One day a small and unassuming envelope arrived at the office addressed to me. Inside was a card with the words “a year of gratefulness” beautifully embossed into white card stock.

On the back, a small typewritten note was affixed:

“this is my year of gratefulness. I am writing two letters a month, one to someone I have met & the other to someone I have not met, telling them I am grateful for their talent, friendship and most simply for being who they are. And you are one of those people. thank you.”

Inside was a hand-written note outlining the reasons I was receiving this card of gratitude.

I have been carrying the note around now for awhile in my journal and have re-read it often. What a lovely idea: Spend a little time in the next year of my life letting people I know and love (and don’t know and love) understand that I am deeply grateful.

Thank you to Wendy (who I don’t know) for reaching out and to all of you who have come here to share our lives and work at Alabama Chanin this last year (and decade).

I am grateful.

(And looking forward to 2011 – Happy New Year!)

*Photo above of my journal for next year with laser-cut Thank You card from ThoughtBarn glued to the cover.  Photo below of Wendy’s note.

Gratefulness practice:

Admittedly, I am no fan of “self-help books.”

Business books, yes.

Spirituality books, yes.

A good thriller, definitely.

Self-help books, no.

However, I am grateful to Sandra Priebe for recommending Steering by Starlight by Martha Beck some years ago as I was making some major changes in my life. The worksheet below helped me understand some key events in my life. Download the worksheet and the full-series from Steering by Starlight on the Martha Beck website:

Three of the Best Things in My Life

Thing 1:

Thing 2:

Thing 3:

Look over this list and circle your favorite of the three items. Though it’s impossible to say which aspect of your life is “best,” for now we’ll call the thing you just circled your Favorite Thing. Now recall a positive turn of events in your life that enabled you to have this Favorite Thing. For example, if your Favorite Thing is your significant other, recall how you happened to meet him or her. Maybe you worked together or got a lucky hit on match.com, or maybe, like so many couples, you were pinned under the same circus tent when it was downed by rogue elephants. If your Favorite Thing happens to be your fabulous car, recall what enabled you to get it: conscientious behavior, a winning raffle ticket, your God-given talent for armed robbery. Write it down in the spaces below.

This is a “proximate cause,” something that directly linked to your Favorite Thing about your life at this moment.

Happy Event That Contributed to Having My Favorite Thing

(Proximate Cause)

Now, go back a step further in your life history. Read over the event you just described and describe something else that happened to make that event possible. If you want to get fancy, you could call this an “antecedent to the proximate cause.” For instance, say your Favorite Thing in life is your dog, Robert Redford (I love Robert Redford; I would name my dog after him in a New York minute). Perhaps the event that led to your owning Robert Redford (the proximate cause) is that he wandered onto your porch one night, unclaimed and starving, and you took him in. But this wouldn’t have happened if you still lived in the city, because your building had a “no pets” policy, and Robert Redford would have had to take an elevator 10 floors to wander anywhere near you. Therefore, “moving out of the city” might be one event that made Robert Redford’s presence in your life possible—an antecedent to the proximate cause. Write down the thing that led to the thing that led to your Favorite Thing.

Prior Happy Event That Allowed the Proximate Cause Event to Occur

(Antecedent to the Proximate Cause)

What we’ve done here is reversed the storytelling order of your life, so that the mental momentum runs from future to past rather than vice versa. Now you’re thinking like a contrarian. Keep it up: Follow your chain of life events backward until you can think of one piece of “bad luck” that helped your Favorite Thing come into your life. This could be damage far back in your childhood that made you a crusader for justice, a health condition that forced you to think carefully about how you use your time, or a financial disaster that led to a career change.

For example, I get to write books—for money!—partly because my son was prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome, giving me the material for a memoir that eventually became a bestseller. It also helped that when I was a kid, my family didn’t have a television, which meant I had a choice between constant reading and chronic boredom. And then there were the dreadful years when I was clinically depressed and unable to afford therapy.

To cope, I poured out all my feelings into journals, unwittingly conditioning myself to sit and write for hours and hours and hours.

Once you get started, you’ll see that you, too, can list many “bad” incidents that became links in the chain leading to your Favorite Thing. Jennifer, for instance, is dyslexic— a core reason for her constant disruptive behavior at school. If she’d been “normal” or had spent an hour less in study hall, she might not have developed the wicked sense of humor and deep empathy that make her a smash hit on radio. If Bruce hadn’t been mercilessly criticized by his father, he might never have escaped into computer-world, where his million-dollar ideas were born. If Eileen hadn’t been forced to lie down and handle pain for so long, she might not have developed her unstoppable commitment to adventure—or the high pain threshold that’s made her a successful explorer.

By now, I’m hoping you’ve thought of at least one “bad” thing that helped support the best thing in your life. Write it down in the space below. If you can think of two or three more, this exercise will work even better.

Supposedly “Bad” Event That Eventually Supported My Favorite Thing

Now you’re ready to tell at least part of your life story—the story of your Favorite Thing—from the backward perspective of the Stargazer. The process is one of simple substitution. Instead of saying, “This bad thing happened once, but then later, some good thing happened,” tell the story this way: “My destiny was to have my Favorite Thing. Therefore, this bad thing happened in order to make my Favorite Thing possible.”

For example, instead of writing, “I was born with dyslexia, so I flunked out of school and went into radio,” Jennifer would write, “Because I was destined to be in radio, I was born with dyslexia and hated school.” Bruce might say, “I was destined to be a wealthy entrepreneur, so I got a father who chased me into the computer world.” Eileen’s story could be: “I was meant to roam the wild places of the earth, so I had a lot of health problems early that taught me to handle pain and love freedom above everything else.”

To tell your first backward story, fill in the blanks below.

The Story of My Favorite Thing, Stargazer Version

I was destined to have [list your Favorite Thing]

Because of this destiny, something negative happened [write in the Supposedly “Bad” Event you identified above]

Fortunately, this led to [write the Antecedent to the Proximate Cause]

And that helped this other thing to happen [note the Proximate Cause]

And that, sports fans, is how destiny brought me my Favorite Thing.

(I now add Steering by Starlight as one of my top 10 business books and a good one to follow after Daniel Pink’s  A Whole New Mind.)


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Click to read 3 comments
  1. Ruth Galindo

    Thank you for sharing this lovely notecard and idea. What a brillant idea to simply express gratitude and pay it forward, touching someone’s life hopefully in a profound way.

    I love your website, your designs and of course the fact that you’ve kept it all here in our country giving your neighbors the chance to express their creativity and make a living. That was one of the basis that America was founded upon.

    Have a wonderful year ahead in 2011. May peace of mind, good health and good friendships be yours. ~ Ruth

  2. Claudia Hammer

    I think this is the most fabulous thing I have come across! I have often thought back on the “bad” things that have happened to me and realized that I would not be where I am, who I am today if those had not happened. Great exercise! I would like to get together a couple of friends to all do this and get together to discuss and celebrate or journeys.
    Thank you Natalie!
    Claudia Hammer