The art of counting

Five of my earliest and greatest blessings, in a life filled with them. January 2014

Five of my earliest and greatest blessings, in a life filled with them. January 2014

“Envy is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own.”
Harold Coffin

I often have a problem with envy, especially when friends who are my age start describing their carefree “empty nest” travels and activities.  After nearly 30 years of caretaking and managing the lives of our children (beginning when Drew was born in 1984) I sometimes long for that kind of freedom.  I can’t really imagine anymore what it’s like to be able to just “up and go” spontaneously, without exhaustive preliminary planning and arrangements.

Despite being thankful for the blessings that have kept us alive and together all these years, I still have occasional problems with an ungrateful and bad attitude.  Here is a 100% true story of an abrupt and eye-opening experience that did much to curtail my bad habit of counting others’ blessings instead of my own.

One day back in 2012, I had decided to cook some steel-cut oats for Matt and me.  Jeff usually cooks them for us on the weekends, and I just fix the regular kind for us on busy weekdays, but with Jeff at work that morning, I decided to get industrious and try cooking steel cut oats myself.  That turned out to be a mistake.  Let’s just say I ended up dealing with a boiled-over mess not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES that morning. Sometimes multi-tasking backfires!

I finally gave up being frustrated and just started laughing at myself and thinking how lucky I was to have had Jeff cooking it for me for the past couple of years, never once (as far as I know) ending with the disastrous results I had.  I started thinking about how blessed I was; how happy I felt that I was able to stay home full time to take care of our household and all the endless details that go with managing Matt’s life.  I wondered why on earth I didn’t feel those blessings constantly instead of sometimes becoming cross and negative.  I resolved that I would change my attitude, beginning right then.  The rest of the day passed happily.

That afternoon I heard Jeff come in the front door. “Hi babe, how are you?” I sang out cheerfully.

“Not good,” he said.  Something in his voice made me freeze up inside.

That was the beginning of our lives changing radically, without warning. That was the afternoon he came home with the sudden, intense pain that sent him to the ER the next morning where it was discovered that he had a ruptured, cancerous appendix, and tumors on his liver that were suggestive of metastatic cancer from a primary cancer elsewhere.

I’ve thought again and again of the irony of how that day had started for me, as if it were some premonition that I was too clueless to notice. It haunts me in a sad sort of way; a memory I will probably never forget — and I hope I do not forget it.  Every day that passes, no matter what else is going on in our lives, we are enjoying blessings that can disappear suddenly, without time to stop and reflect gratefully while we still have them.

That lesson is just as true and relevant in my life today as it was that day in September 2012.  Whatever mistakes I’m still making, I am seldom unaware of all that is mine —  and ours — in this fleeting present moment.  I never completely forget how fragile and ephemeral this life can be.

Today, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, I hope you will take a minute or two for counting the blessings that are yours right now.  Comparing our lives and blessings to what other people enjoy (or maybe, unbeknownst to us, don’t enjoy at all) is a trap, a lie, and a danger.  In contrast, keeping our eyes on the beauty of our own particular canvas is an art as well as a discipline; a talent we can never develop too soon.  Some of the lessons we’ve had this past 18 months have been unusually harsh ones, but I’m glad we are learning them.

One year ago today:

The thief of joy


  1. Susan

    Julia, here is a blessing you can count: you touch so many in such a positive and much needed way, and I appreciate you very much for it. You have been a blessing to me!

    • Thank you, Susan! That makes me feel so happy! 🙂

  2. Raynard

    Julia, “Dut Dut Dut Dut Here’s a story ,of a lovely lady, who was bringing up 3 very lovely girls.. All of them had hair of gold, like their mother, the youngest one in curls.. Sorry I had a “senior Brady Bunch Moment lol” My wife’s aunt who we take care of was a caretaker for her father and her sister one after another. Then she became a care taker for her husband. I believe all that caretaking she never cared for herself and in alot of ways she is burned out with her dementia and alzheimer’s. My wife has been a caretaker longer than we have been married.”So I have to keep a eye of her state of health. I did see that 3 years ago when first taking care of both her aunt and uncle around the clock for 6 months, she was beginning to show signs of burnout and I stepped in. 2 life lessons I learned through “Superman”. 1 He has to eat lunch like everyone else. 2 Despite his”split personality, he has a weakness just like the rest of us.( oh young people dont say”you get my drift but”you feel me same thing and meaning). If I tried to “walk and chew bubble gum, it would be stuck on my face or I would be scraping it off the bottom of my shoe lol. I’m grateful for all people in my life who keep me sane, focused and “listen to my jokes and “long drawn out stories that I pray have some kind of life lesson and”no hidden agenda or alterior motives. Thank you for all you do here and the Upper Room and most important God and the family he has blessed you with. It’s a honor to know you and be blessed by you.Fudge Fondant cake will be baked by me in the morning and I might top off with some fudge chocolate frosting and some toll house chocolate chips on top..

