Jules of Nature

You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.

– St. Bernard

We are walking in the woods near Julie Brown’s home in northwestern Wisconsin. It is raining buckets. Our feet squelch in the mud. The raindrops create complex polyrhythms on our raincoats. Skirting around mucky patches and ducking branches, we discover thousands of mushrooms scattered across the forest floor.

The heavy rains this summer have called them into the light in a profusion of form and color. Glossy white undulant shelves along an oak log. Tiny crimson caps among the leaf litter. Striated white, tan, and lavender turkey tail fungus layered like phyllo pastry. A brilliant yellow foot-tall pile in the middle of the path. A cheerful convocation of little brown buttons atop slender stalks.

They are everywhere and Julie is – well – reading them.

She points to the fluted underside of a broad mushroom that was flipped upside down. “I wonder who passed by here and kicked that? Probably a passing deer.” As if to confirm her theory, our eyes catch the tawny movement of a whitetail leaping off the path into the trees.

Walking in the woods with Julie Brown brings the woods alive. They know her well. They reveal things to her watchful eyes that yours and mine might miss. Sometimes she brings her camera along. And then the wonders the woods reveal to her keen eye become visible to us.

After the rain stops, Julie returns to the woods with her camera to catch the visual symphony of the mushrooms. I jump into my car and return home to the city.

By the time I get home, there are images in my inbox. Intimate, shining portraits of treasure we discovered in the rain-washed woods. Even though I was there myself and saw the very same mushrooms, Julie’s photographs show them to me in a completely different way. These are Julie’s gifts –paying attention, seeing deeply. She has found a way to harness her camera so that it captures and shares the marvels she sees.

Most of the photos she posts on her gorgeous Tumblr site are taken a few steps from her home. They are drenched in a sense of place. Julie grew up near here and knows this place in her bones. It knows her as well and shows itself to her as to a trusted friend.

Her cousin once called her “a poetic photographer.” It’s a compliment she treasures – and it couldn’t be more accurate. Every day she posts an astonishing image along with a poem or quote. What I see reflected in those photographs is reverence, patience, practice, and deep, deep gratitude for the miraculous ways Life expresses herself here on Earth.

You can visit and follow Julie’s Tumblr site here:http://julesofnature.tumblr.com

And watch a beautiful short film about her work created by our mutual friend, Lucy Mathews Heegaard here:  https://studio-lu.net/2015/09/25/jules-of-nature/

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On Being An Amplifer

It recently occurred to me that I am an amplifier. As a voice coach for the past 25 years, I have supported people in “finding their voices,” whatever that means to them.

Many of my voice clients are doing essential and beautiful work in the world – work that matters to me.

One current client is a leader in an environmental nonprofit who is being called to become a more powerful and expressive speaker on behalf of protecting wild places.

Another — a woman health care executive — is finding ways to ensure that she speaks her truth with confidence in her large organization, especially when things get challenging. I have a special incentive to support her voice as her organization is my health care provider.

I worked this summer with a teacher who teaches English to young immigrant children. We did some work to strengthen her singing voice. Then right before school began, we co-created a little song to encourage her pupils to be brave and persistent in their learning. She plans to teach the song to the children – and if she is brave enough – to her colleagues as well.

I am also working with a rabbi on his annual High Holiday sermons. I worked with him in preparation for last year’s services and he loved having a sounding board and practice partner for these important messages.

I’ve worked with a hospice chaplain who is dedicated to helping other hospice workers take better care of themselves. Her chaplain voice – soothing and soft – doesn’t serve her as a public speaker. It tends to put people to sleep. She is learning to access a more dynamic and passionate part of her voice so her message can be heard and received in larger groups.

Many of my clients have been introverts whose gifts are being called into the world. They want to find ways to express themselves that are effective while feeling authentic to who they are.

Two of my current clients are from other countries (India and Mexico). They are finding ways to speak English more naturally and vividly in their everyday lives and work.

I’ve worked with many people in transition between jobs, careers, or times of life. By connecting to and opening up their literal voices, they often find new insights from their inner voice of wisdom and new ways of expressing their gifts.

It touches me that my work can support all of these brilliant people in doing their work better. By supporting their voices in the world, I can help things happen that I am not capable of doing myself.  What could be better?

Tell me, how do you amplify the gifts of others in your work and community?









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I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

A song can be medicine.
A song can fuel change.
A song can weave in and out of a life, awakening deeper levels of meaning and knowing.

