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by Renée Tillotson

Moments of choice await us at every turn…. Yet some of those moments lead to momentous effects on the arc of our life. Sometimes we need to deviate from our expected trajectory to find our true path. In this story, you’ll watch a moment of choice barreling towards our hula teacher Doris Morisaki that she isn’t anticipating… and you’ll see where it leads her. We’ll start with where one of her hugest life choices took her.

For one thing, it takes her to Israel in 1990 where her new husband Mark is attending medical school at the time. Not long after Doris arrives, the Gulf War interrupts their lives. Confusion is everywhere. Equipped with gas masks, Doris and Mark manage to catch the last available flight out of Tel Aviv back to the States. They clutch hands with each other, cringing as they watch on TV as the SCUD missiles began to fall on Tel Aviv within 48 hours of their departure. Quite a way to start a new marriage, right? 

The Gulf War wraps up quickly, and the Morisakis return to Israel. Mark is over-his-head with work to complete medical school, so he is delighted that Doris takes the opportunity to learn Hebrew and land an engaging job with the Tel Aviv Hilton. In the Hilton’s effort to attract international – especially Japanese – visitors, Doris becomes the face of their campaign. Mark loves seeing his beautiful young wife’s photo splashed across the pages of glossy Israeli magazines! Life is good again.

After Mark completes his studies, the couple leaves Israel for New York City, and are blessed with their infant son, Joshua. Almost before their eyes, the terror of 911 unfolds. From their home on Staten Island, they can smell the smoke wafting up from the Twin Towers. As they describe those scary times in our interview, they tell me how fortunate they each feel to have gone through it all with the one they love. It might not have turned out that way. Doris might have simply kept to her life track through college and never have left O’ahu. But that’s not what happened…

Nowadays, the Morisakis live back home in Honolulu. Anyone who has attended one of Still & Moving Center’s public events within the last decade will have found our place cheerfully decorated with Mark’s amazing balloon art, and often hosted with Doris Morisaki’s beautiful social graces. If you’re lucky, you may have glimpsed the two of them together on the dance floor, looking as if someone ought to award them a prize for being the most skillful couple on the floor. You see their eyes meeting, their smiles flashing, and you think, “Now those are two people who were meant to be together!”

However, it didn’t look that way for a long time. Doris had a different boyfriend all through college, and even before then.

In the spring of ’87 Doris and Mark end up in the same ballroom dance class at UH Manoa. For each of them, it is their last semester before graduating. Doris has never taken a dance class before. Little does she imagine she will become one of Still & Moving Center’s hula dance teachers 30 years later!

Mark is simply taking the ballroom dance class as a way to bide his time before departing for medical school in Israel. While other guys in the class have enrolled for the sake of meeting a girl, Mark claims that, for him, starting a relationship before disappearing overseas for 4 years would be the worst thing to do. No way was he looking for a young lady. And perhaps that’s true…but it’s not what happened.

Mark’s friend Ross also enrolls when Mark does, and Ross is keenly attuned to the social dynamics of the dance class. Ross wants to assess the situation early on. He interrogates Mark on the first day of class about which woman he is interested in. Without hesitation, Mark points across the room to Doris and says, “She’s the one I’m going to marry.” 

I ask Mark in our interview, “Were you serious with that answer?” 

“Well, in a jokey sort of way, yes. She had all the wonderful qualities I could want in a spouse. Why wouldn’t I want to marry her?” he answers innocently.

Now, Doris, on the other hand, has been dragged to dance class by her boyfriend of five years. Count them, five. He is also a newbie to dancing. He has them signed up to stumble through class together, maybe wearing off a bit of their clumsiness, maybe even taking preemptive steps to not embarrass themselves in an inevitable wedding dance! 

Doris reports that taking a ballroom class is challenging when the gal and guy are both novices. In the arms of a pro, a woman can instantly look great. Meanwhile, a novice may struggle to learn the guy’s job of choreography, leading the lady and floor management. The male can take a while to shine.

As the story progresses, we see that this particularity about ballroom dancing puts Doris’ boyfriend at a distinct disadvantage as compared to another gentleman taking the class: Mark Morisaki. You should know that Mark’s parents loved ballroom dancing so much that they signed up all six of their kids for lessons. The kids were evenly matched, 3 boys to 3 girls, so Mark has already had years of practice leading his sisters around a dancefloor by the time he arrives at that Spring dance class at UH!

Throughout the semester, Doris dances mostly with her boyfriend, except for the occasional time when the teacher has the students rotate partners. For their final outing, the teacher has the whole class meet at a nightclub. He expects all the gentlemen to circulate, asking each of the ladies of the class, “May I have this dance?”  

I think Mark’s friend Ross must be one of those dyed-in-the-wool romantics. He’s been watching Doris dancing away with her boyfriend for the whole semester, all the time knowing what Mark said on the first day of class about marrying her. Mark’s soon leaving for medical school, and that romantic possibility looks a long way off. So, on that final evening at the nightclub, Ross tells Mark: “I’ll find a way to occupy the boyfriend. YOU go invite Doris to dance!” 

Ross then walks over to chat up Doris’ boyfriend with this opener: “I’m going to steal your girlfriend!” Now THAT conversation starter certainly captures the boyfriend’s attention for a good long time! Little does he guess that it’s a ruse for another man to do that very thing out on the dance floor at that exact moment!

