Saturday, February 15, 2020

Turtle Introspections

Turtle Introspections
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

Musings, Observations, and Outright Guesses

Musings, Observations, and Outright Guesses
I could have said ‘outright lies’ but I have no blessed idea how I am going to fill this page so ‘guesses’ seemed the more appropriate word.

Most weeks I know exactly what I want to say. It never comes out the way I think it will, but I have a definite idea to start. ‘I can’t wait to talk about that.’ Or, ‘I want to tell them this little story.’

This has been a strangely blank week. Maybe it is the gray skies, make me feel like I followed my son Ben home to Poulsbo, Washington; gray, grim, unrelenting wet.

“Where is the sunshine?” I ask as if it is my God-given right to expect sun every morning by 11:00 just because it is the usual way of the day unfolding here in my magical bit of Mexico.

There has not been enough sun to outline the clouds; dark and dreary and low and heavy hangs the ceiling, solid. Every day rain is forecast. Every day I think of Chicken Little and look for the sky to fall.

Then it did—fall—in fulsome wet steady streams, all night, all day, all night, relentless and unruly. Forecast today, ‘partly sunny’. Sol made a cameo appearance about 4:15 just prior to the wind gathering out of seemingly nowhere, bringing more rain. Rained all night, again.

Ten days of grim and gray, for me, translates to heated teakettles of water, sponge baths and hair-shampoos in the kitchen sink. I have a solar water heater and about the fifth gray day, water is best described as tepid. It is a minor inconvenience at most. Only happens once, rarely twice a year.

Worst are the feelings of vague ennui and low-level depression. Boredom? How can that be? I’m never bored, despite the fact I generally spend a good portion of each day outside. When gray generates cold. I huddle in my chair, lap blanket cover my legs, book in hand, sitting in the waft of warm air generated by my tiny tower heater. 

At least the rain brought a satisfaction of action—at last—something is happening.

But all along, every day I have activity, so why the lassitude? The lethargy?

My son flew back home. I had three weeks of his full-time care and coddling plus hot, vicious two-handed pinochle in which he trounced me. I loved every minute of it. It was time for him to go home.


I can care for myself with a minimum of help from neighbors, most of whom visit daily. They come with stories, with hugs, with soup, casseroles, bone broth and cookies. Cousin Nancie who lives to bake brought a huge piece of white cake with coconut frosting. Hard to stay down in the dumps with such attention.

Miguel is my physical therapist, a kind young man who gives me treatments which make each cell seem to open like a flower and breathe. Then he ruins the effects with orders for daily exercises. But I do them, diligently. Pain is negligible.

My balance is incredible, comparatively speaking, as is my walking. How could one walk well lurching along like Chester in “Gunsmoke”, half a block behind, hollering, Mister Dillon! Mister Dillon! Five years of misery that could have been avoided had I know my leg was fixable.

Jerry and Lola are here from Idaho. Jerry and I are Harlem High classmates. This is my friends’ third visit with me here in Etzatlan. They are staying at the restored Hacienda El Carmen not far from my home. Today eight of us, me and my neighbors, Jerry and Lola, met at the Hacienda for a lovely lunch and three hour visit. I saw my friends from Oconahua. Kathy from Victoria phoned. I do not lack company.

I worry about my daughter who is overworked and overwrought. I fear for her health, but will she listen to her mother? No! She is too much like her mother.

I worry about my friend in Oregon who has a malady that is not fixable. I do not want her to bear the pain and to gradually lose functions. She is too vital.

I worry about another friend in Washington, worry that he has given up, is making do, is feeling real despair, not this shadow of despair I flirt with, knowing tomorrow the sun will shine.

