Day of the Dead — in August

On August 8, 1991 my father, Willis Robert McAfee, Jr., died in my arms after a very short illness with pancreatic cancer. I’ve written a lot about that experience in the intervening years — in this blog, song and poetry. He was only 67 years old. My maternal grandfather, Fred Mathis, died on the exact same day five years later. He was 96.

As I write these words on the anniversary of their deaths, I am considering how best to honor these two men.

They were so different in temperament, appearance, and experience. Dad was a World War II veteran and middle school earth science teacher. I theorize that much of his humor – which walked the razor’s edge between wit and sarcasm – was formed by the fact that he was extraordinarily tall at 6’8”. He got a lot of attention for that, much of it uncomfortable, I imagine. Dad was a science geek, rock hound, and self-described pyromaniac. How he loved cutting, splitting and burning wood in the two woodstoves! He enjoyed routine, cigarettes, growing vegetables (organically – before that was a thing), planting trees, and sitting for hours in the backyard watching birds.

Grandpa was inordinately handsome, socially graceful, and gifted with a gorgeous baritone. He loved getting people singing and did so as a choir director well into 80’s. As a young man he sang with his quartet on a weekly radio show in Des Moines, Iowa. After he became a father, he joined the family real estate business and relegated singing to church and community settings. He also loved growing flowers in his beautiful backyard garden. And how he loved an adventure! I remember hair-raising drives around Des Moines in his red Mercury as he gawked at this or that new building instead of keeping his eyes on the road. And he was a social butterfly. Even when he was losing some of his words to memory issues, his warm and twinkling charm won over all of the caregivers at his nursing home.

I carry many gifts from these two influential men in my story. Like Dad I am tall and witty, but work diligently to stand up straight and keep my humor kind. I think of him when I marvel at something in the natural world or hear a fascinating science story on the radio. Also when I watch the sweat drip off the end of my nose in the garden – just the way his did.

Like Grandpa I love all things singing – as a soloist and song leader. My yard is full of blooming things and I enjoy lending my energy to a lot of different projects.

I can’t end this reflection without mentioning my mother. She lost the two most important men in her life on the same day five years apart. It is her vivid storytelling that has kept their memories fresh and alive all these years. Thank you, Mom.

And thank you, Dad and Grandpa, for all the goodness you brought to my life.

I am grateful to come from such fine (and flawed) people.


Here is a poem I wrote for Dad many years ago. I performed it – shaking in my boots — at one of my early concerts with he and Mom in the front row.

My Father

My father took a piece of land
like some men take a wife: for life.
Planted a pine at each child’s birth.
Flattered it with forest-fresh birches.

He watched the elms die there
And planted – patient – again:
buckeye, blue spruce, aspen, crab, walnut.

My father took a piece of land
and sometimes I think he loved it
more than he loved me.

The land did not feel the sting of his anger
Or the shadow of his despair.
It accepted his silence
when he sat so still and so alone
on long summer evenings.
My father took a piece of land
and sometimes I think it was his only friend.

Had it not been for this land, I might not know him.
I met his patience there in the rhythm of
till, plant, mulch and harvest.
I met his wonder there
in oriole nests and fall bonfires.
I met his strength there
in the ax cracking on frozen oak.

My father took a piece of land
and sometimes we worked it side by side.
It was at those times that I knew we were kin
and that our roots were fed in common
by this dark, rich soil.

© Barbara McAfee


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The Joy of Structure – Peggy Rubin, William Shakespeare, and Bald Eagles

I’ve been accused of being a free spirit all my life….and with good reason. I treasure my freedom, revel in unscheduled days, and balk at things that confine my choices. It took a brilliant teacher and William Shakespeare to awaken a deep love of structure in me.

Many years ago I was attending a weekend workshop with a beloved mentor, Peggy Nash Rubin. Peggy is the founding director of the Center for Sacred Theatre in Ashland, Oregon. In the course of our weekend together, she recited Shakespeare’s sonnet 29 which begins,

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate…

I was transfixed. The words seemed to shimmer as they flew from her mouth. She breathed life into each syllable, coaxing Shakespeare’s assembly of words into pure music.

