The Power of Giving Thanks—Visually

As a family every year around Thanksgiving time, we each write or draw something on an index card that we're thankful for. Then the cards get hole punched in two corners and threaded through with the yarn that holds them all together, and the whole is hung around the room like a banner. We've been doing this since the year our three oldest children were 5, 3 and 11 months, an astonishing twenty years ago, and the accumulated banner now reaches around the circumference of two rooms.

This is no Pinterest project. Many of the cards are scruffy, holes too close to the edge, taped up, written in childish script or garish colors. But some are quite lovely with decorated borders and elegant lettering, well designed. Each has an index card as the base but there are drawings, photos printed on typing paper and glued down, collages, a sponge craft of a pilgrim looking unnervingly cheery. 

They depict everything and anything. Pets no longer alive, friends now moved on, difficulties overcome, like the time our daughter didn't drown. It's often a jolt seeing the thanksgiving of the past. But scattered between are humdrum everyday thanks-givings: sports results, book covers, a camera, new slippers, ballet shoes, ice skates, bunk beds, even braces (the American orthodontic kind). There are new jobs and opportunities, now past. Having had two early winter babies, there is Mama pregnant (me) drawn in profile, looking alarmingly rotund. Then the following year a little one given thanks for, almost at their first birthday, drawn clumsily by a sibling. Given natural sibling rivalry, the choice to give thanks was always a good idea.

Large or small, anything goes, as long as you're thankful.

And we're still at it, growing the Thanksgiving banner, with adult children flying home, college kids returning, each doing their best to make a contribution. We were travelling this year and I made a little kit to take with us: zipper pouch of cards, washi tape, pens, scissors, and left it all out on a side table at Grandma's.


Our daughter Elisabeth made her first card, a now infamously odd drawing of her baby brother in his crib, when she was three. I was thrilled to hear that this year Elisabeth's three-year-old—our first grandchild—has drawn a Thanksgiving card and begun a banner at her house.

Our two-room, 120+ card banner has become a powerful visual reminder of many, many blessings in the midst of many, many difficulties.

Always a choice

One of my favorite sayings is, "There is always something to complain about, and there is always something to be thankful for."

There are of course unbearable moments in life when the choice to give thanks is not so obvious. It is genuinely difficult in the middle of a sudden crisis, or a slow chronic illness, or even just a very bad day, to remember the blessings of other days or the grace in the midst of it all. 

But it's like parallel parking. I live in Boston—with no driveway—and we park two cars on our street. Sometimes there is only just enough space to park, and cars backed up behind me on our narrow one way road, and I need to park quickly to let them through. That's when I resort to doing it by the book. I say out loud the steps that work: "Line up the mirrors ... turn in halfway ... steer the other way ... and done." It's amazing what tight spaces a big minivan can fit into first time by following what I know works and ignoring the circumstances.

In the same way, the smaller the space emotionally, the more I need to resort, by reflex, to what works. And gratitude is one of those things. You choose it and the tight space is enough. However unlikely, the circumstance is made more spacious by thanksgiving. 

Always a choice, giving thanks.

Thanksgiving Banner

A few of the numerous and often scruffy cards in our banner. Click on any image to enlarge as a slideshow.

It is not happy people who are grateful but grateful people who are happy.
— David Steindl-Rast

Your Choice

You might not have a twenty-year habit on which to build. You might not have kids with whom to share a tradition, or want to make a chintzy banner. It doesn't matter.

You could still find some visual way to record the choice to give thanks today, because:

  • Gratefulness overpowers the negative and tells it that it's not in charge.

  • The practice develops over time and grows; is strengthened as a choice by the habit.

  • You'll be glad you started now.