Eleanor Esther Appleyard was a social worker who stayed home to raise four sons, keeping her hand in community activities with social purpose. During a particularly stressful period of her midlife, a friend recommended she take up art to help herself feel better.
"One day at age 49 I picked up a $1.29 package of pencil crayons at a drugstore and took a block of drawing paper from my son's desk," Appleyard says. She brought the supplies with her on an airline flight to calm her nerves and sketched a childhood memory of a harbor sunset.
An artist was born.
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Appleyard was hungry for guidance and experience. She took courses and expanded her tools. Now, at 73, she is a full-time artist and educator living in Marblehead, Mass.
"If anyone had ever told me," she says, "that I would have my own studio for 13 years, sell my art, return to university to obtain my master's degree in creative art therapy, lead workshops in art and poetry at a local psychiatric hospital, receive awards for monoprints and sculpture, display healing art in the Senate Gallery in D.C. and in Dublin, travel to places I never dreamed of and, best of all, be introduced to a self I never met before, I would've said, 'You are daft! Not me! I don’t do art!'"
Eleanor Appleyard is what you call a late bloomer.
Taking a Midlife Leap
Everyone loves a prodigy: 10-year-old violinists, pre-pubescent Olympians, adolescent Ph.D.s Achieving greatness when so young seems like a romantic ideal.
But the opposite — mining one’s greatest potential in the midstream of our lives — is an even more remarkable event. Men and women who have built lives on a given trajectory but then leap into another world and succeed, practically defy the laws of physics. She did that? At what age?
Prill Boyle, 58, is no stranger to that phenomenon and those questions. An acknowledged late bloomer, Boyle graduated from Georgetown University at 38, became a high school English teacher two years later and published her first book at age 50 — about late blooming women like herself.
Defying Gravity is Boyle’s look at a dozen women who found their sweet spots in middle age or beyond.
Boyle’s journey began with the inspiration of Wini Yunker, a small-town girl from Nicholasville, Ky., who had her ambition of international volunteerism dashed at 26 when her Peace Corps application was rejected. Yunker waited four decades — she raised a son, worked at a lock company and studied nights and weekends to complete her education. At age 65, Yunker fulfilled her dream and left the United States for a two-year tour in Ukraine.
"I loved this woman!" says Boyle, who was teaching English at a Connecticut community college when she spotted an article featuring Yunker in The New York Times. "She reminded me of my students. Like many of them, she was a single parent who struggled to make ends meet, going to school while working full-time. I thought to myself, 'I'm going to write a book about people like this, people who don't give up on themselves and their goals.'"
Boyle interviewed men and women as she began her research, but found herself circling back to women’s stories.
"They resonated more with me," she says. "Even though there are more similarities than differences between the genders, what sets men apart, at least in general, is that their identity derives more from their work, the money they make and how well they're able to provide for their families. Until they reach retirement age, they seem to find it more difficult to make a life change."
Realizing a Secret Ambition
Boyle’s observations fit Taylor Polites like a custom suit. The 42-year-old author has recently published his first novel, The Rebel Wife, which has already won numerous awards and was an Oprah pick in February 2012. For Polites, leaving an established career in investment banking to pursue writing was an arduous leap.
"From the fifth grade, I had a conception of myself as a writer," Polites says. "I loved reading. I loved stories. But somewhere along the way, I thought that writing was an impossible dream. Through high school and college, I continued writing — books to nowhere, in a sense. And I told no one. A sense of shame had covered my ambition."
Polites had developed a lucrative career in banking, but at a cost. "This was not creative work," he says. "It was a career, and I had great long-term opportunities. I enjoyed the people I worked with. But … there were many buts. I commuted on the subway, worked long hours and many weekends and generally dealt with the pressure and aggressiveness of finance and New York."
Frustrated, Polites quit once in 2002, then for good in 2006. He got a master of fine arts degree and got to work, living first in Provincetown, Mass., the arts community on Cape Cod, then relocated to Providence, R.I., where he lives now. The Rebel Wife was published earlier this year.
"The entire experience is literally a dream come true," he says. "Having a secret ambition realized has a sense of unreality to it. I have always hoped to be a writer — a novelist — and now I am, along with all the reality and change of life that that brings."
Becoming a Hot Property
For Andrew Brilliant, a 60-year-old real estate sales professional in Boston, the tide pulled in the other direction, from a promising career in commercial photography to real estate. For Brilliant, this brand of late blooming was inspired at first by the prospect of better financial security, but the outcome taught him something about himself.
"When I was a photographer, an artist, I was afraid in a way to take risks," Brilliant says. "Each one of those pieces was my art and I hesitated because it meant so much to me."
Brilliant moved over to real estate after taking an extension course with his wife, Carol, in preparation for handling some family real estate issues. He decided to pursue a sales license to see if he could make some money in his neighborhood of Jamaica Plain and Brookline. He could, and did.
Part of Brilliant’s success, he says, was there were no personal attachments in real estate. So he risked more, achieved more and now enjoys a lucrative career selling and renting properties close to home.
More Time to Succeed
The greatest benefit of finding success later in life may be that a person's accumulated wisdom better prepares him or her to seize a new opportunity, Boyle says. "In a society that is preoccupied with youth, these stories give us hope," he says. "We're living longer than previous generations and this gift of extra time is expanding our sense of what we can accomplish. Going back to school at 50 doesn't seem like such a crazy idea if we imagine living to be 100.
"Encore careerists and late bloomers view this as a golden opportunity to seek greater joy and meaning in their work," he adds, "to embrace new challenges and opportunities and to ask themselves, 'Have I been living my life, or someone else's?'"