It was a regular Tuesday, and students were gathering in the black box theatre on the north campus of University of Michigan for choir rehearsal. Struck by some mysterious impulse, the choir’s accompanist, a pianist of extravagant talent and personality, sat down at the keyboard as we were filing in and started playing that recognizable chord progression. She played that slow ONE (hitch) one-two-three-FOUR (hitch) four-three-two-ONE (hitch), familiar as a beloved friend you hadn’t seen in a while, and we one by one began to sing. Kids from far away and down the street, kids from hard families and hard neighborhoods and Jills from the Hills.
Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow…
It’s happened to me a few times in my life that spontaneous group singing has settled into a magical groove that feels like it will never end. We young college friends just sang and sang, kept it going — part song, part pledge. Bill Withers’s lyric spoke to us, right in our sweetest spot.
You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on…
If that moment had lasted forever, I would not have been sorry.
But maybe it did. Here we are now, in this moment. As pandemic envelops us all, far away and down the street, we need help from each other more than ever. I see it around my neighborhood and around the world: people sewing and delivering masks, people dropping off groceries and checking on isolated neighbors, friendships rekindling, people slowing down, somehow seeing one another more clearly from a distance.
If there is a load you have to bear that you can’t carry
I’m right up the road
I’ll share your load
Bill Withers died today at the age of 81, but this song continues to inspire. I have friends — true paragons of mitzvot, whose every action is in service to the greater good — who have taken to singing “Lean on Me” with their neighbors each night, everyone on their own porch. They live this lyric and teach me every day about kindness and service.
Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
May these words be true in all the works of our hands and hearts.