Heart of a Warrior – A Song for This Moment

These past weeks have been deeply challenging for many of us.

Friends of color are striving to say and do the right things to keep their children safe.

A friend who is a school director called weeping about a third grade Muslim girl in her school being bullied by classmates.

Friends involved in reproductive rights are redoubling their efforts to protect them.

Lesbian, gay, and transgender friends are wondering how their daily lives will be affected by freewheeling hate in the streets.

Old traumas are coming back to haunt many of us.

During this time, I’ve heard many gentle, peace-loving people proudly naming themselves “warriors.” They proclaim themselves ready to step forward with fierceness, bringing wisdom, beauty, and even joy to the challenges at hand. Many have traveled to Standing Rock to support the water protectors there. Others are extending themselves to listen to neighbors who have different backgrounds or opinions than their own. Some are donating to causes that support the human spirit and others are treating people they encounter in their day-to-day lives with increased kindness.

Years ago I wrote a song called “Heart of a Warrior” in honor of a dear and feisty friend.

Like many of my songs, its meaning has shifted over time. I heard the message of the song in a new way this past week. It called out and named the spirit I feel arising in me –and many others — in this perilous moment.

It is a song full of drums to call the heart to courage.
It is a guide for sustaining ourselves through the long road ahead.
It invites us to “dance empty-handed into the fray.”

Turn it up.
Sing along.
Be brave.

We are in this together.

Heart of a Warrior

Fear holds no sway in the heart of a warrior
She dances empty-handed into the fray
Rivers of laughter to temper the shadows
From life’s invitation, she’ll not turn away.

Love is the fire in the heart of a warrior
There in her eyes its flames leap and sway
Those who are warmed there do count themselves blessed
To bask in the warmth of her sunfire array.

Deep wisdom runs through the heart of a warrior
A curious mind and the words to say …
Mysteries fresh from the lips of the angels
The voice of the earth as under our feet she commences to pray.

Grant many gifts to the heart of this warrior:
A balance of rest in her rigorous days
Courage to step forth into her true power
Conviction to know the love all around her is going to stay

Fear holds no sway in the heart of a warrior
She dances empty-handed into the fray
Rivers of laughter to temper the shadows
From life’s invitation, she’ll not turn, not turn, not turn away.

© Barbara McAfee




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Respectful Transitions – A Tale of Family, Trees, and Healing Beauty

We don’t have a choice about losing people and things we cherish. It’s a big part of being human. One of the most precious lessons I’ve learned from singing at the bedsides of people in hospice is this: beauty can offer solace in those painful times of loss and transition.

My friend Tom Peter has found a way to bring that solace to people who are grieving the loss of a beloved tree.

I met Tom at a local conference where he was displaying his remarkable artwork: natural-edge, lathe-turned wood vessels. When I first saw the graceful, intricate, glowing and delicate vessels I just had to touch them. I bought two pieces that day – one for a beloved friend and one for me.

Tom’s business is called “Respectful Transitions.” As a certified arborist, Tom knows tree biology inside and out. As an artist, he uses that knowledge to highlight the beautiful structures hidden inside a common branch. He made his first vessel for a young woman whose favorite tree had to be removed while she was away at college. When she returned, Tom presented her with a beautiful memento of her “friend.” Since then he has made hundreds of vessels and received national recognition for his craft.

Many of us get attached to our trees. I still recall the trauma I experienced as the huge graceful elms at my childhood home died off from Dutch elm disease.   My parents replanted the land with many trees in the decades they lived in that house – birches, blue spruce, aspens, walnut, and crab apple. We burned wood to heat our house. We were – and are – “tree people.”

At our first meeting, I told Tom that our family would be a perfect client for his work. Mom was preparing to leave the family homestead – and the beautiful trees there — after 53 years. I was certain that we couldn’t afford the cost of vessels for my mother and each of her three children. It was a wonderful dream, but completely impractical.

A few months later Tom called me with a proposal: would my family be willing to be featured in a story by the local CBS affiliate about his work? Mom gave her approval and on chilly November day, three generations of McAfee’s, Tom, and the TV folks converged at the old family place in Stillwater, Minnesota.

The news story ran Thanksgiving weekend that year. You can see it here:

Mom has since sold the house to a beautiful family who loves it as much as we did. They have planted a small orchard of fruit trees – keeping the tree-loving tradition alive on that beautiful property. Mom, my brothers, and I treasure our keepsakes from the trees we loved for so many years. And the four grandchildren – who grew up playing under their branches – received small vessels as well.

I am grateful for Tom’s generous gift to our family and celebrate all of the transitions he has eased by bringing beauty into the midst of loss.

You can contact Tom via email: mntreeguy@gmail.com








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The Voice of the Teacher

I climb in my car to run some errands. The On Being podcast starts up through the speakers and I instantly recognize the voice of Parker Palmer. My face blooms into a broad smile of recognition. His words are wise and funny and nourishing as usual. And that deep, corduroy voice of his imbues them with an irresistible kindness and friendliness. What I realize today is how much I learn from his voice…how his “music” is just as much of a teaching as his “lyrics.”

I get to thinking about other teachers and their voices. I recently heard the voice of cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien in a film. How many hours have I listened to that precious voice, so recently silenced, both in person and on recordings? I wept in a confusion of appreciation and grief. How I miss her deliberate, brilliant, kind, and silly way of teaching. Even her crackling, twinkling eyes somehow leak into the sound of her voice. I am grateful for the many recordings that will keep her “song” alive now that her living voice has been silenced.

In the early 1990’s I am in the south of France studying voice with members of the Roy Hart Centre. We work many hours a day in the ancient stone buildings, opening up our voices to new heights, depths, and colors. One day I step into the blazing midday sun and hear my beloved teacher Saule Ryan’s voice echoing across the valley. I respond to it viscerally. I have followed that voice like a beacon into unknown territories of voice and life. It means so many things to me – safety, challenge, friendship, joy. I step into a practice room and begin crafting a song for him. I put these words in the middle of it: “Wrapped in the silk and moss of your voice, I tell the truth, I have no other choice.” A few days later when it is finished, I play it for him for the first time – voice shaking, tears leaking. He is touched by the gift.

I have never recorded that song, but I do make a point of singing it for Saule every year when he comes Minnesota to co-teach our annual workshop. It’s a ritual I offer as a way of expressing my gratitude for his long and generous presence in my life. How fitting that I use the voice he called into the world to sing his song to him.

Over many years of voice coaching, I’ve worked with many teachers – those with the formal title and those whose work involves the practice of teaching in some way. When we teach or parent or lead, we are planting powerful memories in the people around us. Our voices echo on in their lives forever — whispering encouragement, conveying wisdom, cheering them on. When they recall what we’ve told them, they will also remember how we said it.

What beloved teachers are singing their wisdom into your life? How do their voices – or the memory of them – still influence you? What is the “song” you want to plant in the people around you? And what are the ways you can make it more beautiful and true?

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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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