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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Confessions of a Cross Pollinator

I’ve been self-employed since 1991. Throughout that time I’ve encountered a common strategy for success: pick one thing and get really good at it.

Well.

I just haven’t been interested in doing that. Many of those years, I felt bad about it. If only I could choose that one thing, perhaps I’d find more success and approbation. I had self-judgment about being a “dabbler,” unable to commit to one path.

I remember exactly where I was when those judgments fell away once and for all. I stopped still in the middle of the sunny sidewalk and exclaimed aloud: “I’m a cross pollinator!”

Western culture is madly in love with specialization. The work many of us do is fragmented. We have little sense of how our individual contribution fits into the larger whole. I’ve heard it said that the rise in hobbies like gardening, cooking, woodworking, and knitting is fostered by our lack of connection with a project from beginning to end.

I remember when I was an organizational consultant working with the horticulture department at a large university. I was excited to collaborate with people who understood growing things and natural cycles and an ecological approach to work. Instead I was astonished to witness intense specialization. I met the “geranium guy” and the “potato breeder.” There were power struggles and turf wars …and I’m not talking about lawns. What I found there is prevalent throughout our culture.

When we are deep in our own experience, it can be difficult to see how our specific experience relates to a larger whole. My individual voice clients assume that that their vocal challenges are worse than anyone else’s. My organizational clients are certain that their workplace is facing unique stresses. Communities are blind to how their gifts and challenges reflect those of other places.

As I travel among the worlds of work, community, worship, and personal development, I carry “pollen” along with me much like the bees do. I spread stories and insights among people who will never meet. I invite them to sing the songs that thousands of others have sung with me as a way to connect them to each other. I hope and pray that what I carry yields much fruit in the places I go.

In medieval France, troubadours fulfilled this same function, traveling from place to place singing of love and bringing news from the outside world. For many years, I have felt a kinship to these traveling poets.

Like them, I belong nowhere and I belong everywhere.
I’m a cross-pollinator.

 

 

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In Praise of Summer Thunderstorms

Summer is my time.

Swimming across lakes.
Long evenings full of robin calls and mourning dove song.
Building my breakfast around fresh kale from the garden.
Wearing maybe three items of clothing.
Drenching my eyes in the vivid green everywhere.

And how I love summer storms.
The metal-gray clouds boiling up in the west.
The first intimations of thunder.
The shock and thrill of lightning ripping the sky into pieces.
And the smell that arises after the first drops of rain – fresh and green and dusty.

Years ago when visiting friends in Milwaukee, I witnessed a fantastic summer storm over Lake Michigan as we were driving home from a concert. That night my affection coalesced into the opening lines for a song of praise:

I want to bite the lightning
I want to taste the thunder
Roll it around in my mouth like dark red wine.
I want the rain to bathe me,
Baptize, cleanse and save me.
I want the wind to blow away all that’s dead or dying
The sky is crying…

It makes sense to me that many peoples of the world venerate a god of thunder. In Hinduism, the thunder god is Indra. In Greek mythology, it’s Zeus. And Norse mythology features Thor, son of Odin. Shango is the deity of fire and thunder in the Yoruba tradition of Africa and the diaspora. When I hunted the Internet for gods of thunder, I found a list of well over one hundred examples from around the world.

I guess I’m not the only one who draws power and inspiration from the storm.

Storms thrill us because they are dangerous and beautiful at the same time. They bring change in both subtle and radical ways. This week there were isolated hailstorms in my region. Crops and gardens were shredded; cars and roofs were damaged.

I call the miracle of hailstones, falling ice from a summer sky
I call the cold, blue fire that leaves an imprint behind my eye
I call the grumbling of gray cloud
The thunder’s voice that shouts out loud
I call the blessing of the rain
I love the rain, love the rain, love the rain…..

Storms are nothing to mess with. There are areas of my city that are still stark and treeless from the ferocity of a tornado.

And yet I relish those mornings like the one last week, when I woke in the predawn to the low grumble of thunder and a flashbulb of lightning against the bedroom curtains. By the time I got up, the storm had passed. Stepping into my fresh-washed garden with my coffee in hand, I saw the morning sun dancing in the trembling raindrops on each leaf and stem. Did I mention that the air smelled divine? Like summer itself? Like everything I love about living on this astonishingly alive and vivid planet?

Click here to hear the song:

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Living By Heart: Reclaiming the Oral Tradition

I lead a monthly community sing in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Newcomers to the circle are often looking around for the lyric sheets or songbooks. There aren’t any. I teach singing in the oral tradition, one line at a time, without paper or projections or writing of any kind.

Now and then, I heard someone say (often with an overtone of whining), “I neeeeeed the words; I’m a visual learner!” Well, yes. I understand that there are multiple intelligences and varied ways people learn best. And….no matter where your people came from, they relied on the oral tradition for just about everything.

Most of us in the modern world live in cultures so immersed in the written word that it’s hard for us to imagine how vitally important the voice is in an oral tradition culture. Long before the written word emerged, the collective memory of a people was kept alive through time primarily through the power of voice.

