Wednesday, February 7, 2024


All My Noisy Neighbors


First things first. Our Baby Marley is home. She is home, ready for the hard work of getting healthy and growing and looking at everything around her with those big eyes. We are so grateful. And we are so grateful for all the friends and strangers who cared, who in small ways took our baby in their arms and into their hearts and helped her heal. Thank you.

That dog of mine has put me into the habit of greeting the rising sun on our first walk of the day. Believe me, before Lola came to live with me, I did not leave the house at first light.

I’ve no problem anthropomorphizing non-humans around me. This morning, in my meditations, the birds, in all their great variety, inhabiting the wide-spreading trees, took on characteristics of people living in high-rise condominiums, maybe without quite as much fuss as we humans.

Kiskadees prefer the upper floors, the penthouse suites, noses high in the air, a bit above the rest of us, more colorful, louder in their opinions. Let me tell you, those Kiskadees, they are loud! And insistent that you hear their opinions. Over and over and over. They would be great radio personalities, you know the kind, ones who host phone-in talk shows.

Tanagers and Palomas seem to furnish the middle units quite happily. These characters are softer voiced, more musical, more space between their words.

Rainbirds like to hang out, separate but connected. They are private types, tend to listen before they sound off. (I’m making this up, of course, you know that.)

Partridge doves and warblers nest in every limb of the lower units. These inhabitants of the numerous condos, apartments and high-rises around us, provide the background music of life, always there, always singing.

Of course, this is my own silliness, a silliness that sprang from thinking about how much the birds need the trees and the trees need the birds. That’s what I think, at any rate. And we, or I, need the trees and the birds.

When I leave the house in the morning I walk beneath a ring of trees, full of birds singing the sun up. If the birds go silent, I look around to see what and why. They pay no attention to me. This morning I saw a hawk, a rare sight.

Vultures are always circling the air currents. Vultures don’t live in our ring of trees but they have habitations in a particular group of trees in town. The birds give no mind to the vultures, knowing they are looking for riper prey. Once my birds deemed the hawk of no danger to them, they resumed song.

But is it song? Maybe they are arguing. My nest is better than your nest. What about that slovenly bird-brain on branch 23? Birds of that feather shouldn’t be allowed to live among we-are-better-than-thems. Deport that bunch back to Missouri. Take away their visas. Those lower-caste birds on the bottom tiers, can’t we boot them to the slums? They are surely nothing but troublemakers.

In my world, silly or not, I’ll call bird voices song. Or prayer. Or blessing.

This morning I noticed a flock of yellow Tanagers. I love the Tanagers. (The Western Tanager is red-orange, a glory of feather-dress, and likes to hang out in the Bottlebrush.) These yellow Tanagers, or they might be Orioles, were riding the air to the height of the tallest pines. We have a type of pine tree that tends to loom above the spreading-branches trees.

The tanagers this morning perched on outside branches of the pine tree above Julie’s house, arranged themselves as if they were Christmas decorations. The sight so delightful, I had to stop in my tracks with admiration for so long that Lola, who’d pranced ahead of me, came back to see why I had not followed her back to our house.

I’ve come to believe, personal experience, youth is wasted on the young. When I grew up on my Dad’s farm on the Milk River, my get-away place was a cottonwood tree, trunk and branches leaning over the water. I’d climb that tree to sing, to cry, to celebrate, to sulk, to dream, to tell God of my understanding back then, what I wanted and how I thought my life should go. Amen.

I remember the texture of the cottonwood bark beneath my fingers, the solid branches holding me in the air, the mottled shadows of sunlight through the leaves, the tortured twigs of winter. But, I don’t remember the birds. I know there were birds. There had to be birds.

Where were the birds?

Where was I?

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

February, still winter


Making My Retreat Center in the Kitchen


            Making My Retreat Center in the Kitchen


Life is tough. At times, life is tougher. I’m on the periphery of that tough life but I feel it just the same.

