Clearing Out: The Musical

I was working with one of my voice clients yesterday via Skype. She was noticing that she wasn’t making time to sing or use her voice in her day-to-day life.

I asked her what the next few days were holding for her and she said, “Oh, my husband is out of town, so I’m finally going to dig in and clear out a big bunch of papers that have been piling up. I’m not looking forward to it, but it needs to get done.”

As our conversation continued, it occurred to me that the clearing out project could provide my client with a time and space for singing, that this project didn’t need to be an onerous one.

We got busy creating a kind of “musical” that she could sing as she pursued her clearing out project. Here are the components for creating such a thing for your next project:

Setting the Stage

Make the area in which you are working beautiful. Put a colorful cloth on the work table. Light a candle. Put flowers nearby. Make the area smell delicious with candle or some other aromatic thing.

Beginning

Find a song, poem, prayer, or inspirational quote that you can speak aloud several times as you begin. My client chose a freedom song she knows well since her overall intention for her project is to free herself from the bonds of having too much stuff around.

Marking Progress

Mark each milepost along the way with something celebratory – a wahoo kind of song, a little happy dance as you move toward the recycling bin. The one we created for my client is set to the tune of the Beatles’ “Let It Go:”

 When I find myself with lots of clutter
These are the words it’s time to utter
Fire up the shredder – let it go
Let it go, let it go, let it go
Life will be much better
Let it go

Taking Breaks

Set a timer to remind you when it’s time to take a break. And make that break a gift to your hardworking body. Drink a big glass of water. Walk around the block. Do some stretches. Eat a piece of fruit. Dance to a favorite song. Any combination of the above will do – as will your own inspirations.

Grand Finale

Once the project is completed, make sure it gets celebrated in a lavish and joyful way. Sing and dance along to your favorite triumphant, happy song. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

“We Are the Champions” by Queen

“Yes” by Barbara McAfee

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqexOh9I4Z0

“Happy” by Pharrell Williams

Even though this particular “musical” approach pertains to clearing out paperwork, I hope it sparks some ideas for you about how to bring music, beauty, and pleasure into other mundane tasks in your life.

Beauty is always an option. We just need to remember to include it.

I’d love to hear about the “musicals” you design for yourself, your family, and/or your community.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Church of Loud Crying

Like many of you I recently watched TV host Jimmy Kimmel speak about his newborn son’s heart defect. I was struck by how moved many people were to see a public figure – especially a white male comedian – weep so openly on television.

Why is this kind of public grief such a rare occurrence? And why do so many of us weep privately and silently if we weep at all?

Silent tears are costly. They load up the body with incredible tension. Throat muscles constrict. The face contorts. The belly clenches. And breathing narrows to a tight, tiny stream.

That constriction and pain is echoed in our emotional bodies as well. When our tears are never fully released, they fester in our hearts. Unexpressed grief makes us ill both as individuals and as a society. We become numb, hard-hearted, and sometimes cruel. When we strangle our tears, we also strangle aspects of our compassion and empathy.

The habit of silent crying starts early in life for most of us. We come to it by way of threats, bullying, teasing, and often, physical violence. The sound of weeping is a trigger for those who have had their own tears suppressed. It awakens deep pain and calls it forth for healing. When we aren’t open to that healing, the natural response is to make the sound stop.

Many years ago I was blessed to participate in a community of people who cried aloud. The first time I witnessed a person letting loose with wails and sobs, I was both attracted and repelled by the sound. I was deeply moved to hear the song of a human heart untrammeled in grief.

I eventually found my way to such tears myself. By listening to my own tear-song I often discovered what was healing in me through that weeping. Sometimes the voice I heard was young, sometimes whiny, sometimes fierce and strong as a thunderstorm. As I became more acquainted with my own loud crying, I learned to listen more closely and compassionately to that other others.

I witness people weeping in many different aspects of my work. Voice clients are often moved to tears when they open up their voices. Sometimes those tears express grief about their lost connection to their voice. Just as often they are tears of joy at expressing something true after a long silence. As a retreat facilitator, I see tears of relief at being seen and welcomed into community. And in my little comfort choir, I am present for tears at the end of life – that strange mix of deep loss, reconciliation, pain, and joy that often accompanies a person’s last days.

