On Being A Carrot in God’s Garden

My older brother Rolfe is a poet among other things. He’s also a dancer, traveler, husband, seeker, dad, grandpa, purchasing manager, and a self-described “old hippie.”

Many years ago he invited me to a poetry slam at a pub in downtown Minneapolis. I hadn’t been to a slam before. The theme that night was “harvest,” so I dug through my index of poems in search of something appropriate. Finding nothing, I sat down and dashed off a poem about a certain kind of harvest we will all face – dying.

On Being A Carrot in God’s Garden

You can be sure the hand will pull you from the ground.
You can be sure.
No matter how longingly the earth presses against you.
No matter how sweet the mineral sips at the tips of your roots.
No matter how comfortable your somnolent, unchanging days,
When you are ripe, you will be taken.

In this slumbering time,
in this tiny, dark cradle,
you cannot imagine sky
or the clouds that splatter the surface above,
or the green lace of your own intricate leaves.

When the hand comes,
may your flesh be sweet in surrender.
When the soil falls away from your snapping roots,
may you slide easy into the light.
When you lie naked in the basket,
may the hand rub the last soil from your skin
and carry you — singing and fresh —
straight to the mouth of God.

© Barbara McAfee

As I sat in that darkened pub, nursing a Guinness, I was astonished to hear the genius, ferocity, and virtuosity of the hip-hop poets at the microphone. I realized that what I’d brought was completely wrong for the setting and set it aside for another, more rhythmic piece I knew by heart.

That poem I scribbled so quickly – and then rejected – has become the one that has traveled far into the world. I read it at the funeral of my 26-year-old friend Joel – and finished the poem by taking a bite out of a carrot from his parents’ garden. Several chaplains have used it at other memorials. It gets around, this little carrot poem.

Now plans are afoot to create a book out of it in collaboration with my brilliant nature photographer friend, Julie Marion Brown. You can see her lovely work at her Tumblr site — http://julesofnature.tumblr.com.  A mutual friend, Lucy Mathews Heegaard, also made a short video about her work – https://studio-lu.net/2015/09/25/jules-of-nature.

I wonder where the poem will go next? If you find a way to make use of it in your life, please tell me the story.

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A Short Treatise on Training the Muse

Anyone who does anything creative will likely admit that there seems to be something beyond the daily, everyday self that collaborates with us in the making of things.

Many people call that something the muse. The ancient Greeks called that mysterious force the “muse;” the Romans called it the “genius.” Writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks dubbed it “the angel inside me.”

Many creative people complain about their relationship with that capricious, invisible force that enables their work. They feel like victims of its vagaries – when it shows up, how it shows up, and (heaven forbid), when it disappears for long periods of time. When I first began writing songs in my early 30’s, I also felt put upon by my muse and its strange habits.

For one thing, it used to wake me up in the middle of the night like a large rambunctious puppy, frisky and ready to play. At the time I had a day job that required me to show up rested and on my toes. After a series of these late-night “visits” that kept me up into the wee hours, I had a serious talk with her/him/it/them.

“Listen,” I said (firmly, grouchily, sleepily), “I have a body. I live in the realm of time. You don’t. So if you want these brilliant ideas of yours to come into form – and they are brilliant – you’re going to need to work with me differently. You can’t keep waking me up in the middle of the night! Come when I am awake and we’ll have a much better chance of working together.”

I felt a bit silly talking out loud to a disembodied presence, but here’s the thing – it worked. I stopped waking up with song ideas in the middle of the night. I also started showing up at my piano more frequently during the day so if there were songs hanging around, I’d be in a better position to catch them. I imagined that this negotiation of mine was unique….that other creative people didn’t have misbehaving muses like mine.

I was wrong.

Decades after my own experience, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert tell a story about singer/songwriter Tom Waits on the Radiolab podcast (http://www.radiolab.org/story/117165-help/). Waits is best known for his gravelly voice singing songs that deliver a strange blend of gritty reality and unexpected sweetness.

