Friday, June 30, 2017

“Green, Green, It’s Green They Say. . .”

“Green, Green, It’s Green They Say. . .”
            For the past three weeks it has, indeed, been greener on the far side of the hills surrounding our parched valley. Rains come in June, the local people tell me. And the rains surrounded us, in Ahualulco, San Marcos, Magdalena, Ameca. We in Etzatlan sat high and dry.

            Our last rain fell in October. Every day I scoop sand dunes off my floors. I worry. Is this a drought? June is nearly done and gone. What will we do for water?

            I grew up worrying about weather. I learned from my Dad, leaning on a shovel at the irrigation ditch, scanning the sky for any hint of cloud. I have too much history of the rains that never come. Even twenty-five years in the Seattle area, land of perpetual drizzle, could not—did not—cure my weather worry.

            Our household water is delivered by gravity flow. Each day the pressure dropped. Each day watering my extensive garden took longer. Some blithering idiot went crazy planting flowers in pots. What was the woman thinking? I walked around my casita and counted pots—95! I am embarrassed. Perhaps my gardening obsession got out a wee bit of hand.

            Our tiny colonia is situated on the corner of Rancho Esperanza. Streets are nothing more than dirt driveways. After eight months of no rain, dust devils are common. Yesterday I saw a rat in the philodendron alongside my patio wall. Rats are moving in from the corn fields, newly plowed and planted. Today I captured a rat in a bucket. Poor rat. Dispatched.

            Humidity climbed exponentially. One day 4%. Then 34%. 51% seemed too much to bear. Next day, 67%. Moisture saturated the air. Temperatures in the muggy high 90’s. Clouds moved in. Clouds moved out. Clouds moved all around and about.

            Until, Glory, Glory, “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

            The first drops evaporate on contact with my concrete patio. Thunder rumbles. Sky lights flash. Wind delivers more than empty promise. An hour later every leaf, every blade of grass glistens with diamond flashes in the setting sunlight.

            I go to bed to the music of night storms. But I don’t sleep.  I have a strange mixture of emotions, hard to decipher. Apprehension when thunder crashes overhead and lightning surrounds me in every direction. My little house has wrap-around windows, no curtains, so I live open to the elements. I get up and close windows on the east and north. Wind shifts direction. I get out of bed again, close windows to west and south. Open. Close. Apprehension mixes with joy, sheer exuberance that the rainy season is begun. Three times the rains drop down blessings that first night.

            My yard looks like a park. Every plant has drunk its fill. Flower pots clustered on my patio are saturated. A dozen kinds of birds are mining the grass in my yard for bugs and worms. No need to drag hose from place to place today. Instantly the temperature dropped fifteen degrees. I inhaled deeply. Why does earth wet with rain smell different than rain wet from a sprinkler? Why are flower scents stronger today? Why do the hummingbirds act drunk?

            Late afternoon, clouds roll in, the show begins, small rain. But in the night, a steady pattering, two hours, three hours, soak. The green of grass and shrubs is so bright and intense that one needs shades, even in the shadows. Two nights of rain and the land appears rejuvenated.

            By the third stormy night I’m able to sleep through the rock and roll. I know each evening will bring sky activity from now through October. The locals assure me. I believe. I’m so easy.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

June 29, 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017

I Think I’ll Write A Self-Help Book

I Think I’ll Write A Self-Help Book
            Well, why not? Back in the day, I devoured self-help books.

Back in the early 1980’s when my life was shattered like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces, in an attempt to put myself back together, I read a raft of self-help, pop-psychology, pull-yourself-up-by-bootstraps, think-your-way-to-success type fluff-and-stuff. I’d finish one, find another, thinking each would have the solution for me.

I soon had accumulated an entire bookcase filled with sugar pills, innocuous comfort, in book form. In those days self-help books were popular. It seemed everybody wanted to get slimmer, richer, beautiful, buff, smarter, mentally, physically, financially and spiritually fit; all from a book. There were plenty of people to tell us how.

It took a well-aimed jab from a friend to open my eyes to what I was doing. “Most of these books are about changing who you are. What if who you are is okay? Is your concern about who you are or is it about mistakes you’ve made? We’ve all made mistakes.”

Ouch. I didn’t like being called out but it got me thinking. I figured I’d made just about every mistake possible. And I never considered that I was a bad person. But how could somebody as smart as me be so stupid?

