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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Confessions of a Surprised Prophet

It happens over and over again.

I write something – a song or a poem – about how I’d like something to be. The entire time I’m making it, I hear my inner critic hissing its usual transmission of doom. The general gist of those vile mutterings are variations on “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”

Years pass. I revisit the song or poem from time to time. Then one day I realize that the prophecy that seemed so far-fetched back then has come to pass. What I foretold in my creation has become real.

Here’s as example. Years ago, I wrote a cheeky song called “Britches.” It has its origins in the statement I heard again and again as a child whenever I was asserting my prodigious will: “You’re getting too big for your britches.” (These words are particularly ironic when I consider how quickly I outgrew my pants in those days. I’ve always been taller than the clothes designers think possible. I was one of those girls in the 70’s who was adding length to her too-short jeans by sewing a few inches of calico around the bottom.)

I started the song with these lines: “I’m getting too big for my britches; I guess I’ll just have to go nude.” From there I made bold assertions about standing tall, walking proud and tooting my own horn. None of which I believed at the time.

These days when I sing the song, it rings true. I’ve grown into the parameters set out by the song.

Around this same time in my life, I wrote a poem about my voice. At the time, I was just starting out on my vocal journey and was terrified of singing in front of anyone. I could imagine how it would feel to sing freely, but hadn’t a clue about how to find my way there.

My Voice

My voice is streams of silk
flying from my mouth–catching the light.

A potent tonic brewed in the cauldron of my belly
with generous doses of all I’ve known to spike the potion.

I pour it out with love to those who would drink deep.

My voice is a bird–a phoenix
rising from ash to incandescence
fierce-eyed–hot breath
with fine plumage:
orange, scarlet, iridescent
stretching its wings after long captivity.

Short flights grow longer and god-I-hope higher.

If I sing that soaring high note the top of my head
just might blow off!

So—what have I to offer?

Nothing—but the voice of a goddess
comin’ down from the sky
with feathers in her hair and a twinkle in her eye.

Just a touch of her fine hand
gave me the chance to understand
that her voice and mine are truly one
And that I was given this song
in love and fun.

© Barbara McAfee

Nowadays this is exactly how it feels to sing. My voice has become “streams of silk flying out of my mouth.”

Not every single thing I write comes true. Or at least they haven’t yet.  Just in case, I’ll keep creating songs and poems that call forth the kind of person I most aspire to be…and the kind of world in which everyone’s most cherished dreams can come true.

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Stepmother – Or Enough with the Fairy Tales Already!

For much of my thirties, I was a stepmother to a beautiful kid. We met when he was two. During our first evening together, we played a wild, improvised game involving magnetic letters, a monster in the freezer and much running around squealing. At the end of the evening, he came toddling out to the living room in his yellow footie PJ’s to say good night and kissed me on the knee.

That was that.
I was utterly smitten.

As I was embarking on this new adventure with the boy and his dad, we read lots of storybooks. One night as we were settled on the pink couch, the boy handed me a well-worn soft cover book. It was some fairy tale that involved yet another wicked stepmother. And it struck me. Why are we reading this junk? Is it not hard enough to navigate a new and complex family constellation without having the stepmother caricature mocking us from the page?

As we were first finding our way together, the boy used to pretend he was my baby. I’d follow his lead as he would cover his head with my shirt and then pop out “born.” This game was so tender between us. I was touched that he was claiming me as another mother.

The boy is a man now. Last time I saw him, I noticed a few silver hairs at his temples. Whenever our paths cross, it is warm between us.

I learned so many things from being a stepmother – about love, patience, listening, and play. Most of all I learned about stepping up. Here’s to all the stepmothers….


(With a cackle and a leer and a wicked-witch voice):
I am a stepmother
An evil wicked vain stepmother
So the Disney-witches leer from the pages I read to my son:
Hansel & Gretel banished to the forest!
Snow White mistreated and poisoned!
And poor Cinderella on her ash heap
all my doing!

What are these books doing in our house?

I am a stepmother
A step by step–mother
No poisoned apples or magic mirrors here
Only another pair of loving eyes to rest on this boy.
I will carry this child only in this heart
and in these arms–
never in this belly.

I am a stepmother
So when people ask, “Is this your son?”
I say, “Yes, not really”
and feel like a liar either way.
What I want to say is:
“I love this boy terrifying fierce
and worry about him – needlessly
|            and wash his socks
and tell him the best stories I can think of.”
I want to tell them he is family to me.

I am a stepmother–a step right up mother.
Before I knew it, we were making a mother of me, he and I.
He climbs under my big shirt
Comes out squalling:  “mama, mama, goo goo”
I name him and pet him
and he generously shows me some of what I missed
in those years when he was a son
and I was not yet a mother.

© 1991 Barbara McAfee

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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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