Music is important to me. It is a way to travel to places I have never been—emotionally, spiritually, physically. Since early adolescence recorded music has been a kind of companion. I’m not much of a musician and live music wasn’t always very available growing up, so records and tapes were my source material. The lyrics and melodies of those albums helped me escape from and focus on the ups and downs of my life. I have always had a soundtrack for my days.
Like many people, I continue to be drawn to the same songs and musicians over and over. Even at 65 years old, I keep returning to the music I listened to in my late teens and 20s. James Taylor. Joni Mitchell. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Van Morrison. (OK boomer, we get the idea.)
Recently though, I have discovered that there is a figure from my generation that I missed—John Prine. I do have a vague remembrance hearing this particular lyric from one of his songs while I was still in adolescence:
Blow up your TV, throw away your paper
Go to the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus, on your own.
—from “Spanish Pipedream”
The song always made me smile, but I just let go of it, thinking it was a kind of novelty song about embracing the counterculture life of the hippie era. But these days it still makes me smile and in some way carries an even deeper meaning.
Over the years, I heard other John Prine songs on the radio. “Paradise” talks about how coal mining destroyed his father’s ancestral home in Kentucky. “Sam Stone” is a musical musing on how PTSD and drugs destroyed a father’s life. And many people know this touching song of longing made famous by Bonnie Raitt:
I am an old woman, named after my mother
My old man is another child that’s grown old
If dreams were lightning, thunder were desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago.
—from “Angel From Montgomery”
Recently though, I have gotten more curious. I’ve heard Prine referenced by younger artists like Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile. So I spent the last few months listening to Prine’s music. How did I miss the beauty that was there? How did I miss the amazing, painful, funny, irreverent stories he told in his songs? How could I overlook the characters he created and inhabited—the war veteran struggling with his trauma, the wife grieving an unfulfilled life, the aging couple who are dying in their loneliness, and the man who envisions his joyful, quirky life in the hereafter?
John Prine was a real gift to the world and I missed out on him. He should have been in my pantheon of musicians and songwriters, but I overlooked his life. Sadly, as some of you will know, he died on April 7th, due to complications from COVID-19. He was 73. [If you would like to know more, Rolling Stone magazine has a wonderful piece about his life, Scott Simon of NPR shares his reflections, and you can also see Prine’s own Tiny Desk Concert.]
As I have been listening recently, I have been paying attention to one particular theme in Prine’s music. Forgiveness. In fact, his very last album, released in 2018 and probably the biggest hit of his career, is called “The Tree of Forgiveness.” The title comes from a line in the final song of the album as he ponders what things might look like for him after death:
Then as God is my witness,
I’m gettin’ back into show business,
I’m goin’ to open up a nightclub called the Tree of Forgiveness,
and forgive everybody ever done me any harm
—from “When I Get to Heaven”
Though I shouldn’t have been surprised, I have discovered this same theme appears regularly in Prine’s songs. I love the challenge Prine offers to God with a his childlike tune called “Fish and Whistle”:
Father forgive us for what we must do
You forgive us we’ll forgive you
We’ll forgive each other till we both turn blue
Then we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven.
He almost sounds like the biblical Psalmist in how he stands up to God. Prine knows that forgiveness is essential for us all. In another song he pleads for the same with his lover:
I woke up this morning to a garbage truck
Looks like this ol’ horseshoe’s done run out of luck
If I came home, would you let me in?
Fry me some pork chops and forgive my sin?
Surround me with your boundless love
Confound me with your boundless love
I was drowning in the sea, lost as I could be
When you found me with your boundless love
—from “Boundless Love”
Finally, he knows the results of brokenness are healed by forgiveness and an invitation to “come on home”:
Well you never know how far from home you’re feelin’
Until you’ve watched the shadows cross the ceilin’
Well I don’t know, but I can see it snowin’
In your car the windows are wide open
Just come on home
Come on home
No you don’t have to
Just come on home
—from “Summer’s End”
I’m glad that Prine believes in forgiveness, because I think I need him to forgive me for overlooking and underestimating him. I am sad that there will be no more concerts. I am disappointed that there will be no new music coming from his voice and guitar. The loss to his family and friends must be immense. I am grieving just a tiny bit because I didn’t really get to enjoy his wit, his poetry, his humor, and his humanity during his lifetime. But I do celebrate—because I now get to discover and enjoy all the music he made over more than 50 years. I celebrate because though I overlooked and missed out on him while he was alive, there is a world full of people who appreciated and received his life and talent.
Spiritual Practice: You Didn’t Miss Anything
Many of us travel with a list. We get off the plane in Paris and think, “been there!” We hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and think, “done that!” We drink ein mas of beer at Oktoberfest or hear Irish “Trad” music in a Dublin pub and mentally check these off our list. We don’t want to miss anything, so we work hard at doing as many things as we can. The problem is, when we go at life and travel this way we neglect the deep joy of particular moments. We don’t really stay with anything.
So the invitation here is to a practice of letting go. What if we threw away our list? What if we just really enjoyed the people and places we encountered along the way? This practice is really about NOT doing things. (Or not doing too many things.) It is more about being than doing. In this approach to life we will miss some things and people, at least in one way. (We may miss out on John Prine!) But the plus here is that we will sink deeply into what and who we experience in the moment.
Life is not about a checklist. There are no prizes for how many countries we have flown to or how many souvenirs we have collected. More photos don’t mean more joy. Busier itineraries don’t mean more and deeper relationships. So if you have the opportunity to travel—down the block or around the world—be alert to what you see and feel in those moments. Be open to the people who greet you along the way. And offer your fullness into these occasions. Then, you will have truly traveled.