What Jack Kerouac Can Teach Us About Life


I love Twilight Saga actress Kristen Stewart and I have loved the novel On the Road (Penguin Modern Classics) since I was a teenager, so I was biased in favour of this film before I even saw it. But when I watched it recently I noticed with new eyes that what Jack had taught me as a teenager and what he can teach me now are two completely different lessons.

The book is an exhilarating freedom-grabbing, lust-for-life, crazy journey about a passionate friendship, rattled out in lyrical prose that washes over you like jazz and whisky. As a teenager I was infatuated with Jack’s hedonistic enthusiasm, and so I planned to live life to the full and never to say no to anything exciting.

Lesson 1: Live a Life of Passion

Now that I’m a grown-up I notice that I’m already close to Jack’s age when he died. (A dead brother in childhood and an alcoholic father contributed to a tormented life of alcoholism for Jack.)

The story is a loosely disguised tale of the adventures Jack had on the road with Neal Cassady. He renames himself Sal Paradise and calls Neal, Dean Moriarty. Dean was “tremendously excited with life,” and constantly looking for “kicks”.

Jack (or ‘Sal’) writes;

“The only people that interest me are the mad ones. The ones who are mad to live. Mad to talk. Desirous of everything at the same time. The ones who never yawn or say a common place thing. But burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”

As a teenager and all through my twenties I was also in love with people like this; the mad ones.

“Dean does not feel responsibility towards others. He does not know the concept. Then again he feels others have some mysterious obligation to support him. I find it unspeakably distasteful.”

Sal: “But Dean gives everyone a damn good time just being himself.”

“He gives the losers tricks!”

Sal: “Maybe that’s cause you’re not seeing what’s really holy about Dean.”

“Oh! So he’s a holy man now? A religious figure in your eyes? Oh Paradise. What I see in him is compulsive psychosis, dashed with a jigger of compulsive psychopathy and violence.”

It’s funny, but in my hazy memory of the charming and exciting Dean I didn’t remember him being so selfish, or abusive:

“Where’s Mary Lou?” (Dean’s 16 year old wife.)

“We got in a ruckus and she called the cops on me!”

Lesson 2: You Don’t Have to be Wasted to be Passionate

I know that sounds obvious but it took me many years to learn that one!

I love Jack Kerouac’s passionate, lyrical, poetic, rhythmic writing, his lust for life and his thoughtful spiritual musings.

“Who are we now? Are you gonna tell us Carl?”

“I know that I rely on my friends and my family for money. I know there’s no gold at the end of the rainbow. There’s just shit and piss. But to know that; that makes me free.”

Do you have to be a Kerouac fan to love the film? Probably. It’s about jazz, poetry and drugs on the road with the Beat Generation. It’s about a quest for meaning and belonging in life which very much appealed to the teenage me.

Now as an adult, having survived a decade of excessive partying in my twenties I made a note to myself: Don’t die like a Kerouac. (Mediate instead of drinking!) I spent a decade travelling the English canals in my thirties and began to write a ‘beatific’ account of my life ‘On the Cut.’ Jack wrote On the Road in three weeks, typing continuously on a teletype paper roll. I know now that writing is a healthier passion than alcohol, and I know that the way to write my own book is as one passionate, intensive, undistracted project.

Lesson 3: Growing Old is a Privilege

The book ends with Jack’s whimsical, lyrical musings…

“…and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”

And here in Devon when the sun goes down and I watch the long, long skies over Dartmoor and sense the roads I haven’t yet travelled, and remember fondly the time my friend once said to me that my poems are a bit like Kerouac’s; and I think of all the people dreaming in the immensity of it; and the people that never grew old, the people I loved who died young, I think of Jack Kerouac. I wonder why his father drank and if his father drank before him, and I think of lives cut short by alcohol and dreams that never happened, and I know that I owe it to this world to write and write some more, just because my teenage self was once inspired by Jack Kerouac. Yes I think of Jack Kerouac…

What’s your passion?

What are you going to do with your brief time here on the planet? Pick something right now and tell me in the comments below!

