Gail Godwin

Book Excerpt

Heart Heart
A Personal Journey Through Its Myths and Meanings

Published 2001


The Rhythms That Count

The rhythms that count -- the rhythms of life, the rhythms of the spirit -- are those that dance and course in life itself. The movement in gestation from conception to birth; the diastole and systole of the heart; the taking of each successive breath; the ebb and flow of tides in response to the pull of the moon and the sun; the wheeling of the seasons from one equinox or one solstice to another -- these, not the eternally passing seconds registered on clocks and watches and not the days and months and years that the calendar imposes, define the time that is our true home and habitation, the time we dwell within until our days are ended. If we lose consciousness of them, we become alienated from ourselves. I can think of no better place to overcome such alienation than a garden. --Allen Lacy, The Inviting Garden: Gardening for the Senses, Mind, and Spirit

I work at home. Before I begin work every day, Ambrose and I take a walk, weather permitting. Ambrose is our Siamese cat, in his twelfth year as I write. Until two years ago, Ambrose had a twin brother, Felix. They were all over each other, snuggling and grooming and wrestling. I often wondered if each cat knew where he stopped and the other began; after all, they had been together since they were cat-embryos floating inside their mother's sac.

Felix's sudden decline and death from cardiomyopathy, an acquired disease of the heart muscle that can come on at any cat-age, made us a very sad household that spring. Since then we have been a family of three: the Resident Composer, who spends most of his day in his downstairs northeast studio; the Resident Writer, who spends most of her day in her upstairs southwest study; and the Resident Cat, who can be found anywhere from his third-floor file cabinet/lookout under the skylight to the concealing high grasses down by the pond.

This July morning, about eight-thirty, was fair and green after rain. I slipped into my rubber loafers, Ambrose emitted his ecstatic walk-cry, and we set off around the northeast side of the house to check things out. Two snails moved at standstill snail pace along a wet bluestone. just around the corner: not such a pleasant sight on another bluestone. But the tiny dismembered mouse, undoubtedly a residue of Ambrose's previous evening's work, is part of this day, too, and we stop and look -- the ants and the flies are already at their work -- and, in a sense, pay our respects.

Then on to the stone wall, where the chipmunk dives into a crevice at our approach, and past the lavender and vinca and daisies to the big sage plant where, on hot mornings, we have sometimes been fortunate enough to glimpse the garter snake. At the beginning of June, we found the snake draped across a rock beneath the blooming sage; I held Ambrose wriggling in my arms while I looked. In early afternoon I took a work break and went out to look again. Amazing. The snake was still there, in the exact same position. But when I looked closer, I realized it was the ghost of the snake, draped over the rock beneath the sage plant. Marie, my assistant, had just arrived, and she held back the aromatic, velvety gray-green leaves so I could extricate the skin in one piece. Even the outline of the mouth and tail were still intact. How had the snake managed to crawl out of its last year's skin without rupturing even the shape of the mouth? "The birds are going to love this for their nests," said Marie. We carried the thirty-inch skin, light and brittle as filo pastry, inside to show Robert in his studio, then took it back outside and spread it enticingly beside some laurel bushes near a nest site, and the next morning it was gone.

At the end of our walk, Ambrose and I pause at his brother's flat gravestone in the shade garden. It says FELIX in capital letters, like a Latin inscription. When I went to the monument place to pick it up, the young woman who had carved it was working on a stone for a monk at a monastery across the river in West Park. All their stones since 1904 have been marble, she said. When other monasteries of the order are sold, the monks are dug up and reburied at West Park. So she has to make new stones because marble crumbles. All stones are carved alike: at the top, IHS, the first three letters of Ihsus Jesus, in Greek); then, underneath, the name of the monk, and, below that, his dates of birth, profession, and death.

All stones must be done by hand. "But after the first fifty, it gets easy," she says.

Dearest Felix, you are gone, I wrote in my journal two springs ago. But I know what I valued about you. These qualities are to be found in others, and Felix, a cat, helped me to recognize what they were. A suppleness within, and toward the other, whether it is a stone wall you've leapt lightly onto, or a human face you press your face lightly against. Even your voice was an inquiring one, ending in a question mark. Open. Approaching. Not closed, demanding, or assertive.

