There is this one life we are given. This we know. All the rest of it—the heavens, the reincarnations, the other life-as-rehearsal scenarios—let us set those aside for the moment and concentrate on the indisputable facts staring at us: We are born, we live, we die.
And most often, even if we are fortunate enough to ripen through the full flesh of our cycle on this earth, we will say it has passed too quickly, as unto a dream.
The grains. Through the hourglass.
Jack Kerouac has been pushing his response to these essential facts since he wrote his cultural icon of a novel, On the Road, at the cusp of the 1950s. (It wouldn’t see publication until 1957.) Dead since 1969, Kerouac maintains a living, throbbing literary identity, his spirit among many that hover barely behind our dead-of-night, ceiling-staring queries:
Is how I’m living worthwhile? Is this how I want to spend my time? What would I be doing, where would I be, who would I be, if I could?
To grab hold of life, by its neck if we have to, forcing its abundance to spill over and drench us, and then squeezing it some more if it dares to spend itself and dry up—this was the source of Kerouac’s frenzied, intoxicated prose, his genius and his madness. The following words, above all his others, live and thrive within the notoriety that defined him and his many literary ancestors (Blake, Whitman, London, Rimbaud, et al):
…The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Burn, burn. To be desirous, consuming every last thing of life—at the same time, because to consume one and not the other would force a choice and thus a limitation.
And the transcendence of every limitation, breaking the bonds of inheritance, culture, time, lineage and responsibility, to come into some super-identity of complete, lasting absorption in an eternal ecstatic now—in Kerouac’s view, if this isn’t the point of life, why bother?
Jack Kerouac died at 47, in the last year of the 1960s, mostly a broken man, experiencing a sudden severe bout of nausea during which he began throwing up blood while sitting in a chair jotting notes for some writing. It was 11 o’clock in the morning and he had been drinking whisky and malt liquor. It was not an unfamiliar habit, and his liver was in ruins. Surgery that night could not save him.
There were some 40 years between my reading of On the Road as a young college student and my viewing last night of the movie version. Forty years that have involved trying on some Kerouacian garments, but more importantly, bearing ever in mind the mid-of-night questions mentioned a few paragraphs above. The questions suit us at every age, though some more than others, unless we renounce them and settle into the stultified, unquestioning and unobservant routine that Kerouac & Co. railed against as an abomination and denial of this one precious flame of a life we are gifted with and must absorb.
But to fully live into that flame, to burn, burn, while doing the necessary hunting and foraging that assures we will have a day and a life to burn into tomorrow and the day after, is to accept the reality of time, constraint, mortality itself.
Jobs. Lovers. A lover. Children. Our own old age, if we are fortunate.
Kerouac and his even more frenzied pal and muse Neal Cassady make an appearance inside me every time I’m driving home from a late church meeting or, in the old days, covering a Planning Commission or City Council confab for the newspaper, when it’s 10 p.m. and I’m half-fried with tiredness and the weight of this ’n that responsibility, and I pass by a gas station and a light misting rain is kissing my windshield and I dreamily, with an undertone of raw desperate longing, note how a tall coffee and a fill-up could probably get me about a third of the way to Utah on this cold Thursday night in winter, and maybe I could stop for breakfast at a high desert truck stop somewhere in Nevada, greeting the mesquite in the morning sun before heading on to the red rocks and launching out at a trailhead with my rucksack containing dried meats and fruit and a slightly curled volume of Mary Oliver’s Westwind, wherein she speaks:
You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and
your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rocks—when you hear that unmistakable
pounding—when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming—then row, row for your life
You are young. When do we turn old? we might ask Ms. Oliver. Kerouac thought it was when we stopped the madcap crisscrossing of continents in pursuit of the eternal high, the permanent rapture of a life blowing past all limitation while laughing maniacally at all the deadbeats in our rear view mirror.
