As Logan recovered, Lovelace juggled caring for him with the demands of her business, which she moved in 2005 to a larger space and rechristened Embrace, eventually hiring a staff of 50. But in 2008 came more terrible news: Her 12-year-old daughter, Kenna, had a brain tumor. Suddenly the family was back at the hospital—and in the most terrifying kind of limbo. But Lovelace tried to remain upbeat, whether by writing in her journal or wearing a soothing scent. "When my son was sick, our pediatrician told my husband and me that we could choose whether to give up or stay strong," Lovelace says. "I always remembered that."
The Christmas after Kenna's successful surgery, Lovelace felt overwhelmed with gratitude—and ready for a change. She decided that her next venture, in addition to allowing her more time at home, would promote the healing powers of a positive attitude. "There is positivity in all of us," she says. "Sometimes we just need a little something to bring it out." A self-professed product junkie, Lovelace began working with a local chemist on a line of fragrances that would spark pleasant memories and conjure far-flung fantasies, helping wearers take charge of their outlook. She used her savings to painstakingly source ingredients, partnering with a manufacturer to produce a perfume, body wash, scrub, lotion, and creams. In 2009 she bid a teary goodbye to Embrace's staff. Then she started cold-calling retailers like Henri Bendel—and was soon in New York showcasing her brand, Lifetherapy, at one of the store's popular trunk shows.
Now Lovelace's line is sold all over the country, but it has made the biggest difference at home, where she says she relishes weekends "lying around in my pajamas with my kids"—both now healthy. "A body wash won't change anyone's life," Lovelace says, "but it can boost your mood. I want to share what a little determination and positivity can do."
From corporate world to art world
Two years earlier, in 2001, Cooper had been inspired when her friend and coworker, Dee Rees, quit her job to study filmmaking. Now Rees, who was about to begin shooting a short film about an unarmed boy who gets gunned down by the police, mentioned that she needed a coproducer to help schedule crew and corral equipment. Cooper began devoting evenings and weekends to Rees's project. "Film producing was similar to what I had been doing as a brand manager," she says. "I was making sure the pieces were in place to get something produced—but this time I was a lot more passionate about the product."
Soon Rees called on Cooper again to produce her thesis, Pariah, a 27-minute drama about a girl coming out as a lesbian in Brooklyn. Cooper felt a tremendous connection to the story. "I had been out to my friends and family for years," she says, "but I identified with the character's struggle." In 2007 she quit the corporate world and cashed in her 401(k) to help finance the film, which won the Audience Award at the 2007 Los Angeles Film Festival. When it came time to translate the short into a full-length picture, Cooper wooed investors and coordinated day-to-day tasks like tracking the budget and setting the shoot schedule. Last year Focus Features bought Pariah at the Sundance Film Festival, and the film went on to play in select cities to rave reviews.
Cooper and Rees are currently developing a cable TV drama called The Ville—a one-hour show set in present-day Nashville—and Cooper feels confident she's found her calling. "An artist can come to me with a vision, and I have the skills to pull together all the components. I call myself the dream-maker, because they have the idea, and I'm the workhorse who makes it happen. I love that." —Penny Wrenn
Next: From fund-raiser to Reiki master
Exhausted, Flanagan decided to try Reiki, a Japanese healing technique used to increase one's "ki", or life force energy. After her first class, she felt calm and energized. "There was a lightness and balance that really stayed with me," she says.
In 2008 Flanagan was diagnosed with a thyroid disorder that caused debilitating fatigue. "I knew my body was telling me to slow down," she recalls. Flanagan thought about her now regular Reiki sessions, which had helped her transform her eating habits and even make time to date. She wondered if she could add more Reiki to her life—and in the process, help others heal, too.
Flanagan decided to get certified as a Reiki master, which involved completing 600 hours of coursework on weekends and vacation days. She covered the cost with her savings. "It was pretty intense," she says of the training, "but it always felt like the right thing." Six months later, she started marketing her services via an e-mail newsletter to all her contacts and seeing private clients in the evenings. In 2009, three years after her first Reiki class, Flanagan quit her fund-raising job and opened her own practice in a small but tranquil space in downtown Manhattan, where she now sees about 15 clients a week. She's also found more time and energy to pursue passions like poetry (her poems have recently been published in several literary journals).
