I was thirteen years old…all bony knees, bad glasses and scathing self-consciousness. One ordinary Sunday morning at the First Presbyterian Church in my Minnesota hometown, I witnessed something earth-shaking, life-changing: a woman stepped into the pulpit. A woman! Just as if she belonged there. Confident, calm and clear-eyed, she stood up and spoke to the congregation with authority.

Laura was our new intern pastor and I was utterly smitten.

During her short time at our church, Laura led a number of events with the youth, including a canoe camping weekend on the St. Croix River near my town. I remember that trip vividly, especially my aching need to be noticed by Laura tugging against the wish to completely disappear. I also remember her gracious patience with my teenage goofiness.

I decided around that time that I wanted to be – like her – a Presbyterian minister. That ambition didn’t last very long. My life took me in other directions and I never attended seminary.

Despite my lack of official training I find that I am doing a kind of ministry – increasingly so. Just in the past weeks, I have been invited to:

  • offer song as part of a healing story presentation by my friend, Michael Bischoff, who is living well with terminal brain cancer. (You can watch his wise and heartfelt talk here….)
  • create a ritual and lead singing for another friend’s upcoming 70thbirthday. Ditto for a friend turning 65 this summer.
  • co-create and lead a ritual for friends celebrating 50 years of marriage.
  • co-lead several “singing through grief” rituals in Minnesota and Iowa.
  • lead singing to open a conference for people bringing the human aspect of healing into healthcare.
  • sing for the residents of an elder care/memory care center with other members of the Morning Star Singers comfort choir.
  • offer a session on community singing at a retreat for health care professionals.

Over the past decade, I’ve been involved in leading and/or planning many memorial services for people ranging in age from birth to 93. Many of these were unique undertakings and included things like puppet shows, storytelling, harp music, poetry reading and wild dancing.

I have helped create many wedding ceremonies as well. Two of my wedding songs have been sung at numerous nuptials, sometimes led by me and sometimes by others.

I’ve helped make ceremonies for healing, entering hospice, blessing a child, preparing for dying and sanctifying a new home. It is a profound honor to be entrusted with these sacred moments in the life of my community.

Wherever you are, Pastor Laura, I bless and thank you for showing my thirteen-year-old self that a woman can be an inspiring spiritual leader.


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Your Voice Matters

I’m in my car driving home from an evening of Scrabble with my 94-year-old mom.

I’m listening to a podcast to keep me company on the familiar thirty-minute drive: “Making Obama” from WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago. In the first segment of the series, various people are recounting tales from former president Barack Obama’s early years as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago. Often a person speaks for a few minutes before the narrator identifies them by name.

One of those unidentified voices has a strange and immediate effect on me. After his first two or three words, I have a vivid physical sensation in the center of my chest. My heart area is immediately flooded with warmth. Then it feels as though something is opening or unfurling in there. My heart feels like it’s …. well……blooming.

I’m completely surprised and bewildered by this experience. Why am I feeling so strange? What is happening in my chest? And why on earth do I feel so darn happy at the sound of this voice?

The speaker continues to tell his tale and then, by way of a little laugh, I recognize the speaker at last. It is my friend and colleague, John McKnight.

John was a mentor to Obama in those community organizing days. Many years later, John and I collaborated with Peter Block and Walter Bruggemann in leading a number of large group conversations about creating and sustaining community. They took turns speaking and facilitating small group conversations; in between, I offered song. I came to call us “Three Wise Guys and the Muse.”

I can’t estimate the number of hours I listened to John’s voice over those years. Apparently, I took his way of speaking deep into my bones. How else could I explain the powerful physical response I had to hearing it through my car stereo speakers?

I am still intrigued by the fact that my body and emotions recognized John’s voice well before my brain registered his identity. Without knowing who was speaking, my body instantly recognized that I loved him dearly.

As a voice coach, I often hear myself saying how vital our vocal tone is in delivering our message. We could craft every word of our message to perfection, but if the tone we use to deliver it isn’t congruent, our listeners will come away confused or distrustful.

This recent experience with John’s voice has illuminated new questions for me about how our voices impact the bodies, minds and emotions of others.

How are my sounds – or yours – lodging in the body memories of the people around us?

What emotional traces are we planting in there that may return in some future time?

How can we become more conscious and choiceful about howwe say what we say to our family members, friends, colleagues and community members so that their memories of our voices are as vivid and joyful?

The first line on the back of my book, Full Voice, reads, “Your voice matters.” Thank you, John, for giving me a new and (literally) heart-warming illustration of this idea.

