The surprising friendship between grief and creativity

Interview with creator of Nourish and Thrive Brittany Van Ness

I’m sitting at the back of a church bawling my eyes out while Taylor Swift’s “Best Day” plays to a montage of pictures of my friend Brittany and her mom (Darlene) doing what they do best – loving each other.   

That is the only way to describe the pictures: Love, love, love, love, love.

Through my tears I notice that Brittany and her mom seem to match completely in every one – both rock matching pixie cuts that only they and Meg Ryan can pull off, framing their identical smiles peeking over vibrant scarves.

 Brittany and her mom at a Taylor Swift concert. 

Brittany and her mom at a Taylor Swift concert. 

As I sit in the church I am transported to Brittany’s bridal shower only months ago – I see the look in Darlene’s eyes as she gives Brittany a treasured family heirloom. I see Brittany burst into tears the second she opens the box and understands what she is being given. I fast forward and see Brittany walking down the aisle in a gorgeous white dress with her mom accompanying her in a classy navy satin dress, leading her towards her now-husband Brian, his tall silhouette blocking some, but not all, of the rain outside the window that forced an indoor ceremony at the last minute.

 Photo credit: THe Happy couple photography (crop,mine)

Photo credit: THe Happy couple photography (crop,mine)

But now there are only pictures in a church.

Taylor Swift has never made me cry so violently.

It is the moment when my heart finally gets the message that there aren’t going to be any more new pictures of Brittany and Darlene. Darlene is gone. Cancer.

The music ends and I look up to see only one pixie cut at the front, Brittany, about to read a eulogy about the woman whose smile she shares, though, understandably, not today.

Brittany and I grew up just a few streets away from each other in a small town in Florida but didn’t actually “meet” until after college; once we had our first conversation we never stopped.

During one of our first beach trips together Brittany brings a Tupperware overflowing with cold, sliced radishes, and raw broccoli and cauliflower, along with this incredible white dip with green flecks. I swoon and don’t understand how vegetables could be so crave-worthy and decadent; I beg for the recipe. She tells me it’s her mom’s and that she’ll get it from her when we go there later today.  

A few hours later I enter Darlene’s house for the first time – it has warm yellow walls that make you feel like you are being hugged the entire time you’re inside. You instantly feel like you are an adopted daughter and can easily imagine sitting on the pillowy couch forever, watching movies like You’ve Got Mail and Little Women.

Brittany and her mom show me the ingredients for the dip and I make it and eat it for years.  

But for some reason, after Darlene dies, I can’t remember the recipe anymore. I know I can just ask Brittany, but I haven’t. (When Brittany reviews this prior to publication she tells me she can't remember it anymore either.) 

When I get the idea for Creative Teacup last year Brittany is one of the first people I tell. She’d recently been accepted to the Millennial Trains Project for her own creative project, and for what feels like years we have been texting back and forth, me in Florida, her in DC, about the ups and downs and downs of creating stuff.

I talk about creativity with Brittany a lot because I am constantly in awe of hers – one of the best experiences of my life is a Little Women viewing party she hosts at Christmas, and one of the best invitations I ever receive is for a birthday tea party she throws that I (very very very very very sadly…seriously…I’m still upset about this) can’t attend.

 This is brittany's basement by the way, not a RESTAURANT. her basement!!!!!?!!!!

This is brittany's basement by the way, not a RESTAURANT. her basement!!!!!?!!!!

She's also in the midst of creating a company while grieving her mother. I am having a hard enough time creating stuff in general, without the grieving part, and I am, simply, in awe of her.

I ask if she would be wiling to be one of my first interviews for Creative Teacup and she says yes.

I ask Brittany what she is most proud of creatively, and what she says next makes the Little Women and yellow wall feelings make perfect sense: “I think I am most proud of taking a great deal of care into anything I do. If it is hanging a wreath, designing an invitation, or hosting a party - I really care about the experience. Everything I do is with the other person's viewpoint in mind. How will they feel when they walk up to my front door? Open the envelope? Sit in my living room? I get the most joy out of creating an experience for others.”

Getting to be one of those people who gets to walk up to Brittany’s front door and sit at her table and experience her food is as precious to me as seeing Hamilton.

Brittany creates theater with her food, and I want to find out more about how she got here and how she is able to continue to create after she loses one of her greatest sources of inspiration – her mom.

Brittany was a dancer first. For 15 years.

