You Can’t Imagine

My 93-year-old mom has been going through a rough patch these past weeks. So have I. I’m her number one caregiver – or as she recently put it, “her best help and her best friend.”

In the past year or so I’ve noticed that she gets into a repetitive pattern with certain statements. Here are several of her recent favorites:

When you get to be my age, you go to bed at night and wonder if you’re going to wake up in the morning.

It’s so strange being out in the world. (Spoken from the front seat of the car.)

 That was a looooong time ago. Seems like another lifetime.

Mom had a fall in her bathroom two weeks ago. She was badly bruised up, but amazingly didn’t break any bones. In the whirlwind of the visiting the emergency room, being admitted to the hospital, transferring to transitional care, and returning back to her apartment, Mom lost some things. And found some others.

She lost her sense of time completely. In the ten days she was at the hospital and in transitional care, she remarked over and over that it felt more like months to her.

She also lost a lot of basic memories about her apartment and how she lived her life there. She didn’t lose her memory of the people though. That’s who she is. People first. Always.

She found friends – as she always does — among the staff and patients everywhere she went. That’s my mama.

The experiences of these past weeks have yielded a new favorite refrain. Every time I am with her, she says the same phrase over and over with wonder in her voice: “You just can’t imagine what this is like.”

She’s right. I can’t. The world my mother is inhabiting is a mystery to me. I get glimpses of how lost and overwhelmed she feels. I sense how tired she gets of struggling with the simplest things. As close as I am to her, I won’t ever understand even a fraction of the story.

She can’t imagine how it is for me either. How it felt to see her tumble into a level of sadness and despair I’d never witnessed in her. How it was to juggle conversations with innumerable health care professionals, do her laundry, manage her money, play Scrabble with her, drive hundreds of miles between her place and mine, and eat late night drive thru dinners because I somehow forgot to eat. She sees how hard I am working and apologizes for being “so much work,” but she doesn’t know the half of it.

The truth I am realizing is this: none of us can imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s experience. We only get glimpses and hints of the whole story. That is when we are called to empathy. To at least try to imagine what it’s like over there. To bring deep listening, an open heart and kind presence to whatever that other person is living through. That’s the best we can do. And it is a great gift.

I hope to bring that gift to my sweet mama through whatever days remain. And what comes after she’s gone…well….”I can’t imagine.”

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Have It Your Way – Or Maybe Not

I’ve been involved in organizing a lot of events over my 26 years of self-employment. There are always glitches along the way – unexpected changes in plans, sudden illnesses, logistical questions and – in my home state of Minnesota – weather. These past few months I’ve noticed a troubling shift in how people are behaving about events. And I’ve heard similar reports from numerous other organizers of things.

Here is what we’ve noticed. Participants are demanding much more than they used to. They sign up later, ask lots of questions and make many more requests for special treatment. This extra work is sapping organizers’ patience and energy.

One possible reason for this turn of events is that we are surveyed about our “customer experience” at every turn. We are asked to rate what we think of this flight, that restaurant, even the packaging (the packaging!) on a mail order. Has this constant solicitation of our preferences lulled us into a state of unconscious entitlement?

I wonder if technology also impacts the number of questions and requests. It’s become so easy to shoot off a text or email to an organizer instead of researching your question on your own.

If we continue to behave in these ways, we risk burning out our organizers – the people who extend themselves to create worthwhile and nourishing experiences for their fellow human beings. Several friends have mentioned that they are less willing organize things after years of cheerfully doing so. The same is true for me.

Here a few ways you can support the people who are organizing an event:

  1. Sign up early. If there is something that grabs your interest, please step up and commit. I am guilty of postponing commitments myself. In the increasing chaos of the world, it’s getting harder to say a solid yes. Organizers literally lose sleep over low numbers and may prematurely cancel events for want of adequate enrollment ahead of time.
  2. Read the materials. Organizers work hard to cover details for participants. They generally send out a plethora of information about timing, location, weather, directions, stuff to bring and wardrobe. If you have a question about the event, please refer to those materials before sending off a text or email.
  3. Take some responsibility for your own special dietary requirements, especially if they are far out of the norm. I have a friend who can’t eat onions or garlic of any kind. She lets organizers know about this – and provides enough of her own food to give them a little breathing room in planning menus. This is especially useful for low budget or community based programs. It costs more in time, energy, money and attention to juggle the needs of vegan, gluten-free, garlic-free, high protein, no-carb eaters. And I’ve found that when the person who has particular dietary needs extends some flexibility, I’m more likely to work to accommodate them than if they are rigidly demanding.
  4. Enter into events as a citizen rather than a customer. That is, look for ways you can give to the group instead of carrying expectations of what you deserve to get from the group.
  5. Show some love. Let the organizers know you appreciate their efforts – before, during and after an event. Even if we are organizing something for pay, we are likely working beyond our pay grade and patience to make it all work. A little encouragement goes a very long way.
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Song of Wonder and Darkness

