Compared to What?

Just about every week I hear myself saying the same phrase.

When a voice client tells me how terrible he is at public speaking…
When a friend complains about how out of shape she is….
Even when I’m giving myself a hard time about some perceived failing in my character….

What is this handy phrase?
“Compared to what?”

The moment I say it, there is a deep shift in the conversation. An unexamined judgment receives some scrutiny.

Some years ago I took that phrase on my annual songwriting retreat and started creating a song. (You can listen to it here.)

Compared to what?
Compared to who?
Where’s that standard come from that we’re measuring up to?
Compared to what?
Compared to who?
There’s nobody else who’s just like you. 

After I created the chorus, I interviewed other songwriters on the retreat about the ways they compare themselves to others. One man confessed that he thought his belly was too soft. A woman said she was embarrassed by how bad she was with money. I learned a lot about my songwriting friends – and harvested some great material for the verses of the song.

I’m foolish with money.
I talk too much.
My abs aren’t sexy, they’re soft to the touch.
You’re shy at parties and I’m way too tall
I don’t look like those people on TV at all….

Of course, asking such questions of others prompted many of my own answers. The scathing judgments I used to heap on myself were crueler than any I would inflict on another person. Like many women, I was critical of my body. Any small error I’d make would be dissected and repeated ad nauseum. I’m grateful that that inner voice has gotten kinder in the past years.

I’m much too rowdy to be a real girl
We don’t do enough to save the world
Your moods are dramatic
My tongue gets crass
And don’t get me started on the shape of my ass….. 

When I’m lost in self-judgment, I’m not available to connect with the outside world. That inward-looking trance makes me miss out on the beautiful people and experiences all around me. If that judgment yielded anything good, perhaps it would be worth the time and energy it takes. But honestly, the only thing judgment ever creates is … more judgment.

Yes, you’re the only you and I’m the only me
And both parties are required to make a decent “we”
Let’s drive the comparisons out of our head
And leave it for the apples and the oranges instead

I love the way that a really good question – like “compared to what?” – creates a shift in awareness even before you answer it. Tell me, are there other good questions you employ in your everyday life?

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Molly’s Song

Many of my songs emerge from a deep connection with another person. I’m inspired let them know what I see in them through the vehicle of song.

Nearly twenty years ago, I created a song for my friend Molly in collaboration with pianist, Diane Benjamin. Molly was just turning sixteen and was grieving the recent death of two close sister-friends in a car accident. I couldn’t imagine how it was for her to walk through such calamity so young. As one of the “aunties” in her community, I felt called to hold up a mirror to the beauty and strength I saw in her.

She’s the voice of the bell
She’s the heart of the lion
A dance of green willow on a dusky breeze
In her eyes I see the centuries knowing
And whatever she looks at
I know she sees 

I presented her song to her at her birthday celebration that year and eventually recorded it on a CD (you can hear it here). Her mother Diana asked to learn the song so she could sing it for Molly any time. Now Molly hears her song on every birthday. It’s become part of the family’s ritual for celebrating her.

She’s walked unflinching
Through the doorways of darkness
With tender strength that travels long
Her face is full of a young girl’s secrets
But her life it is singing a woman’s song

I often perform this song for women’s groups as a way to acknowledge and celebrate the young girl in each of us. Who among us has received the kind of witness and support we needed when we were teenagers? The song often opens women to healing tears. Many of them bring the song home to share with the young women in their lives.

Good company for your every journey
Sweet rain to nourish all your trees
Your heart’s desires and the grace to receive them
These things and this song –
Your gifts from me

There is a greeting in the Zulu language – sawubona – which means, “I see you.”
Is there a more beautiful and generous way to acknowledge a fellow human being? Is there anything we yearn for more than being deeply seen and appreciated by another person?

I hope Molly continues to feel seen whenever she hears her song. And I hope that the girl in your life – whether it’s you or someone you know – can see her true beauty through this music.

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I Love to Swear: In Praise of “Spicy” Words

I am in the studio recording my fourth CD and I am swearing my head off.

I apologize to my producer for all of the cursing. I cuss a lot in the recording studio. I love being there, but the intensity of recording calls forth an intensity in me, one that is most frequently expressed in exuberant expletives. I tell him that someday I intend to give it up.

He says, “Oh no…don’t give it up! You love swearing because you’re a poet. Swear words are like spicy food in your mouth.”

Well. That’s the day I give up the idea of giving up swearing.

Swearing is one of the ways I temper seriousness. Throwing a little irreverence into a reverent situation allows for even more depth. The surprise is disarming – much like humor is – and suddenly people open up in a new way.

A few well-placed cuss words also help dispel some of the projections people put on performers or leaders. Being at the front of the room can make people seem larger than life. I’m uncomfortable with being put on a pedestal, so swearing is one of the ways I take myself down a notch.

Last summer I wrote a little jazz song in praise of swearing. Here is the first verse…..

I love to swear
Love those four letter words
That burn like hot pepper on my tongue
There are ways swearing should be done:
With a wink and the cock of an eyebrow….