She loved it so much that she majored in it in college. Well. Kind of. She was a double-major: dance and business: “Growing up I always felt like I had a split personality,” she remembers. “I was in AP courses and student government in high school, but I maxed out my calendar with art and dance classes.”

Brittany enters college as a double-major and dedicates herself to her art. She works really hard at it, so hard that while rehearsing for a guest choreographer she rips her right hamstring: “It was black and blue and quite nasty. I could barely walk for a couple weeks.”

The injury forces Brittany to reflect on her chosen path. She realizes the fragility that is making dance her livelihood – she is one injury away from that path being closed off completely, and suddenly that feels too risky. She knows (and today still knows) a lot of people making it in dance beautifully, but when she’s forced to confront this part of the profession, she realizes it isn’t the life for her.

And that terrifies her: “I was really worried that I would no longer be the person I had been all my life. So much of what I identified with was wrapped up in dance.”

Her boyfriend at the time (and now husband), Brian, helps her think through it: “[He] helped me see that the things [that made me, me] included my life outlook, my mind, and my personality - dance wasn't those things, it was just the current expression of it. I could still express who I was, I just needed to find a new outlet.”

And then, of course, she talks to her mom: “My mom made me see that the thing you love doesn't have to be your college major (it's great if it is though!). It just wasn't going to make or break me.”

Brittany quits dance, changes her college major, and transfers to a new university. And even though, when I later ask Brittany “What is a decision you made that you feel had a tremendous impact on your creative life?” she answers “Quitting dance,” it was very difficult at the time: “It wasn't an easy transition...I felt broken for a long time.

“I kept waiting for the sadness to go away. It felt a bit like mourning. Mourning the loss of childhood…I kept thinking that it was just time to ‘grow up’ and leave my hobbies behind. It wasn't until I felt that creative expression was a key element of living life fully regardless of age that I started thinking I could be fulfilled by another outlet.”

But it took a while for her to find that: “[At the time] I was just looking for identity. At first I just tried working out in a gym, running, going to yoga and pilates for the physical excursion. It never quite fit the feeling. Slowly I started dabbling in other things, writing, taking photos…and occasional drawing, but nothing quenched.”

 You can get a sense of Brittany's sketching skills and the care she puts into things with this layout she drew before building her office. 

You can get a sense of Brittany's sketching skills and the care she puts into things with this layout she drew before building her office. 

Nothing makes her feel like dance did.

Until a few years ago when she is visiting with her mom in the house with the yellow walls: “We were getting ready to make dinner. I had a recipe in mind, but she didn't have all the ingredients. But she did have half of the ingredients for one recipe and half for another, [so] I thought I'd try combining the recipes to make due with what we had on hand.”

 It's called a "Winter Bowl" and the recipe is below this article. This pic is mine; I make it every year now and am obsessed. 

It's called a "Winter Bowl" and the recipe is below this article. This pic is mine; I make it every year now and am obsessed. 

I’ve often heard creativity defined as just that – bringing two seemingly disparate things together.

And in this case – it works. Brittany receives the highest and most treasured honor in her creative field: “My mom…looked up at me from her bowl and said with wide eyes, ‘mmmmmmmm, this is SO good!’ It was then that I thought ‘Ah, there's something good here.’ I can take ideas, put them together in the kitchen, and make my mom happy.

“With that, it became my whole world, to make her feel loved through food, to make her smile, and to nourish her fully.”

Brittany had just started cooking with Brian not too long before that, and it wasn’t actually something she was trying for a creative outlet. It was just a thing for her and Brian to do together.

 Their engagement pictures took place in the kitchen. And yes. They're all this amazing. (photo credit: the happy couple photography)

Their engagement pictures took place in the kitchen. And yes. They're all this amazing. (photo credit: the happy couple photography)

They start like most beginners – they get a book and a pot and begin trying stuff: “Along with our first cookbook (Rachel Rays' 30 Minute Meals) we got an all-purpose 5-quart pan. It gave us the freedom to make just about anything.”

Brittany starts with a cookbook, but she quickly begins doing her own thing: “I started altering recipes almost immediately, not because I was brave, but because I was terrible at following the directions…I'd double the onions, or add an extra spice. A little change here, and little change there.” She admits she’s not very good at baking because it requires such exact science.

