He’s the Vine. We’re the Tomatoes.

22 Jan

Weekday mornings are rarely pretty in the Martin household.Tomatoes

From the moment the kids stagger into the kitchen 15 minutes behind schedule already, we careen toward our 7:30 departure like a puppy skidding on hardwood floors.

There’s the constant prodding for the kids to fix their own breakfasts, the sudden discovery of homework assignments left undone, waffling plans as they study the school lunch menu, heated debates about clothing choices, permission slips thrust in our faces, as my wife and I battle to get ourselves ready for work.

To this oasis of calm we recently added a three-month-old miniature schnauzer whose morning exercise involves sneaking into bathrooms to unwind entire rolls of toilet paper.

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably seen this movie before.

Our solution?

Adding one more task to the to-do list.

I recently bought a book of short reflections by Fr. Thomas Keating, a contemplative prayer guru and monk in Colorado. It provides a brief page of readings and scripture for each day of the year, all focused on improving our prayer lives. My plan was to start each day by reading it. As you might imagine, morning’s not the best time.

But neither, really, is afternoon or evening. So my wife suggested we get the whole family on board. And for the past few weeks, that’s exactly what we’ve done: spend the last two or three minutes before we stumble out the door – usually to loud, baseless complaints from my son that he’s going to get a tardy slip – wrestling with the wisdom of Fr. Keating’s Daily Reader for Contemplative Living and the wads of toilet paper in the schnauzer’s mouth.

During one of our first mornings doing this, we discussed a well-known passage from John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches…” Keating writes: “The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separated from Him … We fail to believe that we are always with God and that He is part of every reality. The present moment, every object we see, our inmost nature are all rooted in Him.”

To make this a little more understandable for the kids, we discussed how some of the vegetables in our backyard garden never grow while the rest can’t flourish without the vine. After about 90 seconds of discussion, my 10-year-old son summarized it this way: “He’s the vine. We’re the tomatoes.”

I like the tomato image better than a branch actually, and the vivid contrast it offers to our perpetually distracted lives. It calls to mind long summer evenings and the sleepy chirp of crickets and the promise of slowly, quietly growing from the smallest of blossoms into greater fullness than we ever thought possible.


Our Most Underdeveloped Gift

15 Jan

Bird sunrise

Last April, poop fell from the sky and hit me. Twice actually. On the same day. Presumably not the same bird, though I can’t be sure of that.

The first round landed square in the middle of my bald head on a bright, cloudless morning as I dropped the kids at school. The second connected with one of my favorite shirts that afternoon about 100 yards from the scene of the first crime, right after I’d finished recounting the first episode to some friends.

I quickly wrote about this travesty and the gales of laughter it prompted from adults whom I’d assumed were on my side. And I haven’t posted anything on this blog since then.

Because when birds poop on you twice in the same day, what else can you say?

As it turns out, the birds did me a favor. After two-and-a-half years of semi-regular blogging, I needed a break. We’re all hardwired for wanting fresh starts, according to an interview with a Wharton Business School professor that I read recently. And that’s presumably because we’re also predisposed to running out of gas when we’ve been doing something for a while.

Now I’m back, having salvaged my shirt at the drycleaner and given some serious thought to the future of this blog. Long fascinated by cloistered monks, I’ve grown equally intrigued by what Jesuits call “contemplatives in action” – people from all walks of life who are out in the world every day making a living, caring for their families, serving others and doing it all firmly grounded in prayer and mindfulness

I’m currently reading Contemplatives in Action: The Jesuit Way, which explores the value of the contrasts inherent in Jesuit spirituality – the push and pull between trusting God to guide us and using our talents to forge our own path, between prayer and action, between detaching ourselves from the world’s goods and making use of them.

It’s not just Jesuit priests who experience those tensions. We all do. Every day. We’re all pilgrims in this thrilling, frightening, frantic, unpredictable world, trying to discern why we’re here and what we’re supposed to do and, maybe most of all, how to search for and find those answers in our daily circumstances.

Fr. Louis Canino, an excellent priest who is also a wise friend, once told me, “Everybody has a contemplative bent. It’s our most underdeveloped gift, and the purpose of prayer is to nourish it.”

My hope is to better develop that gift in myself this year and perhaps help nourish it a bit in others. This will be the place to explore how that experiment’s going. May our messy quests begin anew.


