Learning From Loss: What my wonky bowls taught me About Being Creative
About: Loss can be a devastating experience that leaves us feeling helpless and alone. But what if I told you that there are ways to cope with it and come out stronger on the other side? The essay I’m sharing with you today raises some important questions about the impact of loss and offers valuable insights on how to deal with it. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to learn how to overcome one of life’s toughest challenges.
January 15, 2022. Hours prior, I had announced to the world that my seventh cookbook, Masaleydaar: Classic Indian Spice Blends, would be released later in the year. It was supposed to be an auspicious day to announce the book.
I could hardly contain my excitement about this project. It had been decades in the making.
A sign flashed on my phone — there was a Tsunami warning for the area. How odd, I thought. We were a few miles away from the coast. Then I saw my car, and my knees buckled. The shattered glass told me everything. Although my computer was nothing more than an outdated workhorse, it held my entire manuscript. It wasn’t backed up. It was gone.
The chill of the asphalt spread up my spine as I hit the ground, my body buzzing with anger, fear, and shock. It felt like my moans were emerging from my body in slow motion. Passing cars would not stop, thinking I was asking them for money. I contacted law enforcement, but my loss wasn’t a pressing matter. They did not have enough police to afford an officer for the crime scene. I knew no reward could bring back those years of work.
A few listless days passed in silence. Although I took some responsibility for the material loss, I couldn’t heal my broken creative spirit.
Days passed, and I remained trapped in the shock of the loss. I could either wallow over what I could never recover or start over. Of my two choices, starting again was a monumental task. I was scared. I had no computer or creative motivation. I needed a distraction to avoid the daunting pressure of staring at a blank piece of paper.
To fill the hours, I enrolled in a beginners’ pottery class at the local recreation center. My class included beginners and experienced potters. Our task was to convert a shapeless slab of clay into something functional, something ‘beautiful’.
The structured weekly routine got me out of bed. Seeing people would keep me from sliding into depression I thought. But my clay would either become a wobbly mound or a spinning slurry. I was frustrated.
Everyone said I needed patience and practice. I purchased extra studio time but worked alone, self-conscious and ashamed of my failures. When I didn’t improve after three weeks, I came home and wept.
Maybe I should stick to writing cookbooks, I thought — oh, wait. Nevermind.
I had to reflect: what had led up to this need to get everything perfect? Why couldn’t I just enjoy the process? I was pre-conditioned to see progress in the form of praise, not for my effort but for perfection.
Without the sense of validation that I was actually “good” at something, I felt lost. I needed to break the cycle. Perfection, outside approval, and validation are overrated, I told myself. Still, that’s easy to say. It’s harder to live by it.
The Creative process
Six weeks later, I was still struggling. A classmate pointed to my clay spinning out of control. “You aren’t centered,” she said.
It was an uncanny reflection of my mental state. While she had only been talking about the clay, I realized it was me who needed to get centered.
My frustration caught the attention of the program director.
“If you’re fighting it, you’re working too hard,” he said. He showed me how to guide the clay to the wheelhead, a process known as “centering.”
In that moment I learned more about myself than I did about working with clay.
Centering is about protecting the clay from the disruption of centrifugal forces. It requires channeling your energy to a purpose, guiding without forcing, and being deliberate without rushing. Sounds a lot like life, right?
Working the clay became like meditating without the cushion. I had to release any negativity, be mentally present, and stay gently determined.
Without the pressure of perfectionism, I opened up to new possibilities. When I was not striving to get it right, it opened me up to my creativity. Much to my teachers’ muted horror, I started celebrating everything — wonky bowls and all.
In a flash of inspiration, I began making bowls to hold spices for my future cookbook’s photos — for the manuscript I had just lost. It was a strange feeling: to imagine what each would hold, and the stories they told. I began making plates to hold my stews and kebabs, my masalas and kheers — and the many hands that would cradle those morsels of care.
If I was gently focused, relaxed, and allowed the process to unfold, the rest was easy.
I started to leave my troubles in the car as I headed to the studio every morning. This process began to feel like a ritual to me.
Instead of rushing into the studio like a bat out of you-know-where, I took a moment to ground myself. I took a few deep breaths. I reminded myself why I was there. Those few extra moments of intention and presence were like a gift to myself. They added so much more meaning to the entire process.
