Counting Blessings: On Giving Thanks in Difficult Circumstances

Whenever I think about gratitude, I always come back to one Bible verse:  “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (I Thessalonians 5:18)
I first heard this verse a long time ago, and it wasn’t at Mass or in religion class.  I was ten years old, and for our reading class everyone was supposed to adapt a scene from a favorite book into a play.  I attempted a scene from The Hobbit, and it was a failure.  But my best friend chose a scene from Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, a book which I would go on to read several times.  She asked me to appear in her scene, playing Corrie’s sister, Betsie.
You can read the rest here.

Giving Thanks in All Circumstances

Giving Thanks in All Circumstances- #1000Speak

In the fifth grade, we were assigned to present short plays adapted from books we had read.  My best friend asked me to appear in her scene from Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place.

Corrie and her family were members of the resistance in Holland during World War I, and she spent time in a concentration camp for these activities (which included hiding Jews in a secret room in the family home).

Corrie and her sister Betsie had managed to sneak a Bible into the camp with them, and in our scene they were praying over a verse in First Thessalonians: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

It sounded crazy to Corrie to thank God for their current circumstances, and it probably sounds even crazier to us, but Betsie was able to point out two obvious blessings: that they were assigned to the same camp and that the Bible had not been taken from them.  But when she started to give thanks for the fleas in the barracks, Corrie thought she had taken leave of her senses–until later, when the women in their barracks were left untouched by the soldiers who would have raped them but for distaste for the fleas.

Most of us won’t have to deal with circumstances that are so dire, but being thankful in all circumstances is still a great attitude to have, and one I’ve been trying hard to cultivate.  Every night I start my prayers by thanking God for everything good about my day.  And I don’t mean big things–I mean things like a sunny day, or having time to work in my garden, or a nice dinner, or an easy time getting William’s homework done.  I’m not allowed to ASK for anything until I say thank you, and plenty of times I fall asleep before I make it to the end of the gratitude list!

They say that practice makes perfect, and practicing gratitude is no different.  When I started doing this I had a harder time coming up with things to be thankful for.  Now my list is long and I find myself looking forward to  this ritual.

I’ve even come to be grateful for trials, because they’ve led me to be compassionate towards others who suffer.  Financial problems, broken cars, difficulties in parenting, even the loss of our home and possessions to fire–all of these have presented me with opportunities to empathize with others who have suffered and have saved me from the temptation to judge them.

This post is part of #1000Speak, a monthly linkup with the goal of writing about and spreading compassion.  The topic for this month is Gratitude.  To see other posts, please click the picture below.


