Class: What I Did with My One Wild Life by Marie Cartier

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.

I’m here.

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
California, 2021


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.

40 thoughts on “Class: What I Did with My One Wild Life by Marie Cartier”

  1. Thank you for writing this Marie. I recognise so much. Recently, I turned 58. I woke up at 4, cried until 8, and then drop by drop my day filled with gratitude for all the things I have managed to give myself that are not measured by the tower of hierarchy that was the system I was born into: friendship, family, a life of writing, teaching, a connection with nature, daily meaning making and connection to the voice inside me, and the collective creative mind. A beautiful piece.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. friendship, family, a life of writing, teaching, a connection with nature, daily meaning making and connection to the voice inside me, and the collective creative mind….
      i love your grateful list. i am grateful so much for all of these. thank you for sharing

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazing and sadly funny. I wondered where were your lovers to let you have such an insane schedule? I wondered reading between the lines if you suffered abuse?
    No worries, you are here now. You made it.
    Thanks for the roller coaster read!!
    Did you finally get a new car?
    I think you should embrace Islam. It’s the only path you haven’t taken. La ila ha il la la. There is no god but God.


    1. :) if we could have my lovers chime in here i’m sure they would say they never had any say in terms of “letting” me do anything one way or another

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Absolutely love this poem. Two of my favorite lines:

    “I watched the sun dip into the Pacific like communion and swallowed it whole. Here I am.” Powerful image!

    “Our lives in the end, our precious lives, are only stories, aren’t they?” Yes, yes, and we create our own life!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. This is so beautiful Marie, and a testament to survival – as well as learning to thrive. I wonder just how many students were touched and were able to move on because of your heroism – and make no mistake – you are a heroine ( refuse to render you genderless by using hero)
    I cobbled my life together much like you did though probably not quite as successfully – I still suffer from deep depressions and take no medication – instead i write! Bless you and thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Sara says what I would to say except more succinctly. So, cagreed.

      I will add how much I enjoyed the writing as well as the story. It read like a gallop, just like you lived your life. Congratulations on a story well written and a life well lived.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ohhhh my Dear Marie, my mentor, my Bridge.
    I Love You so…
    Thank you for the light, your words come just when needed.
    I swallow them whole like the sunset.
    Inspired for another day.
    Thank you for the tattoos to hold onto, sacred words of inspiration on my alter and my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You’ve had quite a life! Not what I’d describe as an adventure, but maybe that’s what it’s really been for you as you’ve done so many things……like earning an education and then sharing it with as many people as you can. My friend, bright blessings to you as you survive your one (so far) and precious wild life.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a beautiful and inspirational poem. I love how you show us, especially those of us who have been on this planet a few decades, how to bring together the threads of all that we have done into a meaningful life and that the everyday things really were and are so worthy even if they didn’t seem so at the time. And we can write new chapters for our future building on all we have done. Thank you for this!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. thank you for this Marie, always so moving to hear your truth spoken … and many of us can resonate with parts of it, and I certainly know other sisters who, like you, have survived so much, and indeed flourished as they claim their lives. School was also my place where I discovered that I could do well.
    In 1980 as I prepared to make an exodus from family, for study overseas, I wrote:
    My life –
    I hold it to the light
    I feel it
    its shape
    its corners
    its smooth surfaces
    its colour

    what is it
    – how is it

    this gem

    who can cut it?
    only me

    I hold it in my hands
    I feel it in the dark
    as a blind person
    I sense it.

    Discovering, seeking
    remembering (?)

    My skin absorbs it
    and is it.


  9. I echo what others have said. What a beautiful post – so personal to you and yet universal. It brought tears to my eyes when you found the paper to make a book. It is magic when something that on the surface appears so small and yet brings us healing and hope – that and a caring teacher. Powerful magic indeed.

    I love how you look out for your own voice and in doing so look out for others who are struggling with their stories. That is the thing about abuse. It steals our voices and our stories and it can be so hard to reclaim but a caring teacher, a loving voice, an unknown talisman and voila! Transformation. Thank you for sharing and for the work you do. You are such a beacon for us to follow.


  10. C’est une histoire très inspirante. Les luttes pour deux meilleures conditions donnent plus de sens à la vie et la rend fort précieuse. Sa passion pour l’école, pour les études lui a permis de se sacrifier avec fierté au point d’accepter de faire un parcours triangulaire. ( Un triangle isocèle : La liaison des deux écoles dans lesquelles elle enseigne et son école…


    1. translation?
      It’s a very inspiring story. Struggles for two better conditions give more meaning to life and makes it very precious. Her passion for school, for studies allowed her to sacrifice herself with pride to the point of agreeing to do a triangular course. ( An isosceles triangle: The link between the two schools in which she teaches and her school…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Marie, I love this post. “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.” And when you go to a memorial service, what brings peace to those left behind are the stories. And, of course, the stories are what make us whole, as you show in your poem. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

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