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Caterpillar Memories


The instagram advert said something about LEARNING TO UNLOCK YOUR INNER CREATIVE POTENTIAL! and it had been a while since Jane had done something like that. She was 43, a busy working Mum. She just didn’t have the time! Between rushing around after the kids, work, dinner, washing up, laundry, hoovering, when was Jane supposed to fit in time for creativity? But Jane was a creative person. She liked tote bags and new music, Art had been her favourite subject at school (even though school was a long time ago). You won’t have time unless you make time! — that’s what she was always saying to the kids, so why not take her own advice and just sign up for the session? She was here to unlock her potential, expand her horizons, creatively speaking! Jane arrived early and alone. She took her complimentary plastic flute of Prosecco from the table in the corner, and she sat down in the dark, waiting for her horizon to expand.

A spotlight shone down in the centre of the room, everyone was gathered around in a circle. A young woman stepped into the light, holding a wireless karaoke microphone. She was so softly spoken, her words were barely a whisper.

‘I welcome you to this session and this space. I’m Dr Sage Smith. I am a postdoctoral research fellow at Imperial College London’s Consciousness and Cognition Lab. I study memory, consciousness and creative practice as a meditative psychedelic technology. That’s the jargon, I’ll put it another way. Caterpillars make cocoons and turn into beautiful butterflies — right? We all know that. Sounds simple, but actually it can be a bit gruesome. In the cocoon, caterpillars turn into a kind of soup. All their organs and muscle and tissues boil down into basic elemental ingredients and are completely reconstituted. When they emerge as butterflies, they’re brand new. But scientific studies have found that butterflies keep their caterpillar memories. They remember their experiences as caterpillars — their caterpillar past lives. Even though everything about them has changed, they’ve boiled down to soup and back, their memory remains.’

Someone in the darkness gasped out loud.

‘I know, cool, right? It’s the kind of thing that really keeps me up at night. What are memories made of, and where do we store them? Can they transfer over from one body to the next? If caterpillars and butterflies are completely different organisms with completely different morphologies — how and why do the memories remain? And are caterpillar-butterfly memories made of the same material as human ones? What’s our equivalent of caterpillar memories, and how do we access them? What’s hiding behind the barrier, out the other side of our cocoon?’

The lights shifted to a deep pink, a glitterball span dizzy dots of light across the room and lo-fi music started playing.

‘For the most part, the nature of consciousness is still a scientific mystery. We don’t fully know the answers to these questions. My postdoctoral research attempts to find an answer, but even science has its limits. I use alternative, experimental and unconventional methodologies to fumble around at those limits. Primarily, painting and creativity. For the next two hours we will journey through our inner landscapes, delving deep into our corporeal interior to that place beyond. We are attempting to paint our way back, somehow and some way, through the cocoon to a more primordial state of selfhood — to our caterpillar memories. First we’ve got to ground ourselves here in this room. So we’re going to start by taking a deep breath. In for 5—’

The room collectively inhaled.

‘4, 3, 2, 1. Thank you, we’re going to hold that breath. Box breathing. Take a look around the room and notice the people in it. Recognise their unique humanity. Smile at the person next to you like they are your best friend.’

Jane held her breath and looked around. A room full of women in their 20s, 30s, 40s. Wearing dungarees, jeans, sweatshirts, with Dyson Airwrapped curls, scraped back ponytails, sleek low buns with oversized frilly scrunchies. Women with their handbags on their laps, women holding their phones in their hands, women smiling at Jane with kindness in their eyes. Jane smiled back at them all, a flat-lipped polite smile. The kind you give to strangers when you pass them in the corridor.

‘And breathe out for 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Thank you! We’re going to do that again, breathe in for 5, 4—‘

Jane turned to look at the women next to her. They were all wearing white silky sashes that read BRIDE SQUAD! in an aggressively curly cursive font. One of them, probably the Bride, had deely boppers on, and instead of tinsel there were two miniature bright pink cocks that lit up when she wiggled her head. The cocks flashed green and the Bride Squad rippled with stifled laughter. Good for them, Jane thought. You are only young once.

‘3, 2, 1. And we’ll hold it there for 5, 4—‘

The prosecco and the deep breathing was making Jane’s head feel all tingly and lovely. Did she remember being young once? Yeah, probably. Art was her favourite subject at school. They’d get up to all sorts: potato printing, paper mache, collage, finger paintings. But Jane loved drawing. That was her thing. She could draw anything you put in front of her. Faces, objects, places, things. She could even do bubble writing. Her best was cartoons. She would copy the characters off the side of cereal boxes, from magazines and comics, from adverts and from memory.

‘And breathe out, 5, 4—‘

When was the last time she drew something? Now she thought of it, she couldn’t remember. Probably with the kids — keeping them occupied or helping them with their homework, when they were little. But when was the last time she drew something for herself, just for the sake of drawing it? For the pure unadalterated pleasure of drawing because she loved drawing, because she got a kick out of guessing where lines should go, a thrill from being able to put them in the right place or exactly where she wanted them to be, a satisfaction in showing other people and watching their faces spread wide with recognition like, oh, yeah, look at that — it’s that one from Thundercats.

‘I thank you sincerely for the gift of your breath, your vital and sacred energy. We’re centred and grounded in the room. Do you feel that? The energy is just clearer, isn’t it? We’re all present, we’re all in our bodies—‘

Jane felt like she was in space. Or in her head, on the moon. Lolloping through the clouds with the Whacky Racers, chasing them down with a pencil, a crayon, a felt tip.

‘It’s palpable! Can you feel it? I think we’re ready to start painting. In front of you, you should have a roll of paper and some paints. Pick whichever colours you’re drawn to. Which colours call your name?’

The lo-fi music transitioned into something harsher, like white noise purring. The Bride Squad were passing round enormous bottles of poster paint, squeezing the colours out onto paper plates. Fluorescent yellow, acid green, neon orange, glow in the dark pools all spilling out onto each other. The girl behind the bar came round with a bottle of Prosecco, topping up everyone’s plastic glasses.

‘Careful not to put your paintbrush in there, honestly, you’d be surprised how often it happens. If you do, let me know and I’ll get you a fresh glass.’

The Bride bobbed her head as she passed a paint plate to Jane, the green flash of the deely bopper cocks lit her toothy smile with a gentle strobe. Dr Sage was stalking the room, mic in hand, delivering meditative instructions in her whisper soft voice.

‘Make sure you remember to breathe: deep in, hold, breathe out, hold. We want to remain in our bodies throughout this process. And really listen to the music. How does it make your body feel? Take note. How do you feel in this room?’

Prosecco. Green cocks. Warm. No, hot. Jane was roasting hot and getting even hotter, heat rising to her head like a rolling boil.

‘We are dancing in synchronicity, floating with our movements, rhythmic in the ebb and flow of navigating uncertainty.’

Jane peeled off her jacket, rolled her sleeves and dipped a paintbrush into the glow in the dark fluorescent yellow paint. She was sweating everywhere. Underarms, of course, but also in the crook of her elbows and her knees, her arsecrack, her whole and entire back, even her bellybutton was filling up with actual sweat water. Brush on canvas. She could do this forever! It had been so long.

‘Feel the music coarsing through your body. Feel every note in every single skin cell. How does it feel?’

Tingly, lovely, sparkling wine, brush on canvas, boiling hot hot hot.

‘How did you get here? Your body is sacred — what led it to this point, this place? Trace the lineage of your movements and try and find them again with your brush, in the heat of this moment.’

How did she get here, why was she here? Instagram ad, expanding horizon — UNLOCK YOUR INNER CREATIVE POTENTIAL isn’t really an answer to that, it’s more a general suggestion or a direct request. Jane blinked, the brush was in her hand and her hand was connected to her body, but her brain was floating somewhere else — on the blink. The Bride’s deelyboppers blinked green light through the darkness.

Jane remembered being young once! Feeling like she had her whole life ahead of her. Feeling like she could do whatever she wanted with her time because it was completely hers and hers alone. She remembered a time when she had so much of it — time — to spare. It would just stretch out, endless and in front of her. A time before she met Dave, her husband, before the kids, a time before all her time disappeared.

