Episode 201: The Cyclical Nature of Everything – Anna Brones

Start the New Year with a Return to Creativity

The idea that everything comes back around can be a comforting thought – especially as Anna Brones shares it:

“I think that that’s what we’ve really been doing in a larger way in the last two years. We’ve had to reckon with some of these larger questions about what it means to be human, what it means to exist, who we are when we don’t have all of the external distractions. And so I think that that’s what we are continuing to sit with. And I think your creative process is a way to sit with those things. And I think that’s why investing in creative process is so important because at the end of the day, being creative is being human.”

Anna was on She Explores back in April of 2020 for a conversation called ‘Creativity to Guide Us Through.’ It was around the start of lockdown and life as we knew it was changing. To kick off 2022, we’re revisiting portions of this conversation on creativity and nature that feel just as relevant today and we also catch up with Anna as she shares some valuable advice on approaching January in a gentle way.

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If you enjoy this episode, you might also enjoy this one featuring Claire Giordano and her Adventure Art Academy.

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A full transcript is available below the photos.

Featured in this episode: Anna Brones

Hosted & Produced by Gale Straub

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Anna Brones

Anna Brones illustrated the poem “The Year” by Emma Wheeler Wilcox

Papercut by Anna Brones The rings of a tree tell a story.

Anna’s January Creative Fuel Prompts

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TRANSCRIPT

Note: This transcript was lightly edited and created using a transcription service. As such it may contain spelling errors.

Gale Straub – Narration:

I’m Gale Straub and you’re listening to She Explores.

Gale Straub:

happy new year, Anna. happy

Anna Brones:

New year. Gale. It’s so nice to talk to you. <laugh>

Gale Straub – Narration:

This is Anna Brones. Anna was on She Explores back in April of 2020 for a conversation I called ‘creativity to guide us through.’ It was around the start of lockdown and life as we knew it was changing. To kick off 2022, I wanted to revisit portions of this conversation on creativity and nature that feel just as relevant today – as well as catch up with Anna as she shares some valuable advice on approaching January in a gentle way.

Anna Brones:

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about just the cyclical nature of every thing and that just, we sort of, we just repeat, we just come back to the same thing. I, I found this poem right before new year’s Eve that was written in the early 19 hundreds. And the sentiment just could have been written this last week. And, um, and the poem is called, uh, the year by El Wheeler Wilcox. You know, it was basically kind of all about like the things that we experience in the year and the ups and the downs. And like, that’s sort of like the burden of living is all these experiences. And I just really, it really resonated with me because it was such a reminder that while we experience new things in different things and life changes, it’s really a all part of one like larger cycle.

Anna Brones:

And I think that’s what January really is, right? It’s like we get one January every year and we sort of come back to this space. And I think when I think of sort of creativity or using creativity to kind of guide us through, I mean, I think that was so heightened at the beginning of the pandemic, but I just keep coming back to these lessons as like they’re just everyday lessons for what it means to be human. And I think that that’s what we’ve really been doing in a larger way in the last two years is we’ve had to sort of reckon with some of these larger questions about what it means to be human, what it means to exist, who we are when we don’t have all of the like external distractions. And so I think that that’s what we are continuing to sit with. And I think that’s where creative process is a way to sit with those things. And I think that’s why investing in creative process is so important because at the end of the day, being creative is being human. And so is if you are investing more time into tapping into your creativity or like building up your creativity, essentially what you’re doing is creating more space to be better connected to your own existence and your own life and your own journey. And I think that’s why this stuff is som important.

Gale Straub – Narration:

The poem Anna’s referring to is wonderful, and she’ll read it for us at the end of the episode. Thinking of the cyclical nature of things, I hope you’ll find comfort in revisiting Anna’s thoughts on creativity and recharging in nature. Make sure you stay tuned through the end as Anna and I catch up and talk through what a daily creative practice means to her today. With that, let’s get in a time machine back to 2020 – after a word about our sponsor, Tentree.

