One of my favorite places at Brigham Young University, my alma mater, is a shed on the south side of campus. Some steps lead off the main path to the shed roof, and from there you can see the trees, path, and brook on the hill as well as the buildings behind. The area is private enough but not unsafe, and you can see the mountains.
When I was a student, I used to go there and imagine I was everywhere. Perhaps all the world’s a stage, but from that stage-like roof, I imagined the world. From that spot I could feel city and nature at once, and I used the area as a base from which to eat, study, read, and write.
I found the roof during the period when I developed several chronic illnesses, which broke my privileged dreams of studying abroad. I’m lucky to have ever had such a dream, and I’m fortunate that I stayed healthy enough and had the financial resources to stay in school despite my illness. My lot has always been a blessed one. But I was still sad, and sitting on that roof helped me imagine the things I couldn’t do and cope with the loss of something I’d planned since I was seven years old.
Talking with the administrators of the study abroad programs confirmed that I wasn’t stable enough to live in London on someone else’s schedule, and the idea of hiking across Britain became laughable, but books and imagination took me wherever I wanted to go. Not a ton of outside reading, you understand — going to school and managing my health took just about all my energy — but my courses were enlightening enough, and the internet was ever ready to impart its questionable wisdom.
Of course, reading about cultures isn’t the same as experiencing them. And travel in and of itself doesn’t lead to enlightenment. Colonialism would make that truth obvious regardless of Rousseau’s thoughts on the topic.
But still, lately I’ve been reminded that expanding your worldview is more a reflection of mind than a result of going elsewhere. Last month I judged a travel-writing contest, and I was floored by the number of people who seemed to have traveled much and learned little. People who think another country’s world-renowned food is objectively disgusting or who blow off locals who have tastes different than theirs. Tourists who think they’ve seen everything their destination has to offer, who don’t want to know how the history and language and culture of a region have formed the people who call it home.
Perhaps I’m arrogant to claim to know more than some of our submitters, but I was validated to find that my patchwork quilt of knowledge had taught me more about other places than some travelers seemed to know they had the option to learn.
The leaves of my books have been my wings, and by rooting myself to that hillside roof, I’ve learned more about the dynamics of my community than a casual onlooker could dream.
My health has improved, and as it has, I’ve become frantic to do as much as I can, to push myself until my body shuts down and forces me to rest. I know I need to go more slowly, for efficiency as well as joy and health, and as I think of the peace on that shed roof, I think that perhaps I can love the slower pace that my mind craves but that my ambition balks at.
I remember that my internal fire gives me life, that a person who blows bubbles in the shade can enjoy the sunlight and know more of it than someone who camps in the sun. I remember that all the world is on the stage before me, and I have more to see than I can ever comprehend.