Your Caregiving Sister

Just this morning, I was thinking about my cousin Lynne. My aunt – her mother – died last week after more than seven years of Alzheimer’s. Lynne has been there every step of the way. Her mother was housed in a memory care place across the street from the school where Lynne works. After a full day of working with children, Lynne stepped up for her next job – taking care of her mother. Her brother lives in another state.

And my sister-in-law’s sister, Mary Beth, has been walking alongside her mother with Alzheimer’s for about the same length of time. Her siblings all live half a continent away.

My friend Debra is the person in her family who takes care of her father’s finances and ensures that he gets the care he needs. She does this while working more than full time running a school and dealing with chronic back pain.

Now as my caregiving days are coming to an end, I have some things to say to the siblings of primary caregivers. We are – by and large – daughters.

Not a day goes by that she is not thinking about what your parent needs.
She is the recipient of the panicked phone calls.
She is the one who sits on hold at the clinic and advocates for your parent’s complicated medical needs.
She monitors your parent’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
She keeps tabs on your parent’s household as well as her own, making sure they have the supplies they need.
She likely manages their money and medications.
She listens to their repetitive stories and thinks of little things that will bring them pleasure.
If she needs to leave town, it requires extensive planning and preparation to make sure your parent will be okay in her absence.
And when she returns, she needs to tend to a backlog of their needs on top of her own catching up.
She turns down many social invitations in order to care for your parent.
She drives a lot.
This work costs her sleep, evenings at home, time with her own friends and family, and real money.

So, for those of you whose sister is caring for your aging parent, a few suggestions:

  • Call her often to see how she is faring. Listen to her express her fatigue, frustration and/or joy. And then say thank you.
  • Give her some respite time. Show up and take over completely for a few days so she can really let go.
  • If you can afford it, send her a treat – a certificate for massage, a gift card to her favorite restaurant, some flowers. If there are several siblings, go in on something fine for her.
  • If you’re nearby, take her out to lunch or to a concert.

My brothers recently made a tangible gesture of appreciation for the intense caregiving role I have been playing with my mother. I requested some financial support from Mom’s account to help cover my basic expenses during her dying time. With all I am handling on her behalf, I have been unable to give my full attention to my work in the past month. Their enthusiastic yes touched me deeply.

Your caregiving sister does impossible, wearing, and unpaid work every day – all on behalf of your parent. Give her some love, won’t you?

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The Joy of Teaching

The 2018 Full Voice Coach Training cohort – L to R: Barbara, Tom McSteen (apprentice teacher), Lia Falls, Katharine Grant, Katy Taylor, Ingrid Mattsson, Laura Nelson, Glenda Huston

I always have high hopes for my clients and students. With good reason.

For decades now, I have witnessed individual voice coaching clients stepping beyond what they believed was possible for them.

  • Timid speakers find their courage to speak out in an authentic way.
  • People who were told they couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket discover that they sing just fine.
  • Highly trained musicians rediscover the joy of playing with their voices in new ways.
  • Leaders use their voices to communicate more flexibly and effectively with their colleagues.

Experience has taught me that people often make unplanned discoveries through working with their voices, but I am frequently and deliciously surprised by precisely how that unfolds.

In the several weeks, I have been doing one-on-one sessions with several people enrolled in my Full Voice Coach Training program. We are nearing the end of our nine-month intensive journey together. This is the time in the training where students begin teaching real people one-on-one and in groups. They are putting all they’ve learned to the test.

Their growth, passion and confidence are far exceeding even my highest expectations.

One woman who began the course clearly stating that she doubted she would ever teach this work in the world came into my studio today giddy from teaching her first Full Voice workshop to a group of 28 people. She told story after story about her experience and mentioned that she will be scheduling another workshop soon.

Another student who confessed to paralyzing fear about doing individual coaching has been finding the work more fascinating than frightening.

Each of the students have opened new territories in their voices as well. One highly trained singer used to get immediately hoarse from making low sounds. Now she can demonstrate those “earth” sounds easily and without negative effects.