Each day, I took a moment to let go of the need to perform or produce anything. As I did so, I began to appreciate my strengths and weaknesses better without needing to fix them or force myself to improve.
As I entered the pottery studio I would shed all the connections to the world: my phone, my wedding ring, my fun rings. I developed a routine and my family knew not to disturb me. I let go of vanity — stopped worrying about my nail polish and returned to wearing my eyeglasses for flexibility.
Once I let it all go, I began to find myself and so much more.
I realized, that working with clay requires centering for stability and establishes a firm foundation. It was about identifying my “why” for doing anything. What would provide a foundation to keep me going even when things got tough?
Having the “why” for any activity transformed it from a simple task to a source of meaning and fulfillment — a source of joy. Joy — the purpose that fueled the fire of determination and perseverance.
In time, I learned that it was far more important to share my enthusiasm and communicate the journey than to just share a finished piece. This helps me appreciate the learning process. I stopped hiding or destroying my “wonky” bowls simply because they didn’t look like the teacher’s. I realized it wasn’t about what my finished product looked like. It was about finding myself and my purpose, wonky bowls and all.
I learned quickly: functionality aside, what may be ugly to one person may be spectacularly beautiful to someone else. By eliminating standards, I was surprised how much space emerged for appreciation. I began to read about the different kinds of pottery in India, the shapes, the purposes, and more. I explored eating utensils from from different regions of India and began learning about sustainable plates and bowls made from foraged leaves from nearby forests! Plus, no matter how my bowls looked in the end, the entire journey led me through the ups and downs of the human experience — from deep frustration to the joy of little triumphs as well as blossoming friendships.
Mindfulness is as much about watching the fluctuations of the mind (i.e. thoughts) as it is about dis-identifying with them. In other words, just because you think something doesn’t make it true. By learning to recognize judgment, especially self-critique, I could choose to decide whether that thought is objective or not. I began to allow the creative process to flow without interruption.
I learned that sometimes, the words artistry and creativity are used interchangeably. In creative programs, beginners are often disappointed when they don’t see their work as art.
The reality is that any individual who can solve a problem, cook a meal, decorate a room, or even get dressed every morning is a creative person. They are creatively addressing a problem or task — they are moving forward, and that is important. It is important to recognize that artistic talent is subjective, creativity is universal.
Recognizing this difference is the key to unlocking creative potential.
Speaker Brene Brown says, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.”
I had to tell myself: there’s nothing to fix, change, or improve.
And knowing this, every day remains a learning curve. Too often, I would lose control of my clay because I was going too fast. But I have to remind myself to center. From learning the alphabet to making an enjoyable dish from memory, it takes some practice to master a skill. So I must keep at it.
Mindfulness is the same way. If you want it to last, don’t rush the process. Expect it to be a lifelong practice. You may become disheartened along the way but return to it again and again.
There is a Hindi idiom, “Jab jagey tab savera”, which means, “Dawn begins the moment when one is awake.”
In other words, the moment you show up to the present moment it’s your own figurative “dawn.”
I could be my own worst critic, and I realized that self-judgment is the greatest enemy of my peace.
I had to treat myself as a child. I am my child and my caregiver. If children are constantly criticized and judged by their caregivers, they don’t gain the sense of confidence and autonomy they need to blossom. Instead, they learn to constantly look over their shoulder and fear making mistakes. Adults are no different. When we give ourselves permission to simply exist, act, and create as we are, we find the energy it took to judge and criticize ourselves can be repurposed for good. Instead of feeding a sense of failure and frustration, it can give way to joy.
We can find our sense of joy when we celebrate ourselves. When we do, we invoke one of the most profound but overlooked qualities of mindfulness: care and empathy towards ourselves.
I had to just keep making the wonky bowls.
And I did.
Eighteen months after I had lost everything, I published Masaleydaar, wonky bowls and all.
Find my cookbook here: “Masaleydaar: Classic Indian Spice Blends” (2023). It includes a foreword by Colleen Taylor Sen, with more than 100 recipes, each showcased in one of my beautiful wonky bowls.
Kala Masala Bites from Masaleydaar: Classic Indian Spice Blends (2023)