Last year as I was beginning to teach my Full Voice Coach Certification course, I offered a number of ground rules for our learning community. I encouraged participants to give voice to their tears if and when they arose. There were many beautiful loud tears in our nine-month journey together – and sometime along the way, we dubbed this practice “The Church of Loud Crying.”

Come on in, friends. There is a place for you in the Church of Loud Crying.

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Shower Room Temple

Playboy bunny Dani Mathers was recently sentenced for posting a photograph of a nude 70-year-old woman in the shower room at a health club. She is being punished for invading this woman’s privacy and for writing a vicious, body-shaming caption with the post.

I am in the shower room at the YWCA several times a week. By the time I’ve swum my mile, I am in an altered state – wide open and clear. It is in that state that I enter the shower room. Perhaps that is why I have come to see it as a sacred place – a temple to the Feminine Divine.

There in the shower room, I see Woman in her many shapes, sizes, colors, and dispositions. We have stepped out of our days – our work, families, routines, and communities – to get some exercise, to care for our precious human bodies. We have that in common. And in that simple gesture, we come together with people would not otherwise encounter.

The women at my Y are diverse in every way. There are Somali immigrant grandmothers and little pixie girls with chirping voices. There are young mothers with lavish tattoos, driven professionals rushing into their business attire, and a gaggle of elderly white women whose relaxed chatter echoes off the tiles. We are fat and fit, butch and femme, cheery and sad, engaging and solitary.

Being thrown together in this mix without our clothes opens up a kind of intimacy. I see stories of embodied lives all around me: Caesarean scars, a missing breast, stretch marks, arthritic fingers, tattoos marking life passages. I see dreadlocks and henna-tinted nails, muscles toned or wasted. I watch many of us step on the scale and off again with thoughts of triumph or disgust.

In the locker room, I see women doing their ablutions – smoothing lotion, drying hair standing on one foot, layering on clothes, putting on make-up. I watch us scrutinizing ourselves in the mirror – checking our clothes and hair and faces for….what? I wonder what women see when they look in those mirrors. How many are holding the woman reflected there in love, compassion and acceptance? How many are scathingly critical? Are we seeing ourselves as we are now or imagining something more ideal?

Every one of these women trails a story. And so do I. I bring my whole embodied history with me – the years of swimming lessons, the challenge to embrace my unusual height, my struggle and triumph to make exercise part of my everyday life. When I sit in the silent heat of the sauna with several women, I imagine our stories mingling together, getting acquainted with each other without our awareness.

My time with these women has become sacred to me. I relish the opportunity to honor these sister-strangers who live out their daily lives, loves, work, calamities, and blessings in my orbit.

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Death Songs

My friend Jeannie and I are at a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert in St. Paul, Minnesota.

One of the group’s founding members, Ysaye Barnwell, steps to center stage and sings what she calls her “death song.” It expresses a vision for how she wants her death to be.  I don’t remember the details of it, just references to flight and a soaring melody carried by that rich voice of hers.

As we are leaving the concert hall, I turn to Jeannie and say, “I want to write my death song.” She replies, “Yes! Me, too!”

A few months later, Jeannie and I are sitting in my sun-drenched living room. We agree that her death song is finally finished. We’ve worked on it diligently, translating her thoughts and wishes about her good death into words and music. She’s nearly twenty years older than I am, so at that moment, it occurs to me that I would likely be singing this at her memorial service someday. When I her so, she quips – with that rascally grin of hers – “well, I certainly hope so!”

We teach the song to the Morning Star Singers – our local comfort choir – and go on to include it as the final song on the group’s CD.

A few years later, I am on my annual songwriting retreat. As I dig through my notes, I find a scrap of paper with “death song” scrawled on it. Oh, right! I never got around to writing my own version. And so I begin….

The song starts with singing, of course. And references a striking dream I had years ago where I was standing in the setting sun with thousands of people, all of us singing together in harmony. I woke up thinking, “Well, that’s my version of heaven!”

