I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

A song can be medicine.
A song can fuel change.
A song can weave in and out of a life, awakening deeper levels of meaning and knowing.

I first got acquainted with the song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” in The Great Songs of the Sixties songbook my brother Ross gave me for my 13th birthday. I spent hours with that book, sight-reading songs new and familiar. “I Wish I Knew How…,” composed by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas in 1964, was my favorite, even though it was in the tricky key of A-flat. The gospel chords and yearning lyrics stirred a deep longing for expression and liberation that was alive in me even then.

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.
I wish I could break all those chains holding me.
I wish I could say all things I should say —
Say them loud, say them clear for the whole world to hear.

When I lived in Paris in the mid-1980’s I owned only four cassettes. I listened to them over and over on my Walkman as I wandered the streets of Paris. One of the four was The Best of Nina Simone. Her rendition of “I Wish I Knew How…” was a song I visited again and again. Her dark and vivid voice directly transmitted the turmoil and heartache that drove the Civil Rights Movement – and the desire for liberation that resides in all of us.

I wish I could give all the love in my heart,
Remove all the bars that still keep us apart.
I wish you could know what it means to be me,
Then you’d see and agree every man/one should be free.

Years later I rediscovered the song through a conversation with my beloved friend and mentor, Peter Block. We discovered that the two of us had been fascinated with the song during the exact same years. I was a gawky, shy teenager in Stillwater, Minnesota. He was a young father and up-and-coming executive in St. Louis, Missouri. He loved it so much that he learned how to pick it out on the piano – a fine achievement, considering that he did so with extremely limited piano skills. Despite our different circumstances and ages, the song called to us both in a profound way.

The day we discovered our connection to the song, I quickly relearned it and surprised him with it at a concert that evening. A few months later I recorded it on a CD.

Many of my voice coaching clients sing this song as part of their work with me. The final verse expresses what calls many of them to “find their voice:”

I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly.
I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea –
Then I’d sing ‘cause I’d know how it feels to be free.

 May we all sing from that knowing….


 “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”
© Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas, 1964 (Used by permission)

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The Joy of….A Composite Partner?!


I’ve been single for nigh on twelve years.

After two runs at marriage and a myriad of other romantic entanglements, I thought it might be a good idea to just sit the heck down and be on my own for a good while. And so I have – mostly happily.

One of the great resources that arrived in my life as I began my single time was the humorous writings of Jill Connor Browne – better known as “the Sweet Potato Queen.”

Her books got me laughing – a boon in those post-divorce doldrums – and they also offered a nugget of wisdom that I’m still treasuring today.

In the opening chapters of one of her books, she outlines her theory about partnership – that we need multiple people in our lives that can fulfill different roles for us.

She wrote that she needed five men in her life:
One to fix things
One to pay for things
One to talk with
One to dance with
One to have great sex with

(And four out of the five can be gay!)

My list is different from hers, but I fell in love with the idea of the “composite partner.”

Instead of searching high and low for the perfect person – THE ONE, I found ways to enjoy the people who came my way without burdening them with big expectations and romantic fantasies. Instead of waiting and waiting to do this or that until I was with THE ONE, I just cast about and found someone who was willing and able to do it with me right now.

Some of the people who make up my current “composite partner” include my landlord/neighbor who lives upstairs. He fixes stuff that breaks, waters my gardens when I’m traveling, and practices old-school neighborliness with me. I enjoy hearing him bumping around upstairs. He’s part of my sense of home.

Sometimes I go out dancing with my older brother. We are usually the oldest ones on the floor – and the ones who stay out there longest, grinning and sweating. We are both a good bit over six feet tall, so we cut a wide swath on the floor.

There are women friends who know my soul, ask good questions, and listen to my tears and triumphs. There are men friends who know how to appreciate my beauty as a woman. There are mentors who have called me into my gifts and co-conspirators with whom I cook up good work in the world. I’ve had wonderful travel companions and friends with whom I can share loving touch.

I witness several friends’ yearning for a more traditional, live-in partner or spouse. Several of them are hip-deep in online dating, carrying a persistence and optimism into every first date. (Are you….THE ONE?) I wish them well on their search and sincerely hope their dreams come true.

