Daily Reflection – Promises

As a Christian I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have heroes, except for Jesus of course, and the “heroes of the faith.” Well I had an earlier life in which I picked up a few heroes, and one of them, for better or worse, was Frank Sinatra.

Yesterday evening one of his lesser known albums came to mind, and this morning I lay in bed and listened to it. I just want to talk about it, so I’m not sure exactly where this will go.

The album is “A Man Alone”. It’s quite extraordinary, and if all you know of Sinatra is the Rat Pack, Las Vegas or the Bobby-soxers, it should challenge some of your assumptions about his work. Its subtitle is “The words & music of McKuen” referring to the poet Rod McKuen. It’s a gentle album of songs and poetry reflecting on a life free from the encumbrance of a lasting relationship.

When I discovered the album, as a man alone in my early twenties, it spoke to me on two levels. First I would fantasise about being the protagonist in songs such as “Love’s Been Good To Me” and “The Beautiful Strangers”. I would imagine that in thirty years time I would be able to sing those songs having lived that life.

And I would contrast this with my own life at that time, perfectly exemplified in a poem/song such as “Empty Is.” Sinatra and McKuen were telling me they understood where I am, but hang in there because they also knew where I was going, and it would be a great ride.

As I listened this morning I heard something subtly but profoundly different. I heard the story of a man who had started his adult life with high hopes but who had been let down by broken promises. As a result of this he made a decision not to rely on anyone but himself. He would be kind and loving to others but he would always protect himself from hurt. He would enjoy the freedom of singleness to the full, and not allow himself to fall for promises or commitments that could too easily be broken.

And yes, he enjoyed his life, liaising with different women in different cities. Not tied down, he could live his life on his own terms.

But the good times were not fulfilling. They were a shallow façade, and not far under the surface was an emptiness that would come to haunt him in his solitary times. The man is looking back with a mixture of appreciation and regret. I feel that he’s trying to justify his decisions while in his heart he knows that he missed out on something deeply special because he couldn’t trust another promise.

He makes the distinction between being “alone” and “lonely” more than once. It’s true that they are not the same thing, but it’s clear from the narrative of the album that one has led to the other.

“A Man Alone” was recorded one year before I was born, when Sinatra was just a few years older than I am now. His voice has started to lose its power, and the fragility of his singing at times accentuates the poignancy of the message. At the same time, as an Academy Award winning actor, he brings real emotion and clarity to the spoken passages.

One of the tracks that persisted in my mind yesterday was the poem “From Promise to Promise.” A short piece, which as I’ve suggested, triggers a fateful decision by the narrator, it got me pondering the nature of promises.

As usual, there is far more to be considered than I can write here. Maybe that’s good, as you can take these thoughts and apply them to your own experiences, rather than getting too entangled in mine. My thoughts, my questions, are

  • Who has hurt me most with broken promises?
  • Was it their fault, or did circumstances get in the way?
  • Did I respond with grace?
  • Which promises have I broken over the years?
  • What would I promise now, or in the future, and which promises would I avoid making?
  • How will I respond to the promises of others from now on?
  • What promises have I made to myself, and how many have I broken?
  • What has God promised me?

From Promise to Promise

I sometimes wonder why people make promises they never intend to keep
Not in big things, like love or elections, but in the things that count –
The newspaper boy who says he will save an extra paper, and doesn’t
The laundry that tells you your suit will be ready on Thursday and it isn’t
Love, well yes, but like everything else, we go from day to day
We move from promise to promise
I’ve had a good many promises now, so I can wait for the harvest
And some of them, they come about

Rod McKuen


Daily Reflection – Attachment

For my holiday I’m staying at a hostel for the first time in my life, in a six-bed dorm. As I’ve always struggled in social situations this has been a huge challenge, but I’m glad I took the risk, as I’ve survived – so far!

The population of the room changes from day to day, different people, of different ages, genders and nationalities. Some are just passing through for one night, others stay for longer. Some are friendly, others more reserved.

It’s really like a microcosm of life in the ‘real’ world, and there are a lot of observations, lessons and reflections that I could take from this model. The most obvious one is that all of us, with our many differences of background, have a common purpose, a common humanity, and a mutual respect. We are vulnerable to each other but no one takes advantage of that vulnerability. Instead we just get on with life, organising and coordinating our daily tasks without a problem. All right, maybe it’s actually a microcosm of Utopia.

But what has struck me deepest about this environment is the coming and going of individuals. Some will stay longer than others, but all will eventually leave, as I will too. And of course that is a reflection of life. Some friends, family and acquaintances will be with you for most or all of your journey, while others are only with you for a season.

As I look back on my life – and I couldn’t have done this without the guidance of a good therapist – I can see that I’ve always had problems with attachment. I don’t completely understand them, but some things are starting to make sense.

