Interviews conducted by Catherine Dorton.
Our popular monthly program meetings often feature a jam-packed agenda. We like to keep our introductions short, so you can hear more from our panellists and less from us! It’s hard to do justice to the incredible wealth of experience these guests bring to the table, so we are offering you a preview with this short Q&A beforehand.
This month, we are honoured to be joined by Ranjini George, Rebecca Higgins, and Erika Nielsen.
We hear you use a gong. What’s that for?
Sound is a wonderful way to centre oneself and move beyond the carousel of non-stop thoughts. It is a way to be present to the Now, the Present Moment. The gong is a way of coming home to oneself. I love the words of Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh regarding the bell/gong: “Listen, listen to the sound of the bell that calls you back to your true home.”
Try this: If you walk by the lake, listen to the sound of the waves. If you’re taking a neighbourhood walk (yes, spring is here!), listen to the sound of the birds. Notice your breath. Feel your feet on the earth. Breathe. Be present.
Listen to the lovely bell chant offered by the Plum Village community.
Why do writers and editors need mindfulness training?
I think it’s not just writers or editors who need mindfulness training. I think mindfulness is something that can help anyone. We enter this life with our first breath and transition from it with our last. So, we always have our breath.
Mindfulness is a way of using our breath—it is a way of being awake to our lives. Mindfulness is a practice: it is a simple and profound way of creating peace in our hearts. In our work as editors or writers, mindfulness helps create focus and clarity. We can bring the energy of mindfulness into our home, our workplace, and the world.
What’s the secret to life, the universe, and everything?
I don’t think there’s one secret! If there were, we would be fundamentalist and dogmatic about the way to that secret. If we knew that secret, we would think ourselves superior to others and want to convert them to our way of thinking. All we can do is to live our lives fully, try to figure things out, make mistakes, pick ourselves up, and cultivate warm-heartedness and kindness.
One of the secrets that I’ve discovered is that happiness is a practice. Writing is a practice. Cultivating compassion and patience is a practice.
Life is a precious gift. If there is one secret, it is perhaps that! Mindfulness is a way of being awake to our lives and becoming familiar with ourselves. Mindfulness offers a way of working with our difficult emotions and circumstances so that we come closer to happiness and peace. For me, that was transformative wisdom—not a secret, but a moment of illumination, a realization that there is something out there that could help me profoundly and help me to help others. I discovered that I could be the light of my soul.
Here’s a song for you to enjoy: “I Am the Light of My Soul” by Sirgun Kaur and Sat Darshan Singh.
Some people think short stories are just tiny, unfinished novels. Is this fair, and what would you like to say to those people?
Didn’t William Faulkner say something about this? “I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”
I love reading novels. I know how amazing it can be to fall into a novel that grips you until its end. Short stories can grab us like that, but the whole experience is much quicker. They may be short. Sometimes they’re even tiny. But that doesn’t mean they are unfinished. A short story is a glimpse at a life, a snapshot of a moment or small chunk of time, and sometimes when they’re over, we wish they weren’t, yet. A short story, to me, is a gulp of life: brief, nourishing, sharp, maybe unsettling, but not a failed novel. Is a tiny house an unfinished mansion? Nope. They’re different things.
Hotel or tent? Museum or beach?
Hotel, always. I love nature, but I don’t want to sleep in it. Beach, but ideally with a trip to the museum when the sun goes down.
Who is your favourite short story writer?
Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Bronwen Wallace, and Andre Dubus, to name a few.
What’s the funniest or oddest thing that has ever happened to you in a professional music setting?
Three vignettes come to mind:
- A costume that involved wearing a bonnet with an enormous pretzel on my head.
- Performing in a national broadcast commercial for birth control.
- Hurrying backstage for something before an opening magic show, passing a butcher chopping huge chunks of raw meat with a cleaver, then remembering that backstage was strictly off-limits because of the live tigers.
You’re a musician, you’ve just published your first book, and you’ve exhibited your visual art. To make us feel better, please confess one thing you’re not good at.
I’m not a good storyteller at parties! I really can’t spin a good yarn on the spot. I get my chronology mixed up, forget the point I was trying to make, or give away the punchline too early. All too often, the tales I wish to tell fall into the category of “you had to be there!”
What’s one thing you wish you could have told yourself at sixteen?
There are a lot of tough things that are a normal, healthy part of growing up, but the symptoms you are experiencing are not. There is better help available, and there is nothing wrong with getting it. You are worthy, and loved, and you are enough: exactly as you are.
More About Our Speakers
Ranjini George holds a PhD in English (Northern Illinois University, DeKalb), an MA in English (St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi), and an MFA in Creative Writing (University of British Columbia, Vancouver). She won first place in Canada’s inaugural Coffee Shop Author Contest for her travel memoir, a work-in-progress called Miracle of Flowers. For 13 years, she was a professor of English at Zayed University, Dubai, where she ran the Teaching with the Mind of Mindfulness series. She currently teaches a meditation and writing course and another called Pilgrimage to the Sacred Feminine in the Creative Writing Program, School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto. Her 2016 book Through My Mother’s Window was published in Dubai. She can be contacted via her Facebook page facebook.com/TheKuanYinStoryCafe.
Rebecca Higgins is a mental health educator and writer based in Toronto. She has worked in social and community services for 18 years, specializing in mental health education since 2010, after her own experiences with depression led her to change her professional focus. Rebecca designs and delivers independent workshop sessions for groups and conferences, and she facilitates workshops on behalf of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Visit mentalhealthworkshopstoronto.com for more information about her mental health work. A graduate of the University of Toronto (BA), Ottawa’s Carleton University (MSW), and Humber College’s School for Writers in Toronto, Rebecca has published stories in such publications as The Toronto Star and The Antigonish Review. Her debut collection, The Colours of Birds, was published by Tightrope Books in 2018. Find her at rebeccahiggins.org.
Toronto-based cellist Erika Nielsen has a multi-faceted career as a chamber musician, collaborative artist, orchestral player, and educator. Her musicianship spans baroque and classical traditions to contemporary and popular genres. She has performed with artists such as Kanye West and Johnny Reid, and she is a graduate of The Glenn Gould School in Toronto and Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Erika is a blog contributor to BPhope.com and the author of the mental health blog soundmindbook.com. She published her first book, the memoir and wellness guide Sound Mind: My Bipolar Journey from Chaos to Composure, with Trigger Publishing in 2019. A passionate educator, Erika maintains a busy private studio and is on faculty at National Music Camp of Canada. She is also a visual artist. Learn more at celloerika.com.
This article was copy edited by Ambrose Li.