Anna Brones:

I’ve been thinking a lot about what the point of art is like, what is kind of the point of all of this stuff when we’re in the midst of crisis. And I feel like making art doesn’t really feel so important. You know, I’m like, I’m not a nurse, I’m not on the front lines. Like what’s the point of anything. And it’s like, all of this stuff makes our lives so much richer and we need in moments of crisis because it’s like what guides us through.

Gale Straub – Narration:

As a kid, did you ever do an exercise with Venn diagrams? The simplest one might have two circles on a page, overlapping to create three shapes. The overlap is what the shapes have in common. I like to think about our passions this way. That the outdoors is this big circle on our page, but there are other overlapping circles of art and running and camp food and backyard sun soaks. There are so many dimensions to how we spend time outside. When I think about my friend Anna Brones, what she does in work and life is made up of countless overlapping circles. Anna is an artist, writer, producer and I call her a chef. She’s probably gonna cringe when she hears me say that.

Gale Straub:

I could just like list off everything you do. And people would be like, I don’t believe it. This person doesn’t exist. <laugh>

Gale Straub – Narration:

One of the first places to start to get to know Anna is through the books she’s published. Even there things get overlappy very quickly. She’s written not one, but two books about cycling. But one is also a cookbook. And she co-authored a camp food cookbook. And she’s also written and cowritten two Swedish lifestyle books, and a book about the coffee revolution in Paris. Anna’s circles look something like ferns, food, bike packing, backpacking, running, Sweden, plain air watercolors, paper cuts, mending, the Pacific Northwest, and coffee. The latter is how she got the trail name second coffee on a backpacking trip last summer:

Anna Brones:

I would often make like a second cup in the morning, but if I hadn’t done that, I would like be really adamant about, you know, at our law lunch break, we’d finish eating lunch. And then I was like, okay, you guys time for a second coffee.

Gale Straub – Narration:

But the biggest circle, the one that encompasses them all is creativity. And she’s sharing that gift with others right now.

Gale Straub:

So, so why do you think creativity specifically if it’s possible for, for someone right now is important?

Anna Brones:

You know, I think a lot of people right now are obviously at home spending more time, just less out and about. And I just think that creative process is something that it gets us kind of out of our heads and thinking about something else. I mean, I know personally, that’s why I really like making art just because it’s like kind of like the one time that my brain kind of stop and I’m focused so much on the art making that I, you know, my brain is just not going at hyper speed. Like it always is on a bunch of other things. So I think that’s really important for right now, just when we’re in a moment that feels very stressful and very anxiety inducing. I think it’s important to have something that can just help you to check out of that for a bit. And then two, it just makes you feel better.

Anna Brones:

<laugh> I think, you know, creativity is something that everybody has access to. Um, but you know, creativity is a skill, it’s not an inherent personality trait. So, um, you have to work at creativity and you sort of have to invest in creativity and obviously creativity takes many forms, so that be making art. But that can also just be thinking about how you’re gonna put the last vegetables in your vegetable drawer, in your refrigerator together for dinner. So I think that more regular investments in creative thinking is beneficial on a larger level. That isn’t just the physical thing that you end up making or writing

Gale Straub – Narration:

Right now, at least 265 million residents of the US and billions more around the world are being used to stay at home to help flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anna responded quickly using the biggest tool she has at her disposal: creativity. She launched the Creative Fuel Challenge – an email you can sign up for. A few days a week, you get an easy creative prompt to do.

Gale Straub:

What are some examples of the challenges that you’ve put out in these first couple weeks?

