A couple of years ago, I used my art in a profound way to help myself through a rough time. I have had some difficult surgeries in my life, mostly orthopedic, but the procedures I’ve had done on my “lady bits” have invariably been the hardest of all. This time I was facing a probable complete hysterectomy. It was deepest winter, just after the end of Women’s Little Christmas, and I scheduled it for a waning moon, the lunar enactment of going into the shadow. The time had come to fully become a winter woman.
Two nights before the operation, I woke in the wee hours of the night, wondering if I had really made a painting of my uterus, or if I had just dreamed it. I couldn’t rest until I looked for it, and I finally unearthed it in a dusty corner of my studio bookshelf, in an archive of “unfinished” books. The painting was bound in the pages of Womb Time Moon Time. I had created this painted and lettered book in 2009, in response to a call for entries for an exhibit about marking time. I rarely do this (create to an abstract), and it wasn’t accepted. So I hid it away, just like a womb. I was vaguely ashamed of it, that I should have made a book about so private a part of my body. And my bookmaking skills at the time were not what I wanted them to be, so I planned to make another, better one.
Now, however, I greeted my work as an old friend, thrilled that I had made it. I brought it into my bedroom and began to fashion an altar. This page spread became the ground on which I made a ritual to honor and say farewell to my generative organs. How could I best thank them for all the magic they did for me? For the woman’s pain body they gave me? For all this long ride together, inside me since I was inside my mother?
The night before I went into the hospital, I used my sacred red spelling yarn to wind a double spiral on the page, understanding as I always do that going under general anesthesia is a visit to the underworld, a journey I pray to return from every time. I am putting my life in the hands of the anesthesiologist. The double spiral is a powerful symbol of death and rebirth. Unlike a labyrinth, it follows a different but parallel path to the center and out again.
On the day of the surgery, I arose at 3:45 a.m.and drank fennel and green tea with honey, grateful that anesthesia has progressed to letting the patient hydrate before the procedure. I had done the magic, read the poems, written the protection, said the homage. I was as prepared as I could be. I knew I had all the spiritual armor I needed. I felt my relations near me.
Then I went to the hospital and submitted to the tender hands of two surgeons to carefully carve me and mend the prolapses that led me to this crucible. I was grateful beyond words that they were both women. Two and half hours later, it was done. I was emptied out.
After emerging from the double spiral of the underworld, I began the healing process. For almost three lunations, I moved like seaweed in the tides of grief. It was an inward time. I had a sense that my womb could be reborn as a vital, green symbol. I added and subtracted objects on my book altar that made sense to me, that offered me comfort, talismans of earth and sea.
A meditation during a healing massage brought the image of a smooth citrine, shaped like a womb and sun-bright. I added some sea-smoothed stones from an ocean pilgrimage, and a tiny piece of conjuring cottonwood twig, which has a star in the center when crosscut.
I worked through one spell of sorrow with a painting in my journal and a transcription of Hymn to Her, a beautiful song to Goddess made popular by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, written by her high school friend Meg Keene. It was current in the culture in the same years I was having my children, before I had a name for the Mother. Even then, She was beckoning to me.
Into your room
I’ve heard it’s lined
With the things you don’t show
Lay me beside you
Down on the floor
I’ve been your lover
From the womb to the tomb
I dress as your daughter
When the moon becomes round
You be my mother
When everything’s gone
Something is lost
But something is found
They will keep on speaking her name
Some things change
Some stay the same
From behind that closed door
The maid and the mother
And the crone that’s grown old
Coming out of that hole
I listen to you
And I want some more
I listen to you
And I want some more
Some thing is lost
But something is found
They will keep on speaking her name
Some things change
Some stay the same
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the depth of psychic processing I had to do. My womb was central to who I was as a woman. She taught me suffering, and compassion, and endurance. She gave me joy and sorrow, gifts and losses. The great pink bull in my belly was now a ghost.
One day I opened the mail and discovered the pathology report which is routinely done after any surgery, and which I am usually curious to read. This time the cut and dried language filled my eyes with tears and I put it aside. The doctor had already told me there was nothing malignant, which of course was a relief, but I had already known that. It caused me a pang of regret, for if there was nothing wrong with them, why did they have to go? But I was one of the lucky ones, for there was no malignancy. My problems have been mostly mechanical. I just didn’t think it would ever happen to me. None of us do.
This beautiful poem was one cog in the gears of healing. I printed it out with a picture and sent it to my surgeons in thanks.
Mother Wisdom Speaks
Some of you I will hollow out.
I will make you a cave.
I will carve you so deep the stars will shine in your darkness.
You will be a bowl.
You will be the cup in the rock collecting rain.
I will hollow you with knives.
I will not do this to make you clean.
I will not do this to make you pure.
You are clean already.
You are pure already.
I will do this because the world needs the hollowness of you.
I will do this for the space that you will be.
I will do this because you must be large.
People will find their way through you.
People will eat from you
and their hunger will not weaken them to death.
A cup to catch the sacred rain.
My daughter, do not cry. Do not be afraid.
Nothing you need will be lost.
I am shaping you.
I am making you ready.
Light will flow in your hollowing.
You will be filled with light.
Your bones will shine.
The round open center of you will be radiant.
I will call you Brilliant One.
I will call you Daughter Who is Wide.
I will call you transformed.
