Two thirty in the morning and I have nearly succeeded inbrewing Turkish coffee. Only I accidentally knock overthe pot and sink the whole stove-top in a mess of half-brewed coffee and soggy grains. My friend Stepan isoblivious to this or is effectively ignoring it, as hecontinues to talk to his two computer screens, which areset up in a corner of his girlfriend's kitchen. He's justcome back from two months in Peru, where he has filmedseven tapes of an hour's length each. He intends to usethem for a ten minute short film he has to produce tointroduce himself at his film school. We were halfwaythrough reviewing the third tape when I felt a wee bittired and thought coffee might help. I'm supposed to seeat least parts of the material, and then write a shorttext, sort of a day-dreamy narrative, which he'll use fora voice-over in the movie. We depend on each other here,because I need some images to work with before I canwrite, and he needs a text before he can really beginstringing 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 aboutidentity and defining oneself in our society. Before Icame to visit him and help him with his project, I triedto imagine some of the things he must have experiencedand filmed in Peru, and started writing about that. Thefollowing fragments are a mixture of these notes, mynotes for the film, the text we actually used and otherassorted 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, Iwas able to add another pair of almonds to my list:the amygdalae. Considered part of the limbic system, theamygdalae (from Latin, corpus amygdaloideum, andsingular, amygdala, from Greek amygdale) are almond-shaped groups of neurons located deep in the medialtemporal lobes and are thought to perform primary rolesin the formation and storage of memories associated withemotional events. If you experience a strong emotion, dothese neurons dig up the appropriate memory so you areable to recall just when before you had the same emotion,the same feeling? Or do the amygdalae help you feel againwhat you felt before when you recall a memory connectedwith an intense emotion? Is a remembered emotion reallythe same?
Think of childhood and the way a child perceives theworld - fresh, without bias and preconceptions. Childhoodproduces memories which are more or less arbitrary. Achild knows no categories to distinguish what he or sheencounters, and with no memories against which to comparethe world around you, all your perceptions will beequally impressionable. There is wonder in everydirection. We think we recall images from our childhoodfor a specific reason when in turn we assign themimportance and meaning in retrospect simply because weremember them. More often than not, there is a shift inmemory, connecting what you recall with an emotionalstate that was not present when you lived through thatmoment.
It's more likely that great emotional arousal (stronghappiness or sadness) followed the event you remember.Long-term memories are not instantly formed butinformation is slowly assimilated into long-term storageover time. During this memory consolidation process, thestrength of the subsequent memory is influenced by youremotions, modulated by the amygdalae. So you think yourecall getting your first bicycle because you were sohappy about it when it's probable that a subsequent eventmade you as happy. Yet you remember the two blurred intoone.
What if you could live each day like a child,unconcerned, growing into the hours of the day, eachsurprise an opportunity to marvel at the world? Imaginesuch a state to be recursive, like the tide or the tropicrain, foreseeable (with the right kind of eyes) and fixedin length, but absolute in its presence or absence. Andisn't that what some people seek to acquire when theyhave an ideal but only achieve one spark of it? When theygo to work for four years and take off the fifth to goadventuring? When they work for six days and take drugson the seventh? Why do they raise their children to thesame routine?
MAOI rhymes with "wowee." Ayahuasca is a brew made out ofan Amazonian giant vine native to the rain forestcontaining monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibiting harmalaalkaloids and the alkaloid DMT. I talked to Stepan aboutit on the phone when I called him in Peru, and he told mehe was under the impression it's pretty much the onlymedicine widely available there. Good when you have justa sore throat; probably at least soothing when you've gotdiarrhoea, but bad when you've got a broken collarbone. Iwaited and waited for the plant, the vine, to show up onthe seven tapes. I wanted to see the ritual, a Shaman, anAyahuasca infusion cooking on the open fire, but nothing.There's one segment where he has set the camera to nightvision and a high recording speed and filmed the stars,wiggling the camera around fast. The result is a sequenceof images with blurry white lines against a darkbackdrop, similar to when you photograph traffic with ahigh exposure and get only lines of tail lights. There'sa lot of stoned giggles and laughter on the soundtrack.
