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Virginia Bell

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It's Never Too Late to Be a Late Bloomer

Posted: 11/16/2012 5:04 pm

Late bloomers are a special breed and often misunderstood. They can appear ridiculous to the rest of the world as they pursue some private dream or else bounce from one profession to another. In the end, they have a longer road and a tougher climb for it requires tremendous faith, courage and an iron will to keep going, especially when there's no tangible success. In a way they are like the stubborn, dogged plants that thrive in unlikely places under harsh conditions; they are the desert flowers, the indomitable trees pushing through city sidewalks and vacant lots; they are the long shot, the dark horse, the voice crying in the wilderness. Ultimately, they are our heroes whose challenges, triumphs and stories inspire, uplift and keep us moving in the direction of our own dreams.

Every late bloomer has a unique story but it seems to me that they fall into two general categories. The first kind knows exactly what he or she wants to accomplish and focuses exclusively on it, it just takes them longer to mature and develop their gift. Cezanne is a classic example. In Malcolm Gladwell's brilliant essay, "Late Bloomers" (from his book, What the Dog Saw) he writes about Cezanne's creative process. Thanks to a modest allowance from his father, Cezanne never had to take a regular job and was able to devote himself completely to his art. That was fortunate, because early in his career, he lacked the technique of drawing and spent years developing this skill. "Cezanne was trying something so elusive that he couldn't master it until he'd spent decades practicing," writes Gladwell. He was 56 when Ambroise Vollard, the legendary art dealer and patron, sponsored his first one-man show.

Julia Child is another example. If you read her memoir (My Life in France) or saw the movie, Julie & Julia, you will remember how long she worked on her famous book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and how many revisions she and her co-authors went through. Even after they had finally secured a book deal (with Houghton Mifflin) and the manuscript was completed, the publisher rejected it. It was Judith Jones, a young editor at Knopf and a devoted foodie, who discovered the manuscript, tested the recipes, and convinced her boss to publish it. Julia Child was 49 when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was finally published. Five months later, she launched her television show and a star was born; that career would span three decades.

The second type of late bloomer undertakes many different jobs and may seem to be a dilettante as he or she gathers a variety of experiences and skills. Theirs is a circuitous route full of detours and delays and yet eventually it all comes together. In the end, the various skills and talents they have amassed turn out to be exactly what was needed for their particular mission although no one could have predicted it, least of all themselves.

Frank McCourt is typical of this type and one of my favorite late bloomers; he didn't begin writing until he was 64! Born in Brooklyn, he grew up in Ireland and didn't return to the U.S. until he was 19. After serving in the Korean War, he took a series of jobs working in banks, on docks and in warehouses, then enrolled at NYU on the G.I. Bill and became a teacher. It was only after he retired from teaching that he began writing. At 59, he met Ellen Frey, the woman who would become his second wife. She urged him to quit telling his stories to his cronies in bars and taverns and write them down and that's exactly what he did. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Angela's Ashes and went on to write Tis and Teacher Man. Angela's Ashes is not the kind of book a young person could write. It not only required writing talent and a genius for storytelling but also great maturity and wisdom, not to mention emotional and physical distance from the tragic childhood that defined his life and forged his gifts.

Kathryn Joosten was 42 when she began acting, an age when many actresses are thinking of retiring. She was married, raised a family and had a career as a psychiatric nurse before becoming involved in community theatre in her native Chicago. At 52 she took a job as a street performer at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. At 54 she moved to Hollywood where she found steady work on televisions shows such as Roseanne, Seinfeld, Frasier, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At 60 she got her big break on The West Wing playing Mrs. Landingham, President Josiah Bartlet's personal secretary. That opened doors to guest appearances on dozens of top shows. Her most memorable role was as Karen McCluskey, the meddling neighbor on Desperate Housewives, which she landed at age 66. She won two Emmy Awards (in 2005 and 2008) and was nominated again in 2010.

Then there's the extraordinary story of Rodriguez, a gifted singer-songwriter from Detroit who recorded an album entitled Cold Fact in 1969 that sold only six copies. His music career over, he found work doing demolition and renovation; along the way, he obtained a degree in philosophy and became involved in local politics. The story might have ended there except one of those six copies found its way to South Africa in the early 1970's, where his music resonated with the youth and became an anthem for the anti-apartheid movement. In South Africa he was bigger than Elvis and the Rolling Stones but he never knew about his fame; nor did he receive any royalties. Searching for Sugar Man is the deeply moving documentary about his musical journey. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul and released this past July, it's received rave reviews. As a result, Rodriguez's music is finding a whole new audience and at age of seventy he is being discovered. In an interview in the New York Times he said, "I guess we all want to get there right away, but I believe it's never too early, never too late."

One of the things astrology has taught me is that we all have our own individual timing and like flowers, we bloom at different seasons. What's essential is to honor that timing and trust the process no matter how long it takes or where it leads. Sometimes that process is a direct route on a well-paved road but other times the road is filled with pot holes and detours. Maybe some people need longer to marinate and mature because they aren't just developing their craft or skill; they are also growing into the kind of person who can carry that gift into the world. Perhaps, in the end, it's not so important when we bloom but who we become along the way.

 
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