A Messy Quest Post You’ve Missed!

15 Apr

Over the past month, I’ve written a couple new posts but it turns out you haven’t received them because of a technical glitch with my blog. That problem is fixed now, and I’m working on some new posts. In the meantime, here’s a chance to catch up on one of the pieces you missed:

When Poop Falls From the Sky: Have a chuckle at my expense, as I recount a very messy encounter last week with some mischievous birds.

Thanks for your support of Messy Quest! 



When Poop Falls From the Sky

10 Apr

They're all aiming at me. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons

I needed an idea for my next blog post, and then it hit me. Twice in one day.

I should have seen it coming, too, ever since my ego started getting a little oversized last week.

It all began with the first U.S. Tennis Association singles match of my life. Granted, I’m playing in a league full of guys who have moderate tennis skills and are all older than 40. Wimbledon it is not. But the competition is serious, and I didn’t have any idea of what to expect from my opponent. Would he destroy me in the first league-sanctioned tennis match I’d ever played? Would he make a fool out of me in front of my teammates?

As it turned out, my serve was inconsistent but everything else was clicking on this warm, gorgeous April evening. In less than an hour, I handed this guy the worst possible defeat: 6-0, 6-0 – the mythical “double bagel.” When my teammates learned the score, they were high-fiving me all the way to the parking lot. The next day the captain of our team sent out an email singling out my accomplishment. For days afterward, the congratulations kept coming. Even my wife, who knows by now not to be dazzled by anything I do, bragged to some friends.

Between this victory and being recognized recently as “Man of the Year” at my kids’ elementary school, I was thoroughly enjoying my sudden status as someone I never thought I’d be – an athletic pillar of the community.

Then just two days ago I was walking from the kids’ school to the parking lot after helping out with a volunteer reading program – the very work, in fact, that earned me “Man of the Year” honors. I was remarking on the bleak weather to my wife and a good friend when something wet landed on my head. It felt too big to be a raindrop. Also, it wasn’t even raining. Was it water dripping off the tree I’d just passed?

I wasn’t that lucky. It was good old-fashioned bird poop, a generous splash of it smack in the center of my bald head. I thought briefly about disguising this disaster from my female companions, but, if you’ve never tried it, it’s hard to act nonchalant when you’ve been doused with white, pasty bird poop. I made a split-second decision to own this situation, calling attention to it and cheerfully noting, as these sensitive ladies quickly dissolved from sympathy into laughter, that it might have been worse. At least the poop had missed my shirt, which was the last clean one in my closet. And not having any hair would make the clean-up pretty easy.

All spic and span later that day, I arrived at the tennis courts adjoining the kids’ school to watch my son finish a lesson.  Another father showed up and announced, “Hey, Stephen, I’ve heard the word ‘stud’ used in association with you lately. Something about you shutting out some poor guy in your match last week.”

Trying to maintain at least a touch of humility, I eventually steered the conversation toward the morning’s bird poop adventures, which were gleefully received by him, his wife and, of course, my wife.

I’d just finished mocking myself when something glanced off the front of my chest. Was it debris from the tree directly above me? No, it was bird poop – again! – a hundred yards from where I’d been hit eight hours earlier, purple and nasty this time and splattered all over one of my favorite shirts.

What are the odds?

Before I could even stand up, the father had grabbed his phone and taken a picture of my shirt and then the tiny bird sitting on a branch high above us. “Stephen might be a stud on the courts, but he’s no match for this little bird!” he intoned to hysterical shrieks of laughter. I left them all doubled over, gasping for air, as I retreated to the bathroom to salvage my shirt.

“I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day,” Fr. Richard Rohr writes in his superb book on spirituality Falling Upward.

But are two really necessary?


The Spiritual Rewards of Stomach Flu

19 Mar

Almost every year during Lent I attempt to read T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” his beautiful, complicated poem about spiritual conversion. It’s the kind of highly allusive work that English majors feel they should understand and perhaps even quote on special occasions to prove their degree wasn’t totally useless.

Photo credit: Tinybuddha.com

After many years of trying to grasp it, I’m not ashamed to say I don’t know what the heck Eliot’s talking about most of the time.

There is, however, one passage that has stuck with me:

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

I thought of these words as I lay in bed recently tormented by a stomach virus that made mince-meat of the Martin household. I do not like to sit still. As my office colleagues can confirm, my attention wanders in any meeting that exceeds 20 minutes. I watch basketball games standing up. I walk at high speeds.