Each subsequent generation was responsible for carrying on the legends, mythology, history, genealogy, and social mores that defined a particular culture. This vast and detailed body of information had to be assimilated through a lengthy process of deep listening, vocal repetition, and correction that took many painstaking years to perfect.

One of the oldest cultures on earth – the Australian aboriginal people – offers a vivid example of a powerful oral tradition culture. Their song leaders memorized long and complex songs – the “songlines” – that passed in an unbroken line from generation to generation for 40,000 years. They relied on these songlines for many things in their society. Travelers who knew these songs were able to literally sing their way safely through the vast outback by following the songline. Embedded in the songlines was the physical geography of the land, including sources for food and water. They also related the spiritual stories and sacred sites reflected in each place. From a Western perspective it is difficult to comprehend just how essential these songs were to the spiritual, social, and physical survival of the people over such a long period of time.

In many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, the spoken word is still a source of great power. All of the sacred texts from the world’s great religions were passed along through the oral tradition long before they were written down. These texts are still memorized and recited from generation to generation, usually with precise vocal inflections and nuances. Sacred words and songs are employed to declare intentions, offer blessings, and mark transitions. At any given moment throughout human history, this world has been wrapped in the sacred sounds of many peoples.

By contrast, we live our modern lives in a barrage of trivial language. Open your ears in any public place and you’re likely to hear yammering televisions, public service announcements, droning background music, and the incessant blabbering of people on their cell phones. Our voices grow louder in order to penetrate the din and drone of machines all around us. In a given week, we say more words to more people in more ways than our ancestors could ever imagine. Talk has become very cheap indeed and our words, though plentiful, are often flimsy with meaning and inflection.

When you put down the paper and reclaim the oral tradition, you take your place at the end of a long line of ancestors who sang their songs, spoke their stories, struggled to stay alive, and prevailed so you could add your voice to the chorus of humanity.

 

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Twenty Years in the Making – A Song For My Father

I am sitting at the family piano in the living room of the house where I grew up. Aside from a few boxes, the piano is the only thing left in the house. Mom is moving into a senior apartment after 53 years in that old Victorian on Sherburne Street. I’ve come to play a song for her — a song that was seeded in that very living room twenty years before as my father took his last breath.

Many of us were raised by fathers from “the greatest generation.” They were great in so many ways. They lived through the Great Depression as children and World War II as young men. They built stable lives for their families with the help of the GI Bill, supportive wives, and hard work. Many of those fathers were also harsh and distant, probably suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and living in a narrow construct of what it meant to be a man. My dad was one of them.

Dad cut an imposing figure at 6’8.” He had a sarcastic streak and a need to have things go a certain way. Though both he and Mom worked full time, it was incumbent upon her to make sure dinner was on the table promptly by 5:30. If Dad got too hungry, his usually short temper grew shorter. My mom, my two older brothers, and I were finely attuned to his moods and eager to avoid his sharp tongue.

His nicknames for me when I was a girl were “klutz” and “dummy.” These heartless epithets stung the awkward, too-tall, whip-smart girl I was in those days. But the difficulties of those early chapters of my life aren’t the point of this writing. I tell them merely to set the context for the rest of the story.

In the spring of 1991, the back pain Dad had been attributing to a fender bender was diagnosed as untreatable pancreatic cancer. In the ensuing three months, he went through a dramatic transformation, both physically and emotionally.

As he lost weight and became jaundiced, he also became….gentle. My nickname became “Peaches” and the doors opened to amazing conversations, including one memorable one in the garage where I asked him to stay in touch after he died. Since then I’ve had many extraordinary encounters with cardinals as have many of my family members.

The time of his dying – which I’ve come to call “Our Summer of Love” — brought excruciating pain, deep healing, and (strangely) lots of laughter to my entire family. I remember one evening in particular. Dad had had a procedure to remove fluid built up in his belly. Once he returned home, the incision began leaking. I was dispatched to the little corner store where I’d had my first job to purchase disposable diapers we could use to stanch the flow. Mom was too exhausted to take on the task of patching him up, so up I went to his bedroom to see what I could do. The absurdity of taping a diaper to my father’s stomach caught us both by surprise. Suddenly this horrible moment in a heartbreaking process became hilarious. My jaundiced, emaciated father and I traded darkly comedic wisecracks and laughed like banshees.

A few weeks later in the wee hours of a rainy August night, he died in my arms. Mom and I were with him there in the living room. I felt strangely calm and present. The biggest, scariest thing – the death of my father – wasn’t scary at all. It was….beautiful.

Something opened in my life during and after that strange summer. A flood of songs began flowing out of me. Seven compact discs later, I am still writing songs. Right before the house on Sherburne Street was sold to a new family, I finished the song about my father’s last months and the lessons they taught me.

Thank you, Dad, for doing the best you could and for dying with such grace and generosity.

(You can listen to the song at the link below.)

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In Praise of Solitary Mornings: Four Reasons I Love Waking Up Alone

I am single and child-free and fifty-five years old.
And, oh, how I love my solitary mornings.
Here are four delicious qualities I treasure about that time…..

