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Upstream by Mary Oliver

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

“In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions. Which are, at the same time, the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us.”

Upstream by Mary Oliver book cover

Buy the book: Amazon

If you ever feel lost in the world of words, in the midst of too many voices, too many winding paths to follow, take the one that Mary Oliver carves, the path that guides you upstream, against the grain of things, of life itself.

Upstream is a book of essays on what it means to breathe the air of and communicate with nature. Her offerings are thoughtful, deeply reflective, and self-conscious. It lifts the façade of belonging and guides one to look inward, the lens that is most obscure in our familiarity with others.

Henry David Thoreau wrote: “We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.” Mary Oliver echoes a similar sentiment, injecting a very intimate portal of solitude and receptivity that allows one to be more attentive to nature, and by extension, to one’s own thresholds and habits and ways of living. In whatever form this awareness may manifest in the mind of an individual.

She also examines the nature of reality in relation to self and the transcendental value of possessing multiple selves as a response to one’s personal reality.

The capacity of beingness is also a kind of otherness of the world. But this is what you learn after reading Upstream: that it is also within the world’s otherness that you can find your antidote to confusion. Her discoveries complement the ‘why’ of who you are.

Her understanding of what I like to call the “necessary opposites'' of life is quite poignant and revealing: beauty in sadness, the infinite in mortality. Such differences between two states of life and existence buoy the complex and beautiful layerings of the otherness that exists outside of one, in the world. And all one has to do to make this a part of one’s language is to observe and contemplate and emulate its fluctuating pulsations, its ebb and flow.

Contemplating the power of language as more than a means to self-description, Mary Oliver writes:

“I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door—a thousand opening doors!—past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.”


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