A few hours after the fever set in, though, I could barely move. I actually spent two hours trying to summon the energy to walk 10 feet from the bed to the bathroom to remove my contact lenses. Another internal debate about whether I’d benefit from some Advil required another 45 minutes before action was taken.

And yet at other times throughout this sleepless night, insights arrived with a razor-edge clarity that’s rarely in my possession. I recalled with startling vividness, for example, a close relative’s funeral from two years ago and the tidal wave of competing emotions it prompted in me, from sadness and regret to gratitude and mystery. It even brought a tear or two to the eyes of a guy who hasn’t cried since he found out how much money his college roommate makes as a radiologist.

As the night dragged on, I also became more attuned to my own body. My legs ached constantly and, coupled with nothing to do but think about them, forced me to pinpoint where the pain was coming from. I was able to take what felt like a generalized pain and identify that it was really originating from the lower leg – and that, yes, some Advil might address it. Most of all, I experienced renewed gratitude for good health, which many people do not have and which I’m usually too busy to even acknowledge, much less appreciate.

Such deeper awareness is the fruit of sitting still long enough to be present and mindful. It says something – something not complimentary – that I must rely on illness to put me in that place. Still, in this season of repentance, there’s something hopeful in the fact that even stomach bugs offer a second chance.


My Sorry History of Lenten Resolutions

3 Mar

The only consistent thing about my Lenten resolutions is that I’ve been breaking them since Jimmy Carter was president, at least during those years in which I bothered to make one at all.

Back in the spring of 1980, determined to win spiritual glory at age 7, I boldly proclaimed my intention to go 40 days without playing with any of my Stars Wars action figures. Around Day 3, the import of this promise hit home as I opened my carrying case and sadly gazed upon Chewbacca, Ben Kenobi and all their buddies, well-rested in their individual slots and ready for battle.

“You know what?” I said to myself. “I believe my actual promise was that I wouldn’t play with the top tray of action figures. The lower tray, with Walrus Man, Boba Fett and company is still fair game.” By Day 7, I’d abandoned the resolution altogether, and, if Jesus was aware of this, it still didn’t stop the Easter Bunny from arriving.

Many other failed attempts at sacrificing TV, soda, chocolate and other temptations followed through childhood. In college, someone suggested the novel idea of committing to a positive new habit instead of simply giving something up, and that became my mantra throughout the Clinton Administration and well into Bush II. The aims were ambitious – increased prayer, more exercise, writing schedules, improved diet. In the end, they all proved about as successful as my brief abstention from Han Solo.

When my son was born during Lent ten years ago, I dispensed with making resolutions altogether. Getting up at all hours of the night, enduring the unbelievable barrage of illnesses he brought home from daycare and generally learning to put my own needs near the end of the line seemed like a big enough project. I brushed up on this training regimen with my newborn daughter a few years later. And, to be honest, it’s only been quite recently, as in the past few days, that I’ve once again begun seriously considering a Lenten resolution that I might adhere to for 40 days.

Past failures have taught me this: It’s probably better to pick a modest goal and hit it out of the park than to swing for the fences and end up whiffing badly. Brain research confirms this hunch; it’s actually tough to change any of our habits, and the more ambitious the goal the more likely we are to lose momentum in the day-to-day grind. We need small wins to build momentum, and we need to sustain them for several weeks to months to make the new habit stick.

So this time around, I’m keeping it simple. At least once a day, when I feel the urge to surf the web for more meaningless information, I will meditate instead on a passage from one of my favorite books on faith and prayer – Carlo Carretto’s Letters from the Desert, Jim Martin’s Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything or perhaps Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God.

Instead of constantly checking my phone, I’ll try to put random, spare moments to a worthwhile purpose. It’s a challenge worthy of a Jedi.


My Driveway Adventures: 2014 Edition

20 Feb

About a year ago, I wrote a post here about my extreme difficulties backing down the long driveway of our new house – and the subsequent muddy tire tracks that crisscrossed our yard, driveway and street like a bad Jackson Pollack painting.

Photo credit - MyBallard.com

Giving up wasn’t an option, unless I wanted to become a recluse, so I kept on lurching up, down and sideways on this concrete slab until I actually got reasonably good at it. Just a few weeks ago in fact, I found myself confidently accelerating in reverse down the entire length of the driveway in an almost perfectly straight line.

