Back in ancient times when people thought the world was flat, mariners were ‘afeared’ to go too far lest they fall off the edge.
Technically the Earth is a globe. It’s spherical, not flat. Life doesn’t end when you walk off the edge of a disc. We all know that's true...but modern science also feels a little inaccurate to me. I feel that life is, in fact, more like an accordion.
I know precious little about this musical instrument other than that it functions by expansion and compression. Bellows force air across reed and valves. There are complex looking buttons and piano keys to push. A truly multi-faceted and complicated organ, much like life, they squeeze in and out, in and out, the tune and pitch controlled by a great pair of masculine hands (for I have yet to see a woman operating a squeeze box – sorry if that seems sexiest!).
So why an accordion? Evocative, for me, of folk music, of Germany and Russia, yet with the potential to play any musical genre, current or classic.
This revelatory sentiment comes from the endless series of moments in my life where my world appears to expand and contract. Sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly. Sometimes over a long period of time, the change so slow it's almost imperceptible.
You must all have had those moments when your focus narrows. The world shrinks for a while and there is nothing beyond that matters. It might be an exam room as you stare in intense concentration at a question on a page, willing your mind to access the relevant facts, quotes, figures. It might be a moment of ecstasy. The birth of a child, the passing of a driving test, the savouring of a delicious slab of cake.
The smallest I think my world has ever become is a plastic drawer.
It was a totally non-descript Perspex sliding drawer, transparent, clinical. It had a white sticker on it with black writing saying 'FACE MASKS.' It was the last thing I remember before the emergency operation to remove the tumour from my colon.
Curled up on a gurney, instructed to curve my spine like an angry cat, arms hugging my knees like a child I waited for the anaesthetist to insert my spinal block, the final step before general oblivion and the operation beyond.
It had been less than an hour since I’d received the devastating news of my tumour and forthcoming surgery. My accordion had collapsed inwards brutally, forced shut, crushing my spirit. The bellows, now compressed, were at rest. There was no music. I'd said goodbye to Josh and now felt totally alone. I was trying not to cry. I was terribly afraid, possibly more afraid than I have been at any point in my living memory, and that drawer saved me. An innocuous drawer of surgical face masks encouraged me to keep breathing. It could have been any one of at least twenty such drawers in the room, but the ‘face mask’ one was mine.
At the other end of life’s magnificent spectrum there are the moments of hyperextension and expansion. The days where the world truly feels like your oyster. You can go anywhere, and do anything.
You can voyage from the chilly heights of Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia to the swampy, stifling jungle of the Amazonian river basin in days. You can dive with manta rays in the Maldives, watch the sunrise over the red sands of the Namib desert. You can sing, joke and dance with children of every class, faith, and race in every corner of the world, knowing that money is not the key to accessing such simple pleasure and joy.
But know too that it will not always be thus. Wherever you travel and whenever life provides rich opportunities to expand your mind and your world, bottle such memories and feelings. Store them for a rainy day.
For the accordion of life plays an unpredictable tune. As rapidly as it expands, it can contract too. Folding the world inwards, squeezing life and breath from your lungs. Reducing the world to a Perspex drawer, or perhaps another inanimate object that allows you to focus the mind and block out pain.
These fluctuations are not always sudden switches from one extreme to another. I know not what tune is currently being played on my squeeze box, it is certainly not something I have chosen, nor do I recognize it’s composition. There is no clue to where it will go next. No predictability. I like to think of it as an extended lyrical piece and that recent weeks are simply part of a sad, melodic section. The accordionist delivered a sudden and surprising key change into the minor clef. But now in this minor key the music is still beautiful, if a little more melancholic.
Beyond the surgery and cancer diagnosis my world has remained small and compressed. There was a week on the ward. Not even the full ward. My fabric cubicle of 5m x 5m. Plus the route to the shower and toilet. Maybe add another 20m if I'm being generous. It was more than enough physically and mentally. Friends and family visited from the outer world. From my window I could see the wide streets and vistas of Tooting and London beyond. But for that week I wasn't part of the wider world, I couldn't imagine it nor conceive of being part of it again.
Five days later there was a big leap taken to move from hospital ward to car, the car took me out of London, and then home to Shropshire. More space, more life, invigorating breath pulled back into the bellows. Since then another lull. I've not left Shropshire for five weeks and I've not travelled further than 20 miles from home.
Perhaps some people can willingly spend a lifetime in such a confined space. Some individuals, convicted justly or unjustly for years on end in prisons around the world, some detained without trial, have no choice. Physical travel is impossible, only mental freedom is possible. I suspect there are some in my home town for whom the bubbling brawl and sprawl of Birmingham is a step too far. A mere fifty miles geographically, but another world psychologically. Staying put can be a positive choice. It’s comfortable and familiar and easy. Right now I agree.
But for me it won't last. I have tasted the pleasures of the far reaches of the world mentally and physically. I know the joy that exploration, discovery and mental, spiritual expansion can bring. Maybe not now... but one day I look forward to dancing along to a merrier song, a jaunty and uplifting tune which brings the soul to tears with positive emotion.
As for today, I remain paused in anticipation. I feel the accordionist is preparing to pick up the squeeze box again. Fingers poised on the keys and buttons. The only tune I can imagine is that which the oncologist will set when we meet today. I can perhaps venture suggestions, but it will not be me setting the pace or pitch of this next musical section. Let’s just hope he has an ear for the major clef and an upbeat melody, I’m not sure I fancy more dissonance right now.