"There is a subtle difference between a mission and a promise. A mission is something you strive to accomplish -- a promise is something you are compelled to keep. One is individual, the other is shared. When a mission and a promise are one in the same . . . that's when mountains are moved and races are won." -- Hala Moddelmog, President & CEO, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, via "The Way I See It" #299 on my Starbucks cup
When I was in the sixth grade, my friends and I bumped into some younger kids we'd never seen before in the field we usually occupied for fort building. At that time in suburban Phoenix (and even now in some places), dirt fields were prevalent and undeveloped, rife with the kind of desert landscape and wildlife that came to define my childhood. Anyway, so we found these little kids on our turf, and rather than bully them away, we opted to help them build their fort, too. I don't remember the specifics of the day, nor do I think we ever saw those kids again, but the feeling of helping someone younger accomplish something I knew how to do naturally stuck with me. The fact that I was still very much a child became integrated into that memory, as well, as if my juvenile passions (i.e. fort building!) actually found some significance in befriending and mentoring those smaller ones, if only for the day.
Enter: me, twenty years later. A geek obsessed with comics, cartoons, and toys, working with and for youth in a non-profit after school program. I've taken the beginning of this new year (and now this Chinese new year) to realign my multiple blogs with purpose, from a personal reflection on pop culture and current events, to analyzing said work with kids, to my reviewing the comics subculture that so grips me, to this, a simple journal entry, and I'm delighted to discover one thing -- there's little difference between one and the other. In the face of an inconsistent world, I'm proud to be a reliably consistent person, even if that means my tastes haven't changed in some twenty years. I imagine myself on that day in the dirt field: helping kids build a fort, then undoubtedly going home to crank up and sing along to the Monkees and play with action figures until Letterman. While I don't help children build forts, I certainly strive to get them some kind of structure, and though I don't play with my toys much anymore, I take every opportunity to rearrange them on my shelves . . . and my singing has graduated from the bedroom to the karaoke stage. It's all the same! How many people can say that, and be proud of it?
The quote on my Starbucks cup today helped me put this is perspective, as I struggled with how to complete my blog-series on the new year. Having a lifelong mission that incorporates fulfilling a promise to others isn't easy; many people clearly distinguish work from play, their nine-to-five from the rest of their day. Me, I make a conscious effort to wear the sensitivities of my youth on my sleeve to help others understand the same process in the real time of their childhood. Don't get me wrong -- this effort often stands in contrast to the responsibilities of adulthood; for instance, working with a non-profit is just that, frequently unprofitable, and when I have to choose between student loans and action figures (it's a harder decision than it sounds), I wonder why I didn't choose a different path in life. A cubicle job could surely afford both, or at least help keep my chin above water long enough to buy that Aquaman eventually. Then I wonder, would Earth-Cubicle Russ open Aquaman, or keep him collectible in his clear plastic case? Would he condemn Aquaman to the same square world of his own cubicle? I'd rather be the one out of the box, cracking my points of articulation, even if it means leaving Aquaman on the pegs at Target. My inner child remembers playing with those Super Powers toys, and my imagination will always stay in mint condition.
People tend to call my mentality a "Peter Pan Complex," like that's a bad thing. That's just like an adult, to put the word "complex" after something so simple. There's a big difference between embracing the whims of one's inner child and acting childish. The inner child is a tamed beast, subject to discipline and time-outs like any kid. Plainly put, I can turn off my fanboy nature and be a man, an attitude that actually enables the inner child even more, as it puts the lessons he learned in life into practice. At work, when I explain to children why fighting is wrong, I'm very much an adult using the vernacular of youth to prove a point -- otherwise, I might as well be speaking another language altogether. Other adults in different work environments practice their old juvenile ways when they talk excitedly about the exploits of their weekend, or the movies they've seen, etc. This is child-like, not childish, though one may lead to the other if one isn't careful. "Oh, yeah, well, my Friday night was better than yours, so nyahhh!" You see what I mean. Further, I don't mean to imply that mine should be everybody's mission-meets-promise; for some, this synthesis is religion-oriented, or even completely self-serving. It's the harmony that's most important for contentment, I think -- the whole "getting paid for what you love" thing, or at least having the freedom in experience both equally and painlessly. Even Peter Pan had to face his fair share of hooks and ticking clocks, but he always did it with an effortless smile on his face.
Which brings me to the point: I'm making 2009 my year to purge the old ideas that cluttered my twenties to make way for new stories and adventures. I've internalized this mission/promise for too long, keeping the sketches in their sketchbooks and the poems on their scattered napkins for too long. This year, I'm taking all of the creative juices I've spilt and bottling them for distribution. I've currently scanned seven sketchbooks' worth of material to compile a portfolio, and I've already completed a little poetry zine for January, February, and March, with hopefully one to follow every month until December. Where this stuff is going, I don't know, but it's in "take this" form now, so I'll have no excuse when the new ideas take shape. No strings. Believe me, living a life surrounded by all things kid, the mind generates some crazy stuff. (I can only imagine what it'll be like to have one . . .!) Compiling it into a format I can hand an adult peer under the guise of creativity will hopefully help him explore those oft ignored recesses of the brain -- you know, the one that had fun at recess.
"Here are some sketches I did, and a few poems I wrote." It's the closest one can come to, "Surround your fort with tumbleweeds to dissuade bullies, and stones to keep the dirt in place in case of a monsoon," . . . at least at my age. When you build something vulnerable to the winds of change, you don't let a little thing like grown-ups or age tear it down. You keep it up.