Christmas cemetery

peace sign, Rolling Hills Cemetery

One set of parents lives within walking distance of the cemetery where my mother's parents, brothers, and several extended family members are buried. The cemetery residents have a great view, so to speak, of the eastern mountains of the Klamath Basin. One of these mountains sat behind me most of my childhood years, the reason why mountains for me feel protective and mysterious, while vast stretches of flat plains feel disorienting, lacking, and dull. My grandparents' plots look out over this mountain they used to live under. They preferred the high desert, moving back here after a brief stint in rainy Portland during WWII.

view of Pine Grove from Rolling Hills Cemetery

Growing up, I refused to see the beauty in this landscape of juniper, sage, and sparse pines, preferring the golden oak hills of California where my father's parents lived or the thick-treed mountains of the Cascades, the lush green of the Willamette Valley, or the flat horizon line over at the coast, where the sun sank each night into the depths of the Pacific. I couldn't wait to live in cities. I tracked airplanes high in the sky, wishing myself aboard. I left this place, seeking adventure (not that I've never been back). Yet the older I get and the less time I spend here, maybe a few days a year, the more beautiful my hometown seems—the natural geography itself, not the human settlement. The town is still poor and the weather too cold.

bird house with angels, Rolling Hills Cemetery

When I visit, I often walk over to the cemetery alone, across a highway, in a kind of pilgrimage. This time, there was a thin layer of snow and no one in sight. The plastic flowers were dusted white, the trash bins full of rotting bouquets. What struck me were the cemetery's new marketing signs for "Family Estates," "Private Estates," and "Value Estates," as if the cemetery were miniaturized suburban developments with gated communities for the wealthy. (Even in death we find status markers.)

Private Estates sign, Rolling Hills Cemetery

snowy pine needles

Family Estates sign, Rolling Hills Cemetery

Christmas trees, Rolling Hills Cemetery

While most Americans have been busy buying gifts and baking cookies this holiday season, I've been thinking about how in past decades, let alone centuries, I would by now be well on the way to dead, the cancer slowly spreading each progressive year from lymph node to lymph node, eventually reaching my organs, finally causing great crushing pain. And then I, too, would be lying near my grandparents, my closed eyes or cremated dust (depending on whether my family followed my wishes) in view of the childhood mountain. This is a sober, morbid, humbling reminder to be grateful I am still alive like the rest of you. It reminds me to take more risks, to be more present, to leave, somehow, some kind of legacy. The hero's journey is a spiral, returning and leaving, returning and leaving, finding one day, perhaps, peace.

No Trespassing sign

two llamas and a sheep

brown llama

fenced goat

white llama

On the way back to the house, two llamas, a sheep, and a goat walked up to the corner of a fence in a field—which sounds like the start of a dirty joke but isn't. The goat was friendliest, sticking its nose through the wire and licking my hand like a dog. The sheep was most circumspect, staring frozen in the background. The llamas with their lovely long lashes approached cautiously, but I couldn't remember if they bite (they don't). It started to snow, big wet flakes in our hair and faces. I laughed at the silly goat, called them all pretty, told them I was sorry I didn't have food for them. I sounded exactly like my mother.

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