Monday, October 12, 2009

Angels In My Midst

I'm at a point in my life where I find myself constantly thinking about starting over in life and moving in a new direction.

People who are older than I am tend to believe I have plenty of time, but I can't help feeling that I need to make a move sooner rather than later. For me, time has become most precious, now more than ever.

Thus, as the days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years--a perpetual sense of urgency to change direction and begin a new journey presses at the forefront of my thoughts. So, I frequently find myself hanging out in book stores, reading, drinking espressos, and lingering around the store in deep contemplation.

Today, as I sipped on my Doppio Espresso, I was thinking about a quote that's attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, which I've heard and read a few times from various sources. I've heard it once in a movie that I love (Purple Violets), but mostly, I've read it in various places online.

The quote is: "There are no second acts in American lives..."

Most often, it's only used in a context which is supposed to prove that the assumed meaning behind the quote is incorrect. But as I sat there working things out in my mind, thinking about my life and what my second act could be, the quote kept popping up in my brain.

I thought to myself:

"There's no way that's true! It can't be." I figured if you're lucky enough to live long enough to try, then it can be done. Heck, it has been done by many. Now, I happen to love reading Fitzgerald's work; mostly for his prose, first and foremost.

Just from what I know of his work, I couldn't imagine he would really believe that. So I decided to dig a little deeper into the issue. I found a link to a piece written in 1995 by Earle Palmer Browne about the quote for the American Journalism Review. In it, he points out that "not only did Fitzgerald never publish the line--it was found out of context in a mishmash of jottings for his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon--but that it's possible the phrase 'second act' has to do with the old three-act plays of the time, and thus the quote could mean that there are no transition periods in the hectic lives of Americans."

That could very well be the idea that sparked the unpublished line. Only Fitzgerald knew for sure.

One thing I do know is that I would love to start over--not only from a career perspective, but with life in general. In reality, it would actually be more like I'm getting a late start, but in essence it's the same thing. If I am anything, I am certainly a late-bloomer (assuming I'll eventually blossom); and judging by this interesting piece in the New Yorker from October 2008, there is hope after all from a career/occupational perspective.

Three things from that article that gave me reason to stay optimistic:

"Forty-two per cent of [Robert] Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty."

"Mark Twain published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at forty-nine."

"Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe at fifty-eight."

There are actually many, many different examples, but in reading this piece, those examples stood out to me. While I'm on the subject, I should mention that during my visit to Barnes and Noble today, I grabbed one of the books that caught my eye as I walked around. It was called Late Bloomers by Brendan Gill.

I gathered a few more books (I can never pick just one), then got a muffin with some coffee. As I sat quietly drinking espresso in my little two-seat bistro table, I initially scanned the pages for interesting stories that might inspire me.

People watching is a spectator hobby of mine that I often indulge wherever I am. In between moments of reading and drinking espresso, I occasionally looked up to observe my surroundings. I lifted my eyes as a thirty-something year-old mother shuffled by with her young daughter in arms. The little girl couldn't have been more than 3-4 years-old, but as soon as I looked up, there she was, with a big, shinning, adorable smile on her face.

She was just smiling at me as if she was so happy and excited to see me, for no particular reason. I don't know about you, but seeing such a sweet and innocent face light up to smile at me that way is a sure way to brighten my day. It's the little things that often matter the most, and sometimes, they can truly make your day better.

I grinned back at her with the same enthusiastically genuine smile that she gave me--which was a gift from the angels, I concluded. As I digested the moment with an unexpected appreciation, I placed my cup back on the table with what felt like a content expression on my face. I sat back in my chair, and took a second look to see if the little one was still within view, when I heard the voice of an older gentleman sitting directly across from me.

"Late Bloomers, that looks interesting."

He was an older man, older than me anyway. Somewhere in his late fifties or early sixties. His face was similar to some of the old black-and-white photos I've seen of Red Cloud, a Native American chief of the Sioux from the 1800s. He had an indomitable and astute presence about him, yet his tone was friendly and affable. His shoulder-length, black hair was straight and peppered with gray streaks. His face had a light golden-brown glow to it, with the types of wrinkles around his eyes that you get from spending a lot of time squinting in the sun.

He spoke at a even pace, like a man with plenty of time on his hands and no reason to hurry. In fact, he had a captivating way of delivering his words, deliberately pausing between sentences. I sensed that this man was probably a great story-teller.

"Ah, yes. I, uh... I'm thinking of making some life changes, and thought this might spark some motivation and encouragement. I'm kind of a late bloomer myself," I responded.

He looked at me, nodded his head in acknowledgment, and said, "I can see in your face that you're not only relating to the book quite well, but judging by your facial expression, you seemed both determined and concerned."

"Yeah, it's uh... it's been on my mind quite a bit lately," I said.

"I've known many people who were what you might call 'late bloomers' myself," he responded. "But if you don't mind me saying, don't beat yourself up about it too much." He continued, "You appear to be laboring under a misconception that our culture seems to constantly beat into our heads: that one must somehow be amazingly successful and wealthy before they hit their 30s. Especially men."

He paused for a moment to drink his hot tea, and continued, "I remember speaking of this with old friends when I was much younger. Success comes in many forms, and it used to be something that was expected by the time you reached your late forties; but the bar seems to be getting higher and the age expectation seems to keep getting younger and younger as the years go by. It's a very destructive meme. Along the lines of the 'eternal beauty' nonsense that women have to endure."

I sat in silence for a moment, having just had a stranger put the issue into an excellent perspective for me. I looked at his wise, gray eyes and nodded in agreement, then thanked him for sharing his thoughts. I decided to close the book, put it down on the table, and continue my conversation with the stranger who reminded me of Red Cloud.

Feeling as though a heavy weight had been lifted off my shoulders, at least for the moment, my mind was cleared of trouble. I no longer needed the book for encouragement, and I was able to sit back in my chair and simply enjoy the moment for what it was:

A relaxing moment in a book store with angels in my midst.

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