I Love to Swear: In Praise of “Spicy” Words

I am in the studio recording my fourth CD and I am swearing my head off.

I apologize to my producer for all of the cursing. I cuss a lot in the recording studio. I love being there, but the intensity of recording calls forth an intensity in me, one that is most frequently expressed in exuberant expletives. I tell him that someday I intend to give it up.

He says, “Oh no…don’t give it up! You love swearing because you’re a poet. Swear words are like spicy food in your mouth.”

Well. That’s the day I give up the idea of giving up swearing.

Swearing is one of the ways I temper seriousness. Throwing a little irreverence into a reverent situation allows for even more depth. The surprise is disarming – much like humor is – and suddenly people open up in a new way.

A few well-placed cuss words also help dispel some of the projections people put on performers or leaders. Being at the front of the room can make people seem larger than life. I’m uncomfortable with being put on a pedestal, so swearing is one of the ways I take myself down a notch.

Last summer I wrote a little jazz song in praise of swearing. Here is the first verse…..

I love to swear
Love those four letter words
That burn like hot pepper on my tongue
There are ways swearing should be done:
With a wink and the cock of an eyebrow….

 I do have strong opinions about what makes for good swearing. When I hear people doing it poorly, that is, without wit or humor, I find it offensive. When I overhear people using the f-bomb every other word — for adjectives, adverbs, nouns – it makes my ears hurt. What a waste of a good Anglo-Saxon expletive!

I also dislike when swear words malign a person or group, especially women. Swearing should be fun and light-hearted (unless you stub your toe….).

I express that sentiment in the third verse …

I love to swear
But I must admit
I prefer to keep my mother out of it
And “bitch” is a verb, but not a noun
Do we need another way to put a woman down?

 And where is the second verse? I’m not including it here because…well…it has a LOT of swear words that aren’t generally used in respectful company. Which brings me to my last opinion about swearing: it’s essential to discern when and where swearing is going to work and when it isn’t.

I once gave my CD “Britches” to a young man in a small northern Minnesota town to thank him for his work at an event where I was performing. He sent it back with a note saying he couldn’t accept it because one of the songs “included swearing and a reference to nudity.”

The offending lines in the title track?

I’m getting too big for my britches
I guess I’ll just have to go nude
I’ll become one of those bitches
And cultivate a bad attitude.

I love to swear. And that means I’ll risk offending someone sometime. I intend to keep learning how to do it better and better.

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Laurence Cole: Singing Together to Nourish the Soul and Re-Enchant the World

First thing I notice is that voice: robust, deep, resonant. It reaches into every nook and cranny of the room, of the ear, of the heart – and fills it with life. I bless the day Laurence Cole came to my singing community to share his nourishing songs.

He builds them like beautiful layer cakes, one part at a time, using the oral tradition. He sings a line; we sing it back. We continue back and forth until we know it. Then he moves onto the next part. The beauty of this tradition is that people can experience the transformative and nourishing gift of harmony without knowing a thing about music theory, without reading a lick of music.

Many of Laurence’s songs are built on the words of great wise ones — people like Angeles Arrien, Rumi, Hafiz, and John O’Donohue. When those words are wrapped in melody, harmony, and the heartbeat rhythm of his djembe drum, they permeate our knowing in a different way than if we’d read them on a page. We remember them later.

Laurence is a strapping septuagenarian who lives with his “sweetie” (as he calls her), Deanna Pumplin, in an eco-village in Port Townsend, Washington out on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula. He co-leads a community choir there with Gretchen Schleicher and works on his gardens and compost piles in between cranking out a prolific stream of song.

He’s spending a lot of time traveling these days, tending a vital and booming singing movement. Large singing gatherings have been popping up in Oregon, North Carolina, Iowa, Washington, and Hawaii – and Laurence is our venerable elder. At Village Fire, the singing camp in Iowa where I spend time with Laurence, I often hear his voice ringing through the valley long after much younger folks have gone to bed.

A recent crowd-funding project supported the creation of a site where his music could be accessed for free. Each song has its own page with a story from Laurence, recordings of each part, lyrics, and a link to download sheet music. It’s a work-in-progress, grounded in a community’s affection and gratitude for Laurence’s generosity and genius.   He has also released a gorgeous CD and songbook – also available at the site.

You can find all of these treasures here: www.laurencecole.com

I’ll give my beloved friend the last word.

These are all songs for singing together – to build a sense of connection and harmony amongst a group of people.

 Songs for the joining of voices with ecstatic rhythms to help us move and sway
and clap our hands and beat our drums and improvise new harmonies and riffs
and goof around with mouth and body percussion
and just play.

 Songs for calling up our passion and love, courage and tenderness,
joy and reverence for the beauty and grace of life
in this miraculous and precious world.

These are songs to remind us of the caring support of our ancestors,
to remind us we are not alone and to “re-spect,” take another look,
at ourselves and all our fellow beings
in the light of wholeness and compassion.

 Songs for generating the particular pleasure and sweet affection
that builds among us from playing with sound and rhythm together.

 Songs for making a sonorous feast of beauty, to feed what feeds us –
the spirits of life that hold and nourish us and give us our being.

 Songs that help us through despair and sorrow
over the travails of a troubled time.

 These are songs for holding the dark and the light together,
helping us plant the seeds of hope and renewal
and to reawaken trust in ourselves and in each other.


Laurence and Barbara at Village Fire


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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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