Qualities of the heart.

Ambrose sits down on the stone, then rolls over until his body covers all the letters of FELIX. Cat-sensuously, he wriggles and undulates above his brother's ashes while I pick white and purple pansies for my study, if the deer have left me any.

I did not take the time to pick flowers for my study until two summers ago, after a lady in town gave me a blue-and-white Portuguese vase for my birthday. The vase is a little rectangular china box from the Museum of Modern Art, with a three-quarter-inch hole in the center of the top and eleven smaller holes on either side. It came filled with pansies from her garden, and I fill it with pansies until the first nasturtiums show their faces in early July.

Two summers ago, I was depleted and grim, in my third year of writing a novel that, from its inception, seemed to ask more of me than I could give. I loved it and grew with it, but in the way a parent loves and grows with a difficult, demanding, yet terribly interesting child. I never thought of giving up on it, but I dreamed of the day it would leave the house. People around me would roll their eyes when, month after month, I excused myself from anything pleasurable or fun with the same old groaning plaint: "I will, I'd love to -- as soon as I finish this novel." As time wore on, I didn't even have to finish the sentence. Before I got to the word finish, they were already nodding and rolling their eyes.

But then Lee Mayer gave me this inviting little vase, and I felt I could handle the small truancy of going outside each morning and picking enough fresh flowers to fill up the twenty-three holes and carrying them upstairs to brighten the windowsill of my study before I sank down on my Scandinavian kneeling chair with a sigh and a prayer for endurance and turned on the computer.

Since then, filling the vase has become part of my morning rhythm. Even in the depth of winter I give myself the present of plopping in fresh water something that has grown out of the earth, a sprig of white pine or hemlock, red berries and thorns, and setting it on the sill beside the computer. Now it is pansy and nasturtium time again, and when I pick the first nasturtiums I always remember a story my literary agent told me.

His mother, Mrs. Hawkins, grew nasturtiums all winter in her greenhouse; they clambered all winter, orange and salmon and golden yellow, up their indoor trellises. One cold winter night, she and her husband were on the way to their chamber orchestra rehearsal. They were too early, so they decided to take a detour to look at a new building down by the river. Suddenly the headlights of their car shone on an older woman whom they knew slightly walking slowly along the road beside the river. As it was so cold, they stopped and offered her a ride home. She accepted. When they let her off at her house, Mrs. Hawkins gave her the jar of nasturtiums she had picked to give "to someone or other" at the rehearsal.

A few weeks later the Hawkinses received a note from the woman saying she had been depressed all winter and was on her way to drown herself in the river. But when they suddenly stopped and offered her a ride and gave her those bright summer flowers in the depth of winter, she took it as a sign from God that she was supposed to go on living.

A woman whose life was saved by a bouquet of nasturtiums. But someone's heart had to be tuned in to the rhythms that count; Marian Hawkins had to understand the value of growing nasturtiums in the wintertime in order for there to be such bouquets to give to "someone or other" in need of a reminder of summer. She and her husband had to be the sort of people who were curious enough about something new to go out of their way to see how it was coming along, the sort of people who without thinking twice would divert their point-to-point journey a second time to run a solitary woman home on a cold night. Heart acts are often improvisational detours from point-to-point plans.

Robert tells me the Italians have a musical notation not found in any other language: tempo giusto, "the right tempo." It means a steady, normal beat, between 66 and 76 on the metronome. Tempo giusto is the appropriate beat of the human heart.

With Robert's new hand-sized quartz metronome, Marie and I decide to test out the premise. She takes my pulse: a brisk 72, at the top end of tempo giusto, on the brink of andante. I can't find her pulse, so she guides my fingers to a throbbing place on her neck and we coordinate it with the clock and the flashing red light on Robert's metronome. Marie walks five miles every morning and then swims at the Y and then goes home to lift rocks in her garden until it's time to come and be my assistant. So she's way down at the low end of tempo giusto, even lower than adagio: she's a 64 larghetto.