Other pupils struggled with making strong “fire” sounds without coughing or getting tight. The way we discovered to shift that pattern was – delightfully – laughter. Making big, loud laughing sounds directly connected that strong, chesty sound to the diaphragm. Voila! No more tight throats and sore voices.

When I set out to teach a Full Voice Coach Training course five years ago, I had no idea if it would work. Would I be able to transmit the work to others in a coherent way? Would students be able to bring their own wisdom, skills and experience to the work? Would the intensive experience have a positive impact on each individual’s vocal expression? Would people in the program bond with each other through their nine months together?

The answer to each of these questions is– happily – a resounding yes.

After this current group completes the course, there will be seventeen certified full voice coaches out in the world.  Most of us will be gathering for an all-class reunion next summer where we’ll deepen our learning, share stories, sing a lotand no doubt fall even more cuckoo in love with each other and the work.

As I call in the next cohort of students for next year, I will do so with great joy and anticipation of all the unexpected blessings we will discover together.

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Brain Rats, The Video

I’ve written about my song, “Brain Rats,” in this blog several years ago. Now I’m revisiting the subject in celebration of the new music video of the song.

The song is a goofy, dramatic sendup of the persistent negative thoughts we carry around…thoughts I dubbed “brain rats.”

Much to my surprise, the song is one of my most popular. I think it’s because “Brain Rats” brings our secret worries out into public and make ridiculous fun of them.

The idea for this video began a few years ago when my friend, Christopher, gave me two stuffed rat toys. They took up residence on my piano and encouraged my voice clients to acknowledge and move past their own brain rats as they opened up their voices.

Those rats also traveled with me wherever I went, residing in a special pocket in my backpack. I’d bring them out whenever I did the song during a keynote or training.

Chris recently added to my rat collection. He sent a brown paper package wrapped in yards of tape. When I slit it open, nine more rats popped out and scattered across my dining room table.

That’s when I got serious about bringing the video to life. I contact my brilliant young videographer, Isaiah Bischoff, who helped me create the “Man Alive” video last year.

One of the big questions was what to wear in the video.  I was still unsure about it when Isaiah showed up at my house on the day of the shoot. As I talked with him about options, I finally got the answer: my grandfather’s vaudeville costume.

Back when we were clearing out my singing grandpa’s house in Des Moines, Iowa, I found two identical lavender and light green suits. He wore one of them when he performed vaudeville around Iowa as a young man in the 1920’s. I also have one of the tambourines he used in those performances with the jokes taped inside.

Amazingly, one of the suits fit me perfectly. At 6’2” I rarely find anythingfits that well, let alone something that antiquated.

The suits have resided in my closet ever since. I love having them around, but I rarely find an opportunity to wear them. Many years ago, a friend and I wore them for Halloween. I’ve pulled out the jacket for a performance here and there.

It made me happy to bring something of my grandfather’s spirit into this project. I imagine he would have enjoyed adding some beautiful baritone harmony to the song. He sang beautifully his whole life long.

I also enjoyed the long arc of time reflected in the project….my grandfather who was born in 1900, my middle-aged self and Isaiah who turned 16 a few weeks before the video shoot.

Now the video is out there in the world, bringing the message of “Brain Rats” to a wider audience. And at the tail end, there is my handsome Grandpa Fred’s face smiling out from the past.

You can watch the video here….and feel free to spread it far and wide!





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Carpool Karaoke

My voice coaching studio is a place where clients from all walks of life are invited to enter into their full voice, whatever that means to them. In the course of our work together, I encourage them to be playful, embodied, tender, wild and frequently LOUD.

When clients really cut loose and make big sounds, they frequently suggest that the police could be at the door any minute. The police! The fact that full expression could be considered illegal tells me just how vocally suppressed most of us are.

One of the conundrums many clients face is where and how to practice their newfound vocal freedom. Even singing songs in a normal tone can be problematic in an apartment, condo or townhouse setting. The shower offers great acoustics, but many people feel self-conscious about making any noise in there if family members are around.

