Thanksgiving ~ A Postscript

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In the Fall of 2012,  my friend and I enrolled in a college photography class. This was not something to check off a bucket list, just something I had been meaning to do for thirty years. Until then, I had never been made the time for it, but a breast cancer diagnosis shifted my priorities.  Until then, I had been oh so busy being busy and bemoaning the pace of life as a woman trying to play equally well the roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister, best friend, teacher, all the while waiting for Tom Petty to show up on my doorstep and beg me to be one of his Heartbreakers.

I loved the photography instructor. A Nikon gal like me, she also had breast cancer and had neither time nor patience for pink ribbons. Less technician than artist, she had a penchant for Photoshop and those post-processing capabilities that she knew would made us look competent.  Her dead-pan dead-on sense of what was important inspired me to do my homework and to never miss a class. Even as she bristled at our predictable photographs shot straight-on, she would remind us, with a sigh, that “photography is just light” – it’s just light, and we just needed to find it. I told myself it was “writing with light.” and I wanted to be good at it.  I wanted to take the kinds of photographs Amyn Nasser talks about:

I believe in the photographer’s magic — the ability to stir the soul with light and shape and color. To create grand visual moments out of small and simple things, and to infuse big and complicated subjects with unpretentious elegance. He respects classic disciplines, while at the same time insists on being fast, modern and wild.

Determined that we would create a grand moment or two in our often pedestrian pictures, she assigned as homework the week of Thanksgiving, a “prepositional scavenger hunt” that required us to shoot from various angles – against, across, beyond, beneath, around, behind, below, between, inside, outside, on top of, toward, through, upon . . . So it was that on a Thanksgiving afternoon, I found myself wandering the grounds of the Arizona State Capitol, eventually pausing beneath a canopy of shimmering green and pink.

I don’t know how long I sat there, looking skyward and thinking, but it was long enough for prepositions and perspectives to give way to gratitude and grace –  Amazing Grace –  and thoughts of Van Morrison in full flow at The Hollywood Bowl, mystifying us the way he does when he seems younger than the grumpy old man he sometimes appears to be with Astral Weeks/I Believe I have Transcended, a song he once described as “one where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

In the spirit of the holiday season, I could maybe say that Thanksgiving had something to do with that moment of transcendence as I gazed at those leaves shimmering above me, but that would not be true. Even after living in America for almost thirty years, the celebration of Thanksgiving does not come naturally to me. Some of my American friends are still surprised when I tell them there is no such holiday in Ireland. No, Christmas is the holiday that warms us, so I know whereof she speaks when Carole Coleman, an Irish woman living in America, apologizes to her American family and friends,

. . . we will be doing the turkey thing all over again five weeks from now.

No. It was a moment of stock-taking. Looking up and losing track of time that November afternoon, I found my footing again, knowing full well I would lose it – and rediscover it – again. And I was fearless. I was grateful. Sitting there by myself, I think I found the kind of gratitude Annie Lamott describes in her Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers –

Thanks is the prayer of relief that help was on the way, that either the cavalry arrived, or that the plates of the earth shifted and that somehow, you got your sense of humor back, or you avoided the car that was right in front of you that you looked about to hit.

And so it could be the pettiest, dumbest thing, but it could also be that you get the phone call that the diagnosis was much, much, much better than you had been fearing. And you say the full prayer, and its entirety, is: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks. It’s amazement and relief that you caught a break, that your family caught a break, that you didn’t have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were and you just can’t help but say thank you.

Thank you – a powerful phrase that often goes unsaid right when we need to say or hear it the most.


vieilles-canailles-1998-14-gThere’s a lovely minute or two in the Irish film, “Waking Ned Devine,” that never fails to remind me of this. The hapless Lottery official has just arrived unannounced at Ned Devine’s funeral, right when  Jackie O’Shea is beginning the eulogy.  Always quick on his feet – and realizing his scheme to cash in on Ned’s winning lottery ticket is about to come crashing down – Jackie pauses. He looks over at his best friend, Michael O’Sullivan, who is posing as Ned, and as an easy smile spreads across his face, he looks out into the congregation and delivers this:

As we look back on the life of N . . .

