The pandemic, in addition to its many tragedies, has brought positive life lessons and new meaning and self-understanding to many. In this webinar, CiWPP graduate Joanne Edgar takes viewers on a photographic journey of what she observed and learned over the past two and a half years. Accompanied by her cell phone and camera—and the results of her VIA survey on character strengths—Joanne sought humor and hope in her neighborhood during the pandemic shutdown in New York City.

Joanne Edgar

Joanne is a consultant for nonprofit organizations and foundations. For the past 20 years, she has chronicled successful programs to prevent unnecessary removal of children from their families and placement in foster care. She was a founding editor of Ms. magazine, where she worked for 17 years, and also spent 10 years as communications director for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. 

Highlights from the Conversation
Caroline Kohles, Senior Director of Health and Wellness at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan: Welcome to the call. I’m so glad you’re here. And we get a chance to not only hear from you about how you survived the pandemic, but to see it as well. Have you always been interested in photography?
Joanne: Yes, but in a very amateur way because I don’t have a really wonderful camera. Most of the photographs that I’m going to show you today were taken with my iPhone, and they were actually quite spontaneous photographs. But I’m really going to take you on a tour through the pandemic in my eyes, and those of you who live in New York will recognize a lot of it. Those of you who don’t live in New York can sort of see what it was like for us here. But what I really want to show is what I learned. And for starters, I was really lucky, I was cautious and careful, and I’ve been exceedingly lucky that I didn’t get sick. I live in a building where there are a lot of elderly people, and there was quite a bit of illness. But I was fortunate that I didn’t get sick and that I was able to stay in close touch with family and friends, both here in New York and around the world.

Throughout the pandemic, my lifestyle changed, of course, as it did for all of us. I had traveled for work, and that all stopped. I also traveled for pleasure. I had a trip scheduled to Bali, a volunteer vacation to help villagers clean up plastic that washes up on the beach, and that didn’t happen. 

Caroline: [Tell us] a little bit more about you and how you got interested in positive psychology. 
Joanne: You and Phoebe Atkinson did a couple of workshops at the JCC before the pandemic, and I was intrigued by those. And then the minute the pandemic happened, I was fortunate enough to be here every day, like we all were, and I was able to go on those calls and I have to say that they made a huge difference in my life, and I think made it possible for me to to pull together a collection of photos that shows the positive things that I’ve learned during a very difficult time.
In addition to the things that did not happen in my life during the pandemic, this presentation is about what did happen in my life. It’s how I learned to recognize and use my character strengths, which I’ll talk about a little bit later. It’s about the small, everyday things that I learned to notice in my neighborhood and my building that helped me become more resilient and more hopeful. And the things that kept me going. Jodi Wellman, who is a Positive Psychology Coach, has a website called 4000 Mondays, and it’s based on the average number of Mondays the average person lives. And each of these lines in this chart [on the screen] represents a year of my age. And I am at the moment 78 and three-quarters years old, which means that I’ve lived 4089 Mondays so far, which means that I am actually beyond my sell-by date. However, that does not stop me from how I view myself now. I still see myself when I was 14 years old in New Zealand, and I had just completed the Milford Track, which is 32 miles of hiking in the mountains. And I still think that I can do this!
Caroline: Okay, what is your secret would never have guessed that age for you?
Joanne: I don’t think I have a secret. I just am who I am. That’s all I can say. And I try and stay active as much as I can, and thanks to the JCC that’s possible and remained possible during the pandemic for sure. So going back to the pandemic … This is the corner of my block on March the 20th, 2020. As you can see, the streetlights were working. But there was absolutely no traffic—people were walking in the middle of the streets. The only vehicles that we saw or heard were ambulances and fire trucks and empty buses. The buses were free at that point. But nobody was riding them except for the frontline workers who were going to work early in the morning and staying for unbelievably long hours. So it was an occasion to slow down.

