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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.