A Blessing for Entering Hospice

My beloved friend Jim is nearly 92 years old. His mind is sharp and keen though his vision, hearing, and mobility are weaker every day. Jim doesn’t have a major illness. He’s just losing energy and appetite. A few weeks ago, he decided to enter hospice and forego any further medical interventions in whatever might go awry in his weary body.

A group of people who love Jim recently came together to help him mark this important transition – his conscious turning toward dying. I’ve attended many “memorial-services-in-advance” for people who know their time is limited. This event was different. It was more like a Blessing Way, a Navajo tradition that honors and prepares a woman about to give birth. The Blessing Ways I have attended have consisted of a gathering of the expectant mother’s female friends and family members. She is pampered, supported, and surrounded by beauty. The ceremony acknowledges that she is entering the mysterious territory of birth and motherhood – that she is about to be forever changed.

In a similar way, we gather with Jim in his apartment to honor and support him as he enters his dying time. There is a large contingent of old friends from his liberal Catholic church. Four of his seven children and their spouses are there as well as a few friends. His daughter’s dog wanders around his room, gathering head scratches.

The event is an informal religious service – a kind of last rites delivered by the community instead of a priest. After some opening readings and songs, we are invited to offer Jim a blessing. Each person steps forward and anoints his head with a bit of rose oil as they speak words of gratitude and good wishes for Jim’s journey ahead.

Jim has difficulty hearing many of the readings, but the songs are loud enough for him to hear and join in with gusto. Though his breath is short, his strong baritone carries on with sure harmony. He is the only one in the room who knows all of the verses of “How Great Thou Art.” We have a good laugh about that.

Finally Jim offers his blessing to us. He raises his beautiful, bent hands and begins the familiar blessing from the Old Testament: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you…” From there he launches into his own words. “May you always look for the goodness in everyone you meet. And may you always remember how wonderful you are and how loved.”

We share more joyful singing, bid adieu to a smiling Jim, and disperse with full hearts and damp eyes.

I look forward to bringing this ritual to other friends who are facing their dying….to mark this profound choice in beauty and community. The late Irish poet, John O’Donohue, created a blessing for just such an occasion. It was part of Jim’s gathering and will travel with me to many others in the future.

Entering Death
By John O’Donohue

I pray that you will have the blessing
Of being consoled and sure about your death.

May you know in your soul
There is no need to be afraid.

When your time comes, may you have
Every blessing and strength you need.

May there be a beautiful welcome for you
In the home you are going to.

You are not going somewhere strange,
Merely back to the home you have never left.

May you live with compassion
And transfigure everything
Negative within and about you.

When you come to die,
May it be after a long life.

May you be tranquil
Among those who care for you.

May your going be sheltered
And you welcome assured.

May your soul smile
In the embrace
Of your Anam Cara (loosely defined as “soul friend”).

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Turn Off Your TV

Children between 2 and 5 spend an average of 32 hours per week looking at a television. For children 6 to 11 that number is 28 hours per week. Adults average five hours of TV per day. Five hours. Average.

I’ve come to think of television as a kind of colonization of our minds. How can we even know what we think, how we feel when so much of our perception is crowded by programming created by other people whose motivation is to sell us stuff? How are our deepest fears, dreams, and addictions manipulated to make us buy things that we don’t need and can’t afford?

For the past twenty years, I haven’t had a television in my home. I don’t miss it. On the few occasions I do watch the news with my mom or flip through channels in a hotel room, I’m struck by the …well…violence of it. Not just the bang-bang-you’re-dead kind of violence – which is rampant and disturbing enough. I mean the loud, harsh, yammering noise of it. The cacophonous ads that urge me to “act fast, buy now, don’t wait!” By the time I turn off the tube, I find that I like my fellow human beings a lot less.

I do enjoy watching films or television shows on my laptop every week or two. That’s different. I choose the timeframe. There are no ads. When the movie is finished, that’s that. I turn it off and go about my business.

I find the television screens intrusive and ugly, even when they are turned off. When I stay in a hotel room with a large television screen, I bring a scarf along to cover it. My well-traveled nephew does the same and even unplugs the thing.