A friend and I recently drove to Missouri to witness the total solar eclipse. Our story was a common one in many ways. We changed routes and plans based on cloud cover and missed much of the totality to a passing cloud. Even so, the falling of darkness so suddenly in the middle of the day – and eventual return of the light – was a profound thing to witness.

The thing that I struck me the most about the experience was the sound. At the moment of totality, when the darkness suddenly enveloped the landscape, a cry went up from the crowds clustered nearby. I could hear the open-throated holler from people arrayed up and down the dusty road and gathered on the banks of the nearby Missouri River. It was a wild sound full of wonder, awe, delight and maybe a whisper of fear.

I was making the sound myself. It rose up out of my throat – pulled upward with my gaze toward the disappearing sun and the chasing gray clouds. I just couldn’t help myself.

Last week I was surprised to hear the same sound on one of my favorite podcasts. RadioLab, which is hosted by the brilliant Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, released an episode called “Where the Sun Don’t Shine.” They opened the podcast with a variety of recordings listeners made while watching the eclipse. There were boisterous exclamations: “Wow! Look at that! Beautiful!”– as well as giddy laughter and awestruck tears. But in the background of every one of those recordings from all around the United States, I heard the exact same sound that echoed in my throat and ears among the corn fields of Missouri: that calling out to the sky, that wild joy.

I began to wonder if this is a fundamentally human sound. There are others – like the sound of raw grief or untrammeled laughter, like the sounds babies make when nursing, crying or cooing. Perhaps what I heard is the sound humans make when the sun goes away in the middle of the day and then reappears in a kind of second dawn.

In my work as a voice coach, I have spent 25 years inviting my clients into their own fundamental human sounds. We go beyond the socially sanctioned conventions of speech and song into the wilder territories of sound. My teaching studio echoes with growls and howls, screeches and sighs, shouts and whimpers. It’s all beautiful music to me – deeply human and liberating.

After all of the human sounds I’ve heard – and made myself – it was a joy to hear a completely new one. As the shadow slowly crept across the middle of the continent, a song rose up in its path – a human song of awe and unity that I will long remember.

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Elise Witt – Using Song in All the Best Ways

I met Elise Witt years ago when she came to Minneapolis to lead a singing workshop. In that afternoon together, I learned songs from her that I am still singing today. It was also the beginning of long, deep and inspiring friendship, fostered by my frequent visits to Atlanta. What a blessing that she lives in the same town as my brother and his family! We have sung a number of concerts together and always cherish the way our work – like our voices – intertwine.

Elise is a remarkable person. For starters she speaks five languages fluently (German, French, Italian, Spanish and English). She writes lovely songs – ones that are as wide-ranging, clever, wise, snazzy and surprising as she is. Her faithfulness to her calling as an artist/activist has spanned decades as she seeks ways to bring singing alive in her own life and in the lives of people around her.

I am especially inspired by the work Elise is doing with The Global Village Project, a middle school in Decatur, Georgia for teenage refugee girls with interrupted educations.

The forty girls who attend this school generally arrive having lived through war, displacement, trauma and loss. Most of them speak no English, although most arrive at the school speaking three to six languages. Elise uses singing to help them acquire English, but that is only the beginning. Elise believes that the singing is also crucial for them to build confidence in presenting themselves and fostering community.

Elise co-creates songs with the girls and includes them in her own concerts and events. They created a song called “Break the Silence” in honor of V-Day, an international call to end violence against women and girls that was first initiated by Eve Ensler. They performed their song for a large audience at the Atlanta V-Day event.

They also contributed to one of Elise’s songs called “I See You With My Heart” which incorporates words in Burmese, Karen, Pashto, Kirundi and English. You can see Elise perform it with several of her students here.

