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.


Poetry Matters

April 19, 2015

“. . . when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle class, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy.  A tough life needs a tough language — and that is what poetry is.  That is what literature offers — a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place.  It’s a finding place.” —  Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Crossed tulips

Crossed tulips

I graduated in 1976 with a liberal arts degree in English literature, and pretty much all of my adult life the value of this degree has eroded.  It seemed to me that the 1980s began the rejection of all values other than money, and now our culture defines success by one’s monetary and material wealth.  Someone like me, who is not naturally inclined to math, economics, sciences, engineering or technology, but who prefers the arts, philosophy, the humanities feels like a misfit. But when I look back on my life, I know I have been saved by reading.  Books are my “finding place.”  In the words of Lynda Barry, books have given me a world to “dwell and travel in.”

From Lynda Barry's "What It Is"

From Lynda Barry’s “What It Is”

From Lynda Barry's "What it Is"

From Lynda Barry’s “What it Is”

Poetry matters.  Literature matters.  Art matters.  Beauty matters.  They are priceless.

The Fat of My Experiences

December 30, 2013

Winter in the garden: decaying leaves hanging like a row of furry bats

Winter in the garden: decaying leaves hanging like a row of furry bats

“If the writer would interest readers, he must report so much life, using a certain satisfaction always as a point d’appui.  However mean and limited, it must be a genuine and contented life that he speaks out of.  His readers must have the essence or oil of himself, tried out of the fat of his experience and joy.”
— Henry David Thoreau, from Winter: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vol. 8, December 23, 1856

More advice to ponder from the seasoned writer and thinker, Henry David Thoreau.



Unnoticed and Unannounced

December 27, 2013


I’ve been spending much of my time recently reading through a gigantic pile of books from the library.  I find wisdom and solace from other writers, and not infrequently writers seem to address questions I am pondering and issues in my life.

One of the better books I just finished was The Boy Detective:  A New York Childhood by Roger Rosenblatt, in which he spins a memoir as he wanders from about 14th to 42nd Streets in New York City.  I walked many of these same streets on my November trip, so this was a fun way to revisit vicariously.  Rosenblatt teaches writing, and he’s a good writer himself (so good that I will be looking up other of his books at the library).  And at one point he writes about the joys of living “unnoticed and unannounced,” which I imagine is something of a dilemma for a memoirist, and something I have been thinking about as the author of this website.  He says:

“I like living my life without telling anyone, as if whatever I did during the course of a day — get the car an oil change, shop for coconut ice cream, sit in Starbucks with my grande bold coffee and yellow legal pad — was between me and me and no one else.  I would not say that what I do is none of your business.  That’s not what I mean.  Everybody’s business is everybody’s business once in a while.  What I mean is that doing things like taking a walk in the city at night without telling anyone makes the thing being done a modest gift to myself.  We live most of our lives this way, do we not?  Unnoticed and unannounced.  And who would I tell anyway?  Do you really care if I buy coconut ice cream, or if one winter evening I leave my classroom and roam about New York in search of my inconsequential life?  Would you love me more or less if I told you?”

Well, I love Rosenblatt more for his telling of a few moments in his life.  His book brought me enjoyment and no doubt left him many other private moments, still not written about, as modest gifts to himself.  I can take this as a lesson for myself.

Spring crocuses

Spring crocuses

“It is important that I write something down every day . . . It doesn’t have to be more than a few words, just enough to prove that one day has been different from another in certain of its aspects, otherwise it might seem as if one has no past or future, as if one lives within a twenty-four-hour circle, turning over and over in an endless repetition.”
— Julia Blackburn, Daisy Bates in the Desert

“The main value of the journals is not any of this, but making the reader realize that what’s important about life is not the major calamities or joys but just living the day, just seeing the light on the wall, just seeing a rose open or the birds come to the feeder.”
— May Sarton, from Conversations with May Sarton

I am again reminded how thankful I am to have this blog with its self-imposed deadlines to keep me writing about the commonplace things in my days.  It has turned into something of a biography of my daily life.  And while I may return to the same topics from time to time, each fresh post is a discrete, and hopefully unique, reflection celebrating a new day.

When I use the “search” box, I see that I have written a dozen or so posts about crocuses, for example.  Here is yet another look at this harbinger of spring.

Watercolor sketch of a crocus inspired by an autumn crocus called Saffron: Crocus Sativus by Lindsay Megarrity, from the book Contemporary Botanical Artists: The Shirley Sherwood Collection

Watercolor sketch of a crocus inspired by an autumn crocus called Saffron: Crocus Sativus by Lindsay Megarrity, from the book Contemporary Botanical Artists: The Shirley Sherwood Collection

My watercolor sketch of a single crocus bloom

My watercolor sketch of a single crocus bloom

Still life with pencils and daisies

Pencils with daisies and open book

My favorite writing implement of the moment is my fine-lined Pilot G-Tec-C4 disposable pen (with black ink).  However, as I’m sure is the case with you, I do most of my “writing” these days on the keyboard of a computer, laptop, or mobile device.  Do you ever wonder how the shift away from hand tools affects the quality of your life?

