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I escaped from corporate America.
Gina Greenlee had been a career/achievement/adrenaline junkie till a job transfer at age 32 deposited her in a part of Connecticut where the excitement potential for single black professional women began and ended with posting recycling signs. "They call this the Land of Steady Habits," she says. She was thrown in on herself, lonely, but through long hours of reflection she came to admit she hated her job as a strategic planner, had been buzzing on activity to distract herself from herself, and really wanted to become a writer. Risking financial insecurity and parental disapproval, she did. Recently, she documented a five-month, round-the-world trip in a column for The Hartford Courant. "I think hyperbusyness is the cocaine of the 21st century," she says.

I started exhibiting African-American quilts.
Kyra Hicks also had a smoking career, in marketing, but when the dot-com bubble burst and she lost two jobs, she threw herself into a side interest: African-American quilts. She now exhibits hers in galleries, has published a sourcebook, Black Threads, and is researching another book, about an early American second chance—a slave named Martha Ricks who, after immigrating to Liberia in 1830, nursed a dream for 50 years that she'd one day present a quilt to Queen Victoria. A half century on, she did.

I became a horse whisperer.
Jacqui Broderick, an Englishwoman who lives in Ireland, had a luxe life, replete with gardeners and extravagant trips. She was married to a man who gave her every reason to think she was hopelessly stupid in the myriad ways he belittled her. On the day he decked her, she called the police and he cleared out; she now leads horse pack trips through the Connemara Mountains.

Passion served a crucial function in all these evolutions. It was a propellant out of darkness. For here's another truth, hinted at in the word pathos: By and large, second chances come out of hardship. Though the payoffs are enormous, they're not for the fainthearted. "There has to be a certain amount of irrepressibility," a former immigration officer named Jim Nesmith said of the people who've successfully reestablished themselves in America. That's true for immigrants from any hard, joyless place, not just ones who've traversed an ocean. "You have to cross a bridge of anxiety," Clifton observes of anyone who's started over. "You have to be willing to be unreasonable," Levithan says.

Next: Getting a second chance through hard times

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