“…and so I have come to the point in my life, where I am pacing around my office saying I need thank you notes.”

On the challenges of writing thank you notes; and the absolute joy of writing them when you really do have something to be grateful for.

Transcript and notes:


Recorded 6 April 2023.


I had all these great ideas this morning about things that I wanted to talk to you about about mistakes and Rob Brezsny and Shilpa Jain and the possibility of colonial settler culture becoming a thing we can talk about. I read all this great stuff.

This morning, I saw these words about Cole Arthur Riley's father, and how he learned that his body could do things he didn't know they could do.

But what finally got me to plug the microphone in was none of those things. It was thank you notes.

Like I think many people of my generation and possibly not people after my generation, when I was a child, I was made to sit down and write thank you notes. Thank you notes for things that didn't even feel real because mostly my grandparents were very sensible and sent me things like savings bonds. Those savings bonds came in handy. As it turned out, they were meant for my education. And what my education ended up including was a long trip to India. And for that I needed a stash of cash. And for that I cashed a bunch of possibly un-thank-you-ed savings bonds.

I say possibly un-thank-you-ed, because somewhere in the stack of bonds was a note from my mother's stepmother. Saying that if I wasn't going to write thank you notes, then they were going to stop sending things. I don't remember ever receiving that note, although my mother had it in the stack of savings bonds. So clearly, at some point it came in. But the problem was that it was like throwing letters into the ocean.

I didn't know what to say I didn't know these people they didn't write back. We rarely had conversations. No one ever called me. This is before FaceTime. So with no impact, no sense of what the thing was that I was getting, and a relationship in which to hold it, I never knew what to write. I froze. And I hated it. I hated it. Because I was terribly afraid of saying something wrong of doing something wrong.

Always always some kind of invisible trip hazard and letters were the worst because there was no way to read whether you were doing it right or doing it wrong. No tiny changes of expression, no shifts of face or body. No approval, no disappointment, nothing. Just the silent page and me. Which- the silent page was my friend. I could write all kinds of things, but I didn't know what to send them. So I didn't send them anything.

This unfortunately developed into a lifelong hesitation about correspondence compounded by the fact that my handwriting is almost illegible even to me five minutes after I've written it. For a while I had long correspondences, ten, twelve typed pages. After we got a printer; after we got a computer; after I learned to touch type in seventh grade.

These were people I met at conferences, kindred spirits, people I had spent long nights sitting up talking with. Those people, I knew what to say. And they wrote back. Similarly seven, ten pages typed or handwritten, page after page of scrawled handwriting. But I learned to decipher it because I wanted the stories inside it. Because deciphering other people's handwriting wasn't nearly as hard as deciphering my own.

And I could type. I could type, I just told them that my handwriting was terrible, and could I type and they said yes. And my generation is the one that decided that typing a letter was not impersonal. It was a way of communicating. It was an accommodation that worked. Eventually, being able to touch type fast became a thing, became a gift. Became a thing that the people older than me wish they had and the people younger than me were rapidly getting.

And now of course, everyone knows how to maneuver on some kind of keyboard or other. I assume as voice recognition improves, we will eventually all put down our keyboards and start just talking again. And the art of touch typing will be lost, like the art of stenography. Shorthand has almost disappeared because we don't need it anymore. Because we can type. Which will almost disappear because we'll be able to speak.

But anyway, thank you notes.

So I never understood thank you notes, I was terrible about writing them for everything. Even when my friends brought me birthday gifts, I didn't understand why I would write them a letter when I would just see them at school the next day, it didn't make any sense.

And also, receiving gifts made me shy, it made me feel like there was another thing that I was supposed to perform. And I didn't know how. And so I just didn't do it at all. Because I didn't know how. I was excited about them. But I was afraid to show my excitement. I was afraid that if I was too excited, someone would take it away. And yes, I learned that somewhere.

So instead, instead, instead, I just learned to develop these deep ebb and flow relationships. These deep ebb and flow relationships where we were able to give and take and receive with the kind of shy grace that made more sense, where I was able to show my appreciation for something by using it. Where I could just be myself with the gift as part of a context. And I always loved the idea of stationery. But of course, with the aforementioned handwriting situation, stationery was rarely something that I used.

