The Song Inside Language

My friend Lia was born in Korea and spent her early years in Thailand. Her father was in the diplomatic corps and their family lived in several other countries before landing back in the United States when Lia was a teenager.

I’ve listened to Lia’s voice now for nearly twenty years. When she first started voice coaching with me, she brought her firstborn son in his little car carrier. That son is now in his second year of college.

Lia and I have also become dear friends and singing sisters. I’ve learned uncountable songs from her huge mental catalogue and there is rarely a time when we are together that doesn’t include singing.

Some time ago, Lia was recounting some of her early experiences in Thailand and something clicked. It struck me that her voice still carries a remnant of the tonal sound of the Thai language. It’s a vaguely sing-song-y quality in her speech. It’s a resonance I don’t hear in people who were raised exclusively in the United States. I have a hunch that in the early years of language acquisition, Lia heard these sounds all around her and – baby brains being what they are – she incorporated them into her permanent speech pattern. Just the other day she sang a Thai song she remembered from childhood….and there was that tonal quality again, loud and clear.

It got me thinking more about how powerful sound is within various languages.

A few years ago, I was leading a voice workshop at an Indian Health Board retreat. Most of the dozen or so people in the room claimed Ojibway heritage.

I presented the Five Elements Framework, a tool I created to help open up the full power and flexibility in the voice. We sampled five distinct sounds – earth, fire, water, metal and air – and I described how each one could be put to use in everyday communication. Near the end of the session, the participants suggested that we listen to each person at the workshop to identify which elements were most prevalent in their voice.

As we listened to each person, a pattern became clear. Each of the Ojibway people carried a strong mix of earth and water sounds. I’ve heard enough of this language to recognize that those two sounds are prevalent in how it is spoken. I wondered if the sound I was hearing in these voices was related to their original language. Here’s the thing – not one of the people in that room spoke Ojibway.

As we continued our discussion, we came upon the idea that the song inside the language – the cadences, rhythms and sounds that make it up – persisted in the speech patterns of the Ojibway people even if they didn’t speak the language. We recalled the painful history of the boarding schools where Native American children were severely punished for speaking their mother tongue – and were touched by how stubbornly they held onto fragments of their language in the face of such cruelty.

I wonder how many of us carry signatures like this – of sounds and languages from long ago. From now on, I’ll be listening for them.

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A Postcard from the Snowy Forest

The snow has been late in coming this year. Even the most promising snowstorms have veered off course to dump their treasure elsewhere. Our winters have been like this for the past several years – more rain and ice, less white stuff.  More treacherous driving, less skiing.

At last we get a long day of fluffy, floating snow. It’s measured in inches instead of feet, but I can tell it’s enough. I haul my cobwebby cross-country skis up from the basement, dust off my boots and load it all into my car.

I drive to a local regional park, step into my elderly, unfashionable skis and set off on my first good ski of the season. The trail is an invitation: two parallel grooves carved in blue-white snow leading into bare-branched forest.

The sky is a bright, clear blue as it often is when the temperature is a mere handful of degrees. As I start out, my hands are stiff with cold in their heavy mitts. I feel my cheeks grow pink in the frigid breeze. I’m smiling and giddy.

The first few strokes confirm that the snow is perfect. My skis whisper — “shhhhhh” — into the silent forest. My poles rhythmically crunch and squeak with each dig into the snow. I feel the subtle contours of the land unfurling under my skis. At the first hill, I surrender to gravity and sigh with pleasure all the way down.

Little puffs of glittering snow leap suddenly from the high branches, set loose by a slight stirring of wind. My torso heats up like a furnace, pushing against the force of the cold – and slowly winning out. It’s only a matter of time before that warmth seeps out to my extremities. Soon I am unzipping outer layers and pushing my hat off my sweaty forehead. When I lick my lips, I taste the ice crystals that have formed on the tiny hairs there. My heart is thundering in my chest. I’m alive.

I seem to have the park to myself. I see no other skiers out on the trail.

But I do encounter other friends there. Coming around a corner, my eye catches the tawny hide of a deer. My heart leaps as it always does. Tears spring to my eyes. I stop to watch her and notice three more grazing here and there among the trees. Now and again they turn to glance at me, then step calmly forward on their nimble feet. One of them lazily flaps her white tail in half-hearted alarm as I finally ski by.

I finish the loop as long blue shadows stretch through the tree trunks. The lowering sun slips into the clouds, painting the sky with suddenly tropical hues.

