by Annabel Du Boulay
I was inspired to paint 'The Healing Womb' art installation for the Glastonbury Goddess Conference 2012 by my personal experience of mothering three children, two of whom were born with life-threatening syndromes and multiple disabilities. During the months I lived on neonatal intensive care and paediatric surgical wards, I heard many stories of womb wounding. Stories of sadness interwoven with abortion, of grief from miscarrying, of the trauma of still-birth. Stories of failed IVF attempts, of childless women, their wombs over-flowing with lost dreams. Stories from overwhelmed and frightened mothers nursing ill and disabled children. And stories of motherhood and mothering in the community, its challenges and its rewards.
As women, we all have stories of womb wounding to share but so often we can feel silenced by a society that does not honour our experiences. Abortion remains shrouded in stigma whilst feelings of anger, resentment, grief and despair can be challenging for family and friends to witness, leading us to hide our shadow feelings, pushing them deep inside us where they can fester, causing ill health both physically and mentally.
When I questioned the Ward Sister as to why there was such a lack of funding for neonatal intensive care compared to adult intensive care, she explained that historically society considered that ill or dying babies were simply a cross that women had to bear, preferably with stoicism and in silence. Still now, we are expected not to complain, but I have heard the screams of women as their babies died in their arms, and they cannot be silenced.
With 'The Healing Womb', my intention was to create a sacred space to honour women and their unique stories. At the Glastonbury Goddess Conference 2012, many women visited the art installation in the Miracles Room to spend time in meditation, breathing in the healing energy of the four archetypal paintings, listening to their whispered words of wisdom, releasing their tears and writing their stories on prayer flags. The installation now hangs in my room in The Old Clinic in Glastonbury, where I hold Healing Womb workshops for women who feel drawn to work with their womb wounding in a small, safe and compassionate circle of women treading a similar path.
I know what it feels like to face the fear of my children dying, to feel all the conflicting emotions woven into caring for disabled children. I also know how intensely lonely it has felt to lock my story away, to not want to burden others with my threads of grief, anger and despair, to weave a different story to show the world when inside I was desperate to speak, to be heard, to be comforted. The Healing Womb workshops provide a sacred space where we can experience the gift of being heard, held and valued by other women who walk softly by our side - sharing our stories together, journeying with and honouring the wounded parts of us, expressing and transforming our shadow feelings through creativity and gentle rituals, and rebirthing ourselves out of the healing womb with tears, laughter and sisterhood. Above all, the workshops are a confidential space in which women can come and speak the unspeakable, give voice to their darkest thoughts and feelings without any fear of being judged or silenced, and in so doing, are able to find deep healing and release.
The Healing Womb installation features four 5'x4' acrylic paintings based on the four elemental energies. Earth's association with the underworld is reflected in Mother of Loss; Air's sense of silence and aloneness on the frozen landscape is expressed through Mother of Solitude; Fire's ability to warm, nurture and heal illuminates Mother of Healing; and Water's soothing outpouring of love flows through Mother of Compassion.
Each elemental painting embodies the archetypal energy of goddesses drawn from different cultures, and features figures of various ethnicities in recognition of the fact that womb wounding affects all women regardless of culture or race. Hecate is Mother of Loss, Greek Goddess of the Crossroads, protector of newborn babies and companion to souls journeying in the underworld. Lilith is Mother of Solitude, a Sumerian Goddess adopted later by Judaism, who embodies female empowerment, independence and autonomy, and also brings fertile blessings to women struggling to conceive. Brigit is Mother of Healing, Celtic Goddess of Imbolc, fire, healing and protector of children, especially those who are vulnerable, ill or disabled. And Kuan Yin is Mother of Compassion, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion and Mercy, who through her violet flame of forgiveness helps us to transform our shadow emotions into compassion for ourselves and others.
