Sparrows in the Windmills of my Mind

On more than one occasion, in fact on many occasions, people have remarked, not always kindly, on the way my mind works.

Several years ago, two close and treasured friends, Penny and James, both experts in language and linguistics, and I were engaged in conversation. Penny said, “Jim, James is able to connect the dots in the conversational leaps your mind makes; I’m having trouble following you. Would you mind pausing, when you make one of these leaps, and tell me what the connection is between the two thoughts so I can follow? I happily agreed and, for the next half hour or so, I would pause and explain the connections, until Penny said, Okay, you don’t need to make the connections for me anymore, I’m following you.

Here, then is, to the best of my ability, a day in the life of my mind: a beginner’s guide to how my mind works.

On Tuesday morning, a week after the election, I arrived early for a morning meeting. I stopped to watch a flock of sparrows (is five enough for a flock?) hopping about on the sidewalk feeding on seeds that had fallen from a tree. I say sparrows; they might have been wrens. I am not an ornithologist. At any rate they were an unremarkable brown color, perfect for camouflage.  Each one was small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. They did not seem alarmed by my close presence.

One of my spiritual practices is to pay attention and see what I notice. I am especially alert to this practice in the morning. The sighting of one beautiful, magical thing can, and usually does, frame my outlook for the day.

That Tuesday morning I noticed the sparrows. As I watched the feeding birds, a fragment of a song began to play in my head: “His eye is on the sparrow.” That’s all I could remember, “His eye is on the sparrow” and it played in my mind throughout the hour-long meeting.

How did I know this song? Where did I hear it? Who sang it? Was it an old Negro spiritual? Was it Mahalia Jackson? Billie Holiday?  It didn’t matter; that musical fragment had become an earworm firmly embedded in my brain.

I remembered enough to know that the message of the song was that, if God’s eye is on the sparrow, it’s certainly on you and me—a blessed assurance in the days of shock and disbelief following the election.

ethelWhen I got home, I googled, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and discovered that the singer was Ethel Waters and that she had performed the song both on Broadway and in the 1952 film adaptation of Carson McCullers’ play, “The Member of the Wedding.” Ms. Waters plays Berenice, a housekeeper who sings the song to two white children left in her charge. The scene is lengthy; Ms. Waters doesn’t begin to sing until about seven minutes in but it’s worth waiting for. The lyric that I could remember only a fragment of is:

“I sing because I’m happy.

I sing because I’m free

His eye is on the sparrow,

And I know he watches me.”

I remembered Ethel Waters (follow my mind) from her appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1950’s. When I had a break in my day’s work, I spent the better part of an hour researching her on the Internet.

Ethel Waters was a legendary American blues, jazz and gospel singer and actress. She began her career in the 1920s singing blues; later she performed jazz, big band, and pop music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts. She introduced several songs that are now part of the Great American Songbook; among them are  “Dinah,” “Stormy Weather,” sitting-pretty-clifton-webb“Taking a Chance on Love,” “Am I Blue?” , “Heat Wave,” (the same song Marilyn Monroe appropriated many years later) and “Supper Time.” “Suppertime” and “Heat Wave” were both written for Ms. Waters for a Broadway show called “As Thousands Cheer,” in which she co-starred with two of New York’s biggest names—Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb. (For those of you not old enough to remember Clifton Webb, track down the films “Laura” and “Sitting Pretty” on TCM. Amazing!) The show also included the song, “Easter Parade. The music and lyrics for the show were written by a Russian Jewish immigrant by the name of Israel Isidor Baline, better known as Irving Berlin.

Ethel Waters sings “Suppertime” as she sets the table for her children, soon after learning that her husband, their father, has been lynched and won’t be coming home for supper. Ever!

Supper time
I should set the table
‘Cause it’s supper time
Somehow I’m not able

‘Cause that man o’mine
Ain’t comin’ home no more
Supper time
Kids will soon be yellin’

For their supper time
How’ll I keep from tellin’
Them that man o’mine
Ain’t comin’ home no more?

How’ll I keep explainin’ when they ask me where he’s gone?
How’ll I keep from cryin’ when I bring their supper on?
How can I remind them to pray at their humble board?
How can I be thankful when they start to thank the Lord?

Supper time
I should set the table
‘Cause it’s supper time

Somehow I’m not able
‘Cause that man o’mine
Ain’t comin’ home no more

It’s interesting to note that the composer of “Easter Parade,” “White Christmas,” and “God Bless America,” also wrote “Supper Time,” and insisted on featuring it in an otherwise upbeat musical revue. Perhaps the immigrant Russian boy was not a stranger to or had heard stories of the brutal pogroms of his native land.

irvingberlinIrving Berlin composed Supper Time and Ethel Waters introduced it in 1933—83 years ago. 83 years ago! And the show, “As Thousands Cheer” ran for 400 performances at the height (or depth) of the Depression.

(Stay with the workings of my mind for a few paragraphs more.)

Today, on the radio, it was reported that white nationalists in Montana are publishing a directory, with personal information, on all the Jews living in that state.

Large numbers of the population want to close our nation to immigrants.

The argument still rages among a significant number of our population over whether Black Lives Matter.

And yet. . . And yet!

Ethel Waters, an African American woman, managed to become one of the biggest, most beloved, stars on Broadway when Martin Luther King was just four years old.

Irving Berlin, a Russian immigrant Jew, wrote “God Bless America,” for God’s sake! Eight years before we entered World War Two, and many years more before Jews stopped being discriminated against in restaurants, hotels and restricted neighborhoods!

(Stay with me.)

I’m sure that white nationalists, ignorant of the accomplishments of these two American treasures, put their hands over their hearts and sing “God Bless America” at the top of their lungs with the requisite patriotic fervor, clueless as to who wrote this holy anthem.

And Donald J. Trump will likely be the president of the United States days after this blog is posted.

“I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free” (so far).

And that, dear readers, is a primer on how my mind works.

“There’s no limit to how complicated things can get, on account of one thing always leading to another.”   -E. B. White


3 thoughts on “Sparrows in the Windmills of my Mind

  1. Oh Jim, your mind works just like mine! I had no trouble following the connections at all! There is a technical term, by the way for small, nondescript brown or brownish birds of uncertain category: LBJs (little brown jobbies). Thanks for the lovely (and heartbreaking) song lyrics.

  2. My mind works the same way. Maybe thats why i always ‘got’ you. Nice post.

    Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone

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