“I can’t remember
every spring,
I can’t remember
everything —

so many years!
Are the morning kisses
the sweetest
or the evenings

or the in-betweens?
All I know
is that “thank you” should appear

So, just in case
I can’t find
the perfect place —
“Thank you, thank you.”
— Mary Oliver



Watercolor painting of tulips in a vase


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.

“Only what you have given, be it only in the gratitude of acceptance, is salvaged from the nothing which some day will have been your life.”
— Saint John of the Cross

Thinking and reading about gratitude

I enjoyed reading Margaret Visser’s book about gratitude, The Gift of Thanks:  The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude, for the way she tackled the complexities of this seemingly simple virtue.  So much of gratitude springs from the culture of gift giving.  The act of giving a gift and of receiving one creates layers of obligations and expectations, which varies by culture.  No wonder gifts are so often a mixed blessing.

I won’t even go into what things are doing to us.  I try to resist the commercialization of our holidays and focus on the intangibles — the music, the scents, the colors, the lights in the darkness, the written words, the shared meals, the warmth of sweaters and quilts and mittens . . .  I try to bring a conscious appreciation and grateful acceptance to these aspects of the season.  It turns out I am salvaging my life!

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


Waving and Saying Thanks

November 23, 2011

One of the turkey plates from my sister's collection

The dark days of late autumn remind us that sometimes we must give thanks even during our darkest moments.

“One act of thanksgiving made when things go wrong is worth a thousand when things go well.”
— Anonymous

“Who does not thank for little, will not thank for much.”
— Proverb

“Cold and chill, bless the Lord.
Dew and rain, bless the Lord;
Frost and cold, bless the Lord.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord;
Nights and days, bless the Lord.
Light and darkness bless the Lord . . .”
—  from Canticle of the Three Youths (Daniel 3:67-72)

by W. S. Merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

And I’d like to extend a personal thanks to you, for taking the time to read my blog posts and for giving such insightful and generous comments.  Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving!


Giving Thanks

November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving decorations

Let us prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday with a thankful heart.

By Ralph Waldo Emerson

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.

From my sister's collection of turkey things for Thanksgiving

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”
— Thornton Wilder

“Thanksgiving Day comes by statute once a year; to the honest man it comes as frequently as the heart of gratitude will allow.”
— Edward Sandford Martin

I’m working to hold gratitude in my heart, a daily practice, and especially so as we approach our Thanksgiving holiday.

“A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues.”
     — Cicero

Thank you letter from my niece's son, age 8

I hope the art of writing thank you notes is not dead.  We live with so much abundance, I wonder if we are taking gifts too much for granted.  I grew up in a large family where money was tight.  Gifts were rare and cherished.  A hand-written thank you note is the least we can do to express our appreciation for gifts, small and large.  A note of thanks  honors both the giver and the gift.

Saying Grace

November 24, 2010

I just love what Jerome Segal says about saying grace before meals in “Graceful Living,” his essay in a book about simple living called Less is More by Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska.  His words are especially appropriate to this day before our country’s Thanksgiving holiday.  I know I plan to keep his words in mind when I sit down with family to our Thanksgiving feast.

Saying grace

“Consider the act of saying grace before a meal.  Here the core is an attitude of thanksgiving, of appreciation.  The focus is on recognizing the full value of what one has, rather than lamenting what one does not.  While one can mouth the words, one cannot authentically begin a meal with a benediction of grace and at the same time maintain a sense of dissatisfaction with what one has.  There is a certain peaceful contentment that is part of genuine thankfulness.
     When one does approach a meal gracefully, one can look in two different directions.  One can consider what one has against the ‘perspective of less,’ contrasting what one has with what others do not.  This means seeing things against the backdrop of poverty, of hunger, of times and places of suffering and deprivation.  Here the act of consumption is also a moment to see oneself and one’s situation within the broader perspective of human experience and, so seen, to be thankful for what one has and more aware of what one has been lucky enough not to have experienced.  Thus, one is thankful to have something to eat when others have starved.  And one is thankful to have friends and loved ones to share the meal with when others are lonely, and when there may come a day when those friends and loved ones are gone.
     Then there is another perspective, one that does not take its power from the contrast with deprivation and suffering, but rather seeks to put us in touch with the abundance in front of us.  Here the appreciation of the food rests not on an awareness of hunger, but on how good this food is, of how remarkable a thing is the simple potato or the diverse ingredients of a salad or the crust on a good bread.  And then to look around the table and take stock of those who are there, valuing them not against the possibility of loneliness but in virtue of the richness they provide.
     Here appreciativeness goes beyond thankfulness, to being open to the values that are inherent in something.  This kind of appreciativeness requires a certain kind of experiencing.  It is not primarily a matter of intellectual assent, but of an openness, of an accessibility to what is valuable, be it another person, a piece of music, a work of art, a spring day or a great ball game.  Often such appreciation is most present when we are young, when the world is fresh.  As we age and as we get into our harnesses, our ability to take pleasure dulls.  In other contexts, appreciation is not automatically present but is the result of learning and exposure:  for example, the appreciation of art and music, especially if it comes from other cultures.
     This appreciativeness is an orientation that we bring (or more likely, fail to bring) to any of the things of ordinary life.  Thus, with respect to food and meals, we may be oblivious to the difference between good cooking and bad, oblivious to the pleasure of eating off a handsome dining table versus a card table.  We may be blind to the value of those we eat with, blind to those we live with, blind to those we parent.
     Yet for this second kind of appreciation to be valid, there has to be something there to be appreciated.  What if the tomatoes taste like rubber, the food is overcooked, the bread is dismal, the spouse is in a foul mood and the children are obnoxious?  Where is gracefulness then?  What is there that is worthy of appreciation?
     Thus, in this second sense, a graceful meal requires more than the appropriate attitude; it also involves the presence of a qualitative richness, what we might call ‘good fortune,’ so long as we do not view ourselves as passive with respect to whether such fortune is before us.  This links to another dimension of the act of saying grace.  The grace ritual requires that we take a moment before digging in, a moment of pause, a moment of quiet that gives a certain dignity to the meal.  It separates it from what precedes it.  In spirit, of not in practice, the initial benediction establishes a space that pervades the entire meal.  When we have a meal in this way, we do not wolf down our food.  We set the meal apart; the benediction allows us to break with the hectic pace of a busy day.  To an extent, it turns the meal into a ceremony.  As such, it is not only a space worthy of appreciation; it is a space worthy of taking the time and energy to create properly.”
     — Jerome Segal, “Graceful Living”