That leaves one place where people feel free to cut loose – the car.

I’ve been enjoying James Corden’s car pool karaoke segments on the Late, Late Show. Corden invites famous musicians to go for a ride with him through LA. As they drive around, they sing along to the musician’s big hits and do a little chatting. His segment with Paul McCartney took place in Paul’s old neighborhood with stops at his childhood home and the neighborhood pub where the locals were treated to a surprise concert.

When these segments first started coming out, I was skeptical. What could be interesting about watching people singing in a car? After watching a few of them, I was hooked.

Corden has tapped into a powerful shared experience. Who among us hasn’t cranked up the car stereo to sing along with an artist we admire? To witness someone doing that familiar activity in the actual presenceof the artist takes it to another level.

Corden’s child-like enthusiasm, wide open heart and beautiful singing voice are also keys to making it work. He’s a wonderful stand-in for each of us – blending awe and admiration with playful collaboration. He is a complete enthusiast — the antithesis of Hollywood cool and slick. He fully surrenders to the experience, expressing puppy-like joy one minute and sweet tears the next.

I’ve wondered for years where people will go to sing when we give up the habit of driving alone in our cars so much. Our planet can’t handle the amount of emissions we’re asking it to bear and cars are a big contributor to the problem.

I hope by the time we end up with more shared transportation, we will have gotten over our shyness of singing in public. What would it be like to have busloads of harmonizing humans making their way through our streets? Will we have subway cars designated for certain kinds of singing? Will we go to work singing in the Motown car and return home in the camp song car? What will the free improvisation car sound like on a rainy afternoon? These public spaces could come to life in a joyful way.

I do hope we get less timid about singing in public. In the meantime, we can ride – and sing –along with James Corden and his lucky passengers.

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Today my brother and sister-in-law are picking up Mom’s car. They will clean it up and sell it in the coming weeks.  I don’t know why this is making me so tender, but it is.

Mom hasn’t driven her 2001 silver Buick Le Sabre for years now. We’ve been hanging onto it because she thought it would be too hard to get in and out of a different car. Last week when we tried to use it to go to a doctor’s appointment, the battery was completely dead. Out of necessity, she got in and out of my Subaru just fine. Just like that, her need for the car suddenly disintegrated.

Of course, it’s the right thing to do. She pays good money for her rock star parking spot in the underground heated garage, not to mention insurance and tabs.

Even so, letting go of the car is another diminishment – another sign that the scope of her long and interesting life is shrinking.

Mom’s been a widow for a long, long time – 27 years. After Dad’s death, she took on all of the things he used to tend, including all things automotive. The Buick was the first car she purchased on her own and she took impeccable care of it.

That car gave her the power to just up and go – to do her grocery shopping at 11 pm or check on the spring flooding on the river downtown or go to church several towns away. She drove it – bravely – into the big city to attend many of my concerts, all without the benefit of GPS. It carried her to innumerable celebrations at my brother and sister-in-law’s place an hour’s drive from her home. It made many trips to her hometown of Des Moines, sometimes with her at the wheel and later with my brother or me driving.

When Mom stopped driving, she did so like the grownup she is — calmly and without a fuss. Since then she and I have taken that beloved old car on many jaunts:

  • our annual drive up the river to admire fall colors
  • visits to the orchard to get her favorite treat, apple rollovers
  • driving by the old family place to check progress on the new owners’ remodeling
  • tending Dad’s grave
  • spontaneously visiting old friends and neighbors around town
  • and so many dinners at her favorite haunts

As we were driving around in my car last week, she kept remarking how strange it was to be out in the world after being housebound for so many months. “Oh my!” she’d exclaim, “Oh my!” We agreed that getting her out and about more often is a good idea, especially with winter coming. I look forward to driving Mom around town, listening to her reminisce about her 60+ years in this place. No doubt, we’ll both miss that old Buick.

My mother and I are learning to let go of one cherished thing after another. One day she stops wearing red lipstick; the next day she can’t find the word she’s looking for. Now her car is gone. One by one these will continue to fall away until all that is left is love.

