My son was in his first musical a few weeks ago. It was Mary Poppins Jr and I busted my buttons at one of my progeny carrying on the performance bug that is so quickly caught by creative types. Watching those 5th-8th graders perform on stage was such a joy, but something else caught my eye (and ear) during that show that had never grabbed me before.
If I’m honest, I used to hate the movie Mary Poppins. It was the old VHS my mom would put on for me whenever I was sick so soon I truly believed that just putting on the film could bring on a fever or a bought of nausea. There was nothing WRONG with the movie—it was all in my little six-year-old head, and in fact I’ve watched the musical with my children many times and not one sniffle has broken through during the dynamic score and dazzling choreography. But as an adult, watching the movie and watching the little actors on stage, there was one song that brought tears to my eyes and not because of any imagined sickness. It was “Feed the Birds.”
I’m ashamed to admit that this was the song that I used to refer to as the “fast forward through that one, please” song. As a child I found it sad and slow and confusing in the middle of an otherwise bright and uplifting show. But then, as my middle schooler prepared for his auditions by watching the show over and over as well as the bonus features and commentary, I learned something special about this song that made me listen to it a little closer. I learned during this deep dive into Mary Poppins that “Feed the Birds” was Walt Disney’s favorite song. Songwriter Richard Sherman recalled playing the song for Walt in his office:
“Usually after the hectic week, Walt would ask us how we were doing, and we’d tell him what we were working on. Then he’d ask us to play it, and I’d sit down and play, and he’d look out the window and get wistful. Then he’d turn around and say, ‘That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?’”
The song talks about an old woman on the steps of the cathedral selling bags of crumbs for people to feed the birds. She asks those passing by to spend a tuppence (only a few cents) to feed the birds who took the bread back to their nest. Mr. Banks wanted the children to invest their pennies in the bank so it would grow but Mary Poppins encouraged the children to invest their tuppence into charity and watch it grow differently—in the profits of human kindness. In fact, I think that was what Mary Poppins taught the Banks family—that it was little things like tuppence, bread crumbs, birds and kites that bring joy to life.
For years after the success of Mary Poppins, Walt would talk to the Sherman brothers, the team who wrote the score for the show, about how their song embodied the beauties of charity and how it had become a belief system that ran his life. Walt Disney believed that the breadcrumbs from the song are the small acts of service and love we do for others and that the tuppence is the relatively minuscule investment of our time, our heart and our talents (and sometimes our own tuppence) that brings about the beauty of charity.
My friend posted a quote the other day my Marjorie Pay Hinckley that said, “There is no such thing as a small act of kindness.” I think Mr. Disney, the Bird Lady and Mary Poppins would agree.
How often do we forget the valuable role we play in each other’s lives? How easy is it to feel like service requires spectacular sacrifice to be meaningful? For me, at least, it is not the size of the kindness that touches me but the love and sincerity behind it.
I had my own experience with just this type of service the other day. I was finishing up my copy edits for THE WAITING ROOM. I was a little behind schedule after having kids home from school with the flu and strep for over a week and driving my oldest back and forth to his last week of rehearsal before his show.
Usually, when my kids come home from school we have a snack and do homework and then spend some time together before either having dinner and getting ready for bed or saying goodbye on the nights they head to their dad’s house. This day after school was different. I explained I was on a deadline, we sped through homework, the kids grabbed their own snacks, and I dove back into my edits. An hour later my kids burst into my bedroom singing “Happy Mother’s Day to you” and carrying a big, homemade and very green cake.
“We made you a cake because we love you,” they said, so so proud of themselves. I teared up and hugged all of the kids but then, mid-hug, I remembered one critical detail.
“But….our oven is broken!” It had been dead for over a month. I couldn’t figure out how they had baked this lovely manifestation of their love.
Then they told me that after mixing the batter they remembered the oven was broken. So the kids ran next door to my neighbor’s house and asked to use their oven. My neighbor (a busy mom of 3, in the middle of selling her house and a million other projects) stopped what she was doing and baked that cake for my kids. Then, she even donated a can of Christmas themed frosting to top it all off and walked the whole thing back to my house, all while I was working away in my bedroom. That, my friends, was a tuppence service not just for me but for my children and a story we will never forget. Those kids beamed as they presented me with their homemade offering. And their joy was sweeter than any cake I’ve ever tasted.
It doesn’t take much, guys. My day/week was made so much brighter by some kitchen adventures, the donation of some gas in an oven, a few minutes out of my neighbor’s life and a can of frosting.
Ever since rediscovering this song and the meaning behind it I’ve been looking for more and more opportunities to spread my breadcrumbs. Sometimes it is a simple act of service that takes a few minutes of my time, or a few pennies from my pocket like thanking a friend, letting a frazzled mom cut in line with her basket full of groceries while juggling her crying child, or trying to ask about someone else’s day rather than diving into talking about my own. But most of the time it is a smile when a frown is expected, an extra hug, a sincere compliment or responding with measured kindness when anger, impatience and frustration seems a natural first instinct.
I’m still learning the ropes of this philosophy and I’m not perfect but when it comes to kindness, I think it is one of those things in life where “trying” is nearly as effective as mastering. The good news is—I have plenty of opportunities to practice this skill and so do you because it really is true—they come pretty cheap, those breadcrumbs—just a few tuppence…tuppence a bag.
“Early each day to the steps of St. Paul’s,
The little old bird woman comes
In her own special way to the people, she calls,
“Come, buy my bags full of crumbs.”
Come feed the little birds, show them you care
And you’ll be glad if you do
Their young ones are hungry, their nests are so bare
All it takes is tuppence from you
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag
“Feed the birds,” that’s what she cries,
While overhead, her birds fill the skies
All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
look down as she sells her wares
Although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares
Though her words are simple and few,
Listen, listen, she’s calling to you:
“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.”