Little Red Book

By Jan Richardson

Little Red Book © Jan L. Richardson

On a small street near the Pantheon in Rome lies a shop of wonders. Established nearly a century ago, the Cartoleria Pantheon is a place of enchantment for those with a penchant for paper and ink and their enticing accoutrements. Old wooden bookcases offer row upon row of journals, address books, and albums bound in rich leather. Fine pens and inks and more leather-bound books stretch across the few tables that the modest space can hold. Racks spill with marbled papers, Florentine wrapping papers, and other hand-decorated sheets. One of the corners of the shop has come to be known as the Kissing Corner, evidently inspired by those who succumb to the aphrodisiacal qualities of the ancient tools of the writer’s craft.

I know the feeling.

I spotted the Cartoleria while exploring Rome with my sister and a few friends several years ago. The shop was just about to close as we walked in—perhaps not a bad thing, or I might have blown the last of my travel budget in that one place. I savored the few minutes’ enchantment and left the shop with a small journal of thick, handmade Amalfi paper bound in deep red leather. I picked a red one in part because it reminded me of a dream I’d recently had in which I was wearing red cowboy boots. (Boots, books…perhaps my subconscious missed by a letter, or maybe there’s still some splendid footwear in my future?) A thin leather strap winds around the journal, once, twice, tucking under itself. The maker of the journal assembled the pages into eight signatures (gatherings of folded paper), attaching them to the spine with exposed stitches.

It’s the sort of book that hardly needs anything written in it. It has a presence all its own, even without words or sketches. Several years later, its pages are still blank.

I’ve found myself drawn again to the journal in the past few days, thinking about the presence it has even with its empty pages. It’s gotten me thinking about all the things with which we fill the Advent season. I think in particular of how much sound attends these days. The conversations and proclamations and singing and celebrations within the Christmas story inspire us to respond in kind, with music and festivities and liturgies laden with noise.

But there is silence, too, among the stories of this season. Think of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, who was mute throughout his wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Mary, who “pondered all these things in her heart” on the night of Jesus’ birth. And there is Jesus himself. When the Word took flesh, it could not speak, could not articulate why it was here. Christ the Word had to spend long months in his own wordlessness before beginning to learn the language, syllable by syllable.

I spend a lot of time with words, my own and those of others. My imagination, my intellect, my soul all thrive on the process of finding meaning in and among the stories that I live with, including the sacred stories of the scriptures. I give vast quantities of energy to—and am energized by—noticing the connections among the stories, finding the patterns, and giving words to what I discover along the way.

My passion for words comes with a deep desire to be articulate, both on the page and in person. In these Advent days I have become particularly aware of how I am perpetually engaged in a process to find the right words. I have a speaking engagement tomorrow morning, and another one on Sunday; I’m working on this blog; I recently sent out my December e-newsletter; I’m attending to correspondence and conversations (not always very well in this very full season); I am trying to be mindful of offering prayers all along the way. In the midst of all this, and in the spaces between one mode of articulation and another, I am framing words in my head, figuring out which ones will come next.

I am fortunate to have a life that contains an abundance of quiet, a gift that helps make it possible to find the words I need. Yet I wonder if there is a deeper silence to which I am being called in this season. How might it be to take up the red Roman journal as a prayerbook in these days, letting its empty pages have a presence among my own wordfulness? Amid the constant flow of syllables running through my brain and taking shape on my tongue or through my hand, might these lovely, silent pages help create a space in which I can hear, not just my own words, but the Word for whom we wait in this season? Is there some place I might cede some of my own attachment to being articulate, so that the Word can find its way in?

What is filling your days? Do these things help you or hinder you in listening for the Word whom we anticipate and celebrate in this season? Is there anything you need in order to hear and see and open to the Word that seeks to be born in you, in us, in this time?

Among the words, between the words, beneath the words: may we make a way for the Word in us. Blessings.

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4 Responses to “Little Red Book”

  1. Cathy Says:

    I’ve spent the past few weeks feeling like my head is getting in the way, usually with too many words. Perhaps I need an empty book to speak to my heart, to bring the Word in new and wordless ways. In a paradoxical way – thank you for your words to help us get past the words!

  2. Jana Says:

    Hi, Jan. Thanks for this beautiful blog – the Where I’m From poem is gorgeous and the art here is so rich and simple. As usual! I’m especially taken with this red journal and with the idea of having a blank, beautiful journey accompany the silence of Advent. When I think of all that the characters in these stories had to ponder, I need that space, too. thanks.

  3. Melynne Says:

    What a wonderful way to remember to be quiet, to remember that we meet the Holy in the quiet. And what a testament the little red book is to the sacred and beauty that comes from not saying anything at all! Thank you, again, for your amazing insight.

  4. phyllis Says:

    You reminded me that I have several journals I have bought over the years that I couldn’t resist in the shop and I loved them so much, with the beautiful cover and empty, smooth unspoiled pages, that they are still empty books on my shelf. Maybe it’s because I need the “empty pages” to remind me of the need to stop taking in words and images and sounds and make space to hear the silence and be? I think I’ll pull them out this year as a reminder to heed your challenge! The collage is elegant as usual, in its simplicity.

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