 I do have strong opinions about what makes for good swearing. When I hear people doing it poorly, that is, without wit or humor, I find it offensive. When I overhear people using the f-bomb every other word — for adjectives, adverbs, nouns – it makes my ears hurt. What a waste of a good Anglo-Saxon expletive!

I also dislike when swear words malign a person or group, especially women. Swearing should be fun and light-hearted (unless you stub your toe….).

I express that sentiment in the third verse …

I love to swear
But I must admit
I prefer to keep my mother out of it
And “bitch” is a verb, but not a noun
Do we need another way to put a woman down?

 And where is the second verse? I’m not including it here because…well…it has a LOT of swear words that aren’t generally used in respectful company. Which brings me to my last opinion about swearing: it’s essential to discern when and where swearing is going to work and when it isn’t.

I once gave my CD “Britches” to a young man in a small northern Minnesota town to thank him for his work at an event where I was performing. He sent it back with a note saying he couldn’t accept it because one of the songs “included swearing and a reference to nudity.”

The offending lines in the title track?

I’m getting too big for my britches
I guess I’ll just have to go nude
I’ll become one of those bitches
And cultivate a bad attitude.

I love to swear. And that means I’ll risk offending someone sometime. I intend to keep learning how to do it better and better.

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Laurence Cole: Singing Together to Nourish the Soul and Re-Enchant the World

First thing I notice is that voice: robust, deep, resonant. It reaches into every nook and cranny of the room, of the ear, of the heart – and fills it with life. I bless the day Laurence Cole came to my singing community to share his nourishing songs.

He builds them like beautiful layer cakes, one part at a time, using the oral tradition. He sings a line; we sing it back. We continue back and forth until we know it. Then he moves onto the next part. The beauty of this tradition is that people can experience the transformative and nourishing gift of harmony without knowing a thing about music theory, without reading a lick of music.

Many of Laurence’s songs are built on the words of great wise ones — people like Angeles Arrien, Rumi, Hafiz, and John O’Donohue. When those words are wrapped in melody, harmony, and the heartbeat rhythm of his djembe drum, they permeate our knowing in a different way than if we’d read them on a page. We remember them later.

Laurence is a strapping septuagenarian who lives with his “sweetie” (as he calls her), Deanna Pumplin, in an eco-village in Port Townsend, Washington out on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula. He co-leads a community choir there with Gretchen Schleicher and works on his gardens and compost piles in between cranking out a prolific stream of song.

He’s spending a lot of time traveling these days, tending a vital and booming singing movement. Large singing gatherings have been popping up in Oregon, North Carolina, Iowa, Washington, and Hawaii – and Laurence is our venerable elder. At Village Fire, the singing camp in Iowa where I spend time with Laurence, I often hear his voice ringing through the valley long after much younger folks have gone to bed.

A recent crowd-funding project supported the creation of a site where his music could be accessed for free. Each song has its own page with a story from Laurence, recordings of each part, lyrics, and a link to download sheet music. It’s a work-in-progress, grounded in a community’s affection and gratitude for Laurence’s generosity and genius.   He has also released a gorgeous CD and songbook – also available at the site.

You can find all of these treasures here: www.laurencecole.com

I’ll give my beloved friend the last word.

These are all songs for singing together – to build a sense of connection and harmony amongst a group of people.

 Songs for the joining of voices with ecstatic rhythms to help us move and sway
and clap our hands and beat our drums and improvise new harmonies and riffs
and goof around with mouth and body percussion
and just play.

 Songs for calling up our passion and love, courage and tenderness,
joy and reverence for the beauty and grace of life
in this miraculous and precious world.

These are songs to remind us of the caring support of our ancestors,
to remind us we are not alone and to “re-spect,” take another look,
at ourselves and all our fellow beings
in the light of wholeness and compassion.

 Songs for generating the particular pleasure and sweet affection
that builds among us from playing with sound and rhythm together.

 Songs for making a sonorous feast of beauty, to feed what feeds us –
the spirits of life that hold and nourish us and give us our being.

 Songs that help us through despair and sorrow
over the travails of a troubled time.

 These are songs for holding the dark and the light together,
helping us plant the seeds of hope and renewal
and to reawaken trust in ourselves and in each other.

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Laurence and Barbara at Village Fire

 

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Rat Race

One of my voice clients recently confessed to her habit of “scurrying” – which I interpret as meaning rushing when there is no need to rush, going fast out of habit, and bringing a sense of urgency to non-critical things.

Oh boy.

I’m a scurrier-hurrier, too. It’s a family trait that I witness in many of my relatives. My brother Ross’s pace makes me look downright laconic. When I visiting him and his family over the holidays, he came down with a bug that made him feel lousy. As I watched him drag himself through the living room at a snail’s pace, it made me realize just how fast he generally moves.

I’ve been exploring the tension between anxious rushing and the joyful vigor of efficient work for a long time. I like bringing a little hustle to making dinner. It feels like dancing when I’m bringing some good energy to chopping, stirring, tasting, and cleaning up the dishes as I go. (Yes, I am that person.)