I stop for one last savoring – my beating heart in the still forest, my burning cheeks in the icy air, the rosy sunset glow on the snow, the blessing of getting to do this thing I love so much one more time.

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I Am Breathing Tree, Tree is Breathing Me

This story begins in the winter woods on a pair of cross-country skis. I am at my favorite skiing park with my friend, Margie Weaver.

As we ski along the trails, my eyes soak up the intriguing pattern of bare branches against bright blue winter sky. I’m breathing hard from joyful exertion. Suddenly, the two ideas collide – tree branches, lung branches.  The word “bronchia” – which describes the structure of the lungs – comes from the Latin word for branch. The beautiful pattern I’ve been admiring in the trees is mirrored inside my own body. Nature does this all the time, creating beautiful symmetries among living things.

I consider how much longer trees have been on planet Earth than human beings. How many eons have they been faithfully pumping out oxygen before there were any lungs to breathe it? I am struck by the idea that my lungs evolved perfectly to make use of what the trees create.

I begin singing softly: I am breathing tree; tree is breathing me.

I then recall a story I heard on the radio from a young tree protector camped out at the top of a large redwood. He described how vividly he could feel the trees shutting down photosynthesis as the sun set each day – and reawakening production at the arrival of the sun each morning.

I sing again:
The sun goes down; the trees exhale; on their sweet breath, our dreams all sail.
At break of day, they open wide to let the gift of light inside.

I catch up with Margie and ask her to get out her phone to record the song that is being born on the ski trail. After we capture the beginnings, we continue on.

My thoughts turn toward philosopher Martin Buber’s idea of “I and Thou” – which proposes that human beings find the Divine in other living things when they address them, not as “It,” but as the sacred “Thou.” Another verse unfurls ….

My lungs hold branches upside down: bronchia and leafy crown.
I from egg and Thou from seed – each gives what the other needs.

I become keenly aware of my breathing. Each inhale becomes a blessed gift of life-giving oxygen from my biological elders, the trees. Each exhale of carbon dioxide becomes a gift to their flourishing.

Our songs twine on the dancing wind; I breathe out what you breathe in.
Rising sap and beating heart: one of Life’s great works of art.

Warm tears stream down my cool cheeks as I praise the generous, elegant pattern of which I am a part.

Symbiotic mystery: breathing tree and me.

Listen to “Breathing Trees” here.

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I first encountered the story of the ancient Greek goddess, Harmonia, at a Sacred Theatre workshop led by my wise teacher, Peggy Nash Rubin. Peggy is a Shakespearean director, actor and scholar who founded the Center for Sacred Theatre in Ashland Oregon. I found her work to offer a beautiful marriage of many things I love – theatre, self-development, play, community and spirituality.

Peggy told me that Harmonia — the goddess of concord, harmony and cosmic balance — was the daughter of Aphrodite (the goddess of love) and Ares (the god of war). The way I remember Peggy telling the story is this – Harmonia struggled to bridge the differences between her parents. Though she failed at that task, she became beautiful in her attempt.

At first, I found it surprising that Love and War combined to create Harmony. I thought of harmony as being something nice – pleasing to the ear – easy.

As I studied this idea more deeply, I learned that harmony is much more dynamic and alive than that. What creates harmony in music is a recurring pattern of tension and release – dissonance that resolves to harmony again and again. Even the music of J.S. Bach – considered by many to be innately harmonious and pleasing – is full of dissonance. More than 50 percent of the intervals in any of his pieces are dissonant.

This movement between dissonance and harmony reminds me of …well…life. Our hearts beat in a pattern of tension and release. Our lungs inflate and deflate. Women give birth through a series of contractions. Our muscles work best in balanced cycles of work and rest.

Nature, too, follows its cycles of seasons. As I write this blog, we are in the middle of snowy mid-winter cold snap. The Mississippi River is frozen and the trees are bare. In this time of cold and stillness, it’s hard to imagine the long, green days of high summer. This tension will give way to that warmth eventually.

The most satisfying stories contain this pattern of tension and release. Without a conflict or dissonance, there is no tale to tell. And the most interesting people I know have passed through many cycles of challenge, learning and resolution.

I am blessed to spend a fair amount of my life singing harmony with other people. Often when the singing begins, our voices are at war with each other. We are inhabiting the Ares part of Harmonia’s genealogy.  We sing too loudly. Someone drags behind the beat while someone else rushes the rhythm. The sound waves we are creating are literally banging into each other.

