Two thirty in the morning and I have nearly succeeded in brewing Turkish coffee. Only I accidentally knock over the pot and sink the whole stove-top in a mess of half- brewed coffee and soggy grains. My friend Stepan is oblivious to this or is effectively ignoring it, as he continues to talk to his two computer screens, which are set up in a corner of his girlfriend's kitchen. He's just come back from two months in Peru, where he has filmed seven tapes of an hour's length each. He intends to use them for a ten minute short film he has to produce to introduce himself at his film school. We were halfway through reviewing the third tape when I felt a wee bit tired and thought coffee might help. I'm supposed to see at least parts of the material, and then write a short text, sort of a day-dreamy narrative, which he'll use for a voice-over in the movie. We depend on each other here, because I need some images to work with before I can write, and he needs a text before he can really begin stringing them together, cutting them, editing them.
His approach is to not make a short documentary or bio- picture about himself and his life, but talk about identity and defining oneself in our society. Before I came to visit him and help him with his project, I tried to imagine some of the things he must have experienced and filmed in Peru, and started writing about that. The following fragments are a mixture of these notes, my notes for the film, the text we actually used and other assorted thoughts that seemed to fit.
I like almonds. Roasted almonds, chocolate almonds, almond paste, pasti di mandorla, and split almonds, roasted and served on top of a fried banana. Recently, I was able to add another pair of almonds to my list: the amygdalae. Considered part of the limbic system, the amygdalae (from Latin, corpus amygdaloideum, and singular, amygdala, from Greek amygdale) are almond- shaped groups of neurons located deep in the medial temporal lobes and are thought to perform primary roles in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. If you experience a strong emotion, do these neurons dig up the appropriate memory so you are able to recall just when before you had the same emotion, the same feeling? Or do the amygdalae help you feel again what you felt before when you recall a memory connected with an intense emotion? Is a remembered emotion really the same?
Think of childhood and the way a child perceives the world - fresh, without bias and preconceptions. Childhood produces memories which are more or less arbitrary. A child knows no categories to distinguish what he or she encounters, and with no memories against which to compare the world around you, all your perceptions will be equally impressionable. There is wonder in every direction. We think we recall images from our childhood for a specific reason when in turn we assign them importance and meaning in retrospect simply because we remember them. More often than not, there is a shift in memory, connecting what you recall with an emotional state that was not present when you lived through that moment.
It's more likely that great emotional arousal (strong happiness or sadness) followed the event you remember. Long-term memories are not instantly formed but information is slowly assimilated into long-term storage over time. During this memory consolidation process, the strength of the subsequent memory is influenced by your emotions, modulated by the amygdalae. So you think you recall getting your first bicycle because you were so happy about it when it's probable that a subsequent event made you as happy. Yet you remember the two blurred into one.
What if you could live each day like a child, unconcerned, growing into the hours of the day, each surprise an opportunity to marvel at the world? Imagine such a state to be recursive, like the tide or the tropic rain, foreseeable (with the right kind of eyes) and fixed in length, but absolute in its presence or absence. And isn't that what some people seek to acquire when they have an ideal but only achieve one spark of it? When they go to work for four years and take off the fifth to go adventuring? When they work for six days and take drugs on the seventh? Why do they raise their children to the same routine?
MAOI rhymes with "wowee." Ayahuasca is a brew made out of an Amazonian giant vine native to the rain forest containing monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibiting harmala alkaloids and the alkaloid DMT. I talked to Stepan about it on the phone when I called him in Peru, and he told me he was under the impression it's pretty much the only medicine widely available there. Good when you have just a sore throat; probably at least soothing when you've got diarrhoea, but bad when you've got a broken collarbone. I waited and waited for the plant, the vine, to show up on the seven tapes. I wanted to see the ritual, a Shaman, an Ayahuasca infusion cooking on the open fire, but nothing. There's one segment where he has set the camera to night vision and a high recording speed and filmed the stars, wiggling the camera around fast. The result is a sequence of images with blurry white lines against a dark backdrop, similar to when you photograph traffic with a high exposure and get only lines of tail lights. There's a lot of stoned giggles and laughter on the soundtrack.