“Your Dad has finally mastered this challenge,” I told my kids, who sat in the backseat looking much less nauseous than a year ago. “If you follow my example and don’t give up on your own challenges, you’ll be crushing your multiplication tables in no time.”

Then last week we got a winter storm that taught me a couple things. First, our driveway seems even longer when it’s covered with six inches of snow and ice. Second, I can’t back down a driveway covered with six inches of snow and ice.

Rather than shoveling their entire driveways, most of my neighbors dug out two tracks wide enough to drive their cars through. It seemed like a good idea, until I tried aligning our SUV’s tires with those tracks while driving in reverse.

To summarize, I nearly hit our chimney and just missed running down several newly planted trees before swerving to the other side, where I swiped a hedge and tore through the narrow grassy strip between our driveway and my neighbor’s.

Upon reaching the bottom of the driveway, I experienced something even more unfortunate. My neighbor had been sitting in his car at the bottom of his driveway watching the entire thing. I nodded to him like nothing had happened. He nodded back with a look that said, “Don’t worry, man, I didn’t see anything. But take a look at YouTube in a few minutes.”

It would be easier to put this incident in the past if I didn’t have to look each day at the 12-foot-long trench just to the left of my driveway, a lasting monument to incompetence that magically transforms into a Panama Canal of mud every time it rains.

Seeking solace, I recalled some wisdom from one of my favorite books:  Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr. He discusses how we’re all heavily invested in self-images we’ve constructed for ourselves. We get trapped by our need to feel important and capable as a professional or parent or volunteer or SUV driver. The more seriously we take ourselves, the more prideful we become, the more our self-awareness shrinks.

Rohr writes that “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day” to keep himself honest. I appreciate his candor. And he’s more than welcome to take a spin down my driveway any time he wants.


Taming Our Insatiable Need for Praise

5 Feb

My kids brought home their school report cards this week, and the drama of opening and studying them instantly took me back to the 1980s, when these flimsy sheets of paper would largely determine my sense of self-worth every nine weeks.

During my sophomore year of high school, I wound up with first quarter ‘Cs’ in both Algebra II and Geometry. These were not the kinds of grades I was accustomed to seeing. But I shouldn’t have been surprised since I was very accustomed to struggling with math and had decided to take both courses at the same time in a badly misguided attempt to inflate my grade-point average.

In complete disgust, I crumpled the report card in a ball and stuffed it in my backpack, an act apparently as shocking as burning a draft card. Even some of the kids in my class who got drunk every weekend couldn’t believe I would destroy my own report card. When I arrived home after stewing on the bus for 45 minutes, my mom greeted me at the front door. “You want to know how my report card is?” I asked, nearly sick to my stomach but still slightly enjoying my new rebel status. “Here you go!” I spiked it on the hallway floor and stalked upstairs.

That evening, she threatened to ground me – not for the lousy grades but for desecrating an official school document.

“You could have real parenting problems, like me smoking pot, or all those other things Nancy Reagan says we shouldn’t do!” I protested. “Plus, you can’t ground somebody who doesn’t go anywhere!”

Happily, my grades improved. And, in the unlikely event that any girl wanted to go out with me on Friday night, I never again courted a good, old-fashioned grounding.

But, 25 years later, the emotion that compelled me to obliterate my report card is still very much present – an excessive craving for praise, or what author Dr. Bill Thierfelder calls the “clap on the back.”

Thierfelder, president of North Carolina’s Belmont Abbey College and also a sports psychologist, believes our deep need for external validation masks the real root issue, which is the legitimate need we all have for love and connection. Unfortunately, we believe we have to be “good enough” to earn that love and relentlessly seek approval from others to confirm our worthiness.

“’Being good enough’ is a powerful force that is always at work whether you are conscious of it or not. It is not a question of, ‘Is it there?’ but rather to what degree does it affect your life, relationships, and the things that you do,” Thierfelder writes in his new (and excellent) book Less Than a Minute to Go.

It seems to me that one way to escape the approval trap is to try doing things solely because we enjoy them or feel called to do them, rather than looking for the clap on the back. The more we do that, maybe worrying less about what everyone else thinks will become a habit.

