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Since I can remember, I've enjoyed writing down thoughts, ideas, inspirations and practical tips I wanted to remember and put to use in my daily life. These became my grace notes. Whenever I read something, heard something, saw something, felt something or figured out something that rang a bell inside me, I wrote it down. I used little spiral notebooks or pads, anything handy.
But it wasn't until I found myself in a wonderful paper-supply store in Paris in the sixties - you may not know it, but the French take their paper stores seriously - that I discovered the ideal vehicle for recording and preserving my grace notes. I inherited a love for beautiful paper from my mother but over the last few decades I've let this enthusiasm become something approaching an obsession (recorded in detail in Gift of a Letter). That mild spring day in Paris I went from the Right Bank to the Left Bank in search of four-by-six index cards. The smooth one-hundredpound paper invited a fountain pen to glide across its surface. I could color-code my notes in pale pink, green, yellow and blue. Even the white cards had a grid of half-centimeter squares in pale lilac or blue. I became addicted to this geometric design that spares me from facing a blank surface.
I went on a binge. I bought up the French file cards in every store I could find. Paper is heavy. Every so often I had to stop at a café, sip café au lait, relax, dream up a few grace notes and then continue on my hunt. Nothing but a closed door stopped me from walking in. I was compulsive.
A few years ago I read somewhere that the author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, though flexible about his writingschedule, was insistent on using lined bristol cards. while spiral notebooks are what I use to write my books, these cards are ideal for random thoughts.
During that Paris trip, the seeds of another idea began germinating. Since my days as an art student I've enjoyed going to museums and buying postcards of paintings and sculpture that I have been struck by. This habit has resulted in an accidental collection. This casual, spontaneous act evolved into the idea for a book, The Postcard as Art, in which I reproduced many of the postcards I'd enjoyed selecting over the years. Ever since childhood I've loved sending cards to friends with a little scribbled grace note -- a word of encouragement, a quote, a thought, an insight, a question.
Postcards and my French rile cards are of the same size and I have been storing both in shoe boxes, which I have found both comforting and practical. Eventually I had a carpenter build cubbies in my home to store these labeled boxes, floor to ceiling, catalogued by artist, author, and idea. These treasured shoe boxes hold great sources of inspiration for me, and, of course, they are a rich mine of useful references for books and lectures.
Readers often ask me which one of my books I like best and which one was the most fun to write. Invariably it is the one I'm writing. I love the intensity of this mysterious creative process - I look forward to the challenges, the stimulation and the illumination. In Dr. Samuel Johnson's apt words: "The process is the reality." I too am process-oriented. I love the doing, the
work. I enjoy abandoning myself to the project, not knowing how it will all turn out.
I have come to understand that there are no beginnings, that everything is interconnected, and I don't like endings. While I enjoy seeking meaning in the unknown, I am particularly exhilarated by the ever-deepening journey of discovery and exploration.
The search for truth and beauty has been going on since the beginning of civilization. As we approach the twenty-first century, we reflect on what has already been expressed that may bring light, truth and life to our own experiences. Whatever has been said before can acquire new meaning through the unique filter of our own character, beliefs, values and consciousness. Wisdom is ageless and timeless -- a reminder that human nature hasn't changed much since the Stone Age. We have always needed to eat, sleep and bathe, but how we perform these daily functions defines us uniquely. How we think and feel, what attitudes we develop, reveal our values and character.
In the early eighties, over a lunch meeting with my literary agent and friend Carl Brandt, I discussed my desire to incorporate these random thoughts at the end of each chapter in the book I was planning. "Ah, Grace Notes," said the wise Carl. Years later, in 1986, this book came out under the title Living a Beautiful Life, and my grace notes were published for the first time.
We reflect on our lives, drawing from the wisdom of the past and thinking about our hopes for the future. R.W.B. Lewis, in his Foreword to Cynthia Griffin Wolff's biography of Emily Dickinson, tells us, "The story of modern literature bears recurring witness to the conversion of loss into gain, to radical deprivation leading to great creative accomplishment."
As we try to envisage what the world will be like for our grandchildren and imagine who will inherit the good and bad we leave behind, we pause to think of those who have shaped our attitudes. We pay homage to those spirits who have expanded our potential for understanding the unique circumstances of our lives and who have given us hope and courage to be strong and live bravely. We will always be fascinated by the thoughts of others, and by the way they have expressed their truths and insights, because they are the real teachers. They have shared with us the truth as they have experienced it.
In 1959, my aunt, Ruth Elizabeth Johns, an international social worker,...