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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?

99 replies »

  1. “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 know this mindset well. But when I lived in Seattle, even though I loved being alone and invisible, I never understood how another person passing you on the sidewalk (when you were the only two people around) couldn’t at least smile or say good morning. That’s the southern in me, I guess. Although when I came back south, I found it strange that everyone was so friendly. Somehow I’d left my cloak in Seattle. I can sometimes find those precious outdoor spaces of solitude here, but not like in the Pacific Northwest. I miss that a lot. Plus, here, there are too many bugs and squiggly things. There, it seemed easier to walk through green spaces and soak in the mountains and peaceful Shilshole Bay, reemerging minutes later to meet friends in Ballard. There was more balance. I’m still not too sure about human beings. I think somewhere along the way we got lost. But I continue to hope. P.S. And isn’t it just the deliciousist inhaling the sweet scent of fresh flowers? My favorites here are magnolia and sweet olive. And when I was little, there were bushes of honeysuckle across the street from my grandparents’ house. Yum.

    • “I’m still not too sure about human beings. I think somewhere along the way we got lost.” Yes…I think we’ve been collectively lost for a long long while…as for the fresh flowers…you are right. What a treat it was to smell all those different types of roses…I never understood how each had its own fragrance before stepping into the garden. Have never smelled magnolia or sweet olive yet…I shall have to look out for these…but I love honeysuckle and the alluring scent of night-blooming jasmine which I have as memories of childhood. I appreciate you sharing your own experience of public spaces in Seattle versus southern US with me. Wishing you well.

  2. I have sometimes thought ironic that the more people there are in a group that I might talk to, the quieter I become. So, as the pandemic has essentially sequestered me with my wife, I’ve achieved the pinnacle of social relaxation.

    I must admit, anytime I see a post about my home town from another travel blogger I look forward to seeing what insights they might have. I think this is the first time the insights were more of a purely philosophical nature than of the sights and tastes that most describe. Somehow, coming from you, that doesn’t surprise me.

    • Haha. Hopefully your wife is loving your new-found levels of loquacity.

      Yup, I’m always interested in interrogating how the places I visit embody (or don’t) complexities of human culture and what they reveal about the ways we think. I believe the topics I pursue around design, time, and history impact how we live and interact. So, they’re important ideas for me to question and write about.

  3. It certainly is an interesting time for self-reflection. Although I miss the social connection of people who are dear to me—especially my mother who is in a care home—I must admit that I’m feeling less anxious. I think the stresses of social engagements and the expectations I hold for them, weigh much more heavily on me than I realize. Now, instead of obsessing about having (or going to) the perfect dinner party and being tired/stressed by the time my guests arrive, I’ve been able to spontaneously spend an evening at a local beach or park with a few close friends. We chat, bring whatever we want to eat or drink, and I’m home in plenty of time to curl up with a good book. I am lucky here, on the outskirts of Vancouver, to have plenty of beautiful gathering spots that aren’t crowded and that there is room for cautious optimism about our country’s COVID situation (though sad about many other parts of the world).
    Thank you for this wonderful post.

    • How fortunate you are to be in a part of the world where the pandemic has had smaller effect. I think COVID has been the means of eliminating many unnecessary distractions from our lives, so that we finally pay attention to what is happening to the world and the ways in which we have been and continue to harm one another. It was easy to escape from that under the guise of superficial tasks that “needed to be done” and the damaging destruction of meaningless diversions. What is essential looks quite different now. Thanks for sharing your experience of gathering in these times. Wishing you well.

  4. Such a rich, inspiring post, my friend. I really appreciate that you take the time to go deeper. It’s odd, the way public spaces require more distance now and yet we have a greater need for connection, since the virus tends to isolate us. A conundrum, no? I’ve had experiences like the one you describe with the sweet-scented roses many times, over the years. It’s always nice, the quickly shared observations and mutual appreciation.
    Where I live, more people have taken to the trails and I tend to resent it, preferring to have these places to myself. But that contradicts what I just said. 🙂 What makes me unhappy are people who don’t step off the trail or respect others, but I understand the need to get outdoors. It seems that more people are experiencing the outdoors these days, which is healthy (for humans!).
    I keenly missed the social nature of coffee shop visits. I’m glad they’re open again but sadly, it’s another kind of gathering space where we don’t really gather now. 🙂
    (I love the LanSu Garden – actually I enjoyed it much more than the more famous Portland Japanese Garden. )

    • If we don’t work to counter it, the pandemic will expand our innate drive to fear one another…to isolate ourselves from caring…and to create even more “otherness” than already exists in the world.

  5. This post is beautifully written and I find the dream, the thoughts and feelings all very interesting.

    I am not an introvert, but I don’t particularly enjoy being in large groups of people. On the contrary I need my personal space and I prefer to interact one on one if possible and in very spontaneous and informal ways. Having actual “plans” that are pre made make me uncomfortable and stressed. When the time comes, the pleasure has been muted by the planning.

    I often have a dream, more like a nightmare, where I am in large houses or areas that are full of people. Nowhere to get away to and all that buzzing energy around me. So I do get all of this stuff.

    Love the photo and description of the rose garden and your brief pleasant encounter.


