I love the idea that someone can reinvent herself. Sometimes this comes with age, economic circumstance, divorce, boredom, or inspiration. Think of the stay-at-home mother who takes a new job after her children have flown from the nest, the down-sized employee who starts a small business. These reinventions can be scary and bold, exciting and new. No matter the cause, what comes in these second acts is inspiring. It can be as simple as finding one’s voice, one’s purpose, one’s calling, even if it is the second or third or thirtieth time around. Sometimes the second act has nothing to do with a job or vocation, but everything to do with finding passion and courage.
Julia Child was 49 before her first cookbook was published and 50 before her first cooking show aired on public television. Ronald Reagan, after a less than distinguished career as an actor, made his foray into politics and was elected governor of California at age 58 and became president of the U.S. at 69. You do not have to share political views with the man or eat French food to pause in amazement at these feats. Mark Bittman, my favorite food writer had careers as teacher and taxi driver before writing numerous cookbooks and articles for the New York Times. My favorite actress Gwyneth Paltrow started a website and wrote a cookbook. Sometimes reinvention invites public ridicule (think actors turned singers and singers turned actors), but it’s a step I admire.
There are many less famous folks who have equally or more surprising Plan Bs. My parents bought a small town grocery store as their Plan B. It only lasted for four years, but it became our family’s bedrock for trying new things and I respect their attempt at small town entrepreneurship to this day. Both went on to successful third acts, my mother as teacher, my father as bank lender and independent examiner. My mother is enjoying her fourth act in retirement as community and church volunteer. My father, on his fifth or sixth act, is re-employed by the federal government examining banks and considers his next steps in retirement next year. My good friend from college, Myla, started raising bees for honey, won a state fair prize, and started her own online business selling honey and honey-related products. A friend I knew from work quit her job to go back to school to learn the art and science of beer brewing.
It soothes me to think that I might only be on my first act, that the second or third act might be more fulfilling and thrilling. On this day I ponder a stint in the Peace Corps, weigh the costs of going back to school for a teaching degree, and try to gain some discipline from writing this blog to become a writer. Maybe my second act will be a combination of all three. I look to the second act in my physical life, to go from a flabby and sedentary to become a fitter, faster woman.
Two books that I’ve read in the last year make me think of another woman’s reinvention. Isabel Gillies is the author of Happens Every Day which I discovered by accident on the bargain table during a spring browse at my local bookstore. The title and cover caught my eye, while the words inside captured my heart. I curled up with the book that evening and couldn’t let it go. The memoir, written in disarming and funny candor, recalls the three months in which her first marriage ended. Day-to-day details are interwoven with the grief, anger, and survivor skills of a woman I would like to meet. Gillies does not ask for a pity-party and never dwells in despair. Instead, she sets about fighting to save her marriage and family of two small boys. When that doesn’t work, she fights to save herself and her friendship with her soon-to-be ex-spouse, keeping her family intact, if in a different shape. This is no dragging in the dirt, blame the ex type of memoir. The author pauses as she looks back on what seemed to her like the perfect life, to find the cracks and fissures that led to the divorce.
In articles and subsequent interviews, Isabel Gillies seems more surprised than most that she had written a book that was not only published, but became a bestseller. Her second book, A Year and Six Seconds, equally beautiful and heart-wrenching was published in August. When you read her books, you learn her surprise isn’t false humility. Gillies was a pretty, blond actress with dyslexia who struggled in school and then married an academic poetry professor. At times, she’s a bit self-deprecating, and you can see that it’s a ploy she has often used. I love, though, when she calls herself out on it. She discovers or remembers she is smart and strong. The follow-up memoir recounts the days after the divorce, the move with her two young boys back to New York City to live with her parents. She not only picks up the pieces from her divorce, but with bravery, honesty, and heartbreak, she begins to build a new life. A TV actor turned insightful writer. She finds new love and words.
In one of the books, she recounts her first husband struggling with the dedication to his academic book, one that “only a few will ever read.” She has become a bestselling author by not selling herself short. One can see several steps in her development of her second act: a new marriage and a blending of two families, a new career and a blending of her acting and writing.
Cheers to those pondering second acts! Applause to those forced to work with Plan B! Kudos for those who make us reconsider our second impressions!