For a long time, the loss would creep up on me at odd times. Every time I thought I’d gotten out in front of it, it rolled over me again like a tsunami. The fact is, I missed her. Over the years we had done a lot of magic together. After more time passed I began to see her as my ancestor womb, gone to live with my motherline in the beyond. I found I was still full of womb spirit. I finally knew that this had been the crossing, the croning. I had lit the dark stars and now could fully embrace my elder wisdom. The big magic given to me by my womb in my younger years would come forth with me.
Finally I turned the page, closed up the womb book, and place a rock on it as if on a grave. A story rock, a portal rock, one that I gathered from near Mount Shasta, the Mother Mountain.
I hesitantly shared one of these photos on social media during my recovery time, but was warmed by the response. Especially surprising was the comment of a male friend, a man I’ve never met in person but whose reply told me he was a man who loved a woman. Peter wrote, “This is what nurtures the culture of connection… That each of us contributes to our larger knowing, that wholeness is not about our bodies but about our ‘interrelated mutuality’.” He told me the phrase was from Martin Luther King, Jr.
Still, for two years I have kept this post as a rough draft. Sharing this in a public way goes against my grain; in general I have been private with my body trials. In my family it was a sign of weakness to discuss your ills, even sometimes shameful to have them. But at these times I am reminded of Rachel Naomi Remen’s words: “Wounding and healing are not opposites. They’re part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of.”
All my life, art and writing have saved me from despair and lifted me into another realm, one of usefulness and beauty. I finally published the Womb Time Moon Time book in my Gallery this winter, along with another, wordless, book about an earlier trial, Portal. If it gives comfort to other women to see these images, then I am glad. I have women friends, young and old, who have faced or are facing this. This is for them. And it is for any woman who has or has lost a womb, or who has in any way felt threatened because of her womb, which might be all of us. On this International Women’s Day, it is for all women.
What became of my dear companions, who accompanied me all my life? In a kind of dream I let them go, floating into the western sea in a round coracle, to join all the other beings of light and dark, all the other wombs, given, taken. I cried, and breathed a prayer. And then I felt my hands being held on either side by women, a long line stretching out along the shore. We stood connected, in the evening breeze, the magic golden light, all the women swaying and singing as the sun went into the sea. The ceremony was complete now.
As I woke from the dream, a voice from the shadows said, “All is possible. All is possible.”
Cari-thank you so much for deciding to share this. I had a hysterectomy at 27, long before I had the tools or knowledge to deal with how to make it “all right”. I had next to no support and was ridiculed every time I mentioned that I was saddened by the loss. I find so much healing energy here in your post. Maybe there’s still time for me to honor that loss. Thank you for this gift.
Lorita, I feel such a stab of sadness to read of your experience. No woman should ever have been belittled for such a sacred sorrow. It’s never too late to mend that for yourself however you can. Bless your journey and may you find beauty in restoring your light-womb to her rightful place.
I’m very moved by your words and images Cari. Thank you for making the decision to share your embodied, spiritual, magical story of grief and healing. Now more than ever, the most profound stories of women’s experiences are needed by the world (and by me). Blessings.
Thank you for this, Sarah. Every woman who responds to me makes it easier to have done this and fills me with joy. More and more, I have committed to telling the truth about women’s lives, after a lifetime of lurking in the shadows.
Oh so tender, beautiful, wise and strong. You have untied your strong woman. Namaste. I see you. Thank you.
Thank you, sister of my heart. You have brought back the teacher I left out of this account, the incandescent Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Her series of audiobooks under the umbrella title of The Dangerous Old Woman, of which Untie the Strong Woman is perhaps the sixth and last book, has been my boon companion through many a dark night for the last several years. She has given me immeasurable strength and resilience in the face of so, so much. And so has your friendship.
Very beautiful and moving. Thank you.
Several years ago I was in a ceremony led by a shaman. This journey took me deep inside. I was connecting with different parts of my body, when I greeted my uterus, or rather, she claimed my attention. As I centered more on this part of my body, I felt tears welling up in my eyes. Soon I was wailing like I never had before. Noises coming directly from my womb. She was crying that she never got to fulfill her role, since I never had children – a conscious choice I made in my teens . Still, my uterus shared her grief in a way that I had never experienced before. I stayed with this feeling for a while and then I went over to the pregnant woman in the room and sat next to her, my hand on her womb.
It is powerful to experience the body — the womb, in your case, having done her job and leaving, or, in my case, grieving that she never had the chance.
Sherrie, I honor you for bringing this story here. Every woman has such a different lived experience with her body. When we put words to it, it lets others understand what it might be like to have walked a different way. That way is not always a choice, and even when it is, the body will have its say. Have you ever listened to Dr. Estés audiobook The Joyous Body? She talks of the body as being our faithful consort in life, separate from us, our loyal companion. Very wonderful. I’ve listened to it many times.
Thank you Cari.
Thank you for your faithful reading, Jacqueline.
Cari, I’m so appreciative of what you shared here; your nuances are honed for clarity and there’s so much resonance throughout. Thank you for finding the courage to share this story, which helps all of us continue to find courage.
” . . . I felt my hands being held on either side by women, a long line stretching out along the shore. We stood connected . . . ”
This part was especially meaningful for me. Thank you.
Robin, it is so nice to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words. It always means a lot of me when anything I’ve written lands well for a reader, who then takes the time to let me know. I hope you are well, and that you keep well.