Getting Closer to Fine

Science has supposedly told us that scent is the most powerful memory trigger humans have. There are times, indeed, that I’ve caught a whiff of my grandmother’s apartment – fresh Maine air tinged with pine, a little bit of Comet cleaner, and her favorite Jean Nate body splash – despite the fact that her apartment was in Bangor and I live in Louisville and she passed on 25 years ago. Or I’ve been stopped short by the odor of what I swear is my preschool – a strange mix of floor wax, Miss Rose’s perfume, peanut butter and jelly, and plastic.

Music seems to be a greater trigger for me than scent. Anything from early Tori Amos, Under the Table and Dreaming (Dave Matthews Band), Dookie (Green Day), Four (Blues Traveler) or the soundtrack to Cabaret takes me straight to college and the freshman dorms or the theater dressing rooms. They Might Be Giants, Violent Femmes, and R.E.M. provide a flashback to high school. Some music is just the soundtrack of my whole life, the bands or singers who’ve been there always – Simon & Garfunkel, U2, Brazilian bosso nova, Bach. The music takes on new meaning the older I get, the more times and places I listen.

A few days ago I was driving to work and Closer to Fine came on the radio. I’ve always liked the Indigo Girls well enough but this song is in a league of its own in terms of the memories and feelings attached to it. I first heard the song in the late summer of probably 1988, maybe 1987. My best friend Colleen had been away at a summer camp for her Lutheran church where she met kids from the states around Kentucky, including a particularly winsome counselor who was bound for Wittenberg University in the fall. She played me a mix tape he’d made for her.

I don’t even remember what else was on that tape except for Closer to Fine. It began her obsession with the Indigo Girls and my realization that my feelings had words to go with them. Starting around junior high, I began experiencing crippling panic attacks triggered by changes in my location – spending the night at a friend’s house, going out of town for field trips, and sometimes just a certain slant of light could turn me into a quivering mess. I had no language for this. At the time, my parents chalked it up to homesickness, moodiness, normal teen angst. And here comes this song with words I thought must have been written for me –

                   The darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable

                   And the lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.

I had gone to see a doctor of philosophy. No poster of Rasputin, but he did have a beard, and in his richly comforting leather-bound office, I told the one and only psychiatrist I’ve ever seen that I thought I might be going a little bit crazy (after all, madness runs in my family). He kindly told me that it would be ok, that high school would be better. (And it was.) But until then, nearly every night I lay in bed with my eyes wide open, heart racing, shapeless panic coursing through my thirteen-year-old veins, and my mother telling me to pray the demons back to hell. Demons, hormones, a serious serotonin imbalance – whatever it was did eventually even itself out and by my early twenties I’d burned out my fight or flight response to the point that I made the trip to India and back by myself without one “episode.”

But that song. I didn’t know it that first summer, listening on Colleen’s boom box (as well called them in the 80’s), that Closer to Fine would make sneaky appearances for the rest of my life, reminding me of whatever it was I needed reminding of. That there was more than one answer to my questions, that we all walk a crooked line, and that sometimes you sail your ship until you sink it.

In college (my four years prostrate to the higher mind) on my first trip abroad, my classmates and I sat in a gorgeous lodge in Wales one evening of our trip from London for an adventure weekend. There was some typical campfire singing and Closer came up. I can sing fairly well, but I was there with girls who could really sing (Centre Singers, I’m looking at you). So I didn’t join in very loudly, but there it was, reminding me to maybe take my life less seriously. It’s only life after all.

And then in car the other day. I was reminded that I eventually did hear the call of lightness – my anxiety attacks all but gone, no more demons hounding me. But Colleen, passionate and intense, gave in to the insatiable hunger this past spring. I wrote a post about her death  and losing her and I don’t think I ever published it – too maudlin, maybe? Too raw?  Hearing that song will have new meaning now, and will forever, I believe, trigger a memory of my lost friend.

It’s the price we pay for living and remembering, that our experiences don’t stay pristine. Each one can develop a complex patina with age. The blessing and the curse of memory is that it’s malleable and strange. I’m thankful for my memories of Colleen and Closer to Fine, and all the other songs that launch little movies in my head when I hear them.