Along the way I’d noticed that I would read a book, put it down, read another, and in this manner, I’d filled a bookshelf. Hey, they were kind of fun. Each book suggested things to do. I ignored those chapters. When I thought about it, I realized I had been looking for some magic anodyne, an instant inner-makeover.

I quit reading the books and got outside help. Smart move for me. 

So why write a book? Why not? I’ve noticed that self-help authors are rich and famous. They travel. They are invited to give seminars all over the world. I like to travel. Seminars are fun. Money would be nice.

Problem is, I don’t have the answers for you. But, hey, these authors from the ‘70’s and ‘80’s didn’t have answers for me either. Those two little words, “for me”, are very important.

What got me chugging along this bizarre train of thought was talking with a woman who rented one of the casas on the rancho for a couple weeks. She came to explore Etzatlan, to see if she’d like to join our community. The house she rented, fortuitously, is for sale.

A budding friendship emerged. I answered her questions the best I could or pointed her toward people who could better give her information. During this short time she decided to buy the house, decided not to buy the house, decided to buy a house in town, or maybe not, or maybe buy this house after all.

When she left, her decision was still hanging. One thing we agreed on from our accumulated life experiences, is that there is no such thing as a good or bad decision. (I’m not talking about letting your children play on the Freeway, silly.) Each decision I make has consequences, some, “good”, some, “questionable”. Decision A will point my life northwest. Decision B might shuttle me southeast. Neither is “right” nor “wrong”. Just different.

Living here in Mexico happens to be Paradise “for me”. When I talk with friends I try to remember to use those little words, “for me”. My life in my Mexican home is good, not perfect, but good, as is obvious when you visit. I would never try to talk you into following in my footsteps. Paradise for me might be hell for you. I don’t know.

My friend will make her decision. She’s still gathering information, an important function, one I managed to ignore for years. She plans to return for six months in the fall, either as renter or owner.  

So see, I have life skills I can pass along. In my self-help book I might start with a chapter on decision making. Another on gathering information. One on minding my own business. Shucks, I could be my own guru.

Actually I have gotten better (for me) life-changing information from fiction books than from those long-ago abandoned self-help books. So maybe the title of my new book should be The Ultimate Self-Help Fiction Book.

I’m rather fond of magical thinking too. So how about The Ultimate Self-Help Book of Fantasy and Fiction.

Or, The Barely Adequate Self-Help Book With No Answers.  

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

June 22, 2017

Love In The Treetops

Love In The Treetops
            A friend, a man who has been single for a number of years, wrote to say that he’s been feeling down in the mullygrubs. He said he’s probably just feeling lonesome. He’s considering jump-starting a romance, even though he thinks he might be headed the wrong direction.

            I’m not one to sneer at romance in any form. My inclination, and I suspect my friend does likewise, is that when I meet somebody I tend to color in the blank spots to fit the pattern I want to see. That’s never worked for me yet.

            Since I live in such a place and in such a way that I don’t meet available men, romance is a moot point. But I have to confess that the last few days I’ve been wishing—well, I don’t even know how to form my wish.

            This vague dissatisfaction began while I was sitting out on my back patio in the shade of the jacaranda tree, watching birds.

            Ah, the birds. The birds of Jalisco    look like flowers in the treetops—splashes of color, reds, yellows, oranges and blues. I can, and do, watch them for hours. Which is exactly what got me into this slump.

            Instead of celebrating their beauty, I noticed the birds are all in pairs. Hims and hers. All of them. That’s not possible. There’s got to be extras. Old maids. Hermits. Curmudgeons of the feathery variety. I’m not seeing them.

            When I do spot a single bird, sitting on a wire, chirrup, chirrup; in swoops a mate, and shameless behavior begins. They don’t have to flaunt it, do they?

The lovebirds are the worst offenders. No wonder I feel lonely. These are quail doves, according to my Mexican bird book, smaller than our mourning doves, with a prettier coo, and entirely lacking in inhibitions, which is why I call them lovebirds.

            There is another bird, quite handsome, that has a call that sounds like a wolf whistle. I kid you not. First time I heard it, I almost sprained my neck, twisting around to see from whence it came. I hadn’t heard a wolf whistle in forty years. So, it wasn’t meant for me; still, I thanked Senor Bird. At my age, I take it where I can get it.

