Thursday night I went to the Concerts on the Square -- only it was a concert at the Alliant Energy Center thanks to a second straight night of threatened rain. Fluorescent lighting and cinder block walls didn't have the same ambiance as the Capitol Square, but I'm glad I went anyway because I got introduced to a new piece of music that has special poignancy for this summer in Madison.
The piece is Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" and it was sung by Metropolitan Opera soprano Susanna Phillips. It's really a poem set to music and part of it goes like this:
On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there.... They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine ...with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.
One of my neighbors is long-time public defender Denny Burke. The other night he invited me over for a beer on his back porch. He wanted to talk about his day, which included trying to provide a defense for David Hoem, the man accused of strangling his girlfriend's young sons. It was a rough day in court as Hoem proved unhelpful in his own cause.
I've also run into a number of my friends on the Madison police force who are taking these killings personally. It means something to live in a community of 220,000 people where murders are so rare that they shake even cops and public defenders and where the violent deaths of children are especially unsettling and repugnant.
I was struck by the juxtaposition of it. My neighbor and I sitting on his back porch talking about the deaths of two young boys and then a day later listening to Samuel Barber's memories of growing up in a loving, protective family and spending summer evenings on a similar back porch in another time. And I thought about my own good fortune in that regard and soft summer evenings in my parent's back yard in West Allis.
"One is my mother, who is good to me. One is my father, who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth." Recent events this summer in Madison remind us that it is by chance that we get to grow up wrapped in love and a sweet, gentle life.
Read the full text of Barber's work.