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On Naming Kip

The happy witnesses at court — Kip is in the middle.

A handful of us are standing around our cars, preparing to leave after singing for a woman in hospice. We are all members of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer comfort choir I founded in 2007 to bring singing and compassionate presence to people facing various challenges.

“I know we’ve been in choir together for months, but I can’t seem to recall your name,” one of them says to another.

“It’s Lisa,” Lisa says. And I blurt out – still in the spacey, wide-open place I go when I’m with someone in their dying time – “You are so NOT a Lisa!”

“Funny you should mention that,” Lisa says. “People have a hard time remembering my name all the time – and I don’t really relate to it myself. What do you think my name should be?”

Without a hint of hesitation, I gaze at them and say, “Kip. You are Kip.”


From that day on, Lisa became Kip to the Morning Star Singers. In the ensuing years, they began inviting friends to call them by that name and just last year, they told their family that they were going to make it official. Lisa was going to become Kip.

That is why I got up this sunny, lilac-scented morning and rode my bike downtown to a courtroom in the Hennepin County Government Center. Kip, their partner and two other friends joined several other groups who were there for name change court.

One young woman of Hmong descent was there to change her first name to one that makes more phonetic sense in English. The name she chose is the one my mother uses – “Wynn.” After her hearing, I ran over to congratulate her and tell her that she shares a name with my 94-year-old mom. She was elated to hear it.

Then it was Kip’s turn. The judge called us forward to sit at the official table. We were surprisingly nervous. After raising right hands, asking a series of questions and affirming this and that, the judge made it official – Kip was Kip – legally and forever. The other people waiting their turn quietly applauded.

We were all strangely moved by the experience. To claim a name that fits is a powerful thing. We were keenly aware that behind every person in that courtroom was a long and sacred journey to identity.

In my 58 years, I’ve named numerous pets – and have conjured nicknames for many beloved friends. Kip is the first person I’ve ever named. I still don’t quite know how it happened. I know it had something to do with being at the threshold of life and death. Or the fact that my heart always leaps up with joy and recognition whenever I encounter Kip.

After we leave the courthouse, Kip, their partner and I head off to a celebratory brunch. Over lemon-ricotta pancakes and Eggs Benedict, we make plans for a ceremony to mark this sacred change. We decide that the proper place to begin the ritual is on that curb where I first “heard” Kip’s name. From there we’ll process to a nearby lake to honor and celebrate this sacred and joyful naming.

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Laughing and Crying

Lia laughing

Like many other young women of my generation, I knew every word of Joni Mitchell’s iconic record, Court and Sparkby heart. I had some recent experiences that illuminated one particular line of her song “People’s Parties.”

Photo Beauty gets attention
Then her eye paint’s running down
She’s got a rose in her teeth
And a lampshade crown
One minute she’s so happy
Then she’s crying on someone’s knee
Saying, laughing and crying
You know it’s the same release

The idea that laughing and crying offers similar relief to a troubled heart always made perfect sense to me. I get the same deep, cleared out feeling from a good crying jag as I do from a breathless fit of hilarity.

My beloved friend, Lia Breen Falls, recently introduced me to a new aspect of this idea. Some of what Lia does in the world is being a devoted companion to people near the end of life. She absolutely loves this work – and brings creativity, deep love, harp music and compassionate presence to the people who are blessed to be in her care.

One of her beloved clients died last year after a long, slow waning after a stroke. Lia loved this woman and her family, so her passing was a great loss to her. At the same time, Lia knew that her deeply spiritual client-friend was completely at peace with dying. This woman had been struggling for a long time and had told Lia that she was looking forward to being free from her weary body.

In the week following her client’s death, Lia began crying in her car about the loss of her friend. The weeping then gave way to joyful laughter as she imagined how happy her friend was in her new spiritual realm. Then the tears returned again for a few moments before cycling back into laughter.

That day in the car, Lia coined the term “craughing” — a combination of the words crying and laughing — that perfectly describes this cycling between laughter and weeping, giggling and sobbing.

A few months later, Lia and I were at Village Fire, an intergenerational oral tradition singing camp in northeast Iowa. We’d had a difficult moment leading some singing before dinner one evening and went off to chat about why it had felt so hard to get the group in sync.

Before we knew it, we were lying on a carpet in the healing tent, having a good cry together. We’ve cried buckets of healing tears in our long friendship, so this was not an unusual occurrence. Soon the tears gave way to loud and raucous laughter. Then the tears welled up again and took us over. We were “craughing!”

