, another lizard on my wall—this one gray.

            Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 15, 2016
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A Story With No Beginning And No End

A Story With No Beginning And No End
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            Yesterday Ariel and Lani, Kathy and Crin and I went to Rolando’s taco restaurant.  He served us chicken with cream and mushroom sauce and all the fixings, family style. We loaded our plates and the only sound for twenty minutes was clinks of knives and forks. Delicioso.

            After overeating, we walked around the Plaza. We passed a young couple sitting on a white wrought-iron bench, his arm around her shoulders. She appeared sad, as if she might have been crying.

            I passed closest to the couple, and in Mexico, strangers give a polite greeting. “Buenas tardes,” I said and smiled.   

The man stopped me with an unusual question. “Senora, do you think my wife is beautiful?”

            “Yes,” I looked into her eyes. “You are muy bonita.”

            “She thinks she is not beautiful.” I relayed our conversation to my friends. With sincere words and gestures, we assured Danielle that she is indeed a lovely woman. Certainly Lorenzo thought her beautiful.

We will never know what caused her to doubt herself. It could have been something as simple as some other woman prancing by all dolled up. Our couple looked like they drove in from the farm, wearing jeans and boots and plaid shirts, clean and well pressed, but hardly high fashion. We learned Danielle is twenty-two. The couple has three babies. That alone would be enough to make me cry.

The look in her eyes jumped-started a memory as vividly as if it happened today. I’ve talked about it before. To briefly recap, I was divorced, a single mom, teaching school in Hays. I met a man from Box Elder who had a remarkable impact on my life. Over a few months time I saw James several times. We had fun together. I liked him a lot. But it wasn’t enough.

The finale exploded my world. I don’t remember what we were discussing. But I’ll never forget when I said to him, “But who do you want me to be. Just tell me who you want me to be.”

His reply, “I just want you to be yourself. I like you, not someone you think you need to be to please me.” Not the exact words, maybe, but close enough.

“Just be yourself.” How could I? I’d survived many years by being the chameleon I thought others wanted me to be.

Erasing myself had taken time, a subtle process, an on-going addition of many little things, all of which subtracted me.

As a child: You can’t be hungry. We just ate. Or you can’t be cold. It’s 75 degrees. It’s an easy progression to being told: You don’t want to do that. You really don’t want this one. You’re going to wear that? You don’t really think that. Why can’t you be more . . . (fill in the blank)? I heard it all.  And these examples are just a few of the words within which I became lost. Body language speaks even louder. Add isolation to criticism and half-truths. I disappeared.

Fortunately, though I never saw James again, I remembered his words, his priceless gift. James gave me back my life. I am the person he saw through all the masks.  

I began the search for myself by remembering my childhood, the things which gave me joy, the things that had nothing to do with pleasing other people. Gradually I put painting, sewing, designing, building, writing and rock collecting back into my life. These “doings” helped me to begin to “be” once again. Little things, over time, like wearing comfortable clothing rather than what I thought I should wear for the job, added to my increasing confidence.

That was the beginning of a long process. You’d have a hard time erasing me today!

I realize I’m imputing my experiences and pains onto Danielle, an innocent woman who may have simply stubbed her toe. Yet I think I recognize a relationship, however tenuous.

Before we left the Plaza the couple spoke with us again. Danielle looked considerably more cheerful. Yet she stayed in my head the rest of the night. I want to remember her with pink bubbles, three laughing babies and a man who wants her to be happy.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 8, 2016
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