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Gathering Space

Portland, Oregon - BT
Portland, Oregon

I keep myself small, always conscious of the space I take. I’ve never been loud and proud. I don’t know what it’s like to raise my voice or my hand. I’m the one at the back of the room you probably weren’t aware of. I’m afraid of breaking the “rules,” of making demands, of being the center of attention. I prefer solitude in landscape to public or private gatherings. All to keep safe. But now I’m thinking about communal situations. 

I used to have a dream where I was at a party. It was outdoors. People were chatting in groups, drinks in hand. Some were huddled around the food tables. There was an ebb and flow to the hubbub that carried across like music. In the dream I ran between the various clusters of attendees, my arms spread out and my lungs on full blast. No one batted an eyelash. This was a gathering where I could approach another without fear to ask, “will you be my friend?” Somewhere someone sang, another danced…some sat mutely on a bench…others wandered alone. The party had no guest list. Did I mention this was a dream?

Portland Garden - BT
Dream Garden

In fifth grade there were four of us. Outsiders in our class we would meet in a forgotten grove the excavators had missed when paving the parking lot. In this space I would lose my timidity. The shaggy spruces would become touchstones for my imagination. The thicket a boundless expanse — despite its diminutive border — in which I could explore who I wished to be. Ambling the trails of Washington Park I try to recapture that feeling again. Both human and nonhuman intermingle in this public estate. Trees laugh, and so do children who thread through the adult ramblers. Yet, I trek in unease. In the gathering to hear the wind’s whispers is there a conversation to be had? In the shared glimpse of a fleeing bird is there deeper intention created? We hikers come together for moments of delight, then break apart for our own tracks, as enmeshed in the scenery as the hidden creatures who rustle round us. There is no business plan here, no economic strategy, no event facilitator. But, in these fleeting encounters can something of far greater significance happen?

Located on Multnomah and Clackamas land, the city of Portland, Oregon contains over 10,000 acres where fir groves, trout creeks, reed marshes, and lily ponds provide habitation for organisms. In these pulsating ecosystems humans may discover entanglement, confront fluidity. I grapple with these spaces — observing, exploring, questioning. There is the miracle of moss at Forest Park troubling my ideas about autonomous living. The whiz of winged bugs at Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge force upon me the deceptions of nativism. The rhododendron garden at Crystal Springs interrogates my alienation from the soil. What I at first considered passive spaces metamorphose into conduits of disquiet. I’d like the opportunity to discuss my thoughts with fellow strollers, but anxiety silences me. It’s an instinct I’ve relied on to survive. I fool myself that the more isolated I remain the less danger will befall.

Rose Garden - BT
Roses in Bloom

I’m in the aromatic midst of a floral maelstrom. At the International Rose Test Garden six hundred and fifty varieties bloom in profusion. The whirlwind of color and smell overwhelms. Cream, lavender, crimson, ruby, pearl, and saffron corollas inundate me with their transcendent perfume. I float in an eddy of scents, heady and unnerving. Dazed, I close my eyes. “It’s quite the aromatic assault, isn’t it?” A voice asks. I open my eyes to a twinkling gaze and a twitching nose. “It’s…it’s…intoxicating!” I reply, woozy from the stimulation. “Imagine how the bees feel,” my interlocutor says. In response a buzzing insect alights for a brief spell between us, then swoops in erratic circles across the flowers. We two chortle, then walk away. But, the interaction stays with me for the remainder of the day. I reflect on its spontaneity, marvel at how quickly we fortified each other’s pleasure, forged mutual wonder in a terraced garden.

As our living accommodations isolate, as our niche boxes contract and further segregate, we require more participatory spaces. We’re in the throes of recognizing the many ways to being human, which is why gathering spaces are essential. But how we function in those spaces is also consequential. What if we renounced our assumptions about the structure of certain arenas or their inherent objective? What if our playgrounds were specific to the needs of the neighborhood children? What if our gardens were in service to local fauna while tending to our consumption? What if our parks engaged civic responsibility by upending our ability to conquer land and one another?