Obamacare Revisited

I know I just updated recently but I have some things I really wanted to post about and I don’t feel like waiting!
Let’s start with the not-so-good parts, because while want people to see the enormous good in our Obamacare experience I lose credibility if I insist this new health care system is perfect.
I already told you that four out of seven of us were approved for subsidies and enrolled in a plan, while the other three were inexplicably deemed ineligible. And when I say inexplicable, I mean not only can I not understand it, neither can any of the customer service people I’ve spoken to. Anyway, I appealed this decision, through a formal process that involved submitting all sorts of paperwork. I think I had 30 days to do that, which means I probably did it in February some time. A couple of months ago I got a phone call about my appeal, and then last week I got a letter saying to expect a call at a certain date and time, and to be prepared with the information they wanted. Well, the day came and I waited and waited and they never called me. I called the next day and spoke to a very nice and very confused woman who finally figured out that they called Teddy instead of me even though it said RIGHT IN THE LETTER that they would be calling my number. So she fixed the number and said the next thing that will happen is that I will get a letter setting a formal telephone hearing. So we’ll see.
In the meantime, the Marketplace wrote me and they want MORE financial information, which is the second time since I applied that they’ve asked for more information, and I they want check stubs for everyone in the house who works, which is kind of difficult since two of us are self-employed. So there is no denying that it’s the government, and a bureaucracy, and that I (or you) could run it better. (Not that private insurance companies are any better, and that’s a moot point anyway for the many Americans who are uninsurable or can’t afford insurance–so you take the bad with the good.)
But on the bright side . . . Last week I went into the doctor’s office for a fasting blood draw, in preparation for yesterday’s checkup, which my doctor set for three months out from the last one. When I walked in she told me that basically I had reversed every single problem I arrived with. 🙂 She was so impressed that she gave me a hug! My blood pressure has gone down to borderline, my cholesterol is just two points shy of normal, my blood sugar dropped nine points, and my triglycerides dropped over 100 points. And . . . I’ve lost 27 pounds, without being on any official regimented diet, and WITHOUT BEING HUNGRY.
Now, some people might say that Obamacare doesn’t deserve the credit for this, but let me tell you a story. Six years ago I had my last checkup and got blood work done. At that time all of the above factors were close to what they are now, so above where they should be but not yet dangerously so. But because I did not have insurance, that one appointment was all I got. No one offered me any suggestions. They said, “We’ll keep an eye on it,” but how could they when I couldn’t afford regular checkups and blood work? This time, I’ve seen my doctor three times, the wellness nurse three times, and the nutritionist once. The nutritionist will continue to monitor me and do bloodwork every three months to track my progress. Moreover, they gave me the suggestions and the support I needed to succeed. This is what preventive medicine is all about. Without it, people bumble along and get fatter and sicker and end up in emergency rooms having heart attacks, or going on disability, costing ALL of us money (not to mention the cost in human misery, which is far more important to me). This kind of care makes sense and I am so grateful to be benefiting from it.

Me, Happy to Be Insured and Getting Healthy
Me, Happy to Be Insured and Getting Healthy

For more on our journey from being uninsured to becoming healthy, and on my views on Obamacare in general, see the links below.
The $64,000 Question, Answered
Who Are the Uninsured?
Uninsured No More
ObamaCare Update
ObamaCare Update 2
ObamaCare:  My Latest Update

Give Thanks in All Circumstances

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” I Thessalonians 5:18
I first encountered that quotation as a child when reading The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom.  Corrie and her sister Betsie have been imprisoned in a concentration camp for hiding Jews in their Amsterdam home.  One day Betsie reads this Bible verse and declares that she and Corrie are going to thank God for everything about the situation they find themselves in, like the fact that they have been assigned together, that there was no inspection so that they retained the Bible, even the crowded condition of the barracks which will mean more women with whom to share God’s word.  But when Betsie starts giving thanks for the fleas in the barracks, Corrie objects: “Not even God can make me grateful for a flea!”  Her sister reminds her that the words were “give thanks in ALL circumstances,” not just in pleasant ones, and adds that “fleas are part of this place where God has put us.”
Betsie’s faith is justified when the soldiers who routinely rape the women in the other barracks avoid their unit because of the fleas.
I haven’t reached the point yet of thanking God that our house burned down.  Maybe I will someday.  But for now it is enough to recognize some of the very real blessings that would never have come our way otherwise.  Today I am thinking about the blessings of friendship.
I think of a couple at church who were barely acquaintances before and became our friends because they offered us office space to use until we found somewhere else to live and work.  I think of a friend whom I had not talked to in a while, and his wife whom I had met only once, who went above and beyond with gifts and time and financial assistance and concern.  I think of people whom I knew at our kids’ schools, especially football parents, whose kindness and support has bridged my innate shyness to make me feel closer to them.  I think of my new next door neighbor, whom I would never have met if I had not moved here, and the book club she invited me to be a part of, and the many fun evenings I have spent in her company.
And I think of YOU, my dear online friends, especially those in the blogging world.  Because the fire made me blog more–I HAD to write, to process this experience:  I am still processing it, obviously.  And I don’t think I would have become as involved in these online communities if it had not been for the fire.  Being online was a comforting refuge, something familiar and safe when things were strange.
I love this month of Thanksgiving, and the challenge that so many of us strive to meet to post on Facebook each day something to be thankful for.  It can be life-changing to realize that no matter how bad things seem there is always, always something to be thankful for.