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How to appreciate the present moment

She finds hearts where ever she goes

My six year old daughter has a habit of discovering heart shapes wherever she goes: A stone picked up from the ground, a label on a supermarket shelf, or a heart shape found in the shape of a tree stump.

“Quick Mummy – take a picture!” she says. She’s been saying it since last summer. I saved all of the pictures and made them into a collage for her for Christmas. Children always have time to see beauty in the little things.

Try this:

Snap photos of the beautiful little things that you notice today. You can quickly and easily make a digital collage using Picasa.

Top 5 Life Lessons

5 Regrets of the DyingLast March I blogged about Bronnie Ware’s article The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. It is a frequently re-blogged and re-read article about the life-changing concepts that she learned in her work as a nurse in palliative care. It had a profound effect on me and inspired me to write this To Do List (pictured). I still keep it as the screen saver on my phone, and use it as a daily reminder of what really matters.

Now Kate, who blogs at Kate Takes 5 has suggested writing your own top 5 life lessons and linking up to her Listography Linky. I must admit I can’t help borrowing from some of Bronnie’s suggestions to make my own list. So here’s mine.

Top 5 Life Lessons

1. Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

This is a nugget of wisdom from the gorgeously quotable Oscar Wilde. To me, reinventing yourself is really about getting back in touch with who you were supposed to be in the first place. It is about remembering yourself.

2. Be brave.

Oh if I could give my younger self one piece of advice it would be this. Stop being afraid and just trust yourself!

3. Don’t worry so much.

When I was younger I was a fan of this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson (American Poet, Lecturer and Essayist.)  Sadly I just didn’t pay enough attention to it and continued to worry.

“Some of your hurts you have cured, And the sharpest you still have survived, But what torments of grief you endured, From evils which never arrived!”

4. Spend time with the important people.

Imagine looking back on your life and finding that you had been too busy for the people you love the most! In the past I have been guilty of spreading myself too thinly. I was a social butterfly and felt I was missing out if I wasn’t juggling dozens of friendships all at once.

I now feel that I’ve prioritised the people who are important. I have moved nearer to family and I visit my best friends whenever possible.

5. Follow your dreams

I know it sounds cheesy but I love to see people following their life’s purpose. I am so attracted to people who are passionate about something – whether that’s music, art or whatever. If I could give just one piece of advice to my daughters it would be follow your dreams. I even wrote them a poem with that as the title. Because some dreams come true. And I confess, like Kate I have been a bit of a barefoot, beaded hair hippie in my time.

listography-1There are no rules to Listography so if you want to join in just write your Top 5 Life Lessons post on your own blog and then linky it up to Kate’s blog. Next it’s nice to visit some of the other bloggers lists and leave them a comment.

What would be your Top 5 Life Lessons?

Life is not a rehearsal

Steering in a lockI once met this character, we were both narrowboating alone. It was about eight in the morning and looking like drizzle. He had a denim waistcoat and long grey hair. He was bringing his boat down the lock. Mine was waiting on the bollards below the lock waiting to come up. He knew this before he saw my boat because of the windlass in my hand.

“Early start for me” he said.

I smiled and said,

“Where you headed today?”

“Oh I just carry on going until I get fed up. That’s just the way I am me. That’s what I’m like.”

He crossed the lock gate, windlass in hand and headed up to close the other gate.

“Life is not a rehearsal you know,” he called across the lock, grinning.

We worked the lock and he went on his way. Passing like ships in the flight.

“On your own?” he asked.

“No, it’s me and my husband and two kids.” I said. “My husband’s at work, the kids are at nursery, it’s easier to move the boat without them sometimes!”

He smiled, understanding.

“You can just get on with it.”

I love those moments when suddenly everything seems simple. Just carry on going until you get fed up. I love the way you can discover morsels of wisdom from a conversation with a stranger. Have you ever heard a cliché, like “Life is not a rehearsal,” but suddenly you hear it for the very first time? It was just an unexpected reminder to live in the moment. And for that moment, and for the next few locks, I did. I enjoyed the drizzle and the rain, the winding of paddles and the trees and the grass. I noticed the ripples on the water and a heron on a branch.

Just carry on going until you get fed up: my thought for the day.