She also teaches the girls songs from the traditional American folk songbook. When these girls sing “This Land is Your Land,” it brings deeper meaning to the song, especially in this time of xenophobia and fear of immigrants. You can see some of her students singing the song along with Elise’s commentary in this piece from Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Elise’s work inspires me to ask new questions about where singing can be put to use in the world. This ancient practice that unites many into one, that creates harmony among strangers is more essential than ever in these fractured and frightening times. May her good work and brilliant vision awaken your own calling – to bring beauty and joy to the challenging work of healing the divisions among us.

This video was created about Elise and her work when she received the William L. Womack Creative Arts Award.

And finally, you can purchase Elise’s latest (and gorgeous!) recording, “We’re All Born Singing,” here.

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Day of the Dead — in August

On August 8, 1991 my father, Willis Robert McAfee, Jr., died in my arms after a very short illness with pancreatic cancer. I’ve written a lot about that experience in the intervening years — in this blog, song and poetry. He was only 67 years old. My maternal grandfather, Fred Mathis, died on the exact same day five years later. He was 96.

As I write these words on the anniversary of their deaths, I am considering how best to honor these two men.

They were so different in temperament, appearance, and experience. Dad was a World War II veteran and middle school earth science teacher. I theorize that much of his humor – which walked the razor’s edge between wit and sarcasm – was formed by the fact that he was extraordinarily tall at 6’8”. He got a lot of attention for that, much of it uncomfortable, I imagine. Dad was a science geek, rock hound, and self-described pyromaniac. How he loved cutting, splitting and burning wood in the two woodstoves! He enjoyed routine, cigarettes, growing vegetables (organically – before that was a thing), planting trees, and sitting for hours in the backyard watching birds.

Grandpa was inordinately handsome, socially graceful, and gifted with a gorgeous baritone. He loved getting people singing and did so as a choir director well into 80’s. As a young man he sang with his quartet on a weekly radio show in Des Moines, Iowa. After he became a father, he joined the family real estate business and relegated singing to church and community settings. He also loved growing flowers in his beautiful backyard garden. And how he loved an adventure! I remember hair-raising drives around Des Moines in his red Mercury as he gawked at this or that new building instead of keeping his eyes on the road. And he was a social butterfly. Even when he was losing some of his words to memory issues, his warm and twinkling charm won over all of the caregivers at his nursing home.

I carry many gifts from these two influential men in my story. Like Dad I am tall and witty, but work diligently to stand up straight and keep my humor kind. I think of him when I marvel at something in the natural world or hear a fascinating science story on the radio. Also when I watch the sweat drip off the end of my nose in the garden – just the way his did.

Like Grandpa I love all things singing – as a soloist and song leader. My yard is full of blooming things and I enjoy lending my energy to a lot of different projects.

I can’t end this reflection without mentioning my mother. She lost the two most important men in her life on the same day five years apart. It is her vivid storytelling that has kept their memories fresh and alive all these years. Thank you, Mom.

And thank you, Dad and Grandpa, for all the goodness you brought to my life.

I am grateful to come from such fine (and flawed) people.


Here is a poem I wrote for Dad many years ago. I performed it – shaking in my boots — at one of my early concerts with he and Mom in the front row.

My Father

My father took a piece of land
like some men take a wife: for life.
Planted a pine at each child’s birth.
Flattered it with forest-fresh birches.

He watched the elms die there
And planted – patient – again:
buckeye, blue spruce, aspen, crab, walnut.

My father took a piece of land
and sometimes I think he loved it
more than he loved me.

The land did not feel the sting of his anger
Or the shadow of his despair.
It accepted his silence
when he sat so still and so alone
on long summer evenings.
My father took a piece of land
and sometimes I think it was his only friend.

Had it not been for this land, I might not know him.
I met his patience there in the rhythm of
till, plant, mulch and harvest.
I met his wonder there
in oriole nests and fall bonfires.
I met his strength there
in the ax cracking on frozen oak.

My father took a piece of land
and sometimes we worked it side by side.
It was at those times that I knew we were kin
and that our roots were fed in common
by this dark, rich soil.

© Barbara McAfee


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The Joy of Structure – Peggy Rubin, William Shakespeare, and Bald Eagles

I’ve been accused of being a free spirit all my life….and with good reason. I treasure my freedom, revel in unscheduled days, and balk at things that confine my choices. It took a brilliant teacher and William Shakespeare to awaken a deep love of structure in me.