But in his emphasis on Dionysian frenzy, captured nicely by the camerawork of the voluminous partying in the movie, Kerouac will not stand for rest, for anyone yawning, consolidating, tending to the home fires of body, family, responsibility. And in denying the power of those—as competing and legitimate and even, in their quotidian way, rewarding claims on our time and energy and devotion—Kerouac betrays his own emphasis on the eternal now. Because his is ultimately a futile grasping at the inevitable passing and death of this moment’s pleasure that no amount of hurtling into the next moment can help save.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven, writes a wiser Kerouac predecessor, the author of Ecclesiastes.
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
For Kerouac, time was the enemy, an unwanted ceiling for his soaring spirit, so he attempted to burn through it with all the youthful heat and bravado he could bring to the task. For a few magic years, he lived his dreams, his deepest transcendent desires, weighed down by the barest essentials of his rucksack alone, never certain of his next meal or adventure, raw and open to each cascading moment’s experience, promising only to greet it with the intensity it surely commanded.
In this, he shared much with legions of artists whose candle burned with an intensity they could no longer contain. The fire consumes all in the end.
In the meantime, how are you, to preface another set of Mary Oliver questions, going to live your one wild and precious life?
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
What a way to greet a day, with a Jack Kerouac and Mary Oliver advising. What should I do today? What will I do? I've no plans at all.
Love how you bring embracing "home fires of body, family, responsibility" into the discussion as legitimate choices for our limited time for our lives. Finding the right balance certainly is part of my struggle.
I think I'll start with a cup of coffee…
Thanks for the read, Andrew. Always good.
Love the passion and poetry of your essays Andrew — as always. And I think you are getting better and better, brighter and brighter.
Here's an On the Road lesson I've learned. For a brilliant journey, you don't have to actually be on a highway (or airplane) but it can be inside of you and touch on everything around you –right now. How? Pay attention, very close attention to it all. Pay excruciating attention.
I'm guessing you would agree.
What a wonderful juxtaposition. Could any two writers be more different in temperament? Kerouac mistook being alive in the present moment with flinging himself headlong into the next moment to find the truth beyond where the rest of us "yawn and say a commonplace thing", while Mary Oliver sits, strolls, and finds the universe in a grain of sand. Maybe it's the extrovert/introvert divide. Jack goes out, Mary goes in. Or maybe it's "…the still point of the turning world", and she found it, whereas Jack never stopped long enough to consider that location. Too much Rimbaud and not enough T.S. Elliot.
But I still love old Jack. Can't help myself. I too discovered On The Road in college and it had a transformative effect. But I think one must eventually move past On The Road to find a fuller meaning to life. I think Jack spent more time running away from, than running to, and practically no time sitting and being. I still like to play a little George Shearing now and then and think of the fog rolling in on Columbus St. But it's more of a guilty pleasure than a blueprint for life. Is it ironic or maybe telling that Ginsberg and Snyder did a lot better in later years having found the Zen that always eluded Kerouac? They learned about sitting still. It made a difference.
Yes Dennis, I was struck with the paradox of Kerouac and Oliver essentially desiring the same thing: a permanent state of ecstasy. But how different their pathways and landing places! Oliver, having long since honed her capacity for paying "excruciating attention" (love that term, Joan), can thus consider every part of the world a canvas, a staging area, for her art. Every novelist does this, and painter (right, Candi?), and photographer too, Dennis, eh?
In contrast, Kerouac had to drink himself silly to handle everyday life; he couldn't face it squarely (intentional use of that word there!). In this aversion to the quotidian, he reminds me of my teen daughter & her pals, God love 'em, who regularly pronounce themselves "bored" with what's in front of them. They've got too much going on inside to cultivate stillness and learn how to watch. Too difficult for adolescents, too much (or too little?) for Kerouac. Sure wrote a fascinating book before he flamed, though. For that, I am grateful.
Thanks for these thoughtful responses, folks. Fine grist for a continuing mill.