Of course, Flanagan's tendency to over-exert herself hasn't magically disappeared, but now she prioritizes her mental well-being. "People come to me with deeply personal stuff, from stress to anxiety to depression," she says, "and I have to be fully present. If I schedule too many sessions in a day, I lose focus." Flanagan believes her harried past makes her a more empathetic practitioner. "I love knowing I've helped someone take the first steps toward finding balance and peace," she says, "because I know firsthand what that struggle is like." —Lara Kristen Herndon
Next: From stand-up to souped-up
Polon returned to her hometown of Washington, D.C., to regroup, but "I got so depressed," she recalls. "I was really struggling with what I want to be when I grow up." Polon, a health nut who had recently become a vegan, happened to pick up The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's best-seller about where our food comes from. Inspired, she thought of her mother, Marilyn, an amazing home cook with a reputation among friends for her tasty soups. "She'd always been ahead of her time, cooking healthfully and with whole grains," says Polon. So she decided to lure her mother out of retirement to help her launch a vegan soup delivery business.
By 2008 the Polons had drummed up 500 e-mail addresses for a humorous newsletter that advertised each week's soups; customers could order pints or quarts to be delivered to their door. Under the pen name "Soupergirl," a hero who brings fresh, locally sourced soup to the masses, Polon described whimsical concoctions like the Back-to-School Blues Black Bean and Corn Soup her mother cooked for her as a child ("By Sunday night, I'd be wandering around the house wearing a cocktail dress, singing Nina Simone songs, holding a martini glass full of apple juice," she wrote). The more she hammed it up, the more her audience grew; to date, she has nearly 4,000 readers, hundreds of whom order soup weekly via the Soupergirl Web site.
Last September the Polons opened their first brick-and-mortar soup shop, in Washington, D.C. "There's an absurdity to owning a business, like when someone calls up to demand a refund on croutons," says Polon. "You have to laugh through the chaos. That would be harder had I not spent so much time in stand-up." —Kelly Dinardo
Next: From scientist to fashion designer
Woolley had hoped to earn a PhD in neuroscience, but abandoned the pursuit in 2006. Three years earlier, she'd been diagnosed with Addison's disease—a disorder that interferes with the production of adrenal hormones—and her symptoms were worsening. "I constantly felt disoriented, like I'd been woken up at 3 A.M.," she says. When doctors told Woolley she required intense treatment, she moved in with her parents in Salt Lake City.
"I needed a project to keep me sane," says Woolley, who had loved clothes since childhood, and had even written "fashion designer" as her desired profession on an eighth-grade career-matching exam (the results said she was best suited to science). Remembering this, she ordered a copy of The Fashion Designer Survival Guide. Reading the book gave her a rush. "It all suddenly seemed doable," Woolley says. Soon she secured a loan and found a manufacturer. Her design vision was simple: dresses with vintage cuts ("They flatter the waist, which is great for shorter people like me") made of fabric with some stretch.
In December 2006, Woolley and a partner launched Shabby Apple, with ten work-to-weekend dresses, like a gray T-shirt dress with puffed shoulders and a ruched-sleeve mock-turtleneck dress in green—all priced below $100. Her health beginning to stabilize, she filled orders from her parents' house.
Since then Shabby Apple has relocated to a warehouse nearby; in 2011 the line generated approximately $3 million in sales. Woolley runs the company remotely (she lives with her husband and new baby in New York), phoning or Skyping into brainstorming sessions with her team. This creative collaboration is something Woolley says she never had in the lab: "It's the part of my job I enjoy most. It's like we're solving a big puzzle."—Jessica Sylvester
Next: From fund-raiser to chocolatier
Eleven years ago, Hickey's work wasn't so delicious. As director of development for a San Francisco–based medical society, she spent her days in a windowless office. "I was proud of what I did," she says, "but my self-expression was limited to fund-raising proposals and spreadsheets." Hickey spent her free time reading cookbooks; when she baked a wedding cake for a friend, a chef attending the reception was so wowed that she suggested Hickey rethink her career.
