By Stanly Wlodyka Jiménez
This past year, there’s been no shortage of reasons to feel glum, but common wisdom tells us that we ought to accentuate the positive, look at the glass half full, and smile though our hearts are breaking. Common wisdom also tells us that “it takes 43 muscles to frown and only 17 to smile,” but science has proven that last bit wrong. It takes a dozen muscles to smile, but only 11 to frown. Thus, it’s a matter of fact that it’s easier to be a pessimist than an optimist, but it’s not the higher Truth.
After more than a year of wearing masks, you’d be forgiven for not remembering how to smile. “Use it or lose it” is a hard lesson learned by anyone who has been bed-bound for any extended period of time. The muscles begin to atrophy and patients often have to slog through months of physical therapy to get the momentum moving in the right direction. As more and more folks get their vaccines, and the number of COVID infections continues to drop, so, too, will the masks. In the interest of avoiding the oncoming pandemic of “resting bitch face” (do yourself a favor and Google that), Vija Vetra has been practicing.
At 98-years-young, Vija Vetra has had an abundant life, both in terms of positive and negative experiences. Hundreds of thousands of her countrymen died when the Nazis, and then the Russians, overran her native Latvia, which hadn’t a large population to begin with. And thus began a life-long journey as a refugee, first in Austria where she learned to dance, then down under in Australia where her skills were tried in fire, putting on a command performance for a young Queen Elizabeth II, who at 94 is four years Vija’s junior. Eventually, Vija found herself in India, honing her craft in Indian classical dance, for which she received great acclaim. The Indians accepted her as one of their own, not only because she carried on the tradition of one of the world’s oldest dance forms, but also because her name had a ring of familiarity. In Hindi, Vija Vetra means “garland of victory,” a fitting namesake for someone who would eventually dance for their legendary Prime Minister Indira Ghandi.
Vija Vetra lived as a refugee on five continents, ultimately landing in New York and finding a home as one of the first tenants of Westbeth Artists Housing, the largest artist housing in the world, with 380 subsidized apartments in the West Village where one-bedroom apartments can easily fetch over $3,000 a month today. Opening in 1970, Westbeth should have celebrated its 50th anniversary last year to much fanfare, but, as you can imagine, things did not go as planned. Awarded the prestigious honor of becoming a Westbeth Icon, Vija in many ways represents the soul of that institution. Indeed, her hopes were dashed by the pandemic, as she was looking forward to traveling to her native Latvia where she is regarded as a national treasure and performs annually for an audience filled with some of her most respected and influential countrymen, including the president of the country. Unsure of when she’ll next make the trip, it’s all Vija can do to keep from “sinking into desperate loneliness, without any family or relative alive.” Hamlet’s famous soliloquy that meditates on the wisdom of committing the unspeakable has, despite her best intentions, been echoing inside the halls of her mind.
However, you don’t survive a Nazi occupation at such a young age as Vija did without learning a thing or two about life and living. Survival is what she does best, and to that end she’s developed a completely uncommon perspective. For one, rather than running away from aging, she embraces it. The minute she reaches a birthday, she starts counting towards the next one, viewing each successive year as another milestone and accomplishment. Sentenced to solitude this past year, but ever the artist, Vija has gotten creative and made friends out of the inanimate objects in her studio apartment, each with its own character and personality: there’s a Pessimist, an Optimist, a Dreamer, a Screamer, two Dancers, and Nosey Twins.
Her primary coping strategy has been wearing a “smile-mask,” which she puts on while sitting alone in her room and while drifting off to sleep. She repeats the mantra given to her by a Tibetan monk who told her to keep on smiling no matter the circumstances, and points to the Dalai Lama, the Mona Lisa, and the Buddha, who are never without that warmest and most welcoming of expressions. For good reason! It’s worth putting in a little extra effort by activating a whole extra muscle and turn that frown upside down to get a whole bevy of benefits: studies have shown that, whether genuine or slapped on, smiling can release endorphins in as little as 10 seconds, which will lower blood pressure, relieves stress, elevate mood, strengthen the immune system, and ease pain.
Vija adores Saint Mother Teresa’s certainty that a smile is the autograph of God upon the human face. So she urges WestView readers to put on a stupid grin, even if they don’t feel like it. Just as you wear a cloth mask, not so much to prevent catching COVID yourself, but to keep from passing it on to someone else, put on the smile-mask, when that veil inevitably lifts, for the sake of others. After nearly a century of a life that has brought her in contact with every type of person imaginable, Vija Vetra still marvels at the potential that a simple smile can have for an unsuspecting stranger: “That smile could be passed on and on and travel around the globe!”