Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ocean Blue, Ocean Deep


They say to never begin the story with a dream. It’s been done to death, it's amateur hour. But what, may I ask, in the best of this world doesn’t trip off a dream's tongue?

I’m on the sands of a southern California beach. My parents are a little bit ahead of me. Dad. Mom. Big. Small. The ocean, stretched out like a mirror on its back, is blue and white, like clouds and sky.

And my mother’s eyes.

The beach was a Mom place. There were Dad places, too, like sitting on his lap in that cigar-yellowed den, getting my cuticles pushed back after he cut the nails. And sometimes the two places intersected, like at the dinner table, where each green bean had to find my mouth, or over a family game of Boggle, where I hunted for the words to gobble and impress. But most places were Mom places, and the beach certainly was.

Don’t those waves just sound like a womb?

I know it’s winter. And the sand is cold on my soles. Even California sun is a little bit sedated in the leaner months. I don’t ask why we’re here. It just feels strong and familiar, as I watch my parents' backs against the long, flat water. Even if I haven’t been back to my birth state in many, many years.

The beach was still a Mom place after we moved to Ohio in 1984. Her parents lived in Yorba Linda, California, and we went back by car each summer. My mom, sister, brother, and I. These were long trips of six weeks or more. Educational, in the truest sense. I tried to count the colored cobs in the South Dakota Corn Palace. I couldn’t forget the Alamo, even if I wanted. The Grand Canyon, Zion, and Yosemite are the Sunday schools I most revere.

And all those good books, gobbled in a car's backseat.

But the beach was always the ultimate destination. Even at ten or eleven, I could claim the glow and rub of nostalgia. The squawks of seagulls the cries of old friends welcoming me back into the flock. The velvet saltiness in the air a favorite, dirty perfume.

Dad turns around, shading his eyes against the sun. I hurry to catch up. He always wanted me to run, not walk.

I have no memory of seeing my dad at the beach. Though there are photos of him looking tolerant enough, while my brother and sister buried him in sand. Some twig of patience for it must have snapped by the time I hit my stride, dragging boogie-board and towel and, as it turned out, never enough sunscreen to prevent beach fever from branding itself on my nose and cheeks for the next few weeks.

They’re both wading in the ocean now. Barefoot, the water shin-high. I’m uncertain, sticking to the shoreline, knowing that cold sand means colder waters.

Why did it never occur to me to ask why my father didn’t come with us? Even when we lived in Ohio, he had an unconventional job that would permit him long stretches of time off. But he never came, and I don’t remember ever wondering why. Maybe I was just relieved. Mom was the tender one. While Dad could emotionally tenderize me.

This was a true vacation, then.

And looking back, I recognize how exceedingly lucky I was. Stupid, drunken dartboard luck. The sort of luck that could only be claimed by another swig of innocence.

The water is warm. Against all odds. The water is the golden state.

I smile at the incongruity. Maybe the ocean isn’t merely a mirror, reflecting the sun’s rays, the cold expectations we harbor and nurse. Maybe it’s a reservoir of unplumbed depths, still capable of holding and surprising.

I’m not sure why some people can’t show their love, the way that others do. But I’ve never really doubted that my father loves me, and with all that he is. For me to expect more of him is to deny the contradictory currents of his true nature.

The path to hell is paved with good intentions? I don’t know. Maybe so. But I'm very far from hell. And the subjective goodness of those intentions has to count for something. This is how I feel today.

Still very lucky. My kids only knowing Mom-and-Dad places.

The water is lucid and clean. I can see my toes wriggling. The bones of shells bedded in their wet grave. Beneath the warm embrace.

I told my dad I loved him the other day. Not a big thing, right? But yeah, it kind of is. It took something nearly tragic for me to admit it to him. And he didn’t say it back. But he let me kiss him on his cheek without it being too awkward. I think he appreciated it.

Anyway, it was something I could do. He always preached personal responsibility. But it's my gospel to interpret.

The water remains blue and white, as I wade further into its depths. Like my mother’s eyes. Mine, too. 

Blue eyes are a recessive trait. My father’s eyes are brown. But he carries the gene, buried deep inside his cells, and he gifted it to me.

I had other dreams last night, ones that were less kind. But this is the one I choose to remember. This is the one that makes me salty with something better than nostalgia. And this is the one that makes me smile.

Monday, January 25, 2010


I stare at your mouth,
broken open for
some dark gathering,
open for business
serving only one question,
as your chest scrapes
more lung
to feed a heart gone hungry,
my eyes check the measure
of mortality’s true hand
carving through a parchment weary,
the jut and claw of
tendons spreading
liver spots and stubble
on a neck built

for what?

