ONE word for the new year. One word to describe the theme for your year? Friends here in Amsterdam decided this was a better way to do the traditional New Years Resolution. Instead of making resolutions that are unfortunately shorter than that new gym membership, what can we make of the year if we call it by a name? What do I desire for this coming year?
Over dinner with friends the other evening, we sat around the table and spoke our theme for the new year. When it came to my time to share, I could only think of a word I felt I needed at the time. “Discipline” I said comfortably to the table. Finding my routine here in a new city has been difficult, and the freelancer’s life doesn’t quite lend itself to a schedule chiseled in stone. And so discipline would keep me focused, waking early, and keeping productive.
But with a quick retort that surprised me, my friend Patricia disagreed. In a confident manor, she said it just wasn’t the right word for me. We all laughed at her rejection of my own theme. But “discipline,” she stated, had too many negative connotations. It brought up strict ideas of laws, with crime and punishment — and that’s not a joyful way to live the structure of your life in the coming year.
But she wasn’t going to reject my theme completely without having a better idea. “I don’t think you’re looking for discipline” she said. “I think what you’re looking for is rhythm.” And in that moment, it all came into alignment. It was definitely a better word, and it really was what I was looking for.
Adding to the perfection of the moment was the music playing in the background: The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five”. If you don’t know the track, it’s distinctive with its unusual 5/4 rhythm: bu-bap—bu-bap—boo-bap-bap. An experiment in jazz at the time turned out to be an instant hit and classic. Hearing that single word of “rhythm” and with those drums kicking was a moment when a concept erupts in your mind with exponential force. I understood it all in a moment, yet I couldn’t explain it quickly enough. In all of the chaos, there is an order.
In all of the chaos, there is an order.
My first introduction to jazz was a university course as a college freshman. My professor said the key to falling in love with jazz was to try to “listen to every single note played.” And so try an experiment by humming along to Paul Desmond’s saxophone solo in “Take Five”. You sense the up and down, and in that space between notes, a breath of life is formed. When you consciously follow every note, you begin to be swept up in it’s rhythm.
People don’t often think of jazz as having any order, but that’s completely false. In the most simplistic description of it’s structure: it begins with an introduction; then the melody of the song begins; and this leads to improvisation (the heart of jazz) and a chance for many of the musicians within the band to have a turn at improving; and finally, the entire band returns to the melody to form the outro of the song. It’s more dynamic than any other music I know. Every member of the band is actively listening, changing their dynamics and volume to match what the others are playing. It’s collaboration on the fly. If they didn’t alter their playing, the song would fall apart as soon as the improvisation starts.
And so, in this musical turn of my New Year’s Theme, what does it really mean? In the past months I’ve (quite certainly) been writing about uncertainty. I’m a single, expat freelancer living on the strings of a residence permit. Now I do have more structure than I lead you on to believe, but I can’t predict what will happen this year. Unlikely, but my visa for Holland could in fact be rejected, and I could be back in the Portland in a few months. For a foundation, there’s not much concrete poured at the moment.
Embracing rhythm gives life structure. You pick up that note and put down the beat. In active listening, you let the momentum carry you along in its river, and refuse to have it take you under. No longer are the waves just hitting you front to back, left to right, but you ride on top of them. The next bend may have a different tempo, and you’ll adjust when the time comes.
I’m making this all up as I go along. This is a time when life is about improvisation. My experiences have been my music lessons, and they will never stop influencing my future melodies. It can’t be transcribed to paper, but the melody has already been formed, and I know it by heart. I’m in a loose variation of it now, and I’ll come back to it later. But like jazz, life doesn’t fit neatly together like we’d most desire or expect. What we can do in the meantime is listen to every note that finds us, and begin to learn how to fall in love with the redemptive nature of the song we hear.
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