Calgary Herald, March 4, 2017: When my grandmother turned 80, we had a surprise party for her. In retrospect it was not, perhaps, the best idea, given her shock at her Edmonton family just appearing ‘POOF’ in her Vancouver family’s kitchen. But Nana recovered nicely, pinched each of us to make sure we were real and we all went out to dinner.
She died a few years later, just at Gorbachev starting throwing around the terms perestroika and glasnost. Nana had lived through two world wars, the poverty of the Depression, all the ‘duck and cover’ drills of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and a string of assassinations from JFK to Pierre Laporte. She also managed through the death of two husbands, the first when she was 19. Her second husband died days after atomic bombs fell on Japan, leaving her with two teenage boys to feed.
Here in 2017, as we all breathe in mushroom clouds of fear and hate, I find myself wondering how my Nana coped with the considerable angst of her times. She died before I was interested in asking her such questions and mercifully before the Gretzky trade because, as the family joke goes, that would have killed her.
On a big night out, Nana would have a tipple of sherry so I am pretty sure she didn’t drink her way through crisis. We found all her rosaries tucked away in a box in the basement after she died, but I suspect my Nana, like billions of others, found some solace praying.
“Prayer works the same way an affirmation or meditation or even bedtime story works,” says Rachel Weingarten, daughter of a concentration camp survivor and author of Ancient Prayer: Channeling Your Faith 365 Days a Year. Ancient prayers and those brand new meditation apps you can download on your phone can help connect you to your faith or deliver secular comfort. “Sometimes it’s the distraction of the words we know better than we know ourselves,” says Weingarten. “I pretty much go through my days with snippets of poetry or literature or pop culture or prayer.”
I’ve been leaning more to the pop. I am personally responsible for pushing George Michael’s Freedom! 90 to 43,109,508 views on YouTube. It may seem odd that a heterosexual woman would glom on to a song that’s become a coming out anthem, but I think it’s the tolerance in Michael’s message. And the joy in his voice.
Finding some joy can go a long way. If dancing in the kitchen to YouTube videos doesn’t improve your mood, you could try the simple act of smiling. When your facial muscles turn that frown upside down, your brain is signalled to send out an army of endorphins and, well, you feel better. A bonus: people tend to smile back. What if we all started smiling at total strangers, particularly those women wearing head scarves? Wouldn’t that be a nice break from the series of scowls they have to put up with on any given afternoon?
We are “not experiencing the best of times,” Ruth Ginsburg said in a careful voice on the BBC recently. The U.S. Supreme Court Justice, daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, has no doubt seen her share of the worst of times in her 83 years. Yet, she is optimistic for the future.
“A great man once said that the true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle,” she says. “It is the pendulum. And when the pendulum swings too far in one direction it will go back. Some terrible things have happened in the United States, but one can only hope that we learn from those bad things.”
Bad things are delivered in pretty much real time on Twitter. Wise people turn away from the endless stream of negativity punctuated with zingers and otters eating lettuce. I can’t seem to quit the Twitter (otters!) but I did start following the Dalai Lama. I know he won’t follow me back—he has more than 13 million followers and doesn’t follow a single soul—but his tweets are such a nice break from the outrage: “We have to cultivate a vision of a happier, more peaceful future and make the effort now to bring it about.”
I have been cultivating a vision of my 80th birthday party. I don’t think about whether it’s a surprise, whether my future grandchildren will like calling me ‘The Nana’ or whether I’m wearing a sparkly dress. What comforts me is thinking about the conversation a few decades out. We’ll think back to 2017 when hate was on the rise, ‘the other’ was the enemy and the world seemed to be going crazy. And then we’ll clink our glasses to celebrate that pendulums swung, checks and balances prevailed and everything turned out OK.