The four archetypal Goddess energies are associated with the relevant womb wounding experienced by women. Hecate, Mother of Loss, is for women who have suffered loss either through miscarriage, still-birth or death. Originally I included abortion, but from my experience of running my first workshop at the Glastonbury Goddess Conference, it became clear that women who had experienced abortion needed a space that was dedicated just to them, so I now invite them to work with Kuan Yin, whose energies of compassion and forgiveness are particularly relevant. Lilith, Mother of Solitude, is for women who are childless, either due to infertility and/or circumstance. Brigit, Mother of Healing, is for mothers of ill, disabled or special needs children. And Kuan Yin was originally painted to encompass all mothering experiences, not necessarily just of children, but also within the community in our many nurturing roles as women.
During the nine month gestation period of painting the installation from October 2011-June 2012, I interviewed many courageous women who offered to share their stories of womb wounding with me. As I embarked on each painting, I ritually lit a candle and called in not only the Goddess energy I was working with but also the souls of these women so that their stories became the beating heart of the installation. I am deeply grateful to every woman I have interviewed, worked with as a therapist and journeyed with in my workshops. I never cease to be amazed and humbled by the depth of women's stories, the myriad challenges they overcome, and their courage and resilience in daring to heal and rebirth themselves back into the light of hope.
Standing on the threshold between darkness and light, death and rebirth, Hecate personally led me into my deepest fears around my son dying. After four months of watching him fighting to survive in neonatal intensive care, followed by months of resuscitating him ourselves on a daily basis, I had been left with an intense fear of his death. Through painting Hecate, I came to know Her as a deeply loving energy. She is strong and fiercely protective, guarding the gateway between life and death with her dog, but there is a sense of comfort we can draw from her strength. She embodies the aging wisewoman who has faced many challenges in her life and chooses, whilst still strong in her body, to stand in her power on the bridge and welcome the souls of our loved ones into her arms. Beneath her warrior-witch facade is a heart pouring open with love, compassion and gentleness. She may not suffer fools gladly, but she cradles the souls of our lost babies and children with infinite love and maternal devotion.
In the Mother of Loss painting, Hecate can be seen welcoming a grief-stricken mother who has carried the soul of her lost baby to the underworld on her (white) night-mare. Hecate, who bears the soul of another baby on her back, points to the light of hope and rebirth shining through St Michael's Tower on Glastonbury Tor. In the background Old Grandmother of Time is seated at the Wheel of Life, spinning and cutting the threads of life. Above her, in the darkness of the night sky shines a star of hope with the image of an embryo in the centre, inspired by the story of a woman who imagines the eight babies she miscarried as stars in the sky. Hecate is surrounded by her totem animals – her guardian dog, the black lamb who represents the lost child, the toad who symbolises rebirth, and her crows perched on a dead tree, which contrasts with the fertile oak branch laden with acorns, the souls of new life waiting to be reborn on earth.
Before I started painting Lilith, I naively assumed that I wouldn't personally identify with her archetypal energy because I have been blessed with three children and do not know how it feels to be childless. I focussed on the stories of women I know and have interviewed, hoping to create a painting that would offer them solace and a burst of fertile energy. However, Lilith was not going to let me off that lightly and led me on a deeply challenging journey into the desert of solitude where, abandoned and outcast, I discovered a stronger sense of self-worth in all my shadow and light. She helped me to access those forbidden and silenced emotions of anger, self-pity, resentment, bitterness and shame, to stand alone in all my dark wildness and to rage against life until step by step she led me to the healing waters of her oasis. Lilith taught me perhaps the greatest gift of life, to love my shadow even when others reject me for it, to forgive myself and to know that deep inside me is a wellspring of strength and self-worth that is not dependent on how others view me.
The image of Lilith comes from the Burney Relief, a terracotta plaque from Babylon dating back to 1800-1750 BCE. In her hands she holds a ring and rod, which I interpret as a fertility symbol of the union of female and male. She has wings and bird's feet, denoting her connection to the ancient Paleolithic Bird Goddess and, as 'Divine Lady Owl', is flanked by two stylized owls who penetrate the shadows of the night and of our souls with their keen vision. Lilith is perched on two lions, which I painted as male and female, harking back to our pagan ancestors whose ritual caves were guarded by the painting of a lioness. Some see this as a symbol of her mastery over wild beasts. I prefer to see Lilith as an embodiment of their great strength and autonomy. A woman kneels in front of her, her blood loss symbolizing her grief and/or failed attempts to conceive, flowing from the heart of her womb into the Lion's Head at Chalice Well. But it is here that the painting becomes a potent totem of fertility, the red (female) and white (male) springs beneath the Tor uniting and flowing upwards, blessed by the fertility of the tree and serpent from the Gilgamesh Epic, and bathing the woman's womb with the hope of new life - her own or that of her children yet to come.