Red Red Red

In my pre-fire life, I used to think about redecorating my kitchen.  Apparently some people actually do that kind of thing, but in a single-income seven-member family, you replace things when they break with whatever you can afford–you don’t “redecorate.”  Granted after twenty-some years of marriage and five kids, most of what we had started out with had been broken and replaced already. Nothing matched, and I’d quit caring.  It was so miserably hot that I spent as little time as possible in the kitchen anyway.
Still, a girl can dream, and I used to dream of a red kitchen.
Post-fire, the kitchen was gone along with everything in it.  Located next to the garage which seems essentially to have exploded, it was incinerated.  Shards of dishes were buried in the ashes beneath the former location of the cabinets where I kept them.  Jake dug through the ashes where the pots and pans were kept, hoping to salvage my favorite cast iron pot, but its bottom was gone.  The only things that remain are two spoons we found in the yard, some plates and cups that were left out in the car, and the last remaining fork from our wedding flatware, which Jake retrieved for me from the blackened hulk of the dishwasher.
One of the first of many, many gifts we received post-fire was a set of Paula Deen cookware.  And it was RED.  Suddenly I realized that redecorating was a necessity and the red kitchen could be a reality.  Happily, the palette of the new house lent itself harmoniously to the red theme.  Target gift cards supplied coordinating appliances and accessories–it’s actually amazing how many red kitchen things there are!  Serendipitously red kitchen gadgets arrived from friends as if by magic.  Even the donated dishes (I’m still way too thrifty to buy red dishes when we were given at least three separate sets) harmonize with the redness, and I find their definite late-80s vibe comforting.
Our new kitchen is open to the adjoining family room, so there are a few red accents there too, and I got a red rug and hung some red pictures down the hall to the office.  I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and it makes me happy every time I look at it (when it’s clean, that is).


When I was eleven my family moved to a new house. It was a split level, and I had the basement bedroom. I had a three yellow walls, one wall with yellow roses, and wall-to-wall spring green carpet under my French Provincial 1970s bedroom suite, complete with canopy bed (covered with one of Mima’s afghans, of course–yellow and green!). I wish I had a picture to show you. I guess it was a little loud, but it looked like springtime, and I loved it.
As a teenager, I spent a lot of time in the privacy of that room.  I used to love to sit on my floor, listening to my record albums (usually my soundtrack to the animated version of The Lord of the Rings), drawing with my colored pencils in my special sketchbook.  I studied there, in front of my wall heater. I wrote a book there, reading chapters aloud to my sister as I finished them.  I talked on the phone for hours there (by pulling the long cord of the downstairs extension into the room!).  I entertained my friends there.  I cried there.   I loved being able to go downstairs and lock myself in, away from everyone.  It was a sanctuary.
For four years in college, I shared a bedroom.  Then I got married, and quickly was sharing my bedroom not only with my husband, but with a succession of babies and small children and an abundance of clutter.  First we had a creaky old bed; later we switched to box spring and mattess right on the floor to keep rolling babies safer.  When we moved into our Victorian house, I had high hopes for the bedroom-as-sanctuary:  it was a large room, with a fireplace and a door which once led to a balcony.  We even had a loveseat, but it quickly became a magnet for clothes waiting (and waiting, and waiting . . . )to be hung up, and the rest of the room quickly filled with the clutter that was overtaking the whole house.
The bedroom in what the little ones have christened “the burned down house” was kind of an anti-sanctuary.  We could not even get our boxspring up the stairs of this 1960 split level, so we had our mattress right on the floor.  It was stiflingly hot from May through September, and there were no screens on the windows, so that we learned to live with pollen everywhere and an abundance of flying and crawling friends.  We usually had two cats in bed with us, not to mention Lorelei AND William.  There always seemed to be either dirt (courtesy of the aforementioned bedmates) or crumbs (thanks, to John, who WOULD NOT STOP eating crunchy snacks in bed) amongst the sheets.  And this room was smaller than the last, and the clutter just as bad.  I hated going in there, frankly.
But now.  Oh my.
Can I just say that going up to my room at night is just about my favorite part of the day?  And not just because I love to sleep.  No, it is that sense of sanctuary that was pretty much completely missing from ANY room of the last place we lived. (And is it any wonder, in retrospect, that I never felt quite safe or at home there?)