I love many things about “craughing,” but perhaps the most significant is this: it helps me embody and express the truth that joy and grief are twins. When I feel joy about something, grief for its potential loss is always right there. And when I am grieving, my heart is full of joy for having had whatever has passed.

Laughing. Crying. “Craughing.” You know, it’s the same release…..

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Improvising Kindness

I am in a small city in the Upper Midwest to deliver several keynotes for health care professionals. The morning after my arrival, I am taking an early morning walk along the banks of the Missouri River. The geese are strutting around the park in pairs, uttering occasional guttural honks. The gulls are arguing out on the sand bar. The spring breeze still has enough winter in it to pink my cheeks.

I pick up a few pieces of trash along the way, dropping McDonald’s cups and beer cans into the trash barrels along the riverfront. I see a piece of paper a short way’s off and go to pick it up. As I read it over, I recognize that it is a notice from a collection agency.

The man to whom it is addressed is being strongly urged to pay $33.33 to a local heating and cooling company. I stand there, considering the story behind this piece of paper. What is happening in this man’s life that a $33 bill goes to collections? What was it that the heating company repaired for him and when? Did he know he wasn’t good for the money then or did something happen in the intervening months?

I realize suddenly that his story has now entered mine. I tuck the damp, slightly muddy paper into my pocket and return to my hotel room.

Once business hours begin, I call the heating and cooling company.

“Good morning,” I say to the woman who answers. “I’m calling with a rather strange request. I’d like to pay a past-due bill on condition that you don’t reveal my name to the recipient.”

There’s a long, long pause and then the woman bursts out in surprised laughter. “Well, that is justthe nicest thing. I sure wish there were more people like you in the world!”

I give her my credit card info, wish her a good day and hang up.

For the rest of the day, I remember that gesture with a deep shiver of joy. I incorporate the story into my two presentations that day. It fits perfectly into the section where I’m talking about how practicing kindness can help sustain our energy and humanity in the midst of chaos.

Now, I have no idea what the effects of my gesture will have on this stranger’s life. Will he even notice that his bill is paid? If he is getting a lot of collections calls, will he notice the absence of this one? Whatever crisis he is facing – in health, finances, family or addiction – will this little gift even matter to him? I will never the know the answer to these questions.

I do know this.

Offering an anonymous gift to a stranger brought healing to my own heart. It reanimated my connection to my fellow human beings, even the ones I will never meet. In the days since, I find myself sending prayers to the man as I swim my laps or drive across the prairie.

I wish him well.

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Humbly Courting a Song

I have been slowing savoring Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book, Braiding Sweetgrass. Among its many charms, the book opens the world of plants through both traditional indigenous wisdom and scientific inquiry. In many of the exquisitely crafted essays, Kimmerer refers to the indigenous way of approaching other living beings in a respectful, listening way.

In the last few years, I’ve been approaching songs in much the same manner.

I am sitting at my piano late at night playing a favorite song from my childhood, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Paul Simon.  I play it over and over in different ways, listening for something to “click.”

It’s not clicking, so I try something else. Nope. Still doesn’t feel right. I keep trying different approaches, listening deeply with “the ears of my ears” (to quote e.e. cummings). It feels as though I am in a negotiation with the song itself. The song feels alive, full of preferences and desires that deserve my respect.

On my next attempt, I make the song as tender, simple and quiet as I possibly can. At long last, I sense the song saying “yes.” Something clicks. And in that moment, I finally understand why I am compelled to sing and record the song: it reflects my commitment to seeing my aging mother through whatever comes. She is getting wearier and times are often rough. She is the silver girl I am sailing right behind. It seems that the song “knew” this all along.

When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all
I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down…..

Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind

© Paul Simon

When I finally record the song a few months later, I do so late at night with a candle burning in the darkened studio. I bring that tender, quiet spirit to the singing of it. I do what the song taught me to do.

Now I bring this “courting” process to many other songs, my own compositions as well as those composed by others. I come to every song with humility, curiosity and deep listening – much the way Robin Wall Kimmerer describes asking wild leeks permission before harvesting them.

I have absolutely no scientific proof that songs are sentient beings. I can say, though, that invaluable gifts come into my singing by assuming they do.

(Most of my blogposts about songs include a link to the song on SoundCloud. Because “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is copyrighted to another songwriter, I am unable to do so. To hear my version, you’ll need to purchase it on iTunes or some other platform. It is also on my “Yes” CD.)