In an interview with Gilbert, Waits told about hearing a melody in his head while driving down an eight-lane freeway in LA. He had no way to catch the song – no paper, pencil, or recording device. His frustration at losing such a gem led him to look up at the sky and say, “Excuse me. Can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist, come visit me during the eight hours I spend in the studio. You’re welcome to come and visit me when I’m sitting at my piano. Otherwise, leave me alone and go bother Leonard Cohen.”

Just last week I passed both my story and that of Tom Waits along to one of my voice coaching clients. She’s engaged in writing songs for the first time and ….surprise….is finding herself awakened in the middle of the night by her muse. Somewhere out there right now is a muse who is learning how to dance with a human being.

 

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Divine Appointments

I am walking along the Mississippi River near my home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After dithering around in my house in full procrastination mode for several hours, I am finally outside and moving in the chill November afternoon. Suddenly I hear a woman sobbing… loudly…and see her walking right toward me on the path.

My first thought is, “Good for you, Sister! Let ‘er rip!” I decide right away to offer witness and support for the bold tears of that brave stranger. As I draw closer, I recognize the woman as a beloved friend. As soon as she sees who is coming up to her, laughter mixes into her tears. Still crying, she keeps repeating, “Oh my God! You’re an angel!” Then she falls into my arms and cries out her storm of grief. When she is finished, she tells me about her grief as we continue our walk together.

My 92-year-old mother would call this a “divine appointment.” It’s an ideal description of that experience of running into just the perfect person at the perfect time. Is it just me or are those divine appointments happening more frequently?

Just yesterday I was out on that same path again. I’d lollygagged around my house procrastinating and puttering just like I did months ago. I recognized a woman walking toward me as someone I’d met out in the world somewhere. She stopped and said, “Barbara, I can’t believe you’re here!”

Here we go again.

That morning she’d gone on Facebook (which she swears she never ever does) and read my blog post about grief. She told me that her mom had died recently and that the grieving was challenging. Something in what I’d written helped her….and just a few hours later, here I was.

So there’s a double divine appointment. One – she goes on Facebook just in time to read my post in the feed. Two – we run into each other on the river path. She confessed that she’d been postponing her walk for hours as well. I told her about “divine appointments” and told her the story of running into my sobbing friend on that very path.

Still awestruck and grateful for that connection, I went to the grocery store for a few things. You’ll never guess who I found in the produce section. Yep. The weeping woman. Her. I hadn’t seen her in the months since I encountered her on the river path.

This time it was my turn to say, “Oh, my God! You’re an angel!” I told her about “divine appointment” that had just happened on the river path. One thing led to another and before we parted ways, we had decided to attend a weeklong singing workshop together next summer.

Heaven knows who we’ll run into there!

If you have a good “divine appointment” story, I’d love to hear it!

 

 

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Singing in the Light – The Tale of a Long and Shining Collaboration

 

For over ten years, my monthly community song circle has supported the work of Fifty Lanterns International, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that brings solar power to people in the developing world. We call the gatherings “Singing in the Light” for that very purpose. (And we like the double entendre….)

When the singers arrive, they put money in a basket at the door. All of the funds go to the cause. The church where we meet (Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, Minneapolis) donates the space and I donate my time. In the past months each gathering has included over 60 singers of all ages and musical abilities. We sing just for the joy of it in the oral tradition. We raise anywhere from $250 to $500 each time we meet.  Once in awhile someone writes a big check to support the work.

At the beginning of every gathering, I mention that our singing together that afternoon is going to have a direct and positive effect on specific people far away. We sing for our own illumination, for that of our community, and for strangers we’ll never meet. The awareness that what we are doing is having a direct benefit on people’s lives enriches our experience.

Over the years our singing has helped fund diverse projects that bring light and power (literally and metaphorically) to

War widows and their children in Afghanistan
Health care professionals in rural India
Earthquake survivors in Pakistan, Haiti, and Kashmir
Midwives in rural Honduras
Coffee farmers in Rwanda

More recently the work has focused on providing larger solar installations for structures where there is no electric power available. One Fifty Lanterns project installed solar power at a Rwandan health care clinic that provided services for 20,000 refugees.

In a recent conversation with Fifty Lanterns founder, Linda Cullen, she told me about their current project – providing solar power for a fast-growing school for Maasai girls in Tanzania.