Baby Marley is still in the hospital in Billings. She’s not out of the woods, but slowly on the right path, healing from RSV and Pneumonia and detoxing from the drug that kept her paralyzed during the worst of her personal storm. Mom and Dad still camp out in her room.

Meanwhile, back home in Glendive, Grandma Dee and Grandpa Chris and Uncle Tyler are taking care of the other children, in ages, two and three, six and eight. Grandma came down with a horrible cough, ear and throat infections, and is medicating the best she can while continuing work and child care.

Sure, I could hop a plane. And be one more person needing care, not being currently winterized, among other disabilities.

Me, I’m 2500 miles away but next door to the whole rumpus. I want to run away. I want to go on retreat. A three-day retreat would be better than any vacation. I’m serious. I’ve given this a lot of thought, edging into overthink.

The solution, obvious, is that I live in my own retreat center. I could hang a sign on my gate: “On Retreat. Do Not Disturb”. My problem is that I don’t want to unplug my phone. I want to know. I want to stay in touch with family. Goes against retreat rules, right? Rules such as no phone, no computer, no contact, no talking.

When Baby and Grandma are back to health and their own homes, I will make my retreat, sans phone and computer and talk.

In the interim, I find retreat in my kitchen. My kids used to say, “Watch out. Mom’s making bread.’ That was shorthand code for “Mom’s upset. Stay out of the way.” I’ve always found comfort in pummeling bread dough.

Baking bread doesn’t mean I’m upset. I bake bread because I’m out of bread. Because I want to do something nice for a neighbor. Because I’m stressed. Because I’m happy.

I find comfort in my kitchen. Instead of my usual honey whole-wheat bread, I decided to try a different bread roll recipe, new to me. Oh, my. I found the queen of all breads. Instead of baking cookies to eat with my morning coffee, and I had cookie dough in the refrigerator, ignored, I broke off a bread roll and delighted in the goodness.

I shared these rolls with a couple other people, suggested they try them with morning coffee. They have metaphorically lined up outside my gate waiting for me to bake again.

Figuring I had to make sure the recipe wasn’t a fluke, I made a second batch. Plain dough that good just might make sweet rolls. I divided the dough into sandwich buns, dinner rolls and cinnamon rolls.

When the cinnamon rolls cooled slightly, I broke off a taste-test. These are better than my usual cinnamon rolls. The bread is softer, more delicate, carries the flavors well.

Immediately I contacted my friend. Michelle, I know you and Ana are taking your sister Susan to the airport tomorrow. If you have time, stop by for cinnamon rolls and coffee. I knew their schedule would be tight.

They came. We ate, we drank, we had an unspoken communion. The plate of rolls disappeared. I shooed my friends on down the road.

That is one of the joys of a kitchen retreat center.

Several friends bake bread. We compare and share recipes. Most of my friends bake bread without ever touching the dough. This I do not understand.

We all use recipes. A recipe is a guide, right? We grew up, each with a slightly different guide or recipe for how to live. Circumstances might change, a difference in ingredients, an addition here or a subtraction there. That’s life.

Same for bread. The flour here is less refined but ground to a fineness that makes me smile. My butter is different than your butter. Honey or sugar? Sea salt or the stuff from the blue box with the girl and umbrella? Do they still sell that? Potato water? So many choices. Same for life.

I want my hands in the flour, to bring the ingredients together just right, to knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic and slightly blistery. How can I pour my heart into the dough without getting messy? The dough talks to me. My fingers understand the lingo. My fingers know when the dough is just right, ready to rise in a covered bowl, ready to shape and bake.

Bread of life with love and worry and frustration and goodness.

Don’t bother me. I’m in the kitchen.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

February, none too soon


I’m all shook up!


I’m all shook up!


No, that does not refer to an earthquake.

If you are of an age, you will recognize this as a song sung by Elvis when he was a youngster himself, around 1957. “I’m in love. I’m all shook up!”

