I went to the San Antonio Rodeo this week with my daughter Bibi and my friend Gale. We saw the usual cowboys getting tossed around by broncs and bulls. Then Kacey Musgraves came out to sing on a stage that had been pulled into the middle of the arena. The acoustics are what you might expect in a basketball arena, too loud and jarring. (The Spurs have to leave town every year for two weeks to play road games during the rodeo.) But Kacey’s sweet voice could still be appreciated, particularly on more pensive songs like “It Is What It Is.”
The refrain of this song sounds as though it might come from a Buddhist sutta teaching equanimity and impermanence.
It is what it is
Till it ain’t,
But the story of the song is anything but sacred. A young woman is on the phone with a lover from whom she’s been trying to live apart. The song is a plea for him (I’d say “or her,” but this is a country song.) to come back and go to bed with her.
We don’t have to talk,
You don’t have to stay
At first her reasons seem purely physical, or even just because neither has anything better to do.
But I ain’t got no one sleepin with me,
And you ain’t got no where that you need to be,
Maybe I love you,
Maybe I’m just kind of bored,
Yet, “the truth is,” she misses him, or at least she’s holding on to what they had.
We are who we are,
We’re so much alike,
It ain’t a good thing,
Too dumb to give up,
Too stubborn to change
This is a sad, lonely song, asking an about-to-be-former lover to come back
Till something better comes along,
Till what ever we have is gone.
The reasons she gives for her lover to come back, even for just a bit, seem desperate or ironic or both. She appeals to their vanishing attraction because it is still there and nothing better has come along.
I’m sure that somewhere in the Buddhist literature there’s a good Pali word for the oh-well resignation expressed in this song. And some high-minded scholar has pointed out that quiet desperation is not the same as equanimity. But I think that the refrain “It is what it is/till it ain’t,/anymore” does move us to experience impermanence. In fact, all three of the signs that tell us we exist are alive in this song: an unstable self, constant change, and suffering. Not in the way one could take the story and the words of the song and turn them into the object lesson of a sermon, but as embedded in the singer, her lover, and her song.
That’s what driving under the influence of Dunkin’ Donuts is all about. Listen to people. Live with them. Don’t tell them why they’re sad. Don’t lecture them on what they should be doing. Just wake up to what they’re saying and how they hurt.