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November 30, 2006

The power of 'Thank you'


Janene Mascarella's essay on the subject appeared in the November 20, 2006 Washington Post, and follows.

    From Eight Letters, A Life-Affirming Note

    Strange, how some things just fall into your lap.

    Ten years ago, I was sitting alone on a Florida beach, weeping very quietly, when a stunning woman wearing an oversize red hat and expensive sunglasses walked over and placed a book at the edge of my towel. She said nothing, just smiled and walked back to her blanket.

    Embarrassed that she saw me crying and uncertain how to react, I picked up the book and scrutinized the cover. Hmm. A self-help book. I was 24 years old and had never read a self-help book in my life. But feeling obligated to the stranger in the red hat, I began to read "The Dragon Doesn't Live Here Anymore" — and within an hour, a strange sense of peace settled in.

    The easy, breezy, non-preachy tone spoke to my fears, lagging self-worth, hopeless wandering and big-time boyfriend problems. That woman didn't hand me a book; it was more like a compass. Got problems? asked the author, Alan Cohen. Well, what are you waiting for? Get up and fix them! Halfway through my read, I looked around for the woman, but she had left the beach.

    I went on to buy all of Cohen's books, and with a little help from friends, family and the subtle nudges of that book to always know my worth, I found my way just fine.

    Five years later, while sitting on a curb, about to buckle my rollerblades, I heard a couple fighting in the car parked next to me. From what I overheard, he didn't want to be in a relationship anymore, and she was begging for one more shot. She got out of the car, cursing, her eyes swollen with tears as the guy sped off. As she walked toward a swing set and made a call on her cellphone, I opened my trunk and found the worn copy of "The Dragon Doesn't Live Here Anymore." I walked over in my stocking feet and handed her the book, as it had been handed to me. As I rollerbladed up the path, she opened the book.

    Recently, after a dinner-party conversation had turned to discussion of life-changing books, I thought about "Dragon" for the first time in years. I wished I could thank the woman who gave it to me, and I also always wanted to thank the author for writing such an amazing book. That night I Googled Alan Cohen and found his Web site. I clicked on "contact us" and wrote a letter, explaining how deeply his books moved me and helped me through a dark time.

    But as I was about to hit "send," I panicked. Would he even read this? Think I'm nuts? Zap my well-thought-out note with the delete button? Would it be tossed in the trash by an assistant? Printed out and used for kitty litter? Alone in my room at 3 a.m., I blushed at the very thought of sending this silly letter, but I clicked — and off it went. My feelings were mixed. This was the sweetest/most foolish thing I'd ever done. Oh well, I thought, what's done is done. You can't unsend e-mail. (Trust me, I've tried.)

    The next day, a reply waited in my inbox. I opened it and read a long, personal response thanking me for my thank-you. I was floored and suddenly motivated to thank more people who had somehow, some way, touched my life.

    I sent a thank-you note to a longtime friend, Michelle, who once baked me a cake with a big M&M smiley face on it after I broke up with my boyfriend. She responded: "I can't believe you remember that! That was years ago. I'm so touched, and um, you're welcome."

    But I did remember. Even though we speak every couple of weeks and I've thanked her hundreds of times for being an awesome friend, I didn't remember thanking her specifically for that cake. Why hadn't I?

    My two thank-you notes left me feeling giddy all day, and that night I wrote a list of all the people I needed, wanted or was too shy to thank. I hurried off to the store and bought a few packs of blank cards. For those whose address I knew or could find, I'd send a handwritten note. For others, I'd send e-mail.

    Each time I hit "send" my heart pounded in my throat as if it were something I accidentally swallowed. When I dropped the first two handwritten cards in the mailbox, I felt slightly embarrassed but flipped up the flag anyway. There's something strangely risky about sending a thank-you out of the blue. But the rewards far outweigh the risks. What a high it's been.

    I e-mailed a thank-you to a woman whom I've never met but who was very kind to me in the beginning of my career. A busy editor often can overlook a query from an unknown writer, but her lengthy response was full of solid advice and her comments to a novice greatly appreciated. I finally found the guts, almost two years later, to tell her that. Within hours, she wrote back. I braced for the response I feared:

    Dear Ms. Jane Mascarells: I'm a very busy woman and don't remember helping you out two years ago. Sorry. If I did, you must have caught me on a very good day.

    Nope. She didn't call me a buffoon with too much time on her hands or a kiss-up. She even spelled my name right:

    "Hi Janene! What an absolutely lovely letter! I cannot TELL you what this means to me!"

    She also wrote that she was having a really tough day and my note not only made her day, it made her year. We exchanged a few chatty e-mails since then and are now working together on something.

    I had no idea how powerful a simple, sincere and specific thank-you could be. I have no intention of sending a thank-you note to Lou, the deli manager who always gives me a slice of cheese to eat while I'm shopping — a flirty wink is thanks enough. But I have made it my goal to not be afraid to show appreciation, for big things and small. If the president of Nabisco wants to respond to my thanking him for those 100-calorie snack-packs, then so be it. So far I'm up to recipient No. 11 on my thank-you list of 26 and growing. There is one person I haven't been able to reach.

    So, to that beautiful woman wearing a bright red hat on a Florida beach in 1996: Thank you.

November 30, 2006 at 05:01 PM | Permalink


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Thank you for this article. I have been off from work this year due to some medical issues that are clearing up and so have had time to write thank you letters and notes along with gifts of food. I could see how appreciative people were and felt that it gave them encouragement. We never know what kind of ripple effect our actions will bring about, but I am thinking kindness sends forth kindness. :)

Posted by: Pat | Dec 2, 2006 2:55:44 AM

Thank you Joe, for brightening my day, every day.

Posted by: mattp9 | Dec 1, 2006 12:58:35 AM


Posted by: Joan | Nov 30, 2006 11:48:20 PM

Great essay. Makes me think back on those people that have touched my life and may not have ever known.

Posted by: caroline | Nov 30, 2006 7:31:08 PM

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