These girls are mostly from rural villages where they are often expected to forego education for early marriage. The founder of the school, Minnesotan Deb Pangrel, works closely with the girls’ parents to advocate for education. A number of the students feel compelled run away from their villages in order to escape forced marriage and further their education. The school has grown quickly and is currently adding another building and a science lab. Learn more about the school here: http://www.imagetanzania.org

Fifty Lanterns is in a transition now after years of good work. Linda has decided to focus all future donations on the school in Tanzania and to sunset the non-profit over the coming year. She is still passionate about the work, but has found that the care and feeding of a nonprofit is not her calling.

She and her husband, Mike Gallagher, recently completed a beautiful solar-powered house north of the Twin Cities. They aptly named it Peacefield Farm. Plans are afoot to host a Singing in the Light gathering there sometime this summer.

It will be a joy to bring song to our friend and “shero” in gratitude for her beautiful work in lighting up the world.

 

 

 

 

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York Peppermint Patties and the Art of Kindness

My mother is nearly 92 years old. We spend a lot of time together out in the world now that she has stopped driving.

Once a statuesque 5’10-1/2” tall, gravity and arthritis have left her bent over. She uses a walker to help keep her steady. Her hair is snowy white and her blue-blue eyes twinkle. She’s a kind person with a soft heart, but don’t let that fool you. The lady is also one of those tough-as-nails members of Greatest Generation who came of age in the Depression and witnessed World War II right out of high school. Directly after she and dad got engaged, he went off to the war for four long years.

These days whenever someone does a kindness for her – opens a door, provides service at a restaurant, or helps her check out her groceries – she hands them a shiny silver York Peppermint Patty and a big smile.

She gets great pleasure out of people’s surprise and delight at her spontaneous gift. Many of them exclaim, “Oh, that’s my favorite!” Once I made the mistake of getting her a giant bag of the Pearson’s mint patties at Costco. She loves telling people how nobody reacted as positively to those as they do to the York ones. The York people would have to look far and wide for a better spokes-model.

She claims that when you’re as old and fragile as she is, people do a lot of nice things for you. She likes acknowledging their kindness with some of her own.

I also think she does it to interrupt the social patterns we have about old people. I’ve witnessed how invisible she is to many people. Sometimes the server at the restaurant speaks only to me. Sometimes people assume that she isn’t as smart, keen-eyed, and observant as she is. (She frequently beats me at Scrabble, for goodness sake!) It can be dehumanizing to be elderly in this fast-paced, distracted world.

The mints humanize her. They take people by surprise and require them to relate to her differently. And does she ever get a kick out of it! Once after giving a mint to a delighted stranger, she chortled as we walked away. “This is so much fun!” she said. “I do this instead of drinking booze.”

Awhile back I told her that I’d made a decision: we’re going to hand out little bags of mints at her funeral so people can carry on her tradition of giving them away to strangers.

She liked that idea…and reminded me to make sure they were York Peppermint Patties. Now all I have to do is contact the York people about getting a few cases donated when that sad day comes. We are going to need a lot of them to supply her huge circle of friends, a circle that keeps right on growing one mint at a time.

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The Temple of Sweat

I just love to go out dancing.
And yet there are so many things that interfere with a great dance experience.

For one thing, I’m a musician. So that makes me particularly sensitive to the quality of the music. Is the groove right? Are the musicians having a good time together? Is the sound mixed correctly?

And then there’s the dance floor. As a tall woman with a large “wingspan” and a lot of enthusiasm, I tend to take up space. I was dancing at a social event at a large conference last fall. Rarely have I heard a better band. Problem was, the floor was just jammed with happy dancers. My body’s impulse to express that fine music was confined to shuffling my feet within a 3-foot-by-3-foot square. Sigh.

Finally, much of the dancing that happens in this culture happens in bars. Those environments often feel toxic to me. I don’t like being around drunk people, especially when they are crashing into people on the dance floor and spilling beer on our shoes.

One night in St. Paul, Minnesota, I had a dancing experience that met my very high expectations and then some. There was a fine and funky band with lots of shiny horns, a great groove, and a divinely inspired singer. The floor was inhabited by a small group of joyful dancers.