As we continue to sing and listen, though, an alchemy begins to happen. Our breathing aligns. Our ears entrain. We make minute adjustments in how we are singing. Different notes and disparate voices begin to meld into one harmonious whole. We step into the mysterious space between Love and War and do our ancient dance of tension and release – together.

What could be better than that?

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Song Medicine

The other day I received a remarkable note from my friend, Janet Bergman. Janet has been a long-time member of The Morning Star Singers, a volunteer comfort choir that has been bringing song to people facing health challenges. She generously and enthusiastically gave me permission to share her story here.

Here is what she wrote:

How I experienced the power of singing a song –

Recently, I had to have an injection in my foot. The doctor told me it was going to take about fifteen seconds to administer the medicine. I had had this procedure done on another occasion, so I knew how much pain and discomfort I might experience.  During the first injection, I did some deep breathing and counted out loud from 10 to 0 – and then on to minus 3. It really hurt!

 This time the doctor encouraged me to go to my “happy place,” which for me is along the shore of Lake Superior on a warm, sunlit day.

And then – I spontaneously starting to sing your song “Promise.” After quietly singing two verses with my eyes closed, the doctor told me he was finished with the injection. I had not felt a thing!



This story moved me deeply. First and foremost, I was grateful that my friend didn’t have to experience intense pain. I was also amazed how Janet accessed such powerful healing through the simple act of singing.

The song Janet sang – “Promise” — came to me as I drove through a Minnesota blizzard. Singing it over and over that night provided peace and breath as I navigated scary country roads in heavy snow.

It has become a favorite of the Morning Star Singers and we sing it often at the bedsides of people who are living through some of the most difficult days of their lives. One of my mentors told me that the song’s message is spoken in the voice of the Divine Feminine. Whatever its source, the song creates a palpable field of peace and sacredness whenever it is sung.

I have a hunch that Janet’s powerful healing experience was enhanced by the context in which she sings “Promise.” Perhaps she used the song to tap into the loving presence and sense of community that emerges every time the Morning Star Singers gather. Through our singing and listening, we create a field of healing for each other and for the people to whom we bring our songs. Our singing has become a form of prayer and blessing. When Janet sang the song, it became an invocation of compassion, love and community.

Just days after I received Janet’s note, a voice coaching client shared a similar tale with me. She was suffering from an excruciating migraine, the kind that makes her take to her bed for hours. As an experiment, she put on a YouTube video a sound healing meditation by Tom Kenyon. The focus of the musical meditation was Mary Magdalene, an archetype with whom my client has a strong affinity. Her migraine completely disappeared by the time the 30-minute video was finished. I am struck once again by the way meaning may have helped amplify the healing power of the music.

Tell me, do you have a story about how combining music, meaning, memory and mystery opened the way to healing in your own life?

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I Wish You A Simple Season

This year I first noticed the Christmas displays beginning in late September.
Well before Halloween not to mention Thanksgiving!
While I was still occasionally jumping in my favorite Minnesota lakes!


Every year I face this season with mixed feelings. Some of those feelings are based on the darkness that claims the late afternoon. I do miss the sunlight.

Mostly though, my grumpiness is about the headlong and heedless plunge into unconscious excess. The ones who have so much glut themselves with even more and go a little cuckoo in the process. People get stressed out, spend money they don’t have and carry on traditions that may have lost their meaning years ago. There is a whirlwind of social obligations and the tendency to eat and drink way too much. And now there is bizarre movement about “the war on Christmas” that drives its adherents to blurt “Merry Christmas” to everyone as a kind of political statement. Sheesh. As if this time wasn’t hard enough on Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians.

I do have friends and family members who come alive in this season. You know these people – and you may even be one of them. They cherish the traditions, bake ten kinds of cookies and thrive in the busy-ness. Some even enjoy Black Friday sales. I am sincerely happy for them and enjoy their joy.

Truth be told, I am grateful that my holiday season has become so simple. I make my “miracle five-spice almonds” by the bucket load. They make my house smell divine, contain only wholesome ingredients and make my friends shudder with delight when they see them. The recipe is below….and you’re welcome!

