Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Shake, Rattle and Roll with the Punches

Shake, Rattle and Roll with the Punches 
            When Guadalajara rumbled with a 3.9 quake, I neither felt nor heard it but at the same time a weird wind seemingly blowing from all directions hit us hard.  That night I lay in bed looking up at the bricks that form my roof. What if . . .

I’ll never forget the quake that shook Seattle a few years back and terrified me. It sounded like a freight headed for my head and the ground rolled. Though a child, I still remember the Yellowstone Quake.

Another quake hit this morning when my son told me Gary is “deathly ill”, no details but Gary has serious lung problems. Gary and I were married many years and just because our relations have changed, doesn’t mean I don’t care. I still love Gary. Gary is Ben’s “real” Dad.

So I knew from whence the tears were coming when I sat in the back yard, pulling strength for my soul from my Cascada de Oro, the Golden Chain tree, in glorious bloom for the first time since I planted it. I’ve liked this tree since I saw a row in flower lining the banks of a laguna in Mazatlan, years ago.

Oh, my papaya, to me you are so wonderful, to paraphrase Eddie Fisher, remember him? A year ago Kathy gave me a tiny papaya she’d bought and decided not to plant, did I want it?

So I stuck it in the center of my yard and now it’s about my height (they don’t get much taller) and dropped its first strange fruit into my hand. That tree amazes me. What sensible tree produces fruit its first year of life? This little bitty tree produces fruit the size of footballs.

My first encounter years ago with papaya fruit didn’t impress me. I thought the flesh smelled like toe jam and true to the metaphor, it tasted like athletic socks. But I encountered it on fruit platters at breakfast often enough to try, try again.

Like with oysters, I gradually acquired a hankering. So imagine my surprise when I cut open my very own garden papaya and discovered fruit refreshing, sweet, and delicious without any vestigial reference to feet. Probably similar to tomatoes: garden versus grocery.

I quake with pleasure. This week the cicadas emerged singing their songs. Popular Mexican mythology says the cicadas sing down the rain. Typically the rains begin mid-June. It takes a while for the bugs to get into full voice, shrill and so loud one wants to muffle one’s ears. Rain, bring rain.

Another harbinger is the rainbird. Near as I can tell, this is a Kiskadee or a flycatcher. To my untrained eye the two birds look alike. I like the sound of the Kiskadee. But I like the idea of flycatcher since rains bring on the flies in abundance. And gnats. And mosquitoes. And no-see-ums. Whatever the name, it perches on my sill and tries to break into my window.

The windows rattling reminded me of the earthquake, close to home, as the crow flies. On second thought, I never met a crow that any glitter along the way didn’t distract off course.

My thoughts, like the crow, veered off course because I don’t like to think about an earthquake when I live in a house built of bricks, no matter the success of the third little pig.

I’ve watched the young men mix the cement binding the bricks; mix it on the bare ground with a shovel, the same men, too young to remember, who assure me there has never been a quake in this valley.

A portion of the cathedral in town dates from 1534. There are older buildings, dwellings, of the same handmade brick and mortar mixed with mud from the ground. So maybe . . .

Well, I am kind of an old crow. And worry never stopped the ground from rolling. So I’ll continue to find distraction in glitter, with papaya and my new lime tree, with cicadas and rainbirds, with sunlight filtering through the bamboo at my windows turning the air golden.

I have to trust that my friends are well, that my trees flourish, birds come and the rains will follow clouds across the mountains.  And trust that the sky isn’t falling on my head.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
May 16, 2019

Friday, May 10, 2019

When Life Weaves Magic

            When Life Weaves Magic 
            My son Ben lives in Poulsbo, a lovely town across the water from Seattle, where I lived with my family for 25 years. He sent the following email to me and it is a better story than any I could write.

He presents this story in a stream-of-consciousness way so I broke it into paragraphs. Otherwise, it is all Ben’s words, unedited.

            Have you heard of the Coffee Oasis in Bremerton? A guy started it years ago. It gives homeless and people in recovery a chance to have a job and a home and support to get back on their feet. They have helped hundreds of people to transition back into life.

            Anyway, the guy who started the place has been diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer and only has another twelve months or less. His family has been slowly building a lake house out in deep Belfair that they had planned to retire to someday.

            Medical bills have drained their dream of finishing the place to a standstill. So my boss has been organizing work groups to volunteer and provide materials so they can finish the house and have a peaceful place for the last days of his life.

            On Thursday a group of us went up to the Lake House and installed hardwood floors and finished the electric.

On the way up, my work truck started leaking antifreeze. By the time I got out to the house my engine was dumping fluid everywhere. So after we finished working there, I coaxed the truck back to my own garage.

            Here is the place where life weaves everything together to someone’s perfect master plan.

            A couple weeks ago Kristen had taken her Durango to Ken’s to get a list of what needs to be fixed. One of the biggest items needed was a water pump. So I ordered a water pump on Amazon and it has been sitting on our kitchen table unopened for the past couple weeks.

            Turns out the water pump was what was wrong with my work truck and our two vehicles take the exact same part. My co-worker Bob is a grease monkey, so after volunteering to get the floors done, he came over and we spent the rest of the day into the night rebuilding the truck.