            Critters provide me unending entertainment. If flower petals had wings, they’d be butterflies. Like the birds, butterflies display an amazing array of color combinations. The bed sheets, not their official name, are back.  I’ve seen four of them so far. Up close, these huge white butterflies have the most delicate black edging, like lace.

            Lizards of unending sizes, colors and types, iguanas, bunny rabbits (cotton-tail variety), squirrels; every critter is paired. You’d think the Ark just came to rest on the mountaintop, the door dropped down, and two by two, the animals march off to do what they do in the Spring-time.

            I don’t resent my avian friends. Envy, yes. Resent, no. How could I resent creatures which so enthusiastically greet the morning?

            At first light, before the actual sun is even a hint on the horizon, the many-membered chorus of birds begins to sing, each individual song full-throated, top volume. This musical cacophony, like an orchestra tuning instruments, goes on for about forty-five minutes. Out of this variety of voices, don’t ask me how, beauty emerges.

            Amazingly, as soon as the sun, the tip of the red ball, peeks over the horizon, the chorus segues into silence, a holy time as the sun rises. Once Sol is topping the trees, individual species begin their daily chores, a different music. Birds begin to feed, to flit, to flirt.

            If nothing else, it would be nice to be able to turn to another person over cups of coffee and say, “Ah, the birds are at it again.”

            But, wait. This is unbelievable. A handsome yellow bird, all shades of yellow from pale to vivid with greenish hues at the edges of his wings, one of the many Warblers, just landed on my windowsill, cocked his head and spoke to me. Flirted, actually. I’m out of the loop, but I do remember flirting. Oh, the songs. Oh, the sweetness. He winked. “Come with me Toots. I’ll show you a good time.”

            I shook my head. “It won’t work,” I told him. Cultural and language differences notwithstanding, I can’t but imagine his shock and horror when he discovers all my pillows are filled with feathers.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

June 15, 2017

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Human Nature Being What It Is . . .

Human Nature Being What It Is . . .
            I hate physical therapy. Writing with a computer means you’ll give me no sympathy. If we were talking face-to-face, I’d be able to mumble, “It’s my own fault. I quit too soon. It’s been mumble-mumble-slurred-words since I quit. Arturo told me I should do these few simple movements forever. Sheesh!” And you’d pat my hand and say, “There, there. Poor thing.”

            And if I were using pencil on depleted rain-forest, I could smear the tell-tale number with my tears of frustration and you’d never know I quit PT two years ago. I can hear you say, disgust tingeing your voice, “Two years! Your own fault! No pain, no gain.”

            Having vented my spleen, I can also tell you that three-and-a-half weeks into a routine, PT does me body good. I mean, two years! No wonder I hurt. I’m slowly increasing reps, feeling the burn (Why do people make that sound like a good thing?) and gaining noticeable strength in my legs.

Whether human nature or my own natural cussedness, when I recently interrupted my painful routine for three days, I did so with reluctance and disappointment. The reason?

Strawberries. Fragile, delicious strawberries.

Near as I can tell, strawberry season seems to be year around here. Whenever I’m in town near the Plaza, I look for the strawberry truck, across the street from the Guadalajara Farmacia. I generally buy a kilo, twenty pesos.

I decided next time to pick up six kilos and make mermelada—jam, to us. So when Carol asked if I’d like to go with her Thursday to the tianguis, street market, in Ahualulco. My first thought was “strawberries”. 

We’d barely entered town when we spotted a small pick-up, loaded with crates of berries, ten pesos a kilo; women lined in back up by the man with the scale. Carol squeezed her Jeep close to the truck, blocking three vehicles. I jumped out and got in line; six kilos for me, two kilos for Carol. The man indicated a crate. Since I wanted eight kilos total, why not take the whole crate for a hundred pesos. This is around $5.00 to us. Made sense to me. At the time.

There was no place to park within blocks of the tianguis so we decided to go on down the road to Teuchitlan. Carol wanted to buy a sculpture she’d seen at Carlos’ Artisan shop. I visited with Carlos and Brenda, new acquaintances.

We stayed an hour. With the hot sun beating down on the roof of the car, sweet strawberry fragrance permeated every molecule of air, reminding me I’d have to deal with them immediately when I got home. I handed Carlos a plastic bag, “Take some; take more.”

When I say a crate of strawberries, you have to realize the size of the crate. What was I thinking! This monster, which seemed to expand in the back of the Jeep, measured 20 X 13 X 12, heaped full of berries. It took both of us to carry it to my outdoor kitchen sink. Carol didn’t rake out nearly enough. I don’t think she realized a kilo is 2.2 pounds. Oh, well, I’d give her some jam.