“Cooking is the most encompassing experience for me…I get into a rhythm when cooking. Chopping onions, mincing garlic; I rock back and forth, sway from sink to cutting board to pan. Things sizzle on the stove, sea salt floats down like snow. You can smell it, and make a plate look beautiful, you can taste it…You can't eat a painting, or deeply inhale a dance performance." Brittany loves all forms of creativity, but it is cooking that she can’t seem to get enough of because of the way it reminds her of dance, its “rhythm.”

“You build a level of skill over time ([similar to] barre), your recipes are planned (choreography), but there's room for improvisation. All the while you are rocking your knife between vegetable and board, swaying between sink and pan, and orchestrating between spice, color, and flavor…[and] I can even listen to music all the while.”

 One of her ramen creations. 

One of her ramen creations. 

She also loves the effect her food has on the people she loves:

“Brian is the most gracious recipient of food. You'd be crazy to not want to cook for him. We often cook together as a way to spend quality time together… cooking for Brian feels more collaborative. But when I cook for him, he always makes me feel like it's the most important and rewarding thing I've done all day. He makes me feel like a superhero.



“[And] my mom was my biggest fan and grandest cheerleader. She made me feel invincible and capable of all things. Part of me always tempered her praise to account for her being my mother, but it was a difficult feat because there is no one I respected more. Cooking for my mom, taking photos on a trip abroad, drawing a sketch - these all had the end goal of putting a smile on her face. Creating something and making someone smile because of's my purest form of love.”

So what happens when the person you most hoped to make smile with your art is gone?

“After my mom passed away, I initially thought I would…[eventually] rebound with free flowing creativity. I definitely expected to be full of sorrow, but I also theorized that the invisible weight would be lifted, and even though the rain would keep pouring down, I would be free to move within it. 

“I couldn't have been more wrong. 

“The first year was honestly a black hole. There were really good days in there - I am immensely blessed with a supportive husband, a loving sister and family and friends that called or texted just to check in...but to be honest, I don't remember much from that time. Autopilot turned on. The days were gray with fog and the nights were so so long, and yet without rest. Creativity was completely shut down. And when there was 'creativity' it was devoid of joy. It was pure survival mode.

“I have a very sweet friend who lost her mom years ago as well. She kept telling me it was going to get better....and for some reason, her voice was the only one that I believed. I really held on to her words, more than she probably knows.

“[But] while I watched the best pieces of my life fade, twist, and contort into darkness, the idea of trying to create anything seemed like it was both mocking my pain and taunting any sense of satisfaction. Everything I used to find joy in suddenly felt incredibly shallow and pointless. Contemplations about my impermanence overwhelmed my ability to forge ideas and essentially rendered me useless.

“Every day that I thought about doing something to try to make myself happy or fulfilled, I'd be stopped before I could even get to the other side…The fact that I was still here, while she was gone was such an injustice that I felt guilty for seeking anything else. I was here; she wasn't.

“I felt guilty for just being alive while she had endured so much…Seeking happiness and creativity made me disgusted with myself.”

When I read this part I ache, the kind of ache that comes when you know you have no idea what someone is going through, when you know that there is pain out there that is beyond your understanding – when you’re disgusted with yourself because of your privilege, because there are people around you experiencing undeserved pain beyond your comprehension, because, even while writing this post, you get a text from your mom saying she’s excited to spend her birthday with you this Friday.

It’s no surprise that Brittany’s answer to the question “What was the most difficult thing you've experienced in your creative life?” is this:  

“Depression. It has a tendency to stifle [my] creativity. It feels as though someone has thrown a cold damp blanket over you, obstructed your view, made it hard to breathe and then said: ‘Look at and enjoy the beautiful sunrise.’

“You know the sun rises believe it is there and want to see it with all your might, and you can feel the warmth of the sun coming over the horizon, trying to filter through the shield - but none the less, you are cold and shivering and in darkness. For me, creativity often feels like the complete opposite. It is an alive feeling. Both accomplishment and hope bundled together.”

I ask Brittany how creativity came back to her after losing her greatest source of creative inspiration. She explains that it was a long process, but it begins with others in need of service: “Other people asking for help seemed to be the first time that I cared to get into the kitchen again. It didn't feel creative yet, but it felt good to be cooking something with intention again.”

 Brittany's homemade egg drop soup; great for when you're not feeling well. 

Brittany's homemade egg drop soup; great for when you're not feeling well. 