Another name for Ayahuasca is Yage, and it had someDharma Bums writing gonzotic letters about it. Ayahuascaletters, experimenting with Shamanic culture. A high. Ahigh long sought. One sitting in the jungle, high as akite, writing with a hand cringed arthritically aroundhis pen, writing with ink, writing with blood, writingwith the seepage from the bandage on his forearm wherehe's been bitten by a snake, Ayahuasca the remedy forthat, too, Ayahuasca the one and only medicine it seems,be it a cough and cold or a spiritual low, recharge forKarma run out, scratching the paper with his pen, rippingand tearing it in places, such is the need to record histhoughts at the speed at which they are happening, firingin his brain, shooting across synapses gone haywire witha substance that has penetrated into his brain, bridgedthe blood-brain-barrier by cleverly mimicking some bodilyantagonist, docking onto receptors here and there, hisAyahuasca aswam brain not able to properly realize theprocess anymore, not able to understand what's happeningto it, yet able to understand so much more owed to thatsubstance.
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 thepower of his own imagination, the thought of being partof it, the craving, and the realization that at the sametime he is being left out, NOT part of it, and in adesperate attempt at getting in, he licks the page tocollect with his tongue whatever traces of Ayahuasca thesheet might carry, the paper might have borne across theocean, smuggled past sniffing custom officers, theirnoses sensitive and trained Ayahuasca detectors, and heproceeds to lick his fingers wet and with them picks upthe dead aphids that have fallen out of the envelope inthe hope that they, too, are in on it, having crawled onthe right plant and gotten high on it, maybe evenoverdosed, and finally, desperately, he licks the writingoff the paper as if it was laced with Ayahuasca, the inksmearing 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 drypaper, the oily ink, the iron bloody seepage, the bitterdust, and somewhere in-between and only hinted at, theghost of the Ayahuasca taste, a fragment, elusive,imaginary - but proof enough that the trip to SouthAmerica and the trek into the jungle are worth it, thatthere is more to this world than there appears to be,that friendship means getting high, enduring mesquite andsnakebites only to write by candlelight a letter to yourfriend across the ocean who has to go to the park andbeat about the bushes to buy the substance for hisspiritual recharge from some foreigner who sends furtiveglances left and right, fearing a bust, only to find outthat the product he bought is not over-bred Amsterdamimport but Berlin homegrown, or worse, cut up tires mixedwith 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. Ifsleep serves to process our day's experiences and storethem as memories, then am I not a new person when I wakeup, 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 worldsee dullness, blandness now, even madness? It is, ofcourse, a grown-up view to say that once you'veprogressed past childhood, you've lost your innocence, asif you'd have become tainted in a way. Once a label is onsomething, it becomes an it, as if it's no longer alive.Like an emotion pinned on a memory. The way a horseshoesignifies luck.
I produced my ticket. Thanks to trade, we needn't alwaysproduce what we require ourselves; we purchase. What is apurchase here? I imagine it is an exchange of goods.Favors for favors. And I, with my camera, my picturerecording machine, what do I get? What do I purchase? Iexchange the recorded moment for the real experience. Athome, I will not remember living through it; I will onlyremember recording it. These captured memories, like acurrency, are only valuable in my world, unless I arrangethem in a way that they take on new meaning, gain asignificance for others as well. What else can I offer? Istake out my claim, I take on a role by which you'llrecognize me. I'll work to distinguish myself.
I cannot remember honestly. I believe my earliestchildhood memory is my second birthday. I am able toremember this day because I have been told about it by myparents. I was fond of cats, and there on my birthdaytable was a stuffed cat, not wrapped at all but for asimple ribbon around its head. I approached it, lightlystroked it once and said, eyes beaming full of joy, "acat." This is how my parents like to recall it. Iremember the room and other details, a blur of thingsI've been told and things I think I recall myself, butmost distinct is my memory of what I felt before Iapproached the stuffed cat sitting on the table: beingtorn between the uneasiness of having to be rituallythankful and yearning to claim something I wanted.