Thursday, March 26, 2020

Old dogs learn new tricks


            Old dogs learn new tricks
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How quickly we progressed from refusing hugs and handshakes, to isolating in voluntary quarantine.

In the mornings when Leo came to work our gardens, he calls out, “Sondrita, are you alive.”

“Just a minute, let me check. Breathing? Yes, Heart beating? Yes. I’m alive.”

Our governor of Jalisco has asked everybody to stay home for five days, to help ‘flatten the curve’.  How quickly we learn the new language. Will everybody stay home? Of course not. For those of us who are ‘of an age’ we might recall when we, too, were invincible.  

Churches and bars, restaurants, street markets, government offices, all are closed. The streets are empty. Schools closed weeks ago. 

Never have I washed my hands so frequently. I wipe down patio chairs with soapy bleach water after neighbors visit. We maintain ‘social distance’ of at least two meters in the open air patio. Short visits, no sharing food or drink.

Visits will soon be a memory. Like rats abandoning the sinking ship for a leaky raft, my neighbors are all headed northerly. It is not an easy decision. The Rancho with few human contacts is probably a safer place, each of us in our isolated enclave. But home is home.

For me, this is home.  My children tell me, “Mom, stay, you are in a good place.”

But, let me tell you about yesterday. I thought I was dying.

Within a few minutes of sitting down with morning coffee, I began to feel strangely disoriented.  

My world wobbled. If I closed my eyes, I felt like I floated out of my body. In a rather pleasant way, but . . . My thoughts were erratic, disjointed. Did I have a stroke? Shouldn’t there be more pain? I’m not afraid. I sat with that thought a moment. Yes, I am afraid. A little. I wonder if I am dying. This is not a bad way to die. I just wish I didn’t feel so loopy.

Like a drunk, I weaved my way to the bedroom. Blood pressure measured 122/70. So my heart must be okay, right? Back to the chair.

But sitting in a chair is not the best place to die. What if I fell onto the floor? I’d rather die in bed. I weaved and wobbled to my bedroom. While trying to stay focused, my eyes fell on the basket on top of my shelf, a basket containing aspirin, Vicks, paracetamol and my anti-inflammatory. In the middle of the basket the CBD oil caught my attention.

After my morning shower, in preparation for therapy exercises, because I felt more pain than my new usual, I had grabbed the CBD, which I had not used in two or three weeks. The stuff helps. 

Distracted, I unthinkingly squirted the dropper bulb and shot a dropper’s worth under my tongue rather than the carefully measured drop.

This particular bottle is a home brew from a friend. Who knows how it was made, or of what. But, a drop at a time, it was effective. I wonder if . . .

About that time, Leo came by. I called him to my window. Told him how I felt. He asked a few questions. “Sondrita, I think you are stoned.”

Jim and Josue showed up at my window screen next, asked their questions. When I giggled my answers and told them I was dying, they hoo-hawed with delight. “Hey, trippy! You are stoned. Wait it out. Enjoy. It will pass.”

John came by next, bringing me another pint of hand-sanitizer. Goodness, these men got a hoot out of my near-death experience.

I relaxed. I certainly felt no pain. I could barely feel my body. Over a several hours, the feelings of disorientation passed. I could close my eyes without entering another universe.

In these grave times, pardon my pun, I am happy to report I am breathing and my heart is beating.
Without panic, please be safe, be sensible. I send you virtual hugs with real love, along with these words from Pope Francis:

“Tonight before falling asleep, think about when we will return to the street. When we hug again.

When all the shopping together will seem like a party. Let’s think about when the coffees will return to the bar, the small talk, the photos close together. We think about when it will all be a memory but normality will seem an unexpected and beautiful gift. We will love everything that has so far seemed futile to us. Every second will be precious, swims at the sea, the sun until late, sunsets, toasts, laughter. We will go back to laughing together. Strength and Courage.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 26, 2020
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We never know what the day might bring!


                        We never know what the day might bring!
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It’s probably been centuries since our world has been so united in purpose. We are concerned; concerned for our own health, our families, our neighbors, concerned for those around the other side of the globe.

A few weeks ago I bought tickets for a quick trip to Glendive. Let me modify that—there is no quick trip into Montana from Central Mexico. I bought tickets for the long trip, short stay. I felt I had little choice since on my birthday, my Montana Driver’s License expires.

