At Walmart the other day, a man wearing a mask, with his head covered by a hood, shouted “hi” to me from across the electronics section. With so much of his face and head covered up, I could barely tell who it was.

I took a minute, thought about the voice and his height, and it hit me who it likely was. I shouted back “Hi, Ted!” (the name has been changed to protect the innocent), with a bit of a belly laugh. 

I had fun with the fact that the hello turned into a bit of a guessing game, my teenage son watching it all go down and probably feeling a bit embarrassed by how excited his mom was that she got it right.

My son is no stranger to guessing games at the store, as he has watched his identical-twin mother have similar interactions like this with strangers for years, but this time his mother was doing the guessing, not the other way around.

Thinking on the significance of “hello” right now, and the excitement I feel just being around other adults after months of being hunkered down, brought me back to a popular John Prine song.

Prine, a popular American country folk singer-songwriter, shared his gift of music with the world for five decades. 

It was early April, during that last huge snowstorm, that I learned that John Prine died from COVID-19 symptoms. That night, it was howling and snowing outside like it hadn’t howled in a long time, and I was howling inside when I heard the news. 

We were all somewhat newly hunkered down and navigating our own grief and uncertainty. It made it all the more unfair that Prine was taken from us while it felt like the whole world was crashing down. 

Prine’s music and lyrics had a certain clarity that resonated deeply, highs and lows that we can all identify with right now as many grieve, knowingly or unknowingly.

One of his more well-known songs, “Hello In There,” speaks to the loneliness that in particular elderly people face with isolation. The lyrics include these lines:

“Ya know that old trees just grow stronger / And old rivers grow wilder every day / But old people just grow lonesome / Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”

In 2017, Prine told Rolling Stone magazine  that his music addresses the “in-between spaces” of life, the moments that people don’t talk about.

It seems lots of people are probably navigating their “in-between” spaces right now, with things changing and hinging every week on things we really have no control over.

Sometimes these spaces can be not so pretty, filled with thoughts or words we might later try to wrap our hands around or regret. Working through these spaces through music is one wonderful, judgment-free way to do it. Music reminds us of our similarities. 

A simple “hello” means more to some than you will know right now, and we all need it more than ever. 

Even with the budding leaves and longer sunny days, there are still some individuals who are not resuming routine indefinitely, for their own protection and the protection of others.

One can only guess at what Prine would write about our changed world now and what phrases he might craft to help soothe our souls and explain the unexplainable.

Since he isn’t alive, I suspect he’d be happy to hear we are making special efforts to say hello and reach out to those who need it even more right now.

Ella Saltonstall, born and raised in Kodiak, works as a speech language pathologist and enjoys musing about parenting, communication, music and everything in between.


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