Dusting myself off

On a recent visit to New York City, the bellman at my hotel handed me a poem. A few hours later, the doorman handed me a different poem. The next day there was yet another doorman with yet another poem. “Here, ma’am, this is for you,” they each said. My daughter (and occasional elf-sub) Lizzie had arranged the poem distribution. It was a thoughtful gift for the milestone birthday I was celebrating, although truth be told, I did find it disconcerting to be on the receiving end of a poem-elfing. I felt like a very elderly person whose children have arranged a weekly scrub-down because they decided my hygiene was suspect. Look at me there down the hall, tottering off to the bathroom, a sturdy caregiver gripping my elbows so I don’t fall down.

Milestone, mill stone. Yikes. But it’s okay. It’s all good, beats the alternative, etc. Onward.

Here’s the hotel staff with their haikus—


Getting a haiku from a stranger didn’t seem to faze these fellas. New Yorkers see a lot of stuff, I guess. Still, I wonder what they thought of the poems and if they kept them.

Lizzie actually gave me four poems, but I lost the fourth one before I could re-post it.

The third one, the Mary Oliver poem below, Lizzie gave me herself. She had tried to get the gatekeeper at a fancy boutique to do it, but he said no. I left it in a planter outside the store.

poem is in the planter closest to the window


Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me

by Mary Oliver


Last night

the rain

spoke to me

slowly, saying,

what joy

to come falling

out of the brisk cloud,

to be happy again

in a new way

on the Earth!


That’s what it said

as it dropped,

smelling of iron,

and vanished

like a dream of the ocean

into the branches

and the grass below.


Then it was over.

The sky cleared.


I was standing

under a tree

with happy leaves,

and I was myself,

and there were stars in the sky

that were also themselves

at the moment

my right hand

was holding my left hand

which was holding the tree

which was filled with stars

and the soft rain—

imagine! imagine!

the long and wondrous journeys

still to be ours.


Oliver is cheerful, excited even, about moving from one stage of life to the next. Just as the drop of water cycles through the ocean to the sky, to the tree, to the earth, so will she. It’s all a wondrous journey. Me, I keep hearing the Ash Wednesday edict, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return.”

Funny how scientifically true that is. We do come from dust, stardust that is—the molecules of our human cells are made of elements that come from the ashes of dying stars—and once underground, our bodies will decay back to dust. Oliver holds the whole panoply of elements in her poem without diagramming the cycle. When she writes that she is still herself and the stars are themselves at the moment, it’s clearly a temporary arrangement.


Human hands hold the tree, even as the tree holds the rain and the stars. The hip bone connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone connected to the knee bone. Everything is of a piece.

By the way, those dying stars that make up the atoms of all life burned off their ash billions of years ago. So that’s how old my body really is. Kind of puts the milestone birthday in perspective.

A few lines in Oliver’s poem should carry me through to the next milestone:


to be happy again

in a new way

on the Earth!

And especially—

imagine! imagine!

the long and wondrous journeys

still to be ours.


For a biography of Mary Oliver, link here.


Basho (1644-1694) is Japan’s most famous poet. He was born Matsuo Kinsaku in Japan to a family of six children. By age 12 he was in service to a feudal lord with whom he shared an interest in poetry. After the lord died, Matsuo moved to what is now Toyko to study poetry and Zen. He became well-known for his poems and taught poetry to a group of devoted disciples. When he chose to live in isolation, his disciples built him a hut and planted a banana tree in the yard. Banana tree translates as “basho,” which became his new name.

After so many years in the hut, which burned down, Basho began to wander on foot. He took many long journeys, which led to his developing a new poetic form called haibun. Haibun describes a journey using a combination of prose and haiku. His last long walk covered 1,200 miles over 5 months.



  1. Jim Ellis

    You have an exceptional daughter. What a cool birthday present. Put that bellman’s grin on the cover of your book.
    Wonderful post. Thank you, esp. for the Basho!

    Olav Hauge

    Not by car,
    not by plane –
    by neither haysled
    nor rickety cart
    – or even by Elijah’s fiery chariot!

    You’ll never get farther than Basho.
    He got there by foot.

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