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She Will Take It All With Her

Winifred Mershon Mathis McAfee – the best storyteller I know


When an old person dies, a library burns.     African proverb

Mom is turning 94 in a few days. She is still kind and funny and self-aware. Her memory, though, is developing gaps. As I watch her struggling for names and words, I am so grateful that she told me so much about her long and interesting life. I have been blessed to be raised by a fine storyteller.

My own memory is rich with many stories about her childhood in Depression-era Des Moines, Iowa:

The sound the ice wagon made coming up the street – horse hooves on cobblestones.

The way her father sat down at the piano to sing and play immediately after returning from work in his family real estate office.

How her elegant, brilliant mother worked outside the home – a highly unusual thing for a mother in the 1930’s.

The tender ministrations she received from Mrs. Morning, the Irish housekeeper and cook who helped raise her.

Long ice skating afternoons with friends and siblings.

Collecting nuts with her father at the local park.

She lived through amazing times. She was just five years old when the Depression hit and just graduating high school when Pearl Harbor happened. She and Dad got engaged quickly and then he went off to work in an Army hospital in India for four long years. Her college years were his war years.

Back when Mom was still in her 80’s, I wanted to catch as many of her vivid stories as I could. When I arrived with my laptop and a list of questions, she nervously wondered if she would have anything to say.


My rapid typing skills were put to a serious test. She was a fountain of stories full of rich detail and subtle nuance. Twenty-five pages later, I teased her about her earlier doubts.

Lately I have been recording her stories on my phone. I have hours of her voice recounting tales of her long life. She has gotten more honest about some of the hard times than she used to be. I’m honored when she trusts me with her “dark nights of the soul” stories. It helps me understand the roots of some of my own struggles.

These days Mom talks easily and often about dying. She frequently repeats this little riff. “When you go to sleep at night at my age, you never know whether you’re going to wake up in the morning. So, every night I say the little prayer I used to say as a girl: ‘Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’” And then she smiles.

I know she is at peace with dying. I am preparing for her departure every day. One of the most difficult parts of letting her go is this: when she dies, that rich treasure trove of story will go with her. No matter how many of her stories I catch, her unique experience of being alive during her lifetime will be lost forever.

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Thank You, Jim

With Jim Lenarz – my beloved friend, mentor and healer

As a younger person I used to think that all of my problems could be solved. There was a light at the end of every tunnel if I just talked it through or gained the correct insights or wept enough tears. Those were more hopeful times and yet there was a burden in that assumption as well. I worked so diligently toward that future that often I missed out on the blessings of the moment.

I no longer believe in a “better Barbara” out there in the future. I’m at peace with the unsolvable aspects of my story. I will live around some scars for the rest of my days – and do so joyfully and well.

My dad was a complicated guy. He was raised in the Depression and went marching off to World War II fresh out of high school. I can’t imagine what that experience must have been like for a tall (6’8”), nerdy boy from Des Moines, Iowa. His height kept him out of combat, but he saw the grisly results of it in his work at a hospital in India. Mom recently told me that he came back from his four years at war quite changed.

Dad loved routine, cigarettes, growing vegetables, being funny, collecting rocks – and above all, cutting, splitting, stacking and burning wood in our two woodstoves. Like many men of his generation, he was emotionally remote. His occasional flashes of anger were terrifying and his sarcasm, deadly.

Many things healed as I walked through his dying journey with him in 1991. He got sweeter in those last three months of his life. I forgave him everything by the time he took his last breath in my arms. Despite that blessed time, his harshness during my childhood is one of those lingering scars I assumed would be part of me forever.

And then along came Jim. I first met Jim in the 1990’s when he would come to my office to meet with my colleague. We became friends much later when his daughter reconnected us. By that time, Jim was in his 80’s and crusading for positive aging wherever he went. We got together to design a circle exploring community singing at his senior apartment complex….and instantly became friends.

What struck me most during our friendship was how warm and affectionate Jim was with me. He told me – eyes twinkling with fondness – that I was “beauty-full.” He told me he loved me often. I cuddled in close whenever I could, even when he was spending most of his time in a wheelchair. And, oh how we sang…with great gusto and fine harmony.

Through that flood of loving words, gazes, songs and gestures, Jim gradually healed the father wound I thought I’d carry through the rest of my days. I am so glad I got to thank him for that before he died a few months ago at 93.

Jim was a loving force in many lives. How blessed I am that mine was one of them.

