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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Heart of a Warrior – A Song for This Moment

These past weeks have been deeply challenging for many of us.

Friends of color are striving to say and do the right things to keep their children safe.

A friend who is a school director called weeping about a third grade Muslim girl in her school being bullied by classmates.

Friends involved in reproductive rights are redoubling their efforts to protect them.

Lesbian, gay, and transgender friends are wondering how their daily lives will be affected by freewheeling hate in the streets.

Old traumas are coming back to haunt many of us.

During this time, I’ve heard many gentle, peace-loving people proudly naming themselves “warriors.” They proclaim themselves ready to step forward with fierceness, bringing wisdom, beauty, and even joy to the challenges at hand. Many have traveled to Standing Rock to support the water protectors there. Others are extending themselves to listen to neighbors who have different backgrounds or opinions than their own. Some are donating to causes that support the human spirit and others are treating people they encounter in their day-to-day lives with increased kindness.

Years ago I wrote a song called “Heart of a Warrior” in honor of a dear and feisty friend.

Like many of my songs, its meaning has shifted over time. I heard the message of the song in a new way this past week. It called out and named the spirit I feel arising in me –and many others — in this perilous moment.

It is a song full of drums to call the heart to courage.
It is a guide for sustaining ourselves through the long road ahead.
It invites us to “dance empty-handed into the fray.”

Turn it up.
Sing along.
Be brave.

We are in this together.

Heart of a Warrior

Fear holds no sway in the heart of a warrior
She dances empty-handed into the fray
Rivers of laughter to temper the shadows
From life’s invitation, she’ll not turn away.

Love is the fire in the heart of a warrior
There in her eyes its flames leap and sway
Those who are warmed there do count themselves blessed
To bask in the warmth of her sunfire array.

Deep wisdom runs through the heart of a warrior
A curious mind and the words to say …
Mysteries fresh from the lips of the angels
The voice of the earth as under our feet she commences to pray.

Grant many gifts to the heart of this warrior:
A balance of rest in her rigorous days
Courage to step forth into her true power
Conviction to know the love all around her is going to stay

Fear holds no sway in the heart of a warrior
She dances empty-handed into the fray
Rivers of laughter to temper the shadows
From life’s invitation, she’ll not turn, not turn, not turn away.

© Barbara McAfee




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Respectful Transitions – A Tale of Family, Trees, and Healing Beauty

We don’t have a choice about losing people and things we cherish. It’s a big part of being human. One of the most precious lessons I’ve learned from singing at the bedsides of people in hospice is this: beauty can offer solace in those painful times of loss and transition.

My friend Tom Peter has found a way to bring that solace to people who are grieving the loss of a beloved tree.

I met Tom at a local conference where he was displaying his remarkable artwork: natural-edge, lathe-turned wood vessels. When I first saw the graceful, intricate, glowing and delicate vessels I just had to touch them. I bought two pieces that day – one for a beloved friend and one for me.

Tom’s business is called “Respectful Transitions.” As a certified arborist, Tom knows tree biology inside and out. As an artist, he uses that knowledge to highlight the beautiful structures hidden inside a common branch. He made his first vessel for a young woman whose favorite tree had to be removed while she was away at college. When she returned, Tom presented her with a beautiful memento of her “friend.” Since then he has made hundreds of vessels and received national recognition for his craft.

Many of us get attached to our trees. I still recall the trauma I experienced as the huge graceful elms at my childhood home died off from Dutch elm disease.   My parents replanted the land with many trees in the decades they lived in that house – birches, blue spruce, aspens, walnut, and crab apple. We burned wood to heat our house. We were – and are – “tree people.”

At our first meeting, I told Tom that our family would be a perfect client for his work. Mom was preparing to leave the family homestead – and the beautiful trees there — after 53 years. I was certain that we couldn’t afford the cost of vessels for my mother and each of her three children. It was a wonderful dream, but completely impractical.

A few months later Tom called me with a proposal: would my family be willing to be featured in a story by the local CBS affiliate about his work? Mom gave her approval and on chilly November day, three generations of McAfee’s, Tom, and the TV folks converged at the old family place in Stillwater, Minnesota.

The news story ran Thanksgiving weekend that year. You can see it here:

Mom has since sold the house to a beautiful family who loves it as much as we did. They have planted a small orchard of fruit trees – keeping the tree-loving tradition alive on that beautiful property. Mom, my brothers, and I treasure our keepsakes from the trees we loved for so many years. And the four grandchildren – who grew up playing under their branches – received small vessels as well.

I am grateful for Tom’s generous gift to our family and celebrate all of the transitions he has eased by bringing beauty into the midst of loss.

