Monday, August 21, 2006

Life in Three Acts

August 21

Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts in American life.” I am not the first to observe how wrong he was.

In his own life, as he saw it, probably, Act One began when he was in his mid-20’s and had sold This Side of Paradise, his first novel. He never wrote or spoke of his childhood, and, although he was, in fact, a child at some point; his life began at Princeton with his relationship with Genevra King and then the fabulous, fraught Zelda. His reason for pessimism after his great early success may have been that, like so many celebrities before and after him, he reached for fame and got it too soon. He didn’t have the equipment to handle it. (There is also the matter of his alcohol addiction and his wife’s schizophenia. I cannot know for certain, but suspect that at the heart of his life’s tragedy was the 20th Century’s confusion of values – an individual’s pursuit of material possessions and fame at the expense of his nobler motivation to produce art.)

But let’s think of life, any life, as broken into three acts. Take me, for instance, since this is my blog and I can do what I want with it.

My Act One was decidedly Childhood. Growing up in Fairhope was unforgettable, growth-producing,, and a pathway to a good second act. I was made alert to its potential through the advantage of an education in the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, where kids made things happen and things happened to kids. We were not talked at or talked down to, we were questioned, we were allowed (yea, encouraged) to ask questions, and at the end of the 12 years in school we knew who we were. We just couldn’t wait for more stuff to happen. (For more on this, read Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, which is available online through or and local bookstores in Fairhope.)

Act One ended poignantly with a romance, a promise of things to come. I would no longer be a child, and I had the tools to grow into a productive adult; I just didn’t know it.

Act Two was Romance and Travel, with a smattering of comedy, melodrama, and adventures in the arts, particularly the theatre. Act Two abounds with stories – short stories, novels, character sketches, changes of locale, marriage(s), the raising of a child, divorces, deaths -- an infinity of challenge and growth. This would have been Scott Fitzgerald’s Act One, but, because I had such a rich childhood, all this stuff was Act Two for me. There are indeed second acts in American life.

Act Three is just at the beginning now; a chance to assess and apply what I’ve learned while at the same time learning more. A chance to work at perfecting the instrument. An awareness that it is now or never, so it’s gonna be now. Well, knowing the instrument doesn’t mean the same circumstances won’t recur, or necessarily that I’ll handle them differently. It just means I know they’re coming.

There, I’ve done it again, glossed over things as if life were just a somewhat bumpy ride down an unpaved road. In Act Three I’ll learn to write it well, clarifying and not letting myself off the hook so easily. I’ll get onstage again, and I’ll work at it, and I’ll pull together people to work at Mrs. Johnson’s school. By the time I’m ready to leave Fairhope, Fairhope will notice that I’ve been here. The two little boys who are my grandsons will be young men, ready to take on the world, and if they’re lucky their lives will have three acts as well. Even if they become cynics, they still will not say that there are no second acts in American life. I hope that, like me, they will attempt to deal with the whole show with some humor, intelligence, and good will.


QuillDancer said...

Mary Lois, how is it one goes about getting an autographed copy of, "Finding Fair Hope?" I know I am not as witty or wonderful as Justin, so it may not be possible at all, but I have to ask. I would love to be able to tell people, "Oh, Mary Lois and I frequent the same place in cyberspace."

The Marietta Johnson School sounds absolutely incredible. I wish whole school districts could grasp this concept. I teach in a public school and it seems the last thing they want me to do is allow the children to think. I have been "written up" a couple of times for my unconventional teaching. Education should not be "one size fits all."

QuillDancer said...

Oh! Least you think I only want your book for bragging rights, I really do want to read it. I loved the exerpts on your web page. Naked canoeing at midnight sounds like something I would do. The folks of Fair Hope sound like my kind of people.

Finding Fair Hope said...

In case anybody thinks I've paid a ringer to post comments on my blog, I deny the charges before you make them. The lady just has discernment and taste, and aside from a penchant for nude canoeing, is perfectly normal.

I shall attend to the matter of getting a book to her at once.

Anonymous said...

You misunderstand Fitzgerald. He does not think that Americans don't re-invent themselves (after all, he wrote Gatsby). What he means is that the American's life, unilke the European's, does not feature a culmination, does not come to fruition. Americans live many acts, but each one is a first act, ignoring everything that came before.

Mary Lois said...

Damn it, Anonymous, you got me there. I devoted a whole post to a misinterpretation of Fitzgerald. We all make mistakes...

I'm not sure what year I posted this one, but it's interesting that it still gets readership. Hope the new readers will benefit from your comment. I stand by the post as an essay, however, even though it may have nothing to do with what Scott Fitzgerald was talking about.