Last night I was meeting with two beloved clients to do some planning for their upcoming conference. I get to be the singing emcee – or, as they like to call it – the “weaver” for their symposium on relationship based health care next year. I treasure every moment with these two visionary, brave, and loving leaders. The wine was delicious, the conversation lively and inspiring. And there were screens everywhere, blaring the latest horrors of the world via CNN. There wasn’t a place in that elegant hotel bar that didn’t have a direct sightline to a screen.

One of the consequences of not having TV in my daily life is that I can’t ignore it when it’s around. My eye gets irresistibly drawn to the screen. Yesterday instead of bringing my full attention to co-creating something remarkable with two brilliant colleagues, I was managing the tug of the screen at the corners of my eye.

Our time is our most precious gift. Our full presence with each other is invaluable. So take a listen to this song….and consider turning off the boob tube for awhile…or forever!

Turn off your TV.
Look around.
Green things are growing out of the ground.
Water is falling down from the sky.
There’s a lot of fine things your money can’t buy.

Click here to listen….and dance!

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It IS All About the Bass — Reflections of a Baby Elder

Sometime during the last year, young friends began asking me if we could get together and “talk.” Not just talk. “Talk.” They came to me with big questions. They asked me for stories about my experience. It slowly began to dawn on me that they were coming to me for….wisdom. Holy cow.

My immediate response was to send them along to someone wiser and more mature than me. Even so, the very act of their asking held up a mirror to a new and astonishing truth: I am becoming a baby elder.

One of my friends and wise teachers, Angeles Arrien, talked about how long it takes to become a true elder. In one of her last interviews before her death in 2014, she told the interviewer she wasn’t “old enough” to write her memoirs in her 70’s. In many of the indigenous cultures she studied over her long career as a cultural anthropologist, people didn’t really mature into elderhood until they were at least 90.

I’m only in my mid-fifties now, so I’ve got a few decades before I consider myself fully cooked as an elder. Even so, I feel called to show up for these young adults who come to me with their questions, stories, doubts, and dreams.

Mostly I listen to these young ones and ask good questions. I offer some stories about what I’ve learned from being alive. Sometimes I talk about singing jazz as a great metaphor for – as linguist and author Mary Catherine Bateson so beautifully put it – “Composing a Life.”

When I first starting singing solo in public, I did so as a jazz singer. My first piano player gave me strict instructions not to listen to what he was doing. He told me to listen to the bass. That way I’d always know where I was in the song. During that time I also learned how to improvise – how to make stuff up within the structure of a song. Those experiences provided the core metaphor for how I have lived my life ever since.

The “bass line” of our lives is made up of recurring and deep themes – the things that keep catching our attention over and over again, the values that are unshakable. A good life is made up of listening for that bass line and then just taking a breath and improvising over it. The cardinal rules for improvising work well for living as well:

Get to know the underlying structure of the song.
Keep moving.
If you screw up, just keep going until your find your way to the other side.
No do-overs.
Listen to the whole ensemble.
Be generous with your band mates…make them look good.
Trust your instincts.
Be brave.
Keep your sense of humor.

I tell my young friends that you don’t have to know exactly what you’re doing as you do it. Just keep listening, breathing, and experimenting. And even in the middle of the uncertainty, do all you can to make something beautiful.




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Sacred Words

“Sacred Words” the song everyone requests whenever I lead a community song circle these days. Created by a California artist who goes by the name Sophia, it is a chant weaves sacred words from five of the great religions of the world into a harmonious whole.

The first part consists of one repeated note using the words from the Buddhist tradition, “Om mani padme hum,” which translates as “the jewel in the heart of the lotus.”

Layered on top of that is a simple melody line using words from the Islamic tradition: “la ilaha illa’llah hu” which translates to “There is no God but God.”

Then two words float above the other two parts. “Shalom” from the Jewish tradition and “shanti” from the Hindu. Both words carry two meanings: “peace” and “greeting.”

Finally words from the Christian tradition — “Gloria in excelsis deo” (“glory to God in the highest” in Latin) – weaves through the entire piece. The tune comes from the well-known Christmas carol “Angels We Have Heard On High.”

I am aware that millions of people around the world have been singing, chanting, and praying these sacred words for ages. At any given moment, millions of people are calling them forth with devotion. As we sing them, we join our voices to theirs with respect and reverence.