Anna Brones:

Well, one that I did the other day that I really liked, and I don’t really even know where the idea came from, but, um, <laugh> I had people do a, an imaginary reading list. So, you know, I think we’re in a moment where there I’ve seen definitely a lot of pressure online to like, you know, there was like, there was a tweet going around that, you know, something about how Shakespeare wrote kingly or during the plague. And I think certainly we attach a lot of like our normal expectations on productivity on ourselves right now, which is really harmful. It’s important to invest time in creative practice, if it makes you feel good, right. If it doesn’t make you feel good, that’s okay and you don’t have to do it. And I’m not challenging people to invest in their creativity because like, I think people should be hustling more and producing more work. This is kinda like all about just sitting down and taking some time for you. But I do love the idea of that in slow moments or just moments of more time and space, the sort of writing element, writing a book. I mean, there is kind of a romanticism to that I think, but I thought that it would be fun to do a much smaller, condensed version of that. So I had people do an imaginary reading list where they basically just wrote down titles to books that didn’t exist, but they would want to

Gale Straub – Narration:

Other challenges include writing a haiku, doing an abstract geometric drawing, and making art for your community.

Anna Brones:

I feel like I try to do a mix of project based stuff where it’s like, oh, here’s some straightforward tips on how to make this thing. And then also just some more creative thinking, daydreaming type stuff that maybe isn’t so involved, but just like gets you thinking in a different way. Like I did one about zines. So just making a one page Zen that’s kind of fun too.

Gale Straub:

Well, one of the things that I love about these challenges is that you make them very easy for people to tap into with whatever materials they might have at home. You’re being really mindful of the fact that like a lot of people might not have a full like watercolor set or, you know, a sewing machine or, you know, like something that’s gonna make it harder to, you know, access that, um, benefit of creativity,

Anna Brones:

Making art sometimes feels so, uh, unapproachable for some people, which is so interesting because I think we can all think back to when we were children. Like think of when, if you have a child yourself or just, if you have friends who have kids or you’re around kids, sometimes I just always love when you inevitably there’s a table, somewhere in the house that’s like covered in pieces of paper, there’s markers, there’s crayons. And the, the children are just like, oh, here’s drawing. We’re like, okay. Oh, here’s a turtle. Oh, here’s a son. Oh, here’s a princess. That’s with the turtle that came out of the castle and they are eating chips or whatever. Right. There’s this sort of like, there’s this like childlike full low of creativity that is so magical and special. And just like, like as if there’s a water faucet tap just on and it’s just coming out.

Anna Brones:

Right. And you can’t even like, it’s just going so fast. You can’t even turn it off. And it’s like, at some point in our lives, we stopped doing that and we stopped just drawing for fun. We stopped just like creating and thinking and creatively, because then we’re told like, oh, that’s a good drawing. And that isn’t a good drawing. And the second that you’re told that it’s not good, you sort of then are not, you don’t feel empowered anymore to keep at it. And I think it’s really a shame cuz I think that making art brings so much to our everyday lives. And I think that, yeah, we could use more of it. And so I think the fewer barriers to entry that you can have be that through supplies or, or whatever, I think the better because to remind people that there’s so much that they can do with what they have is really important.

Gale Straub:

Yeah. I think you’re good at removing the angst from the equation. <laugh> um, <laugh> cause I, I know I’m someone who I have like pretty strong mental blocks around output. I think you make people feel comfortable in whatever it is that they’re putting out and yeah. Turning the faucet on. I guess I like the way you described that. Well,

Anna Brones:

I think we all have a lot of blocks related to output because that’s the culture that we live in, right? Like we live in a culture that puts like productivity, efficiency and production on a pedestal in sort of our everyday understandings of success or, you know, um, our value is people is usually connected to work in some way, shape or form and how we do at work. And unfortunately we use that same model to look at like our art making, not everyone, but it, it is just very common that instead of thinking, oh, I’m gonna sit down right now and I’m gonna draw or paint or Just scribble with a Sharpie on a piece of paper. I’m just gonna do that for 10 minutes because I know that 10 minutes is gonna make me feel really good and I’m gonna feel better in the rest of the day because of it. Instead we do that thing. And at the end we’re like, oh, I don’t like what I created, even though that end product is actually not the point at all. Obvious that’s different when you are a commercial artist or you are, you need to produce work to make money. That’s kind of a different thing, but I’m just talking about in general creativity, the more that we can focus on that process and not the product and the outcome, I think the better off that we are mentally.

Gale Straub:

Well, I know one of the ways that a lot of people listening to this show open up head space for themselves or are inspired to create something or to think a different way is by, you know, spending time in nature, spending time outdoors. What does that time look like for you right now?

