“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”
“Here is the test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: if you’re alive, it isn’t.” – Illusions
I was in high school when I first became a Richard Bach fan. My father, who was an amateur pilot until he had kids and my mother put her foot down, viewed flight itself through the goggles of a romantic. No surprise, then, that a copy of Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull was always floating around our house. Not that I ever had a desire to read it, mind you. What boy ever rushes to the book his parents tell him he really, really should read? My introduction to Bach would come by way of his second best-seller, Illusions.
I remember that my initial interest in Illusions was the recommendation of a friend, but I can’t for the life of me remember who that friend was. I do remember, however, reading the entire book in one afternoon. After I finished it, I sat and thought about it for a while; then I picked it up and read it again before going to bed. It wasn’t long after that day that I picked up Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Both books joined that small canon of writings that, as a child and teenager, touched me in a way I can best describe as spiritual: Where the Red Fern Grows, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the Dr. Seuss short The Pale Green Pants (with Nobody Inside Them).
Both Illusions and Seagull are, in a way, the same story told from different perspectives. In each, a relatively shy member of a community finds a level of transcendent wisdom through the metaphor of flight. In each, the sheer joy of that wisdom – along with the everyday and extraordinary miracles that follow – become a source of inspiration for that community. And of course in each, that same community becomes terrified of the implications of that wisdom, and martyrs their source of salvation. The parallels to a certain Jewish carpenter are obvious, but in both Illusions and Seagull, Bach is careful to note that it is our humanity that allows us to soar if we so choose, not divine intervention or permission. As Jonathan Seagull himself notes, “The price of being misunderstood [is] they call you devil or they call you god.”
I brought both books with me to college. When they saw them on my bookshelf, those older “intellectual” students I so wished to impress chastised me greatly. As is the fate of all bestsellers in any medium, it turned out that the coffeehouse set had both judged and condemned the works of Richard Bach. Did I not see that Bach’s message of hope was a slap in the face to those suffering without hope in the third-world? Did I not see that Bach was perpetuating the bourgeoisie myth that divine wisdom comes from white males in capitalist societies? I believe the word “hegemony” was used. To my shame, the desire to be seen as intelligent won over the desire to be intelligent. Midway through my freshman year as I was scrambling for cash to help pay for beer and pizza, I decided to kill two gulls with one stone and sold Illusions and Seagull to Smith Family Books, our campus’s big used bookstore.
And then… well, you know. Life went on. I wrapped up school, joined the rat race, got married, had kids and raised ‘em. And I never really thought about Illusions, Jonathan Livingston Seagull or Richard Bach again. Until this morning.
Yesterday Richard Bach was involved in a serious plane crash in Washington, en route to San Juan Island. It looks as though he will survive, but whether or not the now 76-year old writer will be able to fly again is a different story. I’m far, far older now than I was when I last read his books, and as I remember them I do so with an eye toward the craft of Bach’s writing. It’s clear that for him, the ability to fly was the spiritual engine that drove his art. The thought that his last years might be spent knowing that he is grounded, those visions of controlling his own destiny in the sky becoming a fading memory… Well, it makes me want to cry.
“Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don’t you think that we might see each other once or twice?” – Jonathan Livingston Seagull
I’ll be going to my local bookstore today, to pick up a copy of both Illusions and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I’ll probably read them both before I go to sleep this evening. Maybe they’ll reach out and grab me again, and maybe this time I won’t give them the chance to let go. Or maybe they’ll be old and tired, the paperback version of revisiting the musical styling of Gary Numan; maybe I’m too old and jaded now to again fall in love with their charm. Maybe I’ll do what my father did with me, and encourage my boys over and over to “just give them a chance.” Or maybe I’ll play it cool, and tell them the books are too adult and that they are forbidden – forbidden! – to read them, and then wait for the inevitable.
Maybe. We’ll see.
It’s Sunday morning, and I’m ready to soar.