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March 2019

No Mild Savior

YgDB0S4yTvSvq3z803BhRwSomewhere someone is using a leaf blower. Men like leaf blowers. They wrest a mild order from the world while dinner cooks. And perhaps a bit of decompression is going on, a working out and winding down of the day’s troubles, troubles filtered through the whine.

When the blowing stops, I hear children’s voices and a fatherly voice--by tone, an instruction. Men huddle on the unfinished back room of a recently framed-in house behind me and in murmurs plot the next day. A truck door slams and an engine wakes. Underneath all this the groan of traffic can be heard, the comings and goings, the hum of homecomings, garage doors haled. Twittering and chirping birds are interspersed in the days-end sounds and, beneath that, the swish of branches in the breeze. Rays of sunlight stretch across the lawn as the earth turns.

I turn back to the poem I’m reading by the late James Tate about a raccoon named Elvis, the one he tried to shoot with a shotgun but ended up sleeping with. Reading such verse and pondering their meanings is what I do instead of blowing leaves. It has a calming effect. I didn’t know anything about Tate until now, because I don’t usually read journals like The Paris Review. Until today.

Dinner is on, somewhere. The wind rubs against the magnolia leaves and the over 35-year old volunteer quivers, like the tremor of the aged. The unseasonably humid air cools as it licks my face, a dog just happy to see his master. A plane’s motor bemoans its passing. A black-wash shadow cast by my neighbors’ house creeps up the side of my home.

Tate is odd. In his absurd poem entitled “The Government Lake,” also the title of a recent posthumous collection of his poetry, a man is in his car headed to the toy store. A policeman diverts traffic due to a fallen tree. The man drives for hours in a hypnotic trance. Finally he stops the car and begins walking. He comes to a lake with a dock and walks to the end of the dock where he sees a tire in the water--no, a man; no, a tire. Then this:

A man walked up behind me and said, “This government lake is off-limits to the public. You’ll have to leave.” I said, “I didn’t know it was a government lake. Why should it be off-limits?” He said, “I’m sorry. You’ll have to leave.” “I don’t even know where I am,” I said. “You’ll still have to leave,” he said. “What about that man out there?” I said, pointing to the tire. “He’s dead,” he said. “No, he’s not. I just saw him move his arm,” I said. He removed his pistol from his holster and fired a shot. “Now he’s dead,” he said.

I think Tate’s having a joke on us.

Sleepy dusk twitters from workday birds. Jet flayed over sky. A last construction worker in an orange vest slogs wearily to his truck.

Empty bird feeder. Mottled gray stone. Picnic-less table. Osmantis trees. Shaking blue umbrella. Creaking, aged pines--thin men with green heads in the clouds.

Now I have a small brown paper bag in my hand, a mallet in the other, and I’m walking among the towering pines toward the plot at the back fence which serves as our animal graveyard. The last burial was that of my daughter’s gerbil, and that was many years ago. He didn’t get a memory stone. This time, it’s one of her beloved geckos, and I am her pall bearer. I keep the box she was laid in level out of respect, an honor guard with a carefully folded flag, body. I lay her gently on the pine straw, dig a hole in loamy black earth, place her in it, and cover her.

And then, I pause and pray. Even a soulless gecko, with its small brain and bug eyes, is one of God’s own, and more, was one of my daughter’s beloveds. She was sad this morning when she discovered her lifeless body.

Next month she will marry.

Tate did make me smile with this poem, “The Blue Booby,” which I dedicate to the gecko, may she rest In peace:

The blue booby lives
on the bare rocks
of Galápagos
and fears nothing.
It is a simple life:
they live on fish,
and there are few predators.
Also, the males do not
make fools of themselves
chasing after the young
ladies. Rather,
they gather the blue
objects of the world
and construct from them

a nest—an occasional
Gaulois package,
a string of beads,
a piece of cloth from
a sailor’s suit. This
replaces the need for
dazzling plumage;
in fact, in the past
fifty million years
the male has grown
considerably duller,
nor can he sing well.
The female, though,

asks little of him—
the blue satisfies her
completely, has
a magical effect
on her. When she returns
from her day of
gossip and shopping,
she sees he has found her
a new shred of blue foil:
for this she rewards him
with her dark body,
the stars turn slowly
in the blue foil beside them
like the eyes of a mild savior.