Anna Brones:

Um, I live in a small community. I live in a, in a small town, so I, I am very lucky in the sense that I rent a small house that happens to be on the water. So I have kind of, I can just look out my window and see a silhouette of the trees and then the water below. And that feels just so I feel so privileged to have that right now. So there’s kind of like an everydayness of nature for me. I will say that usually I have a state park that’s fairly nearby and I tend to spend a couple afternoons there a week in, in normal times going on a trail run, just cuz that feels like a very special place to me. It’s usually pretty quiet, but the state parks in Washington are shut right now. So that’s obviously not an option.

Anna Brones:

So my experience with nature is kind of like either my backyard or going out on a run or you know, a bike ride on my like, uh, rural roads basically. I don’t know. I think it’s just for me, I always feel that experience with nature. Like creativity is really in these small moments. And I think that it’s really easy for us to romanticize, you know, exotic trips elsewhere or really long adventures that are somewhere off in the wilderness, but it’s like, what do we have available to us in our backyards? And even if we’re stuck in an apartment in a city, because I have lived in big cities before, is there, is there a tree that is outside that we can look up and look into the branches and maybe see a bird come down, um, you know, to like land in the trees. Like there’s always some element of nature that we have access to even, even if it’s just like staring up at the sky for five minutes and looking at the clouds.

Anna Brones:

So I think right now is really a challenge for people to rethink what their connection to nature is and how they experience that. Yeah. It’s like usually we’re blind to that stuff, but we, and it’s like to just challenge your curiosity to seek out what’s nearby. Or I was talking with the friend the other day about like when I was younger often like in like elementary school and science class, you know, you’d like go out to the playground or whatever and you know, you’d kind of map out a square foot of space on the ground and then you would try to investigate to see everything that you could see in that square space. Right. Like, like okay in this like square foot. Okay. Here’s there’s grass, there’s dirt. There’s Ooh, here’s a lady bug. Right. And it’s like this really small space. And I was talking about the friend about this the other day and saying like, that’s also a great kind of practice for right now because when we don’t have access to maybe some of the places we like to go, what is available to us? Um, and you know, what have we not, what have we been missing before? What have we not been seeing because we just haven’t had the time or haven’t made the time.

Gale Straub:

Yeah. Do you think about recess? It also felt so long in certain ways. Like it would feel short as well, but it was like, I look back on it now and it was like 20, you know, I think we had it twice a day and it was 20 minutes <laugh> it was like, you know, probably a lot of it was taken up in the, the walk outside. And I think as an adult, I might look at that and this is maybe more of a personal problem of my own, but like I might look at that 20 minutes and think, oh, well I use a up five minutes of it getting ready to go out. And then, you know, I would think about all those little minutes and not just own them. Like I would’ve as a kid and just been, this is great. <laugh>

Anna Brones:

Yeah. Well I know isn’t that funny? I mean, I think there is, uh, probably an element of like, we should all Institute recess for ourselves right now, if we’re able to, uh, a couple times a day, because I, it is really important. It’s really important to just go outside of your house and stand outside, whatever that looks like. Maybe you have a porch, maybe you have a, you know, maybe you just have to go stand on the sidewalk, but just like to stand outside and breathe the air and feel that like of space and look up into the sky. I mean, like just that simple act I feel is, is important always, but just feels like it has so much more, there’s so much more weight to that right now. And then to, yeah, more recess. Like, I don’t know, just like allowing ourselves to kind of UNC unclench, all the muscles that have tightened up because we’re stressed and anxious and to maybe just like allow for some play, even if that’s 10 minutes, it’s certainly, I think better to go stand outside for 10 minutes than it is to like scroll through a new his feet again.

Anna Brones:

Mm-hmm <affirmative>, I mean, I think it’s important to keep up on what’s going on, but again, there’s always a distraction, right. Uh, and to do the kind of activities that allow for a sense of spaciousness, those are pretty important.