Love manifests in many ways and early last week my world and the world of my family was all shook up. My great-granddaughter, Baby Marley, was diagnosed with RSV and pneumonia. Along with Mom, Jessica, Marley was transported from Glendive to Billings on a life-flight. Her family immediately came together with plans for how to cope. Of course, all the plans fell apart.

By the end of the day, revised plans in place, Jessica and Marley were safely ensconced in the NICU at St. Vincent’s. Damon (Dad) was en route with instructions to drive mindfully on the snowy, icy roads to Billings. Christopher (Grandpa), Dee Dee (Grandma) and Uncle Tyler stepped in to take care of the other four little ones, schedule to be revised as needed, which pretty much has meant daily restructuring.

Several hours passed that first day before we learned that Marley was in NICU, hooked up to various lines to support her life. Life lines. Sounds better than tubes. Semantics, I know. During those several hours of knowing nothing, I was a wet, sopping mess.

I’m an old hide, as my friend Dick used to say. I’ve lost my parents, my aunts and uncles, my closest friends and many, many people close in other ways. Each death left a scar on my heart. Nothing hurt like losing my baby. It is a different kind of pain. Too many women in our part of Montana can attest to what I say. Many, many women stepped out of their path to comfort me that winter in 1964.

This little Baby Marley, one I haven’t held in my arms, took over my heart in an overwhelming way. Part of my feeling was from fear. I do not want Jess and Damon, my whole family, to go through that loss. Don’t tell me that fear and love cannot live side by side. Love is bigger but I would be lying if I told you love pushed out fear. I wish it would.

The latest news from the doctors is that Marley will probably be in the hospital another week. My family “on the ground” in Glendive are exhausted, juggling child care for the other four children with their regular jobs and responsibilities.

We all have hope. The second night Marley was in the hospital, I had a dream in which a tightly swaddled baby was thrust into my arms. This little baby was a boy. Throughout the night’s dreams, I held that baby snug to my chest. I wondered if I had carried Marley through the night.

My friend asked, “Did you carry the baby or did that baby carry you?”

“Ah.” I said, as I recognized another truth.

I respond to soppy, sappy old love songs. We’ve all been bit by the bug. Baby Marley is our little buttercup. We surround her with a puffy pillow of love. Her whole family is carried on a puffy pillow-clouds of love.

At this point, week two in the hospital, it looks like another week ahead. Exhausting. But hopeful. We are all shook up. All of us. We know what matters. Love matters.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

January soon over


Tuesday, January 16, 2024

I Am A Plaid Flannel Shirt


            I Am A Plaid Flannel Shirt


My friend Jerry wrote me this week. Skipping the personal stuff, he asked, “Is it possible for you to create a 501 3C to raise money in U.S. to help people in need in Etzatlan?”

Once I picked myself off the floor still hooting, I wrote back something like the following.

A 501 3C? Oh, Jerry, I thought you knew me better than that! You ask me to do a suit job. I am not a suit. I am a well-worn flannel shirt.  I am a lot of things, my friend. I am an artist, an inventor, a mechanic, a poet, a farmer, a dreamer, a leader. I am a friend. But I am not a suit. I am not even one sleeve of a suit. Oh, how I wish I were. My life would be so different.

Let me interject that I’ve known Jerry since school days. Jerry helped me with Algebra and I wrote his term papers to his specifications. He’d say, “Give me a C+ this time. I think Mrs. Hunter was suspicious of that last B.”

Jerry is a suit. We both went to school in little Harlem, Montana. Jerry got further away than most of us, not geographically, but in other directions. Jerry is still one of us. He just cleans up really, really well. Jerry knows which fork to use. Jerry is a financial investor for a major bank.

