When I was a little girl, I wrote a letter to Tom Wopat from the Dukes of Hazzard. I don't remember exactly what it said, but it was something about how I liked him and watched him on TV every Friday night.
About a year later I remember finding a patch that said Fran on it. I didn't know anybody named Fran, so I decided to mail it to Fran Tarkenton, host of That's Incredible! (also a football player, but I didn't know that when I was a little girl).
There was no ulterior motive behind these letters; I just really wanted these guys to know that I liked them. These memories stay with me because it was fun and exciting to reach out; it felt good to share my feelings simply because I was having them.
That is what the thank you note is supposed to be; a vehicle that allows us to tell people how much we appreciate them. But somewhere along the way the note became an obligation, something we have to do.
I think thank you notes are great, I still write them occasionally, but I do not feel tied to the formality of the traditional thank you note.
Sometimes I prefer to send an email to let people know I appreciate their gift, or maybe I will send a picture of my daughter playing with a toy that was given.
Sometimes I pick up the phone to say thank you, or I post a message on Facebook or use text to let friends and family know I am thinking about them.
To me, gratitude isn't about the how, it's about the why. It's the intention behind the message, the card, or the wall post. If it's authentic you can feel the love, and if its obligation you can feel the obligation. Real gratitude is not about reciprocity, but about giving of yourself just because you want to.
In recent years I have returned to my "childlike" letter writing and reached out to some special people. Email has made this so much easier and less time consuming, so I tend to do it often.
I recently emailed Marianne Williamson an article that I wrote about her a few months ago. I emailed Sarah McLachlan to tell her how much I enjoyed her recent interview in Yoga Journal. I emailed Rabbi Rami Shapiro, a columnist for Spirituality and Health Magazine, to tell him that I think his advice is down to earth and beautifully written.
One of my favorite gratitude experiences involves Debra Gilbert Rosenberg, author of The New Mom's Companion and Motherhood Without Guilt. After my first daughter was born, Debra's New Mom book was one of the only things that soothed me, and I felt compelled to reach out and let her know.
To my surprise, she wrote back, and she happened to live 10 miles away in Oak Park. We met for lunch, talked writing, and she asked me to join her writing group. The experience led to me writing on a consistent basis, starting an online newsletter, and eventually writing the articles that turned into my book.
It also led to a few articles in Chicago Parent and eventually this blog column. One message of heartfelt thanks led to a completely new joy-filled career, not to mention a wonderful mentor and friend (thank you, Debra!).
So sometimes gratitude shifts our life, and sometimes it just makes us feel good in the moment.
But either way, it impacts the world. Can you imagine what it would be like if everyone decided to offer thanks and appreciation on a daily basis? Not to seek something in return, but simply for the shear joy of expressing it?
Tom Wopat must have felt my joy 30 years ago, because 8 months after I sent my letter, an autographed picture arrived. It said, To Cathy, thank you for the support!
By that time I didn't even watch Dukes of Hazzard, I had moved onto Ricky Schroder and Silver Spoons, but I did keep the picture. I appreciated Tom's gratitude.
Cathy Adams is a certified parenting coach, yoga instructor and mother to three girls.
See more of Cathy's stories here.