Mary Oliver

Exactly two weeks after I referred to American poet Mary Oliver in my post “Observe with Passion,” she died of lymphoma in her home in Florida. I suspect if you asked, Mary Oliver would tell you she lived 84 good years, most of them spent with her partner, photographer Molly Malone Cook at their home in Provincetown, Massachusetts at the extreme tip of Cape Cod.

In that earlier post, I extolled the virtues of reading slowly and deliberately to fully understand the intention of the written words you choose to read. At the time, I was reading Ms. Oliver’s 2016 collection of essays, Upstream, a small and slender volume of 175 pages. I finished the book this morning. The adventure lasted over 60 days. I read fewer than three pages a day. While the physical act of reading three pages requires upwards of three minutes, I found myself frequently re-reading and contemplating what I had read for at least another five. Bottom line, I spent 10 minutes each morning with Ms. Oliver and many more throughout the day as I reflected upon what I read.

It was a grand exercise and I am the better for it.

Typically, I read with a yellow Sharpie to mark passages that resonate strongly within me both by the sound and order of the words and by what I interpret as the intention of the author. What follows is a selection of the passages I highlighted in my copy of Upstream. I hope they encourage you to take time with this or another good book…

Adults can change their circumstances; children cannot.

For it is precisely how I feel, who have inherited not measurable wealth, but as we all do who care for it, that immeasurable fund of thoughts and ideas, from writers and thinkers long gone into the ground – and, inseparable from those wisdoms because demanded by them, the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently. To enjoy, to question – never to assume, or trample. Thus the great ones (my great ones, who may not be the same as your great ones) have taught me – to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly.

He lives nowhere but on the page and in the attentive mind that leans above that page.

Writing that loses its elegance loses its significance.

There is a rumor of total welcome among the frost of the winter morning.

But dawn – dawn is a gift. Much is revealed about a person by his or her passion, or indifference, to this opening of the door of day.

For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water. Most of the adult world spoke of such things as opportunities, and materials. To the young these materials are still celestial; for every child the garden is recreated.

How wonderful that the universe is beautiful in so many places and in so many ways.

And there is this certainty about muscles; they need to be exercised.

Did we do right or wrong to lengthen his days?

He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact; this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief .

Dear bear, it’s no use, the world is like that. So stay where you are, and live long. Someday maybe we’ll wise up and remember what you were: hopeless ambassador of a world that returns now only in poets’ dreams.

In the old days dogs in our town roam freely. But the old ways changed.

Maybe it’s about the wonderful things that may happen if you break the ropes that are holding you.

The old small stores, with which I was long familiar, are gone. Though there are new ones, to suit new purposes. Previously there were small shops because it was a small town. Now there are small shops because the tourists want to think they’re still in that little town, which has vanished. It is good business now to appear antiquated, with narrow aisles and quaintly labeled jars.

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.

I heard suddenly a powerful beating of wings, a feisty rhythm, a pomp of sound, within it a thrust then a slight uptake. The wings of angels might sound so, who are after all not mild but militant, and cross the skies on important missions. Then, just above the trees, their feet trailing and their eyes blazing, two swans flew by.

There is a place in the woods where the vanishing bodies of our dogs, our dogs of the past, lie in the sweet-smelling earth. How they ran through these woods!

Now I think there was only one subject worth my attention and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, with this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to. What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude.

We are each other’s destiny.

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

He is beyond what he believed himself to be.

It has undeniable value: it exists.

There is something you can tell people over and over, and with feeling and eloquence, and still never say it well enough for it to be more than news from abroad – people have no readiness for it, no empathy. It is the news of personal aging – of climbing, and knowing it, to some unrepeatable pitch and coming forth on the other side, which is pleasant still but which is, unarguably, different – which is the beginning of the descent. It is the news that no one is singular, that no argument will change the course, that one’s time is more gone than not, and what is left waits to be spent gracefully and attentively, if not quite so actively.

With my personal concession that my time ‘is more gone than not,’ I am compelled by Ms. Oliver’s words to spend what is left gracefully and attentively…

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  1. Me, also. I particularly enjoyed this posting. May all your days be full of love and contentment.