In 2003 Hickey finally took the advice. After cashing in an IRA, she enrolled in a pastry program at Paris's Le Cordon Bleu, where she was especially enamored of the lessons on chocolate. "I had never known it could be such an art form," she says.
Back in the Bay Area, she landed a job at a chocolate-themed café—but set her sights on a bigger goal: "I wanted my own business," she says. So in 2010, she and her husband moved across the country with their two sons to open a chocolate shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, not far from Hickey's hometown of Greensboro. Today customers who buy her Twenty Degrees Chocolates (a reference to the latitude where cacao trees grow) remark on the artistic flair of her creations, which have included a fresh take on crème brûlée (caramelized white chocolate embellished with gold filigree) and chai truffles imprinted with a design resembling Indian fabric.
Hickey is inspired by everything from her travels to her favorite films (a bonbon topped with a bowling pin is her homage to The Big Lebowski) and loves making recommendations. For those with adventurous palates, she suggests chocolates perfumed with basil; if someone wants a romantic gift, she reaches for Champagne truffles. "My work used to be something you could sum up on a sheet of paper," says Hickey. "Now what I create is tangible—it's a way for people to indulge themselves or express their love. That's very satisfying." —Jessica Stockton Clancy
Next: From teacher to alpaca breeder
Osborne didn't always oversee the mating habits of 63 curious—and occasionally unruly—small ruminants. For more than a decade, she led sing-alongs and taught math with building blocks. But while she loved her first-graders, her school was increasingly obsessed with standardized tests. "It felt as though we were just teaching the kids how to fill in bubbles on exams," she says.
That's when a magazine story about alpaca farming caught her eye. With their scrunchy faces and inquisitive gaze, the alpacas—South American relatives of the llama—were adorable, and sounded like a great investment. Their fiber, uncannily warm and soft, commands a small fortune (an alpaca sweater can cost hundreds of dollars). Could these goofy-looking creatures be the career change she was looking for? "I'd never even raised kittens," says Osborne, "but I became obsessed with alpacas."
Over the next year she took farming classes and attended "shearing days" and auctions. Then in 2005 Osborne's husband bought her a young male alpaca named Crown Royal (his previous owner said he'd once slurped a mixed drink at a wedding). The beast's caramel fur was gorgeous, and his smile disarming—but the couple had nowhere to keep him. So they found a breathtaking three-acre spread nearby and christened it the Alpaca Hacienda. By this time Osborne had quit her job; she now earns the equivalent of her teaching salary selling hand-spun yarn online (along with boarding and breeding services). She also still interacts with kids—when they come to the ranch to learn about her herd. "I feel so fortunate to fill my days with these gentle animals," she says. "What can I say? I'm having the time of my life." —Aaron Rowe
Next: From housekeeper to eco-activist...
Her interest became personal when she connected the asthma that plagued her and her grandchildren—and was landing local kids in the hospital at a rate seven times the California average—to the diesel exhaust spewing from nearby freeways and the truck-clogged Port of Oakland, leaving a scrim of "black stuff" on parked cars. Through a local nonprofit, Gordon helped organize a project to gather data on truck traffic and started speaking out at government forums. She logged thousands of hours bringing attention to her community's plight, all while juggling part-time jobs to make ends meet.
In 2004 she cofounded the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) to educate local residents about pollution and empower them to fight for necessary protections. The group's hard work paid off in 2005, when it got the city to pass an ordinance rerouting trucks away from residential areas to main roads. Four years ago, the mayor showed his appreciation by appointing Gordon a commissioner of the Port of Oakland, where she now works with shipping companies to negotiate air-quality plans; she's also been named to the advisory committee for the EPA's Clean Air Act. "If you're not at the table," Gordon likes to say, "you'll end up on the menu."
