The Gift of Toothpaste Stains

1 Mar

We had just stepped into church a couple weeks ago when an usher approached and asked a question I’m never eager to hear: Would our family like to present the gifts at the altar halfway through Mass?Bread and wine

At our church, this means slowly parading from the back of the church to the front under the gaze of about a thousand people, while carrying containers of bread and wine that will be used for Communion. You really don’t want to drop them. I’ve always been the kind of guy who likes to sit in the back of the classroom or hide behind a blog like this. I’m not a natural bearer of public gifts.

My wife, however, doesn’t mind a little attention.

“Sure!” she said.

There were a couple problems I wished she’d considered.

That morning, as we were getting ready in the bathroom, she suddenly shrieked when some renegade soap squirted onto her sweater. Startled, I removed an electric toothbrush from my mouth in mid-cycle, spraying the front of my shirt with Colgate. If you’ve never done this, those stains don’t come out easily. But I was down to my last shirt and gingerly tried to remove them with water.

Had I known I’d be walking down the center aisle at church, I’d have worn some dressier clothes, like a sport coat and slacks. Instead I had on a button down from Costco and some khakis that were about 10 days overdue for dry cleaning.

As we sat down in our pew, I noticed that a baptism would be taking place during Mass. Typically, the baptismal family presents the gifts. “Listen,” I hissed to my wife, while eyeing the speckles of dried toothpaste across the upper regions of my shirt, “I’m gonna ask the usher about having the baptismal family do the gifts.”

I stood up only to hear my wife gasp, “Your pants!”

Indeed, the front of my khakis also had dried toothpaste splattered across them – but far more prominently than on my shirt. Covering up with my overcoat, anxiety rising, I retreated to the back of the church to lobby the usher.

No dice.

With just a couple minutes left before Mass would begin, I rushed to the bathroom to battle the stains. Hurried and overzealous, I started slapping water all over the front of my pants. The stains got less white. But now I also looked like the victim of a very unfortunate accident.

Clutching my overcoat even tighter, I returned to our pew. And when I knelt to pray, I’m not ashamed to say that my biggest request was that my pants would dry in about 20 minutes. This modest blessing, I’m grateful to say, was granted, and we didn’t drop anything either on the way up to the altar.

Presumably, there’s a valuable spiritual lesson to be unearthed from this experience, perhaps something more than the usual platitudes about embracing the unexpected and taking life as it comes. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know. It likely has something to do with the power that humiliation or near humiliations have to keep us honest. Dante’s pilgrim cannot progress from Purgatory to Paradise, after all, until he rectifies one of his greatest flaws: pride.


The Schnauzer Won’t Let Me Sleep In. But It’s Ok.

13 Feb

My wife and I are approaching our 13th wedding anniversary this spring, and thus far we’ve avoided succumbing to that traditional wrecker of marriages – the thermostat.

He gets to sleep whenever he wants.

He gets to sleep whenever he wants.

I like a cooler house. She likes a warmer one. Like Congress, it’s unlikely we’ll ever reach a compromise. So we remain content to sneak around the house raising or lowering the temperature whenever we can and then disavowing any knowledge of it. The kids, after all, are tall enough now to reach the thermostat. Maybe they did it.

So I appreciated a New York Times op-ed by Ken Iglunas, who recently experimented with lowering the thermostat in his rambling Nebraska house as far as it would go – 45 degrees – and then living that way.

He’s single, by the way.

And he doesn’t encourage us to go to his extremes. But he does want us to ponder how the environment might be helped – less fracking for natural gas, fewer greenhouse gas emissions –if we all set the thermostat a little lower. Not to mention research that shows higher indoor temperatures might also contribute to obesity.

There’s also another, less scientific argument to be made for shivering now and then: A little discomfort is good for the soul.

No matter how good our standard of living, many of us – and I include myself – are continually in pursuit of goods and services that make our lives ever easier. It’s like we have not only a survival instinct built into our DNA but also a compulsion to exert ourselves as little as possible. Lacking the real, sustained threats that still plague hundreds of millions of people around the globe, discomfort and inconvenience becomes our enemy.