Maria Sirois, who is on the faculty for WBI, has the most wonderful quote that really spoke to me for my experience. “Life is harsh, crazy, capricious and unjust and [also] wondrous surprising, bountiful, and beautiful. Both are true. How we navigate these realities is the challenge of living today—we must find a way within ourselves and with each other, to acknowledge, recognize, and diminish the dark wherever we can, while elevating the good.” And this is what I’m not sure that I was conscious of trying to do that during the pandemic. But looking back on it, this is what I tried to do. And along the way, I found micro moments of positivity and meaning, which is a Wholebeing Institute phrase that I learned from Phoebe early on, and was developed by Barbara Fredrickson at UNC Chapel Hill. Yet far beyond feeling good, a micro moment of love, like other positive emotions, literally changes your mind. It expands your awareness of your surroundings, even your sense of self. I found so many small moments of love and kindness and beauty. During the pandemic, I found that I just had to actively look for them, even in the most difficult of times.

I’ve organized this presentation around VIA character strengths. And VIA has a system where you take a survey … There are 24 strengths, we all have all of them, but each of us has them in a different order. And I’ve chosen humor, perseverance, and hope. Humor is one of my top strengths. Perseverance is sort of in the middle, and hope is at the bottom. But I’m on a ladder, pulling it up, because it’s one of my want-to-be strengths, and I’m trying to move it up. And here’s another way of looking at the character strengths. The words in the middle are the strengths, the words on the outside are the sort of organizing virtues around them. So one of my character strengths is appreciation of beauty and excellence. And that kept me going during the earliest part of the pandemic. Almost every day, I would go outside, and I would see something that made me take a photograph. I didn’t really intend to document my pandemic in photographs, but it happened because of things like this. This was a very small sticker, maybe two inches by four inches, that was pasted on the wall of a tunnel underneath the West Side Highway and you have to go through that tunnel in order to get from Riverside Park, which is next to my block to the river itself. And so I would pass that sticker on a regular basis.

And I love that sticker. When somebody took it down. I was devastated. But I had documented it because I had the photograph. I am also very lucky in that I live on a top floor of a large apartment building. And I can see the beauty of sunsets and I saw them every day. There’s always music in my neighborhood. And I love this man who was on the corner of 72nd and Columbus. He plays the trumpet and he’s out frequently.

I have two backyards, Central Park and Riverside Park. And Central Park is beautiful anytime of year. This was in the fall. And this is Central Park in the summer. People had started to come outdoors again and enjoy the warmth and the sun. So it was really nice. And more recently, my neighborhood has been completely entranced by a family of peregrine falcons that have set up house in the church steeple on my corner. They were babies, and they have since fledged. We first noticed that they were even there because you see the birders who arrive with their tripods and their cameras and lenses that are three feet long. And they just basically set up house and they were wonderful because they would explain everything to all the neighbors about what was going on and then everyone would stop and ask questions and they would get their kids and they would bring their kids to watch. And these falcons, they have fledged now, but they’re still around because they’re learning how to hunt. So I can see them flying and, and they flap their wings a lot. Their parents are flying watching them and teaching them to hunt. And they’re extremely graceful.

This was the most wonderful book that I read during the first year of the pandemic. It’s called On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz and it’s 11 different walks in her neighborhood, which turns out to be the same neighborhood that I live in. She did these walks through the eyes of experts, and Chapter One expert was her two-year-old toddler son. So she went with him and she let him lead. And he did. He showed a fascination for all the Os in the railings around the trees. And he showed a fascination for standpipes—those pipes in New York City buildings that that have two different heads on them, and they’re to increase the water pressure if the fire department needs something. They’re required on any building taller than five or six stories. I had never noticed those standpipes before. I had seen them all the time, but I never noticed them. So Alexandra went on a walk with her son. She went on a walk with a geologist from the American Museum of Natural History, who was exceedingly interested in sidewalks. Again, something I don’t pay too much attention to unless I trip on a crack. She also had an insect specialist, and who knew there were so many insects in New York City. She followed a blind person who relied on sense of hearing. And the last chapter was to go on a walk with her dog. And so she had a smell-centered walk. I highly recommend this book even if you don’t live in New York City.

Here I was dressed to go to the laundry room. And I hate the laundry room in my building. It’s like a tunnel and you have one way in and one way out. But I was dressed to do that. And I thought it was pretty funny. New York City has a great sense of humor. The lion on the left is one of the two in front of the New York Public Library, Patience and Prudence. I don’t know which one is which. But she was wearing a mask. And there’s a florist in my neighborhood that has had these two bears out there for years and they are always in costume appropriately. And this time they were in costume for the pandemic. Of course the boating pond in Central Park was closed, but that didn’t mean that people didn’t bring their boat to the lawn and have a good time. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen geese try and walk on ice. But this was it. This was obviously in the winter and because of their webbed feet they have a hard time walking on ice and they slide and it’s actually quite funny to watch.

