Saturday, November 19, 2011

Simply Mari

So many partially written blog entries...numerous, unformulated, yet juicy ideas bouncing around my over-crowded noggin...while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads...just waiting for me to jot them down, and still I haven't been able to write. I'll admit it, I've been stuck...like a truck in the muck...mired in apathy, self-involvement and evidently, too much children's literature...that Sam-I-Am, that Sam-I-Am, I do not like that Sam-I-Am. And then, to make matters worse, I made a sweeping, grandiose statement in my last blog entry (which was in July...yikes) that I am going to write a book. A BOOK for Seuss sake! What the fuck was I thinking?

Just as I'd make headway with a possible chapter, the kids would start reenacting an episode of Phineas and Ferb, or my ancient fourteen-and-a-half year old husky would have a seizure on the kitchen floor making me wonder whether it was time to call the kindly man with a lethal injection, or I'd have to attend a mandatory meeting at Sebastian's school because he proclaimed, "Vagina, vagina, vagina," at top volume on the school playground, possibly upsetting the tender ears of those both with and without vaginas, or one of the seven hundred thousand other unplanned things that flat out distract me from doing anything besides planning the next meal and keeping my head above water.

You see, I'm single parenting as of late. No, I'm not headed towards divorce. Michael is on tour with Cathy Rigby doing Peter Pan. (And before you ask, no, he's NOT playing a fairy: he's one of the pirates.) So to lean on someone else to cook a meal, do homework or possibly condition and comb out my daughter's head of nappy hair is simply not available. Add to that...and perhaps this is not pertinent...but I can't stop thinking about food. I am presently enduring the dreaded five hundred calorie-a-day HCG diet which makes me loopy, yearning for Cuban rice and nauseous all at the same time. So, if I come off snippy, discombobulated, or downright morose, know that there are many balls in the air, and with my husband out of town none of them are mine. (TMI, I know.)

So, I hate to say...embarrassed actually...that I'm shelving the book idea...for now.

Where does that leave me? I'm at that re-start up phase with my writing, sort of like beginning at the gym...again...after a prolonged hiatus. It's a fucking chore. Trust me, it's more than crossed my mind to chuck this writing thing all together. I seriously was about to throw out my quill...

But I made a promise...

***

When six weeks ago I heard the phrase "hospice care" I was pretty sure what was going to happen. When a hospital bed was moved into her bedroom, it seemed even more apparent that the end was near. And when I was told that she was being given morphine on a regular basis I knew the inevitable was days away. But when Michael touched me on my arm as I was cooking the kid's breakfast, just touched me and almost inaudibly said, "She's gone," I gasped at the finality of it all.


My very dear friend Maricela Ochoa-Henderson passed away on October 10th from stage four breast cancer. She was 48.

Never have I hated writing declarative sentences more.

***

Michael and I moved to our Los Angeles home on his birthday, at the end of November in 1999. Two weeks later, we went to Maricela's house, someone I had never met but Michael had known for years through the Chicago theater scene. "Call me Mari," she insisted, her 'r' sounding like a 'd', while ushering us to her kitchen, which was full of wonderful home-cooked smells and abuzz with activity. A bevy of folks were crowded around a small table spreading masa into dampened corn husks. Mari was making her family's tamales for the next night's Tamale Party.

I was to learn that The Tamale Party, which was always the first Saturday in December, was legendary. Actually, calling it party doesn't do it justice. It was an event. People cleared their calendars months in advance and selected well thought out wardrobes. Hundreds of tamales were prepared: meat, vegetarian and dessert varieties. The party was so fly, folks would fly in from other parts of the country to eat Mari's food and enjoy her hospitality. Friendships were born, relationships went to the next level and kisses between total strangers were stolen in the night. The booze flowed freely, the salsa syncopated loudly, and the tamales...well, the tamales were so amazing folks would plot how to best pilfer a dozen or two without anyone noticing.

And then, the next day, when your average host would have the common sense to hang up her apron and nurse her hangover, Mari would be busy preparing the post-Tamale Party brunch for a select few of us. The brunch was a blast because not only would we enjoy a second round of delicious food, but we also would rehash the previous night's exploits and basically...I'll say it...dish. Who made out behind the house? Who started the screaming match in the street? What time did the cops arrive? Who set the fire to the bathroom?

The laughter, the conviviality, the community...and at the center of it all was Maricela Ochoa.