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Somewhere Not Far from Here

It is a foggy morning in Bayfield, Wisconsin. I am visiting dear friends in their home overlooking Lake Superior. Before I am fully awake, I amble to the piano with my first cup of coffee in hand. I sit down and begin noodling around on the black keys, attempting to capture the deep, cool spirit of the morning, the lake, the fog.

My song, “Somewhere Not Far from Here,” was born in that sweet place. I never play it without returning to that moment with gratitude.

Somewhere not far from here
There is a song so clear
Inside the silence I sometimes can hear it
Anthem outside of time
Sung without word or rhyme
Taking me back to a place I remember
Song of such beauty
What you bring to me
Yearning, impossible yearning

Music is a form of travel. A song can instantly transport us back us to another time – a childhood campfire, a horrible date, a beautiful sunset shared with a friend. We can visit places we’ve never seen by listening – or better yet – singing songs from that place. And music carries us into the realms of mystery if we let it – if we soften into the sound, breathe it into our bones and let go….

Somewhere not far from here
There is so much to fear
The light all around me creates such deep shadow
Mother of Mystery
Darkness falls over me
Taking me down to a place I must go to
Song of such beauty
What you bring to me
Learning, indelible learning

Music opens us to the depths. It can carry us into the places we are reluctant to go, terrifying terrain that we must traverse in order to heal. It can open us to our tears, the kind that leaves the eyes scrubbed and the heart more at ease. There are songs that walk beside us in the darkness, silent companions that assure us that there is beauty available to us even here if we are willing to perceive it.

Somewhere not far away
Those who have passed away
Witness my living with eyes of compassion
This brief dance in space and time
Drenched in five senses
I’m holding the living flame here in this body
Life of such beauty
What you bring to me
Burning, unquenchable burning

Every day I think of my beloved ones who no longer walk on this earth. Their presence in my life is palpable. Each cardinal reminds me of Dad. I use Jim’s sweet word, “beauty-full” in response to something lovely. Lucy is with me when I sweep the floor and I wear Jamie’s good-time hat to carry his love of life into my adventures. Jack’s words live on in one song and Angie’s in another.

These “hauntings” rarely bring sadness. Instead I feel a sense of companionship that reaches beyond this world. Music reminds me that my love remains beautifully tangled up with these souls wherever they may be…. somewhere not far from here.

You can listen to the song here.

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Calamity Management

I’ve entered into a new phase of caregiving with my sweet 94-year-old mama. I’m calling it calamity management. Her memory is faltering more and more these days, so I’m trying to remember what I’m forgetting she forgot. Or something like that.

Just the other day I was prowling through her apartment, looking at every little thing to see what might be falling through the cracks. And there it was – her hearing aid dryer. The little dry brick inside needs to be changed every 2 months and it’s been 9. Oops.

The good news is that her hearing aids seem to be working fine – and now I have added that task to my schedule of things to tend.

I caught that one but missed the injectable diabetes medicine sitting on the bathroom counter. Of course, I knowthat it’s supposed to be refrigerated, but in all the times I saw it there, it just didn’t register. Now we’re in touch with the pharmacy to replace the $300 medicine. Sigh.

The refrigerator has become another recipient of my watchful care. Every week I throw out slimy salads and banish her collection of cookies to the freezer. (My brother and sister-in-law bring them home to feed their grandkids and other visiting relatives). It would be awful if she ate something toxic because I forgot to throw it out.

Each time I visit, I water the thirsty patio plants and check supply levels for laundry detergent, toilet paper and the mints Mom likes to give to the folks at her apartment complex. She used to know what she was running out of, but now it only becomes clear when it’s an emergency.

I dispense her meds and make sure the prescriptions are refilled on time.

After my Dad’s death 27 years ago, Mom stepped up with courage and determination. She took care of her old house with its huge yard and gardens. She managed the money, got the car fixed and figured out the thousands of small things Dad used to handle in their long marriage.

