“Writing is about a blank piece of paper and leaving out what’s not supposed to be there.” ~ John Prine
A line, or chorus, or verse, or story of John Prine’s has popped into my mind from time to time, as I’ve wandered around through the years.
I’m forever discovering new meaning buried within his words, as time marches on—the timeless ones will do this forever and ever amen, I think.
He wrote for everybody, and those who received his music were forever changed. I know I wasn’t the only one he spoke to so personally, and boy, could he tell a story.
Sharing his tales with a sly grin and incredible grace, the room filled with his heartbreak and humor as he recalled pieces of the heart that get torn up and spit out from the dark corners of humanity. He also spoke of love lost.
You could hear the silence as a hush took over a room when he spoke.
For years, as his health declined, secretly I thought that pouring my energy into his catalog—listening day and night—was helping him pull through.
I read this on NPR and it sums up how those who loved him felt: “Everyone’s love and need for his presence wove protection around him.”
I was unable to sleep after I heard the news he passed. The lines and lyrics which stuck with me—the subliminal words I’ve silently carried around (or openly wept from), which have morphed in meaning over time to reflect where I’ve sat in the world—flooded my head.
I can’t think of a songwriter who has done this for me so notably—every season, every year, every hurdle, every joy, every heartbreak.
The vulnerability in his music allowed me to feel safe in showing mine to the world too.
Here is what I have learned by listening to John Prine for almost 30 years:
“Kiss a little baby, give the world a smile, if you take an inch, give ’em back a mile. ‘Cause if you lie like a rug, and you don’t give a damn, you’re never gonna be as happy as a clam.”
There’s a big old goofy man
Dancing with a big old goofy girl
It’s a big old goofy world
What you put out into the world, comes back to you—maybe not right away, maybe not in the way you expect, but it shouldn’t matter—do it anyway. Because complacency breeds resentment, and resentment breeds anger. And what’s the point, when a smile or compliment is so easy to give—and could change the course of someone’s day?
What would happen if everyone just took and never gave anything back? I feel it’s becoming clear at the moment what happens when more people than not have become complacent, not giving a damn, and taking more than they give.
Also, there is nothing like kissing a little baby!
“When your heart gets bored with your mind and it changes you.”
I guess that love – is like a Christmas card
You decorate a tree – you throw it in the yard
It decays and dies – and the snowmen melt
Well, I once knew love – I knew how love felt.
I wish you love – and happiness
I guess I wish – you all the best.
I ended my most favorite—and last—mixed tape with this song, and every year I throw my Christmas tree in the backyard, letting the past year decay and die along with it; before I burn it—making way for Spring.
I linger in the heart well past time before I allow my mind to join, because the moment the mind shows up, everything upends. I’ve struggled with the message over the years to wish love and happiness without ego or anger when it comes time to part ways—desperate to become the person John Prine told me I should be.
He says it’s hard and messy, but everyone deserves to be wished all the love, all the happiness, and all the best. He is right, of course.
When you are full of love for someone, no matter the circumstances—tell them.
“Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see, that’s why last night and this mornin’ always look the same to me.”
Memories they can’t be boughten
They can’t be won at carnivals for free
Well it took me years
To get those souvenirs
And I don’t know how they slipped away from me.
Souvenirs and memories are the building blocks of life, of stories, of growth, but they can be painful reminders of what used to be. Trapped in my nostalgic mind, savoring tangible souvenirs and bottled up memories. I’ve been known to hold on so long that the path to clarity stays muddled and blurry, unable to let anything else in.
You’ll know when it’s time to clean the windows and burn the tree, but I never want to forget a thing, so I tend to stay a little cluttered and untidy (it’s my excuse, anyway).
“You come home late and you come home early, you come on big when you’re feeling small,
You come home straight and you come home curly, sometimes you don’t come home at all.”
You’ve broken the speed of the sound of loneliness
You’re out there running just to be on the run.
The uncertain place where anxiety is the driving force pulling us around to go, and do, and be all the things all the time—seeking something but having no idea what. Running, but never stopping long enough to figure it out. This song was written about how looking back, we see how far our heart has stretched and pulled in all directions—when in love and heartbreak. It’s all tied together—we stay on the run, so we don’t have to look back.
Slow down and pay attention to the past so it “don’t get stretched so far” next time.
“When it’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown”
I stood up and laughed, thought it was a joke
That’s the way that world goes ’round,
You’re up one day and the next you’re down.
Sh*t happens and it’s all in how you manage and carry yourself when it does. One minute you’re up and the next you’re down—and that’s the way the world goes ‘round, ya’ll.
It just is…and it does not let up. Live life with self-deprecation, a side of grace and humor, and cry until you laugh—I believe that is the most beautiful and cathartic emotional release.
“If I can make myself laugh about something that I should be crying about, that’s pretty good.” ~ John Prine
In my youth, I honed in on the freedom, and experience, and travel, and falling in love, and the heartbreak in his songs; now, his melancholy, mortality, and humor in discomfort is visceral. I feel pain and sit in it. I love deeper and hold memories tighter. I write about it and share stories to anyone who will listen. I laugh about the absurdity of it all—and cry a lot, too. After all, “I’m just tryin’ to have me some fun.”
It’s a balancing act John Prine seemed to walk with ease through his lyrics—one I hope to pass on to my girls about love and life, hopes and dreams, joys and disappointments. I sure will miss knowing he isn’t roaming the earth anymore, but he’s left us with an abundance of stories and music to live by—and dance in the kitchen to.
Oh, and: You’ll never be late to the John Prine party—dive in if you haven’t before, because now, more than ever, we need lyrics like these buzzing around in our heads:
“She thinks all my jokes are corny
Convict movies make her horny
She likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs
Swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs
She takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’
I’m never gonna let her go.”
Watch the video: “In Spite of Ourselves”