            With taking the truck apart and putting it back together, we, of course, had to run to the auto store several times as we discovered parts that needed replacement.

            My boss had given us some cash for our part in the Lake House project and after reordering Kristen’s water pump again, the day ended out almost exactly.

            So the truck is now running fine, the Lake House is finished, parts are on the way for Kristen’s car and somehow it all ended up being a wash.

            Hopefully that is not too confusing but I feel like life worked its magic and provided what was needed when it was needed.

Ben Thomas
For Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
May 9, 2019

Monday, May 6, 2019



            I know that I said (quite plainly), “I am not going to buy any more pots for my plants.” I spoke these words quite sincerely, often, back when I had accumulated a total 100 (plus a small number) pots.  I counted several times, trying to be, wanting to be, wrong.

            Plants, flowers, bushes, have a done-by date, just as we do. Some I’ve pulled out by their dead roots and reused their containers. But I’ve also made changes in my garden, some of which require more containers.

            For example, in the beginning the east wall hosted my five dead trees. What an exercise in patience that has been. The first two years leaf-cutter ants stripped new leaves with regularity or seasonal rest left the twined trunks naked. Not pretty, my east wall.

So I added a clinging vine to cover the brick, made a narrow bed along the length and filled it with green and purple ground-cover leafy stuff. Oh, and five large clay pots with bamboo for greenery for those winter months when the dead trees appear dead, just in case. This year my dead trees are in full leaf and flower, beauties, every one, purple and white and pink.

Later I added a tasteful pot garden out by my wrought-iron backyard gate. The riot of colorful flowers is lovely against the black wrought-iron. Just a few new pots. Mostly, I moved older flowers from elsewhere.

Ah, bamboo. Lovely stuff. Bamboo demands pots, right? If bamboo is not contained, within too few months my entire back yard would be jungle. Yes, jungle. That is why I pot many of my plants, to keep them within set bounds.

Last year I invested in a thirty-year-old hot tub, spiffied it up, got it running. The tub sits in direct sight-line of the back gate. Private. Nobody is watching. Far as I know, nobody has seen me in the tub. However . . . Having discovered the marvelous screening properties of bamboo, I added four well-spaced potted bamboos to curtain my tub.

Genius move on my part. The bamboo also filters noise and dust. Amazing stuff, that bamboo.
May is our hottest month in Etzatlan. My casa is built of a little brick and a lot of windows. To say I live in a glass house is no exaggeration. I like the open, expansive feeling of living outdoors so I do not use window curtains.

However—there is always a “however” in life; ever notice? The afternoon summer sun beats into three of my wonderfully arched windows, creating a dry-sauna effect. It is only unbearable three or four hours of the day, so I have tried to buck up and bear it.

Last week the proverbial cartoon lightbulb appeared above my head. “Eureka! By gum, I’ve got it! I’ll plant bamboo curtains outside those three irksome windows.” (The other seven windows do not get the same sun blast.)

Well, more bamboo equals more pots, special pots. Hence a trip to Tonola in search of big rectangular pots, large enough for three bamboos each one.

I know a street along which pots, pots of every size and shape imaginable, line several blocks. We drove into the market section of Tonalo, turned left onto the “tiles and pots” street, drove about six blocks, parked smack dab in front of the a stack of pots the perfect size. Lovely unadorned natural clay.

When I see what I want, I look no further.  My pot transaction took five minutes.

Jorge, the welder, made ironwork stands with wheels for my pots, each pot a few centimeters over three feet long (Spanglish). The better to move them on dread window-washing days, my dear.

Leo planted three bamboos in each pot. Even as spindly baby bamboos, the plants filter the extreme sun-heat. In three months I’ll have a lush living curtain.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
May 2, 2018

As a Matter of Fat

As a Matter of Fat 
            Several weeks or months ago, all the women in the Rancho jumped onto the latest diet-craze roller coaster. One at a time. I’m not sure how or why.  Each is beautiful in her own way.

I say “all” the women. I mean all but myself. I wasn’t invited. Not that I would have bought the ticket. I once rode that carnival ride and it cost me dearly. I have not dieted since.

            When I was in high school, several girls attempted the diet of that time. When I make up my mind to something, I’m like a snapping turtle; I clamp on and don’t let go.

            I doubt I was fat—none of us were. I grew up skinny. I lost more than weight. My immune system weakened, I contracted mono, was allergic to the meds, landed in the hospital several weeks, under-hydrated and unable to walk. I lost two months of school. And I never want to be that skinny again, not ever.  I was a skeleton with skin.

            It’s not fun lunching with a group of dieters. I order whatever I want. My friends eat lettuce leaves, while polishing their halos and eye-balling my plate with both lust and disdain. 

            One friend said to me, “It is not a diet. It is a lifetime change in eating habits.” “Uh huh,” I answered back. It seems to me that any food deprivation plan smacks of Puritan righteousness. And dieters usually fall off the roller coaster. It’s a rough landing, bruising body and psyche.

            We believe what we want to believe. I am no exception. But I know with all my knowing that no amount of starvation, make-up, hair color, face or body enhancements will change the person I am. What you see is what you get, and what you see is the real-me-deal.