That’s all it takes, apparently, for blue booby marital accord--just a new shred of blue foil. I could feel that way about blue. I look away.

Pete has put away his leaf blower.

Dinner is on.

The children have been summoned.

The rich, black earth has settled over her lizard body to await a new heavens and new earth.

I look up to where stars hide behind the dusky, still sunlit, blue-foil sky, behind the eyes of which lie no mild Savior.

His Father’s Son: Singer-Songwriter Pierce Pettis on Life and Legacy

91Axtan0pCL._SX522_Pierce Pettis is taking stock of life. His first solo release in ten years, Father’s Son (Compass, Jan. 19) offers a retrospective on the past and a prayer for the future. As Pettis sums it up: “The overall theme, at least for me, is ‘Father’s Son’—and all that can imply. I’m thinking of my own father, as well as being a father. Two of my grown children are writing and doing music, experiencing a lot of the things I did. So there’s that.” Pettis reminds us that “there’s also the Hebrew/Aramaic name Barabbas, or Bar Abba, which literally means ‘son of the father.’ Or more literally, ‘Daddy’s son.’”

Pettis has been at it for a while. He began his long career as a writer at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama and later as a staff songwriter for Polygram/Universal Music in Nashville. His songs have been covered by artists ranging from Garth Brooks and Dion to Joan Baez and Art Garfunkel. Probably his best known song is “You Move Me,” covered by Garth Brooks and Susan Ashton. As Pettis says, “That one helped me buy a house. Pretty hard not to like that one.”

Yet Father’s Son contains more of his deft lyrics, great playing, and passionate voice—even if the years have left his voice more well-rutted gravel road than slick blacktop. The songs exude gratitude and contentment even amidst the challenges life presents—and Pettis has had some in the ensuing years. In the album’s lead cut, “Wouldn’t Change It For the World,” he observes “we all have something from which to recover,” and yet when all is said and done he resolves that he “wouldn’t change it for the world.”

The songs move easily from the transcendent to the immanent. “More” is a recognition of Pascal’s oft-quoted recognition that there is a God-shaped vacuum in every heart: “A thing resounds when it its true/ When it’s ringing all the bells inside of you/ Like a golden sky on a summer eve/ Your heart is tugging at your sleeve and/ you cannot say why/ But you know there’s more.” And “Mr. Zeidman” is a true story about his small Alabama hometown’s one and only Jew, who “had a smile for every child/ A piece of candy, too/ There was kindness in the hands/Of our one and only Jew.” “Don’t Know Where I Am” is a testimony of a man losing his way, moonless: lost at sea, alone under the sky, floating far away.

Although Pettis identifies as a “most unworthy and undeserving Christ-follower,” he moves easily in and out of Christian circles, writing and playing with contemporary Christian music songwriters like Andrew Peterson as well as mainstream writers like Tom Kimmel and Kate Campbell. It seems well-crafted songs are respected, no matter what the source. Part of that acceptance owes to Pettis’s congeniality: his enthusiasm, warmth, and passion for life are infectious—even if he sometimes leaves his audience behind. After telling one story at a concert, he observed that he “had to realize that not everyone was in his head.”

Like all of his albums released since 1994, Father’s Son includes a song penned by the late Mark Heard—this time, “Look Over Your Shoulder.” Pettis recalls Heard’s deep influence: “Mark influenced me with his artistic integrity—for which, he would have credited Francis Schaffer, who was his mentor. Mark took his work seriously and himself, lightly. He was also very funny.” He has a poignant recollection of Heard: ‘Look Over Your Shoulder’ was the last song he ever performed in his life. I know that because Pam (Kate) Dwinell Miner and I were on stage with him at the time, at the Cornerstone Festival in Illinois. So that song is pretty personal to me. Don’t think Mark could have picked a better exit song."

