anna brones

writer + artist + activist

Rebecca Burgess

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“You have to look back to know how to move forward.”

-Rebecca Burgess

Back in 2010, Rebecca Burgess set out with an ambitious goal: to see if she could create a wardrobe that was grown, processed and made within 150 miles of her home in northern California. Along with a team of other women, she crowdfunded the project. But what grew out of this endeavor was in fact much more than a wardrobe; Burgess launched a movement.

The project evolved into what is now Fibershed, an organization devoted to developing regional and regenerative fiber systems. Based in California, Fibershed has affiliate groups around the world, all working on reviving and growing local fiber systems, communities and economies.

Burgess is also a climate activist, and an advocate of carbon farming, a holistic method of farming that sequesters carbon. Fibershed has an entire program devoted to climate beneficial wool which not only supporters producers who are sustainably managing their land and animals, but also works with brands and designers to turn that fiber into products and bring them to market. Last year Fibershed teamed up with The North Face to launch the Cali Beanie, made with climate beneficial wool sourced in California, and the organization also hosted a climate beneficial fashion gala.

The organization also has a program focused on the development of a regional indigo industry, and another one on hemp. Their work has help to kickstart a new generation of U.S. fiber and textile systems, helping people to start to think about what they wear like they think about what they eat. After all, without agriculture, we don’t have food or fiber, and investing in sustainable agriculture systems is the only way that we can move forward.

Her tireless work makes her a force for change, but I think what makes Burgess such a symbol of wisdom is that she is approaching that change in a slow and intentional way. When we connected over phone, she had just returned from a trip to Europe, investigating local textile and agricultural systems in places like Norway and Sweden. In our conversation we talked about everything from an appreciation of landscape, to slowing down, to how to manage our anxiety in an increasingly complex world.

Grab a mug of tea and settle in.

Anna Brones: What does wisdom mean to you?

Rebecca Burgess: Very general, broad brushstrokes that you’re pulling from a collective, more timeless source of information and synthesizing that in some way that works for the context of now. I think wisdom is tethered to time. It doesn’t mean you have to be old to have it, it just means you have to look back to know how to move forward.

Wisdom to me is about knowing how things have come to be and understanding the cycles. Everything comes back around, it just might sound, feel, taste, look a little different. But all these human things that we’ve been dealing with – our own anger, frustration and aggression, joy, bliss, happiness – all these human emotions have been guiding civilization, for better or worse, for as long as we’ve been here on planet earth. I think wisdom is about understanding the drivers for how civilizations have come and gone and understanding how to work collaboratively with our planet and each other. And I think that to do that, you need this thing called wisdom, which is tethered to time.

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Written by Anna Brones

September 6, 2018 at 08:34

Cheryl Strayed

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“We are all responsible for finding beauty in our lives even when things are difficult.”

-Cheryl Strayed

At the end of May, I was lucky enough to sit down with Cheryl Strayed and interview her for the Women’s Wisdom Project. Cheryl and I had met a few times over the years while attending Mountainfilm, and I was honored that she graciously offered to spend an hour with me talking about all things related to wisdom.

Of course, I knew that this conversation would need to go a little above and beyond just a papercut portrait, or even a Q&A. So I asked my friend Gale Straub at She Explores if she would be interested in having me record the interview and we could turn it into a podcast. I got another yes, and soon found myself nervously preparing to record an interview with a new recording device that I had never used.

I say this because I think that context is everything. There’s always a back story, and in this case, the back story was that I wanted to doing something that I really didn’t know how to do (audio recording), and doubt and fear immediately kicked in at the back of my mind (“what if you ruin this audio entirely?”).

I dove in anyway.

Cheryl and I had a wonderful conversation. It’s a conversation that I have thought about so many times since. As for the audio? Well, it wasn’t perfect. But Gale (with a lot of work, that I am very grateful for) managed to turn it into a podcast episode, which you can listen to here.

It was a reminder that you have to push past fear. That things won’t always be perfect, but you’ll learn along the way. That’s a lot of what Cheryl and I talked about in our conversation. I replayed this part of our interview a few times as I was working on putting this piece together:

“One of my quotes in Tiny, Beautiful Things and in Brave Enough is that you give fear a seat at the table. You say, ‘welcome fear, your presence is an indication to me that I’m doing the work I’m meant to be doing.’ Because fear is part of our best work.”

Fear is part of our best work. Remember that.

I encourage you to listen to the podcast, but I wanted to capture some of my favorite parts of the interview here so that you could read them as well (including a couple of things that didn’t make it into the podcast).

