Orange Alert

Amnesia by Sara Swenson

Posted on: Nov. 3, 2018

If my fieldwork has a soundtrack, it is the sound of sutra chanting over jackhammers. At 6 p.m. on an intersection in Thao Dien ward, I took an audio recording of the nuns. Their sound system amplifies them through the open windows. They fill the gaps between traffic horns and concrete drilling with song. Is a chant a song? Maybe using the word “song” in its symbolic sense: the way “singing” is really a feeling and not only a sound.

There is something very comforting about patterns in ephemera.

The high-speed construction and deconstruction of Ho Chi Minh City manifests itself as amnesia. Passing out my door I paused before a vacant lot. Was it a house, only yesterday? Wouldn’t I have noticed if I lived next to a vacant lot? But there is grass in the lot, and a pile of bricks, which are old. Nothing was demolished overnight. There must have been a fence. How could I not see what is next to me? I still don’t remember. Now I see the vacant lot every morning with the same vague confusion, like a forgotten name for a familiar face.

In time-lapse image of the city, most storefronts would be a blur, like the circle of constellations captured nomadically passing by night. The night sky, which is our closest image of eternity, can’t be captured in a fixed state that includes the dimension of time. We can’t time-lapse the stars.

I thought there was a coffee shop at this intersection. It wasn’t always a bread store, was it? I would have noticed a bread store. Soon enough the bread store is a fish store, and I never could remember what had been there, before the bread store.

When I was 22 I went to visit my grandparents in Arizona. They were snowbirds in flight. My grandpa had early Alzheimer’s, which accumulated on him as slowly and gently as a snowfall. His forgetfulness, that summer, was not so different from sleepiness. We took a trolley to the mall. Did we go for donuts, or only to explore? With his bad memory and my bad sense of direction, we took the same escalator up and down three times. I only realized it each time we passed the pet store. He was so excited to greet the dogs he didn’t recognize.

I think of what Nietzsche said: “the advantage of a bad memory is to enjoy the same good things many times, as if for the first time.” Surely, it had been a fence. Now someone is raising chickens in the vacant lot. My mind can make no sense of spring chicks in October, but accepts everything with the same happy confusion.

Who was it that got lost in the desert, because each night there was a windstorm that changed the landscape of the dunes? When place shifts unrecognizably, patterns are the last things which are traceable. We find our own footprints in the sand and feel hope that someone else must be close. There’s nothing wrong with this. It keeps us going. Maybe we will find an oasis, searching for the friend of ourselves. It’s an old story and I can’t remember who wrote it.

We can’t time-lapse the stars, but we can track the sky-circle of constellations. Patterns of activity over the ephemera of landscape.

In Saigon the circle is: mid-afternoon rainfall. Which streets flood. The hours of high traffic. Pastry vendors on bicycles. The toothless man selling lottery tickets. The driver’s hunch at the wheel. The same charity driver, every Sunday.

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Sara Swenson