Highlights from Upstream by Mary Oliver

Cover of Upstream
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Highlights from this book

  • In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed.

  • When the chesty, fierce-furred bear becomes sick he travels the mountainsides and the fields, searching for certain grasses, flowers, leaves and herbs, that hold within themselves the power of healing. He eats, he grosw stronger. Could you, oh clever one, do this? Do you know anything about where you live, what it offers? Have you ever said, “Sir Bear, teach me. I am a customer of death coming, and would give you a pot of honey and my house on the western hills to know what you know.”

  • With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats.

  • May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream.

  • Give [the children] the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit.

  • Attention is the beginning of devotion.

  • I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing…

  • They have one responsibility—to stay alive, if they can, and be foxes.

  • 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.

  • You must not ever stop being whimsical.

  • And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.

  • …having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.

  • And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it. And can do what I want to with it. Live it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.

  • Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.

  • But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself…

  • I am, myself, three selves at least.

  • Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought.

  • …in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place.

  • The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

  • The water was deep and luminous and ever moving; the sky clean and distant; the mood more suitable for slow, long-limbed thoughts than for taking from even the simplest husk of body its final thimble of breath.

  • Just where does self-awareness begin and end? With the june bug? With the shining, task-ridden ant? With the little cloud of gnats that drifts over the pond? I am one of those who has no trouble imagining the sentient lives of trees, of their leaves in some fashion communicating or of the massy trunks and heavy branches knowing it is I who have come, as I always come, each morning, to walk beneath them, glad to be alive and glad to be there.

  • She [a turtle] sees me, and does not move. The eyes, though they throw small light, are deeply alive and watchful. If she had to die in this hour and for this enterprise, she would, without hesitation.

  • All his wildness was in his head—such a good place for it!

  • Poe claimed he could hear the night darkness as it pour, in the evening, into the world.

  • For whatever reason, the heart cannot separate the world’s appearance and actions from morality and valor, and the power of every idea is intensified, if not actually created, by its expression in substance. Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever retrurns, we experience eternity.

  • Little by little, one or two, then a dozen, begin to drift into a wider constellation—toward the floor or the stair wall—spreading outward even as the universe is said to be spreading toward the next adventure and the next, endlessly.

  • Hope, I know, is a fighter and a screamer.

  • Through these woods I have walked thousands of times. For many years I felt more at home here than anywhere else, including our own house.

  • After Luke died, I crossed and recrossed the Province Lands, wherever we had been, and wherever I found her paw-prints in the sand I dragged branches and leaves and slabs of bark over them, so they would last, would keep from the wind a long time. Then overnight, after maybe three weeks, in a dazzling, rearranging rain, they were gone.

  • Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the precognition of the spirtual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state.

  • I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves—we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.

  • For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.