Chapter 15: Uncertain Happiness vs. Certain Unhappiness

A short excerpt from Chapter 15…

Chapter 15 - Uncertain Happiness vs. Certain Unhappiness

I turned and noticed Natalie’s friendly freckled face and big blue eyes, and appreciated for the millionth time her inquisitive and kind personality.  I was struck by a huge lucky feeling that I had such a deep bond with her.  I knew immediately that her important question had an equally important answer. I glanced across the table at William, the passionate cinematography professor with whom I had made films, a home, a child, and a life, and I couldn’t help but think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s line, “I love you not only for what you are but for what I am when I am with you.”

My memory flashed back almost 22 years, to January 1989 and I turned to Natalie and said, “It was a day that changed my life.”

Natalie put her fork down to listen.

It was the weekend before Martin Luther King Day.  My increasingly unhappy first marriage had come to an end after seven years and I was staying with my sister in San Francisco, taking a quarter off from my graduate school studies at UCLA to gather my thoughts and courage for a future I had not anticipated.  On this particular Sunday, I had attended a church service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, a faith with historic, humanistic and social service roots I have always admired.  Although I was an irregular churchgoer, I knew that Martin Luther King would be the focus of the service and I wanted, maybe even needed at this particular crossroads in my life, to be inspired by his example.  I was thoughtful as I finished the cup of coffee that had been offered to me during the social hour after the service, and thought a long walk home would give me time to think.

On the way out, I stopped to read the flyers on a bulletin board in the hallway, and one notice in particular caught my eye.  It was an invitation from the Women’s Research and Education Institute to female graduate students to apply for a Congressional Fellowship in Washington DC.  Nine women would be awarded fellowships to work in Congressional offices on policy issues affecting women and the award would include a living stipend.  I found myself unpinning the flyer and looking for the church office, where I hoped I would be allowed to make a copy.

A few minutes later, I stepped outside the church, flyer in hand, and faced busy Geary Street.  I tilted my face up to a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds.  A strong breeze whipped my hair into my face and threatened to yank away the piece of paper in my hand.  As I tucked my hair into the collar of my coat, I deliberated between catching a bus and walking back to my sister’s flat in the Golden Gate Park neighborhood.  Beginning to tell Natalie the story, I could see myself on the steps in front of the large, old stone church, perched atop three busy streets on a triangular knoll.  I actually felt the spark that I remembered had been lit inside me.

“In my hand, I held a piece of paper.  I stood on the top step of the church and read the words printed on the notice again before folding it up and tucking it into my pocket.  And then I started walking.”

“It was a long walk,” added William.

“It really was,” I agreed.  “At least four miles.”

“Mommy calling me along the way,” William said.

I remembered the exact place I stopped to make the call: on the sidewalk facing the courtyard in front of Little Tokyo, a familiar place where my sister and I often went to eat udon, Japanese noodles, and manju, sweetened bean and chewy rice cakes, as they reminded us of our childhood in Japan.

“I stopped at a phone booth on Geary Street, in front of Little Tokyo, and called Daddy to tell him that I had decided to apply for a Congressional Fellowship on Women and Public Policy,” I explained to Natalie.  “That was the flyer I had in my pocket.”

Natalie was listening with full attention.

“It was one of those amazing life-changing moments,” I said.  I had never seen it in exactly that light before. “Somehow the combination of the sermon about Martin Luther King, the fellowship notice that happened to be posted on a bulletin board in the church, the beautiful day, and walking all the way to Little Tokyo all added up to this clear message that this was what I was supposed to do.”

“I remember picking up the phone,” said William, “and hearing Mommy’s voice, out of breath from walking uphill, telling me that she was going to apply for the Fellowship, and I knew I wanted us to be more than each other’s closest friend.  I told her if she was selected, I wanted us to be together.”

“And that’s what happened,” I added.  “We drove cross-country to our new life together.”

I felt the same joy in telling my daughter the story that I felt 22 years earlier when, after applying for the fellowship and being interviewed, I received the phone call inviting me to Washington DC.  I wasn’t sure how anything was going to turn out, but I knew I was ready to try something different.  I felt brave.  I also felt so very happy that William wanted to come with me, for it meant that our friendship now had the space to blossom into something else.

As I finished telling the story, I was struck with an epiphany.  Three times in my life I’d had a strong feeling about what I was supposed to do.

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