    • Raynard, that Brady Bunch stuff cracked me up when I read it! I have to admit, all those faces sort of brings that iconic show opening to mind, though we were actually always more like the Addams family than the Brady Bunch (and my Daddy actually looked a good bit like Gomez). When Matt got manic the first time (back in 2000) I ended up taking him in to the ER around 3 a.m. not long after he got out of the hospital and before we figured out how to medicate him so he could sleep. His pediatric neurologist begged me to go home and get some sleep. He said “I promise I will take care of him tonight, you do not need to worry about him. But remember, if you go, he goes.” That was the start of my learning the hard way that I had to pay attention to my own needs at least some of the time. It was a long road for me, with many bumps, but I think it helped to ensure my survival.

      Have you heard the song “Superman” by Five for Fighting? It has become one of my favorites. I first heard it when our older son Drew was featured in his high school senior video with this song playing in the background. Now I will always think of him when I hear it since he (much like his father Jeff before him) was the clean-cut Valedictorian, baseball shortstop, wonderful best friend and Big Brother to Matt, and all around Superman as a young man. But I think all of us can identify with this song at least a little bit.

      Fudge cake! That sounds like a great way to defeat despair, at least temporarily! 🙂

  3. Julia, this is such a beautiful post. My heart is saddened by that day’s events with Jeff, but the turn around in perspective and counting blessings is priceless ~ as is your message to us. You inspire us all. xoxo

    • Thank you, if anyone can find inspiration here, that makes me happy. The past 18 months, though difficult (and painful beyond imagining for Jeff) could also have been much worse, and we continue to press on in hope. I appreciate the encouragement from you and others who visit us here!

  4. Lani (Morgan) Beagle

    Julia, I am always amazed at the sheer irony of living and paying attention (mindfulness) to our lives and our circumstances and what this allows us to see. It is so incredible the number of blessings we all do have and how unaware most of us are in the day to day struggle of ‘survival’. As the Bible addresses this over and over, Ann Voskamps’ book, and many others remind us, our daily interactions with those who have been or are hurting in ways that I can’t fathom, gratefulness is a necessity to a peaceful, contented life. Your post was gripping to me in the reality of a lesson reinforced once again. Thank you. Very timely and moving for me.

    • Thank you so much, Lani. I have an audio copy of the Voskamp book; I need to get to it soon. I bet it will be full of good quotes I could use here! I have been so happy to be back in touch with you via this blog. Are you ever in Atlanta? I’d love to get together sometime while we are down there. You and your family are among the blessings I count when I look back on my childhood. So many of my parents’ friends gave us wonderful examples of lives well lived, in service and joy. They showed us how to live abundantly (and I’m not just talking about all that home-made ice cream we used to eat at your house 🙂 ). I appreciate your visits here!

      • Lani (Morgan) Beagle

        Julia, Yes, I go back once a month since my dad died. I will be going this coming weekend again. If you let me know ahead of time when you are there, I would plan my next trip for when you will be there and we would come visit. Also, we are coming to DC for a week with friends the first week in May. One of these places and times, hopefully our paths will cross. Yes, home-made ice cream……..YUM!!!

        • Lani, PLEASE let’s try to get together when you come up in May. Matt is to have his next open heart surgery sometime in late April (probably the last week or two; no exact date set yet) but hopefully by the time you get here he will be doing better and I can grab at least a little time to visit with you! We will definitely try to get to Atlanta at the same time sometime soon!

  5. Carolyn

    Thanks for sharing the picture with us. You all look great. You never age! Two years, today, I went to the hospital to get ready for my surgery the next day. The lessons that I learned that day were tough ones but I am still here after those two years. Now to cooking, I make Terry oatmeal every day but some days I want to just walk away. I open the door to the microwave and it has spilled over the bowl. What a mess. I do this every day , so why did it happen today. Oh well, that’s life. I clean it up and Terry enjoys what is left. You all have a great day. Love and hugs to all.

