Page 3 of 6During our talks, Florence shared old scalloped-edged, black-and-white photographs, which re-created the world of the sophisticated young Manhattanite from the Upper East Side. In the snapshots, Florence is outfitted in clothes designed by her mother, a couture dressmaker with a shop on Madison Avenue. Her mother had come to America alone as a teenager and worked her way up to being a respected business owner, a rare accomplishment for a woman in those days. I met Florence’s granddaughters, one of whom was an actress working as a yoga instructor.
Stern family portraits projected the intellectual strength and fearlessness of the Wolfsons. Both of Florence’s parents came from families of prominent rabbis and they went to work the day they arrived in the United States.
After Florence married, she drifted from her art and spent most of her life in the roles of mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. In April 2007, Florence’s husband died. I learned from her diary that they had met when she was thirteen at his parents’ Catskills hotel, which was later turned into a yoga retreat. I flew down to Florida to be with her. “Lily and her new grandmother,” Florence said, as a photo was taken. “You’ve brought back my life.”
The diary was a time machine transporting me to Florence’s 1930s New York, inspiring me, now at twenty-seven, to write my first completed book, The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal.
When I decided to become a writer, I made a pact with myself: If I wanted to write, I had to become an interesting person, take chances.
“I keep on waking up a different person in a different city,” I wrote in my journal shortly after I moved to New York to attend college.
At Barnard College, part of Columbia University, I studied Buddhism with Robert Thurman, who commanded the class from his throne-like chair on stage in the auditorium. He was the first American to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. I was intrigued by his lucid explanations of philosophical complexities, such as comparisons he drew between Buddhism and the film The Matrix. He called the Dalai Lama his buddy and spoke of his daughter, the actress Uma Thurman. I took his seminar in non-dualism, and delighted in how his own personal story crossed Eastern philosophy with Western celebrity culture.
I picked up the prayer Om Mani Padme Hum. It is said that all the teachings of the Buddha are contained in this mantra, which is difficult to translate literally but is said to mean “the jewel in the lotus.”
While I was in college, one of my best friends left the University of Michigan and enrolled at Naropa University. She recommended that I read Be Here Now by Ram Dass, which I happened upon at a little bookstore called Be Here Now while driving through Bristol, Rhode Island.
“You find things, don’t you,” a person I had recently met declared after visiting my apartment, which is furnished with found objects, including a few of the trunks from the Dumpster. “You’re a person who finds things.”
“Yes, I think I am,” I said.
While my friend seemed to crave quiet retreats and meditation, I was pulled into the life of New York, with its crowded streets and subway cars, its bars and chaos. I related to what Florence wrote in her diary so many years ago, “There’s so much to do—music, art, books, people—can one absorb it all?”
On Sunday afternoons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I sought out the illuminated manuscripts, which Florence had also admired—the ones painted by monks in small cells by candlelight. I lost myself in the rich coloring of mandalas from Himalayan kingdoms and found balance in front of sculptures of Shiva. I went to Central Park to hear the Dalai Lama speak.
I was looking for my own “jewel in the lotus,” which I thought of as the potential in each human I encountered. I was searching for a story that completely touched my life and that of other people. In short, I was on a spiritual quest. What was I doing here?