While I no longer own a car, now and then I rent one or drive one of my children’s vehicles. I’m not quite ready, nor is it necessary (self-assessment), yet, that I give up the privilege of sitting behind the wheel and sailing down the road.

A few days ago my daughter called. After a brief greeting Dee said, “Mom, I don’t know how to say this . . .” and here I interrupted her. “I know what you are going to say and I’m already there. I decided to cancel my flights and stay home. I cannot chance picking up the virus and carrying it to you or the grandbabies.”

She was worried about my advanced age (sage, as another friend would say) and vulnerability due to recent surgery.

Next I contacted my son whose daughter was to join him in Washington for a couple weeks of spring break. Lexi’s parents had cancelled her flight too.

I walked around the corner to Lani’s house to beg and plead with her to cancel her trip to Seattle, Hawaii, and a road trip around several states. Lani is diabetic and even more vulnerable than me. No argument. She and her daughter had just come to the same agreement.

By the close of day, Crin and I were speaking about the possibility of Crin staying here in Mexico rather than flying back to Victoria, BC at the end of the month. Then we also rounded onto her sister Kathy, who with Richard were flying in to Guadalajara mid-April. That evening, Kathy wrote with mirrored thoughts.

Then along loped Josue, sooty smudges on his hastily washed face, ears rimmed in black, as he burst onto our scene from stage left, so to speak. “I just got home from fighting fire. Miguel’s house burned. Everything is destroyed. Anything we can do to help is needed. He has nothing.”

“How?” I asked, looking around my own typical casita, built of brick, concrete, tile and exposed metal beams.

“His house had wooden beams on the roof. From a defective circuit to curtains to beams. The roof caved. Everything inside the walls is destroyed.”

Miguel has worked for Josue several years. We know Miguel, his cheerful wave and daily greeting.

Immediately we jumped into action, each of us gathering items to donate. We counted and divided our pesos, one for you, one for me. I gathered sheets and blankets, soap and toothpaste. Filled a plastic tub with spare necessities.  

While dragging a chair to the curb for Josue to pick up, Crin joked that Miguel would end up with more than he lost and that might be so.

Miguel is going through a rough patch, separated from his family and has been living in a casita owned by his grandmother. Now the fire.

The old platitude is wrong. Sometimes life does bring us more than we can bear. We bear it anyway, with help.

Crin, concerned for her family, flew back to Victoria. Kathy and Richard cancelled their flights into Mexico.

My friend Carol has wonky lungs. She and John are sitting in the on the fence. Stay put? Fly back? Drive back to Duluth? My newest neighbors, Tom and Janet, face the same quandary.

Josue and Miguel will rebuild his roof, rewire the casita. Family will pitch in with clean-up and salvage. In a few days, Miguel will be back in his home, surrounded with our cast-offs.
And surrounded with us, those few of us who remain. None of us are going anywhere soon!

Sondra Ashton
Looking out my back door
March 19, 2020
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Dancing to CCR in Espanol at the Old Folk’s Home


Dancing to CCR in Espanol at the Old Folk’s Home
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My friends, who shall remain anonymous, sent me money to donate for them to a good cause of my choice here in Etzatlan. These good folks have visited me several times. They like my little chosen town.

Several years ago a Franciscan Friar, a wealthy man, sold all he had and built a lovely hacienda among the trees to house those who need special care, the aged who can no longer live with family as well as the disabled in body, the infirm in mind, both men and women.

One hears stories like this, often with healthily skeptical ears. This story happens to be true. Not only that, if you and me were hungry, we could go there to be fed, no questions asked. True story.

Leo’s cousin, Oscar, a man whom I know, works there. We consulted with Oscar about what might be the best way to spend my friend’s pesos.

Oscar suggested that we get things that continually need to be replaced, personal products, cleaning supplies, and basic foods such as beans and rice. Oh, and, everybody loves ice cream.

This morning Leo and I went shopping. We chose to spend the money in small tiendas, spreading the benefits to the neighborhood vendors rather than shop in the big stores.

Interestingly, when we told the tienda owners our story, when they learned where the products were going to be used, they each piled on discounts. We gained at least twenty percent cost value over what pesos we actually spent.