    • Ah, how intriguing that we share this dream/nightmare in common Peta! Forced gatherings rarely achieve the sort of complicated and memorable connections I prize, unless the host is unusually driven to foster an atmosphere conducive to this. Strangely, travel has provided me so many more of the sorts of interactions you and I value…as has blogging. I’ve been so entranced by the fact that we’ve skipped the “I work here…and what’s the weather there…and my children are doing this…” dialogues for much more interesting conversations. Thank you for sharing your experience with me.

  6. At first I missed gathering, then I started gathering in tiny groups (4 of us) spread out, outdoors, and that was good. Now, I am starting to feel ambivalent about gathering at all; there are so many threats here in my city and state, and the burden of that takes away the flavor of being with others. My pendulum swing toward introversion has picked up speed.

    Sadly, our public spaces – my daily thinking and moving ground – has become totally untenable over the last four months, and I’ve had to abandon it as people crush together, maskless and clueless. Life has contracted here at home, first in a good, refreshing way, and now as a rote set of activities. When that happens, I hit the road, getting my fix of nature and newness through glass at least.

    I hope for change, both back to normal and away from the old normal, which as you note, got us here in the first place. If I think too hard about any of it, my head hurts!

    • “If I think too hard about any of it, my head hurts!”… I know…. I’ve stopped trying to make hope for world change a part of my life, instead focusing on what the next step is that I can take to rethink how I live every moment and resist returning to old habits. It’s just as difficult but feels less disheartening. We are both so lucky we get to still be a part of nature where we live, too. It’s been such a relief. Take care.

  7. Misfit?
    I doubt it, just like many of us a minority, of introverted character, who prefer the company of few, with something more to say, about the passions we enjoy, rather than trivialities, too much noise, and crowds exhaust us, and as Heraclitus said: Character is destiny, and as we know ourselves, we settle in our ways, and find peace.

    Best wishes. 🙂

  8. I can so relate to your writing, Atreyee. How eloquently you describe your struggles and ways of being.

    I’ve always felt uncomfortable in groups, and although I’ve learned over the course of 50 years to be okay in group settings for short periods of time, I still prefer the company of one or two people at a time. I can remember when I was a teacher, the students would ask me at which table in the staffroom I sat in their curiosity of which teachers I associated with, I guess. The only way I could describe it was “at the odd ball table”, as we didn’t fit in anywhere else. I still feel like that most of the time, which is why I much prefer my own company, yet, like you, delight in those fleeting encounters with strangers.

    • ☺️ It’s been wonderful to find fellow misfits through blogging and traveling over the years. In this way I’ve made my own community of sorts and that has taught me the value of connecting with others without the need for tribalism. I appreciate you sharing your experience as the “odd ball” and for your touching compliment.

      • Cheers to all the misfits of the world! I am, like you, very grateful for this “community of sorts without the need for tribalism”. You’ve said it so well. It is exactly the kind of connection I appreciate and celebrate, and so grateful I’ve found within the blogging community.

  9. I resonate with much of what you say, but have become bolder with age that’s for sure. And I’ve always been adventurous, which forced me out into the world, often (and sometimes still!) with disastrous results. While the adventurousness compelled me out into the world, a deep shyness had me always seeking places and times of solitude. Every day I walk in a forest that breathes to me it’s green love.
    Lucky for me I was welcomed into a full-moon drumming/dancing circle where our gathering includes a sharing council. I’ve been part of this community for almost 22 years now and through this have learned somewhat how to be in community though previous to joining this group community was something to be avoided – not safe.
    We had two full-moon gatherings by zoom during lockdown. It kept us connected but I missed the drumming and dancing. Now we gather outdoors spaciously in a member’s garden, or in a large beachside park. It’s so enriching to be person-to-person again even if there are no hugs. Vancouver is rich in public gathering spaces.

    • Vancouver does have lovely outdoor expanses, but even as a visitor I haven’t always felt included or safe in all those public spaces.
      I’m thankful that though an introvert I’ve been able to cobble something like a community out of my travel and blogging connections. It’s made me have to think outside the framework of normative group dynamics, but I agree that there’s something so rewarding about person-to-person “contacts.” Who knows how such things will morph in the future? It felt so awkward to not be able to hug friends or see people smiling as we greet one another…but very soon it becomes habit. Thanks for sharing your own community building experience with me! I love that you were able to find people in your area who shared your passion for movement and rhythm and openness. Wishing you well.

  10. In London we locked down in our industry on 16th March it seems like a lifetime ago, music making can be very communal, I’m quite complex in relation to others, I’ve always spent a lot of time on my own, sometimes in isolated rooms in strangers houses if I’m working away, lots of my work entails hours of solo practice but I love to perform and work in teams and I love to get the adrenaline rush of an audience.

    I don’t like to go to busy locations at the moment, I prefer to walk when it’s quiet but I’m missing friends, family, hugs and just sharing a pot of tea ☕️😊.

    You wrote a lovely thought provoking post 👍🏻

    • I hear you Charlotte! 🥰 Solo time takes up the majority of my work, and I never gave that much consideration until the pandemic. But even the connections we often don’t give much thought, such as those who serve us in our daily social interactions, have come into sharp focus. Wishing you well. Thank you for stopping by to read, for sharing your experience, and for your kind remarks.

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