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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Compared to What?

Just about every week I hear myself saying the same phrase.

When a voice client tells me how terrible he is at public speaking…
When a friend complains about how out of shape she is….
Even when I’m giving myself a hard time about some perceived failing in my character….

What is this handy phrase?
“Compared to what?”

The moment I say it, there is a deep shift in the conversation. An unexamined judgment receives some scrutiny.

Some years ago I took that phrase on my annual songwriting retreat and started creating a song. (You can listen to it here.)

Compared to what?
Compared to who?
Where’s that standard come from that we’re measuring up to?
Compared to what?
Compared to who?
There’s nobody else who’s just like you. 

After I created the chorus, I interviewed other songwriters on the retreat about the ways they compare themselves to others. One man confessed that he thought his belly was too soft. A woman said she was embarrassed by how bad she was with money. I learned a lot about my songwriting friends – and harvested some great material for the verses of the song.

I’m foolish with money.
I talk too much.
My abs aren’t sexy, they’re soft to the touch.
You’re shy at parties and I’m way too tall
I don’t look like those people on TV at all….

Of course, asking such questions of others prompted many of my own answers. The scathing judgments I used to heap on myself were crueler than any I would inflict on another person. Like many women, I was critical of my body. Any small error I’d make would be dissected and repeated ad nauseum. I’m grateful that that inner voice has gotten kinder in the past years.

I’m much too rowdy to be a real girl
We don’t do enough to save the world
Your moods are dramatic
My tongue gets crass
And don’t get me started on the shape of my ass….. 

When I’m lost in self-judgment, I’m not available to connect with the outside world. That inward-looking trance makes me miss out on the beautiful people and experiences all around me. If that judgment yielded anything good, perhaps it would be worth the time and energy it takes. But honestly, the only thing judgment ever creates is … more judgment.

Yes, you’re the only you and I’m the only me
And both parties are required to make a decent “we”
Let’s drive the comparisons out of our head
And leave it for the apples and the oranges instead

I love the way that a really good question – like “compared to what?” – creates a shift in awareness even before you answer it. Tell me, are there other good questions you employ in your everyday life?

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Molly’s Song

Many of my songs emerge from a deep connection with another person. I’m inspired let them know what I see in them through the vehicle of song.

Nearly twenty years ago, I created a song for my friend Molly in collaboration with pianist, Diane Benjamin. Molly was just turning sixteen and was grieving the recent death of two close sister-friends in a car accident. I couldn’t imagine how it was for her to walk through such calamity so young. As one of the “aunties” in her community, I felt called to hold up a mirror to the beauty and strength I saw in her.

She’s the voice of the bell
She’s the heart of the lion
A dance of green willow on a dusky breeze
In her eyes I see the centuries knowing
And whatever she looks at
I know she sees 

I presented her song to her at her birthday celebration that year and eventually recorded it on a CD (you can hear it here). Her mother Diana asked to learn the song so she could sing it for Molly any time. Now Molly hears her song on every birthday. It’s become part of the family’s ritual for celebrating her.

She’s walked unflinching
Through the doorways of darkness
With tender strength that travels long
Her face is full of a young girl’s secrets
But her life it is singing a woman’s song

I often perform this song for women’s groups as a way to acknowledge and celebrate the young girl in each of us. Who among us has received the kind of witness and support we needed when we were teenagers? The song often opens women to healing tears. Many of them bring the song home to share with the young women in their lives.

Good company for your every journey
Sweet rain to nourish all your trees
Your heart’s desires and the grace to receive them
These things and this song –
Your gifts from me

There is a greeting in the Zulu language – sawubona – which means, “I see you.”
Is there a more beautiful and generous way to acknowledge a fellow human being? Is there anything we yearn for more than being deeply seen and appreciated by another person?

I hope Molly continues to feel seen whenever she hears her song. And I hope that the girl in your life – whether it’s you or someone you know – can see her true beauty through this music.

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I Love to Swear: In Praise of “Spicy” Words

I am in the studio recording my fourth CD and I am swearing my head off.

I apologize to my producer for all of the cursing. I cuss a lot in the recording studio. I love being there, but the intensity of recording calls forth an intensity in me, one that is most frequently expressed in exuberant expletives. I tell him that someday I intend to give it up.

He says, “Oh no…don’t give it up! You love swearing because you’re a poet. Swear words are like spicy food in your mouth.”

Well. That’s the day I give up the idea of giving up swearing.

Swearing is one of the ways I temper seriousness. Throwing a little irreverence into a reverent situation allows for even more depth. The surprise is disarming – much like humor is – and suddenly people open up in a new way.

