The sky was Bible black and ringing with thunder last night above Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in West Knoxville. You know it as the building where Jim D. Adkisson carried a shotgun inside a guitar case Sunday morning and shot nine people during a children's performance of the musical “Annie.” None of the children were shot, but two adults later died.
I know the building as a space of light, charity and learned discourse, a place where luminaries, scribes and prophets from many traditions are often invoked. I teach a creative writing class there on Tuesdays. Tonight would've been class night. Of course, all meetings have been canceled at the scene of the “hate crime,” so designated in part because of a letter Adkisson left in which he declared his “hatred of the liberal movement.”
Last evening, my wife Jeanne and I attended a packed candlelight service at the church on the hill next door, Second Presbyterian, a stately earth-toned building that rang with sweet voices from familiar faces. Several hundred attended, starting with many who sought counseling before the service. I spoke to people who were feet away from the gunman when he opened fire. They described the heroic struggle with him that likely saved many lives, including his, as I'm sure you've heard or read. But the candlelight service was about something else. It was about music and eloquent oratory and the comfort to be had in coming together.
At the end of last night's service, children from the church cast of "Annie" took the stage and had their triumphant moment, singing Grace Jones' song, “Tomorrow” (Oh, the sun'll come out tomorrow, So you gotta' hang on till' tomorrow, Come what may…. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you tomorrow. You're always a day away….) followed by a thunderous ovation.
Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, based in Boston, was there, and he was eloquent, expressing faith that the voice speaking thunder outside stained glass was a friendly one. Unitarians are famous for such second-guessing, and Sinkford's acknowledgment of that drew the needed relief of laughter. I suppose there'll be a lot of second-guessing at TVUUC, where it must feel like open season on liberals. I've never been a member there, yet it's where I belong. Proudly belong. It's always held a certain magic and light for me.
I've loved teaching my creative writing class there the past two years and hope to continue. On any given night rooms ring with laughter, music and learned discussion in this place dedicated to reason and transcendence. It's a church rooted in the principles of Enlightenment and Jeffersonian liberty. A place where not only Jesus, but Buddha and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and others might feel at home.
This church holds treasures. There's an impish and colorful self-portrait painted by the great poet of whimsical verse, E.E. Cummings--honest--who once wrote these words in celebration of un-sung lives….
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did...
Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain...
I never think of Cummings' paintings without his words ringing through my head, so suggestive of towns I knew growing up in East Tennessee. Knoxville once seemed like “a pretty how town with up so floating many bells down,” but Cumming's more famous for this little poem, a fixture of anthologies….
who used to ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what I want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
As Delaney Dean writes at DelaneyDean.com, "I've always found this poem disturbing. The juxtaposition of beauty with death, even with wanton killing, cuts to the (sometimes very painful, always paradoxical) heart of the human condition."
Cummings likewise cuts to the heart with… "ponder, darling, these busted statues…" a carpe diem poem about the value of catching hold of life and living and loving in defiance of death and those who deal death. It's the sort of sentiment I often hear at TVUUC, and heard from some last night.
In the wake of tragedies like this, paid pundits do their best to make public sense of bloodshed. In these parts, such sense often comes coupled with apologies for hunting and gun ownership, a tough balancing act. Honesty requires acknowledging I'm not smart enough to make sense of this tragedy. If you are, more power to you. Maybe next you can figure out a way to save rain forests.
I don't have such answers. Yes, I suspect this tragedy has something to do with living in a fear-drenched country, one that glorifies guns and wars, one founded in part on killing Indians--something Buffalo Bill turned into a lucrative show-biz career. Even now ours is a country whose economy is driven largely by a military-industrial-media web that disperses resources that could otherwise do great good in this world.
In that regard, I suppose I'm aligned with Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and Greg Palast, whose book, Armed Madhouse, I wish you'd read. In that book, Palast presents the sobering news that every year many more Americans die to wanton gun violence in America than have died in the whole history of our involvement in Iraq.
Maybe he's right when he declares we bring much misery on ourselves by protecting gun producers from things such as lawsuits, and that beat down men like Adkisson have been their own worst enemy by opposing progressives, though I can't prove it. I'm not near smart enough. If only those who pontificate on the need to broaden the reach of the Second Amendment beyond any reasonable measure, would own up that they're not that smart either, I'd feel better about my fellow citizens.
I write this not as prescriptive of anything, however, only as a word of mourning for Greg McKendry, 60, and Linda Kraeger, 61, for all their friends and relations and for something more that deserves mourning. That's the lost magic and tranquility that never will be fully redeemed at TVUUC, even by walls of flowers and candlelight services and other tokens of love and empathy.
Something was lost on Sunday for many of us who live in this pretty how town with up so floating many bells down. Something that begs one to ponder, darling, busted statues and broken lives and to wonder just what Mr. Death thinks of his blue-eyed boy who could break onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat....