I live alone. By that I mean that no other person lives in the flat where I usually sleep. Sometimes other people visit me. They do not have a key to my flat. I hear the doorbell ring, I open the door and they come in. But after a while those people leave. That is because their home is a different set of rooms where they usually sleep. It is an unspoken agreement that those other people will leave after a while. I can count on it and it works. Never has a person who rang the bell just tried to stay with me longer. It would be possible. That someone rings the bell, I let them in and they just don’t leave. I mean, after we’ve had tea together, for example. And after we’ve talked for a while. After we’ve played a game of chess or after we’ve cooked together and then eaten what we’ve cooked together. It is possible. That such a person then brushes their teeth in my bathroom at the end of the day and just stays. Just like that, for no particular reason, I mean. It would be possible.
Such events are arranged beforehand and discussed at length. For example, we would agree beforehand that starting at a certain moment we would always using the same bathroom. And that the cups in my cupboard can just be used by both of us from a certain moment on. And that, for example, starting at a previously discussed moment, the person will give the phone number that has to be dialed in order for the phone to ring in my rooms as their own number. That would be thought about, discussed and planned in advance for a long time. That moment would be the point from which I would say, I live with this person. Everyone in our culture knows what is meant when I say: I live alone.
In the society I live in, it goes like this: If someone goes to another person’s flat and it is already decided at that point that the someone will leave again, we don’t say that we live together. Then we tend to say: This person is visiting me. Or: They spend a few days with me. Because it was agreed beforehand that the person will leave again, that they will pack their toothbrush again and all the things that are in their possession. When they have left again, their body odour may still be present in the air for a while or some of their hair may still be stuck to their pillow. They may also have forgotten something, a shirt or a certain food item. It could be that the someone has a nut allergy, for example, and therefore prefers a certain spread that they had brought with them. One that doesn’t say: may contain traces of nuts. (Because if someone is really allergic to nuts, they pay very close attention to that.) He might have forgotten that special spread, and the spread might still be on the kitchen cabinet after that person left, next to the jar of oatmeal. However, even if they were to call later to say that they will not come over just to pick up the spread, and that they don’t want it sent by post either, it would not mean that I do not live alone. It would then be the case that this someone would have left an object in my rooms that they consider to be their property. Then, when they come back at a later time, they could just pick up that item and use it or eat it without talking to me about it first. That would be normal and appropriate.
In the society I live in, both times are known beforehand. The time at which someone comes and the time at which they leave. The first time is usually clearly agreed upon: when a person will arrive, I mean. For example, it is agreed that they will come at 3 pm. Then the doorbell rings at about 3:00 pm. A few minutes difference is accepted, it is not discussed. If the person comes much earlier or later, we talk about it and change the agreement. The time at which the person leaves is very much left to chance and the circumstances of the encounter. For example, if the agreement is that we will have tea together and go for a walk, I can reasonably assume that this person will leave during the evening. It would not be usual for this person to then stay in my rooms for two weeks. Nobody does that. It is also not customary to arrange exactly beforehand when this person will leave. For example, people don’t like to say: I’ll come at 3.00 pm and stay until 5.15 pm. Or: Please come at 3.00 pm and leave at 5.15 pm. In the society I live in it is rude and the visitor might think that you can’t wait for him to leave. Thinking about it, though, it would be somewhat relaxing for me to do it that way. After all, it’s sometimes the case that I think: Now they could really be leaving again. Hopefully they’ll say goodbye soon. Or I think: They’re already leaving! What a pity! It is still so nice to be in their presence. It is also possible that the person thinks: I should go now, I have been here for 3 hours. But I don’t want to go yet. Or: How can I leave without appearing rude, I just arrived 20 minutes ago?
When I think about it, it’s quite a complicated matter, this visiting other people in their place thing. And there are many more pitfalls in this matter, one could write a whole book about it.
I live alone, but that does not mean that there is no other being in my apartment. For over a year there has been a being in the rooms where I mostly sleep. It is a small cactus. I discovered it at an old people’s home. My guitar teacher has rented a room there, where we meet once a week to play the guitar. Next to the door of this old people’s home (a house where elderly people usually sleep) there were some cacti. They were planted in flowerpots, in sandy soil, the way cacti like it. Supposedly. In front of the pots was a cardboard sign, on which it said: Please take with you. I chose a small cactus, put it in my car and brought it to my place. It has been on my closet ever since. A cactus doesn’t need much. You can forget about it most of the time. Rarely do you have to water it a little. It reportedly likes sunlight, too. That’s about it.