You can contact Tom via email: mntreeguy@gmail.com








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The Voice of the Teacher

I climb in my car to run some errands. The On Being podcast starts up through the speakers and I instantly recognize the voice of Parker Palmer. My face blooms into a broad smile of recognition. His words are wise and funny and nourishing as usual. And that deep, corduroy voice of his imbues them with an irresistible kindness and friendliness. What I realize today is how much I learn from his voice…how his “music” is just as much of a teaching as his “lyrics.”

I get to thinking about other teachers and their voices. I recently heard the voice of cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien in a film. How many hours have I listened to that precious voice, so recently silenced, both in person and on recordings? I wept in a confusion of appreciation and grief. How I miss her deliberate, brilliant, kind, and silly way of teaching. Even her crackling, twinkling eyes somehow leak into the sound of her voice. I am grateful for the many recordings that will keep her “song” alive now that her living voice has been silenced.

In the early 1990’s I am in the south of France studying voice with members of the Roy Hart Centre. We work many hours a day in the ancient stone buildings, opening up our voices to new heights, depths, and colors. One day I step into the blazing midday sun and hear my beloved teacher Saule Ryan’s voice echoing across the valley. I respond to it viscerally. I have followed that voice like a beacon into unknown territories of voice and life. It means so many things to me – safety, challenge, friendship, joy. I step into a practice room and begin crafting a song for him. I put these words in the middle of it: “Wrapped in the silk and moss of your voice, I tell the truth, I have no other choice.” A few days later when it is finished, I play it for him for the first time – voice shaking, tears leaking. He is touched by the gift.

I have never recorded that song, but I do make a point of singing it for Saule every year when he comes Minnesota to co-teach our annual workshop. It’s a ritual I offer as a way of expressing my gratitude for his long and generous presence in my life. How fitting that I use the voice he called into the world to sing his song to him.

Over many years of voice coaching, I’ve worked with many teachers – those with the formal title and those whose work involves the practice of teaching in some way. When we teach or parent or lead, we are planting powerful memories in the people around us. Our voices echo on in their lives forever — whispering encouragement, conveying wisdom, cheering them on. When they recall what we’ve told them, they will also remember how we said it.

What beloved teachers are singing their wisdom into your life? How do their voices – or the memory of them – still influence you? What is the “song” you want to plant in the people around you? And what are the ways you can make it more beautiful and true?

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Jules of Nature

You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.

– St. Bernard

We are walking in the woods near Julie Brown’s home in northwestern Wisconsin. It is raining buckets. Our feet squelch in the mud. The raindrops create complex polyrhythms on our raincoats. Skirting around mucky patches and ducking branches, we discover thousands of mushrooms scattered across the forest floor.

The heavy rains this summer have called them into the light in a profusion of form and color. Glossy white undulant shelves along an oak log. Tiny crimson caps among the leaf litter. Striated white, tan, and lavender turkey tail fungus layered like phyllo pastry. A brilliant yellow foot-tall pile in the middle of the path. A cheerful convocation of little brown buttons atop slender stalks.

They are everywhere and Julie is – well – reading them.

She points to the fluted underside of a broad mushroom that was flipped upside down. “I wonder who passed by here and kicked that? Probably a passing deer.” As if to confirm her theory, our eyes catch the tawny movement of a whitetail leaping off the path into the trees.

Walking in the woods with Julie Brown brings the woods alive. They know her well. They reveal things to her watchful eyes that yours and mine might miss. Sometimes she brings her camera along. And then the wonders the woods reveal to her keen eye become visible to us.

After the rain stops, Julie returns to the woods with her camera to catch the visual symphony of the mushrooms. I jump into my car and return home to the city.

By the time I get home, there are images in my inbox. Intimate, shining portraits of treasure we discovered in the rain-washed woods. Even though I was there myself and saw the very same mushrooms, Julie’s photographs show them to me in a completely different way. These are Julie’s gifts –paying attention, seeing deeply. She has found a way to harness her camera so that it captures and shares the marvels she sees.

Most of the photos she posts on her gorgeous Tumblr site are taken a few steps from her home. They are drenched in a sense of place. Julie grew up near here and knows this place in her bones. It knows her as well and shows itself to her as to a trusted friend.

Her cousin once called her “a poetic photographer.” It’s a compliment she treasures – and it couldn’t be more accurate. Every day she posts an astonishing image along with a poem or quote. What I see reflected in those photographs is reverence, patience, practice, and deep, deep gratitude for the miraculous ways Life expresses herself here on Earth.

You can visit and follow Julie’s Tumblr site here:http://julesofnature.tumblr.com

And watch a beautiful short film about her work created by our mutual friend, Lucy Mathews Heegaard here:  https://studio-lu.net/2015/09/25/jules-of-nature/

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