On [Living] Upstream

Let me always be who I am, and then some.

I look back on my writing and often wonder, “Did I really write that?” The answer, of course, is yes, I wrote it. The accompanying truth is that I am not that I. Like Jorge Luis Borges, “I am not sure which of us has written this page,” because there’s such a beautifully chaotic multiplicity of I’s which might write through me in any given moment. Indeed, the possibilities of “I” are infinite. I am everything, and so anything might be writing this reflection. When I chance upon this post at some point in the future, if I end up here again for whatever reason, I wonder which “I” will be present for it. Who might I be then and there? Who am I here and now? I imagine (who imagines?) that any attempt to pin down my present “I” is futile. As soon as I capture myself, another “I” is prancing about, totally free from my prison of thought and language. My essential I is always free, even as I ensnare some provisional “I,” mistaking it for the real thing; the real me. Who am I? Perhaps it is fairer to ask, who am I not? Then, I can sink into the fullness of myself, which is, of course, the unceasing fullness of the universe.

Self-exploration – that examined life worth living – is an upstream affair. You’re pushing against a current you can never beat; all the more reason to push, right? Sure. As long as your labor comes with the recognition of its Sisyphean reality, i.e. push the boulder and be happy. (Are we in a river or on a mountain, Lou? Chain down your metaphor!)

Or there is no upstream. As soon as you recognize and accept that you’ve always been in the water, or rather, that you are the water, you don’t need to resist anymore. There’s no battle, only being. The search doesn’t stop; you don’t need to cease striving or wondering or working. In fact, your activities take on new life because they’re finally in the midst of all life; they’re fully alive, i.e. they’re fully aware.

Wait, the activities are alive and aware?

In a sense, yes.

In what sense?

You are your activities. Your awareness is their awareness, and vice versa.

What sense does that make?

Nothing makes sense, so everything does.

That’s some pseudo-philosophical bullshit.

Or is it trans-philosophical? Philosophy has limits. “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy…”

Quoting Hamlet doesn’t make your crazy claims true.

Maybe so. It does, at least, veil them with a greater possibility of truth. I’ll take that.

Isn’t this post supposed to be a reflection on Mary Oliver’s Upstream?

I am reflecting it. She quests for understanding. So do I. So am I.

Anchor the quest in something specific from the book.

Do you think there’s greater truth in specificity? Is my current act of suggestion insufficient?

I suggest you point us to some specific quality in the book that you can then make universal. What you’re doing now is enough, but you can also do more.

I’ll swim with that.


Every text in an invitation to a dialogue, so let’s converse, Mary Oliver.

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

What I choose to pay attention to, I value. What I value, I become. To become implicates a future self; of course, I speak of a becoming, the act of my present self. I am paying attention, valuing, becoming. There is no future to create; there is only perpetual creation, which is at the same time, perpetual destruction, or at least dissolution. Whatever I am I already am not. This paradox of being and not-being does nothing to diminish my devotion to life. I pay all my attention to it. I am always my own becoming, which is to say, I am never anything.

But first and foremost, 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—an artifact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is.

Poe, Whitman, Emerson. These are a few of your kindred ancestors. They speak to me as well. What is it in them that we share an awe of, Mary? How are we both in them? How are we all one in the same? Is it our awe of a world we know we can never quite touch? Our infinite wonder at this separation, at our faithful grasping at connection – at reunion – in spite of it?

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 .

I will not be on these regretful people, i.e. I am not one of these regretful people. You are a summons to myself, Mary. Thank you for helping me remember. Thank you for helping me reunite with myself.

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.

Amen, Mary. There are moments when we don’t have to add anything; there is language that wants no new decoration. And yet here I am adding anyway. Perhaps that’s life. It wants nothing, which is the very reason we must give it everything.

Emerson would not turn from the world , which was domestic , and social , and collective , and required action . Neither would he swerve from that unperturbable inner radiance , mystical , forming no rational word but drenched with passionate and untranslatable song .

For the sun shines today also, it is true, Emerson. It is true, Mary. What is “it” exactly? Present experience, of course. That is our only truth, whatever happens here and now. The world outside is a happening, way more than the event we create with consciousness out of it. The world inside is a happening, way more than the fixed world we think we see around us. It is all flowing energy, dammed only by our desperate desire to hold it, knowing how fleeting our embrace is, clinging that much more tightly because we must let go.

For are we not all , at times , exactly like Poe’s narrators — beating upon the confining walls of circumstance , the limits of the universe ? In spiritual work , with good luck ( or grace ) , we come to accept life’s brevity for ourselves . But the lover that is in each of us — the part of us that adores another person — ah ! that is another matter . In the mystery and the energy of loving , we all view time’s shadow upon the beloved as wretchedly as any of Poe’s narrators . We do not think of it every day , but we never forget it : the beloved shall grow old , or ill , and be taken away finally .

So it goes…Vonnegut penned this once – repeatedly – in Slaughterhouse-Five. Was it a lament? Scornful resignation? Quiet celebration? I choose the final possibility, for it is life, and as it comes, so it goes. If it only came, we would never know it, for we only know a thing when it leaves. In death we discover life, all that it ever was, is, and shall continue to be. In death, is life taken away from us, or are we returned to life? Let us not await our return, and let us not deny that return when it comes, for then we must go.

Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me . Something in me still starves . In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life , I have begun to look past reason , past the provable , in other directions . Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and , within this recognition , the condition of my own spiritual state .

I’ve arrived here as well, Mary. Shall we dance together in this recognition?

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.


So here I am , walking on down the sandy path , with my wild body , with the inherited devotions of curiosity and respect .

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