IN ANY PLACE I LIVE long enough, I must find at least one nature-spot where I can retreat for prayer. It becomes my place, where I stain the earth with devastated prayers and paint the air with memories of healing.
At the house I grew up in, where my parents still live, this place is Skyline Memorial Gardens, about a fifteen-minute drive from my parents’ house. From there I can see the suburbs of the West side of Portland, and some of Beaverton and Hillsboro. As I sit on the green hill and talk to God, I look straight out and see the sky in front of me.
I go there to escape life. Sometimes it’s cabin fever, sometimes it’s relatives in town, sometimes it’s after work and I have a build-up of the brokenness of the world, which I have helplessly overheard working at Target.
Oftentimes I retreat with my Bible and prayer journal and write my thoughts to God. It is in those times that I remember how Jesus’ disciples always followed him up to the mountain where he would teach them. As I write, he teaches me about my heart, about the places where it needs breaking and healing, death, and resurrection. Sometimes I sit on the ground with my journal on a marble bench bearing the name someone who used to be alive.
SKYLINE MEMORIAL GARDENS is a cemetery. I never knew anyone who is buried there. When I explain it to people as one of my favorite peaceful places, I am hesitant to use the word cemetery for fear of sounding morbid.
In reality, Skyline is a gorgeous and uplifting place. I am not one to stalk about in grim places, but this isn’t one of them. Unlike spooky-story depictions of creepy cemeteries, Skyline does not have large headstones with heavy, archaic crosses upon them, it has small, usually metal grave markers, flush with the ground, sometimes with a little holder for fresh flowers, so that, if you were look out across one of the rolling green hills, you would think it was just like any other well-manicured field with only a few memorial vases peeking out from the trimmed blades of grass, erected in a salute to the textured sky.
One day when I escaped my life to meet the Lord on the hill, I could see the rainstorm coming from Hillsboro. I watched it approach, until the rain finally arrived; then I put down my pen and danced.
Sometimes I drive up there at night, even though the gate is closed, and I park alongside the road and walk through. As I enter I become aware of the small house on the edge of the property where the dog barks until I am long past. I imagine a few of the possibly sinister outcomes should I encounter any shady characters, then, uttering a short prayer against the possibility, I leave those cares floating in the air behind me, to settle and sink into their graves.
Sometimes I’ll just take off, out-running my anxiety before kneeling in the grass and pressing what’s left of my worries into the ground with my forehead. Burying them, so that Christ can rise in my heart.
These are the moments when I understand why they do child’s pose in yoga; supposedly the pressure of one’s forehead against the ground has a very calming effect. I think God designed it that way, so the prostrate would have peace.
No matter what kind of environment I need, I can find it at Skyline. Some trees are gentle looking, others are wild and windblown. Sometimes I just need an open place in the grass, other times I just need to look at the various grave markers and contemplate my own mortality.
Sometimes I go around to the back where they keep the maintenance equipment. There are two sheds, a rusty trashcan, and an old, rusted pickup truck with a wooden bed. That is one of my favorite backdrops for taking pictures, which I often do there. While I am there, I almost always head toward one of the buildings. The roof has gravel on it and the top back edge meets the ground due to the steep slope. I walk out to the edge of the roof, sometimes hanging my feet off the edge. If I don’t look down, I can completely forget about the land beneath me and imagine that this is the edge of the earth. Most often, I come to walk around and look at the statues of Jesus, representing various moments during his ministry.
I am not usually one to connect well with religious iconography, but coming up on the mountain to meet with him, the statues serve as a reminder of his human presence. One of my favorite things to do there is to go up to a given statue and read that part of the gospels. To think about it in light of the physical presence of the figure before me. Since my favorite part used to be Jesus’ time with the Samaritan woman at the well, I would go there often to read and work on memorizing that story. While I could paraphrase it pretty well, I definitely don’t have it memorized anymore.
I FIRST DISCOVERED Skyline with my best friends one night when I was in High School. We had just finished with some adventure or another—maybe it was the day that Becca and I went hiking instead of to the prom and then to Rimsky’s for dessert. But I know I went there before that. Okay, so I don’t know when I discovered it: sometime in high school—probably junior year. It’s been a short relationship, but it has shaped my life in more ways than I can count, because each time I return is a time in which my soul is emptied out, all of it buried, dead, like those whose names surface to make their mark on the meadow.
Although it is a spot for spiritual rest and renewal, it is also the first place I think of when I am in need for a good backdrop for a portrait. Like I mentioned before, there is the rustic maintenance and storage area, and there is the huge green hill. First Becca took her own senior pictures there, letting me into a few frames, then I followed suit a couple years later, photographing my sister for her senior photos in the same spot.
I remember one frame in particular with Becca: we had set up the camera down the hill and hit the self-timer button. We didn’t walk fast enough to sit down on the grass. It clicked right as we sat down. The frame captured showed us looking at each other, hair still falling back from our abrupt movement, and I am looking and smiling right at her. “You look like you’re in love with me!” she says playfully. It’s still my favorite picture of the two of us.
ONE SUMMER I BROUGHT my boyfriend there with me. We ran down the steep grassy hill to sit at the feet of Jesus as he preached the gospel to the Samaritan woman. For a long time we stared off in every direction, him thinking, I think, and me thinking about what he must be thinking about, looking for a long time at a given tree where a goofy and repetitive birdsong stood in stark contrast to our contemplative silence. After a long time I asked what he was thinking. He said he was thinking about his confused theology. I don’t remember how he explained it, but this time he didn’t go into much detail. He was questioning a lot. “Where in the Bible does it say God is good?” Scott Starbuck had asked in Old Testament Prophets that past semester. Freshman year at Whitworth had taken its toll on his worldview.
For many people, I imagine, Skyline is a place to bring flowers and remember people that were special to them. I define the space as a place to remember and discover what it is to be human and to ask questions like: Who is God? How can we ask anything of him? He has a will of his own, which I can do nothing to manipulate. He will ruthlessly do whatever it is he does for whatever reason it is that he does it, so what can I do? Where in the Bible does it even say God is good? And it is here that he answers the faithful.
I like to imagine that each grave marker represents one more face that will open wide its mouth to declare at the time of resurrection with that glorious sound of a great multitude, like peals of thunder and the roar of many waters.
I HOPE THAT PEOPLE I never knew meet with Jesus over my grave. Maybe my children will bury me there. And I hope that when I am buried there I have left behind an earth littered with marks of divine encounter. I hope I will have readied spaces for the prayer warriors of tomorrow.