I left home today and almost immediately noticed a mantis on the mirror of a scooter parked near my place in Xinyi District 信義區, Taipei 台北. This afforded me an opportunity to snap a rather unusual self-portrait, as you can see. Right after taking this photo the mantis surprised me by jumping onto my pants and crawling up to my shoulder. It soon disappeared out of sight, though I could feel forelimbs brush against the back of my neck. Not wanting to possibly crush it by accident, I wandered down the street until I found a row of trees where the mantis gracefully disembarked. If I were to anthropomorphize this resplendent creature I’d say it was in some distress on that scooter and gladly took the opportunity to hitch a ride to the relative safety of what nature remains in this highly urbanized area, a service I was happy to provide.
Xinyi District 信義區 is now one of the most expensive and upscale parts of Taiwan 台灣 but it hasn’t always been that way. Decades ago it was an undesirable area on the edge of the city with a significant military-industrial presence, traces of which still remain if you know where to look. The open expanse of parks and parking lots around the intersection of Xìn’ān Street 信安街 and Wúxìng Street 吳興街 immediately to the west of Taipei Medical University 臺北醫學大學 is one such trace.
Not far from Taipei 101 and the heart of Taipei’s central business district there lies an ulcerous anomaly on the supine body of the endless city. It would be impossible to miss this abandonment, for a wild riot of plant life traces its angular outlines, and an unusual assortment of graffiti lines the arcade along Keelung Road 基隆路. I regularly ride by here on my way to various working cafes further afield and naturally couldn’t resist taking a look inside one day. I have not puzzled out the exact name and history of this ruin but now have a rather strong suspicion that it was once a hāodàisuǒ 招待所 or guest house—hence the unofficial name I have chosen for this piece.
I have reason to quote at length from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius but wasn’t entirely satisfied with the translations I found online. What follows is an original synthesis of Book II, Passage XV, translated by George Long (the same version I read when I was younger) and Meric Casaubon, blown apart and put back together again.
The time of a man’s life is like a singular point, the substance of it ever-flowing, the sense obscure, the whole composition of the body tending toward corruption and putrefaction. His soul is restless, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful. As a stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as a vapour, so are all that belong to the soul. Our life is a warfare, a mere pilgrimage, and fame after life is no better than oblivion.
What is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing and only one: philosophy. And philosophy consists in keeping the spirit of man free from violence and injury and above all pains and pleasures; doing nothing without purpose, nor falsely or hypocritically; wholly depending on himself and his own proper actions; embracing and accepting all things that happen as originating from the same place from whence he himself came; and, finally, with all meekness and a calm cheerfulness, to expect death, as being nothing else but the resolution of those elements of which every creature is composed.
And if the elements themselves suffer nothing by this, their perpetual conversion of one into another—that dissolution, and alteration, which is so common unto all—why should it be feared by any man? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.
I went out riding through the mountains of Nangang District 南港區 yesterday. This ride was, in part, to provide some time for me to work through important decisions that need to be made. Unbeknownst to me, right around the time light was seeping through my camera lens to capture the photograph above, another kind of light was seeping out from the body of someone dear to me, someone who expressed many of the virtues described in the passage quoted above. This was not unexpected.
Having somehow survived to this age without ever feeling the brush of death has left me doubtful about how I should be feeling. I am aware of the social expectations, of course, but do not feel like conforming to any of the usual patterns of grieving and mourning. I look for sadness but find mostly acceptance and admiration. Growing up with influences from both Stoic and Buddhist philosophies seem to have equipped me for moments like these.
So: it is time to attend to matters of import, to make plans and put wheels in motion, to endure long flights and longer periods of idleness and uncertainty, to reconnect and provide support, to eulogize and celebrate a life well-lived. Please, no messages of condolences—but if I seem absent or distracted you’ll now have some idea why that might be.
I moved into my new place in Xinyi District 信義區, Taipei 台北, at the end of February 2016. It rained almost continuously for the following month. Not until the very end of March did the skies clear long enough for me to look around and appreciate where I had landed. This tree-lined boulevard is Zhuāngjìng Road 莊敬路, one of the main arteries running through the neighbourhood, and the mountains on the horizon are immediately behind where I’m staying nowadays. It feels a bit like I am back in Vancouver, especially with property values being what they are around here. Even so, I’m not paying much more than I would be in other parts of the capital, perhaps due to the minor inconvenience of being situated at the margins on the city, something I don’t mind putting up with for a while.
The goddess Guānyīn 觀音 is one of the most widely revered deities in Taiwan 台灣. If you pay attention you’ll see her form almost everywhere, but not so much in the relatively more sanitized and modern parts of Xinyi District 信義區, Taipei 台北, where I currently reside. Two days ago it was Guanyin’s birthday, ordinarily a great excuse for a loud street party, but I did not notice anything unusual in my daily travels around the district. What a pity. Plenty of westerners complain about the disturbances caused by temple processions, particularly the clanging, dissonant music and zealous use of firecrackers, but I honestly enjoy the raucous atmospheres of places like Tainan 台南 and Changhua 彰化, two cities I have called home for a while. I find Taipei relatively dull and lifeless by comparison—but hey, at least it’s letting me catch up with all the photos I’ve wanted to share over the years.
This particular photograph was shot not far from the entrance to Héxìng Coal Mine 和興炭坑, a minor tourist attraction in the hills behind my new place. There are a bunch of peculiar temples around the mine—and evidently one of them has no more use for dozens of Guanyin statues I found arrayed beneath a canopy in a muddy parking lot next to an old mining building. Long ago I learned that one of the secrets of taking a good picture is to capture lots of the same thing in one frame (mild sarcasm alert) so here you are, an abandoned army of Guanyin!
The elevators leading up to the Taipei 101 observatory are the world’s fastest, propelling passengers at more than 60 km/h from the 5th to the 89th floor. The precision-engineered steel cables used to hoist those high-speed lifts are subject to incredible strain and, as a result, are regularly decommissioned. Rather than sell them for scrap, these discarded cables were given to Taiwanese artist Kāng Mùxiáng 康木祥, who began shaping them into a series of provocative and unconventional sculptures.
The first of these works of public art is Infinite Life, “a steel embryo reborn from the towering structure from which it came”, to quote the official Taipei 101 web site. The artist notes that the cables “carried 6.6 million visitors during their six years of operation, so there seemed to be millions of lives wound up in them…”