As for me, I’ll continue creating my crazy-quilt composite partner and discovering love in its myriad and varied forms – right now – today.







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Years ago my business partner and I had a work engagement several hours away. As he picked me up in the freezing winter pre-dawn twilight, he handed me a hot café’ au lait and an almond croissant. When I rummaged in my purse to pay him back for the breakfast, he looked over with a smile and said, “Barbara, let’s not have that kind of relationship.”

I’ve used those words myself over the ensuing years when friends want to settle up with me. Sometimes I appreciate repayment – if the bill is high and/or the self-employment revenues low. Most often though, it seems silly to me to nickel-and-dime with people close to me.

It steals the joy of sharing. It presumes that we can use money to cancel our indebtedness to each other.

This week I’m borrowing my mother’s car while mine is getting repaired after running into a deer. I am her primary caregiver, so she is very often on the receiving end of my help. She told me yesterday how happy she is to help me out for a change.

The friend who helped me get home after the deer collision will be keeping my gardens watered and staying in my place while he looks for a new home.

My next-door neighbor lends me her lawn mower and I thank her for her generosity by pulling weeds in our adjoining front gardens.

When I make too much soup (which I invariably do….), I share a few portions with my upstairs neighbor. As the owner of the building, he takes joy in keeping it beautiful and functional for the two of us. We are both old school neighbors – the kind that enjoys helping out and making life better for the people near us.

And my little comfort choir – The Morning Star Singers – has been humming along on volunteer spirit for nine years now. None of us get paid for bringing song and compassionate presence to people in hospices and hospitals. The administrative details are handled by several kind souls and I volunteer my leadership time as well.

At the airport today, I will be looking for opportunities to be kind and friendly to the people I encounter at the TSA, in the shops, and on the plane. To be honest, I practice this kind of warmth not just for the benefit of others; I do it to keep myself from falling into crankiness and self-absorption.

These simple exchanges are symbolic for a deeper kind of sharing among us. They make manifest the invisible bonds that link us to each other. They keep us engaged in the great cycle of giving and receiving that is the basis of all life on this planet.

Consider the wise words of the great Sufi poet, Hafiz:
Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe me.”



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My Grandma Wanted to Be President: A Reflection on Women, Voice, and Leadership

As a voice coach I support many women leaders in finding their voices, speaking their truth with conviction, claiming their power, and fully expressing their gifts.

Most of the women I coach are privileged. They have education, financial resources, political clout, and more choices than our grandmothers or many of our sisters near and far could imagine. They hold positions of power and influence as executives, physicians, educators, activists, consultants, authors, speakers, bankers, engineers, and entrepreneurs.

Despite their varied professional backgrounds, the challenges they name in reclaiming their voices are strikingly similar — fear of reprisal, paralyzing perfectionism, creeping what they imagine will happen if they speak up, woman after woman has said, “I’ll be killed.” Do you find that surprising?

I used to, but then I began considering the reasons why I heard it again and again.

Women’s voices have been violently suppressed in this world for a very long time. Many are still being silenced, both by external systems and through our own internalized oppression. In this country, the most fundamental right of citizenship – the right to vote – was granted to women only very recently.

My grandmother, Norma Mershon Mathis, was just graduating high school when women won the vote in this country. My grandmother! I grew up knowing her.

Grandma Norma loved politics for her entire adult life. She was in her glory as the Iowa governor’s executive secretary in the 1950’s. She thrived on the intellectual stimulation, strategizing, discussion, and hobnobbing at the glamorous gatherings. Her job – and her great joy in it — was tragically cut short when the governor she worked for was killed in an automobile accident.Mother - Norma Mershon Mathis

She continued to participate in politics after that, running for the Iowa House of Representatives when she was well into her 60’s. I recall seeing her campaign flyers all over my grandparents’ house. I felt intrigued and proud that she was running for office. She lost the race. Soon after that her health began to fail. I’ve often said that Grandma would have run for president if she had been born a few decades later.