I listened to this interview several times, wondering what bit of wisdom I would pull from Cheryl to use as the quote in her papercut. That’s the thing about quotes; they are always snippets, and this conversation was so rich, there was no way to boil it down to one sentence.

But there was one that stood out: “We are all responsible for finding beauty in our lives even when things are difficult.” Even Cheryl will admit that this bit of wisdom isn’t hers. It’s her mother’s. I chose it, because I think that it embodies the fact that wisdom is all around us, that it’s never just “ours.” Wisdom is passed down, it evolves, we offer it to others, and they pass it along to someone else.

We have so much to share with each other, and most often, the most meaningful wisdom and advice that guides is doesn’t come from a notable public figure, but in fact, from the people closest to us.

Anna: You are a prime person to talk to about wisdom, because I think a lot of people seek wisdom from you. 

Cheryl: It’s always strange for me to hear that I’m some sort of fount of wisdom and that’s always been the funny, an uneasy position that I’ve been in, not just as an advice giver as Dear Sugar, but even my other books Wild and, and my novel Torch. My books have always been read in this way that people take from them advice. So much of what I’ve been interested in as a writer is our emotional lives, our relationships, the ways that we love and lose and suffer and recover and grapple with how to be in the world.

What ends up happening is because I have spent so many years really examining that and thinking about that and writing about that, I ended up seeming like this figure, this wise woman. And I have to say, it makes me laugh because because I’ve got so much to learn. I think maybe part of the thing I feel grateful about when it comes to wisdom, it does come from that place of having a lot to learn and it comes from that place of being somebody who has had to do a lot of living and a lot of experiencing and a lot of loving and losing and making mistakes and making amends and trying to figure out the better way.

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Written by Anna Brones

August 8, 2018 at 10:56

Cultivating Wonder and Imagination

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wonder

noun I won·der I \ ˈwən-dər \
1 a : a cause of astonishment or admiration : marvel it’s a wonder you weren’t killed the pyramid is a wonder to behold
b : miracle
2 : the quality of exciting amazed admiration
3 a : rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience
b : a feeling of doubt or uncertainty

Merriam Webster

As a child, I remember the feeling of waking up for the first day of summer vacation. There was a lightness to that morning. No time to be out the door, no schedule to abide to. No homework to think of, no expectations of after school sports practice.

There was nothing, and in that nothingness, there was the potential of everything.

That first day off felt limitless. An entire summer in front of you to be enjoyed. There might be trips planned, or certain things that needed to be done, but in those waking moments of the first morning, there was that feeling of absolute freedom.

I often wonder how children feel on summer vacation now. If they are too booked up to just get to play and explore. And even more, I wonder how we as adults work to get back to that feeling of limitlessness. With our phones, and email and Twitter feeds and to-do lists, it’s difficult to ever feel like we are in that state of an absolutely blank slate. Instead, we come to the slate with baggage and even when we wipe it clean, we’re usually bad about leaving a few things on the board. When we do that, it’s hard to be open to the world around us. We go through the motions, tick off the do to list, then start over. It’s hard to be awake. It’s hard to feel a sense of wonder.

When was the last time you felt a sense of wonder?

A few weeks ago, my husband and I rode our bicycles to our favorite nearby state park to camp for the night. It’s an easy overnight, one with enough hills on the way to make you feel like you did something. The flora and fauna is the same as at our house, but pedaling those 10 miles gives me enough physical and emotional separation that by the time I arrive and set up our tent, I am in a completely different head space. The to do lists are left behind; I refuse to pack them in my panniers.

On this evening in question, we took our late dinner down to the dock to watch the sunset. The sky filled with intense pinks and blues, reflected in the shimmering waves of the saltwater. As the sun sank beneath the horizon, the dark trees made a perfect silhouette against the sky, as if someone had cut them from paper and glued them there.

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Written by Anna Brones

August 3, 2018 at 09:38

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You Are Enough

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When I was 16, I was offered a scholarship to go on a 21-day Outward Bound course in the High Sierras. While I had spent ample time outdoors, I had never been mountaineering before, and never on a backpacking trip that long. I would go and spend three weeks navigating the backcountry with strangers, all of us in that awkward teenage stage where we were already trying to navigate our own lives, trying to find our way across the invisible map that is life.

I don’t remember packing for the trip (I’m certain there was a list) and I don’t remember the flight down to Fresno, where we all met before hopping into vans and heading to base camp. I don’t even remember what base camp looked like. All I remember was that feeling in the pit of my stomach as I lay in my sleeping bag trying to fall asleep.