Jim’s dear friend Marty and me holding Jim’s portrait after his memorial service

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Catching a Day, Catching a Moment

Photo by Nancy A. Johnson

It is September 2, 2009 in the late afternoon on a tiny island in the northern waters of Minnesota. I am sitting at the piano with tears in my eyes, catching the last few lines of a song. It’s that breathless, joyful moment when I feel the song taking its final shape. It feels like it’s a good song, though I won’t know for certain until a few days go by.

There is a gentle knock at the door. “Hi, Barbara. It’s Nancy. I just peeked in and noticed how beautiful the afternoon light is. May I come in and shoot some pictures?”

Nancy G. Johnson is a Twin Cities based photographer who has come to the island for a week of creating in the embrace of nature. She is working with large format black and white photography at this time, developing her photos in the old way — in a darkroom.  I gladly let her in and she sets up her equipment.

As I put the finishing touches on the song, I hear the gentle click of the shutter catching the moment. I feel at ease in her presence.

Suddenly, the irony of this moment strikes me. My song, “Perfect Day,” is made up of a series of images that capture the previous day’s delicious experiences. Things like the “brilliant watermelon dawn watched while half in dreaming,” “the sun’s hot shimmer warming chill skin” and “ripe tomatoes in a bowl, sweet basil crushed between the fingers.”

As I am full of joy while catching these images of my perfect day, Nancy is catching my image with her camera. We are both doing the exact same thing through distinctly different methods. I am using words and music; Nancy is using photography.

After returning home, Nancy generously gifted me with a framed copy of one of the photos she took that day. It sits on a stand in my living room, which also serves as my voice coaching studio. Many clients have remarked about the magical quality of the photograph. For one thing, it looks like it was taken back in the 1940’s. The cabin lends itself to that impression. There are no modern conveniences in sight – and the place was originally built back in the 1930’s. The piano is an antique with beautiful carving that gleams in the afternoon light. People say they can sense my happy absorption as I write the last few lines of the song.

I am so grateful that Nancy knocked on my cabin door that September afternoon. Her artistry added another layer of joy to the experience of composing “Perfect Day.” As I look at her beautiful photo every day, it reminds me that the arts have the power to transport us to other times and places – and perhaps more importantly – into the lived experience of other people.

Thank you, Nancy, for catching me catching my perfect day.

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The Song Inside Language

My friend Lia was born in Korea and spent her early years in Thailand. Her father was in the diplomatic corps and their family lived in several other countries before landing back in the United States when Lia was a teenager.

I’ve listened to Lia’s voice now for nearly twenty years. When she first started voice coaching with me, she brought her firstborn son in his little car carrier. That son is now in his second year of college.

Lia and I have also become dear friends and singing sisters. I’ve learned uncountable songs from her huge mental catalogue and there is rarely a time when we are together that doesn’t include singing.

Some time ago, Lia was recounting some of her early experiences in Thailand and something clicked. It struck me that her voice still carries a remnant of the tonal sound of the Thai language. It’s a vaguely sing-song-y quality in her speech. It’s a resonance I don’t hear in people who were raised exclusively in the United States. I have a hunch that in the early years of language acquisition, Lia heard these sounds all around her and – baby brains being what they are – she incorporated them into her permanent speech pattern. Just the other day she sang a Thai song she remembered from childhood….and there was that tonal quality again, loud and clear.

It got me thinking more about how powerful sound is within various languages.

A few years ago, I was leading a voice workshop at an Indian Health Board retreat. Most of the dozen or so people in the room claimed Ojibway heritage.

I presented the Five Elements Framework, a tool I created to help open up the full power and flexibility in the voice. We sampled five distinct sounds – earth, fire, water, metal and air – and I described how each one could be put to use in everyday communication. Near the end of the session, the participants suggested that we listen to each person at the workshop to identify which elements were most prevalent in their voice.

As we listened to each person, a pattern became clear. Each of the Ojibway people carried a strong mix of earth and water sounds. I’ve heard enough of this language to recognize that those two sounds are prevalent in how it is spoken. I wondered if the sound I was hearing in these voices was related to their original language. Here’s the thing – not one of the people in that room spoke Ojibway.

As we continued our discussion, we came upon the idea that the song inside the language – the cadences, rhythms and sounds that make it up – persisted in the speech patterns of the Ojibway people even if they didn’t speak the language. We recalled the painful history of the boarding schools where Native American children were severely punished for speaking their mother tongue – and were touched by how stubbornly they held onto fragments of their language in the face of such cruelty.

I wonder how many of us carry signatures like this – of sounds and languages from long ago. From now on, I’ll be listening for them.

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