When I sold my house in Harlem, and compared to housing values throughout the country, we don’t even ping the scale, I asked Jerry if he would invest my wee landfall for me. Jerry kindly explained the smallest investment he handles, and he named an amount that I cannot even count that high. I was mortified, humiliated, wanted to crawl into a cave. I survived. We are friends.

Jerry and his wife visited me when I’d lived here in Etzatlan only a couple years. And they returned every year until the Pandemic. I don’t know if he fell in love with Etzatlan but he definitely has an affinity for our town. Every year he sends me a generous amount of money for the old-people’s home which is run totally on donations and always in need. Leo and I scurry around town and buy food supplies and personal items for the people. The store owners always generously adjust the costs downward when they learn where our purchases are going.

So you can understand why Jerry thought I’d want to help. I had to decline the job. I said, Jerry, I have neither the experience nor the expertise to do such a job. Numbers and money are beyond my ken. (Sigh.)

In my former life, I was leader of a group that built a theatre, from nothing, after paying off a huge debt left by the former administration. One of our first priorities was to obtain a 501 3C. It took a lot of doing and would have been impossible without Kathleen. And without Al, our bean counter and the man who made sure our feet stayed on the ground, and without David who described himself as general dog’s body but we couldn’t have done without him and without the handful of other volunteers, all extremely important, all adding their bits of experience and passion.

Emphasis on “group”. We were a small, emphasis on small, handful of volunteers and from a near ten thousand dollar debt, we emerged and built a one-hundred seat black box theatre. We did what couldn’t be done. We.

When our theatre became successful enough to fill the seats every weekend, I was smart enough to step down and seek someone with suit skills to carry it forward. I am very proud to say that the Jewel Box still puts on plays, still serves the community and is thriving.

I blathered on to Jerry a good bit about my own personal stuff and ended my missive with “much love from the plaid flannel shirt”.

This morning I had coffee in town with a friend and told her about Jerry’s request and how I had had to turn him down. Her eyes lit up. “Let me think about this. I do know how to go about obtaining a 501 3C and this sounds right up my alley.”

I wrote Jerry back and told him that his idea did not die on my vine. We need to get together. I envision much dialogue. Who knows but the impossible might be possible, not with me, but with we.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

January, spring side, more or less


Scratching the Seven-Year Itch


                        Scratching the Seven-Year Itch


I have lost three entire nights of sleep this week, misplaced where there will be no finding, scratching the seven-year itch.

You could also name my malady the Grass Is Greener Syndrome.

The grass is never greener. It just looks that way from across the fence.

This is not an unusual occurrence for me. Something within me likes the challenge of new experiences. Frequently over the years while I’ve lived out on my little chunk of quiet, peaceful Paradise, I’ve cast my eyes around town and had the thought that I’d like to live in town, smack dab in the middle of noisy things happening.

I think about getting increasingly less mobile with age. Living in town would be easier in some ways. Cheaper, too.

My neighbor is negotiating to sell her little bit of Paradise. She won’t be moving far, a half hour drive to the village of her husband. These last few years the couple has split their time between here, La Mesata and her home in Minnesota. She talks with me about these changes, her fears and her excitements.

That was all the trigger I needed. I can justify any move, any change. If I moved to a wee rental in town, I wouldn’t have the constant upkeep I have here. I ain’t gettin’ any younger. And so on  and so on, my mind goes gadding about.

All in the comfort of my bed, eyes refusing to stay closed, I located a casita, fronting the sidewalk, like every other house on the block, warmer with every casa sharing walls on each side. In back, just enough room for a clothesline and my few herb pots.

I packed. I discarded, made piles, gave away, saved, and made arrangements for all to be dispensed, disposed or moved, all with my head on my pillow, all while telling myself to shut up and go to sleep.

My Lola The Dog had to learn to become a house dog, content to lie on a rug. When we walked the neighborhood, she had to learn the leash again, no more roaming free. She got pudgy, more rounded.