Most afternoons, I shut up shop around three. I save the day's work on hard drive and floppy disk, climb off my kneeler, blow out the votive candles in front of my household gods, gather up the coffee cups and juice glasses, and descend the fourteen stairs from my study to the main floor in order to climb the fourteen stairs on the other side of the house to the bedroom. If Ambrose is in proximity, he races ahead of me up the second set of stairs and beats me to the bed. I stretch out on my back, pull the white eiderdown up to my chin, and he mounts the snowy mound of my chest and stands forehead to forehead with me, marching in place, until I am laid out correctly. Then he makes a sharp right turn, backs up against my face, and heaves himself into position so his warm furry back is under my chin and his heart on my heart. I have tried during these occasions to feel his quicker heartbeat, twice the tempo of mine, but all I can feel is the steady throb of my own, intensified by 9.6 pounds of solid cat lying on top of it.

After Felix died, we asked our veterinarian if we should get another cat for Ambrose. "Ah, it's difficult to predict," he said. He told us about the great Siamese cat he brought home from the Philippines, a cat who became his soul's companion. "Then I worried that he might be lonely and I got a kitten, but it was a mistake. He became grouchy and aloof and would never seek me out when the kitten was around. The two of them became friends, but he and I were never as close again."

In his first few weeks alone, Ambrose would go outside, plant his four legs in the gravel, and emit a bloodcurdling yowl that seemed to come from the, pit of his being. He's grieving, we said. He still does this occasionally, but as the seasons separate him from the time when he was two cats instead of one, the yowl has become more perfunctory, like a ritual whose reason he no longer remembers.

Now we lie heart-to-heart in profound synchrony. I wonder if I remind him of his mother, or is my human heartbeat too slow? So far, today has been close to paradisal: no machine or appliance has broken down, no repairmen are expected, nobody has asked for a part of our day that we'd rather not give but feel we ought to; no power mower or leaf blower or weed whacker or vacuum cleaner has sent the Resident Cat fleeing to safety beneath the skirts of his third-floor sofa. There has been not a single phone call or fax from anyone urgently requiring something FedExed to them from the Resident Composer or the Resident Writer by no later than noon the next day.

Marie is upstairs on the third floor, putting papers into piles: Pay Now, Pay Later, Better Look at This, This Can Wait. Marie is happy; her daughter Kassy just e-mailed from Manhattan that she got a bonus today. Marie will not learn until tonight that Kassy went home from work today and found her apartment robbed.

The first Japanese beetle will not appear on a leaf -- until tomorrow.

Yes, a moment of holy rest, whose steady beat will imprint itself in our memory cells, to be replayed during more untranquil days.

A tempo giusto for the heart bank.

One morning I was curled up in an armchair, a legal pad on my knees, jotting down images and ideas. The novel that had tested my limits was at last in production, the book tour to help promote it was still months away, and I was in that galvanic state of flirtation with a possible next novel. I had just reread Conrad's two novellas The Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, and their back-to-back combination had set me to fantasizing a woman's journey into a heart of darkness where she would have to confront her shadow. Sort of a modern version of what the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna, Queen of Heaven, undertook when she set her heart on the Great Below and descended into the underworld to visit her dark sister, Queen Ereshkigal.

The phone rang and John, my agent, said, "Someone's had this delicious, rather quirky idea. It's probably not for you. But I promised I'd run it past you, anyway."

A young editor, working out at his health club that morning, had come up with an idea for a book he thought I should write. "A book about the heart," John said. "Not a medical book, but the ways we've imagined the heart through time in myth and art and popular culture and what those images tell us about the human condition, then and now. It would be informative, but not scholarly. More of a lush, writerly, intimate book with a narrative arc."

"It's a great idea," I said. "I'd love to read a book like that. But I don't want to write it."

"No, I didn't think so," said John. "But it is a great idea, isn't it?"

I rattled off a list of writers I thought could do it. John wrote the names down.

