Third Acts

This morning I received an email from George Wingate, an artist and my first roommate in Manhattan oh so many years ago. He sent me an excerpt from a page torn from an old New Yorker that he found while cleaning his studio barn. Kenneth Tynan comments on the death of Janet Flanner in 1978 who, writing under the pen name Genet, was an éminence grise for many of the American ex-pat crowd in Paris during the 1920s and 30s:

Janet Flanner has died, aged 86…Enthusiasm, even at 80, never failed her for the promise of the day’s doings…She always urged me to visit aging celebrities and question them before they died: “Tax their brains…It’s like lobsters. Go for the head–there’s tasty chewing there.” As there was in Janet’s, on which I contentedly fed whenever we met. One consolation, I suppose, is that here at least, is a life-enhancer who outlived the shits–an American life with a perfectly resolved third act.

Turns out I had planned to see George today at his Edenic retreat north of Boston with my niece Rachel, visiting from Utah. While he continues to paint jewel-like landscapes and evocative still lifes, he also has turned his artist’s hand and eye to the land that surrounds his late 18th century home. What was once a large nondescript yard with a clay tennis court in slow decline is now an exuberant array of flower fields, stream beds, tree borders and trails.

We sat on his deck overlooking this extraordinary patchwork of color and texture, and continued the discussion of third acts and later-in-life epiphanies.

“When I was 25, before I became an artist, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or for what I was best suited,” George told us. “I took an occupational guidance test and was advised to consider being a gardener.

“My response to this suggestion was not positive. I felt like I was being told that I wasn’t good for anything but raking leaves.

“I wish that career counselor had taken the time to unpack that idea for me and suggest that I consider some variants on that theme, like landscape architecture and landscape design. Now, so many years later, I have found my way right back to that place. I AM a gardener.”

And a remarkable one, to be sure. Because Rachel is young, the fact that it took George many decades to figure out what work feels whole and integrated for him seems wrong or unfair. While it is age appropriate for any 22 year old to see it that way, I had a very different response. George has found his “perfectly resolved third act.” And for me, the fact that he found it and can have it makes all the difference.

8 Replies to “Third Acts”

  1. Diana Johnson says:

    I love the gardens. In my times of transition, when I think of myself as part of the universe more so than my situation in the world, I find myself drawn to the earth, to nurture it and coax the beauty of life from it, more so than any other activity. When I was younger I thought of weeding as something Martha Stewart’s staff should do; now I find it a slow contemplative exercise that I have the patience for. Which should I keep? Which should I discard? I consider each seed, each root. Some I have let grown to flower before I decided to weed it out. I am slower to judge, but I recognize a repeat offender! In my “third act” I am much more equipped to be the architect of my landscape.

  2. Ah, the wisewoman of the garden. That’s you, Diana…

  3. Bravo for third acts well performed!

    Maybe some people who find their third act more fulfilling than life’s previous scenes would say that the third wouldn’t be as wonderful with out the first two that helped build the foundation. I agree…
    finding the satisfying work and having the opportunity to pursue it are precious gifts.

    I love the quote from the New Yorker! Thanks to George for sharing that and for sharing his gardens and thoughts!

    And, yes, there is nothing like the garden to help us recognize our place in the universe. It is real life.

  4. Insightful words from another garden wisewoman…thanks Pam.

  5. This is fabulous. A true artist. If only he could come and apply his magic to my acres. (sigh)

  6. Y, I hope George will read your comment and feel the sense of accomplishment he deserves…it is an amazing feat.

  7. […] As he deserves to be. Coming out of relative isolation (Merwin lives in paradisiacal Maui, withdrawing from the demi-monde of literary jostling and into his Zen Buddhism) he is now doing his own version of the Third Act thing (a favorite theme of mine and written about here.) […]

  8. […] of what is an exquisite English style summer garden (which I have written about in an earlier post here) and lots of songbirds. Conversations were easy and unforced. I felt the coming together of these […]

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