Teri Orr: A bird song…
A few months ago, I was in a tiny, divey bar in Monterey, for a small party and I got to hear (thanks to Pandora) Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn perform. They are pluckers of the first degree on clawhammer banjos, and Abigail has a voice like an angel. They played for more than two hours without a break. And as they tried to leave, we pleaded for One-More- Song and what we got, was a gift wrapped in music.
Bela played and Abigail sang a song they dedicated to her grandmother, June. They had named their 22-month-old son, Juno, because they wanted to remember her after she passed. This song was her grandmother’s favorite. And then, in that tiny room, they played and sang, "His eye is on the sparrow," in a way no gospel choir had ever arranged it and in a way the white writers of what has become a black gospel classic never saw coming full circle from a white woman.
It was all the church you could need … sacramental beer included.
I didn’t know how deeply it stuck inside my aging spaghetti brain until it popped up, in full voice, in my head the other day.
It has been a complicated week.
First, a dear friend of mine, nearly 90, had a stroke. She is struggling with her body not responding to the signals she is trying to send to her mouth and legs and arms. I have known her since I was 22 and it breaks my heart to see the strongest woman I have ever known be compromised in such a cruel way.
Another friend, in her 40s, whom I have known for almost 10 years, was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery a day ago. She pulled me aside at a luncheon earlier this week, with tears in her eyes, and said she wanted me to hear all this from her.
So I’ve been crying this week. Tiny tears, which escape in conversation from the corners of my eyes, I can brush away. And heaving sighs when I am alone. I love these women and they are loved by so very many friends and family members. Yet collectively, we friends are powerless.
When, as William Wordsworth used to say, "the world is too much with (me)," I walk around my vast estate in Park Meadows that encompasses one-fourth acre of land and an aging 70s circa tract home. I survey the skinny apple tree and the strawberry patch and the flowering purple thyme. I nod to the wildflowers in the farthest corner and raspberry vines against the aged wooden fence. There are lavender bushes akimbo around the yard.
My wild kingdom that sees moose and deer and fox and raccoon and certainly skunks, depending upon the time of year, had a new visitor this week: a tiny, fluffy-tailed bunny. Very tame. Who was on the lawn and stayed there as I approached very, very close and then hopped to hide in the brambles under the giant pine tree in the yard. He/she has been happily sunning on the lawn a couple of times this week. There is something both surreal and just right in seeing the bunny in my yard.
A few days ago before work, I took a stroll about in the yard and noticed a baby bird walking like a drunk on the back deck next to the plate glass door. I didn’t know if he had hit the glass or fell from the nest. So I waited. He tried to fly but fell again on the grass. I approached tentatively and lifted him up in the palm of my hand. I stroked the warm, beating creature and plucked the smallest stone from its eye. His head was matted. I whispered and keep stroking its shaking baby body. I might have tried to hum a wordless song. The bird flapped its wings and I held my palm open and it flew a few inches and fell again. So I picked it up and kept humming. It seemed calm and relaxed and after maybe 10 minutes I decided to set it down in the sun on the grass and let stay there a spell.
I went inside, took a shower and kept humming a song from someplace deep inside my multi-cultural strangely rhythmic brain. And all I could find was a piece of the refrain that I knew was wrong … he has his eye on the sparrow and his eye on me…
When I came back outside, to get in the car, the tiny baby bird was gone. And I rejoiced. Then I heard the cackling of the magpies, a cacophony of mockery. Did my sparrow escape and fly to a new life or did the mean girls band of birds make a meal of my rescue attempt? I’ll never know.
Finally, the refrain became the song-back to me in full-from Abigail Washburn-back from my walk around the yard, back from churches in the South where they are, rejoicing, no doubt, this week the flag of hatred and racism and treason coming down. The song, written by white folks in 1905 but adapted/adopted by black folks for decades, a century’s worth, and now again, sung with praise and pride and reverence by a couple of pluckers.
"I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…"
And that may be enough to know, this Sunday, in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.