So we hunt relentlessly for the parking spot closest to the door, complain that our warp-speed Internet connection is too slow and lunge for pre-packaged food in the grocery aisles.

Which is why I’m grateful for Fritz, the miniature schnauzer puppy we brought home on Dec. 20.

In theory, getting a puppy at the holidays, when my wife and I would be home more to train it, made sense. What I didn’t consider was how often you need to take a dog outside when you’re house-training him and how cold it can get this time of year, even in North Carolina.

Pre-December 20, I slept as late as possible and spent as little time as possible outside. For now, at least, my sleeping-in days are over. No matter what time you put Fritz to bed, he’ll be up at 6:45, or 7 at the latest, needing to go outside, where there’s a good chance it’s raining or freezing or both. And you must stay out there with him the whole time to make sure he does what he’s supposed to do. This winter has taken on a surreal quality where I start and finish all my days shivering in the dark and repeating in as manly a voice as possible, “Potty, Fritz. Potty.”

This way of life is neither comfortable nor convenient, and yet I have become well-acquainted with how stunningly bright the stars are on a winter’s night. I’ve found, too, that I feel sharper, like I’ve recovered an edge and a focus I’d lost a bit over the past couple years. It’s how I felt when the kids were really young, and you could sit around thinking about doing something or actually do it – because there wasn’t ever time for both.

We’re made to test ourselves, not to take it easy for very long, to journey out of comfort zones in ways both small and large. In the grand scheme, Fritz is a small test. A nine-pound test to be exact. But that’s apparently what I need now.

And my wife is getting into the spirit too. The average nighttime bedroom temperature in the U.S. is 68 degrees. With her permission, we’ve been setting our thermostat at 62. And she’s ok with that, until she wakes up.



Wisdom Lives in the Messy Middle

5 Feb

Me at 17. Hair sold separately.

This guy knew next to nothing at this age. But his hair had a mind of its own.

A couple days ago I went back to my alma mater, Duke University, to guest teach a journalism class. I’ve done this a few times before and always want to say the same thing to my late teen/early 20s self as I stand before these bright, confident and, most of all, shockingly young faces:

“I graduated from here 20 years ago, which, I recall from once having been your age, makes me so old that it’s literally impossible for you to fathom. And the fact that I’m also bald doesn’t help. But let me tell you something: You don’t really know a damn thing about anything! And you know what else? There’s not a damn thing I can do about it either!”

That’s the censored version.

I’ve never said this, of course, to a group of kids whose folks are forking out $60,000 a year for their enlightenment. But I’ve said it to old photos of me where I still had lots of hair. And I do look forward to saying it to my own children when they reach the appropriate age and are attending a far less expensive college because their parents just had to be writers.

Anyway, this was a small group of public policy students who are learning how to make a persuasive case for changes to the education, energy, health and government sectors in something other than bone dry policy memos. So I shared a few things I’ve learned over the past five years co-writing a column for a North Carolina newspaper on topics similar to the ones this class cares about.

I’ll let others judge how successful these columns have been, but I do know when I’ve written subpar ones. And those were the times I didn’t fully explore the tensions between two competing poles. Whether you’re writing a column about dropout prevention or civility in politics, you need to tell an engaging story with real people in it; otherwise it’s just a boring hodgepodge of facts and assertions. But, on the other hand, if your column doesn’t also use that story to make a deeper point about a bigger picture, your readers might think they just wasted their time. Likewise, the opposite of passion for a writer is objectivity, the opposite of consistency is freshness and surprise, the opposite of history is the present.

None these poles are more inherently right or valuable than their opposites. Which can cause frustration when you’re looking for easy answers. My favorite columns, I told the class, are the ones where I’ve worked the space between these poles and come up with something that blended both extremes. It’s often an uncomfortable process, but wisdom really does thrive in the messy middle.