Improvisational

I do whatever I want in the morning. As a self-employed person, I do a lot of everything – from the high-level thinking and writing to the mundane tending of details. The first hours of the day are for following my whims. I very rarely set an alarm. One of the most precious “self-employment benefits” I have – and there are many – is the gift of waking slowly in my own time. Once I’m up and moving (slowly, slowly), I read a novel, step out onto the porch to smell the air, or linger in the garden to gather greens for my morning eggs. Mornings are for making it up as I go.

Unwitnessed

I love not having a witness in these mornings. For many years I awakened next to someone and cherished that shared, intimate time. Romanticized it, even.   Now there is nothing more appealing than being completely alone and unwitnessed in those tender hours of waking. My hair is every which way. I talk to myself. My eyes are puffy, my breath most likely sour. And I don’t care. I remember waking many years ago next to my then-husband and realizing that before I was even fully awake, I was considering what he needed. I was horrified that the habit of caretaking was so ingrained that it revved up before my conscious mind was engaged. Mornings are for being free from the eyes of the world.

Cozy

I often set the timer on my coffeepot so I can wake up to the smell of coffee. The pleasure I take in snuggling into my covers while I hear that magical substance brewing in the kitchen is indescribable. I feel cared for and pampered without having to contend with the pamperer. Once I’m up, I pull on my favorite plush robe. It’s long enough – a miracle for someone who is 6’2” with constantly chilly ankles– and so soft and just my color of blue. Most mornings I sit in my favorite chair with a mug in hand and feel like the luckiest woman alive. Not a day goes by that I am not grateful for these little day-starting blessings. Mornings are for simple, sensuous pleasures.

Sacred

The space between sleep and wakefulness is sacred to me. When I’m there I gather remnants of dreams, listen for the voice of wisdom, and send blessings to my family and friends.   Things occur to me during that time – things both profound and mundane. I listen for guidance, dip into what the day holds, softly set intentions to be kind, to breathe, to welcome the gifts and challenges that arise before I return to my bed at day’s end. For years I’ve assumed that I should leap up and meditate. I should read poetry. Do yoga. Write three pages in my journal. What I’ve come to discover is that my time between the worlds has become my morning practice. It is a “should-free” zone in my demanding days. Mornings are for tasting the sacred in my own way.

Sometimes I sing softly to myself in these tender hours. One of my favorite morning songs is by my friend, Francis Gurtz with lyrics by Kahlil Gibran:

Wake at dawn with a wing-ed heart
Wake at dawn with a wing-ed heart
Give thanks, give thanks
For another day of loving.

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Get ‘Er Done – A Tale of Work and Family

My mom – now nearly 91 – frequently quips, “All three of my children are workaholics.” (She has actually started calling us her “old people.” The three of us are now in our 50’s and 60’s.)

Although I don’t lay claim to the workaholic title myself, I can see what she means. We McAfees all know how to (as we say in Minnesota) “get ‘er done.” I suspect this hyper-competent, focused diligence has its roots in our parents’ Depression-era childhoods. Or the German heritage that runs through both bloodlines. Our parents’ home state of Iowa certainly has something to do with it as does the legacy of farming in both family histories.

Dad was a self-described pyromaniac who loved building bonfires in the backyard on summer nights. His passion for lighting wood on fire soon became a year-round affair. During the energy crisis of the 1970’s, my father decided to install a Ben Franklin stove in our small living room. Between the potbelly stove in the basement and the new one upstairs, we heated our Victorian-era house almost exclusively with wood during long Minnesota winters. Which brings me back to that workaholic thing.

Every fall Dad would go out to the forest to cut up fallen oak trees with his chain saw. He’d return home with the Ford truck groaning under huge loads of logs. When I was younger, we’d split the wood by hand out behind the garage. I remember a particular cold night out there when he let me brandish the heavy splitting maul with my spindly little-girl arms. I can still hear the satisfying “thwock” the frozen wood made as it split in two. Later Dad took to renting an automatic wood splitter.

On a certain day in November, we would gather friends and family to “get the wood in.” We’d slide piece after piece into the basement using Dad’s homemade metal chute. I was often in the basement, stacking the fragrant pieces in tight rows all the way up to the ceiling. I loved the complex puzzle of fitting each piece into its place while continually dodging the chunks of hardwood rumbling down the chute. We worked at a steady, swift pace all day long. Mom catered the affair with big piles of traditional comfort food: scalloped potatoes, meatloaf, homemade dill pickles, and gallons of milk. What I remember most about those days of hard labor was the deep joy of working so hard together. It felt more like dance than drudgery. We were “getting ‘er done” and it was grand.

A few weeks back, my 32-year-old nephew, Travis, was in town to participate in one of my voice workshops. In the short few days he was here, I witnessed the “get ‘er done” legacy continuing into the next generation. In between workshop sessions, he fixed my computer printer, located a standing desk online, redesigned the layout of my kitchen, and advised me on how to purchase a used iPhone….and a dozen other tasks, large and small. I recognized a familiar joy and drive in how he went about these things.

It looks like this family will keep on “getting ‘er done” for a long time to come.

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