In the third verse, I include the lines, “When I die I’ll fall into a hammock woven of each song I’ve ever sung. I have sent them all forward to catch me on the day my life is done.” Even as I’m writing it, I find the metaphor of the hammock strange and beautiful. I wonder, “Where on earth did that come from?”

A few years later, I am sitting on the deck with my friend Karly Wahlin as she travels peacefully toward her death. After 27 years of struggling with multiple health challenges, she’s ready to let go. She hasn’t been able to get comfortable in her bed or any of the chairs in the house, so her parents have set her up in….a hammock.

I am holding her hand and singing whatever song occurs to me. Suddenly I’m singing her my death song. When the hammock verse comes around, I begin laughing and crying at the same time. I tell her story of that song – how that line seemed so strange as I wrote it, how it was a kind of prophecy for that moment on the deck with her. It was one of many precious moments of that sacred time with her.

Writing any song is a mysterious process. Writing these death songs opened the door to even deeper mysteries – ones that are still unfolding even now. “When I die, I know there’ll be singing…..”

Listen to Jeannie’s death song here.

Listen to my death song here.

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Thank You Notes

When I was a child back in the 1960’s, my brothers and I received Christmas gifts of cash from our Iowa grandparents. The envelope was a predictable shape – long and narrow – and contained a special paper holder with a hole showing the face on the bill.

The thrill of receiving real money in Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian denominations was quickly quenched by our mother’s urgent insistence that we sit right down and write a thank you note to our grandparents.

We got a box of these notes every single Christmas. How I resisted that chore! How I resented having my pleasure in receiving the present so quickly squashed by the weight of this obligation! I did it though. I sat down and wrote my rote thanks in neat printing – or later, cursive.

Lately I’ve taken up sending handwritten notes again — this time with great pleasure.

Several times a week I bring a blank card to my breakfast table with the envelope stamped and ready. Sipping my coffee I consider who will be the recipient of today’s missive. Sometimes it’s for a friend going through a challenging patch. Other times it’s to express gratitude to a work colleague who connected me with someone interesting. Today it was to a graduate of my Full Voice Coach Training course who stepped in as my apprentice at an out of town workshop last weekend.

I enjoy so many things about this practice. Here are a few:

Mindset: Starting off my day in the spirit of gratitude and appreciation for people in my life makes for a better day.

Brevity: A card has a limited amount of space for whatever thoughts I want to convey. I call upon my poet self to find the simplest, most heartfelt way to say what’s on my mind.

Touch: I’ve always loved the act of handwriting. As I follow the intertwining lines of my thoughts and my pen, I imagine the recipient’s eyes tracing each word. It creates an embodied connection between us.

Surprise: I like planting a little surprise in someone’s day. There nestled among the heap of junk mail and bills they find something real and beautiful. It’s a little ambush of affection in an unexpected place.

Here’s the strange thing.

Since I began doing this practice a few weeks ago, I’ve been receiving a lot of notes myself. And not from the people I’ve been sending them to!  One of the Full Voice coaches wrote to express gratitude for our connection and shared work. Another friend wrote a little note of encouragement after she saw me exhausted and drawn at a choir rehearsal. And a client enclosed a handwritten note of appreciation with payment for a keynote speech I did for her group.

Handwritten notes are flying in and out of my mailbox like brightly colored birds.

And that makes me happy.

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Ballet

Last week I sang at a memorial service for Karen, a woman I’ve known since I was nine years old. She was my sister-in-law’s sister – and though I didn’t know her well — I’ve been part of her family for over 45 years.

After the traditional Minnesota Lutheran post-funeral feast – ham buns, pickles, chips, cake, and weak coffee – I went out to load flower arrangements into my Subaru. As I started up the car, I heard the opening chords of a song playing from my mobile phone through the car stereo.

I wondered how that happened. I didn’t have any music playing as I arrived at the church. I’d been talking to a friend on the phone. And I hadn’t turned the music app on in the ensuing hours.

