Thank You Notes

November 23, 2012

Thank you note from my niece’s son when he was 8 years old (Jan 2011)

Thank-You Notes
by Billy Collins, from Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems

Under the vigilant eye of my mother
I had to demonstrate my best penmanship
by thanking Uncle Gerry for the toy soldiers —

little red members of the Coldstream Guards
and thanking Aunt Helen for the pistol and holster,

but now I am writing other notes
alone at a small cherry desk
with a breeze coming in an open window,

thanking everyone I happened to see
on my long walk to the post office today

and anyone who ever gave me directions
or placed a hand on my shoulder,
or cut my hair or fixed my car.

And while I am at it,
thanks to everyone who happened to die
on the same day that I was born.

Thank you for stepping aside to make room for me,
for giving up your seat,
getting out of the way, to be blunt.

I waited until almost midnight
on that day in March before I appeared,
all slimy and squinting, in order to leave time

for enough of the living
to drive off a bridge or collapse in a hallway
so that I could enter without causing a stir.

So I am writing now to thank everyone
who drifted off that day
like smoke from a row of blown-pit candles —
for giving up you only flame.

One day, I will follow your example
and step politely out of the path
of an oncoming infant, but not right now
with the subtropical sun warming this page
and the wind stirring the fronds of the palmettos,

and me about to begin another note
on my very best stationery
to the ones who are making room today

for the daily host of babies,
descending like bees with their wings and stingers,
ready to get busy with all their earthly joys and tasks.

Written thank you notes are a graceful way to express gratitude.  I hope that this does not become a lost art.  The whole practice of gift-giving seems fraught with expectations and potential conflicts.  Surely the best gifts are given freely.  And yet, a gift demands a response.

Is a simple, heartfelt verbal thank you enough?  Is a written thank you note the end of our cultural obligation to show gratitude? In fact, our duty as gift recipients is deeper.  Margaret Visser, who examines the culture of gratitude in The Gift of Thanks:  The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude, says that a gift has three parts:  to give, to receive, and to reciprocate:  “With thanking, expressing gratitude is not enough.  One should give something back; the intention to return a favour must be present or one’s words are merely empty.”

I like thinking about gratitude in this way.  I tend to view buying gifts as a burden and an unwilling duty.  It will be a worthy goal to have a change of heart about this, and to approach exchanging gifts in a more thoughtful and gracious way, celebrating the connections and obligations that tie me to my recipients.  Something to think about this holiday season.

7 Responses to “Thank You Notes”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Hmmm… I find myself disagreeing with Ms. Visser this morning. While I agree that a gift isn’t truly a gift until it’s received, that business about reciprocity doesn’t seem right to me.A gift is a gift, not a favor that requires response. Of course, I don’t like the phrase “exchanging gifts”, either. 😉

    I know this. One of the saddest experiences of aging is little by little losing people to give gifts to. Writing a check to a charitable organization or taking a teddy bear to Toys for Tots just isn’t the same as thinking about a person, choosing something fitting to please and delight them, and then wrapping it up as beautifully as possible. I’m down to one aunt and three cousins now, and my best friends are slowly being taken by death, so I’m having to get creative about finding people to please with gifts!

    • Rosemary Says:

      Thank you for your comments. Your gifts sound like they include a piece of your heart, and that you are a gifted giver.

  2. harmonyeve Says:

    When I was a child, I once saw a cartoon in which the super hero’s butler went to another planet where the economy was such that everyone followed their heart, supported their community and performed their tasks without pay. Because everyone was of the same Mind, all the outlets of goods operated such that people just went and got what they needed because it was there, gifted to them already. No excess, no waste, no jealousies…just a steady, well functioning, gifting consciousness with no self-interested thought of “what will I get back”. Even at my tender age, the idea intrigued me.

    Dutiful appreciation for things given, though it be intrinsic to our social and emotional responsibilities, is somewhat limited. The heavy and oftentimes disagreeable sense of obligation comes from an ego-centric foundation of “I gave you”. When you get right down to it, nothing is “mine”. It all came as a gift, even the energy/drive/education/talent that it took to make/get “it”.

    What might it be like if we all just gave freely, as in, without expectant strings attached? What if each one just gave of themselves, having a more encompassing, universal vision of the blessing of just Being?

    “Imagine there’s no heaven (personal reward) . . . “

  3. Elisa's Spot Says:

    I sometimes think that my showing up here to read at least once daily will register as gratitude for your time and your words of sharing here. I do not know of you, beyond the space we share walking alongside of the other for a few short moments here. I do not know if my own feelings and emotions about what you choose to share matter to you. I do not need them to do so. When I write, while I may have something that I wish to communicate with others, it is more a simple expression of me in a moment. It seems, from what you share on these ‘pages’ that you are the same. (feel free to correct me, should I be in error)

    Your words compliment and contrast my own motions through my daily life. Your images and travels spark me to enjoy both the small and the large in each thing. They make ‘old’ things suddenly fresh. I can come here for a restart, for calm soft noticings any time I feel the need.

    Perhaps, sometimes, reciprocity is in the passing it on.

    • Rosemary Says:

      You touched on so many things. Yes, I would probably keep posting to this blog even if no one commented or read it. Many of its rewards are in the doing of it, of taking a few minutes to notice things, to organize my thoughts and my photos, to remark on some little thing in my days. But I also look forward (very much) to all comments, and I appreciate the extra effort it takes for my Readers to actually write a response. So thank you!

      I also like the idea of reciprocity encompassing “paying it forward” to someone not aware of the original gift.

  4. Shirley Says:

    I tend to agree with the writing of Thank you notes, so little communication is done with the written word..A friend once said to get a hand written letter is a pleasant surprise. A thank you for your blogs I get a pleasant surprise everyday I read them.

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