It will. It is forecast and it will happen. Manana. Which might be tomorrow. Or possibly the next day.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
February 6, 2020

The Wiley Side-hill Gougers

The Wiley Side-hill Gougers
My first husband was quite the—uh—storyteller. Some of you knew Harvey and can verify my statement. Some of his stories even had elements of truth. Others were pure fabrication, even when they sounded verifiable.
I was eighteen when we married. A naïve eighteen. This was back in the day when the farthest mosy people ventured from home was the county seat for official business. Worldly, I was not.
I was well-read. However, the majority of books available to me in our little library in Harlem were Victorian literature. Sir Walter Scott was one of my favorite heroes. I tended toward a romantic and believing nature.
One fine autumn day Harvey and I were riding horseback in former buffalo country, checking cattle on a grazing lease out toward the mountains. That is when Harvey told me the story of the side-hill gougers.
“See those paths circling the hills?” he asked.
“Well, sure, can’t miss them. Those are not deer trails. What caused them?” I often fell with complete gullibility into his stories, much like Alice down the rabbit hole.
“Hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago, side-hill gougers roamed the land. Strange animals, hairy, with legs shorter on one side than the other, so they walked more comfortably around the hills never following a straight path . . . “
I am simply too embarrassed to finish the story he told me. Surely you get the idea. Hook, line and sinker, I swallowed. And this is only one his fabrications, with which he must surely have enjoyed fooling me with ease.
These past five years I have considered myself to be one of his mythical side-hill gougers, one leg shorter than the other, picking my way carefully over the terrain, trying to gauge where I can walk more easily, circling when possible.
I am an incredibly fortunate woman. Saturday I saw my orthopedic specialist who gave me a goodly report. He’d told me plainly I’d have not the ordinary surgery and that it would be very hard on my body. Those words were meaningless to me until I’d experienced the aftermath. Now, a full month later, I get to start physical therapy.
For the sixth time in my eventful life, I get to teach myself how to walk. Seventh. I forgot the baby years. That may not sound lucky to you, but whether fate, karma, destiny or whatever, I know how blessed I am.
I had the kind of anesthetic that allowed me to be aware when Dr. Francisco picked up my leg and pulled it to proper length. “How much did you stretch it?” “Ten centimeters,” his answer.
Do you realize that is just under two inches? Do you question that for those years, I truly was a side-hill gouger? Do you see how fortunate I know myself to be? Every day I raise my feet together to make sure they are still the same length.
Do you believe gullibility might be a genetic trait? When I told my friend Jane that Dr. F. said to me, “I can fix it,” she laughed and said, “This is Mexico. Every man will tell you he can fix it, whatever ‘it’ is.”
Gullible or not, I am fixed and ready to begin the arduous task of strengthening almost non-existent muscles in order to walk. I am hardly ready to charge like a buffalo, but I need never again be the rare, elusive, pre-historic side-hill gouger.
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
January 30, 2020

Friday, January 24, 2020

Ingenuity and Telephones

                                Ingenuity and Telephones 
It could have exploded. Ben woke up and automatically reached for his phone. The auto reach; it is a generational thing. The phone was so hot it burned his hand. He jerked the plug from the phone and from the power strip. The power cord connection to the phone had melted into the phone. The cord itself was fried. He said, “I’ve never heard of this kind of problem.”

Oh, man; Oh, crickets; Have to buy a new phone. Ben, of course, has one of those phones with which he does everything. It is his lifeline to the world. And they don’t come free in Cracker Jacks.

Nevertheless, Ben cleaned the plastic mess as best he could and, with Leo, went in search of a new phone cord, on the million and one chance, not really believing it would work.

Luis, the man at the counter reached back on the wall and pulled down the correct power cord. Ben tried the plug. No satisfaction. It is a puzzle. Luis said, “Never heard of such a problem.”

Luis grabbed Ben’s phone, a strong light, a magnifying glass of, an assortment of small tools and a razor and dismantled the device. Carefully, he carved away the melted plastic, fiddled with this, soldered that, adjusted another thing, burnished here, jiggled there, reassembled the phone and plugged the phone into the new power cord. It worked. All functions are ‘go’.

