It was the summer of 2019, and I had carved out vacation time between leaving one job and beginning a new one. I wanted to clear mind clutter so I could start my new role completely ready to go. Central Park was my perfect setting, and I was meandering through the park, alone.
But first, all this: I have a very, very emotional connection to NYC generally, and to Central Park specifically, built through some wonderful visits. Although he primarily works from home (and of course, works completely from home in the Coronaverse), my husband’s work is based out of NYC. This has meant lots of travel there for him over the years, and I have tagged along quite a few times. During those trips, a typical day includes me wandering the city solo while he works, and then meeting up for a delicious dinner, maybe a show, maybe a fantastically crappy slice on the way home from a show.
Those meanderings through the city have meant so much to me. I have always been a good solo traveler/explorer. Being alone away from home allows me to completely immerse myself in a space, encourages me to take in the sights and smells and sounds in ways that I can’t when my attention is also on someone else. I once jotted down fragments of fascinating conversations that I heard on a blistering summer day in NYC. That may sound sketchy and creepy, but all I can say is it did not feel so at the time. I had a blast spinning mind fiction about what I was hearing. (Did you read Harriet the Spy as a child? One of my favs… it was kind of like that.) Of course, I love exploring the city with my husband, and have also experienced very special duo trips with each of my daughters to celebrate their 16th birthdays, and I have cherished opportunities to meet up with friends in the city. In short, for me, just about any way to vacation in this city is a good way.
And oh, the adventures that are possible! My college roommate and I stayed with my now long-passed great aunt in Manhattan for a few days in our early 20s. We got separated on the subway (one on, one off) due to a confused get-off-here-oh-no-the-doors-are-closing moment, and a madcap chase around the city ensued. This was long before cell phones, and included one of us sticking a note to a subway post with chewing gum. We also looked up and met a musician whom I had admired as a teenager. (In the end, he maybe was and maybe was not actually that musician, and this was perhaps a risky evening.) My oldest daughter Eliana and I ended her special birthday trip with a race to the airport after an unexpected, extended afternoon when we discovered a Red Carpet event for a Harry Potter movie premier, with stars galore. Also, Larry lovingly stores up his own culinary adventures from solo work trips, and then showers them down upon me when we visit together! Oh, and the music — truly, I can’t even. Add to these the quiet moments that are available, like breathing in the stillness of the New York Public Library main branch third floor in Manhattan, or staring up in wonder at the Ceremonial House Ceiling in the Oceania Exhibit at the Metropolitan Art Museum (“The Met” for us insiders…) (I must insert another children’s literature shout-out: cannot go to The Met without imagining being locked inside for a night, just like Claudia in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.) Every visit is an exquisite mix of the exciting and new and chances to re-experience spots that have grown familiar.
Perhaps one of my favorite elements of this city is that there is a surprise around every corner. Unlike my beautiful hometown of Chicago, which I feel has “these parts” and “those parts”, each with their own wonderful flavors, in NYC it seems as though the city can completely change as soon as you turn right down another street. Mixed-up flavors. Don’t like what you are looking at? Turn right! And, the park is like that, too. What do you want? Zoo? Bridge? Garden? Tower? Lawn? Monument? Boats? Bikes? Bench? All there.
And, everybody who loves NYC (and the park, too, maybe) has their OWN NYC. Everyone wants to tell you about their special places and the BEST restaurants, and cannot believe that you have not visited them. Unless you really hate cities, there is truly something for everyone. Some reading this may be thinking, “Parks, shows, museums, libraries? Doesn’t this woman ever go to a sporting event?” (Do you know me? No.) “What about shopping?” But anyway, that’s the point. We are all different, and NYC celebrates all of us.
Way at the top of this story, I was wandering around Central Park, reflecting and clearing my mind. And now that I’ve made it through a tiny love letter to New York, I’m ready to return to that walk. It had been a rough and stressful spring for me for a lot of reasons. (See What’s in Your JunePile? Reboot… if you really want to know, and perhaps consider the Days of Positive Impact strategy that I used to get through the end of it… which could maybe be useful for any one of us just now…) I was ready to start my new job, and really wanted to shed myself of those stresses before beginning anew. And I had a visual for it. I’d walk into the park with that heavy backpack of stress weighing me down, I’d empty it somewhere along my path, and emerge from the park light and ready. Corny? You betcha. Didn’t care, still don’t. It was exactly what I needed, and it worked, and while unburdening myself, I also picked up two momentos from the day.
