Heart of a Warrior

The word “warrior” typically calls to mind a burly gladiator covered in dust, waving a sword. Or a burly Schwarzeneggar type kicking ass and taking names. The warrior I want to tell you about doesn’t look a thing like that. She’s 4’9-1/2” inches tall with a keen mind and a thick Boston accent.

We met many years ago on an excruciatingly cold night in Minnesota. She was interviewing me to manage the office at her small consulting firm. The only time we could get together was in the deep dark, cold evening hours. She invited me on a “walking interview,” so I arrived at her house bundled up in multiple layers of warm clothes. She leashed her elderly pooch and we set off for a three-mile walk through her neighborhood.

We walked and talked our way through the interview, our frozen breath clouding around our heads. Now at 6’2”, I am nearly a foot and a half taller than Susan. My legs reach nearly to her shoulders. So a nice, brisk pace for her was snail slow for me. By the time we returned to her home, I had the job — and a chill so deep in my bones that it took a hot bath to thaw them out.

In the years I worked with Susan, I witnessed her warrior spirit as she pioneered organizational development consulting in the Twin Cities. She’d bravely walk into a new situation, full of curiosity, good questions, strong instincts, and a zany sense of humor. As a friend, I saw her take on healing her body, mind, and spirit from the considerable challenges of her growing up years.

I wrote the song “Heart of a Warrior” for her as a birthday gift one year. (You can hear it at the link below.) Here are some of the essential warrior qualities the song illustrates:

Moving forward in the face of fear
Fearlessness is a great idea. Warriors know that waiting for the fear to go before doing what you’re called to do will ensure that you’ll never do a thing.

Bringing humor into challenging places
Unlike the macho warriors, we know the gift of lightening up when things get heavy.

Saying yes to life’s invitations
Warriors practice the art of “yes,” even when the “how” isn’t clear.

Using love to fuel your relationships and work
Love is willing to keep going when everything else is exhausted.

Bringing curiosity to every challenge
Warriors are well versed in the art of a good question and an inquiring mind

Knowing when to rest and receive loving care from others
Giving is much easier than receiving for us warriors. If we don’t rest and receive, we are headed for serious burnout and crippling egomania.

Most important of all – and Susan knows this well – warriors do best when they dance!  So crank up the song, get up on your feet, and do your full-hearted warrior dance!

Click here to listen to the song





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Three pots are boiling on my stovetop.
There are towels spread on my counter and piles of small cucumbers in a basket at my feet.
Steam condenses on the window and trickles down.
Ditto the perspiration on my brow.

It’s canning time.

I pull the speckled enamel canner from the cobwebby basement and wash out the dusty canning jars I’ve stored there over the year.  How many of those jars have traveled the long years from my own mother’s basement?  What have they held over those years? Pickled beans? Tomatoes? Peaches? Kosher dills?

Kosher dills.
When I was growing up, that’s what my mother called them. I thought it was because they had garlic in them. For years I thought “kosher” meant “with garlic.”
And what exotic stuff it was! The only time we made anything with garlic was during pickling season. (It was small town Minnesota in the 1960’s….)
My assignment was to peel clove after clove of the stinky stuff – five cloves for each quart jar of pickles. For a week afterward, my fingertips stank of it, no matter how vigorously I washed them. It was the smell of summer, as was the pungent reek of vinegar brine steaming on the stove.

Dad joined us in the kitchen for the pickling parties – a rare event in those days. We fitted the scrubbed cucumbers into the jars like puzzles. Threw in a dash of alum to keep them from getting mushy. And tucked fragrant seed heads of dill in and around the bright green cucumbers.

We enjoyed the companionship of repetitive work, accompanied by idle chatter and the whirring of the box fan.

When all the packing and filling was complete, Mom carefully lowered them into the boiling canner to process. Later as they cooled on the kitchen counter – each sealing jar sang out a joyful “ping” – the music of plenty and work well done.

I still make pickles every year in late summer. I perform the ritual of kettle, brine, and garlic-scented fingers. I’m certain the pickles in the store are far cheaper than what I spend on supplies at farmer’s market and grocery store. But what I’m making is more than pickles. I’m linking back to those summers in a sweltering Minnesota kitchen under fluorescent lights when we all worked alongside each other to make something good for the winter.

Dad’s been gone now for decades and Mom is slow and sharp at 91. Yesterday I brought her the first jar “kosher” dill pickles of the season.  She cradled them with delight and talked about how good they’ll taste with her sandwiches this winter.

I hope she can taste the gratitude I tucked into that jar, nestled between the dill sprigs and garlic cloves.

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Falling Silent

As a voice coach and singer, I pay unusual attention to voices. I cherish the cadences, rhythms, and sounds that I hear in the voices of my family members and friends. Each one is completely unique. Each one lingers in my memory as that person’s inimitable “song.”

Voice is at the heart of our personal relationships. Isn’t it a kind of miracle that your voice has the power to connect your inner world with that of another person?