Anywhere else, any phone or electronics store in the US, and Ben would automatically be signing up for a new phone, a new contract; we all know the drill. Ingenuity.

But this is Mexico. Here, we fix it. Somebody will fix it. The hard part is finding the perfect ‘fix-it’ person.

Between Ben and me, we have three phones in the house. His state-of-the-art model. My cheap-cheap cell and a bottom-of-the-barrel landline.

Last week my landline went dead. What was truly puzzling is that it had also died a month previously. Leo replaced the batteries for me. Ben took my Panasonic phone apart, found the batteries corroded, dumped them, cleaned the gunk and read the fine print. Leo had installed he wrong type battery. We needed a specific type of rechargeable battery.

Leo is my usual ‘go-to’ person to find the ‘fix-it’ person I need. When asked where to get rechargeable batteries, Leo’s face went blank, that typical deer-in-headlights look, I-don’t-know look.

In my praise for Mexican ingenuity, I must add a caution. Two things of which to beware. If asked, all Mexican men will say, “I can fix it.” even if that person has no idea what you just asked to be fixed. If that same person does not know where to find what you need, he likely will say, “No hay. 
You cannot get it here. Maybe in Guadalajara.” Which takes him off the hook. Ingenuity—in a different form.

In our small town there is an electronics tienda on every other block. So, bypassing Leo, Ben asked Jim to cart him around store to store in search of rechargeable batteries. How hard could this be?

In most small towns in Mexico, stores roll down the door fronts from the hours of 2:00 to 4:00. They drove by a tienda on Mina which had a picture of my same phone in the advertising blurbs alongside the door. The closed door. After trying two or three other shops and not being able to make themselves understood, Jim and Ben again drove to the small shop on Mina, the door now rolled up, shop open for business.

Ben held up the phone to show the woman the empty battery slots. “No hay,” she said. Ben looked up at the thousand items hanging on the wall behind her. There in plain sight, if only one knew what one was searching for, was a packet of the very rechargeable batteries my phone required.

Ben pointed. She took the battery pack off the wall. He paid. I now have a working landline again.

Ingenuity goes both ways. In case you ever need the word, rechargeable in Espanol is ‘recargable’ pronounced something like ray-car-ga-blay, minimal accent on ‘ga’. That is how my ears hear it at any rate.

I try hard to leave superstition in my childhood. I love black cats, walk beneath ladders. How often have we heard, ‘disasters happen in threes’? What could possibly go wrong with my super-simple, no frills cell phone? To say, ‘do not look for disaster’ is to say ‘do not think of an orange’.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
January 23, 2020

Argentine Ants

Argentine Ants
The other day my son Ben, here in Etzatlan to help me in recovery, showed me a video he and his daughter Lexi had enjoyed. The animated video by a German scientist with an unpronounceable name demonstrated characteristics and world migration of Argentine Ants.

"Arrgh!: I shouted. "I know those ants. Intimately. I've eaten some. Inadvertently. They are a kitchen plague. All of us here battle them continuously. Now I can name them. Imagine that."

Argentine Ants. These buggers are teeny-tiny, so small they resemble a little brown dash. They seemingly come from nowhere, in hordes. Leave one simple crumb of food on the counter and Argentine Ants will answer the siren call.
The cartoon-like video fascinated me, only because I fight these critters most days. They win. Always.

Take yesterday. Leo squeezed oranges for fresh juice for me while Ben was busy with a different chore. Leo did not rigorously clean the counter upon which juice splashed in the squeezing.

Me, normally, following a juice chore, I scrub the counter and near-by surfaces with soap about eight times to make sure it is clean. I am not a clean freak. A little dirt is a good thing. I scrub the sugary enticement to keep ants away.
Sure enough, within a couple hours, ants marching in disorganized lines, found each sugary splatter and feasted. "Spray them with vinegar," I told Ben. "Then wash the surface--a lot." He did. I keep a small spray bottle of white vinegar on the counter. Nothing keeps these ants away permanently. But vinegar kills what is there.