Japanese Garden - BT

I grew up on a culture of romantic comedy films. Their scripts ran invariably the same, their protagonists unchanged. I was both skeptical and envious of them for this reason. My experiences never seemed to align with the idylls they promised. Love in these fairytales appeared constrictive and toneless — a one-for-one exchange between two very specific types of people played out in their private sphere. But, love in my world is a public, complex, messy action: muddled up in personal ambition between friends, fraught with power struggles among siblings, contending with parental doctrines. It is a source of suspicion among strangers and breeds bigotry I sense, though can’t unravel. Love as I know it isn’t confined to secluded circumstances, but bubbles erratically — untidily — affecting all our lives. 

I still continue to puzzle out when to emphasize selfhood and when to concede to the collective in my relationships. However, I have felt truly loved when I’ve found people…and places that provide scope for me to both be and become. So I am striving to develop that capacity within while searching for venues encouraging this duality. Because when such gathering spaces — interior and exterior — are capable of holding with purpose, when they are transparent, perhaps we can all finally believe there is room for us too.


The Garden of Awakening Orchids (also called the LanSu Chinese Garden) is a magical gathering space built through international cooperation between the sister towns of Portland, Oregon and Suzhou, China. It is poetry of architecture and nature, featuring a scholar’s studio, gracious pavilions, and walkways for reflection.

How has gathering and public space changed because of the pandemic for you?

95 replies »

  1. You did it again, Atreyee. Your words transport all of us to Portland, the garden, the presence of nature and a fellow being. The fleeting exchange meaning the world. Some of these places sounded familiar – my husband and I took our bikes around some of Portland’s parks and forests – but your writing affects me more than the sites I beheld and the photos I captured. Such a talent you have. Like you, I find it sometimes hard to decide on “benefiting” the self or the communal good.

    As I started reading your post, I immediately thought of you as an introvert, because I am currently reading the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. It’s enlightening and provides me with a lot of realizations and appreciation for people like you!! 🙂

    • Oh, thank you so much Liesbet for those beautiful words. Haha…you pegged me correctly 😌, I certainly am a huge introvert. Along with many other facets of my being, it forces me to operate in the world differently.

  2. I’ve said this before and it’s still true: your descriptive writing is like prose. I love how your words help me picture your experience and that connects to what I’ve experienced in turn.

    I’ve had a similar experience to your rose garden though it was in a mosque in the UAE at sunset. A stranger and I stood beside each other capturing the sunset with our cameras then we exchanged comments on how this was the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen to date and how the camera just can’t capture what we were experiencing. Like you said, exchanges like these enrich our own experience.

    I notice how open people are to speaking with strangers in public spaces also depends on the cultural context. Some places in the world, people are expected to be more open to small talk with strangers while in others, it just isn’t the done thing. It does affect how public spaces are used (and the people watching we do).

    Great post as always. Thank you for sharing!

    • I agree with you…as with so many things the way in which public spaces are used depends also on the culture of the place. When in China I was enthralled to see how many people took advantage of parks and gardens as places to congregate for exercise, for board games, and for chatting together. It was an eye-opener as to what public spaces could mean for us all. Thanks for your kind words and for sharing your own experience on this.

  3. Wonderful words and such vivid descriptions of the gardens but even more so of your feelings. It is such a difficult time for the whole world as we renegotiate relationships with other people and with other nations. Here in England I don’t feel that peoples attitudes towards each other have worsened, if anything we have seen so many wonderful selfless acts of friendship and assistance. It feels like we have had a real return of community spirit and neighbourly help. Not for everyone of course but generally. Always optimistic.

    • I’m happy to hear that people in your region of the world have been helpful and community minded. Sometimes those who need help don’t receive it simply because it’s not known that they need help. We need better systems to bring together those who want to help and those who need it and no stigma attached to requiring assistance. As the needs continue to rise, this will become even more important. Thank you for stopping by to read and for your kind compliments.

