Homesong Book Club | ‘Upstream: Selected Essays’ by Mary Oliver


Every time I plop down and read words by Mary Oliver I am taken elsewhere. I am whisked somewhere far away, away from the city noise and mechanical distractions, to somewhere where there’s a soft breeze and a wide, open field full of grasshoppers hopping on marigolds and droopy sunflowers. The echo of birds overhead is undoubtably sweeter there, and so is the country air, and the round shapes of the clouds that hang overhead like cotton balls bobbing on string. Have you ever gone the the eye doctor and had to choose between this lens or that one to get new glasses? I have been going since Kindergarten {oof!}, and when I read Mary’s words, it feels like the crisper lens has been dropped over the deep black of my irises. “Definitely the one first one,” I confidently tell the eye doctor; her words help me see.

And then there’s time. Time does this wonderful but bewildering magic act just as soon as I crack open one of her books and trace my finger leisurely down the page, tracing the curves of her words. She has managed, somehow, to slow time to a trickle, and like warm water in a shallow stream, it nudges me mindfully along, making me aware of every rock and stone and pebble I feel as I float. For these reasons, and many more I’ve decided I shall keep in my back pocket, I love Mary Oliver.

Last month in August we read Upstream: Selected Essays and it was nothing short of a delight. It’s not a pick up and read in its entirety kind of book, but it’s dear nevertheless. Written as a thoughtful compilation of her many works and spanning several decades, Oliver’s latest book is what you could call, autobiographical of sorts. And friends, is it ever beautiful. She dances around the themes of transcendental writers, the extreme of the seasons of life, and stories about the tilt of the moon, fluttering moths, and teensy fish eggs. She makes magic out of nature’s every turn, and it’s utterly delicious.

Here are some of the questions I jotted down in the margins as I read Upstream this summer. Perhaps they’ll give you food to for thought, and if anything, a place to start if you have yet to read:

  1. Who, if anyone, does this book remind you of? Maybe it’s not a real person or anyone you know, but what kind of person does this book personify? 
  2. What do you make of Oliver’s use of questioning throughout her poems and writing? 
  3. Have you ever wished to be something from nature: a flower, a tree, a bird? Why? What were you longing for in that moment?
  4. How does Oliver help ground you to the present moment through her carefully crafted words?
  5. How have you built attentiveness into your life? In what ways can you cultivate more time to be attentive? How could this impact your days?
  6. In what ways does Oliver’s writing stir up nostalgia in you? 
  7. Do you, like Oliver, believe that “everything has a soul”? 
  8. How has Oliver used writing to overcome the hardships in her life? What words or phrases can you extract from this book that give weight to her courage? 
  9. What did you make of Oliver’s words on creative work needing solitude? Did you agree or disagree with them?
  10. If your soul was a season, what one would it be? Why is this so?
  11. If you had to draw a line and separate your life into three segments this very moment, where would those lines be drawn? 
  12. Do you enjoy Oliver’s thorough evaluation of what she sees around her, or is it too detailed for your taste? 
  13. If you had to guess who sweet Ms. Mary would invite over to dinner if she had five empty seats, who would they be? 
  14. If there was one page in this book you had to {gently} rip out and carry in your pocket forever, what would it be?
  15. How has this book been life-giving for you? 


I am going to be starting up newsletters again and will send October’s book out with it, but for now, let’s chat about Upstream and not get too far ahead of ourselves. Tell me what you loved, and what make you smile, ponder, or underline. Feel free to answer any of the questions I have written out for you in the comments sections, and piggy back on anyone’s comment if you so choose.

xx Amanda


  • Lizzz - Amanda, I didn’t realize you were doing Upstream for your book club. I am slowly reading throughout and am loving it. I find it gives me a stillness I need as a retreat from the craziness of my little ones.

    Anyway, I just wanted to stay I love the thoughtful questions you have come up with for this discussion. I’ll keep them in mind as I continue enjoying the book.ReplyCancel

    • admin - Liz, glad to hear you are loving the book and find the questions helpful! I always find I get more meaning out of what I read when I give time to ponder things before moving on. It’s refreshing to hear others feel the same. 🙂 x AmandaReplyCancel

  • Carolyn - 14. Definitely my favorite pages are 57-58! All about the writers and thinkers who inspire us and whose thoughts we carry with us, wherever we go. “They do not all say the same thing. But the fit of thoughtfulness unites them.” They encourage us, in their own unique ways: “Be what you are, of the earth, but a dreamer too.” // I love thinking about the impact all books / articles / essays / artistic experiences have had on shaping who I am. I suppose I’d have to include Mary Oliver in this mix now too!ReplyCancel

    • admin - Carolyn, I love the idea of carrying a collection of other’s thoughts with us wherever we go. x AmandaReplyCancel

  • Emily - Amanda, I adored this book so much. What a treat it was to pick up and read with my morning coffee and evening tea. It quickly became a ritual, and thus, I quickly soaked the collection right up, and now of course, I am craving more. I found myself thinking “she really gets me”. Her writing reminds me so much of my childhood and my great grandmother taking me outside for a picnic beneath the hickory tree; and now living in a big city, I find myself craving the fields, woods, and streams I traversed as a child. What a gift. And I am presently aching for its return.

    14. “And we might, in our lives, have many thresholds, many houses to walk out from and view the stars, or to turn and go back to for warmth and company. But the real one – the actual house not of beams and nails but of existence itself – is all of earth, with no door, no address separate from oceans or stars, or from pleasure or wretchedness either, or hope, or weakness, or greed.”

    I am loving the book club and the thoughtful questions you pose. Deepest Thanks!ReplyCancel

    • admin - Emily, I love how you said you feel that Mary “gets you”, as I feel the same. Her writing is such a treat and it always seems to be what I have been longing to hear, you know? And this quote, such a good one! The idea and overall philosophy of Earth as home is beautiful. x AmandaReplyCancel

  • Nellsbells - First thank you so much for the book club! Though I haven’t always commented I have read along and have greatly enjoyed it!! Such thoughtful books and love your questions they really get me thinking. As for the questions… 1. My mom and 9. Yes, I whole heartily agree that creativity needs solitude. My best paintings come from deep unconscious intuitive place if I try to paint in a social setting my paintings become superficial (and the social setting includes letting my own thoughts get in the way. I have to step back at let the art happen).ReplyCancel

    • admin - I agree that creativity thrives best in solitude, but I also find that when I am around other creatives my ideas flow like crazy! So for, it’s a balance. I love that you paint from an intuitive place, what special pieces they must be! x AmandaReplyCancel

  • Ali - I am a high school English teacher, and I love your questions. I also love Mary Oliver.ReplyCancel

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