Gale Straub – Narration:

here we are back in 2022. Anna and I spoke today actually – January 4th – so we’re very close to the present.

Gale Straub:

I, I wanted to catch back up with you to hear how you’re doing first and foremost. And, and also some of the ways that you’re continuing to inject creativity, uh, into your daily life.

Anna Brones:

Yeah. One it’s wild. That that was almost two years ago because it feels like last week and also a decade ago, time has <laugh> time’s been weird. Yeah. I’m I’m good. I I’m still here. <laugh> I guess that’s positive. Um, I just got off of taking some time off over the holidays, a little winter break that I wish also so extended into this week, but certain deadlines make it not. So, and I’m just trying to be really mindful going into this year of the fact that we are heading into this like two years of like existing in a global pandemic. And even if we have the privilege to be at home work from home, put food on the table, all of those things, we’re still living in these like anxious, stressful times. Right. And so that paired with the fact that it’s January and I think most of us, um, if we live in the Northern hemisphere, like this is winter, right. This is the time that animals and nature go is into hibernation. And just trying to like, be really mindful of that plus with the fact that yeah, this sort of, um, the intensity of the everyday reality of what we are living through. Um, so just trying to like balance those two things with then needing to do work. Uh <laugh> and that’s not always the easiest, but you know, we just navigate as we’ve said before. Yeah.

Gale Straub:

Yeah. Well, tell me about your, your January philosophy, which I think runs counter to the narrative around new years as being like starting fresh, having lots of, to do lists, having, um, you know, really big goals that you just leap into. And, you know, that works for a lot of people, but doesn’t work for everyone. So I’d love to hear a little bit about your January

Anna Brones:

Thoughts. I mean, I’ll just preface all of this with saying that I think if you live in that kind of a culture, which we do, it’s hard to sometimes even put our own philosophies <laugh> into play. So I feel like I’m kind of constantly like trying to balance what I know I should do for myself and what the world around me is telling me I should do. But I really, the last few years, I really have liked to think about January as an in between month. Like I think we always think of it as the beginning month, right. It’s like the first month of the year. And so I think we have a lot of external pressure on ourselves, new projects, new lists, whatever. And I think it is this time of it’s winter, right? Like we had winter solstice, which then puts us into the winter season.

Anna Brones:

And if you think of nature, it’s like nature goes into hibernation mode for those months. And then kind of like reawakens in spring. And here we are in the middle of winter trying to hit the ground running, which I think is just counter to like sort of how we natural really would experience the world around us. And so I just like to think of January as this, this sort of in between space, um, that’s sort of a space for like letting things marinate and kind of letting things rest before we make any decisions about them. So I think especially if, um, like I know whenever I take some time off during the holiday is, um, you know, I get off social media, I get off my email. I definitely, at the beginning of January, like I feel like I get my brain back a little bit.

Anna Brones:

I just have more space. And so I think my tendency then is to, with that space, get excited about, oh, I had this idea, I could do that, but I can always tell that if I do too much of that, then I just burn myself out really quickly. <laugh> um, so I just love this idea of yeah. Marinating. So letting sort of some of those ideas that come to mind, just like giving them a space to just sit a little bit and allow ourselves to be a little bit slower than maybe we think we should be. Uh, and I think that that this month is really good for that. Now, like I said before, it’s hard for me to take <laugh>. So it’s work for me to stick to this.

Gale Straub:

What are some of your tools for, for resting in that way? And I feel like some of your rest is a little bit active. So like what <laugh>, what are some of those tools for

Anna Brones:

You? I mean, the first thing that comes to mind is read. Um, I love to read, and I think often for me, like this sort of winter time is just a time of consuming a lot of books. So what I find is really helpful for me, um, after the holidays is last week when I was off every morning I would read. And so I’ve been trying to still do that. So instead of like get up and jumping into work or whatever, I just sort of give myself 20 minutes, half an hour to just sit on the couch and read a little bit as sort of like the intro to the day. Hmm. Uh, and that’s been really nice. Um, and then yeah, getting outside. I mean, I think I just, I, whenever I don’t feel great, I’m like, Hmm. When was the last time I went outside and moved my body, <laugh> uh, very, very essential.

