Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
-Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”
What did I do, the famous poet asks? Well, I survived, first of all, because that’s first.
Then, I got to ask the question and give an answer.
Then, I wanted to do so much– be a famous poet, too. But, really, so, few get to be that.
And after all, I needed money, so I was a waitress–breakfast, dinner, cocktails, diner, a short order cook, fry cook, prep cook, a janitor, a secretary, a saleswoman…and all that time I was a student. I did theater and one woman shows, and poetry slams and plays and I went to school and got degrees like other people get winter coats—just in case.
Because you never know how cold it will get.
I taught remedial English, traveled the country teaching speed reading. I got advanced degrees and journeyed as far as I could from where I was born without drowning and I baptized myself in the waters of California over and over to be sure God saw me.
With my precious life: it’s mine now. I chanted that over and over – the only mantra I needed in a land of soulful reflection. My life. It’s mine. I watched the sun dip into the Pacific like communion and swallowed it whole. Here I am.
I was a teaching assistant, teacher’s aide, tutor, research assistant and then I taught at one, two, then three universities at the same time. The freeway flying beneath me. Driving a Chevy Nova with 300,000 miles on it until my mechanic said, “No mas,” and would sell me a windshield wiper only for the driver’s side. I used every tow, every year, that AAA gave me, and I never lagged in my Premiere membership. I took the 710 to the 405 to the 101 to the 210 to the 110 and back to the 405 to the 10 to the 710 to the 73—and it was never a joke. The freeways were the grid of possibility, of how to make it.
I got a Ph.D., all the while teaching at two schools full time and traveling two hours in between each school and where I went to school– an Isosceles Triangle–the golden standard of I can do this.
Because, for me, there was always security in school. School being the first place that held me.
My first school: I couldn’t go to the bathroom in the small room in the back of the classroom. I couldn’t get up and go there.
Why? Was I afraid to pull down my pants? To be alone?
What happens to girls in small rooms alone with their pants down?
I sat in my classroom seat, attached to my desk in first grade, and let the urine run down the aisle and I didn’t own it.
It wasn’t mine.
The teacher stood next to me. “What are you doing?” she asked. But I didn’t answer her.
I wasn’t there.
She tried to adopt me out of my home but my mother argued for me, argued that I was mentally ill and didn’t need to be in school, shouldn’t be in school, that I would never learn. She wanted me at home making breakfast. Cooking for the 2, 3, 4, 5 kids she would have in a Catholic home, with no choice on the horizon. My father built a stool for me at seven so I could reach the stove.
When I hear today the words “home schooling,” I freeze. Kids like me can disappear completely inside a “family” home like mine.
School for me was that line from Hamilton. “I am not throwing away my shot.”
Somehow, I snapped into place. That teacher– she did care.
Those six hours in school every day–were mine.
I learned to read, struggling out of a silence so profound it did not include words, and the first one I learned: dog. Spelled backwards: God.
Help me, God. I learned to go to the bathroom and the first time there, inside the toilet paper dispenser, I found brown folded sheets of paper. It was miraculous and free.
I pulled several sheets out and out and out and I folded them together to make a book. I stuck them inside my shirt and took them home.
I was going to be something. I was going to be a writer.
I am not throwing away my shot.
And now, past sixty, I’m still going to school. And I am still teaching in several schools.
And I keep an eye out for those students who can’t find the library. Or their story.
I teach students how to write their own story.
Our lives in the end, our precious lives, are only stories, aren’t they?
Visit with the very old person, and all there is are stories, and the hope of more stories.
Visit with the very young person and all there is are stories, and the hope of more stories.
What makes a life is the stories that go back and forth. Here and there and there and here, the hope I can make my story my own and that I will love it enough to read it again and again.
Work hard, I think. Play hard. Love hard.
I never got famous. I never got tenure. I never got time off to write, unless it was on unemployment (which I have been on several times).
I worked and I survived with my precious wild life, which is so much more than so many people ever get. I know that. And my wild life? What did I do with it?
I saved it. I held it. I loved it. I kicked open a door with it. I let it breathe and go to the bathroom and sleep and eat and I gave it a pen and paper and an I am.
In the end, what did I do with it? I am with it, my beating heart:
still here, still here, still here. Still with a pen. Still with a voice.
Those irrepressible words on a page: here I am, here I am, here I am.
Marie Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University. She is the author of the critically acclaimed book Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Routledge 2013). She is a senior lecturer in Gender and Women’s Studies and Queer Studies at California State University Northridge, and in Film Studies at Univ. of CA Irvine.