Gratitude and autumn color

In the United States, late November means Thanksgiving, a holiday that was intended to recognize a spirit of harmonious living and sharing during a difficult time, and a way of showing gratitude for a successful harvest. Americans have a lot of different ways of recognizing this holiday—American football is often involved—but I think of it as a time to be together with those you love, to share the bounty of good food, and to remember all that we have to be thankful for.

With this year’s confinement in France, I haven’t been able to stray far from home, and I’ll be enjoying my Thanksgiving feast solo (see a photo of last year’s dinner below). Throughout this message, I’m sprinkling in a few views of autumn leaves near my house. Here in my little corner of paradise, we don’t have the red maple trees of New England, nor the golden aspen of Colorado, but we do have an abundance of wine trees,* and they’ve given us a glorious show this year.

A close-up view of a grape leaf all dressed up for autumn. Fall leaves usually look something like this, with vivid colors, sharply-defined veins, and the occasional hole where a bug has enjoyed a meal.
This year, I noticed that a lot of the leaves had a very striking color pattern suggestive of a bizarre sort of checkerboard with pentagonal sections.

For me, the name Thanksgiving says it all: this is a time for gratitude. I have a daily gratitude practice, but the annual Thanksgiving celebration is more public. The year that I left the corporate world and started my own business, I made the choice to send my annual holiday greeting to my customers on Thanksgiving. I did this for several reasons; the first and main one was that as a business owner, this greeting would be a vehicle for expressing my gratitude to my clients for choosing to bring their business to me. Most American companies do this via a Christmas card, but it seemed more appropriate to me to use Thanksgiving as a time for giving thanks. My second reason was to remove religion from my greeting, as I had clients from many different religions. The third reason was to be unique, to stand out. My clients received exactly one Thanksgiving card each year, and large piles of Christmas cards. And finally, by choosing Thanksgiving in November instead of Christmas in December, I got a jump on the rush of annual holiday greetings.

I say all of this as a way to point out that saying “thank you” is a big part of how I live. I’m not always on top of my game in sending notes or saying the words out loud, but it is important to me, and I do my best. The words “thank you” can’t really be said too often, and actually, I’m writing this because I see the opposite happening.

When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, lots of friends and family reached out with thoughtful gifts like home-cooked meals, rides to appointments, or the simple blessing of their company. That first summer, his treatments were in a city three hours away, so we weren’t home much. I doubt that I reached everyone, but I did make an effort to send thank you notes as an acknowledgment for each precious gift that we had received. With time and energy at a premium, it was hard, but I did it because—in addition to showing our gratitude—it was a way for us to stay connected with the people in our lives. Saying “thank you” creates a continuing circle of gratitude.

What’s different now?
No thank you, which is not to be confused with “no, thank you.” The first means that thanks weren’t offered, while the second is a polite refusal. And I’m here to talk about the first case. I also want to be clear that I do not expect to receive a hand-written thank-you note after every gift I give, especially when I’m there to hand the gift to its recipient.

What I’m talking about is the bigger situation: a wedding gift, taking care of the garden while a neighbor is out of town, helping a graduate land that first job. And when there is no word of thanks—neither call nor text nor hand-written note—that lovely circle of gratitude is broken.

What follows are my thoughts on why we say thank you, and what it means when we make that extra effort.

-•- Public Service Announcement -•-

When someone gives you a gift, that person has put thought, time, energy and usually money into something that they hope will be meaningful to you. Maybe the gift is a card with a check folded inside, and to you, that might seem trivial. But it is still true that the gift-giver put in time and effort, not to mention money, to remember the occasion, to write the check, to sign the card, and to put it all in the mail. Perhaps the gift was for your wedding, and the person spent some time searching for just the right thing that spoke your name. Again: time, thought, effort and money. Maybe the gift was the neighbor coming over to help you clear your backed-up sink drain, and what he gave you was time, effort and expertise.

When you make the choice to not say thank-you, you are effectively telling the gift-giver that what s/he gave you was not important or valuable to you. It’s a slap in the face, and it is just plain rude. And instead of an uplifting circle of gratitude, there are seeds of resentment and disrespect.

A challenge
Here’s my challenge to the people who have trouble saying thank you: try it once and see what happens. Just open your mouth and say the words. Better yet, find a piece of paper, pick up a pen, and write “thank you.” You may be surprised by the response you get, and maybe you’ll find that saying thank you is your own gift back to you.

I remember when my brother and sister-in-law started growing their family. When someone sent a baby gift, the giver always received a photograph of the child wearing the shirt or playing with the stuffed animal. The thank-you was its own gift, and I can speak from experience: each thank-you was treasured.

Yes, these things take time. Yes, you are busy. That’s not reason enough; everyone is busy. In truth, it does not take long at all to write a note of gratitude, to say the person’s name, to mention the gift and how you will use it.

Here’s what Reader’s Digest has to say:
“If you’re questioning whether or not to send a thank-you note, consider this: Thank you notes might have been the norm a couple of decades ago, but nowadays they are a secret weapon for a person who wants to be remembered, supported, and favored. They show that you recognize, care, and appreciate someone else. It’s never a bad idea to give someone that simple acknowledgement.”

And they all lived happily ever after.

What’s for dinner?
Maybe it’s just the effect of being in a lockdown, or maybe it’s the colors of autumn and the thoughts of Thanksgiving feasts in years gone by, but I’ve been thinking about food. Well, the truth is that I’m always thinking about food! So I’m queuing up a couple of food photos for you.

One of my favorite cool-weather meals is tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich. That salad is an autumn surprise for me. There are two kinds of greens; one is a frilly red mustard that re-seeded from spring plants, and the other is arugula that volunteered in a corner of my garden. The orange tomatoes are also from my garden, from a plant that I’ve named Audrey, the singing plant in The Little Shop of Horrors. Audrey popped up in mid-August and then grew with a vengeance to make up for lost time. I gave her a much-needed pruning last week, and the cut branches filled a trash bag, but the main plant is still quite large.
My Thanksgiving feast: a glass—or two—of Marie Thérèse, one of my favorite local wines, served with my own duck confit and stuffing made with wild rice, dried sour cherries and chestnuts. Yes, there are green things to eat, too; the salad and green beans are off to the side.

To all the Americans who are reading this, I wish you a happy and delicious Thanksgiving! And to those who don’t celebrate this holiday, I wish you all the blessings of an abundant harvest season. My heartfelt thanks to all of you for your presence in my life.

*Wine trees: an apt description that I learned from my friends Candace and Michael. Thank you for the smiles!

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