‘Remember to breathe — in for 5, 4, 3, 2—‘

What did Jane even do all day? What kept her occupied and busy and unable to stop for five measley minutes and draw Top Cat? Work? Housework? Piles and piles of laundry, washing up, hoovering. She couldn’t remember it distinctly, the tasks and the days and the work all blurred into—

‘1 and hold for 5, 4, 3—‘

Laundry, washing up, hoovering, kids, Dave, dinner, work. Her Sisyphean rock, her own special personalised version of whack-a-mole, the roulette task wheel that always landed on a booby trap no matter how she spun it. It wasn’t that she thought her life was a booby trap. It wasn’t that Jane was unhappy — she loved her kids, she loved Dave, and someone’s got to do the washing up. She just wasn’t sure how it had all got to this endless Sisyphean cycle point. How had her life accelerated to a version of existence where that was her entire life, where she didn’t have time for anything else, especially something as frivolous as creativity?

The bristles of the brush were soft, pliable. They gave way to the paint and buckled, wet, onto the paper.

‘2, 1. Breathe out. Haaaaaaaa. Do you feel that?’

She didn’t remember ever actually consciously deciding that she’d rather hoover than draw Top Cat. But she must have decided, right? At some point, she just must have. Otherwise she’d be drawing Top Cat, not doing the hoovering. You don’t have time unless you make time, that’s what she was always saying to the kids. So she must have decided, at some point, not to make time. Jane was starting to feel like she had made the wrong decision. Of course, she would rather draw Top Cat.

‘You are powerful. Our minds are so powerful, we barely use 10% of them. The other 90% is a mystery. What happens if we peer into the darkened room, the remaining 90% of our minds?’

Jane’s body was slick with beads of sweat, polka dot staccato shifting under the glittering discoball. The light cut through the purring music, pinging, carving out tiny little holes in the darkness. She put down her brush and sipped her Prosecco from the plastic flute. It tasted thick, fluorescent yellow.

‘What shapes do you see, deep in your mind’s eye? When you open your heart to the world, what visions are you calling forth? We are grounded here in this room, painting through our intuition, calling forward the images that resonate through our corporeal interior, our psyche, our hearts.’

Jane looked down at the paper. Glowing back at her was the fluorescent yellow shape of Top Cat. He was tipping his purple hat out at her from the surface of the paper. His goopy poster paint face spread wide in a sickly sweet grin. He winked. Jane’s mouth was slick and full of something sticky and chemical, glow in the dark.

‘What lies on the other side of the cocoon? What’s hiding behind the barrier, in our caterpillar memories? Can you see it now? Let its shape come to you as you move towards it.’

Jane looked at the women around her, paint smeared across their dungarees, jeans and sweatshirts, white satin sashes. Paint crunching in clumps, tangling in their Dyson Airwrapped curls, ponytails, scrunchied buns. Some of them, like Jane, had splotches of glow in the dark paint around their mouths and dribbling down their chins. They were all painting intently, furiously, in their own discrete worlds.

What if she could go back and make the decision again? Return to the moment and decide differently this time. Decide to draw Top Cat and the Whacky Racers and Bart Simpson on his skateboard, whatever she liked! No more hoovering, laundry, washing up, work, dinner, repeat. Instead, Snap Crackle Pop and Tony the Tiger off the side of the cereal box. Thundercats. Bubble writing.

Jane pressed her clammy hands against the paper, palms down as she entered Top Cat’s goopy face. The paint was wet and thick over the surface. It pooled in the webs of her fingers, oozing and slippy under the pressure, giving way as she pushed down. She was boiling hot, already damp with sweat and paint and fizzy wine, the sparkling glitterball and the bright green cocks flashing out across the wet dark. She could go back, couldn’t she? She must have made a decision, at some point. She could go back and decide again, decide differently, or even just stay there in the moment. Jane pushed down harder, pressing her entire body down onto the paper, wrapping herself in Top Cat’s fluorescent yellow face. No more work, dinner, laundry, washing up, hoovering.

‘We are grounded in the moment, inhabiting our bodies and inhabiting this moment, we are present and calm and safe.’

The paper curled up around her as she pressed, rolling Jane into a cocoon. She smiled. She could have all the time she wanted. Time could be hers and hers alone. It could stretch out, endless and in front of her, like an expanding horizon. She could do whatever she liked, draw as much as she wanted. Top Cat and the Whacky Racers and Tony the Tiger and Thundercats. The cocoon was the world around her, and her world was a canvas waiting for her pencil, her crayon, her felt tip.

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