It was that slightly warm, slightly spiky feeling, one could call it “butterflies,” but that sounds too light, too friendly, too sweet. This is the kind of feeling that’s uncomfortable and off-putting, you might want to throw up, but you’re not really sure. You’re uncomfortable certainly, but not enough to indicate the kind of fear that’s intense enough to make you stop what you’re doing. And so you stick it out.

This is a feeling that I have experienced throughout my life, and still do. It’s a feeling of fear and trepidation, it’s a feeling of standing on the edge of a precipice and diving into the unknown, it’s a feeling of anxiety, it’s a feel of nervousness, it’s a feeling of not being good enough, or not being equipped enough to take on the task at hand. It’s a feeling that says, “I’m out of my comfort zone and I’m not so sure I want to be here right now.” Age has taught me that this is a feeling to be endured, because there’s usually good stuff on the other side.

This week I taught an outdoor cooking class. I spent most of the class being upbeat and effusive, throwing ingredients together without measuring them, spewing off ideas for variations that one could try, and generally trying to get the class to be excited about making food outdoors. Internally, there was a different scene taking place. “You’re not outdoorsy enough to be teaching this class. When did you last go backpacking? Three years ago? What do you know about packing light? You only go bike touring, that’s not outdoorsy enough. When was the last time you even cooked a meal outside? Two weeks ago when you went on a bike camping? Yeah, but that was an easy overnight that’s very close to home. What’s adventurous about that?”

I am not the only one to deal with that voice. We all have it. We all experience impostor syndrome on some level. The feeling that we are not truly qualified to be doing the thing that we are doing.

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Written by Anna Brones

July 27, 2018 at 11:46

What Blocks Our Creative Flow? (And How Do We Get Back There?)

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Creative flow is that sought after state that so many of us keep wanting to get to. When we’re there, we feel strong and empowered, as if we are doing exactly what we should be doing in that exact moment. We may work hard, but in a sense, that work feels effortless. When we’re not there, that state feels more elusive than ever, and we try to think of every possible means of chasing it down, hoping to harness that power once more.

But what is creative flow? When and why do we get into that state?

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” wrote Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow. 

That’s what we feel when we are in that moment of creative flow. We are immersed in what we are doing, everything else falls away. This doesn’t just happen in creative practice. Ever felt a runner’s high? That’s because of flow. Or when you come out of an hourlong yoga practice and realize that you haven’t thought about anything else in the last 60 minutes besides your physical presence? Flow.

I found a segment from WNYC from a couple of years ago on the neuroscience behind creative flow, featuring an interview with Dr. Heather Berlin. “Productivity doesn’t necessarily correlate with creativity,” says Berlin. An excellent reminder that just because we are producing work doesn’t mean that we are being creative or doing creative thinking. Some of the best stuff comes to us when we’re on a walk, or staring out the window. That’s because, “the unconscious can do much more complex processing,” says Berlin. The creative flow state can’t be forced. In those moments it’s better to turn off and tune out.

In her interview, Berlin mentions a study that involved MRI scans of jazz musicians’s brains while the musicians were improvising. This study is about ten years old, but the lessons to be drawn from it are timeless. According to Science Daily, “The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview.”

In other words, if we can turn that part of the brain off – or at least put it in pause – we might be better able to lower our inhibitions and better tap into our flow state.

Earlier this week, someone asked me what my writing process was. I would love to say that I diligently sit down on a regular basis and write for a predetermined amount of time, avoiding all distractions and committing myself to the process. I can think of about one month in the last year and a half when I was good about doing that (and I managed to write a book in that month, which I guess is proof that such commitment does work). However, for the most part, my writing process is what I call the “marination method.” I have an idea, or an assignment, I file it away at the back of my brain, and let the idea sit and percolate. Eventually the deadline nears, and I have to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and release those ideas.

Often I feel that I am up against a block, and in those moments I know that before I can sit down and do the work, I have to do something to get the creative juices flowing. A creative warm up so to say. That can be a run or a walk, or just taking a few minutes to paint with watercolors. (Sidenote: I am avoiding a deadline at this very moment, but telling myself that writing this is a good way to warm up to finishing the piece I need to turn in). Something to get my mind away from focusing too hard on the project at hand, and letting it wander instead. Often I find that somewhere in this process the unconscious kicks in, things come to the front of my mind that I hadn’t even considered. When I finally get there, then I feel like I am in the flow state.

I’m not necessarily advocating for that as a writing strategy, but in the moments when we feel that we are up against those creative walls, it’s an important reminder that pushing through isn’t necessarily the best path forward. If you let the prefrontal cortex do too much obsessing, you’ll keep coming up against that block. One study even used targeted electric currents to block that part of the brain, showing that doing so can help to break down that wall and lead to more creative thinking.

