Mary Oliver published her first book of poems at age 28. Sixteen years and four collections later, she won a Pulitzer. Since then, she has been one of this country’s most decorated and best-selling poets.
Now 81, Oliver has published “Upstream,” a book of essays that provides deep insights and delightful anecdotes as she examines her role as a writer, reader and a spiritual seeker who constantly practices what she describes as the redemptive art of true effort.
The book opens with “Upstream,” a lyrical piece where Oliver recalls wading upstream in rippling water as a child while her parents remained downstream. As she moved further and further away, some steps easy, others requiring great effort, she realized that she enjoyed being lost because she could feel her heart opening and opening again. That opening, and “the sense of going toward the source,” informs the rest of the book and her life journey because, as she writes, “I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.”
In the 19 essays here, many of which have been published previously, Oliver learns how to find a new home and shows how that process has unfolded, day by day, year by year, one discovery after another.
Many of those revelations come from observing the natural world — young foxes, turtles laying their eggs, a variety of fish and birds — with all its beauty, complexity and struggles. Others come from analyzing the choices, both on and off the page, of writers she considers companions and mentors.
From Wordsworth, for example, she learns that one’s true abode is made “not of beams and nails but of existence itself — is all of earth, with no door, no address separate from oceans or stars.” Emerson teaches her that the heart’s true awakening is the true work of our lives, and from Poe she gleans that while loss is inevitable and the universe is indifferent, “we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions.” Whitman, whom she calls a “friend” since childhood, shows her, among other things, that the poet’s great task is “the merging of the lonely single self with the wondrous, never-lonely entirety” and that felt experience is the only successful persuader.
Oliver incorporates all of those insights in her poetry. Yet here, the expansiveness of prose allows her to explore ideas in depth and to share imperatives, such as “You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.” The work also allows readers to see new sides of Oliver, a deeply private person, who loves woodworking and builds a hut in her yard, despite her lack of skills, and rescues an injured black-baked gull, whom she dotes on for weeks until his passing.
The richness of these essays — part revelation, part instruction — will prompt readers to dive in again and again as Oliver reveals more about what she feels is the responsibility to live, observe and write with careful attention, passion, and an abiding awareness that hope is “a fighter and a screamer.”
As she continues to travel upstream, with nature and literature as her guides, she shows readers how they too can forge their own path and “look past reason, past the provable, in other directions.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.
By Mary Oliver
Penguin Press. 178 pp. $26
“The book is kind of for the person who in some ways is half in and half out of religion,” Ms. Daniel said in a recent interview. “They know it might be meaningful, but they don’t know how to make a case for it, or tell a story about the religious life that does not sound obnoxious or judgmental.”
Ms. Daniel, by contrast, makes the case forcefully, seemingly unworried about those she might offend.
“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me,” she writes. “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”
But Linda A. Mercadante, who teaches at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio contests that description of the spiritual but not religious. In “Beliefs Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious” (Oxford), published in March, she makes the case that spiritual people can be quite deep theologically.
An ordained Presbyterian minister whose father was Catholic and whose mother was Jewish, Dr. Mercadante went through a spiritual but not religious period of her own — although she now attends a Mennonite church. For her project, she interviewed 85 S.B.N.R.s, then used computer programs to help analyze transcripts of those interviews. She found that these spiritual people also thought about death, the afterlife and other profound subjects.
For example, “they reject heaven and hell, but they do believe in an afterlife,” Dr. Mercadante said recently. “In some ways, they would fit O.K. in a progressive Christian context.” Because they dislike institutions, the spiritual but not religious also recoil from the deities such institutions are built around. “They may like Jesus, he might be their guru, he might be one of their many bodhisattvas, but Jesus as God is not on their radar screen,” Dr. Mercadante said.
When Courtney Bender, now teaching at Columbia, went looking for spiritual but not religious people in Cambridge, Mass., where she was then living, she found them not on solitary nature walks but in all sorts of groups — which complicates the stereotype of them as anti-institutional loners. She described her findings in “The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination” (Chicago, 2010).
They “participated in everything from mystical discussion groups to drumming circles to yoga classes,” Dr. Bender said in an interview. And her finding that spirituality “is not sui generis,” but rather learned in communities that persist over time, actually runs contrary to spiritual people’s conceptions of themselves, she said. “There is something in the theology of spiritual groups that actually refocuses their practitioners from thinking about how they fit into a long continuous spirituality.”
In other words, their self-image “makes them think, ‘I don’t need history, I don’t need the past,’ ” Dr. Bender said, adding that they think, “I am not religious, which is about the past — I am spiritual, about the present.”
Yet people who call themselves spiritual are actually embedded in communal practices, albeit not churches or religious denominations. Dr. Bender found them in “alternative and complementary medicine,” for example. “So people would encounter this stuff in the shiatsu massage clinic, or going to an acupuncturist,” she said.
“Another one that is very important is the arts,” she added. “People involved in everything from painting and dance” would also end up discussing their conception of the divine.
So is spirituality solitary or communal? Is it theologically engaged or just focused on “nature” and “gratitude,” as Ms. Daniel worries? To judge from “A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World” (Gotham, 2014), by Thomas Moore, whose “Care of the Soul” is one of the best-selling self-help books ever, spirituality can be whatever one makes it. In his guide to developing a custom spirituality, he encourages people to draw on religion, antireligion — whatever works for them.
“Every day I add another piece to the religion that is my own,” Dr. Moore writes. “It’s built on years of meditation, chanting, theological study and the practice of therapy — to me a sacred activity.”
At the very least, we might conclude that “spiritual but not religious” isn’t necessarily vague or wishy-washy. It’s not nothing, although it may risk being everything.Continue reading the main story