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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A Postcard from the Snowy Forest

The snow has been late in coming this year. Even the most promising snowstorms have veered off course to dump their treasure elsewhere. Our winters have been like this for the past several years – more rain and ice, less white stuff.  More treacherous driving, less skiing.

At last we get a long day of fluffy, floating snow. It’s measured in inches instead of feet, but I can tell it’s enough. I haul my cobwebby cross-country skis up from the basement, dust off my boots and load it all into my car.

I drive to a local regional park, step into my elderly, unfashionable skis and set off on my first good ski of the season. The trail is an invitation: two parallel grooves carved in blue-white snow leading into bare-branched forest.

The sky is a bright, clear blue as it often is when the temperature is a mere handful of degrees. As I start out, my hands are stiff with cold in their heavy mitts. I feel my cheeks grow pink in the frigid breeze. I’m smiling and giddy.

The first few strokes confirm that the snow is perfect. My skis whisper — “shhhhhh” — into the silent forest. My poles rhythmically crunch and squeak with each dig into the snow. I feel the subtle contours of the land unfurling under my skis. At the first hill, I surrender to gravity and sigh with pleasure all the way down.

Little puffs of glittering snow leap suddenly from the high branches, set loose by a slight stirring of wind. My torso heats up like a furnace, pushing against the force of the cold – and slowly winning out. It’s only a matter of time before that warmth seeps out to my extremities. Soon I am unzipping outer layers and pushing my hat off my sweaty forehead. When I lick my lips, I taste the ice crystals that have formed on the tiny hairs there. My heart is thundering in my chest. I’m alive.

I seem to have the park to myself. I see no other skiers out on the trail.

But I do encounter other friends there. Coming around a corner, my eye catches the tawny hide of a deer. My heart leaps as it always does. Tears spring to my eyes. I stop to watch her and notice three more grazing here and there among the trees. Now and again they turn to glance at me, then step calmly forward on their nimble feet. One of them lazily flaps her white tail in half-hearted alarm as I finally ski by.

I finish the loop as long blue shadows stretch through the tree trunks. The lowering sun slips into the clouds, painting the sky with suddenly tropical hues.

I stop for one last savoring – my beating heart in the still forest, my burning cheeks in the icy air, the rosy sunset glow on the snow, the blessing of getting to do this thing I love so much one more time.

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I Am Breathing Tree, Tree is Breathing Me

This story begins in the winter woods on a pair of cross-country skis. I am at my favorite skiing park with my friend, Margie Weaver.

As we ski along the trails, my eyes soak up the intriguing pattern of bare branches against bright blue winter sky. I’m breathing hard from joyful exertion. Suddenly, the two ideas collide – tree branches, lung branches.  The word “bronchia” – which describes the structure of the lungs – comes from the Latin word for branch. The beautiful pattern I’ve been admiring in the trees is mirrored inside my own body. Nature does this all the time, creating beautiful symmetries among living things.

I consider how much longer trees have been on planet Earth than human beings. How many eons have they been faithfully pumping out oxygen before there were any lungs to breathe it? I am struck by the idea that my lungs evolved perfectly to make use of what the trees create.

I begin singing softly: I am breathing tree; tree is breathing me.

I then recall a story I heard on the radio from a young tree protector camped out at the top of a large redwood. He described how vividly he could feel the trees shutting down photosynthesis as the sun set each day – and reawakening production at the arrival of the sun each morning.

I sing again:
The sun goes down; the trees exhale; on their sweet breath, our dreams all sail.
At break of day, they open wide to let the gift of light inside.

I catch up with Margie and ask her to get out her phone to record the song that is being born on the ski trail. After we capture the beginnings, we continue on.

My thoughts turn toward philosopher Martin Buber’s idea of “I and Thou” – which proposes that human beings find the Divine in other living things when they address them, not as “It,” but as the sacred “Thou.” Another verse unfurls ….

My lungs hold branches upside down: bronchia and leafy crown.
I from egg and Thou from seed – each gives what the other needs.

I become keenly aware of my breathing. Each inhale becomes a blessed gift of life-giving oxygen from my biological elders, the trees. Each exhale of carbon dioxide becomes a gift to their flourishing.

Our songs twine on the dancing wind; I breathe out what you breathe in.
Rising sap and beating heart: one of Life’s great works of art.

Warm tears stream down my cool cheeks as I praise the generous, elegant pattern of which I am a part.

Symbiotic mystery: breathing tree and me.

Listen to “Breathing Trees” here.

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I first encountered the story of the ancient Greek goddess, Harmonia, at a Sacred Theatre workshop led by my wise teacher, Peggy Nash Rubin. Peggy is a Shakespearean director, actor and scholar who founded the Center for Sacred Theatre in Ashland Oregon. I found her work to offer a beautiful marriage of many things I love – theatre, self-development, play, community and spirituality.

Peggy told me that Harmonia — the goddess of concord, harmony and cosmic balance — was the daughter of Aphrodite (the goddess of love) and Ares (the god of war). The way I remember Peggy telling the story is this – Harmonia struggled to bridge the differences between her parents. Though she failed at that task, she became beautiful in her attempt.

At first, I found it surprising that Love and War combined to create Harmony. I thought of harmony as being something nice – pleasing to the ear – easy.

As I studied this idea more deeply, I learned that harmony is much more dynamic and alive than that. What creates harmony in music is a recurring pattern of tension and release – dissonance that resolves to harmony again and again. Even the music of J.S. Bach – considered by many to be innately harmonious and pleasing – is full of dissonance. More than 50 percent of the intervals in any of his pieces are dissonant.

This movement between dissonance and harmony reminds me of …well…life. Our hearts beat in a pattern of tension and release. Our lungs inflate and deflate. Women give birth through a series of contractions. Our muscles work best in balanced cycles of work and rest.

Nature, too, follows its cycles of seasons. As I write this blog, we are in the middle of snowy mid-winter cold snap. The Mississippi River is frozen and the trees are bare. In this time of cold and stillness, it’s hard to imagine the long, green days of high summer. This tension will give way to that warmth eventually.

The most satisfying stories contain this pattern of tension and release. Without a conflict or dissonance, there is no tale to tell. And the most interesting people I know have passed through many cycles of challenge, learning and resolution.

I am blessed to spend a fair amount of my life singing harmony with other people. Often when the singing begins, our voices are at war with each other. We are inhabiting the Ares part of Harmonia’s genealogy.  We sing too loudly. Someone drags behind the beat while someone else rushes the rhythm. The sound waves we are creating are literally banging into each other.

As we continue to sing and listen, though, an alchemy begins to happen. Our breathing aligns. Our ears entrain. We make minute adjustments in how we are singing. Different notes and disparate voices begin to meld into one harmonious whole. We step into the mysterious space between Love and War and do our ancient dance of tension and release – together.

What could be better than that?

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