But what we gained most was gratitude for what we were doing, hugs, thanks and blessings at every stop.

We chose soaps for laundry, kitchen and bath, bleach, hand soap, shampoos, combs and brushes for hair, razors, toothbrushes, dental cream, toilet tissue, lotions, adult diapers, and other items, all in great quantity. By this time the back of Leo’s SUV was squatting close to the ground.

We made two trips, loaded up with rice, cooking oil, beans, eggs, pastas, soup bases, mashed potatoes and other basic cooking necessities, as well as an assortment of brooms, mops, scrub brushes, again carefully making our way, bumper hovering low over the cobblestones. We did not forget the ice cream, having snared eight two-gallon tubs of frozen goodness.

When we delivered the first load of plunder, I got a special treat. While a dozen men emptied the car, I got to tour the Spanish-style hacienda, huge with open hallways, surrounding a great courtyard. Nothing was hidden. I lost my heart in the wing which housed the severely disabled.  

Many residents had gathered in the courtyard, sitting in clusters under shade trees, with a beautiful chapel offset in one corner. Residents shook our hands and introduced themselves. Many knew Leo. Particularly memorable to me was the woman dressed in blue with strings of beads, who told me she had lived in Fresno, California and had been all over, even to Disneyland.

In the short while we were there, several people arrived to spend the day with family, including a woman in a taxi from Tequila, an hour’s drive from here.

While men formed a chain and unloaded our the second delivery, a group of young people in the center of the flagstone courtyard, played music, sang, and danced with the residents, amidst a great deal of laughter, bouncing and clapping and kicking up their heels to a Spanish language version of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary”.

My heart nearly burst.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 12, 2020
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Involuntary System Purge


            Involuntary System Purge
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Day three with an unwanted, invasive, intimate companion—the flu. So weak, I feel like a newborn kitten without a mama.

While alternative health methods have a long and checkered history of purposefully and purposely cleaning out one’s digestive tract as a measure for optimum good health, if you ask me, such drastic measures are total nonsense.

The first thirty-six hours I spent every twenty to forty minutes, literally, on the commode, plastic lined garbage can on my lap, involuntarily purging my entire upper and lower innards.

Imagine somebody doing this on purpose. I ask you, how can this be healthy?

The following twenty-four hours I managed to sip lime-water with no ill effects. No food. No risks.

I alternated sitting in the sunshine on my patio with brief restorative naps while waiting for sundown so I could crawl into bed for the night without guilt.  

Four neighbors offered to make me chicken soup, the thought of which turned me green, though I greatly appreciated their offers.

Two other neighbors offered to go to town to get me anything my heart desired. I can say with complete honesty, I wanted absolutely nothing. Wonder if they’d make the same offer next week? I could make a list.

Today I got up and made my bed, all the while innocently pretending I don’t know that I fully intend to crawl right back under the covers.

My best medicine is sunshine on my patio, surrounded with lavender in full bloom and a thousand, thousand bees.

Please stay away. I don’t want to share.

Please, no chicken soup.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 5, 2020
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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Value of Darning Socks


            The Value of Darning Socks
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Late in the day I read a profound passage in a Swedish mystery novel. The daughter asked her father why life seems so much harder in these modern times. His answer was that we no longer darn socks.
This makes perfect sense, of course, food for thought for times to come.

My grandmother put needle and thread in my hands before I started school. Two things I learned quite young. I embroidered pillowcases with floral borders and I darned my own stockings. Grandma did not have an extra darning egg to give me, so I used a light bulb. I remember being quite proud when finally allowed to darn my Dad’s socks.

The father character in my Henning Mankell novel explained to his daughter that the changes in society began small. Instead of darning a sock when our big toenail worries a hole, we throw the pair away and buy new. In a bundle of six or twelve.

I’m taking the father’s idea and running with it, expanding upon it a bit. Because what he says contains a truckload of truth. Who in our day replaces buttons on shirts? Mends bicycle tires? Repairs a broken shovel handle?

First we throw away the small, inconsequential everyday things. A simple pair of stockings. What a concept. One might have new socks several times a year, not just at the beginning of the school year—or at Christmas. Socks are relatively cheap, right?

At one time that footwear you just discarded had a real use value. Value and cost are not necessarily synonymous. Somewhere along the years, socks lost value. “It’s just socks. Buy new.”

