Heartbeat | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University


By Katharine Haake

I'm writing now from my studio at Djerassi, looking down the green hills of the Santa Cruz Mountains that roll all the way to the ocean below. When it’s clear, you can see the water, which most of the time is obscured by a cool marine layer. It’s late afternoon, so light infuses the grasses, some of which are starting to turn to the gold these whole hills will be by summer’s end. Earlier this morning, fog pressed its gray shroud to the glass. At some point, one of the feral cats played a game on my deck just outside, leaping and batting at butterflies—a black one and what looked to be a swallowtail of some kind. 

In the early part of this century, I visited my best friend’s widower in their home on the Gulf of northern Florida, not long after my friend had died. We sat in rockers on the screened-in porch and watched the sun reflect off the water in a glittering spectacle of movement and light I was convinced I could watch all day, without ever moving from the spot.

Here, too, light moves through the grass, and I think, let me watch this all day, although, of course, I will not. There is Tai Chi in the morning, and in the afternoon, I’ll be off on a walk. Dinner’s at 6:00. No one misses dinner—it’s delicious.

I started out in these same mountains. My aunt and her family lived on the lee-side of eucalyptus-covered dunes not so far south of here, aside a weathered barn eerily reminiscent of the old weathered barn here at Djerassi. I went to college nearby. Driving onto this ranch just a week or so ago, I felt every bit as if I were coming home.

But what am I to do with all this beauty, so poignant it sometimes hurts?

You can’t hold on to things. The light, the wind. One day not too far in the future, I’ll drive back out of these mountains and into the rest of my life, which also will end. These things happen. They happen all the time.

There are twelve of us here on this art ranch, where the invitation—just, somehow, “to be”—makes at least two of us teary. We’re here for five weeks, during which some of the other artists are going to build a heart. The heart will be something you can hold in your hands and there will be a beat, although I don’t fully understand the technologies involved. Last night, discussing this project with another artist, I found myself remembering the heartbeat of my own first son when he was still in utero, the unforgettable trace of the other person who, half my life ago now, took up temporary residence in me. 

This is as close as I’ve ever come to the miracle of a separate beating heart.

I never heard the heartbeat of my second son like that, however much I might have longed to. The circumstances of my care throughout that pregnancy simply precluded it. Once he was born, I must surely have laid my head upon his chest, but we were separate now. It’s not the same.

My sons grew up, the way sons do, passing through all of their various stages—the grabby and volatile toddler years, the awkward uncertainties of grade school and vulnerabilities of adolescence, the hard realities of their young adulthoods—like boys everywhere. And while I did not love the younger less for never having listened to his heart when it was still connected to my own, as we talk over dinner about the heart the others plan to build and how they plan to build it, the absence of this missing memory rises up in me as the loss it’s always been. 

It’s hard to make a heart, but I am confident my new friends will work it out, beginning with their deftly-fashioned mold of clay that will in time, and through the various stages of its making, become a soft and beating thing, as if alive. And the story I’m already telling myself has something to do with the odd, unlooked-for connection between the generosity of the invitation here just “to be” and this late second chance to hold the miracle of a separate, beating heart in my own hands, which, even if it’s just a metaphor, is the kind of metaphor that can make you whole.