I cooked and anybody who knows me knows that this is also funny. And on the left, I’m cooking tofu, onions, and peppers. And as I recall, it was not particularly good, but the artichoke was great. And early on, you probably also remember it was hard to get masks, but we did get some and we got some face shields. And this was the first time four of us had gotten together in person. And this photo makes me smile all the time. I had an extremely humorous and neurotic cat for 10 years, here she is watching a nature show. And during the pandemic, she went to her ancestors, but I kept her toys, and I used them to decorate a tiny little Christmas tree that Christmas.

Also among my top character strengths are kindness and gratitude. And as I already said, hope is at the bottom, but I’m pulling it up. In New York, we celebrated the frontline workers—every night at seven o’clock, we would lean out of our windows, go to the stoops or go to the corner, and make as much noise as we possibly could make. And sometimes that was really a lot of noise. And at one point, an EMT supervisor had noticed how much noise we were making. And he brought all of his staff that was on break to our corner to experience it firsthand. And this is what we saw; I took this little video.

I still find that so moving that we were able to thank them in person. But we also had to take care of ourselves. I’m not sure about other cities, but in New York, people post just a plain piece of paper with job wanted ads such as a nanny who was available or piano teacher or tutor or something like this. And this was an ad that I saw on a traffic control box. And it says, “Please take what you need.” And usually it’s the name and the email or phone number but in this case it was love joy, peace, patience, courage, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control, passion, strength, and freedom. And you will notice that one has already been torn out and I didn’t tear it out but I I would almost bet that it says hope. And this is another indication of hope that the mail was not very reliable during the first part of the pandemic. And this is a birth announcement that was written in the middle of the street again on my corner. “A new baby sister as cute as can be, we’ll be best of friends, just wait and see.” And this little baby is now two years old. So I wish I knew the family because I would love to see the baby. It would be so cute. There was a lot of sidewalk art in our neighborhood. And a lot of it was written by children but some written by adults. And I took a lot of photographs of messages that meant something to me. And that seemed hopeful.
And during all of that, I just, I’m learning how to breathe. I’m learning how to breathe better. It taught me to live in the now. This is a flower show that was in lower Manhattan. And I loved this particular set of signs. I’m not quite there on the relaxation thing yet, but I’m, I’m getting there. Teamwork and social intelligence. Teamwork is one of my top strengths and social intelligence is in the middle. But I sort of see them as going together. The JCC always has motivating quotes on the front of the building. This one is pretty wonderful. We need connection as much as we need physical nourishment. It’s from Sharon Salzberg, who’s a very famous meditation teacher. The one that they have now is from a Stephen Sondheim song that says, “No one is alone.” And they’re always extremely motivational and moving and beautifully, beautifully displayed.

During the pandemic, my friends and I and my family and I connected regularly. And one of my friends said, we connected with creativity, courage, and persistence. And we did that indeed, and we connected continuously and regularly. And that was so important to sustaining our spirits in general. So we wrote letters to get out the vote. We organized—there was a big neighborhood controversy around putting homeless men into empty hotels, because of the spread of COVID. And there were a number of people who were demonstrating in support of it. And there were always children who were there doing some of the art, which I thought was pretty wonderful. And the sidewalk art—”Everyone deserves shelter” was the theme.

This is a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt and Riverside Park, it’s one of my favorite statues, I often go to visit Eleanor whenever I’m on 72nd Street, which is where she sits or stands. It’s a statue that’s about maybe 12 feet high, and it’s up on a riser and there was a man at the beginning of the pandemic who put himself in charge of her mask, and she always had a mask on. And he had to get a ladder to get up and change the mask. He died of COVID during the pandemic and the neighborhood raised enough money to dedicate a bench in his honor, which I thought was really wonderful.

We hugged trees, these signs appeared on trees throughout the parks, and we hugged each other once we could. We made art on open streets, and again the children were a key part of this. And I hope that their parents took photos like this so that they can make it part of their kids growing-up story. Because the pandemic is definitely part of their story. But there were moments of beauty like this. And these are things I just happened on when I was outside. We danced—just because there was a pandemic didn’t mean that we had to give up our dancing. The Cherry Lane is a very famous theater in Greenwich Village, and never before had I danced on the main stage of a theater. So it was truly a wonderful moment for me. And other wonderful moments were when we danced outdoors on school playgrounds. And whenever we did that we would play the music really loud, and attract other people that we would invite to come dance with us and those teenage girls on the left where we’re on swings next door to where we were and they came over and danced with us.