My new neighborhood had a tiny grocery around the corner, easily located, as tiny groceries dot every block. The tortillaria was conveniently across the street. My neighbors included a few other elderly women as well as the usual young men with loud cars and louder parties. Boom, boom, boom went the Beat! I am realistic, even in my imaginations.

I watched a parade of things I miss by living out on the edge, in the countryside. Street vendors carrying buckets of tamales, trays of doughnuts, carts of hot sweet potatoes. Reluctantly I added the propane trucks slowly passing, loudspeaker announcing their coming and going; the cars with speakers over the roof, telling us of events in the Plaza, coming election news, specials at the new box stores, relentless.

All of this activity, all the energy expended, all night long, left me worn out by day. The next night, I hit rewind and played it again.

Reality is that nobody is queued up at my gate wanting to purchase my casita. Reality is that I have created a unique and beautiful haven. (Reality is that I do this wherever I go because that is who I am.) Shhh, I tell myself. Quiet. Breathe. All will be well.

Today I am sitting out in my back yard, in the sunshine, surrounded by greenery and flowers, and birds and butterflies, all manner of color and blossom and brilliance. After three nights of work, I fired myself from the job of relocating, no workmen’s comp coming to me except that I shall sleep tonight.

This is my today, my salve to comfort the itch. The grass may not be greener but it is my greener.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

January chilly, frost up the mountain


Animal Stories


            Animal Stories


It was a dark and stormy night. Oh, wait! Different story.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve. Leo and I were sitting in the sun chatting after he had mouse-proofed my washing machine with a length of screen and duct tape.

Mice are on the move every year during corn harvest when they temporarily are forced out of their home and well-stocked grocery. My washing machine sits tucked away in the back corner of my patio, outdoors. This is not the first time mice thought the machine makes a good dwelling place. It’s only a short scurry to the Dog Dish fast-food restaurant.

Take my word for it, you do not want mice to set up housekeeping inside your washing machine. Our solution isn’t pretty, but aesthetics don’t matter or is it that I make it oblivious to myself?

So we were sitting in the sun just chewing the fat, satisfied with outwitting a horde of stinky mice. (That sentence is technically wrong on so many levels but I’m an old woman and I no longer care.) Leo asked me if I had enough drinking water to last until Tuesday morning or did I want him to go fill my empty jug now.

That question was code for, “I’m a young man and this is New Year’s and all my friends and I will be partying and I won’t return before Tuesday.” Then he asked about my New Year plans.

I laughed. “Oh, Leo. I’m such a party animal. I will be kicking up my heels on Sunday night too. I will. In bed with a good book by 7:30, that is. Asleep by 9:00, no doubt. The noise of fireworks might wake me, but I’ll roll over and go back to sleep. I’m a bear-ish kind of party animal.”

Then Leo asked, “What age were you when you no longer wanted to party?” This was code for “I’m 36 and party life is no longer as fun as it used to be.”

I gave thought to his question. “Everyone’s different, Leo. Drinking and dancing and all that was fun, but, for me, partying always carried a cloud of fear. I’ve looked back a lot. Drinking and dancing, for me, was an excuse for the ‘all that’. I kept trying though. It was a relief when I could finally say, ‘I’m done.’”  I’d always had to be on guard from my own actions, always scared, afraid of what I might do or say or cause. Most people aren’t that way. Most people don’t count their drinks and wonder why stopping at two didn’t work.”

As an example, I told Leo about my first New Year’s Eve party, welcoming 1964, in the Cowboy Bar in Dodson. I was only 18 but it didn’t matter. This was ’63-’64 in Dodson. I was with my husband. The bar was packed. This bar served two kinds of drinks and I sure wasn’t drinking whiskey. I might have had two beers but that didn’t keep me from trouble.

I remember saying something horrible to a neighbor. Maybe nobody heard. He probably wouldn’t remember. But I do. I spent many nights awake in humiliation and self-loathing, reliving my actions. That may sound like a small thing but it was huge to me. I’ve spent time re-living every party.  I do not miss those nights afterward, swamped in guilt and fear and embarrassment.

