Page 4 of 6New York is the place of endless possibilities. The city is a living text. During college, I wrote papers, short stories, started a novel, and filled up diaries. I wrote in journals, in the margins of my class notes, on the subway, in my room on my laptop. I wrote when I was happy, nostalgic, lonely, and between books. I wrote a screenplay for my thesis.
I kept on waking up with this empty feeling: Who am I? Do I have anything to contribute?
I wrote from that feeling of emptiness. While lonely at times, I recognized the potential of being like an empty vessel. I was looking for love, meaning in my life, and a good story.
After graduating, I landed a job at the New York Times as a news clerk by day, celebrity reporter by night. “Bravest Gossip Reporter Ever” the media site Gawker called me when James Gandolfini asked me out on a date. But I wasn’t really interested in the celebrities I was covering.
I flew to the Netherlands to interview Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I studied with and wrote an article about an eighty-three-year-old Japanese sumi-e master who had learned the ancient art form in an internment camp and who was now teaching classes in her dusty studio nestled between the designer boutiques of SoHo.
While working on my novel, I stumbled upon the magical gem of the diary. Where do we record our inner lives? I wondered. What windows do we have into the human soul? Do teenagers keep diaries anymore? The diary led me to find real meaning in our youth-obsessed, celebrity-crazed, materialistic culture, and led me to connect with a like-minded spirit across time.
You can think of a diary as a record of the Buddhist notion of impermanence. All things and experiences are ever changing. We are constantly coming into being and ceasing to be. Nothing lasts.
When Florence held her diary again after all those years, she caressed its fragile cover with hands still supple enough to practice scales daily on the piano. Gently thumbing through the pages, she sat by the window and journeyed back to the girl she had once been.
“I’m fourteen years old! 1929!” she read in a husky voice. Then she read from the next year’s entry: “At last I’ve arrived! The year has left me wiser, less happy, but still! I’m 15!”
“Florence, finding your diary, and then finding you, it’s like I found this young girl and she’s ninety!”
“You’ll remember me when you’re ninety,” Florence joked.
“You know, you are the heroine of the story,” I told her.
“Well, I’m happy to hear you say that, because I don’t feel like a heroine in my own life,” confessed Florence, clasping her diary. “But I have to tell you, I’m much happier now than I was a few years ago when I wasn’t very true to myself. I had a country-club mentality and I’m through with that now. I am what I am, who I am, what I was when I wrote this.”
Florence spoke of a dear friend of hers, Gertrude, from the diary, who would go on to marry the preeminent poet of their generation, Delmore Schwartz, “We had so much in common. Gertrude was artistic, creative, and pure. She was purer than I was in terms of material possessions. I think I liked material possessions even in those days.”
When Florence hosted her salon, Gertrude, Delmore and the other members were pursuing the Socratic quest, to “know thyself.” Three quarters of a century later, this remains Florence’s ongoing journey.
“How do you feel when a forgotten chunk of your life, full of adolescent angst and passion, is handed to you?” she asks in the foreword she wrote to The Red Leather Diary. “How do you feel when you see your striving, feeling, immature self through your now elderly eyes? It stopped my heart for a moment. That was me?”