Maybe I was aware of these comings and goings from an early age. I didn’t make many close friends at school – not close enough to see them during holidays – so in some sense the end of each term was a mass separation event. That’s just one theory. But for whatever reason, I seemed to learn early not to get close to people because they would always go away.

And then, as I travelled through my teenage years I came to realise how important that closeness was. Not the closeness of family, which is natural and in our blood, but the closeness of someone who chooses to bond with you, who connects with you in a different way.

And as this was so important – probably the most important thing in my life from the age of 15 onwards – I would cling when I saw the possibility of such a bond. When it came to attachment I was literally all or nothing. I’ve no doubt this caused confusion and discomfort for some of those around me, and as for myself it led to loneliness and misery.

Thirty or so years later I’m beginning to understand some of this, and trying to break patterns of thought and behaviour that have kept me isolated, kept me from growing emotionally. It takes time, effort and courage. A week in a six-bed dorm is one step on the journey.

But I mustn’t lose sight of something else – the One who will never leave or forsake me. Christ is the One who I don’t need to be apprehensive about attaching to. He’s been there from the beginning and will be there at the end. I was searching for Him through my twenties and thirties, but didn’t really know until we found each other when I was 38. This doesn’t mean I don’t need human companionship – see my 14 February post for my thoughts on that – but He strengthens me and it’s in the light of my relationship with Him that I can learn to build healthy relationships with others.

Daily Reflection – Relax

In the last few days I’ve written much more than I expected to when I set myself this task of daily reflection. I’ve seen new likes and followers to my blog, and received much positive feedback.

This morning I find myself struggling to settle my mind on any particular thought or theme. I find myself worried that this is the day when I let everyone down. Nothing to say. I’m wasting your time and mine.

And yet…

Isn’t this just another truth about life? That there will be seasons of struggle – usually far more serious than the struggle to find words for a blog post. That there will be days that seem to meander without direction or purpose. That expectations can’t always be realised.

It’s ok.

I have no reason to beat myself up. I can relax and accept that this is all part of the process, part of being human. I can’t just perform on demand, even.if the demand comes from myself. In fact, if I did so, it would be just that – a performance. Much better that I keep it real.

This is the time to remember: be kind to yourself.

Daily Reflection – Stillness

Prague is a beautiful city, and, like all beautiful cities when the tourist season starts and the sun shines, it becomes overrun with camera-wielding sightseers like me.

So it was a delight on so many levels to escape the heat and the crowd for a few minutes to sit in the quiet splendour of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. To sit, to meditate, to pray.

The contrast between the hustle and bustle outside, and the stillness inside, was extreme, and refreshing. It reminded me of the busyness of my mind, where too many thoughts get in the way of appreciating the beauty of the world, like too many tourists (including me) make it difficult to appreciate the full beauty of a picturesque city.

We come to expect the tourist throng, it’s part of the experience. And we come to expect a crowded mind, full of reminiscences and regrets and plans and concerns. But sometimes we need to escape from the crowd and find a quiet place. Sometimes we need to embrace stillness and find the beautiful truth hidden there.

He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’

Psalm 46:10 NIVUK

Daily Reflection – Observation

You’ve just woken up. Your eyes are shut. You don’t know what time it is or how light it is. You haven’t really entered the day yet. You decide to open one eye to see what the world looks like today. Which eye do you open.

I open my left eye.

I think I always open my left eye unless I consciously choose the right. I think I’ve been vaguely aware of it for years but this morning I noticed, I observed, and I experimented. When I realised my left eye was open I closed it and opened my right eye. It was difficult, felt unnatural. I’ve since repeated the experiment several times in different orders, at different levels of wakefulness. It’s always easier to open my left eye.

This has made me aware that there must be many similar quirks of my body that I’ve just grown up with and not questioned. There must be others that have developed slowly over the years until they’ve become a part of who I am.

And my mind is the same. Because I’ve grown up with it I never questioned, or even perhaps noticed, the quirky way it works in certain circumstances.

This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong. I have no concerns about the functioning of my right eyelid. But if you don’t observe, don’t question, how would you ever become aware of a problem before it’s grown into something serious?

And if you aren’t completely in tune with the workings of your body and your mind, aren’t you somehow separated from them? Are you whole if you don’t wholly understand yourself? Can you truly relate to others when you aren’t totally self-aware?

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

Psalm 139:14 NIVUK

Daily Reflection – Distress

I’m travelling to Prague for a holiday, and I had an overnight stopover in Zurich. I “slept” in the terminal (lay down and waited for morning) and then just after 5am, as the airport was waking up I got up to find the railway station. My plan was to take the train to the city and explore for a few hours before returning for my connecting flight.

I knew the first train was just after 5:30am. I used an interactive map in the terminal to find my route, and walked down. I followed the signs for the exit, only to find my way blocked just before baggage reclaim. There were 4 doors but none would open.

