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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.

 

Every day we open and close doors to our homes, our cars, places of work, institutions, family, and friends. Do we notice the variety of the doors: hinged, folding, sliding, rotating up and over, some with locks and some without? Does crossing their threshold alter our energy?

Such questions must have influenced the earliest reproductions of both the single and double doors depicted upon walls of Egyptian tombs in the Nile Valley. Here, the door symbolizes an area, closed off from the profane, similar to later ornamental doors found on mosques, monasteries, cathedrals, and temples, orienting the worshiper toward its mysteries within. Even the doors of home are sacred. The Archeological Museum in Naples displays a set of Roman folding doors from a first century AD estate in Pompeii that was ruined by Mount Vesuvius.

However, there is another door closer to home, the door to our hearts; its challenge is to become aware of it, then pause before opening it to who or whatever is attracting us. With instincts activated, discernment is critical. In the in-between space, questions surface: Are lesser motives obscuring their toxicity? Is neediness demanding to be satiated? Who will benefit? What will I learn if I act? Or give in? Perhaps “No” is the wisest response when clarity is an issue. Such practice deepens humility and opens the psyche to spiritual guidance, without which we stagnate.

Thus we thrive in our flawed humanness and bring our unique gifts to fruition among others—the purpose of our existence.

 

Soils engage spidery bulbs beneath wintry graves.

Hesitant blades pierce the mulch.

March rains dampen tentative greens like children forgetting their lines.

Weeks pass.

Spiked blades pattern gardens like players on chessboards.

Hard nubs stretch like infants flailing rubbery limbs.

Flickers of color balloon and soften the petals.

Tulips have returned.

We give thanks!

 

 

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