Meanwhile, as Mark swirls Doris ‘round the ballroom, his elegant spins and swoops serve to wrap her heart around his. They dance the rumba, the cha-cha, the waltz, and the tango… until the teacher finally notices what is happening and snaps, “Morisaki! Time to switch partners!”

Yet by that time Doris has already been smitten by this dancing Prince Charming!

Now wait a minute! Doris is a very true and loyal person. She’d been with her boyfriend for half a decade, and their future together after college is easily predictable. Looking back at the situation from the vantage of time, Doris insists that by this point in her life, in 2022, she would surely be a divorcée if she had remained with that boyfriend. 

Let’s picture her dilemma: There she is in her senior year, a traditionally-raised Japanese-American girl who has been bred to avoid conflict at all costs. And she doesn’t want to hurt this nice-enough guy she’s been dating for so long. Compared to that relationship, Mark is an unknown, a dark horse in a race she didn’t know was going to take place. 

True to form as we know him now, Mark’s primary concern, even back then, is Doris’ happiness. Doris is a wreck. She absolutely doesn’t know what to do in the situation. She’s lost her appetite and can’t eat. Mark helpfully tries to assist Doris in making an objective list of all the pros and cons she’s facing. For example:
    – Pro of staying with current boyfriend: Doris has had 5 pretty good years with him – why fix what isn’t broken?
    – Con of becoming Mark’s girlfriend: He’s leaving for 4 years to the other side of the world.

The list doesn’t help. The more Mark “helps her”, the fonder she gets of him, and the harder it seems to stay with same ’ol, same ’ol, the way she thinks she is supposed to. Sometimes life just thrusts these decisions upon us, as if it’s measuring us up, testing whether we really deserve what lies in store if we are brave enough to open the door to the unknown.

Finally, when Doris is down to having only 85 pounds on her 5’4” frame, Mark’s friend Ross springs to the rescue. He talks sincerely with Doris, letting her know, “Mark really IS the kind, compassionate, funny guy who you think he is.” That is just the nudge Doris needs to move off dead center. 

Doris takes her big, life-changing moment of choice and makes a decision she’s never regretted: She breaks up with her boyfriend. 

Doris Yoshioka and Mark Morisaki remember the middle of 1987 as a “very hot summer”! They enjoy a whirlwind two months of romance before he flies to Israel for medical school. And the story gets even better!

Seeing him off at the Honolulu airport, Doris cries and cries while saying goodbye. Mark’s aunt, who has driven them there, confides in Doris that she wrote to her long-distance boyfriend-now-husband every single day when he left for college on the mainland. Doris takes that up as her charge, and never misses a day of writing. 

Over those long 3 years of separation, the couple supplement their correspondence with phone calls that cost $1.25 per minute from Honolulu and more from Tel Aviv. Living with her parents and working at the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, Doris pays $800 – $1,000 per month in phone bills – basically her whole paycheck – to speak with Mark over a crackly phone line. By the end of those 3 years, Doris has received 325 letters from Mark in med school, while he has received 950 letters from Doris.

Always looking thoughtfully at every situation, Mark tells me that you actually come to know a person better with that kind of communication than by being in physical proximity,  just seeing a movie, or going out to dinner. Through their years of constant letters and phone calls, they have true heart-to-heart conversations, learning little details about their childhoods and youth, as well as envisioning their hopes and dreams for the future.

Their second summer, Mark comes home for a break from medical school, ready to bust out a big plan of his. Back in those days, showy marriage proposals were not yet ‘a thing’. Maybe Mark helped to change that fact. What he was about to do actually made it into Dave Donnelly’s  newspaper gossip column, after the fact. Doris comments to me that for all his soft-spoken ways, Mark is really a “closet limelight lover”! She uses this instance as another sign that the two of them were really meant for each other, since she prefers big and showy over quiet and candlelit. 

So, where does he take Doris for his big surprise? Why, ballroom dancing, of course, at no less than the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. The elegant room is glowing, beautifully appointed, filled with the big band music of Del Courtney. They dance their favorite style, swing, until the band leader calls a break. As Doris watches in astonishment, Mark suddenly gets to his feet and walks up in front of the 300-some people in the ballroom. The band leader proceeds to call Doris on stage, too. When she arrives, Mark drops to one knee, takes the mic, and asks for her hand in marriage.

I comment to Mark at this point in their story: “Wow! You must have been pretty sure of the answer you were going to get from Doris when you went up on that stage!”

Mark admits, “Yeah, I guess that could have gone down in flames really quickly.” But I can tell that doubt never crossed his mind, from the time he cooked up that grand idea to the time he pulled it off. Certainly, Doris’ answer did not disappoint him… or their audience! 

She had already made her choice. And that has made all the difference.

Renée Tillotson

Renée Tillotson, Director, founded Still & Moving Center to share mindful movement arts from around the globe. Her inspiration comes from the Joy and moving meditation she experiences in the practice of Nia, and from the lifelong learning she’s gained at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California. Engaged in a life-long spiritual quest, Renée assembles the Still & Moving Center Almanac each year, filled with inspirational quotes by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton. Still & Moving Center aspires to serve the community, support the Earth and its creatures, and always be filled with laughter and friendship!

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This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)