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.