A few well-placed cuss words also help dispel some of the projections people put on performers or leaders. Being at the front of the room can make people seem larger than life. I’m uncomfortable with being put on a pedestal, so swearing is one of the ways I take myself down a notch.

Last summer I wrote a little jazz song in praise of swearing. Here is the first verse…..

I love to swear
Love those four letter words
That burn like hot pepper on my tongue
There are ways swearing should be done:
With a wink and the cock of an eyebrow….

 I do have strong opinions about what makes for good swearing. When I hear people doing it poorly, that is, without wit or humor, I find it offensive. When I overhear people using the f-bomb every other word — for adjectives, adverbs, nouns – it makes my ears hurt. What a waste of a good Anglo-Saxon expletive!

I also dislike when swear words malign a person or group, especially women. Swearing should be fun and light-hearted (unless you stub your toe….).

I express that sentiment in the third verse …

I love to swear
But I must admit
I prefer to keep my mother out of it
And “bitch” is a verb, but not a noun
Do we need another way to put a woman down?

 And where is the second verse? I’m not including it here because…well…it has a LOT of swear words that aren’t generally used in respectful company. Which brings me to my last opinion about swearing: it’s essential to discern when and where swearing is going to work and when it isn’t.

I once gave my CD “Britches” to a young man in a small northern Minnesota town to thank him for his work at an event where I was performing. He sent it back with a note saying he couldn’t accept it because one of the songs “included swearing and a reference to nudity.”

The offending lines in the title track?

I’m getting too big for my britches
I guess I’ll just have to go nude
I’ll become one of those bitches
And cultivate a bad attitude.

I love to swear. And that means I’ll risk offending someone sometime. I intend to keep learning how to do it better and better.

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Laurence Cole: Singing Together to Nourish the Soul and Re-Enchant the World

First thing I notice is that voice: robust, deep, resonant. It reaches into every nook and cranny of the room, of the ear, of the heart – and fills it with life. I bless the day Laurence Cole came to my singing community to share his nourishing songs.

He builds them like beautiful layer cakes, one part at a time, using the oral tradition. He sings a line; we sing it back. We continue back and forth until we know it. Then he moves onto the next part. The beauty of this tradition is that people can experience the transformative and nourishing gift of harmony without knowing a thing about music theory, without reading a lick of music.

Many of Laurence’s songs are built on the words of great wise ones — people like Angeles Arrien, Rumi, Hafiz, and John O’Donohue. When those words are wrapped in melody, harmony, and the heartbeat rhythm of his djembe drum, they permeate our knowing in a different way than if we’d read them on a page. We remember them later.

Laurence is a strapping septuagenarian who lives with his “sweetie” (as he calls her), Deanna Pumplin, in an eco-village in Port Townsend, Washington out on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula. He co-leads a community choir there with Gretchen Schleicher and works on his gardens and compost piles in between cranking out a prolific stream of song.

He’s spending a lot of time traveling these days, tending a vital and booming singing movement. Large singing gatherings have been popping up in Oregon, North Carolina, Iowa, Washington, and Hawaii – and Laurence is our venerable elder. At Village Fire, the singing camp in Iowa where I spend time with Laurence, I often hear his voice ringing through the valley long after much younger folks have gone to bed.

A recent crowd-funding project supported the creation of a site where his music could be accessed for free. Each song has its own page with a story from Laurence, recordings of each part, lyrics, and a link to download sheet music. It’s a work-in-progress, grounded in a community’s affection and gratitude for Laurence’s generosity and genius.   He has also released a gorgeous CD and songbook – also available at the site.

You can find all of these treasures here: www.laurencecole.com

I’ll give my beloved friend the last word.

These are all songs for singing together – to build a sense of connection and harmony amongst a group of people.

 Songs for the joining of voices with ecstatic rhythms to help us move and sway
and clap our hands and beat our drums and improvise new harmonies and riffs
and goof around with mouth and body percussion
and just play.

 Songs for calling up our passion and love, courage and tenderness,
joy and reverence for the beauty and grace of life
in this miraculous and precious world.

These are songs to remind us of the caring support of our ancestors,
to remind us we are not alone and to “re-spect,” take another look,
at ourselves and all our fellow beings
in the light of wholeness and compassion.

 Songs for generating the particular pleasure and sweet affection
that builds among us from playing with sound and rhythm together.

 Songs for making a sonorous feast of beauty, to feed what feeds us –
the spirits of life that hold and nourish us and give us our being.

 Songs that help us through despair and sorrow
over the travails of a troubled time.

 These are songs for holding the dark and the light together,
helping us plant the seeds of hope and renewal
and to reawaken trust in ourselves and in each other.

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Laurence and Barbara at Village Fire

 

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