And the Tamale Party is indicative to how Mari lived her life...with flair, individuality, to its fullest and with gusto. Whether belting out kd lang's Constant Craving in karaoke roulette or providing a lap dancing stripper for the Sensuality Shower she hosted for Michael and me, Mari went all out. But to my mind, what exemplifies her individuality, her attention to detail and flair, is when she spent months before her own wedding scouring antique shops, second hand stores and eBay collecting vintage cup-and-saucer sets. At a time when most future brides, myself included, obsess about themselves, Mari was more concerned that each of her one-hundred-fifty-some-odd wedding guests went home with a lovely memento. I never heard of anyone doing anything remotely like that. (I love mine and use it daily!)


At her core Mari was an artist. Her presence as an actress on both stage and screen was dynamic. For years I enjoyed her multi-layered performances as the highly stylized, comedia maid in La Jolla Playhouse's Blood Wedding; America Ferrera's domineering mother in Migdalia Cruz's The Have Little; the smart-talking maid in Lisa Loomer's Living Out at the Taper; and if you can believe it as God in an episode of Joan of Arcadia. Her characters were fiery, in your face and highly memorable.

I chuckle at how many times she played a domestic. Even on Joan of Arcadia, God appears to Joan as a uniform-wearing maid boarding a city bus to get to her drudgery day job. For someone as socially minded as Mari, as out spoken, politically on point and determined to change preconceived perceptions of Latina Americans, the business of show kept knocking on her door to play yet another toiling servant. But no matter her personal beliefs, she imbued these characters with dignity and an intensity I shall never forget.

Her artistry, however, didn't stop with acting. She cooked with ancestral fervor, worked yarn like a zen master (you should see the beautiful baby blankets she crocheted for the kids), and wrote with a poetry and ease I so admire.

Our love of writing is what brought us even closer together. In the years before she moved back to Texas for treatment, I spent time with Mari writing on a weekly basis. We'd randomly choose a prompt the week before, a title or passage from a book of Pablo Neruda poetry, say, or a juicy article from Vanity Fair; all it took was an unwieldy phrase like all bright and glittering in the smokeless air, or one nub of growth nudges the sand-crumb loose, and we were off. Pages would pour out of of us: scenes from plays, personal essays, short stories, blog entries, poems--oh, how I loved her poetry--and over time we had both collected nice bodies of work. Mari's writing was inspirational, her insights invaluable.

That was her gift to me...the freedom and support to express myself, to call myself writer.

***

To give you an idea how much this woman was loved, there were three services held in her honor. One with her family in Texas, one in LA and yet another in Chicago. Mari's deathbed wish was for Chief Norman, the person she entrusted with her spiritual life, to officiate. Chief Norman, who was described to me as a Native American pope, remarked at the memorial service, "I never thought I'd be doing this in a church." Only for Mari.

Something happened to me while Chief Norman was performing his duties. I'm not sure if it was when he was chanting and drumming, or smudging the church, or speaking his personal truth about Mari, but I felt something, sort of an emotional kick, swift and without warning square in the gut. Get off your mutherfucking ass and start writing again!

Whether I was hallucinating from the fumes of the smudge stick or Mari was really reaching out and giving me a good what for I couldn't tell you, but under my breath I said, "Yes, Mari. I promise."

And so here I stumble, my first steps in many months, remembering an amazing woman.

***

My lovely Mari,

I know it was your time. I know you were in pain. But here's the thing, your energy, your electricity, your fire was intoxicating. It was impassioned. It was foundation. It was life force. And it's hard, oh so hard, to imagine an existence without that force, without you.

I will remember your amazing generosity, your incredible talent, your infectious laugh and I will remember your prolonged hugs that I mistakenly thought would never ever end.


***

                                                             The Path

                              Neither family nor friend may walk with me
                              My footsteps tread alone
                                 my breath runs colder
                                 my heart beats slower
                              At each step I am aware
                                 of every ounce of blood in my veins
                                 every pore on my skin
                                 every nerve endings' pulse
                              Until, at last, I recognize this place
                              I have been here before
                              Long before my adult misgivings
                                 before my mischievous childhood
                                 before my wide awake infancy 
                              I've known this terror, confusion, and solitude
                              The immense beyond, before, and present
                              Time, sound and space are one
                              For then, like now, I was being born.

                                                               -Maricela Ochoa-Henderson
                                                                September 1997