Finding the Right Words

February 22, 2017




“Little by little, the desire for all things
which perhaps is not desire at all
but undying love which perhaps
is not love at all but gratitude
for the being of all things which
perhaps is not gratitude at all
but the maker’s joy in what is made,
the joy in which we come to rest.”
— Wendell Berry, “XII” from Sabbaths 2007

The Art of the Thank You Note

December 21, 2016

Christmas is the time of gift giving, and so it is also the time of thank-you notes (or at least, I hope it is the time to thank and acknowledge the givers).  And I don’t mean “dreaded” thank you notes either.  I find the occasion of sitting down to write them a joy. It’s a few moments to stop the busy craziness of our lives and to really think about the giver, how their gift represents their love for you, and what their presence in your life means to you.

I aspire to write great thank you notes, ones that might even halfway repay the generosity of the giver and that acknowledge my gratitude.  I am inspired by thank yous I have received, and ones I’ve read like this letter by Sylvia Townsend Warner in Letters of Note:


Dearest Alyse,

Usually one begins a thank-letter by some graceless comparison, by saying, I have never been given such a very scarlet muffler, or, This is the largest horse I have ever been sent for Christmas. But your matchbox is a nonpareil, for never in my life have I been given a matchbox. Stamps, yes, drawing-pins, yes, balls of string, yes, yes, menacingly too often; but never a matchbox. Now that it has happened I ask myself why it has never happened before. They are such charming things, neat as wrens, and what a deal of ingenuity and human artfulness has gone into their construction; for if they were like the ordinary box with a lid they would not be one half so convenient. This one though is especially neat, charming, and ingenious, and the tray slides in and out as though Chippendale had made it.

But what I like best of all about my matchbox is that it is an empty one. I have often thought how much I should enjoy being given an empty house in Norway, what pleasure it would be to walk into those bare wood-smelling chambers, walls, floor, ceiling, all wood, which is after all the natural shelter of man, or at any rate the most congenial. And when I opened your matchbox which is now my matchbox and saw that beautiful clean sweet-smelling empty rectangular expanse it was exactly as though my house in Norway had come true; with the added advantage of being just the right size to carry in my hand. I shut my imagination up in it instantly, and it is still sitting there, listening to the wind in the firwood outside. Sitting there in a couple of days time I shall hear the Lutheran bell calling me to go and sing Lutheran hymns while the pastor’s wife gazes abstractedly at her husband in a bower of evergreen while she wonders if she remembered to put pepper in the goose-stuffing; but I shan’t go, I shall be far too happy sitting in my house that Alyse gave me for Christmas.

Oh, I must tell you I have finished my book—begun in 1941 and a hundred times imperilled but finished at last. So I can give an undivided mind to enjoying my matchbox.


P.S. There is still so much to say…carried away by my delight in form and texture I forgot to praise the picture on the back. I have never seen such an agreeable likeness of a hedgehog, and the volcano in the background is magnificent.”

Thank you Christmas card

Thank you Christmas card

How could you not be inspired to make your thank you notes a higher form of communication after reading a gem like Townsend Warner’s? Here is one attempt, by me, for a gift I received this Christmas:

“Thank you for The Book of Joy, which is such a perfect encapsulation of the joy you spread in the world. Its arrival on our doorstep was a complete surprise — most of the packages that come here are for Sandra, things she’s ordered online. Unexpected packages, especially around Christmas, have to be one of life’s warming joys. Even unopened they carry the message that someone was thinking of me! They mean love.

Your gift is perfect. It shows how well you know me — a reader, someone like you who is trying to find meaningful ways to be in this world. I know I will find joy and wisdom in the words of the two sages, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. I can already see myself copying quotes in my commonplace journals and then finding a few apt ones to share in my blog. These activities are my private joys, and your gift indulges them and me. I know they will bring light to this dark time of year, and lessons for the hard times ahead. Your gift is one that will keep on giving.

A proper thank you note will be forthcoming in the mail, but I wanted to express my gratitude for the book, your friendship, and your being in a more immediate way with this email.

Thank you.

My heart is filled with thanks this holiday season.  Thank you, dear readers, for checking in with me so faithfully.


Gratitude Bestows Reverence

November 24, 2016

Succulents, Center for Urban Horticulture gardens

Succulents, Center for Urban Horticulture gardens

“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”
— John Milton

I am grateful for family and friends, art and nature, books and writers, and for each day.  Happy Thanksgiving!





“Give only if you have something you must give; give only if you are someone for whom giving is its own reward.”
— Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

Gratitude garland

Gratitude garland

“When the gift I give to the other is integrated to my own nature, when it comes from a place of organic reality within me, it will renew itself — and me — even as I give it away.”
— Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

I do believe that some of the best gifts are gifts of yourself, your time, your attention, your unique talents and skills.  But I like the added refinement that Palmer offers, namely, to be attuned to whether your giving depletes you or renews you.  Sometimes when you given all you’ve got, to the point of exhaustion, that still feels good because you have the satisfaction of a job well done with no regrets for holding back.  But if you are feeling burned out, then I think it is time to question whether you should keep giving what is depleting you, sometimes to the point of illness.  Maybe there is a healthier way to give or help.