I walked back and forth a few times, and eventually found a lady opening up a kiosk. I asked her how to get out, and she directed me the way I’d been going. I told her the doors wouldn’t open but she said “Impossible, I’m here all the time”. So I thanked her and reluctantly headed back to the “exit”. Sure enough, it was still locked.

I waited a few minutes and an airport porter came by. I asked him for help and he told me to follow him. We started going back the way I’d come, and then he pointed round a corner and told me to go up the escalator. He left. The escalator took me back to my starting point.

After wandering around a bit longer I saw a lady setting up the connections desk, so I asked her for help, and explained where I’d been. She directed me back towards the locked doors. I said I’d been there. She said no, I needed to follow the signs for the baggage reclaim and exit. I said I’d done that. Then she said “No, I know what you’ve done. You’ve gone that way but you need to go there.” For “that way” she pointed to where I’d slept, and for “there” she pointed to the escalator leading to the locked doors. “Follow the signs and they’ll take you out.”

I thought I was going mad by now. I started down the escalator for the umpteenth time, but this time I recorded my journey, showing the signs I was following and the red lights on the doors.

When I returned I showed the lady my video and she said “You must be too early, they’ll open at 7.”

So I went back down and waited. At 6:55am the doors clicked, the light turned green, and I escaped.

What can I say about this story? Thank you for sticking with it?!

Halfway through the adventure I was starting to get upset. By the time I started recording the route my distress was beginning to get quite severe. I’d done everything right. I might be in a foreign country but I’d understood my original instructions, and followed them correctly. I’d then asked several people politely and clearly for help and they had given the same instructions (except for the porter who must have thought I just wanted to get out of the area I’d found him in). And everyone had told me I could get out, and yet I was coming to a locked door again and again. I was doubting my sanity, seriously, I was beginning to think there was a different reality in my head than the one I was physically moving through.

I can only guess that my helpers weren’t totally aware of the time when I approached them. Maybe they assumed that I’d just landed and therefore the baggage reclaim would be open and operating.

But I have many thoughts running through my head now. It would take me hours to fully process them and write the analysis down. I’ll try to bullet-point as many as I can.

  • I thought I was losing my grip on reality, but in fact it was just misunderstandings and poor signage.
  • I thought I was right, then other people convinced me I was wrong, but in fact I was right all along.
  • The timing of the first train and the unlocking of the exit doors has got me thinking about God’s timing not being like ours.
  • Even though I was getting very upset as time went on, I stayed calm and polite in my interactions and I had the awareness to create video evidence of my predicament. These were victories.

Ultimately, this isn’t an experience I want to repeat any time soon, but I got through it, and I’ve learned a few things. The main thing I’ve learned is that if you stay the night at Zurich airport, you mustn’t count on catching the first train out in the morning.

And try not to lose your sense of humour 🙂

Daily Reflection – Distractions

I’ve been very fond of my brain over the years. I’ve always enjoyed the things it can do. Its ability to think outside the box and look at things from a different angle. Its talent for logic and mental arithmetic and seeing mathematical patterns. Its creativity.

My brain can’t do everything that some people’s can. Well, not without training. But I’m happy with the things it can do. It’s brought me a long way.

There are two issues I have with my brain, though. One is my memory. I do hold on to a lot of trivial facts, especially when it comes to 20th century music. But my memory of life events, conversations and other important moments is very poor. I recall my feelings, but not the details of the circumstances that brought them about.

The other issue is distractions, and this is the one that frustrates me the most. While there are times that I can become engrossed in a conversation, performance or activity, I find that far too much of the time my brain is overactive, running through past or future scenarios, not allowing me to live in the moment and enjoy now.

I’ve been practising daily meditation sessions for nearly six months, but if anything, distractions are becoming more frequent.

But what feels even worse is distracted prayer. I’m talking to the Creator of the universe about what’s most important to me, and trying to discern what’s most important to Him, and I suddenly find myself wondering if I need to go shopping today. That’s a mild example. I realise what’s happening, and bring myself back to prayer, apologise, and continue until the next diversion of my train of thought.

God knows me and understands and forgives me, but I find it so hard to forgive myself. I wouldn’t mind if I was distracted by an external factor like a car horn. But when it’s internal it just feels so disrespectful. I’m annoyed, and almost ashamed of myself.

Once or twice I’ve experienced what I thought was a distraction, but then realised was a response to my prayer. I’ve been asking what should I do, and then imagined myself doing what God would want. Sadly most of the time my brain is taking me on a fruitless and/or fanciful road of retrospection or speculation.

I’m not sure how to solve this, or if it will solve itself in time. For now, the best I can do is be kind to myself and remain friends with my brain. We do have some good times together!