A Big World After All

Visiting New York City to break out of our pandemic familiarity, with mixed results.

When airlines canceled flights in March 2020, I was temporarily relieved to get a break from traveling for my work. But I was sad to miss journalism events, and especially disappointed because I’d been planning on taking my then-9-year-old daughter to Boston for one of them. After all, I had taken our son, now 13, with me to fun locations like Venice Beach while reporting on a story. It was supposed to be her turn.

Illustration by Dola Sun

“I’ll make it up to you,” I told her. “But we won’t go to Boston,” she pouted.

I searched for consolation, reaching for a destination that was even higher on her list. (Sorry, Boston, I think you’re great.) “How about if we go to New York City instead?”

Her eyes danced. “When? Soon!?”

“No, not soon.” What I wanted to say was, “I can’t imagine we’ll ever leave town again.” Every morning that spring, I read about what New York City was going through. The terror. The stories of people losing parents and spouses. The nurses and doctors who had to watch patients die. I’d visited New York City about 20 times over the last 25 years, and I tried to imagine the familiar places. The people. The closed-in feeling.

Living here in suburban Cincinnati, we had the luxury of backyards and uncrowded streets. We bubbled up and stayed put, as the fortunate were able to do. And when we did start going places in 2021—like the beaches of Lake Michigan, a half-day’s drive away—they felt like places cut from the same cloth as here, just with more water.

Our life was a gray circle of sameness. There is, of course, huge privilege in sameness. I already worked from home as a writer. My husband was a stay-at-home dad. We were set up for this. So we weathered it.

For two years, my daughter kept asking me when we were going to New York City. For the longest time, my answer was, “As soon as vaccinations are approved for your age group.” After she was vaccinated, it became, “As soon as this Omicron surge passes.” And then one Thursday a few months ago, she said, “I know we’re never going to New York.”

“We will go! I just don’t want to plan and then have to cancel.”

I heard the absurdity tumbling from my mouth. Living in fear of cancellation was not the example I wanted to set for my kids.

So the minute she got on the school bus, I started searching flights to New York City for Presidents Day weekend. She had days off from school. I still had travel credits from 2020. It was the perfect match.

Her squeal when I told her that afternoon was the stuff that parents live for. We immediately started making a list of must-sees. Museums would not be on the list, she informed me. Shopping would be. I was 11 once, so I understood. I also knew there were more ways to experience a place than paying an endless series of admission fees.

While her goal was to find the perfect jeans and the trendiest sweatshirt, my goal was for her to have new and different experiences. In her mind, we were going to a giant outdoor mall, just with tall buildings. In my mind, we were going to experience the city’s texture and have big adventures.

But almost as soon as we got there—and certainly after the long taxi ride from the airport—she was already talking about going home. Venturing out the first day, she was scared of the subway, of crowded sidewalks and street performers, of Times Square. She squeezed me like I was her personal Squishmallow.

Any time I would hesitate on which subway line to take or which direction we needed to go, she would panic.

I would reassure with my “spirit of adventure” pep talk. “This is all part of it,” I’d say, “not quite knowing where you’re going but figuring it out as you go.”

“I don’t like that,” she said.

Why was she so scared? I tried to riddle it. We’d certainly spent time in urban environments before. She wasn’t frightened of people as much as she was of the idea of being lost. Of the jolt of the unfamiliar. Of the bigness around her. At one point, she said, “My favorite part of the day is when we get back to the hotel.”

If I’m being honest—which I try to be, since I wrote a book about the power of being honest—I had known she wouldn’t be comfortable at all times. And that’s exactly why I knew we had to go. We’ve been in a waiting game for two years trying to “stay safe” as we waited to see what was next. But her idea of “safe” had morphed into “never leaving the familiar.” That wouldn’t do.

We shopped in SoHo, walked through the Fashion District, ate fresh doughnuts in Bryant Park, and saw Wicked. But every fun moment seemed to be followed by a moment of her panicking or stressing. The last day, we took the subway down to the 9/11 Memorial to see the remembrance pools, which sit where the North Tower and South Tower once stood. She had learned about 9/11 in school, but she had no frame of reference for what had been destroyed and rebuilt. You can’t understand what resilience looks like from a classroom 600 miles away. Even with Zoom.

The names of those killed encircle each reflecting pool, and we read some aloud. “You’re crying,” she said.

“It’s because I’m sad and I’m humbled,” I responded. Seeing me upset was almost as stressful for her as the subway. But I wasn’t going to hide it. Being fully in the world meant sitting with whatever emotions came up. Had I been doing this, or had I been trying to make everything OK for two years?

“Let’s walk down by the water,” I said. “There’s something I want you to see.”

There, at Manhattan’s tip, she looked out across the pretty blue expanse and said, “Oh yeah, there’s the Statue of Liberty.” It wasn’t quite the “Oh my god!” moment I wanted. But as we further explored The Battery, she spontaneously did a front handspring along one of the paths. That’s her comfort move. The one that says, “I was here,” the way carving your initials into a tree might. The ground wasn’t hers to claim, but the experience was. The moment of bigness. And I realized that’s what I’d wanted all along, not a quick gasp at a landmark.

I pulled my hat down over my ears against the freezing February wind and reflected on my ideas about things big and things small. We’d been talking about big ideas around our kitchen table while living within small boundaries. I wanted to take my kid somewhere big and eye-opening to counteract that, but the only way to take it in was through a series of small, meaningful experiences.

Is it a small world after all, or a big one?

For me, these last two years have been about keeping my head down, working hard, giving generously, clinging tightly to the values I believe in, and pulling the people I love in close. How does a person keep all the things close while letting themselves expand again? How does a tween who has come of age during a pandemic do it?

I’m not suggesting everyone head to Times Square. In truth, it’s a pretty obnoxious little corner of the world. But I do think we need to get ourselves to the unfamiliar. To the places big in spirit where the small moments live.

So pick your city. Or your mountain. Whatever your vibe is. Just go with your family to see the big world. This might be the window right now.

We don’t know what’s coming next. We don’t know when everything will get small again.

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