A Thank-You Letter to Oakland
An Oakland author shows gratitude for the city she loves.
Photo by Jennifer Graham Photography
Editor’s note: Nancy Davis Kho is the author of the recently released book The Thank-You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time. The book traces the year she celebrated a milestone birthday by writing a weekly thank-you letter to someone who had helped, shaped or inspired her. The book offers guidance to readers who want to start thank-you projects of their own. One of the most gratifying parts of the project, she said, was when she realized she didn’t need to send the letters to reap the gratitude/happiness benefits of writing them. This is an essay on her still unsent letter to the city of Oakland, her home for 20-plus year.
I know that Oakland isn’t perfect. And I know that it can’t read, in that it isn’t an actual living entity. But that didn’t stop me from writing a thank-you letter to the place I call home.
It happened in the final months of what I had come to call my “Thank-You Project,” an effort to mark my 50th- birthday year by writing one letter each week to someone who had shaped, inspired, or helped me along the way. I wrote to family and friends, of course, and to great teachers who helped me hone my skills and lousy bosses who caused me to move to jobs for which I was much better suited. (No, I didn’t mail all the letters.)
I wrote to Dr. Laurie Green at San Francisco’s California Pacific Medical Center (yes, I crossed the Bay Bridge while in labor, twice, and I don’t recommend it). If you want to talk about someone who made a difference in your life, the person who safely delivered your children into the world is a good one to include. I also wrote one to the nurse practitioner at our pediatric practice in Oakland who shepherded those two children through their 18th birthdays with calm and reassuring expertise, outlasting a bevy of pediatricians.
I wrote to my best friend, Maria, who moved to Oakland in the early ’90s with her husband, Ted. They opened the doors of their Lake Merritt-area apartment to me on multiple vacations from the East Coast. Those visits buttered me up enough that when my husband’s job offered us a transfer from D.C. to the Bay Area in 1997, I jumped at the opportunity to relocate to the city I’d come to love thanks to Maria and Ted. The plan was to stay for three years. Twenty-two years and two OUSD-educated children later, we’re still failing to come up with a convincing reason to leave.
Which was part of the eureka moment I had somewhere around letter 40. If my rubric for choosing a letter recipient was, “Would you be the person you are right now without them?,” then there were some nonhuman names that needed to be on the list, places and pastimes that had shaped my world outlook, brought me joy, eased my path. Because by then I had learned that the act of writing a gratitude letter was its own reward, independent of the reaction of the people to whom they were addressed.
In line with findings of the emerging science on the study of happiness — much of which emanates from right here in the Bay Area at the Greater Good Science Center of UC Berkeley, something else to feel grateful for — the process of thinking about specific reasons why I was grateful for someone or something reinforced my sense of connectedness, of self-worth, of simple happiness. Making it a habit to write those reasons down and revisit them — I kept a copy of every letter I wrote, and I still go back to reread them, three years later - can create an upward, reinforcing spiral of gratitude and happiness.
So I started adding place names to my list, of spots on the map that had molded me as a person: first, my hometown of Rochester, New York. Then, the spot in the Adirondacks my family has visited every August since 1968. Finally, the city of Oakland. In part, I wrote:
Oakland, you’re the freshest. If I am hip at all at age 50, it’s because as a city, you make it so easy and desirable to remain tuned in, engaged, vibrant. I’m amazed at the transformation that’s taken place in the last 10 years, as Oakland chips away at San Francisco’s appeal with each new cool restaurant, club, First Friday festival, concert. We almost never go across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco for entertainment; why would you need to? Between the Fox Theater, the hikes in Redwood park, lazy lunches at Lost & Found and dinner at Duende, movies on Piedmont Avenue — there’s nothing San Francisco offers that Oakland doesn’t except worse traffic and more expensive parking.
I think it’s Oakland’s can’t-quite-make-it streak that makes me love you as I do. God bless you for trying, all the time. A lesser city would know to give up in the face of some of our odds (and I do mean “odd”). Oakland’s just like, “OK, that didn’t work! Now what?!” I love our enthusiasm, our diversity, our well-meaning intentions that clash with our funding limits. I love our warm winters and our cool summers. I love our Warriors, even if they’re leaving us to move to San Francisco, and I love our A’s, even if I manage one game a year in a good year. (I never think about the Raiders, but it’s not personal. Sorry, and enjoy Las Vegas.)
I love our openness and our edginess and our public schools where our girls have been exposed to every kind of diversity: economic, racial, gender identity, sexual orientation. I love that we raise activists who will fight for things to be better. I don’t love living on top of the Hayward fault, but I appreciate that in 20 years, the worst quake I’ve suffered is a 5.5, and I don’t even get out of bed for something less than a 4.3.
Andrew and I talk about where we’ll go after the nest is empty: Burlington, Vermont? Petaluma? San Francisco? Berkeley? But if I’m honest, I’d stay right here in the 5-1-0, being the hippest old lady around and soaking up the sun and the funky vibes. Thanks, Oakland, for being home to me and my family.
I don’t know how I would deliver this letter — give it to Mayor Schaaf? Read it aloud from a soapbox during a First Friday? Make photocopies and stick it in all the households?
In the end, it really doesn’t matter. It’s enough to document for myself why I’m so fortunate and grateful to live in our perfectly imperfect city.