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Shambhala Sun | May 2009

Between the Lines of the Red Leather Diary

by Lily Koppel

When I opened the red leather diary, I had no idea of the world that was about to unfold before me and change the course of my life and that of ninety-year-old Florence Wolfson Howitt.

I left my New York apartment one morning in 2003 and encountered a 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, discarded 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 rusted 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, summer 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, breathless 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 frontispiece, 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 Florence 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 painters. 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 letters 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 experience. 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.

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