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107 Comments

  1. Wonderful! Its amazing how many connotations a song can have – how a single line can throw open a door to memories we had forgotten. They can change our mood, our day – and for some – a life.

    I totally get what you say about smells and scents. Before a great trip or event e.g honeymoon, I buy a new scent. Whenever I smell Chloe – I think of a family trip to Portugal, another scent takes me back to university days in an instant.

    Thanks for your post and congrats on making freshly pressed.
    Anna x
    http://www.meandmybiro.com

  2. closer to fine, god, what a lovely song. i’m sorry to hear about your friend, Colleen..

    i have the same experience triggered by tori amos’s silent all these years. a magazine colleague understood my addiction/fascination towads tori amos that she asked me to write a sort of grace note in her magazine. i remember the lines i wrote: “”You think there’s a heaven/ where some screams have gone.” When you turn into an adult, death is lurking in every corner, be it your friend’s aunt, your stepfather, your cat, your stepmother, your dog, your nails. I learned this early on, and I kept mum about it. It’s like bottling and pickling your tears; you don’t open the jar, you keep it sealed with thick packaging tape.”

    thank you for jogging my memory with your post.. you’re closer to fine, you know that. 🙂

  3. So true, so true!
    I’m sorry for the loss of your friend! That’s always a tough one to try to put on paper.

    “Breakfast in America” always brings me to Glassboro State College, fall 1979. As well as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” album.

    I agree that music is more of a memory trigger than smell for me.

    Great post!

  4. My father died 10 years ago and was a central heating engineer. He used to work with oil and always had a diesel smell when he came in from work. i think he used some sort of special cream to remove the oil from his hands…..recently my husband has been taking my car to be cleaned at a new garage .
    The next day I got into my car in the morning and had a shock- I thought my dad was there in the car with me. hey must have used the same oil/cleaning fluid as he did.
    Sense of smell is a wonderful thing.

  5. I just found your blog on the Freshly Pressed page- congrats! Great post- we must be contemporaries as those songs remind me of the exacts same times of my life. Closer To Fine is a song that even after all these years gives me chills, and I always find a new meaning in it whenever I listen to it. That and Ghost. And there is a cleaning woman at my office that smells so much like my dead grandmother that I have to restrain myself to fight off the urge to hug her. Glad I found you!

  6. Most of the music I own has a very strong connection to something in my life – some good, some bad. But oh how a song is a powerful thing…I am instantly transported back in time to whatever memory it happens to be – so much so, that I can almost feel and smell the circumstances of the timeframe. Memory is such an amazing experience…

  7. I discovered the Indigo Girls from a summer connection, too! My best friend and I went to London the summer after 9th grade to visit our third BFF who had moved there for her stepdad’s work. As always happens with groups of three, one was left out, and that was me. This album and singing along to it was my only strong connection to my London friend that summer, and I played it incessantly when I went home.

    Then it popped up again, years later, when I was in the Peace Corps. I sang it as a duet with a local Russian girl at an impromptu talent show held in the back of the bar where my friends and I, all peace Corps trainees still, hung out.

    And just recently, another Peace Corps friend quoted it on Facebook — once again stirring up old memories and connections. It always surprises me when music does this — the initial assocation is added-upon over time, until your connection to it becomes a complex web pulling together different points in your life. And now your fabulous post has brought it into the forefront again! Thanks for reminding me of those afternoons spent sitting on a bed in a London flat, singing our hearts out. *smile*

  8. Wow.

    I just wanted to say that this was amazingly well written and evocative, and no wonder you have made it to Freshly Pressed!

    (I too find that music triggers memories of feelings of times long gone.)

    I’m sorry for your loss and hope you will always have the happy memories of your best friend.

  9. Oh abolutely, music IS an emotion… and by far the strongest trigger for any memories for me… to me any song by ABBA will trabsport me back to the 70s… also the “If You Leave” from the film Pretty In Pink… and it’s all teenage dreams for me….

