Looking for a “Reason”

I got really sick on Saturday night. I had been having this weird dry cough for a couple days but didn’t think anything of it until I was flat on my back Saturday, so feverish I could hardly move my arms or legs. My lungs became so painful that trying breathe became an exercise in attention: Breathe only to the point where it hurts. Try to let it back out without crying.

“Grief is stored in the lungs,” my friend says. Is this illness my body’s response to the unspeakable loss of life in Friday’s school shooting? Maybe. I’m not much of a crier, so it’s got to come out some way, I guess.

I woke up this Monday morning to see my son off to school. I’m achey, drained, but a little bit hungry for the first time in a couple days, so maybe I’m on the upswing. I hope so. I had to miss teaching Sunday school yesterday, a really difficult thing for me to let go of when I knew my middle schoolers would probably want to talk about the massacre. I knew they would need church and the adults there to give them some reassurance, a circle of comfort, and I wanted to be part of that circle.

But what reassurance can we offer each other, really? Could I tell my Sunday schoolers, “This won’t ever happen to you”? No. The arbitrariness of the killings somehow makes them harder to bear. Even if the police—who are now examining the killer’s internet search history and digging into his computer files—find a “motive,” the crime itself is still insane, the killer’s fixation so random. What does the expressed “reason” for an unreasonable act matter?

But still, we’ll demand a motive. The arbitrariness is what frightens us. “It could’ve been me. It could’ve been my kid,” we think. It could’ve been anybody.

Although I’m not particularly invested in uncovering “why” the shooting happened, I do understand this drive to find out. Much of my writing and performance has to do with complicity and harm, turning over questions of why people do terrible things to each other and marveling at the capriciousness of the damage.

While I was sleeping away my fever, I got an email from Jendi Reiter, publisher of Winning Writers newsletter. Back in 2010 a poem of mine, “Cross Reference,” had received an Honorable Mention in their national war poetry contest and they had reprinted the poem in this month’s newsletter. Jendi wanted to make sure I saw that the publisher of a literary journal had commented favorably on my work. “Cross Reference” is about the choice of Hiroshima as a target for the U.S.‘s first nuclear bomb attack.

“Absolutely riveting poem in the Dec. 1 newsletter … Jennifer Morales’ poem ‘Cross Reference’ was so touching, describing the arrogantly casual way that Kyoto had been considered and then rejected as a target simply because the Secretary of War had honeymooned there,” the editor of New Millennium Writings posted on Winning Writers’ Facebook page.

There were reasons for the choice of one city over another, but as we will no doubt discover once we know Adam Lanza’s “reasons” for shooting children, the reasons will be inadequate.

One hope I have for my writing and performance is that my work can be a mirror, one that forces us to see ourselves for just a minute as we make the choices that lead us to hurt each other. I want us to see that our culture of violence offers us a lot of cover for all those “arrogantly casual” attacks we level on each other. Once we see ourselves in the moment of decision, maybe we can throw those covers off and stop accepting permission to do terrible things.

December 17, 2012 Blog Posts