I know I grew up watching my mom strive for efficiency. She was raising three kids and working full time by the time I was in kindergarten. On top of doing that job, she handled all of the cooking, shopping, and cleaning without any support from Dad. Those were the norms of her generation. No wonder she was rushing.

I don’t have that kind of responsibility, but I am a self-employed sole proprietor who handles all of the details of the business on my own. I do high level work like coaching clients, creating training designs, and composing keynotes one minute. The next finds me running to the post office, updating my website, and booking airline tickets. Knowing how to hustle, juggle, and make rapid shifts comes in handy for this life I’m living.

Here’s what I’ve learned about scurrying. When I’m feeling pleasure and breathing, it’s a great thing. When I’m tight and anxious, it’s time to pause and downshift.

When I got in my car yesterday, the stereo spontaneously started playing a song through my phone. It does that sometimes – just offers a song without my asking. This time if was one of mine – “Rat Race” – a piece I wrote many years ago when I was struggling with the habit of haste. Given the conversation and reflection about scurrying, its unexpected appearance made me laugh out loud.

Take a listen to the song.  Meanwhile, I wish you pleasure and breath in whatever you do in 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We Carry Each Other’s Stories

I will remember you.
Will you remember me?
Don’t let your life pass you by.
Weep not for the memories….
                               –   Sarah MacLachlan

It is near the turning of a new year as I write this. This season is always a time of reflection for me – a time to count blessings and dream what’s next.

In honor of my recent birthday, I invited Facebook friends to share one fond memory they have from our relationship. Immediately after I put out the call, the comments section started filling up with stories from all aspects and seasons of my life.

To date over seventy people from all corners of my life have shared memories with me — and there are more coming in every day.

There are recollections from relatives, both close and shirttail. One sister-in-law reminded me that when she first met me at our old family house, there was a tuba on the front porch. (I played tuba for a very short time in middle school.) My other sister-in-law shared a reminiscence from when we first met and I was shorter than she was. (I am now a full foot taller.)

A childhood friend who lived in the neighborhood and was at my first birthday party remembered swinging on the big swing set in my backyard when we were little girls.

My college roommate remembered the time I took the train out to Washington State to be present at the birth of her daughter nearly thirty years ago.

Clients and colleagues recalled shared projects and adventures. Dear friends reminded me of hilarious predicaments and heart-stretching challenges we shared together.

What surprised and touched me most was how many of the memories people were carrying from our shared lives were invisible to me. They were carrying parts of my story that I’d completely forgotten about and returned details of my life to me that I’d left behind. What a precious gift.

The implications of this experience continue to surprise and delight me. Chief among them is the fact that the self I know as Barbara McAfee is not simply contained in my own memory and stories; it is widely dispersed through legions of people in my life.

And that’s true of every one of us. Our lives are deeply entangled with other lives in ways we will never fully comprehend. We will never know the full impact of our lives on the people we encounter along the way. Even after we die, something of our life remains in the stories of those who knew us.

I’m still unraveling what I want to do about this new awareness. One thing I have decided is to be more deliberate about sharing fond memories with the people I love. I want them to know those moments of their lives that I cherish and they might have forgotten or overlooked.

I want to tell them clearly: I will remember you.

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Bubble Prayers

During the summer months here in Minnesota, I am an avid lake swimmer. Come fall though, I transition to swimming laps at my local YWCA.

I get into the pool three times a week and swim a mile each time – about 45 minutes of solid swimming. Generally I count laps. For years I have used the counting and the repetitive movement as a meditation, silently saying the number of whatever lap I’m swimming each time I exhale.

This last week I began a new practice as I swam, something I am calling “bubble prayers.” Instead of counting laps, I use each exhale to send love to the people in my life. I picture their dear faces one by one and silently speak their name during a series of strokes. The next face arises and I breathe bubbles into that one’s name.

Today began my “bubble prayers” with my family, devoting an entire length’s worth of strokes and breaths to my 92-year-old mom. From there I blessed both of my brothers and each member of their extended clans – sisters-in-law, nephews, nieces, and the little great-nieces and great–nephews.

From there I breathed the beloved faces and names of my friends near and far, giving extra strokes to those who are facing particular challenges – things like cancer, mental illness, family stresses, job losses, and grief.

I was intrigued by how vividly I pictured each of their faces and how deeply I felt connected to them.

When I had exhausted the list of the living loved ones, I began cherishing the people who are no longer living. It is nearing All Soul’s Day as I write this, so it seemed a perfect time to thank and appreciate my “angels hovering ‘round” in this way.

I made bubble prayers for my ancestors, known and unknown.
For my father who died in my arms 25 years ago.
For many friends of all ages who are with me always in the things they taught me through their living and their dying.

By the time I left the pool, I was filled with gratitude for the great variety of love that has woven through my life. What used to be a repetitive exercise routine had turned into something sacred and beautiful.

It made me wonder about other times and places where a little creativity and intention could transform something mundane into something holy.

Singing particular songs when folding laundry?
Chanting in traffic on my way to visit my mother?
Lighting a candle while I balance my checkbook?

Whatever answers emerge from this inquiry will pale in comparison to the power of the question itself. The very asking of it opens my heart to gratitude and presence.

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