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Monasterevin, Co. Kildare, Ireland

Bob Dylan once remarked that when Tommy Makem sang, there was an elsewhere in his eyes. From that elsewhere came his singing.

What was true of Tommy Makem (1932-2007), the celebrated singer and songwriter from Co. Armagh, is also true of Irish balladry in general, particularly its immigrant ballads. One of the best-known ballads, Frank Fahy’s version of Galway Bay, recalls the rugged rocks and the sweet green grass of Galway from the vantage point of Illinois. And one of the most poignant, Sliabh Gallion Brae, is a kind of elegy in advance, in which a farmer by the name of Joe McGarvey from Derrygenard, who can no longer pay his rent, bids farewell to the parish of Lissan, the cross of Ballinascreen, and “bonny, bonny Sliabh Gallion Brae”  All are soon to be elsewhere. In the Irish language, sliabh (pronounced shleeve) means mountain, and in Scots Gaelic brae means hillside. As so often in immigrant ballads, an elsewhere fondly remembered is evoked through its place name, which brings its felt presence into the foreground.

To wish to be elsewhere is a universal human desire. And to become aware of that desire, even as it is arising, is one of the aims of Zen practice. Sometimes the “elsewhere” is a geographical place, as in the immigrant ballads, but just as often it is an imagined state of mind, and it lies in the future rather than the past. In her book Nothing Special the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck examines this recurrent human impulse, as embodied in ordinary thought:

In ordinary thinking, the mind always has an objective, something it’s going to get. If we’re caught in that wanting, then our awareness of reality is gone. We’ve substituted a personal dream for awareness. Awareness doesn’t move, doesn’t bury itself in dreams; it just stays as it is.*

Ordinary thinking, as here portrayed, removes us from wherever we are. By contrast, immovable awareness grounds us in the here and now. To bring meditative awareness to our thoughts is to realize how often they serve to transport us elsewhere.

Of course, not ­all thoughts serve that purpose. Happy to be Here, the title of one of Garrison Keillor’s books, expresses a thought that many of us have when conversing with friends at a dinner party, or spending time with a son or daughter, or eating a bowl of ice cream on a summer evening. Yet the fact is that only a few of our thoughts amplify or clarify our present experience, and many have the opposite effect. If you would like to test this claim, may I suggest that you sit still for three minutes and count the number of thoughts you have during that time. Then sit still for another three minutes, labeling your thoughts (“Thinking about tomorrow’s meeting:”; “thinking about last night”). You may well find that the bulk of your thoughts pertain not to the present but to the past or the future: to where you have been or where you might sometime be. Others may pertain to no place at all, being generalized, abstract, and void of concrete particulars.

The point of this exercise is not to extinguish all such thoughts. To think about other times and places is a natural human activity, and it can give rise to artistic works as richly diverse as Billy Collins’s poems on his childhood or Tommy Makem’s Farewell to Carlingford. The point is rather to become aware of conceptual thinking and to see how it comes between our minds and the realities of our lives, bringing anxiety and untold suffering in its wake. “On the whole,” W.C. Fields is thought to have written as his epitaph, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” That makes for a good story, but like many a colorful tale, it isn’t true. The real epitaph reads simply, “W.C Fields, 1880-1946.”  So it is with our images and thoughts, which purport to illuminate reality but often take us elsewhere.

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*Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special: Living Zen (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 152.

Gemma Hasson’s rendition of Sliabh Gallion Brae may be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiSd2rUyrQ8. Tommy Makem’s Farewell to Carlingford may be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGn2G-xjM_M.

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