This year in Eastern Oregon has for me been a strange mix — of excitement in exploring with Derek a new and wild part of the world—and of intense grief at being separated from my community of faith. Long-distance connections have always felt challenging to me. Some deep part needs actual, embodied face-to-face connection with those I love. I feel acutely disoriented and unmoored much of the time.
Long walks have literally grounded me and eased my grief. The physical place that comforts me the most is (ironically) the cemetery in Canyon City, a couple of miles from home. It sits high above the John Day River valley and offers a 360-degree view of mountain peaks and scudding clouds. Canyon Mountain towers over me to the west and the snow-capped Strawberry Mountains to the southeast. Other mountain ranges I can’t name hover in the purple distance, reminding me to “lift my eyes to the hills” and ask God for help.
Morning, noon, and at sunset, under falling leaves and over packed ice and snow, for ten months I have meandered the paths beneath elms and juniper trees and communed with this vast cloud of witnesses who rest here. I walk and walk, noticing the names, the birth dates and death dates of the very young and the very old, the carved doves and lilies -— and even horses and cowboys. I’m most drawn to those born before 1830, because I know for sure that they traveled across the continent before reaching this resting place in the wilds of Oregon. They must have felt displaced and disoriented, as I have, yet God was here before them, preparing a place for them, offering them the next right step on the winding, unknowable path.
I visit one spot almost every time I walk here – the grave of Elizabeth Hill Davis (1911 – 2009). She feels like a friend, though we never met. In 1960, Elizabeth and her husband built the the little green house on the John Day River where Derek and I now live, and she lived here until her death at age 98. She was a well-loved teacher – and I think would be happy to have a teacher in her home! As I learned more about Mrs. Davis – her love of local history, her southern accent — the connection deepened, until I was stunned to see in her obituary that she grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi, the small town where my own mother spent her childhood. They were 19 years apart in age, but I like to imagine that their paths somehow crossed. Maybe Elizabeth took piano lessons from Mrs. Prosser, my mother’s next-door neighbor. Maybe she taught my mother as a preschooler in summer Sunday School at the Baptist church.
On Elizabeth’s birthday in January, I placed a heart-shaped quartz stone (from the collection in our yard) in the snow next to her headstone. She planted a multitude of irises, my favorite flower, in the yard – and just yesterday we spotted the first deep purple bloom. On the anniversary of her death next week, I’ll leave some on her grave as a thank-you for reminding me that in the farthest of far places, whether I know it or not, I can find, with God’s help, connections to family, connections to home.