The room is enormous.  And there’s no clutter because we don’t own any.
There’s a huge bathroom with two sinks and a spa tub.

Lorelei enjoys the spa tub

It has a walk-in closet.  You’d laugh if you saw a picture of that.  John, who was given all my Uncle Charlie’s clothes, and received shirts and ties from many other sources as well, NEEDS the closet (for that matter, as an attorney, he needs the clothes).  My side, on the other hand, is sparsely populated at the moment!
I love the furniture in the room, donated by a friend of my father and step-mother.  And there is no accumulation of knick-knacks to detract from it (the collection of . . . shall we say, CRAP, that used to sit on John’s bureau had been annoying me for years.).
And the bed.  Oh, the bed.

The bedspread is EXACTLY like one I inherited from Mima that was lost in the fire.  I never got to use it because it was too long with the bed always being on the floor.  The sheets are Ralph Lauren with a ridiculously high thread count.  Getting into this bed every night with my book and my book light and my reading glasses is truly one of my greatest pleasures in life.

By now it probably goes without saying that every single thing in this room–the pictures, the linens, the books, the furniture, the pillows–even the nightgown I sleep in each night–came from the love and generosity of friends, family, even strangers.  That makes the room feel like even more of a blessing.  I feel safe and loved here.
What about you?  Is your bedroom a sanctuary?  Do you have another place that is–or has been–a sanctuary for you?

New and New to Me

For seven years, our family lived here:

It was built in 1889, and parts of it didn’t seem to have been replaced since then.  It had been patched and smoothed over so that we did not realize what we were getting into until it began to disintegrate around us.  We are not handy and we could not afford the extensive renovations it needed and deserved.  But we loved it, and no modern home will ever have that much personality.
To go along with our old house, we had lots of old furniture.  John’s first apartment was furnished with his grandmother’s old living room furniture and his grandfather’s old bedroom furniture.  We added my old bedroom furniture and then started acquiring things from my friend’s antique shop.  The old furniture suited the old house.  We had armoires, a secretary, a sideboard, bookcases.  As older relatives died, we inherited heirlooms, an old cabinet radio, paintings, clocks.  Almost everything we owned was pre-owned, and we loved it all.
Well, it’s gone now.  And maybe it would be out of place in a four-year-old house anyway; I don’t know.  One thing’s certain:  we don’t mind at all that all the lovely things we have now are only new to us, because that is what we are used to.  That is comforting.
Here is a picture of my favorite piece of furniture we were given:
This came to us from a church friend.  It was her mother’s old kitchen table.  I can’t tell you how delighted I was when I saw it. (I had not idea about most of the furniture until it arrived in our home the day we moved in.)
My grandmother had a table that was very similar.  This was the kind of kitchen table a lot of people were still eating on when I was a little girl.  And someone even gave me some Melmac if I want to be even more authentic!
Here’s a close up:

This little breakfast nook turned out to be the perfect spot for the table:

I think that John thought the table’s placement there was temporary and that when we get the Queen Anne dining room furniture from his grandmother’s home would would be moving the oak dining set from the formal dining room into the kitchen.  But he is wrong.  This is not going anywhere.