If you want to know how to really party, watch the Partridge Doves. Those little feathery fluffs know how to have a good time. A whole flock has set up housekeeping in my Bottlebrush tree. They paint a Christmas card picture, sitting on branches in pairs in the early morning chill, huddled, preening, fussing, being worshipped by the rising sun.

One could do with a worse model. The night of New Year’s Eve, 2023-2024, sure enough, I was in bed before eight, snuggled in my Christmas bed jacket, my replacement addiction, a book in hand, Amazon my pusher, party animal that I am.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

Welcome to 2024


My Magic Bed Jacket


My Magic Bed Jacket


My bed jacket. It is a sign. A portent of things to come.

Christmas Eve I went to Oconahua for a traditional Mexican feast of tamales and hot chocolate with my friends. When I returned home, a gift bag stuffed tightly with something rather heavy, sat on my patio table. I reached in and pulled out . . . a jacket.

This jacket is made of that plush, fluffy stuff, like a baby blanket. Thank goodness it is not a pale pastel. I’d have to gift it onward. No, amazingly, the jacket is patterned in a boxy red and brown cowboy-type plaid. And, it has a hood. I love it.

When I first held the jacket, I pictured myself wearing it while walking Lola. I put it on for size. Nice fit. Hung my new jacket on the coat closet, which in my limited space, is a pole with prongs for six jackets or sweaters and a hat.

As I prepared for bed, somehow the jacket skewed its way into my thoughts. Hmmm, I said, removing it from the coat stand, and putting it on over my night shirt. A bed jacket. A perfect bed jacket. I climbed into bed with my book.

Understand, I’ve never had a bed jacket. Bed jackets appear in British novels and Hollywood movies from the 30s and 40s. Bed jackets are filmy, wafting, woven of air and a few silky threads, pastel and pretty, for the rich and privileged. Not that I would ever admit to being limited in my thinking. I certainly never imagined myself in a bed jacket. Not me.

I didn’t allow myself to realize until that very moment I put it on that I had actually wanted a bed jacket, perhaps subliminally I had always wanted a bed jacket, and that this plaid bed jacket was the perfect gift for me.

No matter how warm my main room is, my bedroom is always cool. On cold winter nights, while I read a few chapters, I carefully tuck the bedding around my shoulders and snake one hand outside the covers to hold the Kindle. That was then.

Now, I sit in bed, covers around my legs, my new bed jacket keeping my top half toasty warm. Ah, such comfort. Such luxury. Such privilege.

As this year comes to an ending (Thank you. I never thought you’d leave.) and the new year is born and toddles into January, it is fitting that I consider my new bed jacket a sign, a portent of changes to come.

I like signs and portents. Tea leaves. Chicken intestines. Clouds in the sky. Oracles. They are all good. They all work.

Several years ago I was complaining to a dear friend about a situation in which I need to make a choice. “I don’t know what I want to do. Either option looks good to me and I just can’t choose.”

This man, a Harvard Law graduate, mind you, not a woo-woo bone in his body, dug a coin out of his pocket. “Heads is Option A and tails for option B. You call it.”

“Oh, come on. You can’t believe in that kind of magic.”

“Just call it,” he replied.


He flipped the coin, it landed on my choice. “Okay, does that make you feel happy with the decision or do you wish the coin had landed on heads?’  

Ah. I got it. Flipping a coin is just one way of letting my silly self see what I really want when I can’t make up my mind because both options look great and my head had gone into over-think.

That’s how I see my new bed jacket as a sign of changes to come. If I can jog my attitude toward a simple article of clothing out of the historical box into which I had locked it, what other attitudes might I be able to change in the year to come? Oh, the excitement! Oh, the anticipation.

Thank you, Dear Crinita, for the gift which is changing my winter life.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking Out My Backdoor

December 27, 2-23