February 2016: Variations on a theme

One night, the great jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was playing a gig at the small Village Vanguard club in New York. He was playing the soulful ballad “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You.” At the song’s most heart-rending point, a cell phone chirped to life. The interruption might be expected to kill the mood and ruin the performance. This isn’t the sort of thing giants of the music world like Marsalis put up with, and you might even expect he’d walked off the stage.

He didn’t. Without missing a beat, Marsalis picked up on the tune of the cell phone’s ring and incorporated it into the song he was playing. He performed variations on it, blending it with what he’d planned to play, and then drew the whole ballad back to the original theme.

It brought down the house. Marsalis transformed a jarring interruption into a moment of beauty and glory. He didn’t allow an unexpected shock to silence him, to distract him from his work. Instead, he turned the setback into a comeback.

There’s a metaphor, if not a lesson, for us to ponder.

We all, it seems, have moments when our performance of life is unexpectedly interrupted by some unwelcome event, some uglier than others. Job loss; divorce; death of a loved one; chronic or catastrophic illness; violence in the home, workplace or neighborhood; abuse or neglect of a child: these and so many other noises can break the melody. There are lesser interruptions, too, such as loneliness, heartbreak, depression, or any one of the natural transitions of life. Few of us have life skills equal to Marsalis’ musical ability, so we could use a little help getting back into the groove.

That’s the strength, the beauty, and the mission of FSM: Not “fixing” life’s broken melody — no one can do that — but helping us improvise, get back in tune, and feel the tempo again so that the music of our lives continues despite the disruption. The tune changes, we find our variations on the theme, but the song goes on. And that’s what matters.

That’s a powerful image. No matter how hurtful, how tragic, how unfair life becomes, or how out of tune we feel, together we can find variations on the theme of life within us and turn it into something beautiful and enriching.

It’s something to contemplate, anyway, as I watch the steam rise from my morning coffee in late winter.