I love the tactile sensations of a pen or pencil in my hand.  And I think better with pen in hand.  I recently came across a wonderful passage in Roger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees about writing with pencils that I’ll share with you here:

“Now and again you discover the perfect pen and carry it everywhere until one day you lose it.  But nothing is so universally dependable, or comes so naturally to hand as a pencil.  What could be simpler?  I often write with a pencil.  It suits my tentative nature.  It allows me to literally sketch out ideas before proceeding to the greater definition of ink.  It was the first tool I used to write or to draw, and still suggests the close relationship between the two activities.  I know I shall never outgrow pencils.  They are my first, most natural means of expression on paper.  It is comforting and liberating to know that you can always rub out what is pencilled.  It is the other end of the spectrum from carving in stone.”

I’ve written before about my love for handwriting, especially cursive writing, and how I miss seeing more of it in my life.  (You can view that post here.)

Adam McCollum, the Lead Cataloger of Eastern Christian Manuscripts at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at the college of St. John’s in Minnesota recently wrote in his blog about how much we miss when we learn to read and write from printed vs. handwritten texts.  McCollum raises some interesting things to think about:

  • How much about a person and his culture is revealed in the handwritten word.
  • The differences between letters and text in handwritten script vs. printed fonts and how much, if at all, the printed alphabet resembles handwriting.
  • How the speed of our thoughts is affected by writing — “a sluggish pen delays our thoughts.”
  • How printed type is a leveler, that is, there is no variation among multiple copies whereas with handwriting there is always variation even if the same writer is making the copies.

You can link to McCollum’s complete blog post here.

Will the pencil ever become obsolete?  I hope that doesn’t happen in my lifetime! I would miss it.

Mailbox on Greenwood Ave N

“We’re all poets when we’re little.”
— Naomi Shihab Nye

Are you a poet who doesn’t know it?

Have you ever tried writing poetry?  I have to admit that I am defeated by it.  But when I watched poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s short, humorous video on Poetry Everywhere, I was reminded by how naturally young children speak poetically because their minds and perceptions are still fresh, not jaded by clichés.

In her introduction, Nye quotes the poet William Stafford. When people asked him, “When did you become a poet?” he would respond, “That’s not the right question…The question is, ‘When did you stop being a poet?’”  Nye then reads words she collected from the mouth of her young son, every one a poetic observation.  You can link to the Nye video here.

When thinking about writing poems, I find the following quote helpful: “. . . poetry is a form of attention, itself the consequence of attention.”  (Donald Revell, The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye)  I may not write poems, but I hope that my photos and watercolor sketches are poetry’s equivalents. They are the consequence of my attentiveness to the natural world.

“Whatever things I perceive with my entire man — those let me record — and it will be poetry.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Journals (September 2, 1851)

P.S.  What a resource Poetry Everywhere is!!  Here you can see and listen to poets read their poems, for example Robert Frost reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  I feel like a kid in a candy store at this website.  Enjoy!

“Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude and good company.”
     — Lord Byron

Writing to my sister at the coffee shop

The coffee shop is a perfect place for letter writing.  You share in the companionable hum of the neighborhood, but are alone enough to concentrate on writing your private thoughts onto the page.  Solitude and companionship packaged into one present.

A winter afternoon at Zoka's, my neighborhood coffee shop

A grace note -- a beautifully presented cup of coffee

Letter writing at the local coffee shop

And someone else cleans up!

“Letter writing is generally a thoughtful art.”
      — Dorie McCullough Lawson, from the preface to Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children

Stack of old letters to my sister


Family treasures, old letters


Among my personal treasures is a file of correspondence between a younger sister and me.  We are both middle children in a family of nine kids.  She was the tomboy, communing with animals and leading the younger siblings on imaginative adventures.  It wasn’t until we both finished high school that I began to see her as a kindred spirit.  I’ve always admired her fiercely independent character.

It was this independence, perhaps, that led my sister to Israel where she fell in love, married, and has lived all these years.  Our letters span October 1978 to January 1996, a period that covers my first years of marriage, my sister’s last years as a single woman, and our first years starting our own families.  We’ve communicated since then, but too rarely, and largely by e-mail or holiday cards, so there are no archives of letters for the past fifteen years.

 I’ve held on to the old letters, but I have not spent any time re-reading them.  I fear I’ll be embarrassed by my naiveté and youthful inexperience.  They may be a Pandora’s box of sorts, documenting my weaknesses and failures.  They may be boring.

Unread, they hold the potential of being treasures, glimpses of the person I used to be.  They may hold snippets of the person I continue to be.  One day I may be brave enough to reread and share them.

If this book won't inspire you to write a letter, nothing will.

The second week of January each year is National Letter Writing Week.  In honor of this occasion, I’d like to recommend that you write a letter to someone close to your heart.  If you need inspiration, check out this lovely anthology —  Posterity:  Letters of Great American to Their Children, edited by Dorie McCullough Lawson.  She says that letters “are the color, heart, and personality of history,” and this book proves her point in a delightful, highly readable way.

Dorie McCullough Lawson’s father is the noted historian and biographer, David McCullough, and in the foreword to the book he states very clearly why letters are an important part of history:

“That so few of us write to our children any longer, that we so rarely write personal letters of any sort, is a shame.  I think often of how little we will leave about ourselves and our time in our own words.  Maybe some of the e-mail will survive, but I doubt it.  How will future generations ever come to know us?  Historians and biographers a hundred or three hundred years hence will have almost nothing of a personal kind to work with.  Our story, consequently, will be a lot less interesting, less human, perhaps even impossible to write.
     Beyond that we’re denying ourselves the pleasures and benefits of putting out thoughts and feelings down in words of our own.  Nothing focuses the mind as writing.”

Even a short letter will do.  Get to it!

Addressing an envelope to my sister