It sat there, in the corner. Hasn’t been moved in years. The man that used it is gone, but the memories are still resonating, vivid and clear. I watched him play the accordion and was in awe of the music that he made. The polkas, of course, and the many happy dance tunes. But at times, in the most incredible ways, the tune would become something that would penetrate deeply and with great soul and the curious mix of disconnection. You would wonder “how can that tune come from that machine?” The accordion is not generally a mournful and melancholic machine, and yet there it was. The sound that pulled you in rather than pushed you around the dance floor.
The box is curious, and how it came to be is a quirk of history and need and serendipity. It was used on the ships in the days of sail, and languid winds, to pass the time. That version was small and quite limited, but the function was the same. A few buttons on one end, to change the pitch, a pleated bag that could expand and contract to move the air, and a set of reeds to create the noise. Expand long and you made long notes, short and quick would make the lively dancing tunes. Easily stowed away, it could come out and be applied deftly, in only a moment’s notice.
The later ones added many buttons to change the pitch, done by the left hand. The right hand played the key board. The left arm moved the box open and closed, as the machine needed air, in long or short and fast or slow movements… and the music came. Complicated or simple, fast or slow. Light and airy, or more intentional and forlorn. The music box, as it was called, crossed the seas and crossed the cultures. Irish, German, Latin and India all had them. Like all personal items that you possess, you soon make yours distinct and recognizable. The color, style, and amount of “bling” turn it into something that is personal. Something that is an extension of you. So is the music that it plays. Your style, your rhythm, your speed. The songs you play, and the ones you don’t. It is a part of you. The Italian restaurant or the Bavarian beer hall may have the same machine, but the music is not the same.
The curious thing is this, to me, we are like this machine. We are the simple or the complex, the quick or the slow, the staccato and the smooth. In these and many other ways, the box is an apt representation of us, as friends. The easy and small chatter of a momentary meeting on the street, with the cabbie or the clerk. The longer strains of the co-worker at the break room. The intentional time of the appointment with a friend, to reminisce or to recover from a wound. The notes of the conversation flow, fast and slow, quick or long. The sharp notes of violation and long sonorous melody of loss, abandonment, sorrow, and pain. The opening and the closing, the complete expansion or only the partial, at the top or bottom of the machine. Expanding to meet the need, letting in the air. Taking the breath of a moment, to keep opening the pleats that allow for the growth of the story. To catch your place and to open again on the next octave up… or down…
The machine is like our lives. Expanding and contracting. Taking in, making a choice of actions, and compressing. Changing the notes, cadence, tune and the expressions that reflect our mind and our mood. Complicated for the buttons or the keys that can be played, in the safe and strolling patio of the plaza. Easy and short with the tiny music box of the common sailor on the journey to someplace else. Hidden, but heard in the back rooms of the restaurant parlor. Distinct and very clearly understood as what it is. The sound of a friend.
You can’t escape the tone of the thing. The noticeable and very obvious melody of friendship. It plays in our head after we leave. The melody of a companion, the relief of the having spent time together. Almost like being reset, a chiropractor for the friendship, if you will. An assessment, a touch, and an adjustment. You walk easier, released somehow, like sharing the weight of the cumbersome box through a doorway, “better…” somehow. You may not have known, exactly such, that you needed the help, but you are better for the having of it. It is what you do, when you are a friend…
Some friends are only and always the same little box with the same shallow tune. You try to make the tune fit, but afterward you realized that you already knew. The range too small, the edge too sharp, the expandability was limited. Like taking a breath, the pleats allow for a certain expansion. If there are not enough pleats, they need to breath sooner than you are needing. It happens when they interrupt and want to inject their story, but you weren’t done. Now you need to let them run their tune for a minute, and they aren’t even aware of the shift. And time moves along, and the second verse is not played… and you know that it is always like this with them. The music box was unable to carry the magnitude of the song.
Strangers can surprise in the same way, unexpectedly. The companion on the plane, or the bus. A few simple words and the tone you hear is Hope. And you keep listening for more. The expected breath and change of tune does not come, and they keep listening and they don’t interrupt and by now your story has been told in depths not spoken, but always knew needed to be… Fear creeps up to peek. Fear that it is not true, fear that it will stop too soon, fear that it will leave, but the keystrokes shush it away. The buttons close the door on the fear, and you suddenly realize that this machine can make a tune on the breath it takes in and the breath it gives in return. Fresh with the confidence of the companion, you move through the music of your story. Able to get to the pieces seldom played. The notes you know need heard. The notes that you had not touched in a very long time.
Take a measure of your own capacity to expand, and with whom. The number of keys and buttons, the number of pleats that you have. You can add to the bling when times are easy, but when the music of your friends need to be played you need to know when to breathe, and when to keep expanding. Grandkids discovering gravity or dragons, valley or hill are the same as the friend going through divorce or loss of some new thing in their life. The time to tell the story, that they are the hero of. Don’t compete to be the hero in their story, be the minstrel with the music of redemption and rapture. Play the tune that accompanies not overbears. Be the background and not the reason. The music of friendship is like a cantata, with many different songs. Many different voices and rhythms. Some are long and need much in the way of space. Give them the space they need to sing their song and you will be regarded as rare and gilded indeed. The proverb says this “like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word fitly spoken”. Be quick to expand and make room. Wait to say the words. They may not be needed.
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