The Resolution of Gratitude and Thank You Notes

Photo by Kary Schumpert.


“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.”–Melody Beattie

When we were little, my mother always made sure we wrote thank you notes to friends and relatives for the gifts we received for birthdays and Christmases. In later years, my grandmother and great-aunt had saved some of those letters and shared them with us. We laughed together, remarking on the childhood cursive and funny phrasing, but I noticed that my grandmother put them away as if they were precious jewels.My great-aunt was a minimalist, before that word was commonly tossed around, and kept very little. When she died a couple of years ago, the things she had saved were albums full of family photographs and our childhood letters, especially those thank you notes.

The summer after high school graduation, I wrote mountains of notes for the gifts propelling me into adulthood. That seems to be the last time that I was consistent about writing thank you letters. I am ashamed to say that I did not keep up with the tradition of writing thank you notes, despite receiving wonderful and thoughtful gifts for many occasions over the years. In fact, I am just now writing thank you notes for the gifts I received at Christmas. It’s for the first time in a long time.

In mid-January, some people’s New Year’s Resolutions have already crashed and burned. I have always loved the tradition of coming up with resolutions and trying to find meaningful ones that will stick. In the last few years, I have tried a different tack, by getting very specific about one or two goals, or going with a larger theme that reflects all aspects of my life. This year, I have decided to focus on gratitude. I want gratitude to become my praxis, my practice. This is less about self-improvement and more about a spiritual shift after some hard-won lessons. This is something I want to become a lifelong practice, not just a quickly-expressed-but-easily-forgotten resolution.

I have read about people keeping gratitude journals, or making lists of things that they are grateful for. I love both of those ideas. So now I plan to jot down things I am grateful for in my all-purpose journal that also serves as a repository for writing ideas, dreams, goals, meditations, and all other things. I think it will be fun to find bits of gratitude sprinkled among the pages. When appropriate, I will also take pictures of things that spark my gratitude, like sunrises, a good meal, and glimpses of a full moon. Taking time to write down my gratitude and to take pictures of my gratitude, I hope, will help me to be more grateful, to more fully realize my gratitude.

I also want to examine gratitude, and not just be grateful for the good things and the beautiful things. I want to find gratitude in all. I want to find gratitude in the dark moments, in the sad times, in the things that might otherwise be difficult to find gratitude.

As well, I realize that these are all internal moments. I also want to share my gratitude for the people whom I love. I have decided to pick up that beautiful, and ancient, art of letter writing and go beyond the traditional thank you note. I plan to write thank you letters to the people I love and really say thank you and express what they mean to me. It might be on a birthday, or when I think of a friend, or when I know someone is having a hard time.

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”–John F. Kennedy

The quote from Kennedy makes me realize that gratitude is so much more than saying thank you. It is taking the meaning deep into our hearts, and living it fully. It means saying thank you for the big and small, aloud and in the quiet ways we live. In reality, it means writing the thank you notes for gifts, but also sharing our gifts of talent and time with others. It means being present. It means being open. It means living fully.

“It is through gratitude for the present moment that the spiritual dimension of life opens up.”–Eckhart Tolle

Here’s to a new year and a new practice. Here’s to gratitude. What does gratitude mean to you? How do you express gratitude? What is the practice that you hope will bring more meaning and joy into your life?


A quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo by Kary Schumpert.
Photo by Kary Schumpert.

“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, February 4, 1968


The tree unadorned. Photo by Kary Schumpert.

The holidays come careening like a noisy parade, despite their arrival in the midst of the quiet beginning of winter. For a bit, we forget about the silence, while decorating and baking and wrapping and celebrating. It is in the darkest time of the year, that we find the meaning of light and look forward to its arrival.

One of my favorite rituals is taking down the Christmas tree and all the decorations, at the end of the holiday season while the year is still young. Some people I know, as soon as the last present has been unwrapped, swiftly pack up all the ornaments and vacuum the last of the evergreen needles, fake or real, from the floor the day after Christmas. I like to wait until Epiphany or the 12th day of Christmas. In the Christian tradition, Epiphany is the day that the wise men finally reached the birthplace of Jesus. This year, to celebrate Epiphany, I waited for a windy morning in the new year, but not the actual day, which is January 6.