There was no grand moment of creative return. Brittany begins cooking because she has to survive. Then she cooks because someone else needs help. Then she cooks because family or friends are visiting. We can’t pinpoint when joy returns, but it does.

It does not replace the sadness of course, nor will anything ever replace or become a greater reward than Darlene’s “mmmmm.”

But Brittany’s smile returns, and with it, Darlene’s. (And fun fact? Darlene's maiden name is Cook.)

 Brittany biking in the pacific northwest recently. 

Brittany biking in the pacific northwest recently. 

And when Brittany feels depleted now she no longer sees creativity as selfish – instead, she has come to see it as necessary; she often finds herself going on what she calls “creativity binges” when she’s feeling low. She says a creativity binge is like gulping a glass of water after you realize you’re dehydrated:   “Have you ever been even mildly dehydrated? It changes your perception of everything; I get tired, problems seem insurmountable, I'm cranky and trudging through heavy sludge...and then I realize that I haven't had water in hours. I can't guzzle enough of it, and then shortly thereafter the haze is gone...the sun brighter and the sky a deeper blue.

“A creativity binge can take many forms for me, but it usually starts with copious amounts of information absorption. I'll try to find a good TED talk, breeze through a magazine, or randomly look up plane tickets. Sometimes just the thought of changing my view is enough to breathe new energy into my outlook. 

“I'll crave visual interest, a good read, a deep conversation. If I can get any or all of these, I'm off to a good start. Then maybe I'll search for new recipes to try out and instantly start making alterations in my head. I'll sketch something fun or put on some music.

“Sometimes it feels a little manic, but in the best sense. It's as though in an instant anything is possible and so I try to cram every possibility into a tiny sliver of life as though I am running out of time.

 A pic from one of brittany's biggest creativity binges.

A pic from one of brittany's biggest creativity binges.

“My favorite [creative binge] activity though is to take a trip to the farmer's market. I'll just go and walk around and look at all the vegetables before buying anything. I'll play a game trying to think of things to cook with the ingredients without pulling out my phone…The air is fresh and filled with earthy smells and bright fruits and vegetables pop out all around me in bursts of color. I swear food looks more beautiful outside. 

“I'll cook for days and open the windows to get fresh air, take a walk…”

I am lucky enough to be a part of one of these days – a snowy one in DC. So snowy, in fact, that Brittany’s work closes and a creativity binge is possible.

 A picture I took that day. 

A picture I took that day. 

We get in the car that morning and drive to a market called “MOM’s.”

The snow sticks to trees in a way I’ve never seen before. Brittany makes me chai tea from scratch and a three-cheese grilled cheese with avocado and basil that changes the way I think about grilled cheese forever.

 Brittany's chai ingredients. 

Brittany's chai ingredients. 

She also stands in that same kitchen as her whole body wracks with sobs when we talk about her mom.   

Somehow, the kitchen is able to hold it all. 





Photo thanks to Brittany and The Happy Couple Photography


Winter Bowl Recipe
(thanks Brittany!)

Adapted from recipes found here and here

Makes 4 Servings as a meal
Makes 8 servings as a side

(1)  small head cauliflower, cut into small florets
(1) small head of broccoli, cut into florets
(3/4) cup walnuts, lightly chopped
(15)  fresh sage leaves, chopped or torn into small pieces
(4)  tablespoons grapeseed oil, for roasting
(1) tablespoon olive oil, for drizzling
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
(1)  poundgnocchi (*optional - fresh or frozen)
Freshly grated Pecorino Romano (*optional)

Heat oven to 400ºF
In a large bowl, toss the broccoli, cauliflower, walnuts, sage, grapeseed oil, sea salt, and black pepper.
Transfer to (2) cookie sheets
Roast, tossing once, until the broccoli and cauliflower is golden brown and tender, 15 – 18 minutes. (Be careful not to burn the walnuts)

*Optional: While the broccoli, cauliflower, and walnuts are roasting, cook the gnocchi according to the package directions, drain, and reserve some of the cooking liquid.

Removethe roasting pans from the oven and toss the cooked gnocchi with the broccoli, cauliflower, and walnuts in a large bowl.

Spoon the mixture into individual bowls, sprinkle with some Pecorino Romano if desired and drizzle with fruity olive oil.   

If you have any leftovers, pour a few tablespoons of the gnocchi cooking liquid over the top to help keep them moist in the fridge. It should keep for 2-3 days refrigerated.