Falling Awake: Secrets

This story begins with a photo. 

Pope Francis is on the front page of The New York Times, and it makes me remember a few secrets that need to break loose. Let me just say, there is no end to secrets that need to break loose.

The Roman Catholic leader is sitting in a wheelchair in a graveyard. White crosses surround him. He traveled to Canada to apologize for the church’s role in running boarding schools where Indigenous children were abused and where many died.

Everything about the photo arouses in me both gratitude and suspicion. Gratitude because someone influential is holding himself accountable. Suspicion because of the infinite number of leaders who speak up once it is too late. It’s as if the photo is trying to remind me of that.

Growing up, the Pope was someone my family believed in; it was just what Catholic families did. I didn’t not believe in the Pope, no more or any less than other presiding men in my life.

One such man comes to mind: a young priest new to our parish. I believed in him right up until he slept with a girl in our high school. Once I left home, I never gave him another thought. Priests and popes came and went. All those secrets are behind me now.

But then the truths began to surface. Unrelenting secrets. Who could imagine such things done to children? It must have occurred to me that many people still care what the Pope has to say about the major issues we face, but when I saw the photo, I realized he had become someone I barely remembered being told to care about.

I couldn’t wait to leave the steepled white churches and village greens of New England where everything looks serene from the outside. But if there is one thing that the church taught me, it’s that, within, things are secretly falling apart.

I held on to my secrets.

It’s been years since I thought about my neighborhood friend, pregnant at 15. Her father had abused her for years. He wore an expensive suit to church. That’s what my mother called it, “an expensive suit.” One day her mother took her to the city. When they came home, my friend was no longer pregnant. I knew this, but we never talked about it.

Something about everything felt very hidden after that, and I didn’t know what to do with all the secrets piling on, but they affected me.

There is an image recurrent in religious promotion of a bucolic child, hands folded in prayer, looking up to the sky as if someone up there knows. I never saw myself in that face. All of my life, I have been defying this idea that any one religion has the “answers.” But the questions? Writers are nothing if not open to the questions.

I can even drive myself a little crazy with the questions. The Catholic stuff I love to avoid is still the Catholic stuff I love to study. And why I suddenly need to know what Pope Francis had to say about the reversal of Roe v. Wade.

And there it is in black and white, the reason for my suspicion: He strongly upholds the church teaching of opposing abortions, equating it to “hiring a hit-man to solve a problem.” It proves that avoidance of hypocrisy is not something we can ever assume from the church any more than from Congress or the Supreme Court. And, Francis, see, I wanted to believe in you.

My neighbor had friends in to celebrate when Roe v. Wade was reversed. One man looked innocent enough, so I asked him what the party was about, knowing full well.

“We are living in a pro-life country now,” he said.

“Really? Pro-life?” I said. “How does one think no abortion, but it’s OK that there hasn’t been a single week in 2022 without a mass shooting?”

It wasn’t fear that made me speak up. Nor any need to “win.” No. It was the effect of hands-on pressure. Scared for the future of reproductive choice, I’d booked a massage to calm me. The therapist kept saying, “Oh! I need to unblock you.” And then she’d press down on just the right spot and say, “There, can you feel it?” 

And, to my surprise, I could. Little pops in my neck. Where the blunt spine meets a churning mind. Pop. Pop. Pop. And then an honest-to-goodness peace came over me. I forced myself not to doubt the feeling. To believe.

When my massage was over, I sat up and admitted my abortion at 19. I didn’t feel ready to say this out loud. But I felt ready to be ready. And then a small miracle happened: The therapist admitted hers at 16 to me. Some basic part of us opened to a truth of ourselves, and we had a private opportunity to share precisely what that truth was, and how grateful we are to live in our city where choice is still possible. I was her. She was me. And we were millions of other women.

My experience with massage, actually the whole way I felt about the neuromuscular system, had changed in an hour. Not only had each of my physical centers been unlocked, but the door to the shame closet flew open. And two more secrets took wing. Freer for having been kept.

After the story broke about the 10-year-old Ohio girl who was raped and then had to flee her state in order to have a safe and legal abortion, I booked another massage, but not with the same therapist. I wanted to set apart what surprisingly felt like one of the most honest encounters of my life. And I believe it always will be.


Mary Lou Sanelli, author, speaker and master dance teacher, is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, “Every Little Thing,” which has been nominated for a 2022 Washington State Book Award. Her children's book, “Bella Likes To Try,” will be available in October. For more information about her and her work, visit www.marylousanelli.com.