In 2006 Gordon was able to quit her part-time jobs to focus on WOEIP full-time. These days, instead of dusting windowsills, she's drafting neighbors into a new study that tracks air quality using portable sensors to measure pollutants on different blocks. She laughs about the unexpected turn her life has taken. "I'm telling you, none of this was on my radar," she says. "It was something I liked doing, and that people could benefit from. So I embraced it." —Lauren Aaronson
Next: A life in the line of fire
Backpacking for months through Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Burma—and later the Balkans, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Egypt—she snapped thousands of photos. "As a kid, I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer," she says. "When I left my all-consuming job and cleared my head, I realized taking pictures was still what I wanted to do."
By 2003 the invasion of Iraq was dominating the airwaves. Everett made a gut decision "to go where the news was happening," she says, hoping it would help her get her work published. She drove over the border from Jordan with a fellow journalist, and after she met an army media person, got embedded with the 101st Airborne. When U.S. forces killed Saddam Hussein's sons in Mosul that July, Everett was in the right place at the right time. She showed her photos to an NBC producer, who ran them on Dateline.
Since then Everett has worked in Pakistan, Darfur, the Congo, and the Gaza Strip. Eschewing the sensationalized scenes of explosions and gunfire favored by many news outlets, she tries to capture war's more mundane human dramas: a farmer reaping a modest harvest in ravaged Darfur, a rape victim refugee starting a sewing business in the Congo. "I'm drawn to under-the-radar stories that have passion, hope, and optimism," she says. Everett's time in Sudan inspired her to cofound Care Through Action, which raises funds for women and children who are victims of human rights abuses; her photos help fund the charity. "I don't go to places just because they're risky," she says. "I go because I believe the world needs to know what's going on. I want to tell stories for people who can't." —Bill Fink
Next: A fragrant whiff of success
Two years ago, Tawse, 39, had a very different Los Angeles existence: A freelance researcher for unauthorized biographies of Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie, she spent her days making calls and trawling the Web, "trying to find Angelina's junior high boyfriends," she explains. Though she felt a rush of pride with each new scoop, Tawse acknowledges it was "weird" probing strangers' lives so deeply. So she and her husband, Peter—a concert producer—started brainstorming ventures that would bring more stability and deeper psychological rewards.
Inspiration struck while Tawse, an enthusiastic cook, struggled with a recipe for tava, a casserole that Peter's Armenian mother made for him as a child. It called for exotic spices like Aleppo pepper and Urfa biber, but Tawse tried to wing it with what she had in her cupboard. The result was underwhelming. "I realized maybe other people had this problem, too," she says. There was no one-stop Mecca for international spices in the city. But a few months' research confirmed that they could be purchased cheaply by sourcing directly from importers, not distributors.
The couple opened Spice Station in December 2009, using their savings and money from a few investors. "It exploded within weeks," says Tawse. ("Tarragon sells for more than $17 an ounce at the supermarket. We sell it for $3," she adds.) Customers often pop in for a specific seasoning, then while away the afternoon, chatting with Tawse about the wonders of turmeric or relaxing on the patio near a lending library of cookbooks. "I feel like I'm selling something that's helping to enrich lives," Tawse says. "People get crazy when we're out of ghost chili salt." —Monica Corcoran
Next: Brewing up a bubbly new life
Jason, a sculptor, suggested they give up their hectic lives in Laguna Beach, California, move to Hawaii, and start a soda company—one with old-fashioned glass bottles, the kind he loved as a kid. Karen initially called him crazy, but she had to admit that her job as a marketing manager for a global engineering firm was losing its fizz. "The company was laying off people who had been there 20, 30 years," she says. "I hated that we were all so expendable."
In 2003, just two years after their Hawaiian getaway, the couple (now married) returned to Waialua with $100,000 of their savings. Renting the industrial kitchen in the town's sugar mill, they launched Waialua Soda Works, purveyors of artisanal pop infused with local Maui sugar and vanilla. Workdays stretched until 2 A.M., with glass bottles shattering as they mastered the machinery. But island stores soon took an interest, and the Campbells graduated from five-gallon to 200-gallon tanks and expanded their flavor offerings (mango, lilikoi). Their soda "is meant to be sipped, not guzzled," says Karen. "It really transports you to Hawaii for a moment."
