Mourning John Prine in France, where our managing editor's extended stay turned into an indefinite lock-down.
- by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
It seemed almost too much to bear when John Prine died last week, a man who made his living with his lyrics and lungs, attacked by coronavirus.
When I’m down, I look up - this time for the predicted pink Super Moon. But the stubborn sky was cloudy and the moon two nights on the wane before I managed a peek. The moon in France looks different somehow, more poetic, and I will never forget this one, though it was kumquat orange, not pink. Maybe pink would have been too perfect, too sweet like a Sloe Gin Fizz.
Over 10,000 deaths now in France, a statistic I look for first thing each morning the way I used to check the weather, or the score of some baseball game I couldn’t stay up late enough to watch.
My friend Bob Krebs sent me a National Public Radio link toPrine’s “life in 10 songs,” but I couldn’t get past “Sam Stone” whose kids ran around in other people’s clothes. There is only so much sadness you can drink straight.
People on Facebook and television keep talking about being bored, which strikes me as odd. Knowing you are not dead yet is not boring. Knowing that thousands have died is not boring. It’s not a good time, true, but it is not boring. Find a new way to describe yourselves.
I have been sad, angry, anxious, depressed, amused even, but not bored. I have felt useless, helpless, sidelined. But never bored. An old editor of mine used to say there were no slow days, only slow reporters. There are no boring days, only boring people.
Funny how the newspaper business had its own clichés. You would think it might be a cliché-free profession, but, sorry to say, no. If our mothers said she loved us, we checked it out. We comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. To assume made an “ass” of “u” and “me.”
If good writing is coining a future cliché, we also dealt a lot in established ones. We also put on a lot of airs, really, thinking ours the noblest of callings when, in reality, it was just the most interesting, at least for those of us involved.
When every day I watch the CNN images of those nurses and doctors suiting up to go into coronavirus battle I think of the truest cliché of all to describe journalism: It ain’t brain surgery.
I’m not belittling what I did for 43 years. I am proud of my profession and my peers and my body of work and the thought that sometimes, perhaps not often, some individual was entertained or enlightened or even prodded into thinking by my words. I definitely was not the enemy of the people, and people have many. But I was not a hero, either. Not like those men and women saving lives in their homemade and inadequate health-tech gear.
Not that wordsmiths can’t be heroes. When I consider a John Prine, or a Hank, my regret is I didn’t have words that were good enough, evocative enough, strong enough to make a real difference.
We will always have Prine’s “Souvenirs” and Hank’s “Cold, Cold Heart,” for instance. They will comfort us for as long as there’s a foot left tapping on this ailing and exhausted earth. They will echo in the chambers of the human heart as long as one exists. What a legacy to write words like that. Words that last.
“All the snow has turned to water, Christmas day has come and gone
Broken toys and faded colors are all that’s left to linger on,
I hate graveyards and old pawnshops, because they always bring me tears
Can’t forgive the way they rob me, of my childhood souvenirs.”
Read earlier Hunkering Down pieces by Rheta or return to Hunkering Down home.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a veteran reporter and former syndicated columnist for King Features Syndicate of New York. She is the author of eight books, including "Poor Man's Provence; Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana" and "Good Grief," the only authorized biography of "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. She is the recipient of the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award and the National Headliner Award for commentary. Email Rheta here.
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