In Search of Fine

It’s easy to identify those moments. Tactile slices of time that are the mileposts of our lives and of our generation. A time when time stops, a time that is relatable for everyone. An important event in the news, a great movie, an important novel, a song that stays with you forever.

“Closer to Fine” was released in 1989, the year I graduated college. It was a time that I knew everything, and a time that I questioned everything. The months and years ahead held promise, adventure and growth. It was time for me to define who I was, and who I was going to be. I was open to the learning that I knew would need to continue. I walked off with my diploma in hand, confident in my ability to conquer the world.

But I didn’t know anything. The future was the white hot sun, inviting and yet unapproachable. I did not know what would come next. I couldn’t see very far ahead at all.

The Indigo Girls were Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, a southern folk-rock duo from Atlanta, Georgia. They were just a couple years older than me. “Closer to Fine” was the lead single on their 1989 album Indigo Girls.

For a while, my generation and I heard that song everywhere. Blasting out of every dorm room, strummed while sitting cross-legged on the quad surrounded by friends, echoing through the coffee shops. The song was written, in seemed, for every young adult wanting to learn more, to do more, to discover more. It was a gift for every searcher. Whether a college graduation was part of your life or not, “Closer to Fine” spoke to anyone who took a moment for introspection or reflection.

Backed on the recording by the band Hothouse Flowers, “Closer to Fine” begins with a shimmering duo of two acoustic guitars playing a beautiful rhythm, backed by a few simple notes on the piano.

“I’m trying to tell you something ’bout my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
And the best thing you ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously
It’s only life after all, yeah”

It could be this is a story about talking to a friend, or a teacher, or a doctor. Most likely, Emily Saliers (who wrote and sings the song) is just talking to herself. Who can we laugh at, if we can’t laugh at ourselves? Why take ourselves too seriously, if we don’t have to?

Well, darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
And I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it
I’m crawling on your shores

Now Emily is singing in perfect, lovely harmony with Amy Ray. The darkness holds no answers, and the light only brings more questions. Maybe the best we can do is to embrace the questions and fear that any day can bring, that any unknown future can hold, and find some secure footing to continue the search for answers, or at least for resolution.

And I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
(The less I seek my source)
Closer I am to fine, yeah
Closer I am to fine, yeah

The chorus is a check list of the different people we go to and the places we visit to find those answers. The answers, or at least the ones we find, are not simple. Perhaps the answers are not answers at all. Perhaps the pathway to get there is “crooked” so that we will continue to seek and consider.

Perhaps it is the journey, and not the destination.

And I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free

I stopped by the bar at 3 A.M.
To seek solace in a bottle or possibly a friend
And I woke up with a headache like my head against a board
Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before
And I went in seeking clarity

Learning and realization can happen anywhere. Whether we are laying on our therapists’ couch, studying in a classroom, or sharing a drink with a friend or stranger late night at a bar. Even though our performance has been graded, and we have a piece of paper to prove our success, we still search. We see answers everywhere, but there are always more questions too.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
We go to the doctor, we go to the mountains
We look to the children, we drink from the fountain
Yeah, we go to the Bible, we go through the workout
We read up on revival, we stand up for the lookout

There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
(The less I seek my source)
Closer I am to fine
Closer I am to fine
Closer I am to fine, yeah

Fine is not good. Fine is not great. Fine is enough. Fine recognizes the work is not finished. Fine promises there is more searching, more questions, and if we’re lucky, a few answers along the way.

Although the title phrase never actually appears in the song, “Closer to Fine” was a cultural landmark for me and for many people in my generation. The song represented our place in life, and the questions we were asking. The answers we were hoping to find. It played everywhere, and everyone had a copy of the CD. The Indigo Girls would go on to have more success, but not the kind of success they had in 1989. I suppose they are still searching for the answers to their questions. That’s OK…we all are.


“Closer to Fine”
Written by Emily Saliers
Performed by Indigo Girls
Released February 28, 1989

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