I have a plant. His name is Plant. Plant was born asexual, but identifies as a man, so I will be referring to him with the pronoun he.
Plant is a Spathiphyllum, commonly referred to as a Japanese Peace Lily. I’ve wanted one for years. And not just because I’m Japanese and my Japanese name is さゆり (Sayuri), which means Little Lily—That’s just a happy coincidence.
I’ve wanted one because Japanese Peace Lily’s are one of the best plants for air purification—they detoxify the air—cleansing it of Trichloroethylene, Xylene, Formaldehyde, Ammonia, and Benzene—and if you care for them properly they can live for up to 25 years.
The 25th of September 2015.
I walk through Gethsemane Garden Center. Named for the Garden of Gethsemane, which lies at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and is the location where Jesus is said to have prayed, while his disciples slept, the night before his crucifixion.
This Gethsemane is located at 5739 N Clark Street, a half-mile walk from my home. It’s a nursery—A plant nursery if you’re unfamiliar—where plants are propagated.
I walk up and down the rows of flowers, trees, outdoor plants, and indoor plants. I know what I want, but I’m just walking. And thinking. Mostly thinking. Nurseries are great places for thinking—perhaps it’s the oxygenation, but, for me, I think it’s more the familiarity.
My おばあちゃん (Obaachan) and おじいちゃん (Ojiichan), my grandparents on my mother’s side, owned and ran a nursery for 44 years. That’s where I grew up. I grew with the plants, roaming the neat aisles flowers and trees. Lost among pine and bamboo, which towered over my tiny dirty blonde head, but never really feeling lost at all.
I pick up every Japanese Peace Lily in the nursery. Until I find Plant. He is nuzzled in the back of the bunch—modest and clearly over fertilized—his one bloom looks at me like an all seeing eye—and I know. This is my plant. I carry him around carefully, like a baby. One of the workers asks if they can wrap him up for me and I decline, wanting to him to stay by my side for a while.
My おばあちゃん (Obaachan) and おじいちゃん (Ojiichan) were born in 1932 and 1933. They grew up on the other side of the Second World War and picked oranges and grapes to pay for their voyage oversea. They grew every plant in their nursery from a seed. Every single one. Thousands and thousands of plants. They would wake up, every day, before the rising sun—Shielding themselves from the rain and morning cold with thick jackets and a space heater that rattled on the cement ground beneath the large wooden building that my Ojiichan built alone—with own two hands—using a style of carpentry called みやだいく(miyadaiku); the same technique that they use to make しんと(Shinto) shrines and temples, where pieces of wood are elaborately interlocked—cut using a selection of handsaws—no electricity, no nails, no metal, just wood.
I spend at least a half an hour picking out Plant’s pot. I choose a sleek, square, black one—He’s much moodier than I initially thought.
Lately, I’ve been questioning everything, which I guess is what you’re supposed to do in your twenties, but it’s everything. It’s everything I love and create. I question this. This. Sharing this story, I wonder, is it compulsion or ego and the (millennial) need for external validation. My grandparents never needed that, external validation. They were comfortable adding beauty to this world in a subtle way—without recognition. They grew the plants, they built the building, and people would come and take a piece of their time and energy home, planting that beauty in their own world. And it would grow and live and flourish in this new place. Ripples of good scattered all across the golden state. Ripples of good that will live on long after they’re gone.
Gethsemane Garden Center is not quite the same as the place I where I grew up. It’s a western interpretation of a similar concept. And they don’t have the tray I’d like for Plant. But that’s okay.
My grandparents closed their nursery after 44 years. They are now 84 years old. Their health is waning, but you hardly notice—there’s never a complaint—just a worsening limp and new thicker pair of glasses. My おじいちゃん (Ojiichan) watches Judge Judy in the morning and my おばあちゃん (Obaachan) watches NHK at night and does water aerobics at a place called Club Sport. And they cook their breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And they take care of their beautiful garden. And they go to temple. And they don’t make many ripples anymore. They move quietly—stoically. And when I think of them I think of Japanese gardens—of peace—of the tortured beauty in a bonsai, of woven temples, of still bodies of water, with the whole of the sky reflecting back on them.
As I walk through Gethsemane, I am fully aware that we’re all just clinging to little pieces of home—and to trying to find the home within.
I talk to plant. A lot. He is my sounding board. My conscience. I talk to him about the meaty bits of me that I can’t talk to other people about. I feed him with my breath and some water and he purifies the air and detoxifies my mind. He reminds me to clean my room when it’s messy. He reminds me to breathe when I’m anxious. He reminds me to wander among the greenery—To create ripples of good in this world. He reminds me that, no matter how subtle it is, everything we do has value.
About the author...
Jennifer Kiehl is a Chicago-based, Japanese-American writer and performer from California. She is the co-founder, editor, and co-host of Scout & Birdie. Jennifer is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago where she received a BA in Acting. When not writing or performing, she spends her time giving cookies to dogs, eating baguettes, and hanging out with her plant, Plant. Keep up with her on Instagram @jenniferkiehl.