But we don’t need electric currents to stop obsessing. Think of another use of flow: physical movement. Exercise is good for our creativity. Intuitively, I think it makes sense that physical movement would lead to creative movement.

If we’re looking for that creative flow state, we have to do the things that get us there. There’s no magic solution, but you can be sure that refreshing your email isn’t one of them.

Stay small; often we don’t have an entire day to devote to a creative project, instead, think about what you could do creatively in fifteen minutes. If you can do those fifteen minutes every day, that ends up leading to a very regular creative practice, which helps to encourage the flow state.

Focus on putting one foot in front of the other; your overall project may be huge, but focus on the individual steps to get there, in order to distract your brain from derailing.

Think process, not product; flow is about being immersed in the moment, not getting hung up on whether or not the end product will be perfect.

Change your scenery. Take your notebook outside.

Avoid distractions. Unless of course they are the kind of distractions that encourage creative thinking.

Move.

Breathe.

Flow.

Written by Anna Brones

July 20, 2018 at 11:40

Zaria Forman

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It almost felt silly to document Zaria Forman in black and white. Zaria is an incredible artist who works in pastels to document climate change. Her work is stunning. Glistening glaciers, a palette of blues and grays. She depicts a landscape that is deep and vibrant. A papercut felt both monochrome and small in relationship to the work that Zaria does.

But Zaria is such an inspiration, her energy is catching, and her message is important, and I knew that I definitely wanted to include her as a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project. Fortunately she was willing to do a Q&A as well, the chance to dive a little deeper.

The first time I saw one of Zaria’s pieces in person I just stood and stared at it. It truly felt like I was standing in front of a glacier. And that’s exactly the reaction Zaria is going for. I got a chance to meet Zaria in person earlier this year thanks to our mutual friend Jenny Nichols. Jenny traveled to Greenland last year to make a film about Zaria’s work, as well as leading NASA scientists on Operation IceBridge, called “Colors of Change.” I think that art is a powerful tool to convey messages and push for cultural change, something that certainly comes across in the film.

I am grateful to artists like Zaria who are using their craft to shift the cultural conversation.

Anna: What does wisdom mean to you?

Zaria: It means being able to make actions based on the past, present and future. Not without foresight or the knowledge of history. Listening is also a key to wisdom, I love learning from others and being able to share knowledge with people from all over the world.

Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece of wisdom to you? Who and what?

My mother, Rena Bass Forman, was a huge inspiration to me. She dedicated her life to photographing the most remote regions of the earth. The cold and isolated landscape of the Arctic consumed her interest from 2001 until her passing in 2011. She always said that she had been a polar bear in a past life, and watching her spend endless hours in the frigid winds, patiently and happily waiting for the moment when the light was right, gave me no doubt that this was true! She taught me the importance of loving what you do, and carrying out projects full force, no matter what obstacles lie in the way, and no matter how much patience it required.

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Written by Anna Brones

July 19, 2018 at 16:22

Is Doubt Getting in the Way of Your Work?

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“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

– Lao Tzu

I feel like I need this reminder this week, and maybe you do too. Let things be what they need to be. Tell the doubt that you don’t have time for it today. Let your words and mind go where they need to go. Get out of the way of yourself. Stay with what needs you but let yourself move on to whatever is next when the time comes. Allow yourself to flow.

Why is it so hard to exist in that flow space though? I came across a 1973 lecture by Agnes Martin, titled “On the Perfection Underlying Life” that begins to get at the answer to that question.

When we wake up in the morning we are inspired to do some certain thing and we do do it. The difficulty lies in the fact that it may turn out well or it may not turn out well. If it turns out well we have a tendency to think that we have successfully followed our inspiration and if it does not turn out well we have a tendency to think that we have lost our inspiration. But that is not true. There is successful work and work that fails but all of it is inspired. I will speak later about successful works of art but here I want to speak of failures. Failures that should be discarded and completely cut off.

I have come especially to talk to those among you who recognize these failures. I want particularly to talk to those who recognize all of their failures and feel inadequate and defeated, to those who feel insufficient – short of what is expected or needed. I would like somehow to explain that these feelings are the natural state of mind of the artist, that a sense of disappointment and defeat is the essential state of mind for creative work.

Fear. Failure. Defeat. Doubt.

So many of us struggle with this. Perhaps it’s because this has been on my mind, but I have seen numerous references to doubt pop up in the last week. I saw the writer and illustrator Emily McDowell tackle the question on Instagram (I loved her answer), I saw a comic about impostor syndrome, after reading an article about Gabriele Münter I thought about how much inspiration someone can give someone else, and how quickly that can turn to doubt.

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Written by Anna Brones

July 13, 2018 at 08:38