Recently my niece, a gifted writer, wrote about traveling. As an Army brat, she grew up all over the world and, as an adult, continues to travel throughout the world every time she has saved enough money for a plane ticket. She writes that it’s important to experience the world and get out of your own small space in it. I agree. But I have done most of my traveling through books.
At the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout walks Boo home and then looks at her neighborhood from Boo’s porch. Suddenly, she sees the world and the life she has lived through Boo’s eyes, from his porch. It is a transforming moment. It is what her father, Atticus, has been trying to teach her to do. This is what travel can do for you and this is what reading has done for me.
I read so many posts and articles about how unhappy we are as Americans. We are unhappy that children are obsessed with video games. We are unhappy that our President wants healthcare for everyone, but the system is full of glitches. We are unhappy that we are involved in wars that are “none of our business.” We are unhappy that our country has a welfare system. We are unhappy that we send aid to foreign countries. We are unhappy that most of the wealth in our country lies with only 1% of the people. We are unhappy that people risk their lives to enter our country to work for 95 cents a day because it is better than what they can make in their own country.
And, I am unhappy too. I am unhappy that I need to pay $100 per hour for a tutor for my learning disabled son and $6000 for a neuropsychological exam to figure out all the various ways that his brain and personality are making school so impossible for him and life so hard. I am unhappy that people who make less money than me can get all of this for free for their children. But I don’t make enough money to pay for it myself. I am unhappy that I can’t get divorced from my husband because he wants half my pension and refuses to pay child support. I am unhappy that, as a teacher, I make so little money and that I’m being pressured to teach completely inappropriate curriculum. I am unhappy.
And then I read a book like A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. Beah writes of his young life in Sierra Leone. How at the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts. I read about how this is how wars are fought now: by orphaned children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. Children have become soldiers of choice. In the more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers.
Or I read a fiction book by T.C.Boyle titled Tortilla Curtain and I am seeing the world alternately between Mexican illegal immigrants and priviledged, but unhappy Americans. Boyle’s characters are written as real people, neither all good nor all bad. The reader can experience both sympathy and anger toward each one as you see the world through their eyes. An even more disturbing immigration story is found in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. It is a story of a Hmong family’s experience immigrating from Laos and the disastrous clash of cultures around their young child’s epilepsy. I learned that during the Vietnam war, the U.S. government needed the help of the Hmong, a mountain people, so we promised them protection and U.S. citizenship if they would fight against the Vietnamese. When we pulled out of Vietnam, we left them behind and all promises were broken. Those that did manage to make it to the U.S. were not given citizenship.
I am uncomfortable as I read these stories. I see the world from someone else’s porch. I see my life from someone else’s porch. I realize that I have so much more to be happy about than the things that make me unhappy. I turn to my problems and tackle them as best I can. I take a deep breath and I carry the boy soldier, the Mexican immigrant, the Hmong girl with epilepsy, and Boo Radley with me as I go.