That night I could not sleep. I heard the Cathedral bells annouce the midnight hour. 1:00. 2:00. What am I to do? Into my frustrated mind popped the video of Argentine ants invading the warmer sections of the entire world, carried there by who else, travelers, in their suitcases, in shipping cargo containers.

Cartoon images, lines of ants marched from Argentina and Uruaguay, infesting other regions of the warmer world. Ah, ha, I said to myself. I can use this. My body is a microcosm of the world. I will visualize hordes of ants marching throughout my body-world, gathering the good healing properties and settling into the area of my incision, speeding healing. Within minutes I settled into a calm sleep.

That night marked a turning point in my recovery. Humor me. Okay?

After that, whenever I felt restless in the night, I summoned the cartoon ants to bring me the good stuff. Whatever works, right. You count sheep. I give tasks to my ants.

Something worked. Saturday I saw Dr. Francisco, had an X-Ray. "Beautiful." He snipped and plucked out my stitches, pronounced me ready to get up and walk. 

Small steps. Short distances. With a walker. Weight on both legs equally. Hip, hip, hooray!

I can walk. No pain. I am ecstatic. Dr. F set firm boundaries. A long list of 'do nots'. But each day I am to walk further, longer. Just walk.

My emotions were all over the map. Woops. Not the ant map. Different map. Overjoyed. Enraptured. Delighted. Elated. Just plain happy. That map.

Perhaps a secret part of me had believed I would never walk again. On two legs the same length. Without pain. I wanted to hug the joy, the surprise, the wonder to myself.

So I asked Ben to keep visitors away from my door. Rumors flew, of course. "What is wrong. Bad news? Poor thing." And such ilk.

I didn't care. I can walk. I will continue to wield the vinegar-bottle-battle against Argentine Ants, but, perhaps, I shall never view Argentine Ants in quite the same way.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
January 16, 2020

Sondra’s House of Ill Repute

            Sondra’s House of Ill Repute
Surgery successful—Hooray! Hooray! I have a repaired hip. My legs are both the same length again. I promise not to show you the scars.

The news on the other end of that spectrum is that I will be immobilized for two weeks.

My expectation, courtesy of previous experience, was that I would be up and walking the day following surgery. Shattered expectations had my emotions running wildly about, unclothed and unfiltered for a couple days.

And what is this strange motor-mouth reaction? Emotions circle the globe and I cannot keep my lips closed. Normally, I am a listener, the quietest person on the Rancho.

Because of bone damage from the slipped post into my leg bone, now repaired, Doctor Francisco ordered me to have full-time care for an unspecified period of time, to allow my leg to bear absolutely no weight, and to do nothing. That is not as fun as one might think.

In Mexico, when Mama needs help, family moves in and takes care of all necessities. Week One went like this—my Rancho Family became a care-giving unit.

Bonnie slept in my room the night I was in the hospital. For the following seven days my door was never locked and a stream of friends slipped in and out all day. Ana and Michelle, friends from Oconahua, took night duty and bandage changes. (Ana is a retired nurse.)

In and out, in and out, in and out my door, friends with food, with comfort, friends to plump pillows, sweep my floor, change dressings, shop, buy medicines; you get the picture. Everyone I know came. Could not have survived without my friends, my Mexican family.

That also meant I had ten people bossing me and making my decisions. I learned a lot about myself. Just think about it. Enough said.

Meanwhile, Dee Dee in Montana and Ben in Washington were figuring out logistics, what, when and how to be here.

Dee said, “Ben, I will make money and do the organizing, bill paying and such for you while you go take care of Mom with your past nursing experience. I can better be with Mom, helping, from here.”
Ben’s boss said, “Family comes first. You take the time necessary.”

I could hear audible sighs of relief from my Rancho caretakers when Ben arrived to take over my full-time care.

