The summer I turned 19, after my first year of college, I took off, leaving behind my small midwestern campus, to work in a gift shop in Yosemite National Park. That’s a whole other story, and maybe someday I’ll tell it, but for now it’s enough to know that I was there. And that one night, some friends and I decided to take a trip to San Francisco on our day off.
Around midnight, the four of us left for the four hour journey through the mountains and the California countryside to the city. We listened to Parliament’s Chocolate City the entire way there, over and over on a boombox crowded between two of us on the back seat. We peed in the grass on the side of the highway, laughing so hard it’s a miracle none of us peed on our pants. We slept in the dirt in a park at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge and freaked out when a park ranger came running after our car to tell us that one of our sleeping bags had gotten shut in the car door.
And of course we made the requisite pilgrimage to City Lights Books.
Before we left the store, I spied a stack of small books on the counter entitled City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology. I’m not sure I even flipped through it before buying it. Later, tucked in among bits of Howl and missives from Kerouac, Patchen, and Ferlinghetti, among others, I found a small poem that blew my young mind. “Revolutionary Letter #1” by Diane DiPrima.
“I have just realized that the stakes are myself,” the poem begins. It is an ode to independence, to taking responsibility for one’s own choices, to the truth that we are the only ones who can decide what to make of our own lives. It was exactly what a 19-year-old girl trying to run away from everything needed to hear.
Turns out it was also exactly what a 21-year-old girl trying to figure out her life needed to hear. And a 25-year-old woman again trying to figure out her life. And a 27-year-old woman giving birth to her first child. And a 32-year-old woman raising two children, working full-time, and trying to write a novel in whatever spare time she can scrape together.
I keep a copy of the poem written out on an index card pinned up on a bulletin board at
work, next to a note from my husband that reads “I love you! Have a great day!” I look at the
two there together, one reminding me that I am loved, the other reminding me of my strength,
and I know that I can take on anything.