“Physical Movement, Especially in a Beautiful Place, Will Unstick Your Brain.”

Portrait of Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Brikner, authors of Modern loss

Interview: Rebecca Soffer and Gabi Birkner

A common happiness stumbling block is that it’s hard to talk candidly about grief — often, we just don’t know what to say or what to do. In recognition of that difficulty, several years ago, Rebecca Soffer and Gabi Birkner launched the website Modern Loss.

Now their new collection of essays Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome has just hit the shelves. This volume includes essays from more than forty contributors, including Brian Stelter, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, and of course, themselves. Rebecca and Gabi both lost parents as young adults, and they recognized the need to change the way we approach grief.

The book has generated tremendous buzz and interest. If you’re intrigued, here’s a great excerpt from the book in the New York Times Sunday Review.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Rebecca and Gabi about happiness, habits, and productivity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier?

Rebecca: Playing with my kids. Things have been pretty hectic since we launched the Modern Loss website four years ago, exactly three weeks before giving birth to my first child. Playing is a simple habit but consciously making space for it feels so complicated. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to be productive, be silly, be nurturing, get a modicum of sleep, oversee the logistical madness of a family, and do so without being able to schedule each of those activities into neat little time blocks.

So I’ve developed the near-daily habit of putting my phone in another room and just being with my kids: building a Magna-Tile spaceship or baking with my four-year-old, or tickling the baby just so I can see that beautiful little smile that looks so much like my mother’s did. These are the times when I notice the new little quirks, moves, and turns of phrase they’ve developed; ones that might take me longer to notice during the typical rush of our days. And honestly, it just feels good to laugh with them, because they always make me laugh. It certainly releases those endorphins, and since I can’t break away to exercise every day, I’ll take whatever endorphins I can get!

Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Rebecca: For creativity and productivity (not to mention for mental sanity), getting outside regularly. Luckily, I live in the middle of New York City, so I get outside regularly whether I like it or not! If I’ve ever had a frustrating phone call or feel like my energy is flagging or need to creatively think through a roadblock, I take the elevator downstairs. It really is incredible how energetically renewed you can feel after taking a walk around the block. Of course, what I really prefer is getting outside in nature as much as possible. The majority of my own essays for Modern Loss were written in my head during solitary hikes up Monument Mountain in the Berkshires; a lot of those pieces were ones I had trouble with while simply staring at my computer screen. There’s just something about getting to do physical movement, especially in a beautiful place, that will unstick your brain.

Also for productivity, my husband and I have come to swear by the Wunderlist app. I have about a billion apps on my phone but really only use a few of them regularly, and this is one. It’s basic, functional, and sure beats my former method of reminding myself to do things: emailing them to myself and overloading my inbox.

For leisure, I love reading (which I write wistfully, as I don’t last more than a couple of pages before falling asleep these days), going to a great show, and cooking alone (operative word: alone!) Those activities at once relax and inspire me.

Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Rebecca: Giving myself permission to be in bed at 9:30 pm some nights without feeling lame. I used to be a total night owl; it’s not only when I got my best work done but it’s also when some of the most fun parties and concerts and comedy shows take place. All of these things are still really tempting. But having kids is is such a reality check. It basically forces you to make a judgment call about how much you can realistically burn the candle at both ends. Sure, you can still go to sleep at 1 am, but like it or not, you’re still getting up at 5 am!

Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

Rebecca: I have a couple. The first: “It is what it is.” I’ve dealt with adversity just like anyone else has. The majority of the toughest situations I’ve faced to date have stemmed from profound loss — my mother died in a car accident when I was 30 and my father had a fatal heart attack when I was 34. I can’t tell you how much energy I spent over those early years of grieving imagining the “if onlys.” It was not only completely draining physically and emotionally but also really preventing me from taking a good look around and working with what I did have, which was the opportunity to still build a meaningful life. Eventually, I found the right team to help me move through my losses (the right therapist, the right friends, the right understanding colleagues) and really glommed onto the pragmatism of “it is what it is.” Of course, I wish it weren’t. But it is. And that’s freed up all that wasted energy to keep moving through it.

The second: “Work the problems.” That one’s courtesy of Ms. Jackson, my middle school algebra teacher. I shudder to think how little I probably remember about algebra itself, but I never forgot that phrase. Her message was probably primarily meant for our 7th grade level of understanding; like, “solve this rational equation.” But she said it enough that it really stuck, and so in adulthood, it’s taken on a whole new meaning for me. Like any good New York Jew, I’m given to a bit of functional anxiety and can get overwhelmed when I think about the enormity of a certain, complex task. So I repeat this mantra and start wading through the problem, step by step.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Gabi: There’s no such thing as the perfect job. When you’re just starting out, it’s hard to differentiate between a good job (with normal stressors and challenging personalities) and a truly toxic situation. So the first few times you come up against your own limitations, or someone else’s, the first few times you’re tasked with something that makes you want to reach for brain bleach, it’s easy to convince yourself that quitting is the answer. It might be — if, say, you’re being harassed, abused or belittled, or the position is harmful to your physical or emotional well-being. But if not, and if it’s a job you like 80% or more of the time, and you’re just dealing with more benign annoyances (be they tasks or co-workers), pause. Take some time to assess, speak with a professional mentor, vent candidly with friends — not with said mentor — before you make a decision whether to grow in place, while addressing real structural problems with your manager, or whether it’s really the time to move on.

Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Gabi: I wish I could say travel and parties. But it’s far more mundane: childcare, work commitments, household maintenance, and all the other little things that I (sometimes ill-advisedly) put on my to-do list above “exercise” and “breathe” and “breakfast.”

Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Gabi: I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, which (like, totally) affected my speech patterns. Into my 30s, I peppered my language with constant fillers — my worst offender being “like,” followed closely by “you know.” It wasn’t so much an unhealthy habit, as it was a habit that got in my way. I was once on a very important conference call, when a colleague instant messaged me to say something along the lines of: What you’re saying is very smart, but you’re making it sound very dumb with all the “likes.” That was a turning point. In the few years since I’ve worked really hard to eliminate fillers: I joined Toastmasters, worked a little with a speech coach, and was generally more conscious of how I was communicating. I’m far from perfect — once a Valley girl, always a Valley girl — but the situation has improved dramatically.



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