The hospital gown has
slipped off your shoulder,
and the bloodless skin beneath
strikes me as an innocence taken,
not given,
it’s too much for me to see,
I, your granddaughter,
once held on your good knee,
that blood flows down to me,
I’ve taken it,
hand over hand,
we’ve traced the genes
along the rope,
given them names,
wrapped meaning like covers
around leather-bound books
titled Harmon Genealogy,
when they’re all but
the dust of memory

You’re 94,
and that should make
it all right,
but somehow I still can’t
wrap my brain around it

And the heart monitor
goes blip-blip
around the countdown clock
inside my head
while nurses chatter
over the hospital stink
about premature thunder,
(drip drip goes the rain
outside, where people
drive cars instead of sleep,
I wonder if you dream),
and the nurses have moved on
to talk of broken parts,
and you once owned a
tool company,
I know this
I remember

When I was on the
other side of the
dark equation

You rolled them down
an assembly line,
counting the widgets,
counting nickels and dimes,
which you’d someday show me
in that little coin holder
that puckered like
my pink little mouth
every time you slid
it out
to buy me a smile
or to entertain
as we waited for
some thing that
probably came

And your mouth isn’t smiling now

But you’re 94!
And that should make
it all right,
it really ought,
but somehow I still can’t
wrap my brain around it,
and I probably won’t
until I’m the one with
the tube up my nose,
and I just can’t stare around it

Where is that line
separating wet and dry,
near and far,
dead from alive?
I’ve never been good
at believing in the
black and white
that often seemed
to structure your life,
I always wanted to
squeeze in some rainbows
somewhere in the
space between,
and you were all right
with that

If only I had let you in

But none of our tools
is good enough now,
my eyes see what is
right in front of me,
they drill down because
you do not look at me,
and that thinnest of
red lines lives not on
a monitor,
but somewhere
in that dark cavity
stretched for deep sleep,
and it is so thin,
but tight,
that nothing can sit on it,
nor wriggle through it,
not my fear,
my sadness,
this moment,
the rain

not even color
or poetry

My Granddad with his 

Friday, January 22, 2010

What Is

Take this rolling pin
and flatten me out,
get your fingers
all sticky and
‘cause I’m not thin
enough yet,
I still have
too thick
a pulse
that flutters
and quickens
like a
wet puppy dog’s tail
right before
the newspaper’s
thumps the letter
of his soft, runt

But even as
I squint
real skinny
for the shape-shifting
target of a
circular aim,
I laugh at all the
fat drama
for which I’m
with this
painterly choice
of purple words,
blossomed from
the semi-bitten
bruises of plums,
and rolled on
a world
that just is
what it is

what this is

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Season For Dreams

My new author website is up and running, thanks to hours of work and experimenting on behalf of my husband.  And I love the result!  He surpassed my expectations, and I'm very lucky for it.  Thank you, Paul

The site is really meant to promote my forthcoming book, Plum Blossoms in Paris, to people who don't know of it, or me, but I also had the opportunity to prattle on about how Paris has influenced my writing.  And to post an excerpt of the book for those who are interested. 

Murmurs stays right here.  While I will occasionally write blog posts on the other site, they will revolve around the novel.  I want Murmurs to remain a creative outlet primarily, and not a marketing mechanism.  With the exception of this post, of course.  Ahem.

Just for today, though, I will cross-post my first site entry here, too:
Prelude to a Story

I wrote my first story while I was in medical school.

Buried by exams and gross anatomy during my second semester, and unable to shake the cloud of formaldehyde that hung over me, I sought solace in that other half of my brain. The neglected half. It’s no wonder that my first story’s title would be “A Season For Dreams.”  I was sorely lacking in them. But storytelling was a new experience for me, and it was hard.  Not pathophysiology hard, no.  But a different kind of hard.  I was exercising muscles that had atrophied since the imaginative ballets we all stage in childhood.  And I took tentative, baby steps at first.  But I finished the story, and I enjoyed the process. The immersion.  It breathed new life into my tired hours.

Then I put the thing aside, and forgot all about it.  After all, writing was something other people did.  It was something my fiancĂ©, Paul, did.  Me?

I was a reader.

And, as it turns out, I was something else.  I was not a doctor.  I quit medical school after one year, and considered myself lucky to escape with $20,000 in outstanding loans.  At least I owned my freedom and peace of mind.  At least I hadn’t had the chance to botch a diagnosis.  My new husband and I settled in my hometown of Athens, Ohio.  I got a job in a lab (more stinky formaldehyde).  We got a dog.  I got pregnant.  Bing-bam-boom.

