I never expected to celebrate my 50th birthday by writing a thank-you letter to a bagel shop.
Sure, the bagel shop in question is top-notch. It stands out especially here in Northern California, which—I’m going try to be diplomatic here, but as a native New Yorker who has lived in California for the past twenty years, I feel I am qualified to say this—has terrible bagels. Most of what passes for bagels in the Bay Area are simply fluffy bread rolls with holes in the middle, not the chewy bagels of my childhood.
But one bakery here in Oakland gets it so very right. My husband, also a New York transplant, heads there every Sunday morning without fail, the hunter-gatherer bringing a dozen New York-style hot bagels with schmear back home to his wife and daughters. Honestly, sitting there with a bagel and coffee and two print newspapers as the NorCal sunshine streams through the living room windows is the highlight of my whole week. Worthy of a thank-you note, for sure—if for no other reason, to help me memorialize something positive in my life.
I uncovered the magical power of thank-you letters and their ability to create more happiness in my life in the year leading up to my fiftieth birthday. It was a time I felt like I was firing on all cylinders: my parents were relatively healthy, my marriage was solid, our two daughters were doing well, I had a supportive group of friends. It seemed to me that I lacked for nothing, and that instead of asking for a birthday present, my time would be better spent acknowledging my good fortune.
So I decided to write one thank-you letter each week, for fifty weeks, to someone who had helped, shaped, or inspired me in the five decades prior. In each letter, I would tell the recipient how exactly they had impacted my life, which meant sifting through so many memories and connecting them to present-day circumstances. It would be an object lesson in perspective.
Of course, the first names on my list were obvious choices: my parents, siblings, close family, and friends. But as the year passed, my gratitude “muscle” got stronger, and I realized that there were people outside my current circle who had an outsize impact on my life. I added their names to my list of letters. The doctors and nurses who had cared for my family members throughout the years, the teacher who kindled my love of writing, the author whose works I reread every year: all of them contributed to the person I was at almost-fifty.
About halfway through the project, I realized: I don’t need to actually SEND all the letters, do I? By then the jolt of joy that came with putting down onto a page all the ways someone had impacted my life in a positive way was a familiar sensation. If it never went any further than that, so what? Spoiler Alert: There is no Thank-You Letter Police. No one is going to march you to the mailbox and make you drop a letter into it.
And suddenly the playing field for finding reasons to be grateful stretched even further.
What about the ex-boyfriend who didn’t work out for the long term, but while I was living in his native country was a font of information about things like taxes and work permits? I never would have lived abroad for as long as I did without his support, and without living abroad that long, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten into the international business program where I met the man I’d eventually marry. In the letter I didn’t send the ex-boyfriend, I thanked him for all of that, and more.
Or how about the lousy boss whose management skills were so reprehensible that I ended up reluctantly job-hunting and found the international marketing job of my dreams? Had that boss been less psychotic, I probably would have stuck around and missed out on the new opportunity that allowed me to circumnavigate the globe a few times. That unsent letter was a thank-you for the push I needed to look for the right job at the right time.
Looking back at relationships that no longer existed, with an eye toward identifying the good that came out of them, was also a profound way to foster self-forgiveness. Yes, maybe I shouldn’t have taken the lousy job in the first place; I had beat myself up over the years at how long I clung to it, berated myself at the obvious signs of dysfunction I had missed in the interview process.
But in revisiting the situation from twenty-five years down the road, I could see that I did my best at the time with the information I had. And I probably wouldn’t have gotten the next, better job without the experience. Getting older made it easier for me to look back with a sense of clarity and closure, of understanding how what felt like false starts or failures at the time were, in fact, critical steppingstones to where I am today.
Each time I wrote a letter, I felt a peace settle, a sense of connection that left me craving more of it. Casting the net wide for things for which to be grateful each week meant shifting into search mode all the time—seeking out the things around me that enriched my life and made it better. By the end, I was writing letters to hobbies I pursue, cities in which I have lived, the live music industry that feeds my concert-loving soul.
And a bagel shop across town. Sure, it makes great bagels. But it also gives me a reminder, every week, of what a nice man I’ve married, the kind of guy who lets me sit home in my bathrobe while he goes out to get me lox and sesame bagels.
And if that’s not worth a thank-you letter, I’ll eat my weight in California-style bagels.