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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The Cruel Stare – A Posthumous Reblogging by Karly Wahlin

I am featuring a blog post written by my departed friend, Karly Wahlin. I wrote about her in a previous post.

Karly lived 27 years with a difficult condition called Rett Syndrome that affects mostly girls. It made it impossible for her to speak, to walk, and even control her own breathing. Despite these many challenges, Karly was a prolific blogger, composer, and public speaker. With ferocious support from her mother, Lois, she lived a life of meaning and purpose. She died in August of 2012 – and reassured all who loved her that her dying day would be “the happiest day of my life.” She lives on in many hearts including mine.

You can see a beautiful video about her here and discover her music here.

Here are Karly’s words:
What I have to say today may offend some people. It may make others shout for joy. I am not going to pretend that I am not hurt.

We just returned from our church service and the apple orchard we stopped at on our way home. We all love apple crisp so it seemed like a great day to pick a few apples and make something we all like so much. If I could give you a picture, it would be one you would NOT like to look at. It would be titled, “The Cruel Stare.”

In the picture I am doing what I love with my family. I am at church where I go to learn. I go to see people I know. I go to listen to the music that I can’t sing. I go to hear the Bible that I cannot hold myself.

It is a picture of me trying to be UN-noticed. I am eager to be there. However, I sit on my couch at home today, away from the stares and pauses that people give me whenever I am away from the shelter of home. I don’t think I look odd. In fact, I am told I am a beautiful person, and yet I can’t go anywhere without being stared at. I am not talking about a casual glance.

I am very aware that people are staring at me. It seems even babies are looking at me. The elderly are even more cruel. They act as if I don’t belong there. The children stare as if I’m an object of curiosity. Parents do their own cruel work by ignoring their children who are staring and pointing and gawking.

It is not the kind of stares other people get who are interesting or who are wearing something fun. It is the kind of stare that you would give when you are looking at a car crash, filled with curiosity and the gratitude that it’s not your problem, but the freedom to stare as long as you feel like it until the accident victim gets wheeled away.

The picture is the reality. It is not ok to stare at anyone out of cruel curiosity. It is my experience, and the reality of many of us who live with a physical disability.

It is hard to believe that Jesus would be impressed with the way humans have treated each other. If I understand it correctly, Jesus had great compassion for those who were mistreated and suffered in their bodies. He loved them. He showed compassion to people who were overlooked and begged for food because they couldn’t get their own. How can we be so off course?

We need each other. We need the wisdom and understanding that many people who live with great struggles have. And those of us who live with great physical struggles, need the wise understanding of friends and those who are stronger than we are.

I know that most people do not intend to be cruel, but I’m feeling too sad to share more about this today.


Postscript: Karly’s minister read this post at her church shortly after it came out. Many in the congregation were moved to tears. It was also read on the local Christian radio station.

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My Personal Lexicon

I wouldn’t be who I am without Dr. Seuss.

When I was a little girl, I would walk into the hushed temple of my small town Carnegie Library and make a beeline straight to the Dr. Seuss shelf. I lived in hope that there would be a new Dr. Seuss book every single time I went to the library. There weren’t enough of them to satisfy my craving for the absurd, playful, language-loving stuff he made.

One of the many things I gleaned from his writing was the malleable nature of language. Words were toys. Words could be invented. Words could tickle the mind until the belly giggled.

Thanks to Theodor Geisel I’ve been inventing my own lexicon for much of my life. Here are a few of my favorites.

I call weak coffee “weasel pee.” This phrase came about during the Women’s Leadership Revival Tour I co-led with Margaret Wheatley. One of us spoke these words at the first taste of dreadful hotel coffee one morning. I can’t recall which of us said it, but the peals of laughter that followed its utterance echo in my memory.

A “mess o’ breakfast” is a concoction of lots of veggies with a small amount of egg and cheese. It’s a kind of reverse omelet. My favorite “mess’o’s” include chicken sausage, zucchini, kale, corn, mushrooms, potatoes, and onions.

I call my former spouse, John, my “wasband.” I didn’t coin this word myself. I originally heard it from my friend Teresa and I don’t know where she found it. It’s the perfect name for this now-friend whom I love to pieces. We are still searching for a parallel title for me. Before our divorce was finalized, he enjoyed calling me his “future former wife.” Nothing has emerged to replace that one.

John is responsible for another of my favorite words – “frimpy.” It’s used to describe a dress or skirt that is playful and short. Perhaps it is a kind of conjunction of the words “frilly” and “skimpy.”

I enjoy calling early morning “the butt-crack of dawn,” although I don’t recall where I first heard it.

My dear ones are often called “Yummyhead” (thanks, Catherine Wilson). Women friends are likely to be called “Girlie” as well. That one came from Grandma Mead, a family friend from my childhood. I always loved when she called me that with a twinkle in her brown eyes.

Beloved friend, Maren Showkeir, started our enduring friendship with these words, “I have the biggest nonsexual crush on you!” She recently told me that she didn’t make it up and can’t remember who did. Whatever its source, it’s become a favorite go-to phrase when I meet new people I adore.

I’m delighted that the next generation is making its presence known in my personal lexicon. My great-niece, Amaris, called one of her favorite foods “mushies” when she was small. Now and forever, I call mushrooms by that name. Her little brother, Lyric, named sparkling water “spicy water.” That’s just too perfect not to use.

Tell me, what words inhabit your personal lexicon?

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