Another name for Ayahuasca is Yage, and it had some Dharma Bums writing gonzotic letters about it. Ayahuasca letters, experimenting with Shamanic culture. A high. A high long sought. One sitting in the jungle, high as a kite, writing with a hand cringed arthritically around his pen, writing with ink, writing with blood, writing with the seepage from the bandage on his forearm where he's been bitten by a snake, Ayahuasca the remedy for that, too, Ayahuasca the one and only medicine it seems, be it a cough and cold or a spiritual low, recharge for Karma run out, scratching the paper with his pen, ripping and tearing it in places, such is the need to record his thoughts at the speed at which they are happening, firing in his brain, shooting across synapses gone haywire with a substance that has penetrated into his brain, bridged the blood-brain-barrier by cleverly mimicking some bodily antagonist, docking onto receptors here and there, his Ayahuasca aswam brain not able to properly realize the process anymore, not able to understand what's happening to it, yet able to understand so much more owed to that substance.
I imagine the recipient of that letter to be drawn in, not by the writing, not by the description of the ritual, the drug, or its effect, the high, but simply by the power of his own imagination, the thought of being part of it, the craving, and the realization that at the same time he is being left out, NOT part of it, and in a desperate attempt at getting in, he licks the page to collect with his tongue whatever traces of Ayahuasca the sheet might carry, the paper might have borne across the ocean, smuggled past sniffing custom officers, their noses sensitive and trained Ayahuasca detectors, and he proceeds to lick his fingers wet and with them picks up the dead aphids that have fallen out of the envelope in the hope that they, too, are in on it, having crawled on the right plant and gotten high on it, maybe even overdosed, and finally, desperately, he licks the writing off the paper as if it was laced with Ayahuasca, the ink smearing bluish streaks across his tongue and the page, which he then crumples up and stuffs in his mouth, chewing on the ball of paper, ink, snake bite seepage, jungle dust and aphid shit, he tastes the parching dry paper, the oily ink, the iron bloody seepage, the bitter dust, and somewhere in-between and only hinted at, the ghost of the Ayahuasca taste, a fragment, elusive, imaginary - but proof enough that the trip to South America and the trek into the jungle are worth it, that there is more to this world than there appears to be, that friendship means getting high, enduring mesquite and snakebites only to write by candlelight a letter to your friend across the ocean who has to go to the park and beat about the bushes to buy the substance for his spiritual recharge from some foreigner who sends furtive glances left and right, fearing a bust, only to find out that the product he bought is not over-bred Amsterdam import but Berlin homegrown, or worse, cut up tires mixed with sand; burned again, bummed out, all Karma depleted, he slumps on the floor and hails, Ayahuasca! Ayahuasca!
Each day I wake in betrayal of the innocence of sleep. If sleep serves to process our day's experiences and store them as memories, then am I not a new person when I wake up, for I have acquired a new set of memories? Grown - further away from childhood? If my eyes haven't changed, why does the pair of them where it marveled at the world see dullness, blandness now, even madness? It is, of course, a grown-up view to say that once you've progressed past childhood, you've lost your innocence, as if you'd have become tainted in a way. Once a label is on something, it becomes an it, as if it's no longer alive. Like an emotion pinned on a memory. The way a horseshoe signifies luck.
I produced my ticket. Thanks to trade, we needn't always produce what we require ourselves; we purchase. What is a purchase here? I imagine it is an exchange of goods. Favors for favors. And I, with my camera, my picture recording machine, what do I get? What do I purchase? I exchange the recorded moment for the real experience. At home, I will not remember living through it; I will only remember recording it. These captured memories, like a currency, are only valuable in my world, unless I arrange them in a way that they take on new meaning, gain a significance for others as well. What else can I offer? I stake out my claim, I take on a role by which you'll recognize me. I'll work to distinguish myself.
I cannot remember honestly. I believe my earliest childhood memory is my second birthday. I am able to remember this day because I have been told about it by my parents. I was fond of cats, and there on my birthday table was a stuffed cat, not wrapped at all but for a simple ribbon around its head. I approached it, lightly stroked it once and said, eyes beaming full of joy, "a cat." This is how my parents like to recall it. I remember the room and other details, a blur of things I've been told and things I think I recall myself, but most distinct is my memory of what I felt before I approached the stuffed cat sitting on the table: being torn between the uneasiness of having to be ritually thankful and yearning to claim something I wanted.