Oyster with pearl
Photo: Stephen Lewis
Here's the first truth about second chances: They rarely happen by chance. Oh, the first one, sure, is often concentrated pure luck, but first chances are notorious for fizzling out, derailing. At which point, everyone learns the second truth: Pure luck will only take you so far.

Recently, in talking to a number of people who've had remarkable second acts, I met a woman named Anne Martindell whose first chance, true to form, hadn't lasted a year. On the surface, what she got was an opportunity to go to college, but condensed down, it was really a shot at becoming who she was. It stretched out, one long dazzling promise, for two semesters at Smith, during which she became sharply aware of how you could be ravenous for something like European history, how the sight of a Picasso could hit you like you'd been socked, how ideas—ideas alone—could break you out of shyness.

Right after, she learned how it was possible for a chance to be exploded so fast you couldn't be sure you'd had it. Come June, her father yanked her out of school. This was 1932. The place was too "bluestocking," he complained—too intellectual, and if you want to ruin your possibilities for marriage, that's what you'll become. She'd felt fully alive. Now she felt devastated, "terribly upset and terribly bored and terribly angry"; a year later, she was married to "my father's dream man." He was basically sweet, she says measuredly, but they had nothing in common.

If this were a fable, and perhaps it qualifies, this would be the place to point out several additional truths: Foremost, that all first chances contain seeds for a second, not to mention a third, fourth, and fifth. Without water or soil, they can lie dormant forever. Those seeds are durable, though. They can bloom years later. Not long ago The New York Times carried a record of a second flowering after a 70-year delay, in a story headlined THE GRADUATE, AGE 87, LOOKS AHEAD.

"I think women can have it all," Martindell told the reporter who'd caught up with her after her graduation from Smith, which was attended by her four children and nine grandchildren. "We live so long, you can have the family and then the career.

"I didn't do anything real until I was 50," she added, a bit of an understatement perhaps, given that after an impromptu teaching job at her children's school gave her the courage to test the unknown, she blazed a remarkable career path. Political volunteer work led to convention delegate led to New Jersey state senator. "At budget time I had a hard time," she says: "I'd missed third grade and beginning math (Mother was sick that year and didn't enroll us)." Ultimately, Martindell became director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. At 65, she was appointed ambassador to New Zealand.

It was there, then twice divorced, that she met the love of her life when she rode her bike to a gallery opening and fell in love with the painter. He wanted to marry her, but she refused. That wasn't necessary nowadays, she said ("he was cross"), but the affair continued over two continents for almost 20 years, till his death. What initially attracted him: her appreciation of art.

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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
It was only in the scented air of Rajasthan that I began to understand the connection between the passion and the illness. First time round, language jump-starts the brain, journalist Russ Rymer speculates in his book about a "wolf child," Genie. "The organization of our brain is as genetically ordained and as automatic as breathing," he writes, "but, like breathing, it is initiated by the slap of a midwife, and the midwife is grammar." In going back for seconds, I was trying to replicate the process. On the edge of the desert, surrounded by elephants and palaces, I was slapping myself back to life.

Passion came up repeatedly in my conversations with other second borns. Its role first became evident to me one Christmas, a year after I'd had a bone marrow transplant, when I attended a holiday party for transplant survivors. If someone had been plunked down blind in that tinsel-decked corporate meeting room, they'd have thought they'd wandered into some bizarre human potential convention. "I got my MBA," people all around me were saying. "I became a Ford model." "I ran for office." It would have seemed like a heartwarming scene, unless you stopped to consider one fact: Transplants are treatments, not cures. These people weren't cured. They were barreling into their second chances, time be damned, roaring forward on passion as fuel.

It's through passion that a second chance takes you out of your (small) self and into your (larger) Self, according to Clifton. The very word, in fact, is related to the Greek word pathos: literally, "suffering, experience, or emotion." Passion comes on you. It overcomes you. "You become its servant," he says, paraphrasing the author Madeleine L'Engle: "'It's a pleasure to be a servant of the work, but a humbling pleasure to know my work knows more than I do.'" In the bargain, it invigorates you, gives you the intensity necessary to listen to your inner voice. Here you can trace another etymological link: vocation is rooted in the Latin vox, or voice. Through your inner voice, you find your true vocation. Second chances, Clifton says, induce you to "listen to an inner voice that tells you what to do, and...is different from what your parents, friends, or culture tell you to do." Second chances cause you to move away from cultural conditioning and toward your real self.

When I spoke with other people who'd had defining opportunities, a similar tao, or path, became clear. These lives unfold according to a particular order.

Every one of the people I talked to could point to an early moment when everything began to change. Most of these moments were fairly insignificant, except for the fact that they were acted on. As Anne Martindell did, when she was asked to take the schoolteacher job. My friend T. recalls an instant 18 years ago when, crossing Manhattan's 57th Street, a man told her she could be pretty if she'd ever bother to comb her hair. The man was about to break up with her; she and her life were a mess, he told her. At 27, she was no longer in the running to be the "California child drinking prodigy." "He held up a mirror," she says, "and I was appalled." She went home and began the process of ending a 15-year pot, coke, and alcohol binge. Her radical turnaround brought her into book publishing as a literary agent, then to a second career as a landscaper.

These moments don't happen unless you're ready for them. You have to do the hard work, before and after.