As a bonus to me, in the first two days here, Ben cleaned and updated my desktop, brought me a new tablet so I can email friends from my chair and repaired my printer which was emitting scary smells. That is the least of his help. I know Ben’s presence is speeding my recovery exponentially.

One of the harder aspects of this experience for me has been not being able to communicate with you. I have friends who were quite worried as day after day went by with no word.

If you ever wonder if the love you send me, in whatever form, makes a difference, let me assure you, I feel it.

Saturday I go to the hospital for X-Rays and check-up. I have been in touch with Dr. Francisco via this magical hand-held device of Leo’s (I think you can also use it as a telephone?) with frequent questions and concerns. Everything is going swimmingly.

I hope to be allowed to begin walking and therapy Saturday. Ben, who worked in the health industry when a younger man, assures me he is a physical therapy tyrant. You will hear my whines and screams of pain as they circle the glove and arrive via north winds.

Meanwhile, Jim from Missouri has arrived at the Rancho. He’s also a retired RN. He and Ben are driving me bonkers. They have their opinions contrary to Dr. F’s orders. Yeah, I, too, was surprised to not begin walking right away. I am following Dr.’s orders. We have interesting discussions,
borderline arguments. I tell them, just call Dr. F and ask! They would rather torment me.

I would invite them along Saturday to see X-Rays, to ask their own questions. But do you think we three earballs might “hear” three contrary orders?

For the past five years I have been supporting my weight leaning on a cane. If those bullies give me too much grief, I figure I can take them out with a powerful right hook.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
January 9, 2020

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Christmas 2019

Christmas 2019
I’m writing to you today from warm and sunny Glendive.  Mom had her hip repair surgery on Thursday, the 26th.  Merry Christmas! 

The post from her original hip replacement had slipped down into the bone.  The doctors knew this and knew they could fix it. 

After opening her up, while she was still awake (with a nerve block), the doctors discovered the slippage was worse than they had thought.  The metal post was grinding and eating away the inside of the bone. 

Mom explained how the surgery felt to her.  She reported the room was comfortable, music in the background, and cheerful chatter.  There were never any moments of ominous silence and “whoops”, so she was thankful for that.  

Mom said it felt like they were trying to pull her leg off.  She likened the experience to “being on the rack”.  The good news is mom’s legs are both the same length again!  The bad news is the bedridden part.

Mom has 2 weeks minimum bedridden. The doctor said it was possible it could be 4.  Then she gets to go through the grueling task of physical therapy.  Mom is really super super excited about physical therapy after her muscles atrophy in bed.

Mom came home to a house full of love from her neighbors.  The neighborhood has divvied up her care and meals while she recovers.  Mom wasn’t quite expecting it to be this long and difficult. And painful. 

Mom has no clue how long it will be until she can sit up at her computer and send these herself.  In the meantime, I will tag team write with her to keep her stories coming. Today it will be poetry as she’s kind of not into writing.  Mom may take a while to respond to anyone who writes, but when she is able, she will respond.  Mom loves hearing from you all.

Mom wanted me to share a couple of my favorite poems.

I grew up in isolated
North-eastern Montana.
Everybody knew your story.
I sneaked out of CYC and drove
Dad’s car, crammed with friends,
Up and down Main Street.
Somebody told my Dad,
Better keep a tight rein
On your filly there.

When my baby died,
Women from a hundred miles
Came to me, held me,
Cried with me, told me,
I lost a baby too.
In isolated communities.
There is no privacy.

Today I live in Mexico,
On the edge of a rural village.
I live by myself. In solitude
I find strength and beauty.  
Now and then, I feel lonely.
Nobody knows my stories

Alders Rained
Alders rained leaves
From the sky
Like tears rolling
Down my cheeks.
A leaf caught
In my eye, shattered
The morning with gold.
I love you,
I said aloud.
And the world
Bowed at my feet.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
January 2, 2020