I first got acquainted with the song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” in The Great Songs of the Sixties songbook my brother Ross gave me for my 13th birthday. I spent hours with that book, sight-reading songs new and familiar. “I Wish I Knew How…,” composed by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas in 1964, was my favorite, even though it was in the tricky key of A-flat. The gospel chords and yearning lyrics stirred a deep longing for expression and liberation that was alive in me even then.

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.
I wish I could break all those chains holding me.
I wish I could say all things I should say —
Say them loud, say them clear for the whole world to hear.

When I lived in Paris in the mid-1980’s I owned only four cassettes. I listened to them over and over on my Walkman as I wandered the streets of Paris. One of the four was The Best of Nina Simone. Her rendition of “I Wish I Knew How…” was a song I visited again and again. Her dark and vivid voice directly transmitted the turmoil and heartache that drove the Civil Rights Movement – and the desire for liberation that resides in all of us.

I wish I could give all the love in my heart,
Remove all the bars that still keep us apart.
I wish you could know what it means to be me,
Then you’d see and agree every man/one should be free.

Years later I rediscovered the song through a conversation with my beloved friend and mentor, Peter Block. We discovered that the two of us had been fascinated with the song during the exact same years. I was a gawky, shy teenager in Stillwater, Minnesota. He was a young father and up-and-coming executive in St. Louis, Missouri. He loved it so much that he learned how to pick it out on the piano – a fine achievement, considering that he did so with extremely limited piano skills. Despite our different circumstances and ages, the song called to us both in a profound way.

The day we discovered our connection to the song, I quickly relearned it and surprised him with it at a concert that evening. A few months later I recorded it on a CD.

Many of my voice coaching clients sing this song as part of their work with me. The final verse expresses what calls many of them to “find their voice:”

I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly.
I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea –
Then I’d sing ‘cause I’d know how it feels to be free.

 May we all sing from that knowing….


 “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”
© Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas, 1964 (Used by permission)

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The Joy of….A Composite Partner?!


I’ve been single for nigh on twelve years.

After two runs at marriage and a myriad of other romantic entanglements, I thought it might be a good idea to just sit the heck down and be on my own for a good while. And so I have – mostly happily.

One of the great resources that arrived in my life as I began my single time was the humorous writings of Jill Connor Browne – better known as “the Sweet Potato Queen.”

Her books got me laughing – a boon in those post-divorce doldrums – and they also offered a nugget of wisdom that I’m still treasuring today.

In the opening chapters of one of her books, she outlines her theory about partnership – that we need multiple people in our lives that can fulfill different roles for us.

She wrote that she needed five men in her life:
One to fix things
One to pay for things
One to talk with
One to dance with
One to have great sex with

(And four out of the five can be gay!)

My list is different from hers, but I fell in love with the idea of the “composite partner.”

Instead of searching high and low for the perfect person – THE ONE, I found ways to enjoy the people who came my way without burdening them with big expectations and romantic fantasies. Instead of waiting and waiting to do this or that until I was with THE ONE, I just cast about and found someone who was willing and able to do it with me right now.

Some of the people who make up my current “composite partner” include my landlord/neighbor who lives upstairs. He fixes stuff that breaks, waters my gardens when I’m traveling, and practices old-school neighborliness with me. I enjoy hearing him bumping around upstairs. He’s part of my sense of home.

Sometimes I go out dancing with my older brother. We are usually the oldest ones on the floor – and the ones who stay out there longest, grinning and sweating. We are both a good bit over six feet tall, so we cut a wide swath on the floor.

There are women friends who know my soul, ask good questions, and listen to my tears and triumphs. There are men friends who know how to appreciate my beauty as a woman. There are mentors who have called me into my gifts and co-conspirators with whom I cook up good work in the world. I’ve had wonderful travel companions and friends with whom I can share loving touch.

I witness several friends’ yearning for a more traditional, live-in partner or spouse. Several of them are hip-deep in online dating, carrying a persistence and optimism into every first date. (Are you….THE ONE?) I wish them well on their search and sincerely hope their dreams come true.

As for me, I’ll continue creating my crazy-quilt composite partner and discovering love in its myriad and varied forms – right now – today.







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Years ago my business partner and I had a work engagement several hours away. As he picked me up in the freezing winter pre-dawn twilight, he handed me a hot café’ au lait and an almond croissant. When I rummaged in my purse to pay him back for the breakfast, he looked over with a smile and said, “Barbara, let’s not have that kind of relationship.”