After a few years, Costco came calling: "It was awesome," says Karen. "Except I had to turn them down." Without capital for equipment and raw materials, the couple couldn't supply a large retailer. Seeking investors, Karen made presentations all over America before the leader of an Oahu investing group happened to taste the soda; he phoned the Campbells the same day. "That was the first night I slept well in a long time," says Karen.
Today the soda can be found in more than 1,000 U.S. stores (including Whole Foods). Karen might be the hardest-working woman in Waialua, but "it's not a blur like it used to be," she says. "I enjoy every day. I have every day." By that she means she has the flexibility to spend time with Audrey, 3, and Oscar, 4. "They make it worthwhile."
And doing it all in Hawaii? She smiles. "That helps." —Kathryn Drury Wagner
Next: Finding safe havens for ex-racehorses
Reardon's fiancé also felt unfulfilled at his own think tank position; a 2001 visit to the artsy college town of Austin planted the seed of a life-changing idea. "I love the Texas big-sky thing," Reardon says, "and Austin was full of people doing mundane jobs by day and fascinating things by night: playing drums in a band, painting murals, running nonprofits." Within a year, the couple had withdrawn some savings, rented an apartment there, and gotten married. "It was a big jump into the unknown," says Reardon, who found herself—at age 40—teaching horseback riding at a summer camp for $7 an hour while her husband reinvented himself as a Web site designer. "We barely scraped by. But we began to see ourselves differently, as people who do bold things and stick with them."
Case in point: When Reardon discovered there was no CANTER-like organization nearby, she started one herself. In 2003 she leased a pasture for $20 a month and launched LOPE (LoneStar Outreach to Place Ex-Racers), a nonprofit rehabilitation facility and online service that finds new digs for former racehorses—more than 800 to date—with the help of donations from individuals, foundations, and local companies. Situated on 26 grassy acres dotted with wildflowers, LOPE Ranch (which Reardon now owns) is an oasis of rest and recovery for its equine guests, many of whom have suffered serious injuries—and might otherwise have been euthanized or sent to slaughterhouses.
"Racehorses are known for their heart, stoicism, and commitment to giving all they have down to the wire," Reardon says. "I think that's why I love them—because I want to be like them. It's never too late to become what you might have been." —Wolf Schneider
Next: Basking in the sweet smell of success
But just three years ago, her living conditions were a nightmare. She was staying in an unfinished basement with rotting wood floors; once, a raccoon broke in and rummaged through her belongings. Tired of scraping by as a musician and stagehand, McKeever took a job with her local school district, maintaining its Web site and designing newsletters. With her earnings, she bought a modest two-bedroom—but while her home was comfortable at last, McKeever felt unsatisfied at work. "I was a creative type, used to doing my own thing," she says.
Browsing online one evening, McKeever discovered the arts and crafts mecca Etsy and started plotting an exit strategy. "I got a hundred dollars' worth of stuff together for lip balm, which is relatively easy to make," she says. "It was a good way to test the entrepreneurial waters." Just six months after posting her first wares on Etsy—with her forest-scented repertoire growing to include perfumes and bath salts—McKeever was able to quit her day job.
For Strange Women's treasures are packaged in recycled or biodegradable containers with ornate, Victorian-style paper labels that McKeever designs herself. Her ingredients are sustainably sourced; you won't find anything that spewed out of an oil rig in her catalog. "I think a lot of people don't know what real plants smell like," she says. "A lip balm from a big-box store is likely petroleum inside a tube made from petroleum."
Naturally, McKeever finds her ideas in the great outdoors, often on long hikes with her boyfriend. Her fragrance Winter Kitty—which has notes of vetiver, Douglas fir, and mint—was inspired by the smoky, cold-clean scent of her cat's fur when he returned from a wander in the snow; the perfume oil Moss & Ivy is the result of recent travels in rural Ireland. "Nature itself," she says, "has so much more to offer than anything you can find in a chemical lab." —Aaron Rowe
Next: How two basketball coaches became entrepreneurs
It was an impulsive suggestion—but Walvius, who was ready for a new challenge after 18 years as a head coach, found herself calling the dean of the university's business school the next day. Soon the lifelong jocks were meeting with students to conduct market research. "I had never taken any business classes—I was a psychology major!" says Marciniak, a onetime National Championship MVP at the University of Tennessee. Yet by the following spring, they'd quit their jobs to focus full-time on Sheex: luxury bedding made of breathable, cutting-edge performance fabrics that keep sleepers from overheating in the night and waking up sweaty.
