I may have made a tactical error in life-planning when I chose to read "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" at age eleven. Richard Bach's allegory about following one's passion was not wasted on me. The problem was that I was prepubescent and my passions were still vague at best. I had a solid sense that there was greatness ahead of me, but I had no idea what that greatness might be connected to.
Jonathan is consumed by his love of flight. I can remember watching the flaps on the wings of the airplanes we rode on as children, then later holding my hand out the window of a speeding car, dipping my fingers like flaps to control the lift and turns. Jonathan is eventually rewarded for his tenacity with a visit from two gulls who take him to a higher plane where he can continue to study and perfect his soaring and gliding. The birds he left behind continue their grubby existence - flying only to continue their meager existence. In a shimmer of light, Jonathan transcends.
This messed me up for a while. It messed me up every bit as much as the notion of Billy Pilgrim sitting on the edge of his bed in "Slaughterhouse Five" waiting for the Tralfamadorians to come and take him away. The idea that there might be a more relaxed and focused reality waiting out there for me seemed like a great one. At the onset of adolescence, it became even more vital. Give me some open beach and a clear sky and I could work things out.
The shimmering light never came. I never met wise Chiang. My feet remained firmly rooted on the earth. Now I look back and realize that the story came true for me, at least on one level. I have returned to the earth that I never left to become a teacher. Little Fletcher Lynd Seagulls surround me daily. We prepare to solo in a world less concerned with perfection than survival. I want them to soar.
"Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gullÂs life is so short, and with these gone from his thoughts, he lived a long fine life indeed. "