Some old things you treasure just because they are old.  Others are special because of their history, their sentimental value, their family connections.  Someday I will write a weepy post about some of the heirlooms that are no more.  For now, I will just say that I feel sick at the thought that so many things no longer exist to be passed down to the next generation.
That’s one reason I was thrilled to acquire the item below, which while currently brand-new, will become an heirloom one day:
This beautiful quilt was handmade for me by my friend Emily.  She blogs here about her various crafty projects in progress.  I am amazed by her talent!

Right now this beautiful heirloom-to-be is putting in its time as camouflage for the old office chairs that provide additional seating in our living room, nice side chairs being one of the few things that have not yet come our way.  It is also being used by John to keep him warm when he naps on the living room couch.

Best Laid Plans

This week my life became simultaneously easier and harder.  Explain, you ask?  Well, over the weekend we acquired a new (to us) car (more on that in a moment).  So no longer do I have to drive Teddy to school while John drives Lorelei.   Teddy gets to drive himself!  No longer must I roll out of bed at 6:30 and nominally (maybe I should say MOMinally) dress myself in my “uniform”–the well-loved skirt that requires me to pull my sweatshirt WAY down while sidling like a crab if I must go into Weigel’s for lunch money on the way to school.
So how is this harder in any way?  Well, folks, I am still in my nightgown.  The other kids are abed.  It’s early, I’m tired, and the only one setting the schedule around here is me.  My bed calls.  And now every morning I must resist its siren song and enter the office instead.
Now, about that car.  Well, when our house burned down, two of our cars were totaled as well, John’s Lincoln and the Dodge Durango that we were saving for the kids to drive.  Right away, my dear friend Kris emailed to say that she and her husband, Colin, wanted to give us a car that they no longer needed.  (thank you, THANK YOU, Kris and Colin!!) Problem is, they live in Florida, and it took us until last weekend to get ourselves together and figure out how to get the car here.  So last Friday, John flew to Tampa (there’s actually a very cheap one-way flight!) and on Saturday, he drove home in our “new” 1997 Mazda Protege.  Since it’s small, and a stick shift, and gets 35 miles a gallon, it makes sense for John to be the one who drives it, leaving me with my minivan and Teddy with John’s 1998 Lincoln.  We feel safer with him in a larger vehicle, yet another reason to mourn the tank-like Durango.
Wait a minute, I can almost hear you calling, while you count on your fingers.  Teddy can’t be 18 yet, can he?  No, Jake just turned 18!  Why is Teddy driving anything anywhere?  What happened to “my teenagers aren’t allowed to drive until they are 18?”
Life happened, y’all.  Our views have not changed, but sometimes philosophical views take a back seat to real life.  Here’s how it happened.
When our house burned down, Jake and Teddy were immediately deluged with offers of temporary homes with their friends.  We were staying with my sister, who never complained, but six additional people is kind of a lot.  It made sense to lessen the burden–and to make their homeless situation “fun”–by letting the boys stay with friends.  It also solved what would otherwise have been insurmountable transportation problems.  With only one available car, three kids in school, and John in court in as many as three counties in a day, we needed help.  All Jake and Teddy’s friends could drive, and we really had no choice but to cave on letting the boys ride with other teenagers–even after we had our own place–until we settled with the insurance company and acquired another car.
The problem is, you can’t really put that horse back in the barn, can you?  And once you’ve let the kids ride with other teenagers, it doesn’t make any sense to say they can’t drive themselves.  Our plan had been working as foreseen with Teddy–he got his permit as soon as he was able and started begging to practice.  Pre-fire, he was already doing almost all the driving, albeit with a parent in the car.  So shortly before he turned 17, John took him to get his license.
Neither Emily nor Jake drives.  Emily got her learner’s permit over the summer.  I recently observed Jake studying for the test.  Our plan did not work with them because once they knew they wouldn’t drive at 16, they lost all interest.   William is not quite 11, and I know better than to state absolutes that far in advance.  Our current plan is to hold to the driving at 18 rule for him, BUT require him to obtain his learner’s permit and start practicing as soon after he turns 15 as possible.