The women admit it was hard to abandon the financial security of Division I coaching gigs, and even harder to lose "the opportunity to make an impact on young people's lives," as Walvius says. Their learning curve was steep, she adds, whether they were researching factories ("We got hideous sample after hideous sample—stuff would come back with gold trim") or making an ill-fated attempt at "sexy, suggestive" marketing materials ("My mom was appalled").
A factory in Southern California finally sent them sheets that turned their dreams into perfect reality. "That was a big day for us," says Walvius, who monitors the Sheex bottom line while Marciniak builds relationships with business mentors and investors. (Or, as Marciniak puts it, "Susan is the play-by-play announcer and I'm the color analyst.") This spring Sheex rolls out in Bed, Bath & Beyond stores and on HSN, and the founders are also planning a sleepwear line. "We asked ourselves, 'Are we going to run a small business or build a championship-caliber company?'" says Walvius. The answer was obvious. "In our culture, we compete." —Meredith Bryan
Next: How a police officer found her calling as a Buddhist teacher
Seventeen years later, Maples had traded her crisp police blues for earth-toned robes when Nhat Hanh ordained her as a Buddhist dharma teacher. As head of the Center for Mindfulness & Justice, founded in 2009 and based out of her Madison home, Maples travels the continent leading workshops and retreats for cops and others in the criminal justice system—where she spent 25 years variously serving as a police captain, head of probation, and assistant attorney general.
"A cop's life is hard," she says. "There's a lot of stress, trauma, and emotional shutting down. People turn to alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, infidelity—anything to cope." (Maples herself has been clean and sober for 21 years.) "The workshops give cops the tools to examine their own intentions and biases—to approach their job not with anger and cynicism but love and fierce compassion."
Maples, the mother of two grown sons, has faced skepticism from what she calls "the biggest of the boys' clubs." "Some cops think I'm asking them to drink the Kool-Aid, so I use my own experience as a blueprint," she says. "At my first-ever retreat, I had a chip on my shoulder. I said, 'I can't do mindfulness training—I'm a cop. I carry a gun!' But then a teacher asked me, 'Who better to carry a gun than someone who does so mindfully?'"
To date, Maples has trained more than 1,000 criminal justice personnel in mindfulness techniques. "It's amazing to watch a guy taking off his bulletproof vest before he meditates," she says. "Police are peacemakers. And you can't bring peace anywhere unless you have it inside your own heart." —Susan Hauser
Next: A bout with tongue cancer leads to an unlikely business venture
Important enough, in fact, to be Trattner's solace when a cruel trick of fate nearly destroyed her health. On her 36th birthday, in April 2000, Trattner, who'd never smoked, was diagnosed with stage III tongue cancer. For eight months, a twice-daily regimen of radiation treatments burned her tongue and throat; she survived on liquid proteins, delivered through a stomach tube. During her convalescence, Trattner says, "I got addicted to cooking shows, because when you can't eat, food is your obsession." She began preparing elaborate meals, relying on her sense of smell as a barometer for flavor. One weekend she made batch after batch of brownies, just to revel in the scent of chocolate. "I couldn't taste, kiss, or speak," she says, "but I could smell!"
By late 2001, Trattner was cancer-free and recovering the use of her taste buds. She'd also returned to her career as a visual effects artist on Hollywood films such as City of Angels and Seabiscuit. "It sounds glamorous, and the money was good, but I sat in a dark cubicle for ten to 12 hours at a time," she says. After a few years, Trattner walked away. "Every moment had become precious to me."
