Iris DeMent, Portland, 22 March 2013

   I’ve written briefly elsewhere about Iris DeMent being my hero. Contrasting to the other musical heroes on my office wall, people scratch their heads and wonder. Along with Iris, there are Bob Dylan (obviously), Tom Waits, and Ville Valo (of HIM). I’m not sure there is anything truly in common with all 4 of them, except that their words mean something to me. We attended Iris’ concert in Portland last Saturday and it sure seemed to me like she chose her set of songs with the same criteria I would have used. Iris writes important things and sings them in a voice that drew me in from the first time I heard her on Prairie Home Companion 20 years ago. I didn’t write down the whole set list, but here are some of them, not all in order she did them, which offer me an excuse to enthuse about Iris and to say why Iris’ songs have helped hold me together for the past 15 years or so.

   First I swooned when Iris and her band walked out on stage (just as I swooned, mind you, when Ville Valo walked out on stage a couple years ago). I was thrilled to see she had her band, figuring the music would be bigger and she (and thereby we) might have more fun along the way. Then I was stunned she chose the first song from her first record to open with:

   Let the Mystery Be
“Everybody is wondering what and where they all came from.
Everybody’s worried where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
No one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

   Let the mystery be, indeed. When it comes to heaven or hell, god or no god, what’s really the point in believing either way? Some might say that the point is to avoid God’s wrath for failing to believe in him; the point is to go to heaven, as opposed to hell, when we die. Well, honestly, if God is going to send me to hell for being how I am, i.e. not believing in him and the silliness of the Bible (Koran, etc.), that is fine with me. The people in hell will be most of the interesting and peaceful ones who I have more in common with or would want to meet (e.g. Albert Einstein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury). Not to mention all the people who’ve ever lived who never heard of God. That’s a lot of interesting people. Since before I knew about Iris, I’ve let the mystery be, but she puts it better than anyone else could.

   It might have been the next song, or soon after, Iris and band played another of my favorites:

   The Way I Should
–Verse 3 and Chorus–
“October’s leaves were dancing ’round
like angels dressed in robes of red and gold,
but November’s come and gone now
and they’re lying in the gutter out along the road.
They’re gonna make their way out to the ditch or someday to the sea,
but they’ll get to where they’re goin’ without the help of you or me,
and if each life is just a grain of sand
I’m telling you man, this grain of sand is mine.

And it’s true that I don’t work near as hard
as you tell me that I’m supposed to.
I don’t run as fast as I could.
But I live just the way I want to, and that’s the way I should.”

   Our life is ours to live according to our own choices, not the demands of “society,” capitalism, our friends and family. Not only that, but our lives are insignificant in the big scheme of things, so why would it really matter whether we do according to the wishes of others?

   The Night I Learned How Not to Pray
   There is no brief way to quote from her lyrics that gets the story of the song across: the night when her little brother fell down stairs and died, her prayers for him to survive going unanswered. A lot of us were once caught up in a religion that we’ve since escaped, and have a story to tell about the experience. I remember the last of my church-going days. I was about 16 and had not been enthused or convinced by Christianity for some time. It started sitting in the back of the Presbyterian church, looking around at all the people who attended church every Sunday to gossip about each other before and after and to catch up on their sleep during. Then it came – from our usually milquetoast preacher a sermon about living the religion that all of us came to church ostensibly to practice. He pointed to everyone in the room and said most of us were not true Christians, did not come to church with a true heart and with intentions that the Bible espoused. I agreed with him, and knew that I was as guilty as the rest in some ways. From that day I have not gone back to church and never will. Read on to see how Iris explains.

   Mornin’ Glory
   Somewhere around the middle of the concert Iris and band started this song, which as far as I can tell is truly about morning glories. She got almost to end of verse one and started laughing off to the side of the microphone. Everyone kept playing, including Iris, but sort of round and round on the theme of the song until they wrapped it up and stopped. She said, “Well, I guess that’s it for that song.” Then she explained that she’d been distracted by something funny that happened earlier in the day. They regrouped, started again, and did the song perfectly. Everyone in the audience loved the spontaneity.

   My Life
–Verse 1 and Chorus–
“My life, it don’t count for nothin’
When I look at this world I feel so small
My life, it’s only a season
A passing September that no one will recall

But I gave joy to my mother
I made my lover smile
And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting
I can make it seem better for a while.”

   Most of us spend a lot of time wondering what life is all about, trying to figure out how to make a lasting impact while we are alive, to make our life worth something after we die. The truth at the end of all that wondering and searching is that our life has no meaning except what we do each day. Nothing really will last. The challenge is to accept that there is no lasting meaning, that the only thing we have is each moment of our own life energy and whatever we can add to the experience of beings around us. Listening to this song by Iris has kept me going through so many hard days over a decade or more; without ever meeting me, Iris has given me comfort when I was hurting and made it seem better for a while.

   The Kingdom Has Already Come
–Verse 3 and Chorus–
We all see good or bad in everything that we have
But life is waiting just behind that veil
If this will be loved and that will be hated
The soul is left to struggle segregated
Trapped in the harbor too weighed down to sail.

There’s a tree outside my window
It sings when the wind blows
I’ve got water and fire
I know sorrow, I feel desire
And could it be that the kingdom has already come”

   This verse presents the most important concept there is in life, and Iris puts it in 5 short lines. We analyze everything and everyone, breaking them into good and bad, love and hate, spending our lives moored to concepts we create in our heads, all while life is going by without our attention. If we can just awaken enough to see that there is no “kingdom” to come, no future to arrive at, that words mean nothing, we can see our true life right here, right now.

   Go On Ahead and Go Home
   I mention this song because here was another funny bit in the concert. First of all, Iris chose this song as the last in her regular set. The song is really about dying, and going to that “home,” but still the first lines leading to the end of the concert were fitting. Second, right before this song a large group about two rows in front of us got up and left (?!). So she and the band launch into this song as people were filing out, and many of us couldn’t help but laugh.

   There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven
–Verse 1 and Chorus–
“There’s a lot of people talkin’ ’bout getting in the gloryland way
Walkin’ straight and narrow, trying to get to heaven someday
But I’ve been saved by the love of the people livin’ right here
And there’s a whole lotta heaven shinin’ in this river of tears

There’s a whole lotta heaven shinin’ in this river of tears
If you pull back the curtain little diamonds will appear
You can take your streets of gold if you want ‘em
and your mansion so dear
But I’ll take the whole lotta heaven shinin’ in this river of tears”

   This was the first of two encore songs, and the last of my favorites I had hoped they’d play. Heaven is in the life we are living right now. Allow and surrender to the tears and thereby experience the heaven all around us.

Thank you, Iris!

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