Michael O’Sullivan was my great friend. But I don’t ever remember telling him that. The words that are spoken at a funeral are spoken too late for the man who is dead. What a wonderful thing it would be to visit your own funeral. To sit at the front and hear what was said, maybe say a few things yourself. Michael and I grew old together. But at times, when we laughed, we grew young. If he was here now, if he could hear what I say, I’d congratulate him on being a great man, and thank him for being a friend.

Thank you to my friends – new and old, near and far. For loving me and lifting me up and lighting the road here.  May the spirit of Thanksgiving hold you aloft. 

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a magic world – remembering lou reed

They say you die three times. First when your heart stops. Second is when you’re buried or cremated. And third is the last time someone says your name.

Laurie Anderson, 30th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame


 

Lou Reed.  I’m reminded of a moment on the day he died when I noticed my daughter’s fingers catch the sun spilling through the window. Graceful and elegant. And for a minute, everything stopped. 

Just a twinkling ago, she first discovered her beautiful hands. For me, her besotted mother, it was a magical milestone in her development. She was surely the first child to ever make such a discovery, those slender fingers in constant motion.

We called it “hand ballet.

Transfixed, as though under a spell, she paid rapt attention, staring intently, unblinking, at the dancing fingers that would too soon cooperate to clap hands, tie laces, make music, whisk eggs, and wipe away tears.

To fly, fly away . . .

One day she might tell me that she has always known about Lou Reed’s Dirty Boulevard and Van Morrison’s Cyprus Avenue. I hope so. Myself, I have known forever that Holly came from Miami, FLA, that she hitch-hiked her way across the USA; that little Joe never gave it away; and, that Jackie thought she was James Dean for a day. As young as I was when I first heard Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” I cannot possibly have known what the hustle here and the hustle there was all about. Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have been singing it within earshot of my parents – this was the early 1970s in provincial Northern Ireland.

Thinking about this reminds me of somebody else’s daughter. Author, Neil Gaiman, tells  how he braced himself for almost twenty years for the inevitable conversation with his daughter about the story behind her name. Holly. When the day arrived, here’s how it went:

You named me from this song, didn’t you?” said Holly as the first bass notes sang. “Yup,” I said. Reed started singing. Holly listened to the first verse, and for the first time, actually heard the words. “Shaved her legs and then he was a she …? He?

That’s right,” I said, and bit the bullet. We were having The Conversation.”You were named after a drag queen in a Lou Reed song.” She grinned like a light going on. “Oh dad. I do love you,” she said. Then she picked up an envelope and wrote what I’d just said down on the back, in case she forgot it.

I’m not sure that I’d ever expected The Conversation to go quite like that.

I have always been a tiny bit afraid of whatever truths awaited me on the wild side with Lou Reed, but I always took a walk anyway. I have never regretted it, because I always found a book of magic in the garbag can, and it would take me away. Three years since his death, I’m sad that there will be no more tales from the dirty boulevard.

Almost nineteen years later, suspended in the one thought are my baby girl and the late Lou Reed, elegant hands in motion. Laurie Anderson writes that her husband, Lou Reed, spent much of his last days on earth:

. . .  being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature. He died on Sunday morning looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form of tai chi with just his musician hands moving through the air.

LaurieAnderson_LouReed~ my baby girl saying hello to her hands. Lou Reed saying goodbye. Discovering and rediscovering that we cannot have the magic without the loss.

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Caught up One More Time . . . on Cyprus Avenue

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Original post for Van Morrison’s 70th birthday  ~ Cyprus Avenue, Belfast, 2015

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“And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it”

~ from “Had I Not Been Awake” In The Human Chain by Seamus Heaney.