He did his best to prepare her as he was dying of pancreatic cancer, but who among us knows every little thing we do in the course of daily life? Now it’s my turn to answer that question in caring for her.

Last night as I was getting ready to head home, I sat down and had a chat with Mom. I told her that I wanted to make sure that she was cared for in every way….and that I knew that missing some things was inevitable. “I want to make it perfect and I know I can’t.”

She responded in her usual kind way. “Nobody’s perfect. And I want you to know grateful I am for everything you do for me, Barbara.”

Have I mentioned that she expresses her gratitude in those very words four to five times during each visit?

In this new phase of caregiving, I vow to befriend calamity, patiently respond to Mom’s repetitive questions, breathe through her confusion and forgive myself for everything I’m going to miss.

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What a Racket – Some Reflections on Noise

It’s high summer in Minneapolis.

Usually that means that I begin my days out in the garden, sleepily gazing at whatever is blooming while I take my first blissful sips of coffee. I was doing that just this morning when it began: the roaring, rumbling, crashing, beeping cacophony of the construction next door.

I live two doors down from Minnehaha Academy’s north campus. Last summer there was a huge gas explosion there that tragically cost two people their lives and gravely injured another. I was home when the blast happened and still remember the house shaking under my feet. It was the loudest thing I have ever heard.

Now they are in the process of rebuilding.

I work at home, so the constant racket has a daily impact on my work. I close my windows and turn on my air conditioning to block the noise in order to hear my voice coaching clients. When I’m trying to concentrate on something – like writing this blog or composing an email or designing a voice course – my brain gets scrambled by the relentless noise.

It also impacts my private time. One of my favorite places to be is in my hammock chair on the back deck. It’s the perfect spot for eating lunch, watching birds, reading books and chatting with friends. This year I’ve spent little time there. Their workday is often eleven hours long – from 7 am to 6 pm. That leaves a tiny window to be outside before the mosquitoes come out in force.

Summer is generally a noisy time here in the city. The road along the river and the bridge across it seem to awaken something wild in motorcycle riders. I hear revving in three pitches – deep Harley roars, crotch-rocket tenors and little motor bike whines. Several times a day UPS trucks careen around my corner with an urgent rumble. There are barking dogs, beeping car alarms and wailing sirens in the soundtrack of city summers.

This season has taken the noise up a notch.

My ears are unusually sensitive. It comes with the work I do as a singer, voice coach and song leader. I rarely have music playing in my house. No matter how wonderful the tune, it can’t complete with the resonant peace of silence. When I go out dancing, my earplugs come with me. On the rare occasions that I encounter a television (I haven’t had one for 30 years), I’m taken aback by how fast, aggressive and LOUD it is.

This onslaught of noise has got me wondering. Who is the sadistic person who designed back-up beepers? Today there are three of them, all one-half step apart in pitch. When they are all going at once, the dissonance makes my molars ache. What is the emotional impact of such constant and intense noise? How does it affect the workers at that construction site who hear it all day long in much closer proximity? And perhaps the biggest question of all, how can I find peace inside when all is noisy outside? Wish me luck…..

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A Tale of Three Gifts

Gift #1

July 4th would have been Karly Wahlin’s 33rdbirthday. She died at 27, weary from struggling with her challenging body and ready to leap into the new place she had glimpsed for years.

Her mother, Lois Swope, and I continue the deep friendship we forged through our love of Karly. The two of us are creating a keynote presentation that features Lois’s lessons from parenting a child with serious disabilities along with my music and reflections. Karly’s voice is also included through her writings and piano compositions.

Several years after Karly’s death, Lois offered me a touching gift – a handmade pillow that included fabric from Karly’s favorite soft white blanket. Lois and her husband, Gregg, collaborated on the design, making certain it included the river both Karly and I loved, plus pine trees and a red cardinal in honor of my father.

The pillow resides in the center of my couch and is symbolic for so many precious things: Karly’s wise and generous friendship, Lois’s clever hands, Gregg’s design insights and above all, being deeply known and loved.