Many years ago I was attending a weekend workshop with a beloved mentor, Peggy Nash Rubin. Peggy is the founding director of the Center for Sacred Theatre in Ashland, Oregon. In the course of our weekend together, she recited Shakespeare’s sonnet 29 which begins,

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate…

I was transfixed. The words seemed to shimmer as they flew from her mouth. She breathed life into each syllable, coaxing Shakespeare’s assembly of words into pure music.

I was so inspired by her recitation that I went home and learned the sonnet by heart. I still recite it to this day, usually on long car rides. Once I’d learned Shakespeare’s sonnet I inspired to create one of my own.

The Shakespearean sonnet has many constrictions in rhythm, line length and rhyming scheme. And I – the lover of freedom– was surprised by how deeply I fell in love with structure. The rigors of the form forced my imagination into new territory. I had to find fresh ways to express an idea. Unexpected metaphors and phrases arose from my imagination, called forth by strict limitations.

I’ve written several sonnets in the intervening years, but none I enjoy more than the one the bald eagles inspired.

I share my neighborhood with a family of bald eagles. They nest in a tall white pine a few blocks from my home on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. One day as I was walking near their nest, my eye caught the shadow of one of them passing close overhead. The first line of a sonnet floated into my imagination. Then came the next line and the next as I finished my hour-long sojourn along the river.

Eventually the whole piece was completed but for the last two lines. I found them a few months later riding in a car in the mountains of Montana. As soon as I spotted a bald eagle sitting atop a telephone pole against the blue-blue sky, I felt the last two lines unspool into my mind.

So with a bow to Peggy Rubin, Will Shakespeare, and the bald eagles of the Mississippi River and the Montana Rockies, I give you….

Eagle Sonnet

My eye just caught your muscled wings in flight
An aching joy surged here inside my chest
Your heavy body lifting toward the light
Pulled me in tandem upward to be blessed

I gaze into your fierce and burning eye
It speaks to me of distances unbound
Recalls the song of wide and wild sky
Where whistling wind becomes the soul’s true sound

When death has left my body just a shell
My friends will build a platform in a tree
And bid you come and feast and take your fill
That bird and woman form one entity

There is no better heaven I can dream:
Exchanging woman’s voice for eagle’s scream

© Barbara McAfee


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Meditation Improvisation – I Found a Way

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I am a devoted lap swimmer. My time in the pool (or lake) opens me to a kind of reflection and inspiration that can only come from repetitive activity that doesn’t take full concentration. Swimming is my yoga. It is my meditation. It is my most consistent mindfulness practice.

The other day as I swam I remembered something. When I was in elementary school, I would come home every day and throw a little red, white and blue plastic ball onto the garage roof over and over again. I recalled how much I loved doing this: tossing the ball onto the pitched roof, watching it roll down and catching it in my waiting hands. I can still feel the pleasure of it in my body. I remember how the repetitive motion set my mind free to dream and rest. I talked to myself. I became calm and happy. That ritual was a balm to my tender soul aching from the slings and arrows of bullies, anxiety, and ferocious self-consciousness.

Later on in high school I learned to juggle. There was one summer – or was it two? – when I spent hours juggling tennis balls in the back yard, counting how many times I could throw the balls before dropping one. I found the same kind of peacefulness, focus and joy as I did throwing my little ball onto the garage roof.

As a younger child, I worked things out on the park sized swing set in the backyard. I would swing as high as I could, then leap off into the air to land in the grass. I did this activity over and over, especially when I was frustrated with something. The rhythm and strength of pumping the swing higher and higher gave way to a sense of release and flight. Landing back on earth, unharmed, made me feel invincible.

There in the pool last week, I realized that I had figured out a way to meditate even before I knew anything about that word. I grew up going to church and my mother was (and still is) a praying person. Somehow I knew that wasn’t the practice for me. Instead a resourceful part of my young self cobbled together a kind of tai chi from the materials at hand – a ball, a roof, gravity, a swing set, repetition – to create the state of calm awareness that I now find in the water.

I honor the wisdom of my young self who found so many ways to nourish, heal and rest in the improvised temple of my back yard. That way of practicing mindfulness – through repetitive movement – is with me today. It awaits me inside that moment when I first slip into the water, settle my goggles over my eyes, and plunge below the surface of the things.

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