  10. I loved this…I signed up for your blog…I think we have a lot in common (I like a lot of the same music you mention).

    My friend worked with Amy’s cousin at a law firm in Boston and she gave her a demo tape. It was awesome; so we actually got into them before the first album came out.

    I used to work concerts and I worked an Indigo Girls concert. One of the most memorable moments was when the audience sang with the Girls, complete with harmony! Awe-inspiring.

    Sorry about your loss but isn’t it wonder to have triggers that don’t let us forget the great memories of those who are no longer with us?

    Susan

  11. Kudos on making Freshly Pressed! And even more kudos for writing such a beautiful and well-paced post. I join you in not only having memories tied to songs experienced and shared by best friends over the years, but a plethora of songs that are triggering for life moments in so many ways. “…All the other songs that launch little movies in my head when I hear them.” What a great line! Tori’s Little Earthquakes and Indigo Girls’ self titled album are on my list of all time greats. Such fantastic and honest songwriters. And my friends and I used to play the IA album singing to it at the top of our lungs as well (we had pretty good harmony back in the day). Thanks for taking me down the path of some great memories.

    • this ‘freshly pressed’ thing is really going to my head. i don’t know how anyone reading my blog from now on will be able to deal with the massive ego it’s giving me… at any rate, i looked at your blog and you might be in my soul tribe too – i like crochet! and dancing! and also other things, but those are up there on the list. thanks for stopping by and commenting. cheers -s

  12. What an evocative post. I so enjoyed the way you wove the lyrics through your writing. I was at university when I first got into the Indigo Girls, prostrate to the higher mind and all that: Closer to Fine certainly spoke to me. One summer I visited a college friend in Canada, and we sat around a campfire near her holiday cabin on the lake, singing Indigo Girls songs as the dusk fell and the giant mosquitoes bit us to pieces through our jeans…happy memories! When her father died in our third year at university, I was struck dumb by grief for her until one day, listening to Ghost, the words unlocked something and I just sat and howled. Now when I hear Ghost, it always makes me think of my lovely friend and her kind and funny dad.

  13. I completely agree that music is my strongest trigger of memories as well, and I’m guessing you and I are about the same age considering the soundtrack of your life mirrors mine 🙂 I think I’d have to add Morrissey to that list to make it complete.

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  15. Like you, I can remember an event based on the song that I hear. For example, I know that “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1981 because I was in 8th grade and had a crush on a boy named Todd who was in my French class.

    I’ve always known I am an auditory learner. If I can make up a little ditty to help me remember something, it somehow goes into my brain forever.

    I love your beautiful piece, and I’m thrilled that you were “Freshly Pressed” with it!

    Come visit my blog… if you care to. I’m a college educator/writer/momma who loves to write about words, and students . . .

    xoxoRASJ
    http://rasjacobson.wordpress.com

  16. Your post is so true. So heartbreakingly true. And the Indigo Girls have the most amazing lyrics to match up to memories. They’ve always served as a direct line to memories…”Mystery” ranks pretty high on the emotional connection list.

    And as hard as hearing a song may be, I have no doubt that hearing “Closer to Fine” will help ease the pain for you in the years to come.

  17. Great post! My condolences to you. I can understand how you might feel. I lost a friend in ’90 and the song that reminds me of her is by Boys 2 Men called “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” Thsi wasn’t her favorite song but it came out about the time she passed. I used to get sad when hearing the song but since has instead become a reminder of all the good times not just with her but throughout my life. Thanks for the though-provoking post. Congrats on Freshly Pressed! LB

  18. Songs to me are emotions captured in time. Those feeling always hit me when I hear them… Kenny Chesney actually wrote a song about that very thing it’s called ” I Go Back” …pretty cool even for a country song.
    I enjoyed your post…it gave me some of my own thoughts as well.