    • Carolyn, I can’t really say “Happy Anniversary” for such a somber milestone, but I can say “Congratulations!” and look forward to this day next year, and the next, and the next, each of which will be another victory. Thank you for your kind words – when Jeff saw the photo, he pointed out that I’m the only one in the family who uses haircolor 🙂 but I keep saying that eventually when my hair is totally white as Mama’s is, I will just throw in the towel and go with it. 🙂 I’m getting there pretty quickly, too! As you can see by my roots showing in the photo.

      I have learned never to even try oatmeal or anything else like it in the microwave, I ALWAYS make a mess. I just use the microwave to reheat things. I use my trusty electric kettle (the one that makes gallons of hot tea every week) to boil water, and then just stir the boiling water into the bowl filled with regular (not instant) oatmeal and raisins. I found out almost accidentally that you can make good oatmeal that way, but steel cut oats HAVE to be cooked (slowly) on the stove top, even if you get Trader Joe’s “quick cook” kind (by “quick” they mean about 10 or 15 minutes). Everything is relative!

      Hope you have a lovely weekend! Hugs to you and Terry.

  6. Amy

    I struggle with this very thing so I whenever I am starting to get really down I try to imagine that each person I meet in a day has a struggle they are not sharing with me. It might be something small like an unpaid bill or a something larger like a child with cancer but each of them has something. I also try to remember that when someone cuts me off in traffic, is rude to me while I am out somewhere or just plain annoys me. It doesn’t always help me get past my own sorrow but I do try. I know you and Jeff have had countless blessings but you have had your share of sorrow. I always admire the grace and love that you have that has kept you faithful to God and each other. Take care of you. Count your blessings. I love you. A

    • Amy

      I thought this might give you a laugh. Aaron shared with me that odds are good for everything to be alright. 🙂

      • Amy, this is SO, SO GREAT! Please tell Aaron thanks! You have to watch it several time to catch everything, but it brought me a BIG GRIN. The funniest part to me is the scrolling banner at the bottom. I just loved this part: “Religious leaders all over the world: ‘We SO called this!’ ” 🙂 If this isn’t, among other things, a great parody of the media, I don’t know what is. This song is destined to become a frequently-played number on my “Tunes.” (MP3 player I use for walking when I don’t feel like walking.) My brother Al and his friend Don referred to music as “tunes” long before Steve Jobs did. Thanks for a wonderful link. I am always telling everybody that the comments are the best part of this blog, and the two videos (from you and Sheila) linked today prove it!

    • Amy, regarding your first comment here, I do this very same thing. I remember having to go to the pharmacy to pick up some meds for Jeff or Matt shortly after Jeff was diagnosed. I felt as if I was moving around in some unreal dream and it seemed strange to me that all these people were going on as normal as if the world was not in meltdown. Of course their worlds were not, only mine was, and most unbelievable of all, that was not visible to any of them. We are surrounded all the time by people who are going through all sorts of trials, and most of them are pressing on bravely without complaints. The thing that keeps us all going is that the mercies do continue and “are new every morning” and when we open our eyes to that, we can almost always endure things we didn’t know we could survive. Thanks for being with us from the earliest moments of this particular crisis. We love you too!

  7. What a nice family photo to have. You know, you have beautiful skin Julia 😀 So bright and flawless. I’m with you on the hair thing, because I’m not READY to be grey. HA. I’m now seeing the odd grey eyelash and brow, gads! It’s so darn spotty. I’ll probably be one of those weird cases of one white brow and one dark brow, LOL

    We seem to be pretty fortunate in so many ways, I can’t really complain without feeling guilty. I do find myself envious at times of the celebrations other families enjoy together. I’m lucky, my two brothers are great guys. We have always had loving relationships even though since my dad passed away, celebrations seem lacking to me. He was the glue that bound those special occasions. Having great memories help, I guess I just miss having him there. Then I think of my dear Alys who’s dealt with this her whole life, starting at a very young age and my heart breaks. I must just be grateful for all the time I had with my dad.
    I also have to remember to celebrate life everyday and not let those unique calendar dates hold so much meaning. I think I’m getting better at that as I mature. Maybe I’m just a late bloomer.

