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Lions Roar : May 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2009 52 Dumpster full of old steamer trunks that had belonged to various tenants who had lived in my building. Among other artifacts— flapper dresses and old photographs—I recovered the diary, dis- carded after years in my building’s storage unit. Its pages revealed the adventures of a young woman growing up in Manhattan in the 1930s. What I couldn’t know until later was that reading the diary would provide me with insights into my own life and Buddhist practice. Back in my room, I released the brass latch. Despite the rust- ed keyhole, the diary was unlocked. Little pieces of red leather sprinkled onto my white comforter. From 1929 to 1934, not a single day had been skipped. The journal painted a vivid picture of 1930s New York—horseback riding in Central Park, sum- mer excursions to the Catskills, and an obsession with a famous avant-garde actress, Eva Le Gallienne. Its nearly 2,000 entries, written in ink that was now faded, captured the passions and ambitions of an intensely creative young woman. Brief, breath- less dispatches filled every page of the five-year chronicle. “Milestones Five Year Diary” was in gold letters across the book’s worn cover. Inside, a blue vine grew around the frontis- piece, stamped with a zodiac wheel: “This book belongs to... Florence Wolfson.” The diary seemed to respond to being back in warm hands, its pages coming unstuck and fanning out. I flipped through the entries, dense with girlish cursive. I could tell the journal had been cherished. I read the date when Florence began writing: August 11, 1929, the day she received the diary as a gift for her fourteenth birthday. As I slipped under the blankets, trying to imagine what Flor- ence had looked like, a brittle clipping fell from between two stuck pages. It came from the Forward, a Yiddish newspaper, and showed Florence’s picture from when, at fifteen, she had won the New York State Regents scholarship. Except for her marcelled blond hair, she appeared completely contemporary, as if she were a young woman of today. Her eyes were sensual and intelligent. I could see myself in her face; we were both writers and paint- ers. Florence seemed so alive—intensely introspective yet fully engaged with the world around her. I couldn’t help but read her entries as if they were personal let- ters to me. Florence and I shared a longing for love and desire to carve out our own paths. Her entries confessing loneliness spoke to my insecurities about being single and alone in New York. We both felt the need to create lasting beauty out of our daily experi- ence. As I read her diary, I was drawn into Florence’s day-to-day existence—her trips to the theater and escapes to the Museum of Modern Art, which had opened in 1929. Florence’s writing possessed the literary equivalent of perfect pitch. Her handwriting looped and soared dreamily across the page in blue and black ink, as in this entry from when she was fifteen: “Stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven—I feel like a ripe apricot—I’m dizzy with the exotic.” She was a theater nut and wrote on another occasion: “To a dance recital of Star-Ron, a Hindu of such exquisite beauty and grace as to seem almost as planned as his dances—what a body! As slender as a woman’s and exceedingly chaste, I am certain.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, free and almost deserted during the week, was a temple that she wandered in, solitary and content, for hours. Like a disciple, Florence stood before con- templative stone Buddhas and felt herself magically transported to the Orient. Blissfully wandering on, she was reminded of the words, “Life is but a dream,” from the children’s song. She writes, “Spent all afternoon in the museum and saw the Chinese snuff bottles of jade & onyx and carnelian—oh, to touch them!” On another occasion, “Am on the lookout for a really satisfied per- son—and so far I’ve discovered that happiness is an alien bless- ing to those who are true to themselves.” The diary was a portal into this lost world. I felt as if I was one with this young woman from the thirties. My lavender bed- How do you feel when a forgotten chunk of your life, full of adolescent angst and passion, is handed to you? How do you feel when you see your striving, feeling, immature self through your now elderly eyes? PHOTOSCOuRTESYOFFLORENCEWOLFSONHOWITT