Rhythm is an essential part of making this chant work. Without it, the disparate parts collide and the harmony falls away. I’ve come to understand that the common heartbeat underneath all of these traditions is that of the beautiful blue planet we share. The metaphor is a powerful one – our diversity can be beautiful and enriching when we remember that we all belong to this place and to each other.

After we get all of the parts going, I invite the singers to mingle as they sing. Last weekend I led the song with over 60 people at my regular community sing. I chose to stand in the center and close my eyes. Around me I heard the voices of the world joining in one song. Singular voices would float by and then fade back into the whole.

I never direct the ending of this chant. I let the group find its way to closure through the deep listening that the singing requires. We always, always find a good ending together. The long and resonant silence after the last notes fade is the sweetest part of the experience. The song echoes on in the silence among us. The air shimmers. We breathe together. There are tears, lots of tears.

In these troubling times – as in many others — terrible things are done in the name of religion, things that run directly counter to the values of love, generosity, kindness, and justice that all of these traditions share. Through our singing and listening, through our breathing and moving together, we affirm that there is nothing to fight about, that there is room for everyone in the great song of life.

Click here to listen to the chant

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Simple Season

It’s crazy out there.

P1020314.JPGAt the time of year when we in the north country are inclined to hibernate, rest, and dream, we are galloping from pillar to post in a frenzy. We are spending money we don’t have buying things for people who need nothing. We are going to parties. We are baking, wrapping, decorating… I recognize that there are people who thrive on this kind of activity, but many of us feel exhausted by it.

The holiday season is hard for many of us. A number of my friends are facing their first or second holiday season without a loved one. They are at a loss for how to approach it – do the same things they’ve always done or try something completely new? Either way, it’s excruciating. Others are entering into the season as a divorced person, juggling a new world of new logistics with children and extended family. Several friends are living with serious health challenges that are drastically altering their daily lives and hopes for the future. Others are short of money or estranged from family. These things are challenging enough any time of year, but the holidays intensify the losses.

I’ve had a lot of rough holidays myself. A marriage blew up one year. I was sunk in deep depression another. And I can’t number how many times I caught some dreadful bug (no doubt at one of those innumerable social gatherings…) and spent the holidays alone and sick in bed while imagining all of my friends enjoying their Normal Rockwell holidays. Those experiences taught me a great deal. I’ve learned that it’s possible to be alone on Christmas and have a very good day. As my mother wisely quipped once, “It’s just another day.”

This year I started something new. I put a pair of warm socks, a good granola bar, a few bucks, some lotion, and a few pieces of candy in a Ziploc bag. I carry the bags in my car to hand out to folks living on the street. It feels right to give gifts to people who really need something.

So here’s my recipe for a fine holiday season: Don’t go nuts, make nuts!

Barbara’s Miracle Almonds

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

1 cup real maple syrup (no fake stuff…..)
4 T. butter (1/2 stick)
2 tsp. Chinese 5-spice powder
6 cups raw almonds

Melt the butter, maple syrup and 5-spice powder over low heat until it’s combined. Pour the melted stuff over the nuts and stir until they are coated.

Put a piece of aluminum foil over a cookie sheet with edges.   Spread half of the coated nuts in a single layer and pop them into the oven. Set the timer for 10 minutes.

Gently stir the nuts around a bit, being careful not to disturb the foil if you can. Pop them back in for 10 more minutes OR SO. These burn quickly, so keep watch to make sure the nuts stay toasty brown and not wicked black….unless you like them like that.

I did without the foil for years and spent a lot of time scrubbing even the non-stick surface. This way, you can make lots of batches with only one pan. Just allow the batch to cool for a few minutes, then pick the whole thing up and put it on a platter. Put the next sheet of foil down on the cookie sheet and you’re ready for the next round.

Here’s one more gift for you – my holiday song “Simple Season.” Light a candle, make some almonds, and enjoy a moment of sweet respite!

I’m calling you for a reason to wish you a simple season and hope this time of darkness brings you lightness of heart.

Here’s a link to the song –https://soundcloud.com/barbara-mcafee/simple-season


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A Death is Born Into Your Life

I sat next to R. at a community sing the other night. Her mother died several months ago and she is still in the raw grief of it all. Many of the songs called forth her tears and she looked a bit worn. It brought back memories from my own journeys with grief….