  4. Space and connection . . . I haven’t ever been to Portland – it’s on so many “best of” lists that it makes me wonder if it could possibly be all that it’s cracked up to be. It’s always seemed to me that connections were more easily made in crowded places, perhaps because I grew up so close to NYC. I was surprised moving to other parts of the country that it wasn’t as normal to just strike up a conversation in the grocery store line. People are definitely more wary now, but I imagine that in New Jersey they are still making connections, just keeping it at 6 feet.
    Living in the desert, I have found the distancing more difficult as we’ve moved into the hot weather. An outdoor gathering? Not possible in my mind. I suppose I could put on my bathing suit and an enormous straw hat and invite people over to sip drinks in my pool. It could be “fun” for a couple of hours in the evening. Then I wouldn’t need the hat. The heat is really limiting, but I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s been like for apartment dwellers through all of this. I’m lucky.

    • Well the outdoor nature in and around Portland is certainly spectacular. But, like any city this one too has its socio-economic inequalities. I agree that I too don’t feel confident enough about safety to be gathering with strangers in close quarters. However, your pool party sounds fun…even if it’s just for one at the moment.

  5. You have given me much to reflect on. “ What if we renounced our assumptions about the structure of certain arenas or their inherent objective? ”
    I have wondered over these past months if this sudden pause on life a s we know it, creates an opportunity for assessing so much in life. Changing the way we have done things for so long.
    Best wishes as we navigate the next steps.

    • Thank you Sue. I think COVID is definitely responsible for how many of us are reevaluating what matters in our personal and communal lives. Without the usual distractions around us, we’ve been forced to slow down, take serious stock of the world, and think about so many of the issues at hand. Wishing you well.

  6. “Both be and become”. Nicely put. I just wrote a post (advance post, I do several ahead of time. No pressure) involving Lakshmi. had to do some research. Learnt a few interesting things to mull over. Would “be and become” be your “lakshya”?

    • Thank you Lisa. It was an abundance of color and aroma when I was there that I’ve experienced in few other gardens. The place is truly a sight and I think you would love to see the terraces of blooms.

  7. Wonderful reflections, Atreyee. I love this idea of a space to be and to become. In some ways, my life hasn’t changed so much under lockdown, as I’ve often been a solitary person. But I still like to go out, and nice walks and hikes outdoors, as well as intermingling in a loose, socially-distanced way at a farmer’s market, give me pleasure.

    • I too have been grateful for the ability to walk and hike outdoors…but have also experienced the harsher side of isolation during the pandemic even as someone who is used to being solitary. It’s made me reconsider what spaces — both physical and in our imaginings — are supposed to provide for us. Thank you, Cathy, for your kind words and for sharing what your lockdown life has been so far. Wishing you well.

  8. I have been working in the north (north of 60° N latitude) where the pandemic was controlled very quickly by the end of April. There was no community spread and no new cases since mid-April. A strict quarantine has also lead to a sense of safety. I am now back in southern B.C. where covid is also under good control but it has lead to a sense of otherness that I hadn’t noticed before. We’re all trying to gather space, yes, but also remain kind. I don’t know what permanence will emerge, if any. I fear that we might not learn much. Good wishes to you.

    • I also fear that we won’t learn much moving forward…it’s far too easy to go back to old habits. Another friend of mine had written awhile ago that humans are stubborn, dedicated to doing what feels good rather than what is right. She’s being proved correct in so many ways. Hoping this finds you safe.

  9. As others have noted, reserve and suspicion seem on the rise. As I walk in the countryside I rarely meet people. But there is a strong divide when I do. Those who totally ignore my friendly greeting and hurry away, and those who smile too, and may even stop to chat. These small cheerful contacts are uplifting out of all proportion, as only commonplace words are exchanged. But they’re evidence of a continuing bond, of a community that cares about those in it.

    • 😞 There is so much fear…and frustration. How we live has dramatically changed and people mostly don’t like any change. I’m sorry to hear that your greetings have sometimes been ignored. It does make those who respond that much more of a gift. There’s a weird dance that goes on where I walk…lots of side glances to see which way the other person is heading…a redirection of one’s steps to avoid someone coming our way…and it’s all starting to feel so bizarrely normal! Thanks for the glimpse into how life has been for you. Wishing you well.

