Promises to Keep

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

I don’t know what promises Robert Frost’s character needed to keep in his Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, but I was glad that my colleague shared these words in our final faculty meeting for worship before the break. It made me think about the promises that I think I have to keep. Rarely do I make promises out loud, but I still view lots of things I need to do as promises. Not doing them would somehow mean I broke a promise: to a student, a colleague, or my family. These unspoken promises can weigh heavily and make it difficult to determine which ones to keep. The fact that they are unspoken makes it even harder because there is no real clarity, just self-imposed, almost spontaneous expectations.

On a day at school for example, there are always many things to do and accomplish, some urgent, most less time-sensitive. Email and the person stopping by your office with a question become easy tasks to complete because they are clear and in your face (at least if you open your email). The more general promises of observing teachers in their classroom, visiting the playground to get a closer eye on students at recess often slip to the back of the list because I haven’t added them to my calendar or I don’t have someone asking me to do them. The quick tasks feel great in the moment because you have legitimately accomplished something, but if I spend my day accomplishing those tasks, I look back at the missed opportunities. I could have helped that teacher at the end of the day; I can’t visit a classroom after school.

In some ways, the work promises just take discipline and planning. I’ve become much better at creating my ideal schedules and following them to make sure I prioritize the most important tasks. The promises between home and school have always been the harder to balance. Over this winter break, I have two competing ‘promises’. One is to take time to relax and enjoy a vacation with my family. The other is the list of things to accomplish before I return to school in two weeks. I am lucky enough to have two weeks for break (sort of). I am lucky enough to have lots of colleagues who urged me to relax over this break (they made it really clear they hoped I took time to relax and stopped working; I honestly think I’m doing a pretty good job with work-life balance so I’m not sure what this means, but I am happy to take their encouragement as a reason to promise myself to relax).

I am fortunate enough to have family who live far away and welcomed us into their house so it feels like an actual vacation. On the drive down, (with the encouragement of my colleagues) I even verbalized the promise. I said out loud in the car that I had three goals: “relax, family and fun’ and if it doesn’t meet that criteria, we shouldn’t be doing it. It reminds me of Brené Brown’s permission slips. Without knowing it, I was giving myself permission to put work aside and enjoy our time away. Truth be told, this may be my most successful year of leaving work at work. But it still finds a way to creep in.

After a successful week away, we returned home for Christmas day at our house, and I just returned from a run. For a recap of a previous post, I am not really a runner, but I’ve gotten better at it lately. I also make a commitment to be active regularly in order to clear my head, which often leads to thinking about writing blog posts. Sometimes I run a couple times in a week, and sometimes it’s a couple times in a month. My promise was to be active; I did not commit to running every day, or completing a marathon. I simply wanted to be active, and I’ve been able to keep that up. I wonder if writing it down in a blog post has helped me as well.

After a morning of phone calls saying “Merry Christmas”, browsing twitter and Facebook and watching an incredibly driven human climb the 14 highest mountains in 7 months, I felt the urge to get outside and move. It was a bit easier to do because we’re not doing any big family get togethers like usual today. While it’s a bit boring and doesn’t bring me the same joy that family gift-giving usually does, it was nice. And I kept this promise of being active on a day that I’m usually not.

I wonder about the character in this poem. Are his promises real or just promises he thinks he has to keep? Why can’t he stay and enjoy the deep, dark, and lovely woods, even just for a little longer? What is he in a rush to do? What promise could he make that gives him permission to enjoy something like the lovely woods on occasion? I shouldn’t judge either way, because he may have something really important to return to. Maybe his promise is to be with his family; that’s what I always thought it was; now I’m less sure. I can definitely empathize with the feeling of being torn between two promises.

I often try to wrap up my posts with some wisdom that I’ve gained, sort of its own unwritten promise. Really, it’s probably me thinking I have to learn something from each experience. Truthfully though, I was just glad that I had the chance to sit in silence with my colleagues and that I had a colleague willing to share these words with us. It clearly improved the silence for me. I am going to think about speaking promises out loud and writing them down more often. I’ve been journaling more this year and while it is a part of my daily journal, I hope it becomes a more important, intentional part going forward.

But I have promises to keep, and I’m going to return to my family now. Soon enough, work will call. For now, relaxing, family, and fun are the priority. For the few people who read this, and especially the few who continue to read my posts. Thank you, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

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