True (Ghost) Stories

Dear Reader,
There are those songs we all have in our heads . . .
Some come and go. Others settle in for a season. Then there are the few that linger the longest—part of ghosts from the past, perhaps, that we can’t quite shake. This month’s theme, the virtue of simplicity, conjured up a song like that for me. I can’t quite remember the moment Indigo Girls’ (Emily Saliers and Amy Ray) “Least Complicated” captivated me with its acoustic blends and penetrating lyrics. I just know that it’s never quite left me since. While you don’t need to know this song to understand the words below, allow me to introduce it to you anyway. It’s been a not-so-silent partner in this convoluted search for simplicity.
“Least Complicated” – Indigo Girls


I sit two stories above the street.

It’s awful quiet here since love fell asleep

There’s life down below me though . . . 1

Emily sings it like a lullaby gone wrong,

with a voice that blankets words

you could prick your finger on if you’re not careful.

And make no mistake,

they are there to make you bleed.

I handle her words with care as I watch apparitions drift past my second-story sliding-glass-door lens to the outside world.

We ALL have them:

Lenses, apparitions, and serrated words.

The melody saunters through my brain as spring snow cloaks the figures of a woman and her dog.

They vanish over the hill, but I stay at the frost-stained glass

and wish I were the mysterious walker instead.

Because whatever she’s left behind or headed towards—

in this moment it’s just her,

the dog,

and the snow.

Heck. I wish I were the dog. (Aside from marking territory in public, it’s not a bad life.)

Simplicity, I think, is the paradoxical panacea for my empty ache.

And it’s eluded me once again as the tangles of life gain market share in my ever-shrinking headspace.

Amy harmonizes with Emily at the rhetorical refrain that’s haunted me these many years:

What makes me think I can start clean slated?

The hardest to learn is the least complicated.1


And I am suddenly twenty again, sitting with roommates on a thread-bare couch in our second-story living room (the one that came complete with a college education and commuter trains that nightly lulled us to sleep).

Kate’s stereo pulsates this same song through younger ears and softer hearts. But maybe we don’t hold the words quite so carefully. Lora joins Emily and Amy for a verse. We close our eyes and pretend to feel its meaning, even though we really don’t:

Some long ago when we were taught
That for whatever kind of puzzle you got
You just stick the right formula in
A solution for every fool1

Life’s puzzles seemed simpler then. At least they should have been, when the most pressing questions were:

Ramen or pizza for dinner?

If I cut across the quad, will I get this paper to my professor’s office in time?

Does he feel the same way?

What if they find out we’re keeping a kitten here?

Why, then, do I feel the weight of complexity pinning me down, as I stroke our forbidden cat and long to be in the scene playing out on the blacktop below?

The song continues, like its written just for me:

The boy and girl are holding hands on the street

And I don’t want to but I think you just wait

It’s more than just eye to eye

Learn the things I could never apply1

. . . and I wish I were THAT girl instead:

In love,

with at least one more puzzle piece than me.

Apparitions, can seem so real when you’re looking down at them through smudged windowpanes (we never cleaned them that year) from two stories above.

What makes me think I can start clean slated?

. . . pricks the chorus in perfect harmony . . .

The hardest to learn is the least complicated.1


And I see her clear as day,

scowling at her sister Mary, who’s just sitting there at His feet.


Martha has no time for sitting while she crams a million pieces into a puzzle of her own making. She’s opened her home to Him and preempted His every possible need, thankyouverymuch.

Alternately, Mary lifts not a finger—opening just her ears and her heart instead.


How could she?

His words to Martha come blanketed in love but still sting as they land:

“‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’”2

And maybe in that moment, she wishes she were Mary instead;

at the feet of the One real thing she’s needed all along. (Puzzles be damned!)

There is no apparition here, I think.

Just flesh and blood.



And I’m back at ground zero,

contracting my muscles, trying to keep the heat in. We shiver and shuffle down the path as snowflakes land on our black coats. It’s been a month since I stood at my second-story-sliding glass door and coveted the phantom dog walker’s simpler life.

And, somehow—serendipitously—I now have it. (Longer story, complete with a dog.)

At last in this moment it’s just me,

the dog,

and the snow.

And life couldn’t POSSIBLY feel MORE complicated.

Because whatever I’ve left behind,

I’m headed right back to in less than 10 minutes.

Emily teases me with confounding lyrics at the song’s end:

I’m just a mirror of a mirror of myself

All the things that I do.1

Some days I see her meaning like the back of my hand. Today, I see just a dim reflection of the real me.

Simplicity, I think, (at least my perception of it) is not the paradoxical panacea for my empty ache. It’s just one more apparition vanishing beyond my reach.  

Later this week, I’m meeting up with a few of my college roommates. We’ll sit out on Lora’s patio and talk about anything-but-the-pandemic. Maybe we’ll slip into the past for a bit and reminisce about that apartment with the rumbling trains and purring (contraband) cat.

Maybe we’ll even sing a few bars of the song that tried to warn us

about what only the years of ghosts since

could truly teach:

The hardest to learn (really is) the least complicated.

Decades later, we don’t even pretend to feel their full meaning.

But if Martha somehow settled on the “one thing” —

maybe there’s hope for us,

and a little space between her and Mary

to sit at Jesus’s feet.


1 Written by Saliers, Emily. Performed by Indigo Girls: Saliers, Emily and Ray, Amy. “Least Complicated,” track 2 on Swamp Ophelia, Epic Records, 1994, Vinyl, LP, Album.

2 Luke 10:41-42 (New International Version)

Image Credit: Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Nichole Woo
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