  10. Another beautifully written post! I particularly like the last paragraph. Public spaces are interesting because we might head to a park to escape, to think, to be alone or to be with people, but at the same time to not get too close like you would in a bar or restaurant. Your brief meeting over roses is a good example of a lovely connection, but you both had to be in the right “space” to reach out and shake hands, so to speak.

    They can also be strange places where we watch how others interact, walk their dogs, behave alone but in an open space that may or may not give us a sense of safety. But I think if you are craving those fleeting connections, you have to be brave and say “Hello” and smile. When I lived in Portland, I found folks more disposed to this behavior when the sun was shinning. In Hawaii, it’s much more common for people to say hello when walking around.

    • Hmmm…you always bring up such intriguing ideas Lani. I have noticed weather influence my behavior but also that of a place too. The California weather makes people more apt to smile and greet each other…and it makes for friendlier service. I definitely have to be braver about starting those public connections I’ve been thinking about and I’m also interested to see how cities and towns will continue to reshape themselves as we require more “open space.” Thanks for your thoughtful response! And hoping this finds you well.

  11. Hi BT, As usual, your words touch me, not just intellectually, but also emotionally. As a person of colour, I have always self policed from a young age. Growing up in Canada, many might consider me part of a true multi cultural, accepting environment. It may be more so today, but not when I was young. Racism existed back then, though I could not label it at the time. Today, Canada is more accepting, but it doesn’t mean my behaviour has changed. As a woman, as a visible minority, I still monitor my actions because I don’t want to be singled out as “that Asian woman” who is breaking the rules. Since the pandemic, I’ve been attacked verbally just for being Asian because people need a scapegoat. It is not pleasant.

    I’m careful to keep myself small in these difficult times. Racism is a virus layered on top of the COVID virus, and violence against BIPOC is on the rise.

    I’m disheartened by the many leaders in the world who are dictators in sheep’s clothing. Be well, my friend,


    • Hello eden. As you say it is not “pleasant,” but it is a space that unites those of us who have experienced it. I’m grateful that my words resonate with you. I am inspired by the many BIPOC who have put their bodies on the front lines for the last four centuries — and continue to do so boldly, bravely, today — in order to regain human rights for all. I hope you remain encouraged as well to know that you do not stand alone. Stay safe. 💗

  12. So eloquently shared. Thank you, I identified with some of the things you described and it has given me food for thought. In Adelaide, Australia, we have had few restrictions for little time and have returned to what we did and how we thought too soon. Both fortunate and unlucky at the same time. I will think of you the next time joy oozes from me in the midst of a large landscape. I wish you peace.

    • Thank you for your wonderful wish and lovely words. The pandemic has been an eye-opener into the many failures of our societal systems and as we move forward I’ve been thinking a lot about ways in which to live differently both as an individual and in my community. Sending you kindness.

  13. The very notion of a garden of awakening orchids has the senses dancing. 🙂 🙂 It feels to me that people are more reserved and distrustful now. The masks have taken away the smile, but I determinedly greet with ‘bom dia’, and usually receive a response. How easily is joy destroyed.

  14. In the public space here in Berlin people are mostly cautious, taking care of social distance rules and wearing masks in buildings, shops, bus, train or metro. Some spots are still closed like clubs or discos, cinemas should be open again in case they are not bankrupt. But everywhere the amount of visitors or clients is limited, so live is no longer so that free and spontaneous, and you need to reserve a lot of things days in advance (museums, leisure parks or even the botanical garden). So we spend more time in the countryside for hiking or just take our bikes for tours in our very green city such minimizing the risk of infection. Life is really still far away from being normal but it is improving! Cheers 🙂

    • Thank you for the glimpse into your Berlin life. I don’t know that I would want many things to return to “normal” since they were the means of bringing us to this point…but I am interested to discover new ways in which we come together again, develop community, and learn how to combat isolation while minimizing infection. Stay safe in your hikes and bike tours!

      • Normal means for me a life without facemask and social distance. The pandemic situation here is less frightening than in the USA where the number of infections / deceased is four times higher.

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