Monday, November 19, 2012

Unity in Diversity

"Unity in Diversity" was written on a banner hanging over the stage at the Santana concert my guy and I attended over the weekend. I didn't know why it was there or what I was meant to think about it

When the band started playing, I forgot all about it.

The music was incredible. Anyone familiar with Carlos Santana knows what an amazing musician he is. Anyone familiar with his band knows that every musician playing on that stage is brilliantly talented.

After fifteen minutes of dazzling music, Carlos Santana spoke to the audience. He is a spiritual man for whom music is a gateway to a higher consciousness. I don't mean that in an airy-fairy, new age kind of way. I mean that, for him music transforms our experience from self-absorption to self-forgetting. From little "I" to all-inclusive "we." He talked about the uniqueness of each of us and how, together, we create a beautiful pattern of experience that becomes complete and whole because each individual brings something to it.

That's when I started to get it. We are all different. Yet we are all the same. We hurt the same. We love the same. We laugh the same. But we are unique.

When the band started playing again, the musicians showed me exactly how it all works, this unity in diversity thing.

In jazz, of course, everything depends on improvisation. And improvisation only works when there is a structure to support it.
  • First the bands plays the piece all the way through to establish the "parameters"--notes, keys, chords, phrases from which each player will depart and to which each will return.
  • Next the first player (often, in this case, Santana) does his improvisation, creating his own phrases inspired by the main melody and his own feeling in the moment.
  • Then, each player takes off from the player before him using the improvisation he just heard to inform his take on the piece.
  • Often, two players jam with each other, challenging, questioning, commenting on what the other just played in a fascinating musical conversation.
  • In the end the band plays the whole piece through again just as they did it in the beginning, only now it's different because of everything we've heard leading up to this final run-through.
That is the perfect illustration of unity in diversity. 

The piece doesn't exist until the band plays it. It's only squiggles on a sheet of paper. 

The piece is different every time they play it because the musicians change their improvisations to suit the mood, the occasion, the audience, their frame of mind.

There is no music unless the band plays together--as one unit--at the beginning and again at the end, following the notes as they are laid out on a piece of sheet music somewhere.

And yet, there is no music either unless each musician puts his unique twist on the piece during his improvisation, subtly changing it, making it his own.

Maybe there's an analogy in fiction writing. 

Maybe the writer creates a story--squiggles on a piece of paper--that comes to life because she imagines a world and peoples it with characters who have emotions, perform actions and create consequences for themselves that others can identify with.

But the story is not complete until readers add their spin to it, bringing their own experiences to bear on what the writer has created. Each reader's take on the story is uniquely his own. How he interprets each character's actions, motives and words reflects his own life. Yet the "story"--the words on the page--remains the same.

Unity in Diversity. Or is it Diversity in Unity?

Sunday, November 11, 2012


I know, I know. Surrender is a word with bad connotations. We're taught we should struggle for the results we want, no matter what. Here are the phrases that ring in our ears from parents, teachers, troop leaders, and coaches from the moment we are out of diapers (and sometimes before.):

  • Fight to the end 
  • Never give up
  • Be in it to win it
  • Don't be a quitter
  • If you're not a winner, you're a loser
  • Battle against all odds
  • Giving up is the only disgrace
  • Do or die
I could go on and on. I'm sure you could too. 

We take it for granted that winning is everything. Or, at the very least, if we don't win it all, we should struggle on to the end never admitting defeat. 

Have you ever listened to the contestants on those reality competition shows? They look into the camera and, through gritted teeth, tell us:
  • I can't lose it now. I've put everything on the line.
  • My whole life depends on winning it all.
  • Coming in second is not an option.
  • I didn't come here to make friends. I came here to win.
  • My kids (or my wife, my husband, my parents, my town) are depending on me. I can't let them down.
Admittedly, a lot of this stuff is scripted, designed to get the viewers juiced into believing the stakes are incredibly high and that winning is of earth-shattering importance.

Even so, someone has to lose. The contestants know it. The producers know it. The writers who put these brave words into the mouths of the contestants know it. We know it.

So what happens to the fifteen or so contestants who do not win the big prize? Do their lives go into the toilet? Do their loved ones despise them? Do we despise them?


Usually just participating is richly rewarding. Singers and dancers, for example, are likely to launch successful careers based on being seen and heard on the show.

But I want to propose a whole different way to approach life's struggles.


If you want to be a dancer but have no talent you are wasting your life if you don't surrender  to the truth. Admitting you can't dance, but you sing beautifully opens the door to a productive life. 

If you have a disability, surrendering to that reality allows you to take it into account and work around it. Denying it creates only failure.

