Skimming the cream: 5 family projects to cultivate gratitude

Written by contributor Rachel Wolf of Lusa Organics and Clean

When my son was two our life took an unexpected and terrifying turn.

An unrelenting seizure, a flight-for-life, and a week in the pediatric ICU would forever paint how we remembered his second year.

Though he survived and life returned mostly to normal, that single event was defining for how we would remember his toddlerhood.

Some years later I sat down to begin writing my son’s story.

Starting with our pregnancy, I would share highlights of each year of his life.

Pregnancy, birth and his first year were easy.

But I got stuck on two. I didn’t want his seizure to become his story.

So I made a mindful choice.

I would tell the story of what I wanted to remember.

Instead of writing “When Sage was two he had a terrible seizure and was in a coma. We were so afraid,” I wrote this:

“When Sage was two he loved to ride in a big blue backpack on his mama’s back.  He slept at [Grandma and Grandpa’s] house without his parents for the first time and visited the zoo where he rode his first train… Sage loved to play in the water, eat berries, and read books.  He finally had some hair, and it was curly and blonde around his ears…”

While both stories are true, I chose to “skim the cream” and remember the sweetest moments of that year.

That simple choice transformed the darkness.

Sure, I still remember that week in the hospital in every detail, but I also remember the blond curls around his little ears.

I rewrote the story that played in my mind to include the pieces I wanted to hold onto. And I’m so glad.

So I’ve put “skimming the cream” to daily use.

No matter how dark a day may seem, there is a light shining in it somewhere. We just need to look deep inside to find it.

It isn’t always easy, but for me it always helps me focus on how blessed my life truly is.

Five family projects to cultivate gratitude

As we move into the new year, why not focus on all that is right in your world?

Here are five simple and fun ways to involve your whole family in seeing the goodness in life.

1. Keep a family journal

A simple sketchbook can be transformed into a family journal to capture the highlights of each season.

Have your children decorate the cover of a blank book with paint or decoupage. On the first page, write your family name and the date your journal began.

Encourage each family member to write or sketch the things that bring them joy throughout the year.

Add special mementos like birthday cards, photographs, leaves, and feathers.

Be sure to note acts of kindness done by each member of your family as well as the beauty you see in each of your children.

At the end of the year, revisit all the goodness of the past seasons.

2. Make a gratitude tree

Each Thanksgiving my family creates a gratitude tree. It’s a simple and beautiful tradition that everyone in my family enjoys.

Cut watercolor or construction paper leaves large enough to write on.

In a stable vase, place a few branches from the garden or hang a larger branch horizontally above your table.

Place leaves and pencils around the vase and encourage family members to share what they are thankful for, then hang their leaf on the branch.

After dinner as you gather for dessert or tea, take turns reading each anonymous blessings aloud.

3. Start a gratitude jar

I came upon this idea online and thought it was a lovely way to count your blessings throughout the year.

Beginning on the New Year, keep a jar in your home for blessings.

Keep strips of paper and pencils nearby.

When something wonderful happens, write a note and drop it in the jar. (Non-writers can draw their picture and have a parent or sibling help with the writing.)

Then on New Year’s Eve the following year, take turns reading – and remembering – the many blessings in your life.

4. Make a prayer bunting

A prayer bunting is a lively way to send out prayers or count blessings.

Inspired by Tibetan prayer flags, a prayer bunting is simply a long ribbon tied with strips of cloth.

On each cloth is a written or drawn prayer, wish, or blessing. As the banner flaps in the wind the blessings are carried out into the world.

Here’s how to make your own: Tie a long piece of ribbon across your porch, between two trees in your garden, or anywhere in your home. Tear or cut fabric strips approximately 2″ wide by 10″ long.

Working together, write or draw blessings on each strip with fabric pens, then tie each strip of cloth to the ribbon.

Make your prayer bunting all in one day, or add blessings to it throughout the year.

Then make another!

A prayer bunting makes a thoughtful gift to welcome a new child or celebrate a birthday.

5. Write a Rainbow Bridge story

The story I shared above is an excerpt for my son’s Rainbow Bridge story. (My children’s complete stories are here.)

Inspired by the Waldorf tradition, our Rainbow Bridge stories tell how each child came to join our family, and then shares a few sweet memories from each year.

We celebrate each child’s birthday by reading their story aloud.

I love the idea of modifying this tradition to write the story of your family’s year, capturing the goodness that came to each of you.

What tradition does your family enjoy to remember the goodness in each year?

