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Facing burnout and self-doubt, I went on a lockdown road trip through time — this is what I learned

Figuring out that the magic of life comes from highway exits
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CHLOE KAPANEN/THE VARSITY
CHLOE KAPANEN/THE VARSITY

Frantically, I had packed to return home with only 24 hours notice as news of COVID-19 and border closures answered previously naïve conversations. Taking deep sips of coffee that burned our throats, we had once wondered whether or not we should be getting worried.

I hugged my friends, promising to be back again once everything calmed down. We talked of the time frames under which we would be reunited and things would go back to normal. We hid worried eyes under overly reassured voices.

I arrived at the airport early in the morning. In the desolate check-in areas, where the security ropes were set up to control large crowds, the lyrics of R.E.M. sang out, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” The irony wasn’t lost on any one of us — those who stood there, looking around at others like deer in the headlights.

Time blurred with indefinite isolation, physical stagnancy, and the loss of the notion of weekdays and weekends as morning and night merged together. Within our homes, the breaking news headlines of the 24-hour news cycle bounced around inside, delivering the daily death tolls with unintentionally cruel detachedness. Countless names were replaced by one consolidated number.

My life became a montage — a body on an ever-rotating hand of a clock: wake horizontal, stand vertical, lay back down again. After a while, I started to droop over the side of my bed to let blood rush to my head for fun as I tried to make sense of an upside-down world. Time lost its value to me.

Gone were the days of setting an alarm — snoozing for five minutes, jumping into stiff jeans, and running to class just in time for the professor’s first words. I thought of this time fondly, as I gazed into the fridge holding the door open for who knows how long, trying to decide what to eat at 2:00 pm. I had royally proclaimed this the new hour of breakfast — a cultural renegade, without conviction.

This, however, did not last. One morning I woke up as the sun was just rising, made espresso, and sat thinking about how long I had been purely existing with no agenda. Realizing the bounty of opportunity with which the lockdown had provided me, naturally, I went out to buy the original scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, written during three weeks in 1951.

High on benzedrine, Kerouac had cut and taped paper to form a scroll where he began to unleash an unadulterated stream of consciousness. The copy I picked up reported that he wrote a “125,000 [word] full-length novel,” the “whole thing on a strip of paper 120 foot long… rolled it out on the floor and it looks like a road.”

An introduction piece analyzing Kerouac’s writing by Joshua Kupetz described the way that Kerouac had set out on his journey across America thinking he could take one highway called ‘The Redline’ all the way from New York to California and back. Within the first day of his travels, he was already on winding back roads leading in directions he had not planned to be going.

When I set out to read On the Road, I thought I would be gleaning insight into what America had looked like in the ’50s across all — at the time — 48 states. I thought Kerouac would studiously observe every cultural relic from the price of commodities to the hearty laughs of sailors on Market Street in San Francisco. He did actually do both of these things, but this, I learned, was not the point.

Almost speaking directly to me, Kupetz wrote, “I had been trying to dispel in my teaching, those assumptions being that he mattered first as a personality and that what makes his texts worth reading are the ways the content intersects with cultural histories.”

By throwing literary tradition out the window, Kerouac’s style mirrors the very metaphors embedded within each allegory of his travels. It is his critique of our traditional conception of time that ironically stands the test of time.

When we conceive of time as being purely linear, we set ourselves up for failure. Success is only plausible through accepting that our preconceived notions of how we will achieve our goals are most likely going to change. Success is recognizing that we never obtain exactly what we seek to experience and inevitably, that experience changes us, for better or for worse. This is what Kerouac calls the ‘circle of despair.’

He believed that “the experience of life is a regular series of deflections from our goal.” Being deflected from my goals was not a new experience for me. However, the pandemic’s harsh interruption of my pursuit levelled all my life goals and I momentarily lost myself in the eye of that very same circle of despair.

While the details of my meticulously planned future began to warp, the past seemed to be the only thing that occupied my present. From friendships that had faded, to romantic flings that left me feeling emotionally burned, to wrongdoings of my own accord, I was forced to reminisce on the past in ways I had previously evaded. But with global catastrophes bearing down on the world, this forged a passageway for me back to existing in the present, and it brought me a measure of closure.

My days were once governed by a planner, as I was bound to deadlines, coffee dates, and exams. There was always somewhere to be, and perpetuating anxiety wherever I was in the present, as I was antsy to get on to the next.

Kerouac used his friend Neal Cassady to represent the idea of ‘exhaustive time,’ a term coined by Micheal Foucalt to describe a way of almost cheating time by subdividing it into smaller and smaller units: a day into 24 hours, each hour into 60 minutes, each minute into 60 seconds which, if done properly, would eventually freeze time altogether so that you could finally be free to do whatever, without the clock running. Kerouac depicts Cassady having relationships with two women: his wife and  mistress. As Cassady scrambles between them, he plans each moment down to the very minute.