I sing the old carols, preferably in harmony with a bunch of red-cheeked people outside or in hospital rooms. I play my three seasonal CD’s with great relish – Sting’s “If On a Winter’s Night,” Peter Mayer’s “Midwinter” and my now-deceased friend Hiram Titus’s amazing piano renditions of carols. I go to a few parties that dear friends throw every year. See the same sweet people. Eat the caramel rolls. Walk the spiral under the night sky. Christmas Eve is with Mom – the two of us having a quiet feast and playing Scrabble. Christmas Day I fly to Atlanta to spend a few days with my brother’s family. And then it’s over.


I breathe a sigh of relief and turn my attention toward the returning light and a fresh new year.

Here is a gift you don’t need to unwrap, return or even open: my little seasonal anthem, Simple Season.

Feel free to pass it along to friends and family — with a few of these almonds….

Barbara’s Miracle Almonds

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Ovens vary and this stuff burns quickly.

1 cup real maple syrup (no fake stuff…..)
4 T. butter (1/2 stick)
2 tsp. Chinese five-spice powder
6 cups raw almonds

Melt the butter, maple syrup and five-spice powder over low heat until it’s combined.

Measure out the almonds in a big old bowl — blue is good.  Pour the melted stuff over the nuts and stir until everything’s coated nicely.

Put a piece of aluminum foil over a  cookie sheet with edges.   Spread half the coated nuts evenly and pop them into the oven.  Set the timer for 10 minutes.

Gently stir the nuts around a bit, being careful not to disturb the foil if you can.

Pop them back in for 10 more minutes OR SO.

Did I mention these burn quickly?  Keep your nose awake and watch to make sure that the nuts stay toasty brown and not wicked black….unless you like them like that.

I did without the foil for years and spent a lot of time scrubbing even the non-stick surface.  This way, you can make lots of batches with only one pan.  Just allow the batch to cool for a few minutes, then pick the whole thing up and put it on a platter.  Put the next sheet of foil down on the cookie sheet and you’re ready for the next round.



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Black Friday

I am writing this blog on Thanksgiving Day.

Tomorrow is Black Friday, a day when many Americans succumb to consumer frenzy and stampeding greed.

I never think about shopping on Black Friday.
I think about black ice and a semi-truck on a winding New England road.
I think about the two shining lives that were taken in an instant on that day.
And I consider how utterly it changed those of us who were part of that heartbreaking story.

Kirsten Bergh and Nina Dietzel died on that road twenty-one years ago on Black Friday. Kirsten’s mom, Linda Bergh, recovered from her grave injuries and is with us still.

I remember hearing the news of the accident over the telephone while standing in a Shoney’s restaurant in Atlanta and wailing in the back seat of the car, flanked by my adolescent niece and nephew.

I remember weeks and months of grief that tore at our hearts.

I cherish the memory of tending to Linda in her long recovery –feeding her miso soup and kefir with a syringe through her wired-shut jaw, sharing stories and tears, filling her hospital room with beauty.

And then there was that Christmas Eve at the hospital with her and other dear friends – a bizarre and tender evening of takeout food, tears, song and (strangely, beautifully) laughter.

Tomorrow I will be driving up to Lake Superior to share a second Thanksgiving with many of the people with whom I shared that terrible-beautiful time. Linda won’t be with us. She is flying off to teach in Thailand next week and needs to stay home to prepare. She is now 75 and is recovering from a serious fall that left one of her legs significantly shorter than the other. Her intrepid spirit carries her ever onward into life.

Something profound grows among people who endure the unendurable together. Our joy is deepened by the undercurrent of loss. We know each other differently from having witnessed each other walking through waves of grief, rage, confusion, exhaustion. In the peaceful moments, we gaze at each other in astonishment at our capacity to heal and thrive. We seemed utterly broken back then and here we are, alive and full-hearted once again.

As a result of all we learned from that experience, many of us in that circle are supporting others who are facing loss. Linda now does threshold work with others facing death. Nina’s mother, Marianne Dietzel, wrote a book about her experience and plays lyre for people at the end of life. I started a comfort choir to bring music to people in hospices and hospitals. And the gorgeous book of Kirsten’s poetry and artwork Linda created has now traveled far into the world.

A few weeks after the accident, Linda called me with remarkable news: she had discovered an unopened letter from Kirsten addressed to me. At the end of that joyful and chatty missive – the last she ever penned — Kirsten wrote these words:

“Think of me when you sing and dance. And I will do the same for you.”

I do think of you, Kirsten, especially this time of year. As those who love you gather once again, there will be much singing and dancing, laughter and tears. We will speak your name and Nina’s as we always do – with deep love and gratitude.

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