What do they say about the road to Hell? About those good intentions? I’ve thought of writing this letter for no less than about ten years; it’s high time I pulled this out of the folds of my brain and brought it into reality. You see, this is really a thank you note, just 25 years in the making. Let me explain.
I started listening to the Indigo Girls when I was a teenager. I’d listen on the way to cross-country meets, bouncing along on brown vinyl seats through the backroads of Pennsylvania, or on the way back, tired, covered in mud or sweat. I listened to tapes on my Walkman with the buttons that sounded like ka thunk when I pushed on them or rewound to play a melody I loved one more time. I heard Emily and Amy sing about fake friendships; I’d had a few of those. They told me it was OK—that I would get through it and find real ones. I believed them. They sang about using their hands, love’s recovery, about the Southland in the springtime and pushing the needle too far.
I heard their voices singing about what is true and beautiful—nature, friendship, honesty, bravery. Now, this was in the ’80s and early ’90s, and not many women were singing about those topics. It was all “Cold Hearted” and “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Don’t You Want Me.” The messages were confusing: Be beautiful, be vulnerable, but don’t speak up. Not many women were singing like the Indigo Girls with their soaring harmonies and real, true lyrics that were passionate, articulate and inspiring.
I do believe they carried me through some lonely bus rides and adolescent turmoil. I could just start to see that I might make it out of adolescence and become a strong woman, just like they were. It was a crack in the door, a slim line of light. But it was there all the same.
Fast-forward seven years. My father died suddenly at the age of 48. I had just graduated from college and thought the world was my oyster, when, suddenly, I was awakened at 6 a.m. with the news. I was across the country, alone and terrified. The world crashed down around me, and I thought I would never feel joy again. So I turned toward my family. I went home and tried to help my mom. I cooked. I did laundry. I looked at their bed, where he should have been. I stood in the house with a gaping hole of loss in my heart. I cursed the sun for rising and the big puffy clouds for their beauty. How dare they, when I was so scooped out and hollow?
I bought Swamp Ophelia and was listening, but not really listening, as I moved about the house, still in a grief-stricken fog that had lasted for more than a year. I started up the stairs when I heard it: “The Wood Song.” I was carrying a basket of laundry when I suddenly heard these lyrics with my whole body:
But the wood is tired, and the wood is old,
And we’ll make it fine, if the weather holds
But if the weather holds, we’ll have missed the point
That’s where I need to go.
The words soared up the stairs. They were a life raft. They were beauty and hope and joy. I hadn’t had these feelings—or any feelings other than extreme sadness—in months. It took my breath away. I could feel. I could feel again. It was the music, this song, that broke into my battered heart. I sat on the stairs and felt the music pour over me. Just for a moment, I knew I would be OK again. That I would feel again.
Fast-forward another 15 years. I’m finally getting out for the night. I’m now the parent of two daughters, a full-time teacher and a part-time writer. I head out to Higher Ground in Burlington, Vermont, to see the Indigo Girls. I’m just about to turn 40.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing them play a few times, but none like this. I’m pretty close up. I can see their faces, their smiles and their efforts. The music is an explosion of joy, passion, grit and harmony. These women—dare I say older women?—are just as passionate and transformative as they were for me 25 years ago; more so, actually. They showed me another model for living: Live your passion. Live fully. Don’t hold anything back. They showed me how to be a strong older woman. The whole show was another soul-filling gift.
Fast-forward another two years. I am driving cross-country with my family. We are headed out West. I play “Get Out the Map” and “Closer to Fine” loudly and sing my heart out, like I do at the start of any road trip:
Why do we hurtle ourselves through every inch of time and space
I must say around some corner I can sense a resting place
With every lesson learned a line upon your beautiful face
We’ll amuse ourselves one day with these memories we’ll trace.
My youngest, 8 years old, watches and listens. She says, “I love the Indigo Girls.”
I say, “I do too, Honey. I do too.” And I tell her about my teenage years. Someday, I will tell her about the stairs and the concert. The circle of a girl in the world, turning into a woman, continues.
Thank you, Emily and Amy. Your art has made my life better. It has taken me 25 years to let you know, but as you can see, the note got better with time. Just like you both do.