The word epiphany also means “a sudden revelation or insight.” In this case, an epiphany is the proverbial “light bulb moment” when one has a great idea or something becomes clear. Two huge epiphanies occurred to me in November. It’s weird how a moment of clarity can be the point in which everything changes, even if quietly and internally.

I like that Epiphany, also celebrated by taking down the tree and other decorations, is both a celebration of the “light of the world” and a time of removing those lights. Metaphors abound.

A couple of mornings after the new year dawned, I brewed a cup of coffee and shivered into my favorite sweatshirt with the moon’s phases printed on the front. I pulled the two plastic boxes from the closet and then began the undressing, the unadornment, of my apartment.

I unplugged the lights and took down the wreath from the back of the door in the kitchen. I removed the electric chile ristra lights, given to me last year by a good friend, from the wall by the stove. I remembered to pick up the small holy family creche near the entry way. I took the punched tin angel down from the top of the tree and returned it to the shelf for its year-round spot in my living room.

Then I began the routine of plucking the ornaments one-by-one off of the tree. The ornaments are really like specimens in a time capsule of my life. I possess ornaments given to me when I was born, and a felt stocking decoration I made in pre-school. There are souvenir ornaments from travels, including a wooden ornament of Nebraska I bought on a spring road trip to see the sandhill cranes. Each year, my mom gives us an ornament for our trees as a Christmas present and a celebration of the twelve months that have just passed.

This year, I added a pressed tin star ornament, as a memento from a summer trip to a colonial Spanish “living museum” near Santa Fe. My stepmother sent me a small ornament she had made with a picture of my dad at its center. He passed away in March and I appreciate her sweet handiwork and his familiar half smile-half smirk in the photo.

I wrapped the breakable ornaments in much-wrinkled tissue paper and placed the softer ornaments in old holiday cookie tins. I thought about the memories of Christmases past, my sisters and I wearing matching nightgowns as we unwrapped presents. I remembered playing with my cousins on Christmas eve in the warmth of my grandmother’s kitchen while the adults sat and talked around the tree in the living room. I recalled the year in college, when I almost didn’t make it home, stuck in the Duluth and Chicago airports due to a heavy, heavy fog and then a holiday’s helping of snow just as the clouds began to clear.

I thought about making Christmas cookies with my younger sister in our years as roommates in Colorado. I remembered the many holidays hosted by my older sister, the yummy food with the cacophony of family political debates and marathon trivia games. This year and last, I stayed home in Albuquerque and had quiet holidays.

This year brought sadness, with the passing of my dad. There was also a bit of upheaval, that had more to do with growth and some confrontation both with myself and with others. There has been sadness, grief, mistakes, arguments, deep discussions, joyful reunions, silent partings, and wonder. There has been much clearing away of the old:  old stories, old baggage, old untruths. There has been a planting of new seeds:  new truths, new friends, new relationships, new beginnings, and new beginnings within old relationships. There has been forgiveness:  of self, of others. There have been epiphanies.

The new year begins. We pack away the old. We begin in the quiet, sparse winter. We try new. We touch the scars, and we feel the healing. We forge ahead. We find the epiphanies. We want change. We know, though, that change must begin by learning from the past and trying something different. We have to clear away the old growth to make way for new growth. We know that sometimes our noisy proclamations are not the real changes, but instead, the genuine transformation takes place in the quiet moments when we reach out anew.

Little Bits of Gratitude in Pictures

I am grateful for much, and these pictures only begin to scratch at the surface, but they do represent those little bits. Happy Thanksgiving!

A Quote By Henry David Thoreau


Photo by Kary Schumpert.

“I am struck by the simplicity of light in the atmosphere in the autumn, as if the earth absorbed none, and out of this profusion of dazzling light came the autumnal tints.”–Henry David Thoreau