She moved to a loft in an artsy but bedraggled patch of downtown L.A. and fell in love with Monica May, the owner of a neighborhood café. In 2008 the duo opened the Nickel Diner, which specializes in gourmet makeovers of greasy-spoon standbys. Best known for its maple-glazed bacon doughnut, the Nickel, a critics' favorite, is always packed; Trattner can often be spotted greeting customers and showing off the diner's old-timey dessert tray, which includes their homemade spins on Pop-Tarts and Ding Dongs. "What I get out of this restaurant is heart," she says. "If it wasn't for the cancer, I'd never have had the courage to step out and do this." —Monica Corcoran Harel
Next: From lawyer to minister
"I was raised in a very conservative—and alienating—Baptist tradition down South, and that was all I knew," Sparks says. "I wanted to sink into new religions." So she spent time with a Hindu family in India, meditated with Buddhist monks in Nepal, and visited an imam in Cairo. But her turning point came at Mother Teresa's orphanage in Calcutta, where she met a 5-year-old deaf child named Anna. Sitting in Sparks's lap, Anna put her ear against her chest. Sparks laughed, and Anna, feeling the vibrations, squealed with delight. "We did this for hours," says Sparks. "It was like God dropped a sign: 'Laughter and spirituality go together!'"
Back in New York, she enrolled in a seminary with the hope that she might use her humor to help people see the divine in a more joyful way. Since 2000 Sparks has been a minister at Madison Avenue Baptist Church, preaching on subjects such as what Christians can learn from Elvis fans ("They believe the King lives, honey, and we can all use some of that faith"). Last May Sparks published her first book, Laugh Your Way to Grace. "If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself," she says. "And if you can forgive yourself, then you can forgive others."
When her church schedule permits, Sparks tours the country with rabbi-slash-comic Bob Alper and Muslim comedian Azhar Usman using religion as fodder for their act ("Southern Baptists don't talk about sex," says Sparks. "It could lead to dancing.") Comedy and ministry do the same thing, she explains: "They help people feel less alone. And that's a very healing thing."
Next: From writer to farmer
The change I made, from city person to farmer, was abrupt and unforeseen. I'd never once looked at my windowsill planter full of half-dead herbs and thought, "Wow, wish I could grow half an acre of those." I was teaching and writing for travel guidebooks and magazines, and I liked my city life and its freedoms. Then in 2002, just after I rounded 30, I went to Pennsylvania to interview a farmer for a story about the local food movement. Mark was tall and talkative, and his farm produced an array of exceptionally good produce. I thought he was an intriguing subject to write about. And—for some reason I'll never understand—he took one look at me, in my city clothes and inappropriate shoes, and decided I'd make him a good farm wife.
Against all odds, I think I have. I fell deeply for him, and for farming. I found I loved the satisfaction of physical work, and the enormous generosity of sun, soil, and water. I became addicted to the food. Within a few months I left the city, and we started a new farm together in northeastern New York. At the end of the first growing season, we got married in the loft of our shabby red barn. We've farmed here for seven years now, and have become parents to two little girls. We raise almost everything we need for a year-round diet, including 50 kinds of vegetables, herbs, grains, and fruits, plus pigs, chickens, and dairy and beef cattle. We use no pesticides or herbicides, and most of the work is done with draft horses instead of tractors. Our farm feeds 130 people, who come each week to pick up their share of our produce, flours, milk, meats, and eggs.
Farming asks a lot of a person, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. It keeps you close to the dirt and humble. I've gained many skills on the farm that I couldn't have imagined needing in the city, from plucking chickens to castrating calves. But the best lesson farming has taught me is the deep pleasure of commitment—to Mark, to our farm, to a small town.
Kristin Kimball's book The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love (Scribner) is out this month.
See photos from Kristen's first year on the farm
We move to Essex, New York, and experience a true North Country winter.
Me and our team of draft horses.
Sugaring begins. Heading out to learn how to tap the trees.
We buy our first beef calves.
I learn how to catch pigs.
First crops pop up!
Mark and I are exhausted and dirty.
We get married in the loft of the barn.