On one of the breaks, I told the trombone player that his band had turned that club into a veritable “Temple of Sweat.” The phrase stuck with me and I began to conjure a story – and then a song — about a mythical place by that name. What would happen there? Who would be our host?

Soon I began to “see” it – the Temple of Sweat – tucked away down a forgotten alley and hosted by an elegant, elderly man in a white suit named Deacon Gray.

I imagined a wild place where people danced with sacred abandon.

Brothers and sisters, here’s a call to worship
In a temple of a different kind
Here’s a place where you can free your spirit
And shake your body ‘til you lose your mind
Here’s some water; here’s a thirsty towel
Here’s a place to ease your troubled soul
Here’s an extra shirt – you might get wet
When you worship in the Temple of Sweat….

Yesterday I found another Temple of Sweat at Dance Church.
Yep, Dance Church.

It’s held at a local folk dance center every Sunday. There’s a DJ curating tunes and dozens of people from all parts of the human family. Kids tear around giggling. Trained dancers trace elegant arcs with their limbs. Hula hoopers fill one corner. Grey-haired elders mingle with dread-locked young adults. Some people skip around the margins on the floor while others move subtly in place, eyes closed.

In the midst of that joyful crowd of dancing humans, I realized that I’d found one more Temple of Sweat. A wholesome, sacred, and playful place where ….

…women shimmied and the men were shaking
Moving everything from head to toe
Sin and shame were nowhere to be met
They never show up at the Temple of Sweat.

Take a listen!

….and feel free to DANCE!

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Oh For Goodness Sake – Stand At My Grave and Weep Already!

Death has been visiting my life a lot in this past year. During those times, I have frequently heard Mary Elizabeth Frye’s well-known poem, “Do No Stand At My Grave and Weep.”

This morning as I was lolling abed, I began naming my departed-beloveds in my mind, calling their sweet faces to mind and silently speaking their names one by one. This is one of the ways I honor them and deal with their absence. In the midst of that familiar ritual, I “heard” a distinct voice speaking into my mind. This is what it said.

Now, Honey. You just go ahead and stand at my grave and weep. As a matter of fact, you could fall to the ground if you wanted to. If there’s snow or mud, no matter — you can always get that funeral suit cleaned later on.

Or you could forego the suit altogether. Wear your pajamas or your favorite sweats to my funeral. You’re hurting enough all ready without having to wear tight clothes and uncomfortable shoes.

And please, please…weep! It’s bizarre to be where I am now — in this lovely though totally indescribable place – and see you expending such precious energy on NOT weeping, NOT breathing, NOT living this experience. Sweetheart, you are still alive. So be…alive!

 We don’t get to weep here. We don’t get dirty. Our hearts don’t shatter. That only happens where you are. To be honest, I miss the mess of living. It’s a privilege. So go ahead and weep, wail, rant, gnash your teeth, carry on a bit. There will be plenty of time for silence and stillness when you’re where I am.

And when you are finished with crying – or when you pause for awhile – go ahead and sing. Singing reaches right across the divide between where I am and where you are and brings us together in an instant. You’ve felt that, haven’t you? You’ll know the song to sing, but not until you take the breath to begin it. That moment will allow me to plop one right into your heart and out it will come. Be warned it will likely make you cry again. I think I’ve made myself clear about what to do when that happens.

Now here’s another thing. This one is for much, much later — after your suit is back from the cleaners, the casserole dishes have been returned, and the rest of the world has moved on from your cataclysmic loss. Begin to find some life around and beyond your grief and gently, gingerly start to live into it. Sadness and loss will still be around because frankly, you won’t ever “get over it.” You’re not supposed to. 

I don’t know how you will find your way back to living your life beyond grief, but I hear rumors over here that being out under the sky is good start. Connecting with other living things is good as well – plants in the garden, friendly dogs, old friends who don’t bring creased brows and “concern” to every encounter.

So – go ahead – stand at my grave. Cry your damn eyes out. Ride the storm of grief bravely and it just may carry you – in time, Dear One, in time – back to the amazing place of being alive.

I’ll be cheering you on from here.

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