As to the future, “Instrument,” the closing song on Father’s Son, may just sum it up: “Make me faithful, make me grateful/ Make me useful in this life/ All this living without giving/ Give me one more chance to try.” Between the regrets and blessings of his life, faith and craft keep Pettis centered. He is, after all, his Father’s son.


Fullsizeoutput_81b9I’ve had trouble sleeping lately.

No. No, I’m not worried about anything.

My wife asks me what I think about when I am lying awake there in the night. Well, how long do you have, I think? It’s like asking her what she dreamed, and she begins trying to explain an incredible, fantastical adventure, a multi-layered parade of short stories laid end to end until she finally gets frustrated and says oh, never mind, it’s just too complicated.

It’s a bit like that.

I think about the thin mostly wooden membrane that separates me from the night, from owls and coyotes and deer grazing on the fresh green grass of suburban lawns, from the cold asphalt of ribboned streets, from the water drizzling down the curb and gutter, emptying into drainage pipes and then into the unnamed streams that traverse our subdivision, from granite rocks and pines and oaks and wild holly trees and sleeping squirrels and robins resting in nests, and from the nightlight moon over it all just doing what they were made to do.

Until Christ comes.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

The streets of my neighborhood are not laid out on a grid. By the Eighties, the grids of Fifties and Sixties subdivision construction had fallen into disfavor, attacked by urban planners and critics of suburbia who called places like where I have spent my entire life--suburbia--evil, even calling it God’s Own Junkyard, to use the title of one book. Tell that to the bluebirds at the feeders, to the jonquils pushing through the topsoil, to the raccoon halfway up the tree, to the ivy advancing from our neighbor’s yard, and to the red fox crossing the street in front of me. This place is not evil; we’re just the latest occupants of this forest home, keeping the wild at bay by cutting grass and pulling weeds and washing streets. Streets follow the contour of the land, rise and fall, and cul-de-sacs lead off the mains like beckoning doors, to places others call home.

I think about the weight of things: the books in my study, the wood beams and plywood and insulation above me, the accumulated stuff of memory in our attic, the roof and rafters and shingles that are our first defense against the elements. All that weight pressing down on the two by fours that hold it up. I stop thinking about that. This, I think, is how people go crazy. It’s like when, on occasion, I hear about the size of the federal debt, or I’m driving and wonder if the tires might spin off the car or the axle break, or I pause and consider the rather small supports in the parking garage that hold up four floors above me--and I begin to get anxious.

I go to Jesus.

How do people live without the certainty that Christ holds all things things together? How in the night hours do they subdivide reality into the known and unknown and not end up stuck in a cul-de-sac of longing?

I think about the weight of memory--one memory piled on top of another. About all the places that I’ve slept. About when I’d visit my aunt as a child and lie awake in the cold in a big bed in her guest room with layers of musty-smelling blankets pressing down on me, with all those spooky looking paintings staring down at me, the house creaking when the furnace came on, the graveyard just behind the back yard of the house, reaching for me. It’s no wonder I couldn’t sleep.

Up above geese track through a night sky, I surmise, making their way from lake to lake, like pearls on a necklace, and I think about that poem by Anne Porter telling God that

You who speak without words
To your creatures who live without words
Are hiding under their feathers

To give them a delicate certainty
On the long dangerous night journey

And I wonder if she’s talking about us really, about me, and I think about riding at night with my parents with our headlights searching the dark, cocooned against the unknown.

Sometimes I recite by memory a verse or two of scripture, soundless though heard in my mind. I imagine the words written in the inky air of the room, like skywriting, or silhouetted in the rectangular light of the window, until the letters begin to break apart and dissolve against the night.

I try to pray. The prayers come unwound, skitter off into the air, sucked up by the intake of the HVAC, only to be launched into the outside air, into the night, to climb up, up, heavenward. No, actually, as I speak them they are, like the voice over a telephone across the world, instantly before the Lord, for whom all places are as one.

I used to ask my mother--who had more severe insomnia--what she thought about when she lay awake. She said she “solved all the problems of the world.”

I may take that up. I may take up where she left off and see what headway I can make.