I tell my women clients this story frequently as a way to help them discover the shared roots of our fear. I also tell them this: When any woman finds her voice, it opens the way for other women to do the same. I invite my clients to be courageous not only on their own behalf, but on behalf of all of their sisters around the world who have less opportunity to speak their minds and express their gifts:

The women who have no say over whom they will marry or how many children they will have.
The women who cannot own property or earn a living.
The women who are bought and sold.
The women whose lives are taken up with sheer survival in the midst of war, racism, poverty, and oppression.

When we explore this larger context of women’s voices together, their hesitation and timidity falls away. Their eyes begin shining with courage and determination. They open up and give voice to whatever is inside them. That sound echoes around the world, awakening the possibility for another woman somewhere, someday to do the same.

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New Sounds in the Neighborhood

I have two new neighbors who are changing the sonic texture of my neighborhood in beautiful and significant ways. As I type this, my neighbor two doors down is wailing away on his tenor saxophone. He moved into John and Paula’s duplex and has been using their front stoop and back yard as his practice space. Fortunately, he’s really good.

I know the lyrics of every single song he plays. They are the old standards I sang as I was first becoming a solo singer at jazz clubs around the Twin Cities many years ago: “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “How High the Moon,” “In a Sentimental Mood”… They don’t make songs like that any more – so elegant, so romantic, so snazzy.

Every time I hear him playing, it brings a big smile to my face. His sound makes the neighborhood feel more….well… alive. The musician in me is inspired that someone is practicing down the block. It makes me want to practice, too. I weed my garden and sing along. I hang out my laundry and sing along. Later I find those sweet old songs running through my head.

We haven’t met face to face yet, but when we do, I will all ready know something of his soul from listening to him play for so many delightful hours.

The other vocal neighbor is also adding riffs to the saxophone sounds. It’s a chipmunk I’ve been calling “Squeak.” He lives under my back deck. When I’m out there reading, he wanders by my foot without realizing I’m there. I enjoy seeing him living his chipmunk day as I live my human day – going on his chipmunk errands and enjoying the sunflower seeds the birds scatter under the feeder.

This year Squeak has been more present and LOUD than the chipmunks in previous years. He gives rhythmic, emphatic “chups” for hours on end. This morning he was my alarm clock at 6 a.m….again. The edge of my front window box is his favorite pulpit for giving forth his endless “Chup, chup, chup, chup, chup….” sermons.  I wonder what he’s expressing? Territorial boundaries? Amorous invitations? I know he wouldn’t burn so many calories making such sounds without some urgent purpose. His entire body pulses with each “chup.” He’s working hard at it.

There are so many neighborhood sounds I’ve grown fond of in my eleven years in this place – the singing of tires on the bride over the Mississippi, the voices of the kids next door, the radio station my landlord keeps on in the garage to ward off intruders, the slap of sneakers as the high school track team runs by, and the syncopated drip of the gutter outside my living room window whenever it rains. Other sounds make me grumpy: roaring motorcycles racing down the 25-mile-per-hour parkway, leaf blowers (don’t get me started), and (very occasionally) car alarms.

Through many years of voice coaching, singing, and recording, I’ve developed keen ears. Sometimes I find it challenging to manage everything they pick up in the world around me. Overall, though, I count them as a gift. They open me up to the subtle artistry of my sax-playing neighbor and the urgent insistence behind Squeak’s “chupping” – making me more intimate with the song the world is constantly singing all around me.




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Grief at the Grocery Store

You know the story by now: An innocent African-American man – Philando Castile – was shot by a police officer at close range a few miles from my home. His gruesome and unnecessary death was witnessed by his beloved and her 4-year-old daughter. Four! (I know well what four looks like .My twin great-niece and great-nephew turned 5 within a day of the shooting). I can’t imagine this little one will carry forward into her life.

My first impulse when encountering such pain is to connect with the people I love.

Quanita — my beloved African-American sister of the heart — was the first person I called. She’s writing a book about African-American spiritual healing and is doing profound work about race in her community and around the world. She’s also raising two mixed-race children and struggles with how the hell to parent them in this crazy world. I listened to her heartache. We wept together. Nothing was solved, but we were together.

Next Debra called in tears. She has raised adopted children from India and is currently directing a charter school with a diverse student body. The weight of the grief – and how to speak of it to her adult children and the little ones in her school – was overwhelming. Again – all we could offer each other was our tender and loving witness.