We took giant steps with that concept and not overnight either. A radio used to have pride of place in the living room, an actual piece of furniture. Friends and neighbors gathered round on Friday night to listen to symphonies, to comedy, to news of the world. Then along came transistors.

In a nutshell, that’s my take on the way of our world. We make things flimsier. We make things stronger, more versatile. We make them miniature. We make them with built-in obsolescence. Change is beneficial. I’ve no argument. Change is also detrimental. A paradox.

I like living in a small farm village in Mexico where it seems I’ve reverted back in time sixty or seventy years. But any of the modern conveniences I wish to have are available. When something breaks, we still fix it. Most everything has value.

In most cities, probably most cities in the world, one can pick through the back alley on garbage pickup day and find items unbroken, unblemished, still usable. One wonders, why was this perfectly good whichywonker thrown away? Last year’s model? Different color preferred? A small blemish on the corner? Why?

Reasonable or unreasonable, the trash in the alley, good or broken, no longer has perceived value.

Alley trash is one thing. But when we cease to value people, when we throw away those we don’t want to see, (same list as above), then we are in dire straits; we are in real trouble.

When I don’t value you, I don’t value me. A sense of despair guides decisions. The world shrugs.

That was cheerful, wasn’t it? I’m not saying if we all get out the darning needles and patch those holey socks the world will get better. But it might.

Think about what we throw away. Think about who we throw away.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
February 27, 2020
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Taking back my life, like killing snakes.


Taking back my life, like killing snakes.
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I am soooo bad. The ‘like killing snakes’ part is hard for me. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told, “Slow down. You are going at that job (whatever it is) like killing snakes.” Uh, huh. More than one person. Is that a tried and true Montana phrase? I on’t know.

Miguel, my physical therapist, tells me the same thing in different words. He says, “No rapido, no rapido!” or “Lento, lento!” “Despacio!”Or “Suave, suave.” Those are the words he says. What I hear is “Slow down. You are going at that like killing snakes.”

I can’t help it. I am excited. Now that I am finally allowed to do things, am capable, I want to do it all. Life doesn’t work that way, of course. And I do know that. When I get in a hurry or overdo, I pay. 

I pay with discomfort.

Discomfort is not the same thing as pain. Pain is what I lived with for too many years prior to surgery.  

Discomfort is what I experience when I decide, after two hours of exercise, to clean my entire house in one day, dust, sweep, mop, change linens, rearrange my desk and my dishes cupboard.

Discomfort does not require a pain pill. Discomfort reminds me that I could have divided the chores into several days, lento, lento, slowly, slowly. One snake at a time, you might say.

Why do I say ‘I am bad’? It is such a small thing but it looms large to me. Over the last several months, Leo, my garden helper, has taken over many of my home chores. The cleaning.  Emptying household garbage. Hanging laundry. Plus, or in addition to the totality of garden work. Some of which I used to do.

I did not give up my duties overnight. First gardening became too difficult. Then the housework and grocery shopping, until I was invalided into the corner with a book. After surgery, Leo became one of my caretakers.

Unfortunately for Leo, he was down the entire past week plus two weekends with a flu. I took advantage, picked up my former household chores.

I spent a good many hours assessing my garden. Tools are missing. The bodega is cluttered with items which could/should be stored back in what I call the tunnel, a covered area between the bodega and my outer brick wall. I’m ready to make some changes, to take back my life, my home, my garden.  

I made a list of changes and chores. A touchy list. Leo is a sensitive soul. I have relied on him for ‘everything’ for many months.

Leo is back to work, first day. He is not up to full strength. So I picked two simple things from my list, determined to introduce changes slowly. He is sensitive, remember. I don’t want him to hear, “I don’t need you.” But I know what I say is not always what one hears.

Unfortunately, I am a blurter. Like killing snakes, remember. I meant to say, “Just water my potted plants today, por favor,—the ones around the house. I don’t want you to get over-tired, to do too much or you can relapse.” “Oh, and I cannot find some of my garden tools, my pruner and a couple diggers. They should be in the bodega.”

