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Promises, Kept and Unkept

Promise to bring a hotdish for your first work potluck, When it starts smoking in the oven, make a quiche instead. Pretend you meant this the entire time.

Promise to draw clear boundaries between your work and your life. Stop keeping this promise as it becomes increasingly hard to figure out if you’re trying to keep your life out of your work, or your work out of your life.

Promise to keep an open mind.

Julie Zhou. Illustration by Billy Keefe.

Promise to look for the tiny kindnesses that happen around you: the coworker who gives up their platform to lift up someone else; the day someone leaves a little card on your desk, just to say hello; the day there are treats in the kitchen because the world is a little too big and a little too heavy to hold without sugar.

Promise to stop using so much paper.

Promise to leave more notes for people: encouraging ones, really silly ones, congratulatory ones, and mundane
ones. Break your promise to use less paper.

Promise to stand up for yourself.

Promise to stand up for other people.

Promise to bring a shovel to work so you can clear out the front walkway, where people keep slipping when they try to stand up.

Promise to make eye contact with the things that scare you.

Promise that you’ll stop saying “I think,” when you really mean “I know”; or “I’m not quite sure, but…” when you really mean “I am actually quite sure.”

Promise to stop using words you can’t really define until you have done the work to define them.

Promise to greet people with questions that you’re interested in hearing the answer to: not just “how are you?” but “what did you do last night?” or “what are you having for lunch?” and “what is one thing you wish you could get off your plate today?”

Promise to be generous with your: Time, Joy, Forgiveness, Honesty.

Promise yourself that you’ll take up a little more space: in meetings, in conversation, in conference rooms and boardrooms and on the street and in the world.

Promise that you’ll be a little kinder to yourself when you can’t keep your promises.

Promise that you’ll drink more water at work. Forget immediately.

Promise that you’ll water your aloe plant. Actually do!

Promise yourself that you’ll always remember how you felt the first time you read Kim Addonizio’s “Quantum”—the body of the world which is also yours and which keeps insisting you recognize it—that you’ll remember what it felt like to learn that you could insist on recognition, that you could teach yourself entitlement.

Promise to bring more art into the workplace: at your desk, in the structure of meetings, in one-on-one check-ins.

Promise to honor the work organizations are doing. Not the big, expansive, immediate, visible work. Though those things are important too. But the little things: the budget that they submit months in advance, the local teachers and advocates that they lift up to a platform, the community members that contribute time and thought and energy and motion and joy.

When someone promises you a safe space, trust them to know the ways in which safety changes, in which safety is not a guarantee, in which the body that you bring to the space may feel in and of itself like a dangerous thing.

Promise to move beyond the political to the practical. Have a really, really hard time doing it, but trust it is a yet-unkept promise and not a broken one.

Julie Zhou is the program associate for the NEA Big Read at Arts Midwest. Her latest chapbook of short stories, Generics, is available now from Gold Line Press.