Sorry for the long absence. My spare time recently was totally committed to helping launch the first-ever San Miguel International Storytelling Festival. From start to finish, it was truly an amazing experience. Please visit the San Miguel Storyteller’s Facebook page to learn more about what happened. All the stories were true and the storytellers were incredible. To steal a famous line from the Seinfeld TV show: They’re real and they’re spectacular.
Also recently I was invited by Libros Sin Fronteras (Books without Borders) to give a book reading at a recent fundraising event. I read from a chapter in my unfinished sequel to Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak. The working title for the sequel is “Dogs, Cats & Expats,” and the chapter title is “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nuns.”
For those who don’t know, Libros Sin Fronteras is a non-profit organization that promotes education among underprivileged children by building libraries in their communities. Naturally, as a charter member of Cartographers without Borders, I was more than happy to accept their offer. I read with Carol Merchasin, a very talented, smart, and funny writer, who also happened to be one of the top three winners in the Storytelling Festival.
I am posting the piece I read at the fundraiser (in two parts). I hope you enjoy it.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nuns
by Mark Saunders
In my green and salad days, I was a card-carrying, cassock-wearing, dyed-in-the-wool, crucifix waving, chest-beating, prayer-mumbling, hymn-singing, Rosary-bead-swinging Catholic. I attended parochial school through the eighth grade, wearing my uniform of white shirt, black pants, and black plastic-like shiny shoes with great shiny pride. I assisted at Mass as an altar boy during the Age of Confusion. Some of you may remember it as that pre-Vatican II epoch when you couldn’t eat a cheeseburger on Friday without fear of eternal damnation and you had to memorize Latin without knowing what any of it meant. To this day I can bow my head, tap my chest reverently, and recite the Susipiat, the long passage that begins “Suscípiat Dóminus sacrifícium de mánibus túis” to anyone in a bar willing to buy me a drink.
I was chosen Altar Boy of the Year for my school. During an intensely spiritual five-day stretch that same year, after reading Father Butler’s classic work The Lives of the Saints, a book about how saints suffer in defense of their faith, I took a vow of silence and refused to talk to anyone, including my parents.
Mom: He’s not talking to me.
Dad: What’s wrong?
Mom: I don’t know. He hasn’t said one word. Not one word. All day. Not a word.
Dad: Why won’t you talk to your mother?
Dad: Maybe he’s sick?
Mom: Do you think he’s sick?
Dad: No. He’s not sick. He’s just being weird. Are you being weird?
I was being weird and I was sorry. But I couldn’t break my vow of silence, not even for my parents. I stood at the edge of a slippery slope. If I were to break my vow, the next step would be injecting meth, robbing liquor stores, getting caught, and spending five-to-ten engaged to some bald guy with tats, body piercings and bad breath named Ike, Mike, Spike or Pike. Besides, a vow is sacred — unless, of course, you’re in politics.
Dad: Talk to me. Say something.
Mom: He won’t answer. He’s not talking to you, either.
It was perhaps the first time in the history of the Roman Catholic Church that a saint had his television privileges revoked and was sent to bed without his supper. Thus is the pious stuff martyrs are made of.
I attended Holy Family Catholic School in Citrus Heights, California, in what could best be described as an early bilingual educational experiment. The nuns spoke Spanish. The students spoke English. And miscommunication reigned supreme. It was a new school and the nuns were all from Latin America. We considered it their long-awaited payback for Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick policy. Their big stick happened to be a ruler.
In spite of the occasional knuckle-wrapping, the worst form of punishment I suffered was whenever two nuns would take turns shaking me by my collar while rattling off Spanish to each other at the lethal rate of five-thousand words a minute. In such moments I knew I was a gonner. I expected the hairy, smoldering claw of Satan to break through the cement floor, snag me around the legs, and pull me to the fire and brimstone fate I so justly deserved. I felt sad for my mother. She’d arrive at 3:30 that afternoon to pick me up and I wouldn’t be there.
The nuns were pure sugar compared to the parish priest, Father Mistretta. A tall, broad-shouldered Italian-American weaned on the streets of Brooklyn, Father Mistretta was, in a word, tough. His powerful voice could make grown men shake. His angry glare could shatter mighty souls into bits of nothingness. His use of language was colorful in the way that a longshoreman’s vocabulary had spunk. We believed Father Mistretta could put the fear of God in God.