Amazing Grace, Annie Lamott, Astral Weeks, camera angles, Christmas, gratitude, identity, immigration, Life Lessons, Memoir, perspective, photography, prayer, thanks, Thanksgiving, trees, Van Morrison, Words of Wisdom, Writing
In the Fall of 2012, I enrolled in a college photography class, something I had been meaning to do for the previous three decades. I just never got around to it before, what with all my busy-ness and so much time spent bemoaning the pace of life as a woman trying to play equally well the roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister, best friend, teacher and waiting patiently for Tom Petty to show up on my doorstep to ask if I would please be one of his Heartbreakers.
I loved the photography instructor. A Nikon gal like me, she also had breast cancer and neither time nor patience for pink ribbons. Less technician than artist, she had a penchant for Photoshop and its 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 never to 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. It was “writing with light.” I saw magic in it, and I wanted to be good at it, 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 such moments 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, and upon. And so it was that I found myself wandering the grounds of the Arizona State Capitol on a Thanksgiving afternoon, eventually sitting below a canopy of shimmering green and pink. I don’t know how long I sat there, just 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 forgets to be a grumpy old man) 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 today’s holiday, I could maybe say that Thanksgiving had something to do with my moment of transcendence looking up at the shimmering leaves, but that would not have been true. Even after living in America for over twenty years, the celebration of Thanksgiving does not come naturally to me. It amuses me still that some of my American friends are surprised when I tell them there is no such holiday in Ireland. 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.
Looking up and losing track of time that November afternoon, I think I found my footing once more. I may even have 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.
So please. Say thank you.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.