By Barbara Goldenberg, Sharp Again Naturally Volunteer
Compared to many New Yorkers, I’ve been very fortunate during the COVID pandemic. I’ve been able to stay safe and heathy, without the stress of balancing work with homeschooling, or caring for aging at-risk family members, for example. Yet we have all felt fear and isolation this past year—especially in the early days when we knew so little, and vaccines weren’t even a glimmer on the horizon. New York City was again “Ground Zero”—this time for a new, highly contagious virus claiming thousands of lives. Ambulances raced through our empty streets at all hours, the sirens adding to our anxiety. Getting a good night’s sleep and staying calm seemed impossible.
Luckily, a few years ago I discovered a nearby park called Randall’s Island. I had passed the footbridge to the Island countless times on my usual exercise walks, until one day I decided to explore. It was startling, like going to Oz. Behind me was the rundown East River Esplanade, but over the footbridge was a peaceful urban retreat, with well-tended walkways and trees, sports fields, picnic tables, and a wildflower meadow. In no time, I was hooked. Randall’s became my destination of choice: up the Esplanade and over the bridge to my farthest endpoint. A few stretches, and before heading back, inspecting the new vegetables and greeting the chickens at the Urban Farm, cheering to see actual fruit on the apple and pear trees along the playing field, and watching the river from a favorite bench under a willow tree. Four-plus miles later, my spirits were always restored, and I usually slept well that night.
My park visits haven’t been a cure-all for the anxieties of life during COVID. But the Island has remained a happy place and a refuge. A powerful windstorm knocked down the big willow last year, but park staff have planted dozens of new trees. On cold January walks, I’d check out the species names on the tree tags and try to remember them on my next trip. (Is it a hackberry? Bald cypress?) It’s now a very beautiful spring on the Island, with new flowers and plantings to admire. Urban Farm volunteers are busy preparing the beds, and the chickens will have new expanded digs this year.
The gym in my building has been open for a while now, with the usual guidelines (reservations, time limits, etc.) and since I’m vaccinated, I’ll most likely use it again when the weather is bad. But I know how that park lifts my spirits, helps me stay active and sleep a little better, so I’ll be heading over the footbridge to check on the new trees as often as I can.
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