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Questions about the timing of Mary Oliver’s last publication, Upstream, Selected Essays in 2016 caught my attention. She passed in 2018.

In these nineteen essays, two of which are original to this slim volume, she left us a life-long template of her spirited struggles. It’s as if she had unfurled gossamer threads over her troubled psyche; then wove them into a wordsmith, a solitary, a listener, a passionate observer of life’s waxing and waning, a priestess.

For whatever reasons, Mary Oliver was not safe in her childhood home or in the classroom. Such fragile beginnings are nuanced in her first essay, together with the compelling influence of her mentors, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman. Only in the surrounding woods and creek outside her semi-rural Cleveland home did she find solace; it became her Temple where she pondered, wrote, and discovered who she was, what she was, and what she wanted to be in the world.

And she became that, and exquisitely so.

Her nineteen essays in Upstream reflect her affinity with whatever flies in the skies, maneuvers on the forest floor, or swims in the ocean: a black-backed gull, a snapping turtle, a common spider, among others. Her judiciously placed words illumine the depth of her exuberance; its freshness feels like the first morning of creation. Yet, the leitmotif of death shadows its élan.

Perhaps sensing her own, she must have selected each essay in Upstream, mindful of its whorl of energy enriching the one following and plunging her readers into the mystery of living life with its imponderables.

 

Afternoon breezes massage the creamy tepals of the blossom, atop the southern magnolia tree in my backyard; its wonder incites my awe, humbles me before Creator God. This first flowering should not have happened, given last year’s winter bite. Yet, there it is, and another thumb-sized bud emerges on a lower limb. How I had doubted the effectiveness of those biweekly waterings with the soaker hose.

A closer look reveals two rows of four-inch tepals preening within the sun’s rays; its gold-colored carpels in the center resemble the turret of a mosque; its glossy leathery leaves contrast with newer ones, in a lighter shade of green; its lemony fragrance piques my spirit. The tree, itself, appears fuller, more pear-shaped than when it was planted.

Days pass. I’m still moved by the blossom’s presence in my psyche, as if it wants to share something with me. I wait.

Then while washing dishes, it comes: the pristine blossom resembles a virgin soul. Its cupped shape suggests the sacred feminine; its whiteness, purity, simplicity; its velvety petals, unruffled smoothness; its wind and insect resistance, fierce integrity that bodes no intrusion.

It just is, a gift bestowed upon those who seek glimpses into the deeper realm that surrounds us, and with it, seamless joy. I give thanks …

 

How often will an April freeze scorch a lilac shrub of its regal display? Or brown a full-blown magnolia tree, reducing it to widow’s weeds? Or blister-winds knife blossoms from apple trees and pastiche the ground with snowy whiteness? Or drenching rains wash away tender roots of newly planted annuals? Such losses burn, leave a sour taste.

Such feelings glimmer beneath the opening lines of T. S. Eliot’s elegy, The Waste Land (1922): “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

It’s all about yearning, about holding onto glimpses of Beauty, whether experienced in nature, in loved ones, or in pets. Within these richly nuanced moments, we catch our breath, perhaps pick up pen or watercolor brush and set to work. For students of such industry, a trail emerges that evidences the expression of unstoppable Life, despite continuous setbacks, even death. The challenge is to begin, yet again, hopefully wiser until the next in-breaking of Beauty that stirs our roots with spring rain.

 

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