One thing we all can give to each other is our attention.  This is something I need to and want to work on.  I would like to become a better listener.  For me, that means starting from a point of stillness.  Really stopping.  And then listening with absorption, with eye contact, face to face, heart to heart.  Attuned to the feelings behind what is being said, rather than the factual content.  Listening more and talking less.  What a gift that would be!


Gratitude for This Life

November 24, 2015

November morning, Green Lake

November morning, Green Lake

The release of Oliver Sacks’ new book, Gratitude, is perfectly timed for Thanksgiving this year.  In these essays, Sacks — who died in August at the age of 82 — reflects on his life and accomplishments in light of his terminal cancer diagnosis.

He mentions some regrets:  “I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at eighty as I was at twenty; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my own mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.”

Sacks reminds me that our latter years are a gift.  He looks upon old age “as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”  He says, “One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty.”

The urgencies of these latter years are sharpened by their being finite.  “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me.  I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

“. . . I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”

“There is no time for anything inessential.”

But above all, Sacks’ heart was full of thanksgiving:  “I cannot pretend I am without fear.  But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.  I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written.  I have had an intercourse with the world, and the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

Let us all celebrate Thanksgiving in the spirit of gratitude this year.



Thanksgiving 2013

November 28, 2013

Watercolor sketch of Thanksgiving greetings

Be Thankful

Be thankful that you don’t already have everything you desire,
If you did, what would there be to look forward to?

Be thankful when you don’t know something
For it gives you the opportunity to learn.

Be thankful for the difficult times.
During those times you grow.

Be thankful for your limitations
Because they give you opportunities for improvement.

Be thankful for each new challenge
Because it will build your strength and character.

Be thankful for your mistakes
They will teach you valuable lessons.

Be thankful when you’re tired and weary
Because it means you’ve made a difference.

It is easy to be thankful for the good things.
A life of rich fulfillment comes to those who are
also thankful for the setbacks.

Gratitude can turn a negative into a positive.
Find a way to be thankful for your troubles
and they can become your blessings.
— Author Unknown

Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving!

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.

Giving thanks on this Thanksgiving Day

I do believe in counting my blessings.  But I do think this one-sided focus on the positive is a bit disingenuous.  There is the danger of feeling self-satisfied that God or the Universe has chosen you for its gifts and bounty (compared to the poor, undeserving masses).  Or that you have escaped disaster and suffering through your own talents and hard work, rather than by chance or grace.

The exercise of counting one’s blessings is designed, perhaps, to evoke feelings of humility and compassion and gratitude.  But how about taking a moment to count one’s disasters and crises and reflect upon their role in life.  No one is immune from suffering.  And I believe it is when one is struggling with bad news, pain and disease, failures and limitations, that one’s humanity is revealed.  Disasters impose constraints, but working within constraints can be immensely freeing and push one to great creativity.

The following tale from China, “The Lost Horse,” illuminates another aspect of disasters and their dual nature (hidden blessings):

A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Their household was richer by a fine horse, which the son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”

A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.

So this Thanksgiving, let’s embrace the whole of life — blessings and disasters — with heartfelt gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!




Blessed Be

November 20, 2012

“I am in a mind to bless.  Blessed be the book, the page, the word, the letter.  Blessed be the great names and the ungreat names.  Blessed be the velvet that is the color of wine, and the wine.  Blessed be the particles in the light. Blessed be the shoulder and blessed be the burden.  Blessed be the calendar.  Blessed be the clock.”
— Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish

Blessed be the book, the page, the word, the letter . . .

What a heartfelt prayer this is!  An acknowledgement of the myriad blessings that fill our lives.  Gratitude must surely begin with awareness, with the simple recognition of the gifts that have been bestowed on us.

“Gratitude is a feeling that depends on thinking:  it is ignited in the receiver’s heart not only by another’s kind action but also by his or her own attention, awareness, understanding, reflection, and openness to seeing and accepting the goodness of somebody else.”
— Margaret Visser, The Gift of Thanks:  The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude


One of my favorite photos from my first year blogging (Nov 2009)

This is Thanksgiving week, and my thoughts naturally turn toward prayers of gratitude.  I’d like to devote my blog posts this week to the theme of gratitude.

I did a similar series of gratitude posts in my first year of blogging, culminating with our Thanksgiving feast.  If you are interested, you can re-visit them here:

The older I get, the more aware I am that each day is a gift.  My gift of days is finite.  It is up to me to use this gift well.

by G. K. Chesterton

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?