I’ve used those words myself over the ensuing years when friends want to settle up with me. Sometimes I appreciate repayment – if the bill is high and/or the self-employment revenues low. Most often though, it seems silly to me to nickel-and-dime with people close to me.

It steals the joy of sharing. It presumes that we can use money to cancel our indebtedness to each other.

This week I’m borrowing my mother’s car while mine is getting repaired after running into a deer. I am her primary caregiver, so she is very often on the receiving end of my help. She told me yesterday how happy she is to help me out for a change.

The friend who helped me get home after the deer collision will be keeping my gardens watered and staying in my place while he looks for a new home.

My next-door neighbor lends me her lawn mower and I thank her for her generosity by pulling weeds in our adjoining front gardens.

When I make too much soup (which I invariably do….), I share a few portions with my upstairs neighbor. As the owner of the building, he takes joy in keeping it beautiful and functional for the two of us. We are both old school neighbors – the kind that enjoys helping out and making life better for the people near us.

And my little comfort choir – The Morning Star Singers – has been humming along on volunteer spirit for nine years now. None of us get paid for bringing song and compassionate presence to people in hospices and hospitals. The administrative details are handled by several kind souls and I volunteer my leadership time as well.

At the airport today, I will be looking for opportunities to be kind and friendly to the people I encounter at the TSA, in the shops, and on the plane. To be honest, I practice this kind of warmth not just for the benefit of others; I do it to keep myself from falling into crankiness and self-absorption.

These simple exchanges are symbolic for a deeper kind of sharing among us. They make manifest the invisible bonds that link us to each other. They keep us engaged in the great cycle of giving and receiving that is the basis of all life on this planet.

Consider the wise words of the great Sufi poet, Hafiz:
Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe me.”



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My Grandma Wanted to Be President: A Reflection on Women, Voice, and Leadership

As a voice coach I support many women leaders in finding their voices, speaking their truth with conviction, claiming their power, and fully expressing their gifts.

Most of the women I coach are privileged. They have education, financial resources, political clout, and more choices than our grandmothers or many of our sisters near and far could imagine. They hold positions of power and influence as executives, physicians, educators, activists, consultants, authors, speakers, bankers, engineers, and entrepreneurs.

Despite their varied professional backgrounds, the challenges they name in reclaiming their voices are strikingly similar — fear of reprisal, paralyzing perfectionism, creeping what they imagine will happen if they speak up, woman after woman has said, “I’ll be killed.” Do you find that surprising?

I used to, but then I began considering the reasons why I heard it again and again.

Women’s voices have been violently suppressed in this world for a very long time. Many are still being silenced, both by external systems and through our own internalized oppression. In this country, the most fundamental right of citizenship – the right to vote – was granted to women only very recently.

My grandmother, Norma Mershon Mathis, was just graduating high school when women won the vote in this country. My grandmother! I grew up knowing her.

Grandma Norma loved politics for her entire adult life. She was in her glory as the Iowa governor’s executive secretary in the 1950’s. She thrived on the intellectual stimulation, strategizing, discussion, and hobnobbing at the glamorous gatherings. Her job – and her great joy in it — was tragically cut short when the governor she worked for was killed in an automobile accident.Mother - Norma Mershon Mathis

She continued to participate in politics after that, running for the Iowa House of Representatives when she was well into her 60’s. I recall seeing her campaign flyers all over my grandparents’ house. I felt intrigued and proud that she was running for office. She lost the race. Soon after that her health began to fail. I’ve often said that Grandma would have run for president if she had been born a few decades later.

I tell my women clients this story frequently as a way to help them discover the shared roots of our fear. I also tell them this: When any woman finds her voice, it opens the way for other women to do the same. I invite my clients to be courageous not only on their own behalf, but on behalf of all of their sisters around the world who have less opportunity to speak their minds and express their gifts:

The women who have no say over whom they will marry or how many children they will have.
The women who cannot own property or earn a living.
The women who are bought and sold.
The women whose lives are taken up with sheer survival in the midst of war, racism, poverty, and oppression.

When we explore this larger context of women’s voices together, their hesitation and timidity falls away. Their eyes begin shining with courage and determination. They open up and give voice to whatever is inside them. That sound echoes around the world, awakening the possibility for another woman somewhere, someday to do the same.

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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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