I grabbed an apron and paring knife and began washing, hulling and chopping immediately. I have no idea how many kilos of berries that crate held; at least, twenty. I worked until dark and still had half a crate unfinished. Aching feet forgotten, I slept hard.

Morning found me hulling berries at first light. I finished the crate. In the beginning, I carefully cut away every blemish. It wasn’t long before any blemished berry hit the throw-away pile along with the hulls.

I had a limited number of jars and no pectin. This meant I made jam using the long-cook method. I made two batches and called it a good day. Next afternoon and three batches later, I finished. I filled my own canning jars along with every borrowed vessel I could find, fill and give away.

Canning jars, bright with berry jam, are as beautiful as any art. Making jam satisfies something primal within my soul. But, honestly, it’s cheaper to buy jam in town and I really like the kind at the tienda near the bazaar.

Maybe I’ll skip making mango jam this year. But, I heard of a place in Guadalajara where I can buy canning jars. Six kilos of mangos should be enough if I make it in secret and not give any away.

Perverse as it may be, I’m glad to be back to regular routine, including morning PT, which I still hate.

P.S. For those following the plight of my friend Carlitos, the tumor is shrinking and his family is hopeful for recovery. He’s not out of the woods, but the trees don’t seem impenetrable.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

June 8, 2017

Monday, June 5, 2017

Getting In Touch With My Inner Farmer

            Getting In Touch With My Inner Farmer
            Two weeks ago I had declared, “New window glass all around; new patio roof; I love it all. These are my final projects. My home is complete. My garden is full and lush. No more projects!”

            This isn’t a full-blown project. Really. Honest. Sorta.

            It began with a bedraggled hibiscus. She hadn’t flourished since she’d been planted, several months ago. Her sister plants were “blooming healthy”, to borrow a British expression. Leo, my partner in digging dirt, asked if I wanted to go to Centro Vivero to get a replacement.

            “Sure, and as long as we are there, what about replacing those plants outside the wall, the ones I bought on the street from a pick-up truck. Poor things are last gaspers.”

            The space outside my wall, ah, yes. When I arrived here, a year and a few months ago, run-away bougainvillea had reached treacherous vine-y branches over the wall to choke out trees and grasp plants of all sorts on the inside garden. We had viciously pruned said bougainvillea until finally, each color now nestled, armloads of riotous blooms, atop the garden wall, creating bountiful beauty on each side.

            However, we had dug up the next several feet of ground outside my wall to install a new drain field. Replacement soil has finally quit sinking into holes but is bare and ugly. The poorly pick-up plants, including an avocado tree and two canela (cinnamon), almost goners, create the far boundary of my “commons” area. I maintain this weed-infested patch of ugly, about 18 meters wide. Beyond that is parking area and our dirt road.

            So, on the designated trip-to-vivero day, I stood in the center of the strip with Leo, list in hand. “One hibiscus.” Check. What do you think about replacing these last-gaspers with Plumbago? Plumbago grows quickly with blue flowers year-round.”

            With Leo’s blessing, I added to the list, “Seven Plumbago.” Check. “Fertilizer.” Check. “New dirt; how many bags, Leo?” “Tierra—ten bags.” Check. “Compost—five bags.” Check.

            “What about the grass, Leo. This patch is disgusting. Do you have something like Weed and Feed in Mexico?” I added that to the list. “Should we plant seed or buy sod.”

            See how easily a simple need for one hibiscus replacement plant simply got out of hand? After the weed-killer has done its work, then new soil and compost must be spread. A dirty job. Then we’ll wait for the seasonal rains to start and ask David to lay the sod.

            When we pulled into the vivero, David was on hand to help us. I chose the Plumbago, a new yellow hibiscus, gave David the rest of my list, emptied my wallet and turned to leave. Just then a perfectly stunning and bold Magnolia jumped into my pathway. She begged, pleaded to come home with me. Really, she sounded most pathetic. And Beautiful. I had little choice.

            “This is it, David. This is my last trip to the vivero. I cannot buy more plants.”

            “That make me very sad,” he said with a full-face grin.

            “I haven’t room for another tree or flower,” I countered and climbed into Leo’s Jeep.

            “See you next week.” David waved.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

June 1, 2017