"It should have world history and religion and psychology and the arts in it, but it shouldn't be a plodding survey," I said. "Whoever writes it should try for a broad, inclusive sweep, with emphasis on the lively, human-interest stuff."

"I agree," said John.

"And there should be personal anecdotes sprinkled around. It shouldn't be just a compilation or an anthology."

"My thought exactly," said John.

"And written from the writer's heart, whoever you get to write it."

"I completely agree," said John.

"And not survey-ish or travelogue-y, either. More like a long conversation with that writer over drinks or tea, about books and lovers and mystics and animals and gardens -- all sorts of weird and curious stories about the heart. There should be some medical stories, too, cardiology lore: anything that falls under the rubric of 'the heart', I from pump-pump in the night, to the telltale heart, the heart that has reasons, the heart of the matter, the broken heart . . . the heart of darkness, which I was thinking about when you called: John, I am not going to do this book! I was making notes for a new novel when you called."

"Congratulations. Want to talk about it?"

"Not yet."

"Well, I'll let you get back to it. But I promised I'd run this past you."

"When does the editor need an answer?"

"Oh, I think he'd be willing to wait a few days."

"Give me three days," I said. "At least -- let me sleep on it. And don't offer it to anyone else, just yet."

My internal reference library, overstimulated by the new idea, kept me awake most of the night. Voices chattered and quipped, declaimed and soliloquized. I kept snapping on the light to take dictation. "Now that my ladder's gone," Yeats confessed, "I must lie down where all the ladders start, in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." "Give me, " prayed Saint Francis, "a transformed and undefended heart." "My heart teaches me, night after night," the Psalmist said. "I left my heart in San Francisco," Tony crooned. "Your lips are so near, but where is your heart?" lamented a top ten tune from the fifties. "Blessed are the pure in heart," said Jesus. "Purity of heart is to will one thing," Kierkegaard elaborated. Pharaoh hardened his heart. "Circumcise the foreskin of your hearts," Moses scolded the grumbling Israelites. "He wears a condom on his heart," a Saul Bellow character remarked. I wish you were not so heartless," said Madame Merle to Gilbert Osmond. "More die of heartbreak than radiation," said Saul Bellow. "Our shared bedroom, my heart," Augustine whispered to God. "Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee." Inanna set her heart on the Great Below and descended into the underworld to visit her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead. "No, I'll not weep," says Lear, turned out into the night by his daughter Regan. "I have full cause for weeping, but this heart shall break into a hundred thousand flaws or ere I'll weep . . . . Let them anatomize Regan, see what breeds about her heart." "Unhappy that I am," said Cordelia, dooming herself, "I cannot heave my heart into my mouth."

"Work of seeing is done," announced Rilke, setting himself a new task in poetry, "now practice heart-work upon those images captive within you." "Do you suppose Oz could give me a heart?" the Tin Woodman asked Dorothy. "Ah, he was a man after my own heart!" "Did not our heart burn within us while he talked with us along the way?" "And she kept all these things and pondered them in her heart." "Break, heart: I prithee, break!"

Sleep, heart: I prithee, sleep! Turn the light off and leave it off.

Heart of the city, heart of the country, heart of the artichoke, my heart's in the highlands, my heart is turned to stone, he's chickenhearted, no, he's lionhearted, her heart is a lonely hunter, from the bottom of my heart, in my heart of hearts, I had a change of heart, did my heart good, to your heart's content, eat your heart out, heart in my mouth, wear my heart on my sleeve, cross my heart, lose my heart, take heart, don't take it to heart, don't lose heart, pour your heart out in a heart-to-heart talk, trap your raccoon in a Havahart trap. Set your heart on it, set your heart against it: the education of the heart, the death of the heart, the afterlife of the heart, the prayer of the heart, work the earth of your heart, but for now let not your heart be troubled, set your heart at rest.

Enough. In the morning, I called John, my agent, then Ambrose and I went for our walk, I picked some nasturtiums for Mrs. Mayer's little Portuguese vase, came up to my study, and knelt on my Scandinavian kneeler. I turned on the computer, and enrolled in the school of the heart.

Harper Perennial | Paperback| 336 pages