Mary Oliver

Upstream: Selected Essays

“Something is wrong, I know it, if I don't keep my attention on eternity. May I stay forever in the stream.”

From beloved, and recently deceased, American poet, Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019) is Upstream essays about thinking, inspiration, and moments of eternity found in the simplest things.

Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream.

Oliver, like many who turn to nature to find their best selves, notices things of upmost importance that are often overlooked. “May I look down up on the windflower,” she writes “and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.”

Oliver’s poetry and writing focused on lengthy pauses and solitude. She wrote of a fear of being interrupted, her creativity threatened. In this space within herself, this “upstream” she found a comfort and connection. What Rilke called “living in questions” Oliver terms “keeping attention on eternity.” Connecting with one’s true self and the things that endure.

I was deeply moved when Oliver spoke of wanting to go into a place that cries out for us, and consequently to which we long to return. We cannot, of course, and yet, we aren’t lost if we keep to the stream.

Maybe it was the right way after all. If this was lost, let us all be lost always. The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats; pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened and opened again. The water pushed against my effort, then its glassy permission to step ahead touched my ankles. The sense of going toward the source. I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.

Read further on nature as a catalyst for self-renewal in Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest and from Oliver’s unmet mentor, Emerson, who centered his Transcendental philosophy on a belief that nature was one and the same as humanity and thus ennobled us beyond the temporal.

Mary Oliver "Upstream"
The River Arun, Sussex. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Oliver’s philosophy and elegant imagery were fundamental for me when I was forumulating the values and aesthetics of my site. I am eternally in her debt, the best I can do is relay her message, keep in the stream and look directly at this wondrous eternal.

Mary Oliver illustration. © The Examined Life