We are looking at the orangutans when I hear the bell tower chime.
I cannot see the tower from where my daughter and I are standing. It’s south of the zoo, rising 200 feet above the Old Globe Theatre and the tiled dome that houses the Museum of Man. I remember staring up at it on my first day of graduate school, shading my face with my hand, feeling giddy and anxious and awestruck.
Later, I stood in its shadow on the plaza, making hesitant small talk with one of my classmates as he sipped wine from a plastic cup. He glanced down at my water bottle and said, “I don’t get it. How can you be a Mormon and an actor? How can you make that work?”
And I replied, “Watch me.”
Those first months were overwhelming. My six classmates and I were thrown down the master’s degree rabbit hole, our days a blur of Shakespeare, voice lessons, dialects, and sword fights. After a full day of class we raced the setting sun across town to the theatre for rehearsal, emerging hours later into the hushed coolness of the park, the tower lights glowing against the night sky. It felt almost decadent to devote myself so completely to acting, and in such a beautiful place.
It felt lonely, too. My fellow actors didn’t know what to make of the Mormon in their midst, the girl who gave away her drink ticket at opening night galas and sat inside the rehearsal hall during smoke breaks. I rarely mentioned my faith, but still, it took time for the wariness to recede, for everyone to see that I was just there to do the work, that the way I chose to live my life was not a judgment of them, that I wouldn’t try to convince them to join a polygamist compound. But eventually they began to laugh at my Mormon jokes, and I became their designated driver-in-residence, and they insisted I come to their parties and made sure there was Diet Coke next to the beer just for me. And I loved them fiercely for all of it.
I feel my daughter tug at my hand. “Mommy! I want to see the kangeeyoos!” She yanks me forward and we narrowly avoid causing a four stroller pile-up. I study my map as we walk, attempting to pinpoint the exact location of the kangeeyoos. Do they even have kangaroos here? I don’t remember much about the zoo from my grad school days, except that the occasional feathered escapee would find its way across the park to the theatre’s plaza, and the zoo brigade would be called in for search and rescue. During an outdoor production of Julius Caesar, we looked up to discover a blue heron perched on the scaffolding—a silent observer of the plot against the Roman general.
And then there was the sound of barking sea lions erupting like clockwork every night during a quiet moment of Pericles. My most visceral memories of the park are from that Pericles summer: Sweating under the late afternoon sun during tech rehearsal, feeling the damp night air rush toward me as I raced down the backstage stairs for a costume change. And in the final moments of the play, looking up over the audience at the bell tower, everything illuminated by stage light and moonlight. That summer, I had everything I’d ever dreamed of as an actor. And I discovered it was possible to feel fulfilled and grateful and empty all at once.
I watch my daughter race ahead of me, her hair a brilliant red flash in the morning light. An hour later she’s in the throes of a full-blown tantrum, wailing and flailing and refusing to move from the center of the sidewalk. People dodge around us, mothers throwing me sympathetic glances, young hipster couples rolling their eyes. It’s a different drama than the kind I used to experience in this park, but drama nonetheless, and I’m sweating by the time I succeed in wrestling her past the flamingos and peacocks and into the parking lot.
Finally soothed and settled, she munches on goldfish crackers as we exit onto Park Blvd and head toward the freeway. I catch a glimpse of the bell tower far off to my right as we merge into traffic, and I tell my backseat companion, “That’s where Mommy used to be an actress!”
And she replies, “I want to sing Wheels on the Bus!”
And so we do.
A few weeks after the zoo, I visit the park again. I’m there to see a dear friend in a play, and my heart seizes up as I walk toward the theatre courtyard. I stand looking at the tower, feeling waves of nostalgia and longing. And failure.
The house manager spots me and pulls me into a hug. “Hey! How come we never see you on stage here?” I feel a sudden compulsion to explain everything to him, to justify my choices, to spill out the reasons I turned my back on my career, that it was all or nothing for me, that I didn’t want to be away from my husband for months at a time, and then my daughter came and, and, and . . .
Instead I blurt out awkwardly, “I’m a mom now.” As if that explains everything. As if a mom can’t be an actress, too.
I drive home that night through thick fog, my hands clutched tight to the steering wheel. I feel silly, ashamed of the tightness in my heart, angry for wanting anything more than what I have. You will act again some day, I tell myself sternly. To every thing there is a season. There will be opportunities. Quit being so dramatic. (But I do have two degrees in drama, after all.)
That night, I wake to the sound of my daughter crying. I stumble through the hall and scoop her from her bed, her face damp with tears. Her head settles on my shoulder and we sit together in the dark, rocking until her breathing steadies, deep and even. And as we rock, I think about growing older, about the things we give up and put away and leave behind. The hard choices easily made because they are the right choices for us. I think of my mother, sitting in the audience during a Pericles dress rehearsal, smiling down at me through the darkness, and of the things she left behind so that I could have the best chance, the best chances.
And I think this:
You have not failed.
You can love where you are and still miss where you’ve been.
Giving up is not the same as letting go.
I tuck my daughter back into bed, resting my hand for a moment on her copper curls. And then the Spirit whispers to me, as pure and clear as any bell tower chime,
“You are blessed. You are blessed. You are blessed beyond measure.”