Anna Brones:

And I think that this time of year, yeah, if you live in, in a northerly climate, right, this is like, this is a cold time of year. It’s a wet time of year. It’s a, maybe a snowy time of year. So it’s not always, it’s not always like the easiest time to get outdoors. Right. It’s not like the sun is shining and you can wear shorts and just go outside for a run. It’s like, you kind of have to make a little bit more effort. Um, but I think that effort really makes that even maybe like more enjoyable once you’ve done it, I have a cold water swimming practice. So I get in the water for short swim, um, pretty much every day. Um, and I have a group of women that I swim with twice a week, uh, and that’s really, really essential for me as well for the whole year. But particularly this time of the year, <laugh>

Gale Straub – Narration:

Just wanna jump in with a quick note. I made a mistake here saying that Anna’s creative fuel prompts were daily back in April of 2020. In fact, they were twice or three times a week.

Gale Straub:

Uh, you know, when we talked last, you had started a creative fuel, which is the, the title of your newsletter, which comes out monthly, but you had a creative fuel practice, which was a daily creative practice that you were sending out to folks, uh, to help initiate creativity during a time when people really needed it. And, you know, obviously people still do, what does, what does that look like today?

Anna Brones:

Yeah. Um, so I, I personally do not do super well with daily prompts. It’s not really, or daily sort of regular routine stuff. Um, I’d say I do creative things every day, but I don’t necessarily do the same thing. Um, and so I would like to give everyone permission who thinks that they quote should be doing a daily creative practice to just let that go. Uh, cuz I think that we have a lot of pressure for that. So, um, yeah, right. At the beginning of pandemic, I was doing sort of like a email list of projects and prompts, um, did that sort of through September of 2020. And then after that I started writing monthly of daily sort of creative prompts that were sort of like drawing focused, but you could use ’em as writing prompts. And I did a lot of those like beginning of like last January, February, March, I did a drawing every single day.

Anna Brones:

And that was really, that was really what got me through last winter for sure. But this year I kind of wanted to change it up a little bit cuz that just recently hasn’t really worked super well for me. So this year I’m kind of just doing a collection of like daily words. Um, so there’s sort of words to marinate on. Maybe they inspire a drawing, maybe they inspire a poem. Maybe they inspire just a free write. Maybe they just inspire some space for like encouraging you to go on a walk and think about that word. So that’s kinda what I shifted to this year. Um, just as yeah, having something that’s like a little bit more open to interpretation and also allows people this space to tap into their creativity, you know, in whatever way works, knowing fully well that creativity is not just the act of making something creative. Right. Creative process is sort of a whole variety of things that includes going on walks that includes staring out the window. That includes having a conversation, you know, like all of those things that, um, keep us sort of like creatively inspired, um, I put into the daily creativity box, right? So just because you don’t sit down and like write a poem every day, right? Doesn’t mean that you’re not, um, doing something creative. So I think allowing people to expand their definition of creativity and what creativity is for them is really important. Me.

Gale Straub – Narration:

I love how fluid and non-prescriptive Anna is when it comes to creativity in a daily practice, it’s something we can extend to our outdoor lives too. As promised to wrap up the episode, I asked Anna to read the poem. She referenced at the top of the show.

Anna Brones:

So this is a poem that’s called the year and it’s by, um, a woman named Ella Wheeler Wilcox, uh, who was born in 1850 and died in 1919. And I’m gonna read it out loud. Okay. What can be said in new year rhymes? That’s not been said a thousand times the new year’s come the old years go. We know we dream, we dream. We know we rise up laughing with the light. We lie down weeping with the night we hug the world until it stings. We curse it then. And sigh for wings we live, we love, we woo. We wed, we breathe our brides, we sheet our dead. We laugh. We weep, we hope we fear and that’s the burden of the year. Aw.

Gale Straub:

Thank you. Thank You Anna. <laugh>. Thank you.

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