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  • feedwordpress 09:00:32 on 2019/05/03 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , loss, Nora McInerny, , The Hot Young Widows Club   

    “Our Hearts Are Like the Hogwarts Room of Requirement—They Magically Open Up a New Room Just When We Need It.” 

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    Interview: Nora McInerny

    A few years ago, Nora McInerny went through tremendous period of grief and loss. Within a month, she miscarried her second baby, her father died of cancer, and then her husband Aaron died from a brain tumor. She explains, "These are all really sad stories, but they are not only sad stories. They are love stories and life stories and sometimes even funny stories." She has a terrific podcast, Terrible (Thanks for Asking) with honest talk about sorrow and loss.

    She's written several books, such as It's Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) and No Happy Endings: A Memoir, and her latest book is The Young Hot Widows Club: Lessons on Survival from the Front Lines of Grief.

    As it happens, I have a friend who is a member of this club—though in his case, it's for "young hot widowers." So I was very interested to read Nora's new book.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Nora: I’m from Minnesota where the winters are absurdly long and the days are short. I really couldn’t live without my medical-grade SAD lamp. I’m an early riser, often up by 5:30 am. I blast myself with light while I read or write first thing in the morning. Not only does it help me feel physically better, It also helps my winter depression a ton. Some of my best writing sessions happen while I’m sitting in front of the lamp. I highly recommend them for those of us surviving northern climates.

    What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    I didn’t know much about happiness when I was 18 because I was a truly miserable person. I thought happiness meant checking achievement boxes. Get into a “good” college. Check. Move to NY. Check. Work in advertising. Check. It wasn’t until my boyfriend was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor that I decided to start living in the ways that taught me pursuing happiness did not mean the absence of pain. We got married one month after Aaron’s diagnosis and first brain surgery. I knew that happiness meant being with him for as long as I could. Being with him also meant becoming a widowed mother at age 31.

    Happiness can live alongside pain, grief, and sadness. They are not at odds. Though we are often taught that happiness is a perfect, permanent state of being, sometimes saying “yes” to happiness means saying “yes” to a whole bunch of other feelings.

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

    I stopped drinking about two years after my first husband died. I realized that I was using alcohol to cope with grief and that it wasn’t helping or working. It wasn’t particularly hard for me to stop. My dad was a recovering alcoholic, so I know first-hand that it's much more difficult for some people. I realized that I had succumbed to some wine-mom culture peer pressure and thought that drinking rosé was the cool way to deal with grief, but when I interrogated that belief, I realized it was empty for me. I didn’t really enjoy drinking that much and from there I just stopped. Also, drinking made me sleepy, and kind of a jerk!

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

    Lots of things are disruptive to habits, but I find social media an especially appealing and destructive distraction. I can skim through hundreds of positive comments on my work and completely fixate on that one negative review. I know the first and last names of everyone who gave my books a less than four-star review on Amazon because I’m a super healthy, normal person. When I’m deep in the internet rage machine, I hand over my passwords to someone trusted (Hi, Hannah!) and take a break for a week. It feels great.

    There are certain habits I just don’t bend on, no matter what is happening. When I’m in book writing mode, I write 2,000 words a day, five days per week religiously. My writer friend, Jo Piazza, taught me that no one needs to write more than 2,000 words a day. Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth and it’s all garbage. Sometimes I’m inspired and can write for hours. I’ve written four books and countless scripts for my podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking this way and it gets the job done.

    Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

    My life today is very much the byproduct of a major lightening moment when in 2014 I miscarried a pregnancy, lost my dad to cancer and my husband, Aaron, died of a brain tumor all in a matter of weeks. When losses so profound and at such a dizzying rate struck my life, the very foundation on which I stood shifted. Everything changed. I quit my job after going back to my cubicle seemed impossible. My financial advisor did not recommend this strategy, but gratefully I had a safety net when friends, family, and perfect strangers showed up to make sure my toddler son and I could live. I started my non-profit, Still Kickin, in honor of Aaron. Since then I’ve made over 70 episodes of the Terrible, Thanks for Asking podcast and written four books. Watching my dad and Aaron die without fulfilling all their creative potential really lit a fire in me to stop waiting for the perfect time to do things and allow myself to take risks because the worst had already happened.

    Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

    Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl. If you can’t learn from a Holocaust Survivor, you are BROKEN.

    In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

    You might think that what I do—talking to people about the worst and most terrible moments of their lives—is the exact opposite of what The Happiness Project does. But, there is no real way to access happiness without also understanding suffering, which is a universal human experience. Everyone you love is going to die. There’s no way of getting around it, no cheat, no hack, no habit that can save us from that reality and so many other terrible realities. (I’m really fun at parties)!

    There are lots of ways to look at this. One is to simply says, “This is hard.” And it is. You are not obligated to make lemonade from your lemons! Sometimes they are just lemons and they’re sour and it sucks AND we can move on with these life-changing, painful experiences. We can experience grief and joy simultaneously, sometimes even in the same breath. When I met my current husband I thought the part of my heart that loved Aaron would shut down, that there was only room enough to love one person at a time. That could not be further from the truth. Our hearts are like the Hogwarts Room of Requirement—they magically open up a new room just when we need it. This is where we can find new joy and new love. The rest of the castle is still there. We just keep building new wings.

  • gretchenrubin 19:39:13 on 2018/01/25 Permalink
    Tags: , , , loss,   

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

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    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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