Instead of stationery, I would just tell people. I would just be with them, I would just care for them, I would just show up for them, I would find a gift that was really meaningful on a date that had nothing to do with anything. If I could. I loved, it turned out, shopping for Christmas gifts, once I had my own money to do it with. We don't celebrate Christmas. So it was always kind of a weird mystery to me. But everyone around me was celebrating.

And so as I got older, I wanted to give certain people that I knew celebrated gifts. But I didn't just want to get them something off a list that felt like it didn't really count. It felt like a gift was an opportunity to show someone that I really knew them, that I had been paying attention, that I was listening. I didn't want a thank you card. I wanted them to really love it. And if they didn't, that was information. I needed to know that. I didn't want some kind of weird social construct, I wanted reality. Which is extremely difficult to come by, especially as you get older.

So I didn't use stationery and I didn't have thank you notes. And I, I didn't I just didn't. That wasn't part of my life. And I got older and older. And the circle of people I shared gifts with is really quite small, compared to a lot of people. The people that I need to tell are right there. And the people that I want gifts from are people who will understand that I'm terrible at correspondence but deeply grateful.

But yesterday, I wrote a thank you note. Or maybe it was two days ago, time is so wobbly these days. Yesterday, I wrote a thank you note to someone that I know. But that I know in a cadence and a space that the thank you note made sense. We don't talk that often. Even though we could. We don't chat that often. We don't send texts to each other all the time. We stay in touch but not furiously.

And she had said she was sending me a book and I had forgotten honestly that it was coming but then it showed up in a cute wrapper with a sweet card. And I knew what I wanted to say. I knew that- I it came from me, it was real. It was the logical real response. And so I sat down with a card and a fountain pen. And I wrote a thank you note and then I used a gel pen to address it because I live in the Pacific Northwest and the address would be hopelessly smeared by the time it arrived at its destination if I used water soluble ink.

And yes, I know I can get waterproof ink for my fountain pens, but I don't use them well enough. I don't maintain them well enough to take a chance with waterproof ink. I would ruin my pens. But there's something about holding that pen that makes my handwriting just a tiny bit more legible. I think it slows me down a little.

So then this morning, I looked at my list of things to do and it said "thank you notes for this and that." I have risen to the position in one of the organizations where I work- I have risen to the position where it is my responsibility as interim director to write thank you notes.

I have inquired of one of the donor contacts that I have whether paper thank you notes are still appropriate. Because I have had the experience of trying to write a thank you note and having it come back to me two months later mangled by the machinery of the post office marked "return to sender." So I don't know what that was about. But people don't expect paper correspondence that's meaningful anymore. People expect bills, maybe, in the mail. And people expect advertisements and form letters. But it's rare to get a handwritten envelope.

I deliberately choose non business size envelopes for this reason.

But it is very odd to have risen to the point where it is my responsibility to represent an organization and say thank you. Thank you, because we are grateful. Thank you, because your money does make a difference. Thank you. Thank you for being present with us. Thank you for trusting us to make our own decisions about this money. Thank you, for giving us the resources we need to care for ourselves and the people who are a part of our organization. Thank you.

It's really easy for me to write these thank you notes. I don't necessarily have a deep relationship with each and every donor and donor organization. But what I do have is a strong sense of exactly what this gift means. And the kind of organization that is giving us the money, the kinds of people that are giving us the money.

And the kind of impact this money can have is unreal. Because I also see the other side. I routinely engage with people who need funding to do important life saving things. Life changing things. Life sustaining things. And because I do that, because we have that, finding the words is effortless. Unless I'm so choked up that I can't figure out what to say for a minute.

And so I have come to the point in my life, where I am pacing around my office saying "I need thank you notes." I thought I had some thank you notes. I guess I'm gonna have to go get more thank you notes. Like the stationery kind. I don't know if thank you notes are still considered appropriate- paper ones with stamps and handwriting. But that's how I'm going to go about it at least until I absolutely can't scale it anymore.

Because these gifts are life changing. They're life changing. And it is, it is such a relief to be in a leadership position where along with my organization I can say "yes, we can help with that." Instead of just flailing helplessly and watching someone drown. I am so grateful.

And I guess maybe I'm a grown up now. Because I know what I need to say. And I know how to say it. And every so often that's enough to overcome the executive dysfunction and write the thank you note.

Thanks for tuning in.