Thursday, April 30, 2020



It feels like there's too much blood - or mucus, or something - rushing to one side of my head, so I turn over to see if my inner liquids right themselves. They don't. I lie there, trying to latch onto a daydream peaceful enough that it can become a night dream, and feel them drip right down to the other side. I'm thirsty - there won't be sleep without water. Not enough liquids? Then I have to pee - too many? Everything's off.

I know the night view of this apartment by heart, and in a story that romanticized artistic poverty, it would be a dump. It's not. Spacious for two people, with attractive floors and natural light, decorated with all of the beautiful things - no, items - we've collected on our travels around the world.

In that other “artistic poverty” life, I'm single or in a dramatic enactment of a relationship; in this one, I've been peacefully married so long I'm verging on matronly. We live in an upscale neighborhood, though in Taipei those divisions are not always evident. In Taipei I make a decent living as a teacher trainer of mostly local English teachers, and we like the life we can afford. I'm good at it, I enjoy it, and it's meaningful, useful work. 

I consider how, in the country of my birth, I'd be barely eking out a living, either as a teacher trainer or in some office job I'd never care about enough to excel at.

Padding across the living room, I slide open a screen on my living room window. The shunt it makes is the only sound in the courtyard, aside from some light rain. When I can't sleep, I like to look to the buildings across the treetops and see what lights are on. There are no signs of movement in the lit apartments; I recall that mine is dark.

Then I check on Spikey. I have no idea what kind of plant she is - it's a she, don't argue with me about this. Spikey has grown trunk-like woody stems with formidable thorns that resist all pruning. You can’t even really touch them. These twist around the bars of the iron grates so common to Taipei windows, even though ours are entirely unnecessary on the 7th floor. Each end of her prickly tentacles is capped with a crown of green leaves and a sprinkle of yellow flowers. They’re not much, but they’re hers.

I don't know how she got there. I'd tried growing rosemary, thyme, basil, mint, orchids, some kind of ivy, even succulents - and they all withered (well, one of the succulents was blown away in a typhoon). Only the plants the former tenant left behind survived my black thumb. I suppose one of these graveyard pots was left fallow with dirt and a little Spikey seed decided it would be a nice place to live. Unlike everything I tried to intentionally cultivate, she blossomed. So I let her stay. She seems to prefer neglect, so I throw her a bit of water now and then but otherwise leave her be.

Spikey isn’t a plant you’d want, and sitting up there wrapped around a 7th-story window grate, I doubt anyone in the silent courtyard below has ever noticed her. In a well-tended garden - say, in an immaculately-kept suburban lawn in the US - she’d have been dug out and left to rot on a pile of weeds. Rough, difficult and a bit uncompromising, she'd never be mistaken for a prize cultivar. It's not in her DNA. Certainly, she’d have never been given the time to put out those little yellow flowers.

Here, she may not belong exactly but I like to think she’s grateful that somewhere in the quirky, busy, and at times seemingly disorganized or charmingly dilapidated city of crumbling brick, corrugated iron and stained concrete, there’s a corner where she can grow, and nobody minds.

There are plenty of carefully cultivated green spaces in the city, with weeded grass and shaped hedges. But there are also cracks and crevices and mismatched sidewalks, old pots and patches of soil where plants like Spikey can grow.

I can't see them with the light off, but on one wall hangs a hand-painted vegetable-dye batik of Hindu gods, all facing the tree of life which grows lusciously between them, which I bought on a trip to India years ago. On the other, among other vintage treasures, a slice of rough natural wood with a bit of calligraphy: 閑庭百花發 - in a quiet courtyard, a hundred flowers bloom.

The lit apartments are still devoid of life, but I wonder who else is shuffling around in the dark ones. A bit of city night-light draws a weird rhombus on my ceiling, intercut with shadows from the window grate and leaves from my surviving plants. I set my water down on the coffee table. This causes one of my cats - the black one, invisible in this low light - to wake up and blink at me with glow-in-the-dark eyes. He trills a little “prrt” and settles back down. He doesn't care about my mismatched t-shirt and pajama bottoms, my greasy face or my fuzzy hair. A light breeze rustles Spikey’s leaves. I get up, down a sleeping pill, and attempt to go back to sleep.

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