If a kid’s lunch box reveals something about their future personality development, then for me, the writing was on the wall pretty early: I was gonna be an odd guy.
Back when I was young, lunch boxes were metal, rectangular containers, like miniature suitcases, usually with an accompanying thermos for a beverage. The paint used to decorate them was probably lead based and fully toxic, but they were cool, they were fun, and they were much sturdier than the old brown paper sack option.
Go on eBay and you can find classic, retro lunch boxes going for hundreds of dollars to grownups yearning to possess them, either for the sentimental value or to add to a collection of related memorabilia. It’s not often that I see children with the metal rectangular suitcase lunch boxes anymore – nowadays it seems everyone is going for the miniature thermal coolers or flexible nylon bags to take their lunches to school, complete with frozen ice packs and plastic bottles to hold the beverage. No themes, no characters, no imagination – but the Gogurt stays cold.
I remember having lunch box envy. Some kids had superheroes like Batman or Superman or The Incredible Hulk on theirs. Some kids had their favorite baseball or football teams on them. Some kids had them with cartoon characters or favorite TV shows. They might change each year, the kids coming to school in September with a new box bearing a different theme; and some kids just kept the same one year after year. They were a reflection of the kids’ interests, their hobbies, their characters.
I don’t know how, and I don’t know why, but the lunch box I ended up with was adorned with images of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
As the youngest of four kids, I was the recipient of a lot of hand-me-down stuff – clothes, toys, butt-kickings… But I honestly don’t remember any of my siblings ever using this lunch box. Which means I must have gotten it new. I have no memory of picking it out; I have no memory of requesting it. I didn’t even know who the hell Jonathan Livingston Seagull was. If I had a hand in selecting this lunch box, I’ve clearly blocked out the memory.
I remember seeing the paperback book when I was little. The book had a different design than the one on the lunchbox, and someone in my family had brought a copy of it into the house at some point. I knew nothing about the story, but at the time assumed it was a tale about certain sea birds. I had no interest in reading it, and in fact, did not read it at all until I was in my twenties – and then only because I realized I had no idea what the hell the book was about, and wanted to satisfy my curiosity about why on earth someone bought me that lunch box in the first place.
After reading it, I still didn’t know why I had that lunch box. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t just a straight story; it was more like a fable, in that it had a “message”. I thought the message was pretty lame at the time, but that is more a commentary on where I was, spiritually, than any slight against the book itself.
The book is about a seagull (named Jonathan, of course) that grows tired of conforming to the limitations of traditional seagull life – wanting to give up the daily food squabbles in favor of perfecting his flying skills. In return for his lack of conformity, he is booted out of his flock. He continues to pursue greater flight goals on his own, and is eventually introduced to a new society of gulls who take him to a higher plane of existence. He meets a wise seagull who becomes his teacher, and he learns the importance of being true to himself. His teacher’s last words to him are “keep working on love.” Jonathan finally comes to understand that the spirit cannot be free without the ability to forgive.
As I mentioned, when I first read the story I was appalled that I had been duped into reading what ended up being a story “with a message” – it felt like propaganda at the time. “Sentimental hogwash”, as old man Potter would have said. I was so defensive against anything remotely spiritual, likely because at the time I was spiritually bankrupt. But it was fairly easy to ridicule the novella – I mean, it was a story about birds seeking self-improvement, after all.
Of course, I now see that – however simplistic or banal the book might have been – the message it carried is universal. I get it today. It’s a message that could benefit anyone and everyone: forgiveness yields freedom.
But my inner child says “Come on, honestly – could a six year old be expected to get that? Who picked out this damn lunch box?” (Yes, my inner child casually swears a lot.) “I want to know whose idea that was! Hey – I loved cartoons – where was my Scooby-Doo lunch box? How about a Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner lunch box? Flintstones? Jetsons? Was anyone paying attention to what I was actually interested in? I just wanna know who picked Jonathan Freakin’ Livingston Seagull!” (Apparently, my inner child is also a bit of a punk.)
Given the lessons I’ve received in the last few years, and how they resonated with me – hit me at my core – it would seem that the instruction to “keep working on love” is a message I was meant to receive at some point during this lifetime. It just seems strange that the message would technically be conveyed to me through something as ridiculous as a child’s lunch box. I suppose it’s better than a Magic Eight Ball. I am reminded of another message that I’ve received very recently: “We don’t get to choose the messenger”.
Maybe it’s one of those “it wasn’t the lunch box that I wanted, but it was the lunch box I needed” scenarios. Perhaps nobody picked it. Perhaps it picked me. It seems kinda cool when I look at it that way.
A Scooby-Doo lunch box would have been a lot cooler, though. I’m just sayin’.