Note of Thanks

I’ve posted variations on this theme on Facebook, in my church bulletin, and in various letters that have gone out to the many communities that helped our family recover from the fire that destroyed our home and belongings four months ago.  In case I’ve missed anyone (I know I have) I want to offer thanks here as well.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.
— Psalms 46:1-2.
It is natural for people of faith to turn to God for help and solace in times of distress.  When our home burned we looked for Him and found Him in the generosity of those around us.  An anonymous poet once said “What is bitter to endure may be sweet to remember.”   Truly the loss of our cherished possessions is bitter to endure, but we will always remember the way so many people embraced us during this time, even many who were not personally known to us.  We’ve all heard that during our trials we learn who our friends are.  What we have learned is that we have many friends whom we never even knew about until this happened to us, and for that blessing we are grateful.
Just look at where we were four months ago.

Here’s where we are now.
It was the generosity of family, friends, and yes, strangers, that enabled us to afford to rent this house, which has sufficient rooms for a family of seven AND our home office.  It was their donations that furnished it.  On September 23, 2011–Moving Day–our “crew” went out with the 28-foot moving van.  That morning we owned no furniture.  By that evening we had enough to fill the house–beds, mattresses, sofas, televisions, housewares, linens . . . it was amazing.  Gift cards enabled us to to fill in the gaps and to purchase clothing and personal items.
“Blanket” notes cannot go far enough to express our appreciation.  If you gave us something, and it wasn’t anonymous, you can expect a personal thank you at some point.   Please accept this as a first installment, with the balance due to arrive in the future–not that we could ever thank everyone enough.
[I continue to feel guilty that I never finished all those thank you notes, even though we did have a housewarming party to which we invited everyone who had helped us.]

On Losing Everything Part Three

Of course losing sentimental items is by far the hardest part of a tragedy like ours.  Some things really are just things, and can be replaced.  The problem with that is that there are so MANY of them, and you don’t realize how many and much they cost and how long it took you to acquire them all, bit by bit, until suddenly you have none of them.
I have Target cards (thank you all very much!!) and we are working on replacing the practical items.  But I can only take so much shopping at once before I begin to shut down.  We have already done four big Walmart trips.  By the last one I no sooner had walked in the store than I wanted to leave.  We noticed that the longer we were in that place the slower we were walking.  In particular trips into the bathroom aisle where I was confronted with the task of matching garbage cans and bathmats made me just turn around and leave the aisle, overwhelmed.
People ask me all the time what I still need.  It gets harder and harder to explain because a lot of what we are needing now–and it’s still a lot– are the things that you don’t remember you need until they are not there.  Like when I am stabbing John in the leg with my toenails and realize that we don’t have nail clippers.  Or when two toilets were clogged at once and I had to go out to buy plungers.  Or when there were sticky spots on the kitchen floor and I realized we didn’t have a mop.  Or when I took the pizza out of the oven and had to saw it into slices with a steak knife because my awesome Pampered Chef pizza cutter burned up. Or when I sit down to work at night and it is too dark to see with only overhead lights.
Because people are still (thank you, thank you!) bringing us meals periodically, I have not been forced to make a big grocery trip.  So I have salt and pepper, but no garlic.  I have olive oil, but no Pam or canola oil.  I have baking soda ( at Willie’s request, in case of fire) but no flour.  I have a freezer full of leftover barbecue, but no steaks or chicken or fish or frozen vegetables.  It is going to take hours to do the coupons and hours to do the shopping, and it wears me out just to think about it.
We’ll get there.  We take little trips every few days.  And we are so lucky to have the resources to be able to replace these things.  And we have the opportunity to organize as we go, and to not make some of the mistakes we made in the past, which is wonderful. But it’s a big job.