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“What does it feel like, looking back on your life?” I asked Florence. She peered into her diary. “I love that girl, Lily,” she said. “I love her when she was young and optimistic....” Her voice trailed off. “Self-consciousness has been the biggest curse of my life. It’s like carrying a heavy shell, all the time. Are you that way? Lily, my advice is to get rid of it as fast as you can.”

The Red Leather Diary has been read by 150 book clubs and I have traveled with it to more than twenty cities. The paperback came out on January 20, Inauguration Day, which is particularly meaningful to me because I grew up in Hyde Park in Chicago, the neighborhood Obama and his family have called home. At readings, there is always the question, inevitably asked: Was the discovery of the diary fate? Was there a cosmic force at work? Karma?

I see it as a physics equation, which I could outline in chalk on a blackboard. In 1929, Florence, a starry-eyed young woman, searching for love and meaning, confided her deepest passions and confusions in her diary. In 2003, searching, I came across the Dumpster brimming with trunks and found the diary. Then I picked up her story where she left off. Who was Florence? Who was I? I believe we wrote our way to each other. Florence recorded on April 10, 1932, “Wrote all day—and my story is still incomplete.”

Florence has become a celebrity through my discovery of her teenage diary and we have been doing TV appearances, including The Today Show. “Do you keep a diary now?” a female anchor in a bright-pink suit and lipstick asked Florence.

“No.” At ninety-three, Florence said she was happy just breathing and feeling more alive than she had in years.

“Should people keep diaries?” asked the anchor.

“Absolutely, because it's a wonderful way to get a perspective on yourself,” said Florence, looking at me, squeezing my hand. “When you read it, you suddenly see yourself from the outside.”

If she did keep a diary today, she might write, “Studying Buddhism—taking a life drawing class.”


From the May 2009 issue of the Shambhala Sun.

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