A Map, a Lamp, an Alien World
His Father’s Son: Singer-Songwriter Pierce Pettis on Life and Legacy


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.