Kupetz describes exhaustive time as “a technique that subjugates the actor to time while promising emancipation from it.” I, too, had segmented each part of my life, but in a way that was only exhaustive to myself. I was often overwhelmed with fatigue, practically falling under the weight of various items to attend to. I was preoccupied chasing the future I felt bound to, and I could rarely ever enjoy things that felt frivolous to my overly pragmatic goals I had once called ‘dreams.’

I had conceptualized a point dividing each segment, labelled as moments starting from birth to elementary, middle school, high school, university, law school, work, marriage, children, retirement, and finally death. I had never planned it in this literal form, but the subliminal plan was assumed from a young age and never questioned as it compounded further and further into my subconscious.

As I drove down the highway with the radio blaring, people on air spoke of the constant feeling of anticipation during the time of COVID-19: experts attempting to predict the second surge or decline, government officials administering new sanctions — shutting down cities and reopening them here and there — and the world refreshing their news apps with hungry eyes just waiting to read that a vaccine was finally on the way.

My eyes stayed fixed to the yellow lines ahead as the car glided easily in a straight line, keeping me from veering off and crashing into other cars in a fiery life-altering accident. Perhaps this was the commonplace idea, that the straight line was necessary — with fear propelling our feet, we all speed by the rest stops and the highway exits that lead to winding roads, where bending trees create a natural tunnel of gradient shade fading into pitch black.

Perhaps we feel that when we stick to the — straight and open — road we know, we are on course. At times, we permit our eyes to wander the landscape, and look away briefly from the horizon ahead, and fantasize about those winding roads, imagining ourselves in a different life, slowing to a stop before making the turn to a destination unknown.

But, quickly, the fear of taking our eyes off the road for a moment too long, of spinning out and losing what life we had at the moment, manufactured our consent to not wander again. After all, what would happen to us if we did not keep going? 

Back in high school, I was often filled with anxiety over the somewhat small act of picking a major. Although I was aware that I could easily change it, the decision seemed symbolic of my larger life decision of deciding who I was and whatever my purpose was — if I even had one.

I feared that I was convincing myself that I had purpose in some area of work, but that this might actually be a guise for simply wanting to make money. “You’ll become another cog in the machine,” whispered a drunk Karl Marx in my ears.

But my mom reassured me that she had felt the same. She had taken those personality tests that gave you the job positions you would be good at. Her test had come back pretty much inconclusive, along with another girl who broke down in tears over the test asking her what she thought she was going to do in life. My mom reassured me that it would just happen, and that the process of finding it out over time was really the best part of life.

When my mom graduated from university she went into graphic design for four years. One day, she and her best friend Mike decided they needed a change. Applying to just two law schools, she mailed in applications as she and Mike set off on a road trip starting in Toronto, down the coast to Florida, out west, and then back up the other coast, ending in Alaska. There, she received the call telling her she had gotten in and left the next day to begin school the following week.

For whatever reason, I had found ways to justify why I had to stick to a plan that fit neatly and consistently into squared-off segments of a well-worn path. Whether it was rationality, fear, or some mix of both, I blindly followed in the steps of the people before me. Judgmental voices echoed in my mind, telling me to focus, fearfully, on defining myself through a set of numbers and letters, a GPA that would act as the sole determinant of my future and define my worth and reason for existing.

I was very annoyed with my mom’s whole TED talk that said this process was somehow fun. At one point I had sat down to consider what I wanted to do with my life, and I had tried to weave an underlying theme through the events that had impacted me the most, looking for a purpose to adhere to. But that time had suddenly become ancient history. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I had lost the drive that set me on this course in the first place, and I was merely parroting a well-rehearsed speech and carefully designed persona.

However, through some luck and the privilege of having a safe home to live in during lockdown, this process forced me to take a step back and be honest with myself in a way that I was unable to before. When I was able to take on this notion that really, nothing in my life mattered very much to others, and it was only me driving toward some outcome that I thought ‘should’ happen, I felt more like myself in a way I hadn’t felt in a very long time.

There were many cliché sayings that I am sure each of us has heard at one time or another, ranging from “anything is possible” to “be yourself; everyone else is taken” and the hegemon of them all: “live, laugh, love!” I do not want my message to be confused with these things, nor do I want it to be seen as some condemnation of any particular path. Simply put, if this somehow resonates with you as a reader — I give you my final pitch — read just a little Kerouac.

On the Road follows no real plot. There is no obvious tension, no fights to the death between the antagonist or the protagonist. You may reach the last page and wonder what all that time you spent reading was really worth. But the essence of what I got was that the book forces you to read it the way that conveys the spirit of Kerouac’s approach to life.

The more you try to force linearity or any preconceived notions of how this book should be understood upon it, the more confused you will be. But if you sit back and allow for this book, like life, to be a tangled mess that will eventually reveal itself to be a larger picture, you will be able to look back with more colour and texture than you could have ever originally envisioned.