Right now, for instance, I’m trying to write a short story for the first time in nearly 20 years. The chances are far greater that this story will end up on the scrap heap than in a magazine. And, tough as it is for a performance-driven, goal-oriented guy like me to accept this, I keep reminding myself that it’s ok. If I take pleasure in writing this story, which I do, does the ultimate outcome really matter? It’s a matter of changing my intentions, away from the hunt for praise and toward finding intrinsic meaning in my efforts. How have you done the same?


When Your Dreams Exceed Your Reach

28 Jan

Sorting through some old files recently, I made a humbling discovery – a list of goals jotted down shortly before publishing my first book in 2012.

Despite good advice from experienced authors about keeping my ambitions in check, I insisted on dreaming big. According to my list, I expected to sell 10,000 copies of the book in the first year. I also planned to lure 1,000 subscribers to my new blog.

It was a heady time of possibility and excitement, of focusing far more on frontiers than limits. Now two years later, I’ve become well acquainted with another phase of the author’s journey. It’s called Reality.

The book earned positive reviews and attracted some enthusiastic readers. It even earned me a live appearance on CatholicSingles.com, where I skyped with a gracious book club – my wedding ring, of course, firmly in place.

Sales, however, have amounted to something less than 10,000. As for the 1,000 blog subscribers, I’m still more than a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

Did I need to sell a lot of books to support my family? No. My wife and I are fortunate to have good day jobs that pay the bills. Did I need my blog to go viral to find fulfillment? No. I’m blessed with a great family and many wonderful friends.

Did coming up short of my own expectations bother me? Absolutely.

To read the rest of this post, please follow me over to The High Calling, where I’m guest posting today!


Winning the War Against Inertia

20 Jan

I think of myself as a pretty action-oriented guy.

While my wife was enjoying a well-deserved night out with her book club a few days ago, I herded the kids upstairs to bed, came back downstairs to start a load of laundry, learned from my son that a defective water bottle had flooded the bedding in his gerbil cage, cursed silently and mightily for a couple minutes, went back upstairs to help clean the cage, switched the laundry, fended off the usual bedtime stall tactics, said goodnight and then settled down, fittingly enough, to finish reading a great article about anxiety.

I did all of that in an hour. But it’s also true that I’m a world-class procrastinator in the face of certain challenges. Take, for instance, the avalanche of spam this blog began attracting last year.

Every time a comment comes into my blog, I get a message in my personal email account alerting me to its presence. It used to be that maybe 20 blog-related messages a week came into that account – usually half of them spam. By last summer, however, I would get hundreds of messages a week – usually 99 percent of them spam (Blatant plea for my self-esteem: Leave me a real comment. Please?).

I would look at my phone in the morning and delete 75 messages from that account. By lunchtime, another 75 would be there. It was also necessary to permanently delete these spam messages from the blog itself. If a few days went by, there might be more than 2,000 of them – and I couldn’t figure out how to erase more than 20 at a time!

Even thinking the word “blog” began to freak me out. And the thought of writing more posts that would attract even more spam seriously dampened my enthusiasm for blogging at all.

My wife began encouraging me to get a spam filter installed, and that sounded like a good idea in theory. In reality, I’m a techno-idiot, which meant I’d need to find somebody to help me do it. And that meant one more thing on my to-do list. Plus, being a techno-idiot, I doubted that a spam filter would really help anyway.

And so I kept on dejectedly deleting spam, all through the fall and right into the holiday season, when the problem worsened.  Finally, about two weeks ago, I couldn’t stand it anymore.

I asked a buddy who’d helped set up this blog what I could do about this disaster. He immediately recommended a filter that took us 10 minutes to install. And not a single piece of spam has slipped into my blog since then.

Obviously this is great news. The couple hours a week I’d previously devoted to deleting spam can now be invested in writing blog posts and cleaning the gerbil cage, and the overall sense of relief that this situation is under control is immense – much greater than it should be really.

But that’s because I let the problem linger way too long in the first place. This whole thing could have been solved months ago in a matter of minutes if I’d simply put it on my list and asked for help. Why didn’t that happen? I honestly don’t know.

The lesson, I suppose, is that inertia threatens us constantly, like water searching for a way through a roof. Even when we manage to keep it at bay at 50 different points, it’ll find a way to slip by on the 51st. The question isn’t if we’ll fall victim to inertia – but when. And how quickly we’ll identify it and take action.

What’s your equivalent of my spam debacle? And what simple steps can you take today to turn it around?