My father died in 1991 after a short and intense illness with pancreatic cancer. I was with him when he took his last breath and sent him off with words of love. It was the first time I’d been with someone as they died and it changed my life in ways I am still discovering these many years later.

In the months that followed, I experienced the roller coaster of grief. I’d wake up in the morning having forgotten that he was gone. The realization would land like a stone in my heart every day. Then there were the series of firsts without Dad – holidays and birthdays and seasonal rituals. There were stories on the radio I wanted to tell him about. Weaving through those first weeks and months, I was exhausted from contending with such a huge loss.

It occurred to me since that time that a death has its own life cycle (death cycle?). Like a baby, it’s born into your life on its own schedule and brings undeniable changes along with it. The first months living with a death is much like living with a newborn. Sleep cycles are interrupted. Every little and big thing is different, often in unexpected ways. It feels like it will never end at times. And there’s lots of weeping and a fair amount of shit that needs cleaning up. Paperwork, too.

Eventually things even out and the death requires less daily attention. It starts “maturing.” The feelings are less raw. The anniversaries and celebrations become less wrenching.

Even with those changes, the death – like a child – is with us forever. My 91-year-old mother tells me frequently that I am still her child. “You never stop being a mother” she quips with a smile. It’s why I have to call her to let her know I got home safely after every visit.

Twenty-four years on, my father’s death is now a full grown “adult” in my life. In a way, his death has moved out of my house. I still think of it – and him – every day, but I do so with a kind of pride and distance.

That death – like a child – has changed me and grown me up in many beautiful ways.   It helped me understand my capacity for being present in the face of mortality. It unleashed a creative burst of songwriting that is still continuing after seven CD’s. His death also wiped away a big batch of chronic fear from my life. I’ve heard parents talk about similar fearlessness, clarity, and purpose that came upon them after having a child.

A death is born into your life and grows alongside you, offering many gifts and lessons, including the truth of your own death ahead. May we learn to live more gracefully with this generous and relentless companion.

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Creating on the Move

It all started at the lake. A big one.

Rainy Lake is huge body of fresh water that reaches from the border of northern Minnesota well into Ontario. I retreat to a small, rocky island near the Minnesota shore most summers to write songs with other musicians.

The cabin with the piano is usually mine. It is a repurposed gambling boat from the time when the lumberjacks were clearing the northern forests of their tall trees. Now it is up on stone pilings right over the water.

When I first started retreating to the island, I was fairly new to songwriting and admittedly a little neurotic. I’d get stuck in the writing process and just sit at the piano tense and fuming with a head full of recriminations. One day in the thick of frustration, I leapt up from the piano bench and just jumped into the lake. Paddling around in that cold, fresh water reset my imagination. By the time I emerged, I had the next lines of the song.

From that day on, songwriting and swimming became beautifully entangled.

Seven years ago I was invited to write a book about my voice coaching approach. As I began the writing process, I felt that old familiar creative anxiety return. I’d never written a book before and the very thought of it made my brain freeze up.

This time I knew what do. I’d write as long as I could, then head out the door for a long walk along the Mississippi River or a ski through the wintery woods. The movement helped unlock my thoughts. I’d return from my jaunt with the next chapter swirling in my head.

Last year I began composing all of my keynote speeches while on the move. My 18-minute TEDx talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ze763kgrWGg) was conceived and rehearsed while walking. (I learned to wear my ear buds as a way to become more comfortable with talking to myself in public. Everyone assumes I’m on the phone!)

On a recent retreat in Mexico, I composed an entire poem by walking along the beach and talking to myself. I committed it to paper only after I was certain it was finished. The thing seemed to emerge out of my entire body and the beauty around me instead of merely from my thinking mind.

Movement has become essential to my creative process. Something about the repetitive movement and the presence of nature unlocks a well of fresh ideas.

I wonder how many students would benefit from learning on the move? What if business teams had walking meetings outside instead of the ones around long tables in fluorescent-lighted rooms? What becomes possible in our creative lives when we walk out the door and take that first deep breath?

Here is a song by guitarist Glen Helgeson and me that emerged from the cold, clear waters of Rainy Lake many years ago.  Click here to listen

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