  19. well said. I can agree to music being more powerfull, if not more so than scent. While the smell of sunscreen reminds me of childhood and I have been known to pull a bottle of such substance from the medicine cabinent mid winter in an attempt to fight the winter blues, I love that early Tori does something for you. I remember the first time I heard Tori, where I was, what I was doing and the impact she had right then and there. I can now find a Tori song for every moment and every mood. Every love and love lost. Thanks for the post, I loved it =)

  20. Pingback: Getting Closer to Fine (via The Writing Spider) « Philadelphia Stories Weblog

  21. Smells do bring back memories for me. For a long time, I could remember the smell of my grandmother’s backyard/garden. I never knew the smell I was remembering was cilantro until I started using it to cook with as an adult. Then…all the memories of my grandma’s house came back to me.

    Music does the same thing, most definitely. Maybe that’s why, lately, all I want to listen to is the songs I grew up with during High School. High School was not so great for me, but the music of that time is what got me through it all.

    Books do the same thing for me. If I think of a book I read that I really enjoyed spending time doing so, I think of the time in my life when I read that book and how I felt about everything else in my life at that time. I remember seeing a good movie, but not like I remember reading a good book that I loved and what was happening in my life at that time.

  22. Apparently memories evoked by music use the most of our senses, as our mind recreates the scene.

    I’ve a few songs that make the constant chatter of my mind stop and take a breath. I just have to listen. Like when you’re in your car and continue to listen after you’ve arrived. Or the song you request at the pub when you’re blind and shuffle around to it holding your beer above your head.

    The memories aren’t necessarily pleasant, but they’ve had an impact somehow.

  23. oh the mixed tape! It was an art of its own. I am proud to say my sister is thewritingspider and my love for music started with listening to what she was playing at the time. Then she brougth me her Dave Matthews cd to listen to on my boom box;> and that was it! My interest in music took off, I was about 12 and I swear Dave was talking to me via my boom box. I have seen him 30 times and don’t ever plan on stopping, his music has moved me in a way no other band… Thanks thewritingspider

  24. It’s wonderful & wild the way our memory can be triggered. I definitely can relate. There are some smells that just trigger things, and you never know where or when, it’s a little like Deja vu! As for songs, they can be fun or sad. Some are just jumpy fun ones, and some like the one for your friend, or broken love affairs just trigger immense sadness! But those memories are needed and important! Nice blog, thanks for sharing!

    evelyngarone.com

  25. Such a great post, and now Closer to Fine is running through my head (not at all a bad thing!). I, too, had that study abroad/sit around a campfire/sing-along experience (though Galileo was a favorite, so was Rocky Raccoon). Smells and music definitely bring me back to certain times and places… but so does the changing of seasons. It’s usually just a moment- a day in the fall or spring- when the weather seems to take a sharp turn.

    Wow, senses and memories and what triggers them… great, great post!

  26. For whatever reason, music has always played a big role in my friendships. Maybe, it’s because I love to dance. I dunno.

    I’ve lost a few friends along the way, too. Some by choice, like my best childhood friend who went off on the opposite path I did. We used to listen to the Monkees and dance to Motown in my living room. Then, we discovered Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, NKOTB, and Milli Vanilli. I was going places; she was staying put. But we were each dying in our own unique ways.

    I just wasn’t aware of it until my friend Lee shot himself. He used to sing “same as it ever was” while we worked, whenever he was fed up. I can’t hear that song without thinking about his face. I can still hear his voice. His death probably made me live harder–and saved my life.

  27. I feel that music almost has a sort of power. It soothes and it brings up strong memories or feelings. My boyfriend of nearly five years broke up with me and I couldn’t keep half my music on my iPod or it would send me into tears. Then it came down to one song, “This is the First Day of My Life” by Bright Eyes. I like to sing along loudly when I’m alone and my voice would crack and break into tears. Now I can listen to it and smile because it is the first day of my life and a whole brand new one at that.

  28. Memories triggered by music are stronger than those brought about by scents in my case. Albeit I have only two to point out, whenever I am in a kind of mood and I hear those two songs months and years after, the music brings back the emotions, day-to-day activities, hang-ups, fun times and everything else that came along at those particular points in my life.

    This is a lovely post. Thanks for sharing.

