“Attention is the beginning of devotion” is the last line of Upstream, Mary Oliver’s first essay in a collection of shorts that express her life’s trajectory towards nurturing and developing her creative spirit, always in intimate conversation with herself and with nature. The minute details of the self and the world that she outlines in these stories communicate her inspiring brand of devotion to life and to always following the stream to its elusive source. This passage focuses on respecting what is common to all life, finding the thread or what applies to all forms of consciousness.
Understand from the first this certainty. Butterflies don’t write books, neither do lilies or violets. Which doesn’t mean they don’t know, in their own way, what they are. That they don’t know they are alive—that they don’t feel, that action upon which all consciousness sits, lightly or heavily. Humility is the prize of the leaf-world. Vainglory is the bane of us, the humans.
Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. 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. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.
Mary Oliver (1935-2019)