One blurt led to another. “Don’t use the blower. I can sweep the patio now! (I dislike the blower, which only rearranges dust.) That led me to mention weeds in the channels in the concrete, weeds that will uproot concrete if not removed. In my defense, Leo asked about the empty pot next to the hot tub. The Swedish Ivy got the white smut disease, up and died overnight. I pulled it out but need help sterilizing the pot. Which led to . . . . Well, you get the picture.

Leo is probably crying his heart out to Josue next door. “What I do? Why she no like me anymore? She is take away my work.”

Okay. That is my imagination; always looking for the worst. Reality is generally kinder. Maybe the joke is on me and Leo is relieved, celebrating, feels a rock lifted from his shoulders!

I did not unload my entire three page list. I will divide my list into forty-two weeks. I will pick and choose with care. One snake at a time. I will stitch my lips shut.

In truth, I cannot pick up all my former chores immediately. But, boy howdy, here I come.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
February 20, 2020
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Saturday, February 15, 2020

Turtle Introspections


Turtle Introspections
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One day Bonnie said to me, “Sondra, you are a turtle. When in a group you tuck your head inside your shell, listen and watch.” Ever since then I cannot look in the mirror without seeing my turtle.

In a moment of turtle introspection, I realized a turning point has changed the direction of my life. I generally don’t see my turning points until I can look backward. Some positive, others not so much.

In my freshman English 101 class at what was then the College of Great Falls, I was an adult student with an eight-month baby girl. I felt dumb as a post hole, having graduated high school in Harlem, now surrounded by brilliant sophisticated youth from the two Great Falls high schools, students with definite advantages.

Many adult students attended CGF, mostly men from the Air Base. But my inspiration was a woman, eighty-eight years old, attending my same freshman English class. I clearly see that my higher education was a stepping stone, not a turning point. But I’ll bet it was a turning point for this admirable woman.

I didn’t know enough, was too young, to ask her the questions I would ask today. I sat at the same round wooden table with her in the SUB between classes, sipping tea and pretending to study. One day a man in his thirties asked her why she was starting College this late in her life. “Why not?” she answered. Undaunted, he continued. “But do you realize how old you will be when you graduate?” 

And for the first time I heard the classic answer, “How old will I be if I don’t?” Turtles live a long life.

Turning points seem like the seasons. Sometimes a season changes imperceptibly. Or like today, I woke up from winter yesterday into spring today. 

My lime trees are full of white blossoms, the mango and avocado heavy with seed shoots, the pomegranate loaded with blossoms and baby fruit. A green bird with yellow belly and distinctive black and white helmet head perches on my clothesline pole. Lavender and jade and the purple flowered bush perfume the air. Emerald hummingbirds flash like blinking Christmas lights in the bottlebrush.

Surely, we may have more cold days but spring is undeniably here. And with the arrival of spring, I have arrived at a turning point in my life.

I am not sure that means there will be a perceptible difference, looking at me from the outside inward.

I’ll probably still wonder if I combed my hair this morning. But from within, outward, I know with everything in all my knowingness, I’ve turned a corner.

Most of my turning points have been subtle. Not marriage or deaths or births or geographic moves. If my life goes on the same as before, with same actions, that is not a turning point but merely a leaving one room and entering another, sometimes hoping geography will make a difference.

One turning point long ago, at CGF, was when my English teacher, after reading a story I wrote, asked me, “Have you thought about writing poetry?” I turned the story into a poem and never looked back.

Or when a friend said, “You need to spend at least a month alone and get your head together.” 

Terrified me. It was years before I acted upon his advice, but those words created a turning point, regardless, never forgotten. Slow, like a turtle, but I got there!

For me, change has seldom been precipitated by a large event, I’m talking inner change, a life-attitude change. More likely the cause has been a whisper, a fleeting image, a subtle nudge.

So why do I feel so confident this is a turning point? I suppose I sound crazy. But I stand differently on my two feet, taller, more confident. I breathe more deeply. The green is greener to my eyes. I’m no longer in black and white Kansas but my personal tornado has plunked me in the middle of Technicolor Oz.

Those are outward signs. Inside, I feel like I’ve been scrubbed clean, ready for a new chapter. Right—I do sound crazy.  

For a while, I have been letting life happen to me, a passive bystander. Now I feel dissatisfied. 

Rumblings. Anger. Ready to move forward. This turtle has her head up, feet plodding along, ready to do some serious introspecting.  

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
February 13, 2020
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