  29. That was such a beautiful post! I agree that music is the best memory-inducer. Sometimes I’ll listen to a song and I’ll remember something as insignificant as an overpass that I drove under when I heard the song on the radio. I’m glad that your friend can live on in your memory through music.

  30. Black Sharpies and The Cranberries get me reminiscing about my school days while certain scents like Nanette Lepore’s Shanghai Butterfly have me wishing I was back in Tokyo–my favorite summer trip.

    Needless to say your words inspire me! I’ll be back…

    Thank you!

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  32. Beautifully written. You captured me and I had to read until the end of your story. I’m sad about your friend. My daughter’s husband flew away on Saturday to help end a war he didn’t start. She is keeping his clothes in a duffle bag until he returns, to “be” with him. Thank you for opening your heart. It helps.

  33. I’m glad I stumbled across your blog. Having been a professional musician for most of the past 20+ years…I think that I am especially in tune to the memory trip that certain songs inspire. When it comes to the Indigo Girls, I think Galileo takes me back to my first discovery of that blessed duo…and their version of Romeo and Juliet still brings to my eyes when I hear the line “When we made love, you used to cry,” largely because of overwhelming thoughts of a past love that I may never really fully get over. There are so many other artists that immediately take me somewhere else…too many to list here really…but I was actually on such a memory trip inspired by Matt Nathanson’s “Come On Get Higher,” and after having spent nearly 3 hours putting the fine touches on a cover version of the song for my upcoming Youtube release of a collection of songs…some covers and some originals…that I’m planning on calling The Fireside Sessions…it hit me that my obsession with the song was the memories that it prompts. (I’m not talking the religious imagery here that far too many people tend to see on the surface of the song…but more so the thoughts of, as Matt him self put it,
    “Did you ever eat a bowl of ice cream that was just the best ice cream you’ve ever eaten? And it’s so good it makes your teeth hurt and you can’t stop eating it and you just want to pull that ice cream’s hair and…” Well, you get my point here…I would hope so anyway. As for anyone that really enjoyed this article and would like to further share their similar memory trips…I’m sincerely fascinated with how music relates to us, we relate to music, and how it somehow bonds us all together, even if only in memory. I would love for you to check out http://www.InsomniacDiary.wordpress.com specifically for “The Soundtrack to My Life as a Motion Picture.” Its well worth the read…especially if you make use of the links to enjoy the music as you are reading.

  34. Thanks for writing so eloquantly and from the heart, this was a joy to read. I’m also an Indigo Girls fan and think that their amazing lyrics must touch so many and strike a chord with others that have minds like mine. The fans should start a like minded fan club of their own lol

    Keep listening to yourself, you have a great writing style.

  35. Congratulations on freshly pressed. It deserves it.
    Some songs, some odor, some places, some strange people, and some moments really bring us back in the past which we normally don’t remember and then we are all around with the echoes of our lost memories.
    Wonderful job.

  36. I can identify with this post. My sister, Jackie, passed on in 2001. My son use to play her a song on his trumpet and on the piano and she would smile and rock from side to side. Everytime I hear that song, whether my son is playing it, or at church, I think about my sister and her beautiful smile.

  37. Pingback: Getting Closer to Fine (via The Writing Spider) « The Gulkin Gazette

  38. What an amazing post. It’s amazing what music can bring up. And some of the albums you mention – “Four”, “Under The Table and Dreaming”, “Dookie” – it’s like I morph back into that akward 14 year old girl without even realizing it.

    I’m so sorry about your friend.

  39. Thank you for your beautiful post. Listening to the Indigo Girls has always felt like coming home to me. I still get chills all the way down my spine every single time I listen to Kid Fears, and Michael Stipe chimes in.

    Replace the rent with the stars above
    Replace the need with love
    Replace the anger with the tide
    Replace the ones that you love…

    What would you give for your kid fears?

  40. Thankyou for writing this deeply moving and evocative post. I have only just come to realise how strongly music and smell can bring certain memories or thoughts to mind, even vague feelings that I can never quite pin down but recognise deeply and clearly. And those lyrics you quoted are amazing and so relatable to my own struggles, though with depression rather than panic attacks.

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