The first is the painting featured at the start of this writing. I came upon an artist in the middle of the park, and fell in love with his work, and spent at least an hour selecting the piece that spoke to me most. Let’s be honest — it is kind of gaudy. I know that, and I love that. But, while the colors are loud, the spot is serene, and that perfectly sums up a lot of what I typically need in and for my head. I also had fun searching the park to find the real spot, pictured below. That’s part of the magic of wandering alone. You can do exactly what you want, and I wanted to find and photograph that spot.
When my new painting arrived at home via FedEx tube, Larry and I hung it in our guest room, easily viewed from the hallway. I gazed at it often, remembering that trip and why it was important to me. And then the pandemic hit, and the guest room became my home office. Now, the painting hangs behind me, and every single person who has been on frequent video calls with me has seen it. With those bright colors, it isn’t really fade-into-the background art. Sometimes during a meeting, my eye will catch on my own image and background, and I will think about all that is on hold, and all that is waiting for us when we can emerge from this situation together. Some things will be forever changed, hopefully for the better. Also, hopefully, we will be able to return to what was already wonderful. To that end, I note that I was hesitant to even write and share about this now, as we ALL have things on hold. Some of us have lost people, moments, resources, and opportunities that we will never get back. So, to some extent, the fact that I’m yearning for a visit to NYC is a pretty low-level concern. But, yeah, maybe that’s part of the point. In the midst of true tragedy, it is still ok to acknowledge smaller losses. We can make space for desires alongside needs.
The second memento from the 2019 Day in Central Park is more of a talisman. I purchased a metal Central Park-themed water bottle for my new workplace. Knowing that I was headed into a new role in a new district with new stresses, I expected to have a special use for it: I’d have it with me in meetings, and if I needed a moment to gather myself, to pause before speaking, I could focus on that bottle. It would center me. Yes, it has been in use. I may have people from my work community reading this, and now they know that if they see me focusing on that bottle in a meeting, I may have something going on. That’s ok. I’m a real person who occasionally needs to settle down, just like everybody else. You might as well know.
Why did I take this seemingly random school picture during that last NYC trip? Well, it’s about another quirk of mine. Ever since I became a school principal in 1999, every single time I’ve passed an elementary or middle school during any trip away from home, I have paused to wonder what it would be like to be a teacher in or the principal of that school. Not a conscious choice, just something that happens. What would the families be like? How could I best support the staff? What would the children need? What would I learn there? I note that when I began working in school HR, I didn’t wonder about the HR needs of that vacationland district. Now that I am a superintendent, I don’t see another school and wonder about what it would be like to be the superintendent in that far-from-home community. I absolutely love my role in education, would not be doing anything else, anywhere else, but still, those imaginings are always about being a teacher or principal, being within the beating heart of that school. So, yeah, I took that picture then, and now I am wondering how the NYC students and parents and staff are faring during the pandemic. I know what I read and see on the news. I know how it is for my school district. Everywhere, we are doing our very best, and everywhere, we are exhausted, worried, frustrated, proud, learning, and, when we can muster it, motivated and hopeful.
Last May, our youngest graduated from CU in Boulder. We had travel plans and accomodations booked, family coming from all over to celebrate our daughter and enjoy Colorado. Of course, in the end, we could not go. Sophie did not walk, but there were still graduation pictures!
In the midst of our combined sadness about not being able to be there to celebrate graduation, we promised Sophie that when we can do so safely, we’ll treat/meet her for a trip to NYC. I’m not sure who that cheered up more, Sophie or me. Anyway, we WILL do it. And even though we will be in the city as a family, I expect that I will crave a trip through Central Park alone. However, instead of visualizing the shedding of stresses like last time, I imagine that I will be reflecting on all of the new skills and knowledge that I’ve gathered since the start of the pandemic. I won’t want to lose those, just figure out how to put them to the best use as I turn right towards a new view.