Had I not been awake early this morning, I would have missed the goings-on on Cyprus Avenue. It is Van Morrison’s 70th birthday, and it crosses my mind again that his music – like Seamus Heaney’s poetry – has scored much of my life. For the crowd gathered up on Cyprus Avenue to celebrate his birthday with him, a sense of wonder; for me, a homesickness Stephen King aptly describes as “a terribly keen blade.”

Social media and BBC Radio Ulster are doing their best to assuage the lump-in-my-throat melancholy – while at the same time making it worse – reminding me of the thousands of miles that stretch between us.

I am not there.

I am not there, with my college friend Ruth, to sing along and wonder if he might indulge us with a rendition of Cyprus Avenue which everyone surely wants to hear – for old times sake and because it is fitting. But you never know where you are with Van; you just remember where you are from.


Eight hours behind and a lifetime away from where the second concert of the day is now underway, I relate easily to those fans who have traveled from other continents to sit now among the eighty five trees lining Cyprus Avenue and absorb Van’s Belfast, if only for an hour or two. Clicking on the link to the BBC Radio Ulster broadcast, I was transported instantly to my bedroom in my parent’s house on the Dublin Road, a teenager again and tuning in to Radio Luxembourg – in the Days Before Rock and Roll.

Justin . . .

I am down on my knees
At those wireless knobs
Telefunken, Telefunken
And I’m searching for
Luxembourg, Luxembourg,
Athlone, Budapest, AFN,
Hilversum, Helvetia
In the days before rock ‘n’ roll

Specific and evocative, the names of streets in Van Morrison’s songs – Hyndford Street, Cyprus Avenue, Fitzroy – as much as the characters that people them and the rituals that shaped those lives – Madame George, the window cleaners taking a break for tea with Paris Buns from the shop, you taking the train from Dublin up to Sandy Row, kids collecting bottle-tops, all of us tuning into Radio Luxembourg on our transistor radios, going to the pictures, or the chipper, and filling ourselves with pastie suppers, gravy rings, Wagon Wheels, barmbrack, Snowballs – all these with a Sense of Wonder that has a universal resonance.

And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

Maybe I understand the pull that brings fans from other continents to Cyprus Avenue today. I am reminded of the time I drove from Tucson to  Tucumcari and Tehachapi to Tonopah – places Lowell George immortalized in Willin’. While they turned out not to tourist destinations, nor did I see Dallas Alice in every headlight, I could hear Billy Payne’s grace notes on the piano and Lowell George growling about her every mile I covered. Too, I remember visiting San Francisco drawn less by St. Dominic’s Preview and more by the sight of orange boxes scattered against a SafeWay supermarket in the rain.  Can you hear the echo of Patrick Kavanagh in Van Morrison’s songs, finding God in ‘the bits and pieces of everyday.”


As a new mother, almost eighteen years ago, far away from my Northern Ireland home and in Arizona, it was  “Brown Eyed Girl” that I sang to my green-eyed girl to help her fall asleep. When she did her first little dance as a toddler, a jaunty “Bright Side of the Road” kept her going. As she twirled and clapped her hands, I reminisced about a wee dander down Sunnyside Street, heading out with my friends on a Saturday night, and this song, so jaunty that it was used as the promotional jingle for a “Belfast’s got the buzz” campaign while our wee country tried to pick itself up from all that had ravaged it.

When I got over getting cancer and when I turned a corner in the world of widowhood, it was to my favorite Van Morrison song that I turned and turn. “When the Healing has Begun,” is a tour de force from “Into the Music,” the first Van record I bought from Ronnie Miller’s Pop-In record store in Antrim. A far more satisfying thing than the school lunch I was supposed to buy – it fed my soul.  I played it until I knew the lyrics by heart. And there they stayed until about twenty years later when I found a pristine copy, a German import, still in its protective plastic, at Tracks on Wax then a treasure trove for lovers of vinyl in Phoenix, Arizona – before vinyl became cool and collectible for a new generation.

