Sunday, July 29, 2012

Four Years Ago in Knoxville—A Shattered Sunday Morning

Sunday morning impatiens.

Periodic shooting outbreaks and mass killings have become a feature of modern American life.  It is already a cliché that they shock us, but no longer surprise us.  Unless we are tethered to the event by ties to the victims, geography, or some other accident, our grief and outrage fade after a day or two and we resume our lives puttering away at the mundane until the next horror grabs our fleeting attention.
The carnage last week in Aurora has perhaps lingered longer than others if only because it is coupled in our imaginations with a cultural icon—the latest Batman movie—and the queasy feeling, if we pass our time occasionally in similar cinema multiplexes, that it could have been us.
But the Olympics are on, and after that the political conventions.  The kids will be going back to school and, hey, the summer is slipping away.  We are already, as they say on television “moving on.”
Of course if we do have that personal connection, perhaps we have not given it up quite so casually just yet.  And in this world since we are, it is alleged, only separated by six degrees from any other mortal, many of us stumble into some unexpected connection.  It turns out that one of several young men who died in that Colorado movie house protecting his girlfriend with his body, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class John Larimer, was from here in Crystal Lake, Illinois.  At 27 he was just a year younger than my youngest daughter and although they went to different high schools they must inevitably had some mutual acquaintances.
And after a memorial at church yesterday for my friend Roger Schiller, who did not die in a hail of bullets buy is dead just the same, I heard Rich Strong, who came from Colorado to play mandolin with his father Chris, say that he lived minutes away from the theater and that one his students was among the dead and another gravely injured.  So, unexpectedly, I was once again in the broad loop of that tragedy.
One eruption of mayhem I feel a particular kinship to occurred four years ago this last week on July 27, 2008.  As these things go, it was not a major event.  They body count was low—only two dead and a handful injured.  If it were not for the somewhat unusual location of the shooting, it would have received no notice at all outside of Knoxville, Tennessee.
It was a Sunday morning—and it is always a Sunday morning in my mind when I remember it, regardless of the exact anniversary date.  A sad, disgruntled man whose life was unraveling, walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church that bright morning as children from two local congregations were getting ready to present their summer program, an adaptation of the sunny, iconic musical Annie.  He removed a shotgun, primitive weapon compared to the high powered ordinance used in other killings, from a guitar case and began blasting away in the crowed sanctuary.  He kept firing until he was tackled and disarmed by congregants as others fled in terror leaving mangled bodies behind.
The killing spree turned out to be somewhat unusual in that it seemed to be motivated by something more than just a twisted desire for infamy base on a total body count of anonymous strangers.  The killer picked this church and the people in it.  He had a motive of sorts.  He wrote it down in a rambling manifesto that the police later found.  He believed that liberals had ruined his life.  And because he could not get to the politicians he especially despised, he sought to kill those who he thought  had elected them, the liberal members of the local Unitarian Universalist Church.  Of course it also turned out that his ex-wife had been a member and that he had once been a welcome guest.  So perhaps his political motivations were mixed in with other harbored resentments.
My connection to this little horror comes not because I knew the victims, although I knew people very like them.  It came because I was accustomed to spending my Sunday mornings in another UU congregation in Woodstock, Il.  And I had been at summer services where liturgy was jettisoned in favor of some interesting or compelling program put on by the lay members.  And what could be more interesting, compelling and just plain delightful than beloved children you know by their first names singing familiar songs.  I felt it could have been me collecting the fatal buckshot, that it could have been my church.
The children never got to sing their songs that morning.  They were shepherded out of the church and away from danger.  But the next night when the whole of Knoxville seemed to gather at the near-by Presbyterian Church for a memorial service, they asked—no demanded—to sing their song.
Video of them singing that optimistic tune and of the whole assembly joining in moved me deeply. 
Naturally, I wrote a poem, which I read the next week in church and again on the first anniversary. 
It is on my mind this Sunday morning as well,
Knoxville: 7/27/2008 10:26 A.M

They are about to sing about Tomorrow,
            as fresh and delicate as impatiens in the dew,
            when Yesterday, desperate and degraded
            bursts through the doors
            barking despair and death
            from the business end of a sawed of shotgun.

Tomorrow will have to wait,
            Yesterday—grievances and resentments,
            a life full of missed what-ifs
  and could-have-beens,
  of blame firmly fixed on Them,
  the very Them despised by
  all the herald angels of perfect virtue—
  has something to say.

Yesterday gives way to Now,
            the eternal, inescapable Now,
            flowing from muzzle flash
            to shattered flesh,
            the Now when things happen,
            not the reflections of Yesterday
            or the shadows of Tomorrow,
            the Now that always Is.

Now unites them,
            victims and perpetrator,
            the innocent and the guilty,
            the crimson Now.

Tomorrow there will be villain and martyrs,
            Tomorrow always knows about Yesterday,
            will tell you all about it in certain detail.

And yet Tomorrow those dewy impatiens
will sing at last—
The sun will come out Tomorrow,
            bet your bottom dollar on tomorrow
            come what may…

How wise those little Flowers
            To reunite us all in Sunshine.

—Patrick Murfin

1 comment:

  1. This means that four Years ago I returned to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Charleston WV. I had attend one in Charlotte NC and moved to WV several years before. I still thought of myself as a UU, but it was easier to listen to NPR in the morning than get up and go to "Church".

    The week before the shooting I attended the funeral of a young friend who died from complications from giving birth. The "Preacher" spoke of Hell, Damnation, Repenting, and sin. He barely mentioned Kara. This left what I can only describe as an ugly psychic slime in my mind. Then I heard about the shooting and I decided to make a commitment to start going again.

    I am now on three committees, am leading a Covenant Group, am a Worship Associate and one of three Trustees.

    Standing on the side of love,
    Paul A. Dalzell