About Rachel Wolf

Rachel Wolf woke up recently and realized that she's living the life she has always wanted. Her days are spent with and two spunky unschoolers, running LuSa Organics (her small business), and hanging the laundry out on the line. Rachel writes about her homeschooling, homemaking, and non-violent parenting path on her blog Clean.


  1. Lovely post on gratitude and choosing how to see life. I think we’ll try out that jar idea. Thanks!

  2. Lovely ideas to celebrate how lucky we are to spend our days with our children : )
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  3. Amy VanSpeybroeck says:

    What beautiful, simple, wonderful ideas – I am definitely implementing some in my house.

    Thank you for sharing.

  4. I really needed this. For some reason, I keep focusing on what’s scary out there and have to force myself to focus on all the good out there. Then my thoughts shift again to the scariness. Your ideas will help me and my family to redirect out thoughts on what’s good and positive in our lives. We don’t have any traditions (pretty boring…) but thanks to your ideas, we about to embark on some. You’re a genius, Rachel. And to start it off, I am very grateful I stumbled onto your blog and this website about a year ago.

    • Rachel Wolf says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Tameka. I too get stuck in what is scary. That’s why this work seems so important – and transformational – to me.

  5. I really needed to hear your story. Thank you.
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  6. beautiful Rachel!
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  7. Thank you so much for this. My oldest son was severely burned when he was almost two, and hospitalized for days. It was terrifying, and while I’ve worked hard and successfully to leave behind the grief and guilt, it does define that time in his life, for me. I hope I can give myself permission to re-write his story and, “skim the cream.”

  8. I, too, needed to hear this. I’m going to start trying some of your suggestions. My son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in January and it seems like that has defined this entire year. We are constantly checking blood sugar, giving shots, counting carbs, answering well- meaning questions from family & friends, traveling to the doctor two hours away all while trying to stay sane & active in our everyday life. I want us to remember something about these “tween” years that brings a smile to our face years from now. thanks for this article!

  9. So appreciate you sharing your & Sage’s stories with us.
    Jamie~Simple Homeschool’s latest post: Skimming the cream: 5 family projects to cultivate gratitude

  10. Skimming the cream is fantastic. 🙂

    I think it’s useful sometimes to save the sour, too – somewhere else, though! – so that if maybe, someday, you’re wishing things could be like they were way back when, you can also remember that those days weren’t actually perfect, either. We made it through that – we can make it through this. 🙂

  11. Very sweet and do-able ideas–thanks! I’m not sure that our (young & impatient) children could stand waiting the whole year for New Year’s Eve to read the gratitude jar notes, but I love the idea of the family journal.

    Our family celebrates Shabbat every Friday night with homemade challah and lighting of candles. We each say what events we’re grateful for from the past week, and something about each person that deserves gratitude or recognition (as in “We’re thankful that Charlotte was kind to Griffin when he was crying in class…we’re thankful to Zachary that he studied hard and won the chess tournament”). That weekly acknowledgement of the week (and each other) works wonders for our family.
    Joy @ Joyfully Green’s latest post: Looking Back, Looking Forward: My Green Year in Review

  12. Love all these ideas, thanks! Now to choose one to focus on!
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  13. I completely agree that a positive attitude is so important! I have to say though, my youngest son had some trials as well…he spent his first week of life in the NICU. I don’t shy away from the story though. I LOVE to tell the story of the fact that he is a walking miracle, and of all the ways that God displayed Himself to us during that time. It just goes to show that we all deal with good and bad things differently 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story!
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  14. I love this. When I wrote one of my daughters’ stories, I knew I wanted it to be positive, but I also wanted it to be truthful. My child was born with a hearing impairment that wasn’t diagnosed for two years. Those two years were not fun, for our family or for our child. The year after the diagnosis and subsequent treatment was not fun. It was hard work for our family and for our child. The next year was bliss, as we finally saw the results of all the hardwork and the worry and the tension of three years melted away. I chose to write her story as it was focusing on her role in her own development and on her successes. I think (hope) it has worked. At age 5, she can tell her story and explain how her impairment affects her speech today. She tells her story freely without any sadness and then moves on. Her listener tends to move on right with her. It is what I had hoped.

  15. I love the idea of the prayer bunting. I was trying to think of something that my son’s church school class could do for a classmate. He is the brother of one of our Newtown angels. I think they would love to make a bunting for him with their prayers and good wishes. Simple and powerful! Thank you.

  16. Alissa LaChance says:

    girl, you are fantastic.

  17. The prayer bunting is an interesting idea. Thanks for sharing. Pinned.
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