About two weeks ago, a friend gave me the possibility to write an article about the relationship with houseplants and I accepted the challenge. For no reason. So, a few days ago, I started sitting down for 20 minutes every morning and putting this cactus in front of me. That’s all I did. I just looked at this cactus for 20 minutes. Someone who says: there is nothing much to say about a cactus, it still looks the same after a year, is probably not lying. You can look at it that way. I didn’t even really look at this cactus for a whole year, and I couldn’t have picked it out from among other cacti. It is a ball cactus — it grows extremely slowly and can live for several hundred years. Longer than any human being. It has 14 grooves that run like the longitudes of the globe. You can’t see the south pole because that’s where it’s planted. The north pole is a fascinating place. There are little white dots right in the middle that the spines are attached to. And there is actually change visible there, I think. Since I’ve been looking at the cactus, I’m sure one of the little white dots has moved a fraction of a millimetre further out from the north pole. Along one of the longitudes. The cactus seems to know exactly how to distribute the white dots on the ridges of the grooves so that the pattern is even. From each of these white dots or spots, multiple spines are growing in all directions. There are so many that it is impossible to touch the white spots directly, because there are spines everywhere. Actually, you can’t touch any part of the green cactus surface with a finger, because the spines are placed in such a way that all areas are protected. The spines are very hard and so sharp that the slightest touch is very uncomfortable. The spines immediately penetrate the skin at the slightest pressure. They have different colours. At first sight, this is not visible. To notice it, you need to hold the plant against the light. For example, there are cream-coloured, yellow, white, brown and even red spines. Red like the fur of a young fox. Really! I suspect the white spots have soft hair, but to find out I would have to cut the cactus. I don’t want to do that, when the cactus is doing exactly what it is there to do at all times.
It is strange. The cactus has not changed anything in its activities. It always does what it did from the beginning. At its slow pace. It hasn’t sought contact with me either or spoken softly to me in a prickly little voice. It hasn’t. Nor did it suddenly stand in front of my bed. It didn’t send a voice message, it didn’t suddenly grow very fast to get my attention. I think you know what I mean. But I did change my behaviour. I looked at it more closely. Every morning for 20 minutes. Sometimes during the day, I suddenly think about it. I know where it is standing, how it looks and what it is doing. Its image comes into my head and sometimes I feel joy. Yes. When I come home tonight, it will be there. Without expectations, wordless, silent, and it will do what it is there to do. Sometimes I feel a little bit of fear. I feel a responsibility for it. It will grow to be several hundred years old, after all. Who will take care of it when I can’t anymore? Maybe the cacti were at the old people’s home because there was a person there who said to another person just before they died: When I die, please take care of my cacti. Put them by the road so they can get a new good home with people who care about them…
I think what impresses me most is the matter-of-factness of this cactus. It doesn’t whine around and say, “Oh no, another year gone by and I didn’t get my spine workload done. I should be much faster.” Or, “Crap, the white dot isn’t exactly in the right place. It should be one groove to the left.” It’s just there, day in and day out, growing and growing at its slow pace. Without complaints, without assumptions, without expectations. It probably doesn’t think about whether what it is doing is useful, either. I mean, it is living in a two-room apartment in southern Germany. There are no predators here, no half-starved birds that want to peck at it (or whatever else wants to get at a cactus). There is no danger here, I think. Nevertheless, it continues to produce spines, protects its whole surface, keeps doing that all the time and until the end of its life. It also doesn’t say to itself, “Hey! How long are you going to live like this? There’s no point, buddy. Cut the bullshit, relax, throw off the barbs, and stop protecting yourself from things that don’t exist in your world!”
Something else concerns me in this context: if I had two of these cacti and they were next to each other, they would probably do exactly the same thing. Both cacti would do exactly the same thing all day long. With great matter-of-factness. Doing the job of a cactus. If someone were to ask, “What are they doing?” Then I might answer, “They’re cacti. They grow.”
With us humans, that’s quite unusual. There are many different things to do. I won’t even begin to list them all. And for every thing that I do, there’s also the possibility that I don’t do it. I mean, I can ride a bike and I can NOT ride a bike. You see? A cactus can’t NOT grow, right? It grows.
And what is it that a human actually does? What is it? What is my job as a human being? That which I actually do without evaluations, assumptions and judgments? What is the actual thing? Besides riding a bike or NOT riding a bike?