Next: From ad exec to cheese master
"I designed direct-mail campaigns, which are probably the least sexy thing about the advertising world," says Vivenzio, whose clients included Mercedes-Benz and Pitney Bowes. When her boyfriend (now husband) got a job in San Francisco and asked Vivenzio to join him there, she surprised herself by saying yes—but wondered what her next career move might be. On the cross-country drive, whizzing by countless farms and grazing cows, Vivenzio found herself daydreaming about cheese: Her great-grandparents were cheesemakers in their native Italy, and her grandparents prepared fresh mozzarella and ricotta for their grocery in upstate New York. Plus, Vivenzio had read about a groundswell of artisanal-cheese purveyors in the Bay Area. "I landed in our new city with cheese dancing around in my head," she said. "It seemed romantic."
Her first step was anything but: a $10-an-hour gig at a cheese shop. Learning quickly on the job, she was the store's primary buyer within a year and started organizing cheese education classes in a cramped back storeroom, to ever-increasing demand. With the shop owner's blessing, Vivenzio opened the Cheese School of San Francisco across the street, later moving to a historic 1907 brick building in the North Beach neighborhood.
Pregnant with her second child, Vivenzio is pulling longer hours than ever as her school's curriculum grows. But she never misses her Madison Avenue days. "Now a business trip is to wine country or a food festival," she says. "I love it all. You can't serve ad copy at a dinner party, but a beautiful cheese tray is always a big hit."
Next: From software developer to aerialist
One day a rock-climbing buddy mentioned a class he'd been taking in circus aerials: the kind of midair acrobatics perfected by Cirque du Soleil. Sobelman tried a session and was instantly hooked—even obsessed. She traveled to Melbourne, Australia, for months of training with Circus Oz and the National Institute for Circus Arts. ("My teacher was a lovely old French lady who liked me because I wasn't 20.") Once back in Seattle, she started performing and teaching with a small troupe. "Aerials are a way to exercise that's fun and creative and social—even more so than your average dance or yoga class," she says.
Beginners might get the heebie-jeebies watching Sobelman shimmy 30 feet up a silk banner to dance, spin, and tumble in thin air. But aerials can be done by people of all ages and abilities—at least when Sobelman is your instructor. "If students can't manage a skill, I will find one they can do, so everyone walks out of the room feeling good," she says. "I get a lot of people who were traumatized in grade school because they couldn't climb a rope in gym class. There have been very few people I couldn't get up a rope."
By 2007 Sobelman's classes were so popular—particularly with women in their early 20s to mid-40s—that she founded Versatile Arts, Seattle's first full-time aerial studio. "I never wanted to take the risk of starting a business," says Sobelman, who teaches six group sessions a week and tutors students privately. "Yet here I am. I've accidentally created a community: People come for their classes, but they also drop by to see their friends and help each other."
She has also accidentally transformed herself. "I used to think of myself as the person who gets stuff done, not the person who comes up with the ideas," she explains. "I cooked from recipes and sewed from patterns. So the first time I created a performance routine that seemed interesting and creative and graceful—that was a revelation. Even now, when I hear a song on the radio and start thinking of choreography, or when I cook a meal based on whatever's in the fridge, I'm aware that I've changed."
Next: From real estate professional to fitness trainer
When Chang turned to a childhood friend who happened to be a fitness enthusiast, he suggested she eat around 1,500 calories a day and give kettlebells—heavy cast-iron weights used in athletic training—a try. It turned out to be a life-changing tip.
Kettlebells combine cardio and strength training in a short, heart-pumping workout that can burn more calories per minute than nearly any other form of exercise. Within six months of picking up her first bell at a local gym, Chang had lost 45 pounds, reducing her body fat from 34 to 17 percent. Six months after that, she became a certified kettlebell instructor, teaching classes in her spare time. "Kettlebells saved my life," she says. "Moving my body gave me the resiliency, the strength, to endure anything."
Slowly, Chang began to find herself at the gym more often than at the office. Soon the marriage that had begun to unravel came apart completely, and she filed for divorce. Then, three years ago, "when the Seattle real estate market was pretty much dead," as she puts it, Chang switched direction and opened her own training studio: Kettlebility.
"If I hadn't had that awakening, I would still be plodding through life," says Chang. "A lot of amazing and sad things have happened. I mean, who wants to get divorced? No one. But my feeling is that the stronger you are physically and mentally, the easier life becomes."
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