Of course we also went and we marched. This is a march after George Floyd was murdered. I was not comfortable being in the midst of so many people at that point but I stood on the sidelines and helped with water and cheered everybody on. 

We shared stories. I love the idea that something so simple as sharing what we already have—stories—can make a difference in the world. Everyone has stories, they put us on the same level, and allow everyone’s voice to be heard. I think that’s really special. Stories are my work and I collect stories. I write about programs that are successful in helping families stay together when they’re facing anxiety, health issues, addiction issues, and they’re afraid of the knock on the door from child welfare that might take their kids away. So when I look at stories, and I come up with the question, how do I want to spend the rest of my life given that I am 78 and three quarters years old, and I’ve had 4089 Mondays? It’s a question of some importance to me. Dan Tomasulo, in his book Learned Hopefulness, said, “Focusing on what can be done in the future, rather than what happened in the past, creates hope.” So I’ve been trying to look to the future. And that means I’ve been looking at goals and dreams. I find it easier to set goals and dreams around work than I do around other things. So that’s where I started, with work. And here is my still-messy desk. I love my work, I love meeting the people that I meet and writing up their stories, I think it’s so important to do.

So I’m trying to make a hope not so much a state of mind as a habit of mind of heart. This is again, a quote from Dan Tomasulo. And I’m trying to grow because work changes don’t address the bigger question of how I want to spend the rest of my life. I don’t really have an answer to that question yet. And during my work with Wholebeing Institute and the Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology, I realized I was probably asking the wrong question. It’s not so much what I want to do in the rest of my life. It’s how I want to be and the rest of my life. And I want to grow. I know that whatever I do on my Mondays ahead has to make a difference. I want it to make a difference not only to me, but to other people. I want to be engaged in the world, and with the people around me as long as I possibly can. I want to give myself permission to be human and magnificent. I can’t believe I’m using that word, but magnificent in my old age. And I want to have compassion for myself as I age, as opposed to what is impatience, which is which comes naturally. So it’s about choice, and I want to choose my future based on my values. In short, I want to bloom.

This is also in my neighborhood: a mural of Alice Walker’s poem “Revolutionary Petunias.” As you can see, it’s on a Petco store wall, which I think is particularly appropriate. The poem says, “The nature of this flower is to bloom, rebellious, living against the elemental crush, a song of color, blooming for deserving eyes, looming gloriously for itself, revolutionary petunias.” So, I may or may not be a revolutionary petunia. Right now in the world, I don’t always see a lot of hope when I look around. But I do know that if I go outside and look for it, I can focus on hope and I can find the small moments even in the worst of times. Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain. I’m sure you’ve heard that quote before. But during the pandemic, I learned to be grateful for the beauty of nature and the humor of wildlife and my neighborhood. I’m grateful for the healthcare workers. I’m so grateful for my family, and totally impressed by how we navigated the pandemic together—with together being the operative word, even though we were rarely together. But we kept each other laughing and we kept supporting each other. Even now I see people every day trying to make things better, including in my building. I look at the social workers and the leaders I meet during my foundation work, people who have the strength and the family’s ability to change their lives, and to get the kind of support that they need to keep their families together. I see my colleagues from my earliest feminist days in the 1970s. And we have all lived a life of two steps forward, and sometimes three steps back, it seems like that, but we still keep marching ahead. I look at my lawyer friends in Mississippi, who never give up arguing for justice at all levels, from supporting Black farmworkers to support for the Women’s Health Clinic in Jackson, which was the center of the Supreme Court case overturning Roe v Wade. And I hold on to my intrepid friends in New York City and beyond, who keep dancing despite everything, even in the rain. All of these people keep me going. They helped me focus on gratitude, beauty, kindness, and hope, with a lot of laughter. They’re examples of the resilience that I found during the pandemic, that gives me hope for the future.

Next Monday will be the 4090th Monday in my life. And for the rest of my Mondays I hope that I can live the resilient and hopeful life that I truly believe now is possible.