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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On Being A Carrot in God’s Garden

My older brother Rolfe is a poet among other things. He’s also a dancer, traveler, husband, seeker, dad, grandpa, purchasing manager, and a self-described “old hippie.”

Many years ago he invited me to a poetry slam at a pub in downtown Minneapolis. I hadn’t been to a slam before. The theme that night was “harvest,” so I dug through my index of poems in search of something appropriate. Finding nothing, I sat down and dashed off a poem about a certain kind of harvest we will all face – dying.

On Being A Carrot in God’s Garden

You can be sure the hand will pull you from the ground.
You can be sure.
No matter how longingly the earth presses against you.
No matter how sweet the mineral sips at the tips of your roots.
No matter how comfortable your somnolent, unchanging days,
When you are ripe, you will be taken.

In this slumbering time,
in this tiny, dark cradle,
you cannot imagine sky
or the clouds that splatter the surface above,
or the green lace of your own intricate leaves.

When the hand comes,
may your flesh be sweet in surrender.
When the soil falls away from your snapping roots,
may you slide easy into the light.
When you lie naked in the basket,
may the hand rub the last soil from your skin
and carry you — singing and fresh —
straight to the mouth of God.

© Barbara McAfee

As I sat in that darkened pub, nursing a Guinness, I was astonished to hear the genius, ferocity, and virtuosity of the hip-hop poets at the microphone. I realized that what I’d brought was completely wrong for the setting and set it aside for another, more rhythmic piece I knew by heart.

That poem I scribbled so quickly – and then rejected – has become the one that has traveled far into the world. I read it at the funeral of my 26-year-old friend Joel – and finished the poem by taking a bite out of a carrot from his parents’ garden. Several chaplains have used it at other memorials. It gets around, this little carrot poem.

Now plans are afoot to create a book out of it in collaboration with my brilliant nature photographer friend, Julie Marion Brown. You can see her lovely work at her Tumblr site —  A mutual friend, Lucy Mathews Heegaard, also made a short video about her work –

I wonder where the poem will go next? If you find a way to make use of it in your life, please tell me the story.

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A Short Treatise on Training the Muse

Anyone who does anything creative will likely admit that there seems to be something beyond the daily, everyday self that collaborates with us in the making of things.

Many people call that something the muse. The ancient Greeks called that mysterious force the “muse;” the Romans called it the “genius.” Writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks dubbed it “the angel inside me.”

Many creative people complain about their relationship with that capricious, invisible force that enables their work. They feel like victims of its vagaries – when it shows up, how it shows up, and (heaven forbid), when it disappears for long periods of time. When I first began writing songs in my early 30’s, I also felt put upon by my muse and its strange habits.

For one thing, it used to wake me up in the middle of the night like a large rambunctious puppy, frisky and ready to play. At the time I had a day job that required me to show up rested and on my toes. After a series of these late-night “visits” that kept me up into the wee hours, I had a serious talk with her/him/it/them.

“Listen,” I said (firmly, grouchily, sleepily), “I have a body. I live in the realm of time. You don’t. So if you want these brilliant ideas of yours to come into form – and they are brilliant – you’re going to need to work with me differently. You can’t keep waking me up in the middle of the night! Come when I am awake and we’ll have a much better chance of working together.”

I felt a bit silly talking out loud to a disembodied presence, but here’s the thing – it worked. I stopped waking up with song ideas in the middle of the night. I also started showing up at my piano more frequently during the day so if there were songs hanging around, I’d be in a better position to catch them. I imagined that this negotiation of mine was unique….that other creative people didn’t have misbehaving muses like mine.

I was wrong.

Decades after my own experience, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert tell a story about singer/songwriter Tom Waits on the Radiolab podcast ( Waits is best known for his gravelly voice singing songs that deliver a strange blend of gritty reality and unexpected sweetness.

In an interview with Gilbert, Waits told about hearing a melody in his head while driving down an eight-lane freeway in LA. He had no way to catch the song – no paper, pencil, or recording device. His frustration at losing such a gem led him to look up at the sky and say, “Excuse me. Can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist, come visit me during the eight hours I spend in the studio. You’re welcome to come and visit me when I’m sitting at my piano. Otherwise, leave me alone and go bother Leonard Cohen.”

Just last week I passed both my story and that of Tom Waits along to one of my voice coaching clients. She’s engaged in writing songs for the first time and ….surprise….is finding herself awakened in the middle of the night by her muse. Somewhere out there right now is a muse who is learning how to dance with a human being.


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