I was so inspired by her recitation that I went home and learned the sonnet by heart. I still recite it to this day, usually on long car rides. Once I’d learned Shakespeare’s sonnet I inspired to create one of my own.

The Shakespearean sonnet has many constrictions in rhythm, line length and rhyming scheme. And I – the lover of freedom– was surprised by how deeply I fell in love with structure. The rigors of the form forced my imagination into new territory. I had to find fresh ways to express an idea. Unexpected metaphors and phrases arose from my imagination, called forth by strict limitations.

I’ve written several sonnets in the intervening years, but none I enjoy more than the one the bald eagles inspired.

I share my neighborhood with a family of bald eagles. They nest in a tall white pine a few blocks from my home on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. One day as I was walking near their nest, my eye caught the shadow of one of them passing close overhead. The first line of a sonnet floated into my imagination. Then came the next line and the next as I finished my hour-long sojourn along the river.

Eventually the whole piece was completed but for the last two lines. I found them a few months later riding in a car in the mountains of Montana. As soon as I spotted a bald eagle sitting atop a telephone pole against the blue-blue sky, I felt the last two lines unspool into my mind.

So with a bow to Peggy Rubin, Will Shakespeare, and the bald eagles of the Mississippi River and the Montana Rockies, I give you….

Eagle Sonnet

My eye just caught your muscled wings in flight
An aching joy surged here inside my chest
Your heavy body lifting toward the light
Pulled me in tandem upward to be blessed

I gaze into your fierce and burning eye
It speaks to me of distances unbound
Recalls the song of wide and wild sky
Where whistling wind becomes the soul’s true sound

When death has left my body just a shell
My friends will build a platform in a tree
And bid you come and feast and take your fill
That bird and woman form one entity

There is no better heaven I can dream:
Exchanging woman’s voice for eagle’s scream

© Barbara McAfee


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Meditation Improvisation – I Found a Way

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I am a devoted lap swimmer. My time in the pool (or lake) opens me to a kind of reflection and inspiration that can only come from repetitive activity that doesn’t take full concentration. Swimming is my yoga. It is my meditation. It is my most consistent mindfulness practice.

The other day as I swam I remembered something. When I was in elementary school, I would come home every day and throw a little red, white and blue plastic ball onto the garage roof over and over again. I recalled how much I loved doing this: tossing the ball onto the pitched roof, watching it roll down and catching it in my waiting hands. I can still feel the pleasure of it in my body. I remember how the repetitive motion set my mind free to dream and rest. I talked to myself. I became calm and happy. That ritual was a balm to my tender soul aching from the slings and arrows of bullies, anxiety, and ferocious self-consciousness.

Later on in high school I learned to juggle. There was one summer – or was it two? – when I spent hours juggling tennis balls in the back yard, counting how many times I could throw the balls before dropping one. I found the same kind of peacefulness, focus and joy as I did throwing my little ball onto the garage roof.

As a younger child, I worked things out on the park sized swing set in the backyard. I would swing as high as I could, then leap off into the air to land in the grass. I did this activity over and over, especially when I was frustrated with something. The rhythm and strength of pumping the swing higher and higher gave way to a sense of release and flight. Landing back on earth, unharmed, made me feel invincible.

There in the pool last week, I realized that I had figured out a way to meditate even before I knew anything about that word. I grew up going to church and my mother was (and still is) a praying person. Somehow I knew that wasn’t the practice for me. Instead a resourceful part of my young self cobbled together a kind of tai chi from the materials at hand – a ball, a roof, gravity, a swing set, repetition – to create the state of calm awareness that I now find in the water.

I honor the wisdom of my young self who found so many ways to nourish, heal and rest in the improvised temple of my back yard. That way of practicing mindfulness – through repetitive movement – is with me today. It awaits me inside that moment when I first slip into the water, settle my goggles over my eyes, and plunge below the surface of the things.

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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.


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

“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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