Writing returned to me after the birth of our daughter.  Like so many new parents, I felt lost inside my own skin.  While I loved our baby girl intensely, I needed a refuge.  Something to call my own.  I started writing a novel titled Holiday.  And when I finished it a year later, I was lighter in the soul.  And hungry for more.

Plum Blossoms in Paris came to me during the summer months of 2005.  I wanted to write a book in the same spirit as the film, Before Sunrise, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.  A story about two people who were right for one another in every way, but who met in the wrong time and place.  Instead of Vienna, I chose Paris as a backdrop.  And I didn’t know my ending when Daisy first set foot on those cobblestone streets.  I hoped for the best for her and Mathieu, but I couldn’t guarantee anything.  I would see where they led me.  And be swept up in their romance for over a year.

And boy, did I miss them when it was all over.  I still miss them on occasion.  Old characters are a bit like ghosts who’ve decided to haunt other people.  You kind of wish they’d come around more often.  Rattle some chains.  Breathe a few more secrets into your ear.

Long story (very, very) short, the novel was eventually picked up by Medallion Press for publication in August, 2010.  My jubilation on receiving that news was profound, and still lingers.  It was a season for dreams, once more.  My heart swells to think of other people picking up my book, and slipping into the world I’ve created.  I was a reader, foremost.  That was my passion growing up.  And it’s still my first love.

But has anything else changed in my switch from “writer” to “author?”  No.  Maybe that’s premature to say, and perhaps I’m glossing over the busy (and discomfiting) work that comes with promoting your own novel, but I still say, “no.”  I never started writing with the goal of becoming an author.  I started writing because it was a precious escape from the burdens of expectation.  And to a certain extent, that’s changed.  Yes.  But that’s because I started demanding more from myself.  In prose and poetry.  Blog posts, too.  If I couldn’t be satisfied with what I’d written, how would anyone else be? And how in the heck would I fall asleep at night?

Writers are pretty self-indulgent creatures for the most part.  We write what moves us.  We write to reflect, and transcend, reality.  We write to communicate who we are. To stake a legacy.

And yes.  We also write to connect with others.

So thank you for reading.

I hope you enjoy my story.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Friday, January 1, 2010


“A new decade.”

“I suppose.”

“No resolutions, I take it?”

“People don’t change. Not really.”

“We’ve changed.”

“Not at the core. What changes over the years is awareness. We become more aware of our patterns, our flaws, our relationship dynamics. But fundamentally? I’m the same person I was at twenty. I just know too much now.”

“Isn’t that pretty fatalistic? Like we’re just computers recycling the same basic program. Ghosts in our machines.”

“We’re human enough to recognize that, at a certain point in life, we are largely powerless. Again, that terrible awareness. Of being boxed in. But our wants will remain our wants. Our compulsions laugh at all that mighty understanding.”

“Funny. My compulsions are all telling me to kiss you.”


“Bleakness just so happens to be an aphrodisiac for me."

“You’re pretty messed up.”

“I’m aware.”


“No, what I’m actually doing is demonstrating free will. My free will wants to kiss you.”

“Does that line work on all the guys?”

“Pretty much.”

“But a midnight kiss is clichĂ©d, expected. You’re just following someone else’s—”


“What for?”

“You’ve got lipstick right—”


“Mm hmm.”

“It was worth it.”

“I’m glad.”

“Sorry if I bummed you out before. I can be a morose drunk.”

“You’re not drunk.”

“Even worse.”



“I love you.”


“It’s my destiny.”

“Heady word . . . destiny.”

“Same thing you were talking about earlier. Just wrapped in a prettier package. But I’ll own these thoughts and feelings. I can’t escape them, yet they can’t be taken from me, either. I’m free to hold them. It’s like Goethe said. ‘If I love you, what business is it of yours?’”


“For instance. This conversation. It’s all in my mind.”


“That kiss you wiped away? It never really happened.”

“No. It didn’t.”

“But in some sense, it did. Electrons brushed electrons. They relayed a story. I heard it. I felt it.”

“Those ghosts . . .”

“Chained to their machines . . . ”

“Will haunt.”

“And play.”

“My brain is starting to hurt.”

“Drink some more.”

“That’s the smartest thing you haven’t really said all night.”


“I was wrong. You have changed. This is, hands down, the most depressing fantasy ever.”

“It’s not a fantasy.”


“It’s a conversation.”


“Happy New Year, darling.”



I've written a "New" story for
the last 3 years now.  Here are
the 2008 and 2009 versions.