Gift #2

Last spring, I was doing a series of musical keynotes for a large Catholic healthcare system in South Dakota. Sister Kathleen introduced herself after one of my keynotes. She closed our lively conversation with a mysterious question: “What’s your favorite color?”

Exactly 24 hours later, Sister Kathleen presented me with an exquisite handmade paper box. Inside was a chime made of seven royal blue glass pieces joined together with fishing line. As I lifted it from the box, its delicate music filled the room. Sister then handed me a small piece of paper with a list of seven gifts she saw in me. Each piece of glass represented one of those gifts. I read her words through happy tears. Is there any better gift than being seen, known and celebrated?

That chime hangs over my dining room table as I write this. I ring it whenever I need to remember who I am.

Gift #3

There is a new blanket on my bed. It’s way too hot to sleep under it in this high summer weather, but I keep it on there during the day, just so I can feast my eyes on it.

It was a gift from my friend, Julia Dinsmore. Our friendship spans decades and is founded on mutual delight, respect, creativity and veryloud laughter. I have written about Julia here before and continue to find great nourishment from her fierce work toward healing injustice. (Here is her well-known spoken word piece recited by Danny Glover.)

Julia bought the blanket on the Fond du Lac reservation in northern Minnesota. She has known my blanket’s designer, Sarah Agaton Howes, for decades.

Julia’s gift moved me deeply. It was outlandishly generous for one thing. It’s a glorious piece full of traditional Ojibway designs and was created in collaboration with Eighth Generation, the first Native company to produce wool blankets. Each time I look at it, it sings to me of honor, respect, beauty and long friendship.

Three gifts.
Three mirrors of the love that infuses my life.

Tell me, what gifts have meant the most to you and why?

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Singing Through Grief

Your grief for what you’ve lost holds up a mirror to where you are so bravely working.
                                                                                                                            – Rumi

One hundred people stream into a large, elegant room at a Methodist Church in Minneapolis. The chairs are arranged in several large concentric circles. At the center is a huge elk antler surrounded by an elegant arrangement of colorful cloths, candles, stones and flowers.

We have gathered on this Father’s Day to sing through grief together. The work is being led by Laurence Cole, a wise elder and prolific creator of community songs. Many of the people in the room know and love his songs from singing them at my local song circles. Others have encountered him at singing gatherings in the region. He is a powerful presence – a vital septuagenarian with a booming voice and deep well of wisdom.

Our purpose for this five hours together is simple – to metabolize some of the grief we are carrying, individually and collectively, through song and story. Laurence developed this approach based on his experiences in collective grief with West African wisdom teachers, Malidoma and Sobonfu Some’, as well as Francis Weller, author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow.  He integrates what he has learned from these teachers with his own gifts of reflective listening, storytelling and community singing.

I am still sorting out all I learned about community grieving from our time of singing, storytelling, weeping, laughing and moving together. Here is what I know so far:

Grief is singular and universal at the same time

The details of another person’s grief story may be vastly different from our own but hearing the truth of it can help us recognize our shared humanity. Listening to these stories reminds us that everyone is carrying burdens.

Song and sound can help metabolize grief

Singing together gets us connected to each other on a visceral level – through breath and vibration. It also awakens our emotions and softens our defenses.

There is also great power in giving voice to our tears. Many of us weep silently if we weep at all. We train ourselves to do so as young children. Hearing others cry out or wail can be uncomfortable at first, but it can call forth our own grief songs.

Deep listening is medicinal

A fundamental wound for many of us is the belief that nobody else understands the grief we carry. The dominant culture in the United States creates deep isolation for those who are grieving. They are pressured to “be strong” and “get over it” quickly. To speak your grief story into a community and have it reflected back to you in words and song breaks that isolation for both speaker and listener alike.

There is solace in beauty

Stepping into the territory of grief can be frightening. There is mystery in there….and for most of us, a backlog of unshed tears. Seeing beautiful things gathered from the natural world – flowers, stones, feathers, a pottery bowl of water – can help us remember the larger community of life in which we abide.

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