Our voices create a soundtrack for the lives of those closest to us. The beautiful baritone singing voice of my grandpa Fred is still vivid in my mind’s ear, even though it fell silent in 1996. I recall in detail the sound of the blessing I received from a wise therapist in 1985 and the warm, resonant tone of the teacher who helped me find my voice. I can also conjure the tone of my father’s scathing sarcasm. Whose voices are ringing in your memory right now? How do you think the people around you will hear your voice in their memories?

As I grow older I experience an increasing number of deaths in my immediate and extended circle of friends. With each passage, another voice falls silent in the world. I grieve the loss of hearing that voice on the other end of the phone or in a lingering conversation.

A few weeks ago, another beloved voice fell silent. My friend, Jamie Showkeir, died after a 14-month “adventure” with ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Jamie loved nothing better than to converse. He built his entire personal and professional life around the pursuit of authentic conversations. He and his wife, Maren, even co-authored a book about it. (https://www.bkconnection.com/books/title/authentic-conversations).

How I loved talking with Jamie! In our wide-ranging conversations, he was fully present, curious, funny, daring, and surprising by turns. His laugh shook the rafters and his slightly asymmetrical eyes were right there. Our talks always yielded fresh thoughts and intriguing ideas. He made me (and so many others) feel brilliant and fascinating and appreciated.

After his diagnosis, we talked frankly about his illness and impending death. Those conversations included strength and vulnerability, fear and fearlessness, hilarity and grief….all the good stuff. Many of his conversations with his wife, Maren, were beautifully chronicled in her CaringBridge posts throughout his illness.

The last time I saw him, Maren and I cuddled up close to his wheelchair and had a long, often difficult, conversation about dying. By that time his voice had grown weak. He needed to gulp a breath after every few words. He frankly expressed his fears and doubts. We explored mysteries and told stories. There were tears and giggles and such deep fondness.

Oh, Jamie, I will miss your voice! And I will remember the “song” of it as long as I live.

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Like A Drop of Ink in a Bucket of Milk

I am attending a gala that supports a woman-focused foundation. A number of grant recipients from around the world are sharing their inspiring stories. In between, a singer/songwriter is offering an original song that perfectly reflects what that woman has accomplished.

As each recipient speaks, the room is perfectly and respectfully silent. But each time the singer begins a song the room instantly bursts into chatter. I am certain that the songwriter put at least as much time, energy, and effort into creating her songs as each of the speakers did with their remarks. I am crestfallen that her work doesn’t receive the same level of attention and respect as the speakers. And it sparks many memories of my own experience of bringing just-the-right song to a group who treats my music as background.

I finally found my voice to speak about this phenomenon in Vancouver, British Columbia where I was co-leading a daylong community-building workshop with my friend and colleague, Margaret Wheatley. She was providing brilliant thinking, as she always does. I was weaving music throughout the day. In between, there was lively dialogue in small groups among the 150 people in the room.

We are coming back from a break. I call the room to attention before I begin the opening song. As I start singing, everyone complies with my request, except for a handful of people in the middle of the room. Their conversation continues apace.

And then I start talking….

“Now, I want to be completely clear that what I’m about to say is not intended to shame or embarrass anyone in this room. I do want to point out that this particular song can’t really be heard unless it’s offered into a container of listening silence. And one small distraction – one side conversation – is all it takes to dispel the field of listening for the whole room. It’s like a drop of ink in a bucket of milk. Most of you are old enough to remember when there were smoking sections in restaurants and on planes. The smoke didn’t respect the delineations of those sections, did it? Sound works much the same way. Is this making sense?”

Heads nod. Everyone is listening closely.

We are a culture that has forgotten how to attend to live music with full attention. Most of the time when we hear music in public, it is in a bar setting where everyone has to shout to have a conversation with friends or it’s canned Muzak that provides a bland and ignorable soundtrack to nearly every public space. We’ve become inured to live, public music. We’ve become accustomed to treating it as background music even when it isn’t intended to be.

For years I didn’t talk about this phenomenon because I thought people would judge me as arrogant or needy for asking then to pay attention to me. Now I’m over it. And feel obliged to speak on behalf of all of the musicians out there who deserve an audience’s undivided and respectful attention.

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Love is Up to the Challenge

Barbara McAfee:

A stunning post about my beloved friend….thank you, Lucy!

Originally posted on studio-lu:

“Just as people have eyes to see light with and ears to hear sounds with, so they have hearts for the appreciation of time.”— Michael Ende

If you are skittish about the topic of death, then stop reading this post right now. Or better yet, don’t. I used to be one of those people, superstitious that talk of death would draw it nearer somehow. Yet, when one of my closest friends was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it became a topic I could not avoid. And guess what? I found out that talking about death could actually be a very life affirming act.

I’ve been reminded of this irony recently by a friend of a friend of mine, a man I never met but whose forthright manner of living with and ultimately dying from ALS has inspired and touched me since I first heard his story. When my friend Barbara McAfee asked me to create a…

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My Ethnic Food – A Musical Tribute to “Lake Wobegon Cuisine”

I am at a potluck in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The hostess has asked us each to bring a dish that reflects our ethnic food. There is a huge and glorious spread from all over the world: African peanut stew, Thai noodles, Mexican enchiladas, Scandinavian pickled herring, and Russian rye bread. Middle Eastern hummus and pita is nestled next to Indian dal and chapattis. We are gathered around the table, wondering at the richness of our culinary cultures and our community.