Here, too, there's an analogy with myth. The resonant moments preceding the breakthrough are like the question the traveler must answer correctly before she can pass through the gate. With everyone I met, the breakthrough came after the center of their lives began to shift, and rarely before the age of 35. (Though one man, on being asked if he'd ever had a second chance, promptly answered, "I was kidnapped at 4." Yep, I'd say that qualifies.)

"People can develop later in life. But they dismiss that notion. They think everything's set—you can't change or grow," says Amy Goldman, who was a child psychologist until she left an unhappy marriage at 43, shed 50 pounds, and enthusiastically entered the business of growing heirloom tomatoes. Sometimes you have to experience a series of small disappointments, she says. No one of them alone is necessarily a spur to change. But cumulatively, they bring you to a tipping point, where "it becomes apparent you have to act or fall into the abyss. All of a sudden, I realized there are opportunities," she says. "Every day." Second chances come along all the time. It's up to us to recognize them.

The people I found who'd taken their chances had certain things in common. Overwhelmingly, they were women, though that may have been because, as Po Bronson, author of the book What Should I Do with My Life? observes, men are less likely to own up to defeat. Many of the men he interviewed wouldn't say that the first chance had gone bust: Nothing wrong here. But men do go through the same swings as women, he says. It's just harder to get them to admit it.

Or perhaps women, more frequently than men, are edged into a first chance that's someone else's idea of a great deal. Psychotherapist Sheenah Hankin often sees women trudging a road their mother or father set them down on. "A lot of parents say, 'Get a safe job with health insurance in case, God forbid, you get divorced,'" she says, "safe" being home care or secretarial work or another low-paying 9-to-5. Later, when these women see others going further than they ever thought possible, "early dreams start to haunt them."

Early dreams give rise to passion, which may be why the refrain I'd first noticed at the holiday party sounded in all my conversations with people who'd had after-lives. They'd come back to claim their dreams. What I was hearing, I began to realize, were the strains of a redemption song.

Next: 3 women who made the most of their second chance
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
Some bridges are especially far. Of all the people I met, Beverly Bergman's may have been the longest. She was 35, a year out of an abusive marriage and supporting her 15-year-old son, Matthew; a new boyfriend informed her he'd tested positive for HIV. When she learned she had it too, she did not tell a soul: not her parents, not a friend, not her son. Not her shrink. This was 1987; AIDS paranoia was strong and sometimes vicious. There was talk of rounding up patients and shipping them off to camps. If word got out, she knew she risked an even more dangerous isolation. Even with other patients, she was separate; support groups were mostly composed of gay men. It's hard to imagine a more joyless place: starkly alone, with a son to raise and what was then virtually a death sentence. "My advice to you is to go home and make out a will," the doctor who delivered the news had said. What she did instead was become a painter.

"I don't know why I didn't think I should just get a job and get a medical plan in place," she says. "But I knew I only had a certain amount of time left, and this is how I wanted to use it."

For 13 years, she'd run a lingerie store with her husband; now she worked graphic design jobs in the afternoon and threw herself into her courses at the Art Students League. In the beginning, she did not show flamboyant promise. "The first three paintings I brought home were of three very different people, and my son said, 'Gee, Mom, are they all related?'" But as she channeled her grief, fury, and hope, she began to produce work that was extraordinary in its intensity, its nuance.

Nine years after the 1987 diagnosis, she had her first solo show and sold a third of the paintings. A year later, she was put on a triple cocktail of HIV drugs. When, six weeks after that, her viral load came back "undetectable," she finally told Matthew.

Her career as a painter is going strong. Her health is holding steady, and she's in a robust relationship after ten chaste years in which she just assumed she'd never be with another man. From the other side of the bridge, she says, "I know there are no sure things. Having gone through this gives me a sense of freedom. What's the point of living a half life because you're scared of doing something else? People are so afraid of the unknown, but I've been schooled in the unknown a bunch of times."

As Bergman tells me her story, I think, as I have with each person, "If she could only have known it would turn out okay!" But that's the kicker with second chances—you don't. They're nonnegotiable leaps of faith. Margaret Kustermann, for instance, took an enormous one when she decided to become an actor. In her 50s. After years of being a Chicago teacher but secretly dreaming about this other life she'd yearned for since she was a kid.

Hardly anyone becomes a full-time actor—at least not at that age, not without impressive credits, not at a less-than-perfect weight. Kustermann had always fought her weight, but as she signed up for workshops and worked toward a master's in theater, she thought, What the hell. Took yoga, saw a nutritionist, but didn't agonize. Parts started to come in. She quit teaching. I've done my job here, she realized. "What I haven't done is give myself a chance."

The roles came faster: in Antigone, No Place Like Home, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, at hip places like Lyric Opera, Steppenwolf, Smash Theatre. Most recently, she's been appearing in a one-woman show at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. She's claimed a part of herself that was always rightfully hers. "It's the happiest time of my life," she says. The years fell away as she came full circle. Now here she is, up onstage, a girl with a bright shining pearl.

"Katherine Russell Rich died on April 3, 2012, at age 56, after an almost 25-year (yes, that’s what we said) battle with cancer. While death, no matter how expected, is always a shock, to those of us who knew Kathy for the better part of three decades, the news feels especially unbelievable. Kathy was often on her way to or from one treatment or another—though she rarely talked about it—but she ALWAYS came back to have another lunch, teach another course, write another book, make another friend. Her intelligence, her fierceness, her just-the-right-amount-of-kooky sensibility shows through in her writing, and will inspire us always."
— Sara Nelson

How to Find Your Second Chance


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