In the eight grade, my mother allowed me to read Travels With Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck. She had some reservations about it, so she read it first. Ultimately, she felt it was a book all Americans should read, including me, her then 13 year old daughter.
Always a voracious reader, Travels with Charley had been on the top of my reading list for a while. And why not? I loved the great outdoors and my best friend had four legs and a constantly wagging tail. I just knew this book would hold my attention during that long hot summer. What I didn’t know was that it would give me life lessons that I value to this day.
I particularly loved the conversations Steinbeck had with Charley as they toured the country. No matter that I couldn’t drive nor that my dog was 14 years old, I still imagined my trusty old dog and I one day heading off into similar adventures.
But there was so much more to Travels with Charley that I didn’t begin to understand and that’s why, to this day, it remains one of my most treasured reads.
For one reason, I was old enough to know what I didn’t know. It was clear to me as I read the book that much of what I was reading was surprising, even shocking. My mother had warned me … and then welcomed me to share productive conversations as I tried to make sense of a world so much more vast and complex than my little neighborhood.
The racism Steinbeck recounted shocked this little white girl in suburban San Diego. In my experience, my Mexican friends were the target of snide remarks and mean spirited pranks. More than once my friend Cece was saddened or angry because of something someone had said. In my loyalty to her and her family, I didn’t begin to understand why being from Mexico was such a terrible thing.
But reading this book exposed me to the racism that existed all across our country. I remember being dumbfounded. It was bad enough my Mexican friends suffered but black people as well? I couldn’t begin to process it. For the first time in my young life, racism took on a broader, more menacing and distressing meaning to me.
I was also fascinated by Steinbeck’s description of the many differences between people all across the country. It had also never occurred to my young self that Americans were all that different from one another. His take on the impact technology might have on the future, my future, had my mind spinning. And why did Steinbeck seem to portray our government, the one I pledged my allegiance to every morning in school, as oppressive? What exactly was social reform? And really, did everyone drink as much as he did?
My mother and I had lot’s of conversations that summer.
In the end, that book was my first step out of my little bubble. It opened my eyes to so much in the country. It filled me with questions and laid the foundation for a lifetime of human discovery.
I’ve never lost my love of reading, nor my need to understand people who differ from myself and my experience. I think this is especially important as we age. Life can feel harder with each passing year. We gravitate towards wanting our lives to be more simple, less demanding. We have a tendency to seek all things familiar. Sadly, as a consequence of this, some people get especially rigid with age, more convinced than ever before that their way is the only way.
I know it’s easy to get locked into our “bubbles”. Why not? We know the parameters quite well, our belief systems are finely honed. It simply feels more comfortable, more secure inside of our little bubbles.
But sadly, as we see more and more frequently these days, hiding out in our own little worlds creates problems … within families, neighborhoods, and all across the country.
Perhaps you might consider reading a good book with a different perspective than one you hold. Consider tuning into a different news source for a fresh perspective. How about connecting with people who are different from yourself and engaging them in conversation?
We’re never too old to learn something and learning something outside of our bubbles may be just the thing our country needs right now.