Mimi’s Letters

Mimi with my cousin Jeffrey, photo cred John Ross.

Mimi with my cousin Jeffrey, photo cred John Ross.

 “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you.” Jeremiah 30:2

My grandmother Mimi was the kind of person who baked cookies for prisoners, the kind of person who always told my mother we were just tired when we misbehaved. (Following a tantrum, during which I ripped the wall-paper off the wall, she exclaimed to my mother, “Oh, Debby, she’s just so tired!”) She had gone to college in a day when not a lot of women had. After a career as a teacher she took on the somewhat full time job of helping my parents with me and my three siblings. She lived down the street in the house that looked like a barn, where my dad had grown up. Some of my earliest memories are of her teaching me to read (Bible stories and Bernstein Bears) and showing me how to count to one hundred. I jumped with glee as I put each set of ten together, hopping back and forth from the couch to the chair in her house with the shag carpet as she stood nearby and smiled.

She was a true southern lady. Proper but warm, deep but playful, I never doubted her love for me for one second of the twenty-five years I had her in my life. Even when her memory started to fade and then completely left her, she never lost her gentle, loving, and compassionate way. That’s proof that someone is good to the core, in my book.

When her husband, my grandfather, died, she came to stay with us for a while. She had spent years nursing him after he’d had a stroke. I remember her using a strap made of seatbelt material to walk him to and from the kitchen for lunch, his limp side seemed so heavy and helpless in my mind’s eye, her strength incredible. She never once let on if she ever felt it was a burden to care for him, and she remained a fortress of strength until his end. When she came to our house after his passing, even though I was eight years old at the time, alongside the grief, I sensed an emptiness and restlessness in her, like her hands were newly empty and she didn’t know what to do with them.

We slept in the same bed for those first few months of her living with us. That first night before bed, my eyes were wide with wonder: it was the first time I’d ever seen her with her hair down. She smelled like Ponds Cold Cream and powder. She would recite Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer every night and, always the teacher, she made me memorize them too. A few weeks into this arrangement, she went down to the dollar store and bought me some slippers because she noticed my feet were cold against her legs when we got in bed together. Her presence in my life was analogous to a guardian angel: she brought me wisdom, peace, comfort, and protection. What I wouldn’t give to introduce her to Edwin and Eva, to sit on her couch and “visit” (as she called it.)

The paragraphs you just read were started in my journal. This “practice” of journaling every day is one that many artists swear by, especially Julia Cameron, in her book about creativity as a spiritual practice, “The Artist’s Way.” She says journaling or more specifically writing “morning pages,” three long-hand, stream of consciousness pages daily, will increase creative flow or at the very least, drain the brain of all that blocks creative thinking.

When I tried this for the first time I found it to be an inane exercise. Three pages of complaining about how tired I am or recounting days where nothing interesting happened, morning after morning— it was a unique combination of boring and humiliating. Nothing felt creative about that process, it felt petty and frustrating, like digging myself out of the mud. But as I settled into the practice, something magical happened.

Mimi was a big letter writer and always wrote to me if I was away at camp or at music festivals. After an update of what was going on, she always ended the letter by telling me how proud of me she was. Even though this occurred in every letter I never got tired of reading it. Her handwriting swirled on the page like something magical and ancient. I keep one of her letters in my box of important papers because seeing her handwriting makes me feel close to her, reading those last lines reminds me of my value, long after her passing.

So you can imagine my surprise when, a few days into this tedious journaling practice, I discovered something close to Mimi’s ancient and magical script coming out of my pen. I hadn’t written in cursive since the fourth grade, but in an effort to write fast, I haphazardly tried again. I struggled to remember how to write each letter, and as my pen carried me swiftly to each word, I unlocked an old part of myself, a part of that little girl who slept in bed beside Mimi. My handwriting looked like hers!

Maybe this is one of the truly spiritual aspects of creativity—that when we open our minds and dump them out (the good, the bad and the oh, so ugly), we may be surprised at the beauty of what we find. Since I spent time writing about her I not only noticed the similarities in our cursive and recalled memories I had forgotten, I also keep dreaming of her, her presence as comforting as ever. Putting all that is inside us on paper affords us the pleasure of knowing our own minds. In that process, I have felt not only Mimi’s presence, but God’s, mightily.

So perhaps this is why the prophets were always telling the people to write things down: surely so they wouldn’t forget them and could pass them on to future generations, but maybe it was also because God knew the power and mystery of putting pen to paper. This practice does more than give us prayers and psalms to teach to our grandchildren to recite before bed. It calls us into our memories, helps us process loss, and reintroduces us to the still small voice we are normally too busy to hear. As we see (and begin to understand) all that is within us, we find God at work, completing that which was started in us at creation, and just like the end of Mimi’s letter, reminding us of our value. I dare to say that this act of writing something down, that the prophets urged Israel and Cameron urges us to do now—it is the beginning of believing these beautiful mysteries happened at all.

And so, now I show up at my notebook each day, not just to write, but to listen. In the stream of consciousness blabber, in the tedious to-do lists, the memories that resurface (both painful and precious), the prayers pleaded, complaints aired, dreams given voice, I seek to know my own mind. And through this process, I’m learning something I think Mimi wanted me to know: I cannot know myself completely without knowing God.

My writing is nothing like a record of all the great prophets’ words or a history of an entire people. Yet, we each have within us our mini-manifesto, a record of one life that God is at work in. I believe we are still called to write it down, just as God instructed Israel. So try it. You may be surprised at what you find right there waiting for you in your own handwriting.