I’d just arrived in Boston on a turbulent flight, after visiting my family in Pennsylvania, for the holidays. Because of my debilitating motion sickness, this particularly bumpy flight left me shaky, nauseous and feeling like shit. The last thing I wanted to do was get into another moving vehicle to make the trip from airport to home.
When I eventually fell into the taxi, the driver, who introduced himself as David, observed warmly “You don’t look so well”. I faintly replied, “Yeah, I don’t feel so well. I’m really motion sick. Do you mind if I put my window down”? “Oh of course, anything you need to be comfortable. I’m sorry you’re not feeling well, and I’ll try to drive extra carefully.”
An empathic human who understood the correlation between motion sickness and jerky stop and go driving. His preemptive kindness made this miserable situation bearable.
When we arrived at my house, I was still working hard to keep things in my stomach. Tears were silently rolling down my cheeks, like a leaky faucet that no matter how hard you tighten the handle, still drips.
This was one of those moments when I longed for a companion. I hate asking for help, but in my sickly stupor, I asked David if he’d mind bringing my stuff up to my third floor apartment.
I could tell this wasn’t part of his typical service, nor should it be, but he was a kind man, and could see how much I was struggling. He gladly obliged.
A few nights prior, while still in Pennsylvania, I’d read about a new book by John Kralik called 365 Thank Yous. Kralik was floundering, so he decided to write one thank you note per day for a year. I was inspired enough by how this guy’s life shifted through the daily note-writing process, that I decided to launch a similar practice that same night. I used some old stationery from my mom’s stash to write my first note, and each night for the rest of my visit, I wrote one more.
The day after my motion sickness fiasco, I tried to track down an address for David the taxi driver so I could send him my thank you note for that day. When I called the taxi company, I was tossed around to at least three people. Eventually I was instructed to mail the note to an address in Cleveland, Ohio, where I was told it would then be sent to David in Boston.
I grumbled to one of my three contacts, “Seriously, what do you think the chances are that this note will ever reach him?” She tried to assure me that it would, despite the circuitous route. I have faith in the United States Postal Service, but when I dropped David’s card into the mailbox, it felt like putting a message in a bottle and dropping it in the sea. I’ll never know if it reached him, but it still felt good to send this expression of thanks into the world.
I’ve never been one of those conscientious people who religiously write thank-you notes. I’ve always wanted to justify buying pretty note cards, but I couldn’t, knowing they’d just sit around forever, unused and decaying. I’m back logged by about a thousand notes over my lifetime, for the gift, or the dinner, or the presence of a friend during a hard time.
To be honest, part of me used to resent thank-you note writers because they make the rest of us look bad. Despite sincere gratitude, writing notes always felt like obligational drudgery to me.
But with my new practice, I’ve recently transformed into one of those people. How you like me now?
Thank you notes have turned into a gift unto themselves. I’m using the ritual as a reason to mine each day for things and people to be grateful for. On days when I can’t name a specific, current someone to address a card to, I write retroactively, chipping away at those thousands of thank you notes that have been waiting to be written over the past thirty years.
When I first began this daily note practice a couple months ago, I was writing at night, as a quiet way to wrap up the day. Eventually, pre-bedtime fatigue got the best of me, and the practice fizzled. I’ve since relocated the ritual to breakfast time, which has transformed the intermittent practice into a daily institution, with some days off here and there. And once I realized this is a habit that’s not going anywhere, I treated myself with a visit to Paper Source.
I gathered a slew of card sets in my arms, binging on beautiful stationery after a lifetime of abstinence. But then I remembered that I’m on sabbatical, which means keeping a tighter grip on my wallet. I grudgingly put the cute card sets back.
Then I pulled together cheaper ingredients to make my own cards, including ink rubber stamps. I always wondered who bought these things. I bought a shaggy dog stamp (can’t imagine why this guy was 50% off) and of all clichés, a heart stamp.
I store the cards in a box on my kitchen table. I don’t even have to stand up to transition from breakfast to note writing. This drive-through-window location for the card box is key; with my distractable mind, “getting up” often turns into “not doing”.
The photo on the lid of the box is of my grandparents, who were married for 73 years. They earned this marquee spot on the card box because my grandfather authored my most cherished collection of notes: love letters written by him to my grandmother in 1925 when they were still teenagers, at the height of their love affair.
Unlike John Kralik, my notes aren’t limited to thank-yous. I’m also writing to friends or acquaintances who are going through something difficult, whether it’s a health issue, a broken heart, a recent loss, or some other challenge.
My therapist is always talking about service as a way to lift oneself out of darkness. When you’re depressed and depleted, it’s hard enough to reheat leftovers, let alone think about volunteering at the local soup kitchen. But I think my therapist may be spot-on.
One of the silver linings of suffering is that it can spawn empathy and deep compassion for the trials of others. When I’m sinking, words like these are most comforting: “I’m really sorry you’re having a difficult time, you are very much on my mind, and I’d be honored to listen if you want to talk.”
So my hardship notes to others usually involve a version of those three sentiments. The daily process of writing these notes, whether it’s to express thanks or to express support, plucks me out of my own small mind, and drops me into a more expansive, generous space.