In both conversations, I encouraged these fierce and dedicated leaders to take exquisite care of themselves. Debra went to nature. Quanita found solace in conversations with her beloved friends.

In the midst of this storm of insanity, I’m preparing to leave town for a week of songwriting on the Ontario-Minnesota border. I had set some hours aside yesterday to run essential errands and buy groceries. I was in no mood.

My heart was leaden. My eyes peered out of a long tunnel of grief. I felt sick to my stomach and kept heaving great sighs of despair, whenever I remembered to breathe at all. My heart kept leaping toward my African-American friends. I wanted to hold them, listen to them, stand beside them, keep them safe.

One of the stores I visited is a place where people of many backgrounds shop. I see Somali, Latino, African-American, Asian, and Caucasian families all mingling around the produce bins and freezer doors. I see tattooed and pierced teenagers next to frazzled parents with little ones. I see snowy-haired seniors next to brisk professionals in suits.

Yesterday, I noticed something new as I pushed my cart through the aisles. My eyes met the eyes of strangers more often. Through that gaze a door opened between us. There were sad smiles. We said hello. We shook our heads. We were connected through the complicity of unbearable grief.

This tenderness among my neighbors moved me deeply.

My experience is not unique. I just read the story of a young African-American woman and a white police officer meeting by chance in a store and consoling each other in their grief. Perhaps you have had encounters like this in the past two days.

There is ample evidence that pain and rage can awaken more violence, separation, blame, and reprisal. We’ve seen it in the shootings in Dallas. We see it aimed at our Muslim neighbors whenever there is a terrorist attack. It’s hard to contain the impulse to lash out in the midst of such unspeakable injustice.

What I remembered yesterday at the store is this: pain can draw also us into each other’s humanity. Calamity can shock us into remembering how deeply we belong to each other.

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Raccoons – A Summer Meditation

Running through a light drizzle and wafts of green-smell today, I thought about raccoons.

I ran by the place on the bluff-top trail where I once turned my head to see an entire family of them arrayed along the length of a tree trunk. The smallest one scrambled up as I watched: a redhead! Everything that is usually dark on a raccoon was ruddy reddish-brown. I stopped to linger with them awhile. They eventually found me dull and paraded down the tree to find something more interesting to do.

Another time along the same trail, I heard a shrill, plaintive cry just off the path. I stopped to listen more closely and realized that a baby raccoon was separated from its mother by the busy trail and a street. Mother hissed her encouragement from the mouth of the sewer across the street. I got out of the way and soon saw the baby make a dash across the busy thoroughfare.

A few years ago I stepped into my office late one night. I noticed a movement out by the clothes pole where the bird feeder hangs. There, balancing her bulk on the slippery, round clothes pole, was a huge raccoon. She had managed to wiggle the cast iron top off my very fancy bird feeder and was stretching her paws down to grab seeds. Hunger made a clever beast more clever. I was happy to reward her determination with a few seeds.

Though I see them often, it is always a gift to encounter their wildness in the midst of this large city. I’m touched by the lives they lead alongside my own.

Here is one more tale told in the form of a poem. May it invite you to share your own raccoon tales…..


 In late summer dusk, a stirring at the curb:
round ears,
a deadpan comedian face pokes out into open air.

One paw lifts.
Shiny eyes sort themselves from a dark mask.
They are full of cub questions.

Behind and under, a boiling of fur:
two heads, then three
stir in the mouth of the storm sewer.

The first tiptoes into the open,
ambles toward the shadows of a parked car.

They slide one by one
from the dark hole like clowns from a jalopy.
One, two, three…..four!

The fifth squeezes through,
flattening her bulk to fit through: the mother.

They tiptoe into the open,
glance around,
hunch toward the shadows.

Five animals, furred and whiskered and hungry,
instigate their silent invasion under cover of
plane roar, motorcycle growl, sharp-shiny city voices.
They are perfectly, wildly silent.

A man walking toward me startles at my soft call,
“Raccoons. Raccoons!”
but he does not stop in time.

At Mother’s insistent hiss,
the cubs startle, turn on nimble feet,
and are swallowed one after another
down the dark throat of the street.

© Barbara McAfee



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