Here's what I mean: 

I am a woman with short, round legs. That's my genetic heritage. I can't change it. My legs will never get any longer. Diet and exercise (I know from painful experience) makes them stronger but only a fraction leaner.

I can either bemoan the fact that my legs are not long and lean or accept the fact.

Bemoaning leads me to only poor options:

  • Trying feverishly to change the shape and length of my legs. (impossible)
  • Trying to outrun long-legged people even though I'll never be able to beat them. (impossible)
  • Viewing myself as flawed or second-rate. (all too likely)
But here's what surrendering to reality can give me:
  • the freedom to enjoy the strength and flexibility of my legs. 
  • The recognition that I get to have defects, they don't make me a lesser person.
  • The ability to let go of the concept of "defects" altogether and celebrate differences.
Surrender is a beautiful thing. 
  • It allows us to stop wasting time.
  • It allows us to live life on life's terms. 
  • It gives us a rich appreciation of the endless possibilities before us.
  • It frees us from self-limiting expectations.
In Denzel Washington's latest movie, Flight, he plays alcoholic pilot, Whip Whitaker, who struggles to maintain the illusion that he is not addicted to alcohol. At the end of the movie, he breaks down and tells the truth to others and to himself. He surrenders to the reality that he is an alcoholic. Later, in prison, he says (I'm paraphrasing), "This may sound strange given where I am, but for the first time in my life, I am truly free."

So next time you hear someone (or yourself) praise that "I'll never give in" mentality, ask yourself if it's worth it to for us to butt our head against a stone wall (believe me, our head will give way long before the wall) or to admit defeat and walk around it to the other side.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sunny and Storm

I've mentioned my two Siberian huskies, Sunny and Storm before-- but not enough to tell you how they influence my life

First of all, they are brothers. They've been together from birth.
I don't know which one was born first, but I can tell you that Storm is bigger than Sunny and quite a bit more athletic.

I got them when I going through a personal crisis--a divorce to be exact. I thought a puppy would give me something to think about besides myself.

I picked out Storm first. He was a beautiful grey color. And he was strong, healthy and affectionate. But then I picked up his brother,  a tiny ball of reddish fluff that fit exactly into the space between my neck and shoulder. He nuzzled against me peacefully, his eyes closed as if he'd found the place in the world he never wanted to leave.

Maybe I should take this one, I thought. He's so sweet. But how can I leave the grey one?

I couldn't.

Well, I said to the breeder, how much more work can two be than just one? Wisely, she didn't answer me. If she had she either would have had to lie or tell me to forget about adopting two puppies at once if I wanted to retain my sanity.

For the first four months I had them, I slept less than I wanted to--they did not have the same bathroom schedule, not by a long shot! And I had almost no time to tend to my ordinary pursuits since I was either wrangling them out of the bushes or the fences or the middle of the street, or watching to see whether they needed to go outside.

Did you know that Siberian huskies are great escape artists? During those first few months they would wriggle through what I thought was a secure fence and wander the neighborhood, small balls of fur, faster than they looked and hard to catch. Did you ever try to catch two puppies clever enough to run in opposite directions when you try to seize them?

They are almost two years old now and great pals. They love to run wildly after each other or wrestle or pull each other's tails. They are best buddies. And why not? They've never been separated. Not once!

They are both sweet-tempered and affectionate. They both want to please and love meeting new people. They also adore meeting new dogs to play with, though they prefer each other's company to all others.

But having said that, they could not be more different.

Storm, as I said, is bigger, more athletic, stronger. He learned how to manage stairs first. He jumped into the back of the jeep long before Sunny could manage it. He climbs better, jumps higher and runs farther than his brother. He is also more affectionate and far more willing to please. You only have to call Storm once and he's there.
Storm is sweeter and enjoys being petted more.

Sunny, on the other hand, is stubborn, willful. In a completely non-agressive way, he challenges to see if he can avoid doing what he's supposed to, or more accurately, if he can do what he's decided is appropriate. If I call him, for example, he stops doing what he was doing and stands stock still. That's his compromise position. (He used to run in the opposite direction until we scared him one day by leaving the park without him.)  Sunny loves affection too, but controlling his brother is more important to him.

He lords it over poor Storm. Storm will not try to go upstairs, though Sunny spends as much time as he wishes up there. It's nothing I've done--I've invited both of them to come up. But Storm will not budge from the living room, though he whines piteously all the time Sunny is upstairs. It's not that Sunny growls or threatens. He just IS. Somehow through his very bearing and posture, Storm knows what is expected of him.

It beats me how he does it!

But I think I have learned something from observing my dogs. Leadership is not what you say or even what you do. It's what you are. It's how your being communicates your expectations of others and yourself. It's your energy and how you project that energy into the universe.

Maybe if we want to influence others we need to see to our level of confidence and self-belief.