Slowly, I’m realizing that prayer might work the same way. In this case, the opposite poles – in my experience, at least – have been the deeply meditative and time-consuming centering prayer method, which I wrote about last week, and rapid-fire micro prayers, which my friend J.B. Wood’s Shrinking the Camel blog has helpfully explored. They constitute the vast majority of my own prayer life.

Commenters on last week’s post affirmed their own belief in the power of micro prayers. But a case was also made for the importance of longer, deeper periods of prayer, which Jesus himself exemplified when he routinely slipped away from the towns and crowds and into the desert or hills to renew himself. The richest prayer life possible probably comes from finding the right balance between the two, and achieving it first requires experimentation and struggle.

Who has time for that?

Still, seeing that there’s probably no other choice, it’s maybe too early to give up centering prayer just yet. The recommended 20 to 30 minute sessions twice a day are unrealistic, but the intent behind it – to give our souls the deeper nourishment and respite they need – seems logical.

What does that look like in practice? I’ll let you know what I find out. Or, better yet, please tell me if you already know.



Prayer Advice That Doesn’t Work For Parents

29 Jan

Back in high school, I was debating whether I should take calculus during my senior year. I hated math, but lcalculusoved my grade point average – and high-level math courses offered a good way, in theory at least, to keep it up.

“What do you think?” I asked a teacher who had watched me struggle through Algebra II, where I once scored a 21 percent on one of his quizzes.

“What do you think?” he asked with a chuckle, no doubt recalling that quiz.

“Well, I got a B in trig, and Mr. Berger thinks I should take calculus,” I told him.

Mr. Berger had chaired the math department since the conclusion of the Civil War. Still, he had a real talent for connecting with kids decades younger than him and, most of all, a burning belief that you could never learn enough math.

“Oh, c’mon, of course Berger thinks you should take it!” my teacher nearly yelled. “He’s totally biased. He thinks monkeys should take calculus!”

I thought of this conversation recently while reading a passage by Fr. Thomas Keating, whose book of daily spiritual reflections is now required reading in my house. Fr. Keating pioneered “centering prayer,” a meditative, Eastern style of prayer in which you try to empty your mind of all thoughts and create deep interior silence. The goal is to build the spiritual reservoir we need to live an active, grounded life in the real world.

That’s exactly what I’m looking for.

There’s only one problem: Fr. Keating never had a family.

How do I know that, apart from that fact that he’s a longtime Catholic priest?

Because of statements like this, as he describes the importance of centering twice a day for 20-30 minutes:

“To find time for a second period later in the day may require special effort. If you have to be available to your family as soon as you walk in the door, you might center during your lunch hour. Or you might stop on the way home from work and center in a church or park. If it is impossible to get a second period of prayer in, it is important that you lengthen the first one.”

As I documented last week, mornings in my house are not exactly contemplative. Trying to squeeze in a lengthened prayer session of 40 or so minutes  would mean getting up around 5:30. And every time I do that for more than a few days, I fall behind on sleep and get sick. Upon returning home from work in the afternoons, I’m greeted by a 10-year-old boy, a 7-year-old girl, a three-month-old miniature schnauzer and a wife who has been managing all of them in addition to running her own business.

Would it be a good idea at this crazy dinner hour to mosey over to a church or sequester myself upstairs in the home office for half an hour?

To paraphrase my algebra teacher, you tell me.

So, much as I remain intrigued by centering prayer, I won’t be steeping myself in it anytime soon. Instead, I might try to center once a day for 10 minutes. Fr. Keating would probably say that’s not much better than doing nothing, but, like Mr. Berger, he’s maybe a little too close to his own material.

What we really need is a realistic spiritual approach for people with hectic lives, and it needs to be created by people with experience in hectic living. That’s something we can sort out here together on this blog. I look forward to and, in fact, very much need your input on styles of prayer that work for you.

I did end up taking calculus by the way – and earned a ‘C’ for the year. That didn’t help much with my grade point average, but it did teach me a couple things. It’s a pleasure to learn from people who are really passionate about what they do. And for that very same reason, their advice doesn’t work for everybody.



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:

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.