I had worn out that song, which required some effort. In the days before record players like mine had to compete with tape decks, CD players, and MP3 files, if I wanted to hear a song just one more time or just the opening breath of it, there was no simple replay button, no nonchalant click; rather, the knack of placing the stylus right in the groove, in “the sweet spot,” where it would pick up the familiar repetitive rhythm, the violins, a “yeah” from Van, and “we’ll walk down the avenue again.”

Cyprus. Fitzroy. Belfast. Phoenix. it matters not. We are anywhere and everywhere, underneath the stars. Neither here nor there. It enchants me still – and maybe even Van himself – this song that takes him from a roar through a mumble to a barely there whisper at the end. And when the familiar refrain streamed across a continent into my kitchen in the desert with appreciative whistles from the Belfast crowd, my whole world stopped for a second. Hypnotized momentarily.  Such is the “aesthetic force” of that song for me.

Back street jelly roll . . .

I remember the first time I saw him perform it, at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. Leaning forward from the good seats in the balcony – having scored tickets from a friendly roadie in the Crown Bar – it felt a bit like being in church, somehow knowing we should behave and be quiet, reverent even, if he was going to take us along with him on this song.  And he did.

And the healing begins . . .

And we’ll walk down the avenue in style
And we’ll walk down the avenue and we will smile
And we’ll say baby ain’t it all worthwhile
When the healing has begun

Thank you, Van. For all of it. Happy Birthday.

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looking forward – thank you Seamus Heaney

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Whether it be a matter of personal relations within a marriage or political initiatives within a peace process, there is no sure-fire do-it-yourself kit. There is risk and truth to yourselves and the world before you. And so, my fellow graduates, make the world before you a better one by going into it with all boldness. You are up to it and you are fit for it; you deserve it and if you make your own best contribution, the world before you will become a bit more deserving of you.

~ From his remarks to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduates, May 12, 1996


I cannot adequately convey the inestimable impact of Seamus Heaney‘s words on my adult life. He has been with me every day for as long as I can remember, like a pulse, his words arranged to catch my heart off-guard and blow it open.  I always imagined our paths would cross, and I would be able to thank him for making me brave when I needed to be, for gently teaching me to love from afar the language and the well-trodden lanes of Castledawson and Bellaghy in rural Derry, for “crediting marvels,” in the unlikeliest small things, and, mostly, for inspiring me to set words down on a page, to light up this screen with them, so I might at last be able, “to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” But the opportunity eluded me.

1148798_10201928941846302_1771593936_nOver the years, during the bad times, times of loss for friends and relatives, when I didn’t know what to say, I would turn to his pitch-perfect poems and wrap up my condolences in Heaney’s words.  When he died on this day three years ago, it occurred to me that only he would be capable of producing the right words to assuage Ireland’s sorrow over his passing. It seemed he always had the right word at the right time.

If you have the words . . . there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.

He has always been there with the right word when I needed it, when I found myself in “limbo land,” uncertain – Incertus – caught between Catholic and Protestant, a rock and a hard place, fear and wonder, memory and loss – between myth and reality. A dweller on the threshold . . . 

On this third anniversary of our poet’s death, I am drawn to the underworld and “The Underground,” one of my favorite poems, in which he evokes a honeymoon evening in London, he and his bride running down the corridor from the underground to the Royal Albert Hall. The London Underground becomes the Underworld, and Heaney is Orpheus, refusing to look back and therefore keeping his wife.

The Underground

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

In the hours following his death, we learned his last communication with this world was in the form of a text – just two words for his wife from his hospital bed. Noli Timere. Words from an ancient world illuminating a dark space – “be not afraid.” Simple, spare, and forward-looking.

You are up to it and you are fit for it. 

I find myself looking forward again.

With gratitude.

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