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What strikes me the most about Martindell's story, when she relates it in her Princeton townhouse hung with Buddhist scrolls and the painter's vibrant landscapes, is how it traces a circle, how when she fulfilled her intellectual promise, her life fell into place. She claimed the pearl of great price, to cite a fable told me by New York psychologist Francis Clifton, who uses classical imagery in his work with depression and cancer patients:

Many years ago, a young man in his teens set out on a journey through the mountains. He'd walked for a day and a night when he came upon a cave covered by brambles. Rushing up, he cleared away the vines, and as light streamed in he was dumbfounded to see the largest, most lustrous pearl imaginable. He reached for it, then quickly jumped back as he realized the pearl was grasped in the claws of a ferocious dragon. The dragon's eyes burned yellow. It roared. He turned and fled.

Returning home, he went into his father's business. His life prospered, but he never forgot the cave. Many years later, he decided to see if he could find it again and set out for the mountains. He walked for a day and night, then lo and behold! he spied the cave. Creeping up, he slowly pulled back the vines. As the light streamed in, he was astonished to see that the dragon was only a tiny creature. Reaching down, he took the pearl.

"That is the pearl of great price," Clifton says. "The great price is the struggle to be true to yourself."

I was meeting with Clifton and Martindell and others with firsthand knowledge of this particular treasure hunt because I'd set out on a journey of sorts myself: to understand more about lives that are radically remade. My interest stemmed partly from the same source as everyone else's—our fascination with people who, through effort or stroke of luck, manage to start over. It's American history, the ground our country was established on. Who else were the founders but second-chance artists? It's the American dream, the notion that you can reinvent yourself. As increasing numbers of jobs crumble and increasing numbers of people need to know how to pick up the pieces, a flood of books with titles like Second Acts and What Should I Do with My Life? and Double Lives have hit the stores. "Our culture's designed around everyone's having a firstborn life," says psychotherapist and AIDS counselor Robert Levithan, referring to William James's theory of first and second borns. Firstborns are the people who sail unjolted through life. Second borns are the ones who slam into jarring transformations; of the two, James considered them the more fortunate. "Now everyone has to face this: divorce or financial or career change. Second-chance lives are for everybody," Levithan says. He himself is a definite second born. He's been a performing artist and a quality-control consultant.

My interest in this slam-dance terrain extends beyond the academic. Eight years ago, I'd had a second chance so rattling, so fierce and unyielding that for a long time after I still couldn't make sense of it. Told compressed, it sounds like a made-for-TV-movie (those grindingly cheerful second-chance tales conflated with lotto dreams), but essentially it was this: For a time I'd had ravaging stage-four cancer, not a prayer of surviving, then for no reason anyone could say, it lifted. Just like that—call it miracle or fluke. It's impossible to describe how elated I was, or how unhinged. For if doctors couldn't explain what happened, how could I? How could I begin to trust my chance?

Because I couldn't; for years I couldn't fully come back to life. In limbo, I had the sensation of being muffled in plasticine. I could see out. Nobody could get in. I'd gotten too good at living in the present when that was all I could be certain I had. Now when it was reasonable to make plans, I didn't. Life washed over me. I was batted by the waves. "You always kept your arms crossed," a friend said recently. It was infuriating to know I'd been given a shining, improbable chance and watch helplessly as I fumbled it.

Then, coup de foudre, I fell in love—with Hindi, of all things, when a newspaper sent me to India to report on local medicine. Passion roots in the oddest places. This one branched into a consuming hunger for the poetry of foreign metaphor, for the sense it gave me of being pulled into a far and dazzling world, word by confounding word. I was, literally, swept away: After two years of classes in New York, I talked my way into a graduate program in India and took off to study for a year.

Next: The power of reinvention

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