    As for cooking breakfast, I’m into immediate gratification and it’s always toast and coffee. Hard to mess that up, although one day I burnt several bagels in a row. LOL

    • Thanks so much for your kind words. I choose the photos that make my skin look better than it really does 🙂 but lighting can do wonders.

      I am so scared of having to let go of Mama and Daddy, whenever that day comes, but I keep reminding myself that my siblings and I have been so fortunate to have them for as long as we have. YES, every day is a celebration (a Jolly Holiday as our favorite nanny might say) and here’s to being a late bloomer! I am certainly in that category myself. BTW, I think toast and coffee (or tea!) are hard to beat. I like to have whole grain toast with just a touch of some kind of all-natural (no sugar added) fruit preserves. Yummy, that’s my Saturday treat! Have a great weekend in Boomdeeville!

  8. Sheila

    Oh, Julia, what a wonderful family photo and time together. You have shared so much here and we have learned so much about your family with your photos and stories. I’m so thankful, even though that was a life changing MOMENT, you’ve rallied and Jeff has been far stronger than the dreaded “C” health demon! Thank you for being so special to so many. 🙂

    • Thank you, Sheila! The video you shared of Russ in the comments on yesterday’s post is so wonderful! I hope everyone will go back and look at it. Thanks for being such an important part of our community here. Your presence has been a true gift of grace to us!

  9. michael

    Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’” –Mary Anne Radmacher

    Saw this quote on a friends e-mail. I think you used it before. Anyway- it made me think of you all.
    I do regular oats in the microwave- about 40 seconds on high or it boils over. Edible but not delicious.
    We left NYC Tuesday evening- the night before the explosion. The fire was about 5 blocks from my son’s apartment. And now we learn the Con-Edison gas supply lines date back to the late 1800’s. As if we don’t have enough to worry about.
    We had a nice flight and then were almost killed in the taxi ride home. More later.

    • Oh, my, Michael, what a week you’ve had! I hope you are home safely now? When I read the occasional news story about some aspect or other of the “aging infrastructure” — almost a cliche nowadays — I think ignorance must be bliss, until something like the NYC explosion happens. This adds a rather grim postscript to the recent post about being thankful to stay home. Let us hear more from you as you have time, and try to have a relaxing weekend!

  10. You are, of course, right Julia. We all find ourselves dissatisfied with our lot from time to time. I know I do. But like you I try and stop myself and be thankful for the good life I have, and in particular for my and Chris’ good health. There are so many people whose lives are far worse than anything I could possibly imagine. But as you say, we do actually have to stop ourselves and remember that.

    • Thanks, J – our health (to whatever degree each of us has it) is definitely at the top of the list when it comes to things we easily forget to be thankful for. I blame a lot of advertising and media for creating “needs” that aren’t really there; after all, they have to create those ideas in order to sell us something we are perfectly happy without. Paying attention to daily life opens our eyes to abundance. I think your blog is really good at that! Thanks for being here.

  11. You continue to share so openly and refreshingly. You story pulls at the heartstrings. It can be exhausting care-taking 100% of the time. I wish I could give you a month’s worth of carefree days. No one deserves it more than you.

    • Aw, thanks Alys. It probably sounds worse than it is. Matt doesn’t really demand a lot of attention but just having people in the house is distracting to me when I’m trying to get things done. Matt likes to chat and I am all too happy to oblige at times, when I should be doing other things! The really stressful part is dealing with all the communication and appointments with the various agencies and doctors’ offices and meds and so forth. Just keeping up with the Coumadin levels is such a roller coaster, and that’s only one small part of it. But as will all the demands of parenting for everyone who cares for kids, it’s the toughest job we’ll ever love.

  12. MaryAnn

    What a beautiful photo & wonderful words to live by, learn & incorporate. Blessings abound all around me, I want to thank my Heavenly Father for them all (and sometimes feel lacking)! I often am very specific; such as: “Thank you, God, for oxygen!” When I am dealing w/ a recalcitrant child (or adult); I ask: “Did you do anything today to provide the oxygen that you need to survive?”
    Praising God for Jeff’s improving health & your loving care & support to him!

    • Mary Ann, of all the things we take for granted, simply breathing may be one of the most obvious yet forgotten. Watching my Daddy struggle with COPD makes me aware of how lucky we are just to be able to breathe freely! And as you say, we can’t take credit for that! Thanks so much for your caring and prayers!

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