I couldn’t help but compare this feast to the Minnesota church potlucks of my childhood where much of the food derived from cans and boxes. Of course, there was an array of bizarre Jell-O salads. (Lime Jell-O with pineapple, celery, and stuffed green olives was our family favorite.) “Chow Mein” hot dish had nothing much to do with genuine Asian cuisine, except for a glug of soy sauce and crunchy noodles on top. And, my heavens, there were bars! Lemon bars, blonde brownies, and my favorite – seven layer bars (a deadly-sweet concoction of chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, nuts, and sweetened condensed milk on a buttery, graham cracker crust). The town – and the food – was homogeneous and predictable.

Back at the wildly ethnic potluck, a friend who grew up in a middle class family in Kentucky opened up a huge can of fruit cocktail and unceremoniously dumped it into a bowl. “Here’s my ethnic food!” she proudly drawled.   The room erupted in laughter…and a light bulb went off in my head.

Now I’m a northern European mutt – a genealogical stew of German, Scots-Irish, Welsh, French, and English. And I grew up in a small-town during the 1960’s when the food around our house was generic, supermarket American, except for the wealth of vegetables we grew in our huge garden every summer. When confronted with the invitation to bring my ethnic food to the aforementioned potluck, I opted for a large green salad to reflect my childhood garden and my ancestors who were farmers. But deep down, as I surveyed the glorious diversity on that table, I felt bereft of culture, ancestry, and (perhaps most important to a 20-something young adult), coolness. Thanks to fruit cocktail, I felt suddenly and strangely proud of exactly what had made me feel inadequate a moment earlier.

For centuries people have found a way to transform epithets into a source of pride and strength. The song “Yankee Doodle” is a pure example of this phenomenon. It took the phrase the British used to scorn the revolutionaries in the American colonies and turned it into an anthem of irreverent determination. And there are innumerable stories of how oppressed minorities have taken on the very derogatory names they are called as a source of pride and rebellion.

In a small way, that’s what my fruit cocktail friend did for me at that long-ago potluck.

I was so captivated by the experience that I went home and crafted a bluesy song about it called “Ethnic Food.” The repeating chorus crows, “I’m awful hot for that tater tot, so pour that Velveeta on!” Go ahead and have a listen at the link below. Just don’t be surprised if you get a sudden hankering for those little canned wieners in barbeque sauce!

Here is the link to the song:

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Surrounding You

I wish you courage for the next step and the next.
I wish you peace in the middle of the storm.
I wish you unexpected joy, strength to see you through,
And a heart wide open to all the love surrounding you,
It’s surrounding you – we are surrounding you.

These are the lyrics to my song, “Surrounding You.” I wrote it several years ago after hearing news of a friend’s daughter who was struggling with a serious health issue after giving birth to her son. Thankfully, everyone came through that health crisis. The song it inspired has traveled far and wide in the world.

“Surrounding You” is one of the songs we sing most frequently in the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer choir I founded eight years ago to bring songs of comfort to people who are struggling with living or dying. When the choir recorded the song back in 2009, it found new wings to travel to far-flung places, to be put to use in new ways.

I never imagined that it would find its way to a group of singers in a medium security Iowa prison.

Dr. Mary Cohen is aa Associate Professor and Area Head of music education at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. We met when she attended one of my voice retreats. As part of her academic scholarship, Mary is the founder and director of a choir made up of men who are incarcerated at Iowa Medical and Classification Center, commonly known as Oakdale Prison, and area community members. I was honored when Mary asked for permission for the choir members to sing “Surrounding You” at one of their concerts.

Recently Mary invited me to offer a concert at Oakdale. One of my missions is to bring music to unexpected places in the world. Prison certainly fits that description.

The evening of the concert, a small contingent of outside community choir members and I gathered at the front desk of the prison. The security procedures were old hat to the singers who chatted casually as they proceeded through a series of locked doors.

The men had started assembling in a multi-purpose room that looked a lot like a large gym. A tall, upright piano sat at the front of the room.

When about sixty men had taken their seats, Mary offered a welcome and off we went.

Our time together was rich with beautiful singing and conversation about songwriting. The men offered wise insights and deep questions. When I began playing “Surrounding You” and heard the voices of the men quickly and confidently join in, I heard the song in a brand new way.

Prison is a lonely place in a different way than a hospital room is. Like a hospital, though, there is a profound loss of autonomy and the presence of strangers participating in your daily life. Being there changes your life forever, even if you are fortunate enough to leave. But loneliness is loneliness. It’s part of our lives, no matter where we are.

I was touched that this song – written for a new mother – had found its way into the hearts and voices of men who were locked away from their family, friends, and the everyday pleasures we take for granted on the outside.

I can’t sing the song without remembering them and sending them blessings: I wish you courage for the next step and the next….

Here is the link to the song


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