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THE SUNSET SYMPHONY ONCE AGAIN

THE SUNSET SYMPHONY ONCE AGAIN

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In my teenage years, the Memphis in May Sunset Symphony set my clock for the summer. Then, it was an annual meeting of friends, some family, the River, and “Old Man River.” We gathered on those sunny afternoons and as one watched the sun go down, the moon come up, and the sky light with fireworks. It wasn’t just a wonderful outdoor concert. It wasn’t just an excuse to lay in the sun and partake in the guilty pleasure of smelling sun-tan oil. It was the last chance for my group -- all my important people -- to get together before the summer vacations and the jobs, the romances and the riffs, pulled us apart in ways unknown during the winter months when class schedules held us together. It is not difficult to remember what was. The sun, beating down mercilessly during the afternoon, gave way to an evening coolness, like some atmospheric karma. The people lay on their blankets and watched children as entertaining as the music on stage. Cans of Coke, bottles of water, ham sandwiches, and potato chips abounded. Bottles of wine were passed freely among friends. In my own group, the conversation shifted endlessly from the ending school year to inane television shows to summer college tests to coming admissions packets in the fall. There were sometimes multiple groups paired off or maybe two large groups and then sometimes also one large group of everyone talking at once. It was a grand cacophony of the relationships of our lives and its sound was good. When college came, the Symphony was still there in the beginning. Everyone moved exam schedules around that date so they could be in town. As soon as the blankets were laid and the baskets opened, the walls came down around our various relationships and all was reunited in the boom of kettle drums, the power of the “1812 Overture,” and the appreciating crowd cheering yet another round of “Old Man River.” Then, the ways things do, schedules became harder to mesh. Maybe an exam or two couldn’t be moved, or worse still, someone decided to stay at college for the summer. Perhaps there was an illness or a lack of cohesive planning. Whatever it was, the string of Sunset Symphony attendance was cut and the group drifted. To be sure, there are many reasons why we did not stay together. But I think one of them had to be the loss of that one anchor, that one thing we called our own. And now here I am, back in Memphis after an extended out-of-town stay. I’ve gone to the Redbirds games, I’ve eaten my share (and the shares of certain small countries) of barbecue, I’ve embroiled myself in the middle of city debates. Am I really home? Have I fully returned? Not until I went to the Sunset Symphony once again, gathering around me those people that I could find, listening to the music and bonded in that strange and spectacular way that can only happen under a canopy of fireworks. The symphony has, of course, changed quite a bit. There are more food vendors than I remember. Did someone say that picnic baskets weren’t allowed last year? Large and intrusive tents dot the limited open area in front of the stage, allowing corporate parties where only picnics once were. There is no more singing of “Old Man River” and there is a disappointment that things will not be as they were. On a more personal level, the group is certainly much smaller. What once covered five or six joined blankets -- our own little city of friends -- now only covers two. It’s obscenely small and achingly lonely. It’s as if shadows and murmurs of Sunsets past flit on the edges of our vision, reminding us of a time there was more of a whole. But the symphony still pounds away. The weather is beautiful as it always is and the afternoon spent lounging does its job to ease away the worry of the week. The river is still the river and there is some comfort in the sheer permanence of its never-ending current. And that’s a problem. What bothers me the most, I think, is that I enjoyed this year’s symphony as much as I have enjoyed any of the others. I had thought, going into the evening, that I wouldn’t have the time I had before because all those special people weren’t around. What I didn’t realize is there is some special quality to 18,000 people getting together and enjoying themselves for the evening, watching the sky glow in incendiaries. There’s an intrinsic value to an event bringing together the good feelings of a city celebrating another country, itself, its food and its music. What stands out to me in this most recent event was not so much what I miss from before, but what I had missed from before. By focusing so far into my own experience, I hadn’t seen what was there in front of my face. There is nothing technically wrong with paying attention to those around you. I highly recommend it for a wide variety of cases. But it’s also very nice, sometimes, to look beyond your blanket-city of friends to see what’s there. Hopefully, I can rebuild this tradition of the Sunset Symphony with old friends and new friends. Both. Maybe I will recapture some of the lost magic that explodes and fades away like the brightest of fireworks, leaving only a faint after-image behind. At the same time, I can only try to combine whatever I feel with my friends joining me with those things that come along with the event itself. Good times require good friends to join in on the experience. Better times need good friends with that one special event. My only hope is to find that perfect combination again.

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