I soon recognized the song as the composition of my very talented friend, Steven Hobert. He is a pianist, composer, improviser, accordionist, and bandleader based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We have collaborated on several recordings and concerts. Every time I work with Steven, there is magic in the air. His music romps through the universe in a playful, reverent way. He’s a musical virtuoso, a wild mystic, a humble genius, an incomparable collaborator. Oh, and he’s my beloved friend – lucky me!

The song, “Ballet,” tells the dreamy and impressionistic story of a woman’s death. But please don’t imagine that the song is dark and depressing. It’s powerful and moving – and strangely luminous.

When he first played the recording of “Ballet” for me, I was overwhelmed by how the closely the instrumental sections imitate the sensations and energy I have felt when sitting with someone very near death. Sometimes there is a surge of intensity near the end of life that eventually gives way to a deep release, peace, stillness. Steven perfectly captured that transition in the closing moments of the song.

When I asked him how the hell he did that, he shrugged and grinned. “No idea, really…”  I get it. The creative process can yield miraculous things, especially when someone as talented and intuitive as Steven engages in it.

Back at the church, when his song came on my car stereo so spontaneously, so mysteriously, I smiled through sudden tears and said, “Hello, Karen!” The story in the song perfectly reflects her dying story. Why wouldn’t the recently deceased come visiting through music? Doesn’t music have the capacity to reach through the boundaries of time and distance, life and death?

I immediately called Steven to let him know how his song was being put to work and to ask him if I could write about the experience. He graciously agreed and sent me links to his beautiful song.

Thank you, Steven, for writing a song that opened the portal between the living and the dead in such an elegant way. And thank you, Karen, for stopping by for a visit on the day when so many were remembering you so fondly.

Take a listen to the song here.  Learn more about Steven at his website.

Ballet
by Steven Hobert

Soft white light flooding through the window
Heeding prayer of a candid cry
Cotton flakes hover by the thousands
Snow of spring covering the sky

 She twirls between them
Fluid and formless
Leaps from illness
Glowing with divine

In a hospital bed
Groggy from medicine
Arms reach out
Try to the grasp the light

One cotton flake
Floats on through the window screen
Blows inside right into her hand

 She swirls above the bed
Fluid and formless
Holding seed of divine

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Where the Angels Live

Several years ago my friend Lucy Mathews Heegaard invited me to collaborate on an intriguing project: a series of greeting cards each with a music CD inside. The CD would contain one of Lucy’s songs, an instrumental version of the song, and a meditation on its theme. Our mutual friend, nature photographer Julie Marion Brown, would provide the image for the card’s cover.

These two women are among my favorite co-creators, so the answer was a resounding YES!

I was honored to write and record the meditation for “Where the Angels Live.” The song is a series of simple, powerful questions that illuminate the mysterious territories between living and dying.

You can hear Lucy and her daughter, Sarah, singing it here – along with many of Julie’s beautiful images. https://vimeo.com/58905906

Here is the meditation I created.

The countless blessings of your life
are waiting for you to call them by name.
The mere fact that you are here on Earth — breathing, alive, now —

is a confounding miracle.

Life itself conspired to bring you here,
to fill your body with life force,
to drench your senses with beauty,
to swell your heart with delight.

Life loves you.
You are no accident.
And you are not alone.
You came here to fall madly in love with life in its myriad forms:
river, oak, fox, raspberry, crow, baby, granite, rain, mountain.

The air is happy to be breathed by you.
All of the water in your body once flowed in great rivers.
and your tears are cousins to the singing seas
Your bones are made of stardust that has traveled the universe since the dawn of time.

Of course, you forget this.
We all do.
We dwell in a sea of mystery that is so immense, so extravagant
we can’t perceive it.
But now and again, it is good — very good —
to remember how close, how magnificent, how outrageous
these wonders are.
To notice your perfect place in creation.
It is not far away.
In fact, it is so close you can’t see it.
Unless you look.

So look, look!
Welcome the wonder.

Every time you look, you will see.
Every time listen, you will hear.
Every time you remember who you are,
where you are
the wonder blooming in and around and through
you will never stop.

You can hear me read it here: https://soundcloud.com/barbara-mcafee/meditation-on-where-the-angels-live

Julie posts a daily photo and quote on her Tumblr site: http://www.julesofnature.tumblr.com.

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