            Back in my high school days, Jack LaLanne was the television diet and fitness guru. He said, “If it tastes good spit it out.” He also said, “If man made it, don’t eat it.” It worked for him.

            I’ve been heard to say I’ve never met a food I didn’t like. That’s not totally true but why would I eat something I don’t like? On the proverbial desert island with just one food, I’ll take bread. Real bread. Bread I bake myself. I could live on fresh bread, toasted, slathered with butter and smothered with mango jam.

            I’ve been skinny and I’ve been fat. I prefer somewhere in between. When I notice my clothes shrinking, I look inside my head instead of the refrigerator.

I ask, what is going on with me? What is “eating” me?  When a problem is eating me inside out, I’ve noticed I tend to want to live on bread and chocolate. When I deal with the bug-a-boo, I generally fade back to my clothing size with little effort.

It took me years to find that solution. Eating is easier. Why not pleasure the problem with food?

            I dropped a lot of weight when I moved to Mexico. I can account for that quite simply. Fruits and vegetables, fresh and local, are cheap and in abundant supply. So is fish and other seafood. These are foods I like and enjoy. So that is what I eat, no diet involved.

I agree with LaLanne that man-made foods are poison. I buy virtually no processed foods. It’s not easy but I have free time to make my own foods that if I were working and raising children, I’d pick up in a can or box at the grocery.

 I’m not skinny but I am comfortable with myself and I am healthy. I don’t live on a desert island. I neither live on bread nor do I deprive myself of bread.

Moderation in all things is as much of a food plan as I can handle. My opinion, not backed by science or statistics, is that to function fully, our bodies need some fats and carbs too.

Man does not live by grass alone. That’s why we eat cows. A prime rib sandwich can be a holy meal.

            Maybe my friends are losing weight. I don’t know. Maybe deprivation works for them. I don’t know. But why do desperate women crawl to my door begging for just one piece of chocolate?

            I’m hungry. I’m going to fix a plate of sliced tomato and cucumber with a drizzle of my homemade dressing as soon as I finish shining my righteous halo.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
April 25, 2019

All My Oceans Lie Westward

            All My Oceans Lie Westward  
            I felt lost the whole week. I had absolutely no sense of direction.  How could I tell? I have long been able to orient myself to water.  I sense the presence of a body of water.

            On our last day, luggage packed for return, I stood on the balcony over the Caribbean. “I got it!” I said to myself. Sometimes I am a slow learner. The Caribbean Sea is to the east, not the west. No wonder I have felt so disoriented. I had spent the entire week upside-down, so to speak, heading in the wrong direction.

            But what a week! We four, Kathy, Richard, Leo and I, wallowed in wretched excess of luxury in a resort on the beach outside of Cancun. The resort is isolated, in that it is not in a town or part of a town. To get there we drove down a stick-straight stretch of highway, bordered by a wall of green jungle with billboards. View was nil.

            Once at the resort, that all changed. The sea is stunning, even if it is on the wrong side. And the landscaping, a modified jungle made beautiful rather than impenetrable; I went gaga over the variety of plants and ideas.

            “Leo,” I said. “Let’s take out the back lawn and put in a pond like this, with a fountain in the center.” Or, “Leo, look at this beautiful tree. I want one.” Or, “I know. Let’s plant all these dozen kind of palms and make our own jungle.” Leo, friend and gardener, just raised an eyebrow in answer.

            I’ve no idea how many pools of swimming variety the resort has, plus the turquoise sea lapping the shore, but we basically ignored the water options in favor of exploration. We went to Cancun (a most modern city), to Puerto Morelas, a fishing village turned tourist trap, and to Playa del Carmen with a beautiful white sand beach (ditto on tourists). I stayed in my room, content with solitude, while the others explored Tulum and the ancient Mayan ruins.

And we took a ferry across the waters from Cancun to the Isla de las Mujeres. We rented the oldest golf cart on the island and chugged with frequent backfire blasts around the island. We ate a meal of the most expensive (and delicious) tacos de pescado (fish) made by man.

But the funny or odd part of this day was that we three gringos had interesting expectations of an ancient isle untouched by time. I suspect we wanted the island as it might have been fifty years ago. We would have been pleased with a village similar to Etzatlan where we now live. Leo had been there twice. He knew. We adjusted.

            What else did we do while on our exotic and surreal holiday at the resort? We ate. We went to every kind of restaurant, Asian, seafood, French, Italian, Mexican. We could even have hamburgers, but why? Every meal was sumptuous, rich, satisfying. Unfortunately. I’m fairly certain the plane returning carried more weight that the plane going to Cancun.

            Home. Yes, we were ready to come home, back to reality, back to our known environment, back to simple foods, back to a simple life.

            Kathy called this past week our “Ultimate Blowout Vacation” and it certainly did not disappoint.

            For dinner tonight, I sliced a tomato and a cucumber, sprinkled them with salt and pepper, and treasured the simple pleasures.

            It surely feels good to be home, where east is east and north is north and the Ocean is on the proper side of the continent, even if it is several hours over two mountain ranges.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
April 18, 2019