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?
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.
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?
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?