Painting Brigit was very personal to me and my children. My eldest daughter Sophia was born in 1999 requiring life-saving surgery at birth and a further nine operations, leading us both on a profoundly healing journey with the Black Goddess Sophia, which inspired my novel The Serpent's Tale. I was then blessed by the experience of birthing a healthy daughter Jasmine, who brought her gifts of well-being, compassion, love and laughter. In 2009, I gave birth to my son Zac who suffers from facial and oral paralysis, and at the time of painting Brigit, was unable to smile, speak or feed orally. Painting The Healing Womb installation, and especially Brigit, was one of the ways in which I creatively transformed and healed my shadow emotions relating to his birth and my journey with my children. For me, the most effective way to draw meaning from dark, painful experiences is to use creativity to transform them into something tangible that can bring light and hope to others who may be suffering – to transform base metal into gold like the original alchemists and philosophers. Brigit, Brighde, Bride, the Celtic Goddess who embodies a similar archetypal energy to Sophia as Lady Alchemia, has been our family's constant companion since Sophia's birth. Both Sophia and Zac had surgery on 1st February, Imbolc and the poem I wrote to Bridie whilst nursing Sophia in hospital at Imbolc 2001 is still sung every year at the Glastonbury Goddess Temple Imbolc ceremony. I cried many tears whilst painting Brigit, but they were gentle, soothing tears, not the grief-laden sobs that Hecate brought She helped me to let go, to surrender to our souls' journey and, in so doing, to feel deep gratitude for the gift of my children and our experiences, however painful and frightening they have often been.
In the painting, Brigit is shown in both her dark and light aspect. She is the beautiful fire maiden, muse of poets, protector and healer of children, but also the mourning mother whose grief at her son's death on the battlefield was so loud across all of Ireland that war ceased and peace prevailed. This can be seen as a metaphor for our need as women, especially those of us who grieve the loss of our dreams of birthing a healthy, non-disabled child, to express our pain so that we can come to a place of acceptance and peace. The image of Brigit is taken from the statue of St Brigid as shepherdess at her shrine in Kildare, Ireland. I am cradling my daughter Sophia on a ventilator in neonatal intensive care, whilst my daughter Jasmine is holding her beloved brother Zac. Beside us, Brigit's wolf guards and protects us, my primary animal guide, along with the serpent of rebirth, regeneration and wisdom gained from journeying in the depths of the underworld. We are seated beside Chalice Well and its healing waters, with Brigit's swans and snowdrops in the foreground. Behind us the phoenix rises in the flames of Brigit's fire, symbolising the part of us that dies each time we are burned by life, only to be reborn once more from the fertile ashes with a greater capacity for love, compassion, courage and wisdom.
Having spent nine months painting the first three paintings, I had five days left to paint Kuan Yin and take her to the printers to photograph before I left to travel around Romania with my family. She came through fast and flowing, with her dove of peace, her vase of amitra, the dew of life, and her branch of willow, whose strong roots allow it to bend in stormy winds, teaching us of the need to go with the flow, to accept and surrender instead of resisting life's challenges. Riding her dragon, symbolising her mastery of shadow emotions such as self-punishment, self-blame and guilt, she sees our suffering through the many eyes of her peacock feathers and, through her violet flame of forgiveness, helps us to transform the muddy roots of our pain into the beautiful flowering petals of her lotus flower.
As the Goddess of Compassion and Mercy, Kuan Yin is associated with Mother Mary and Tibetan Tara. She is the symbol of the Wounded Healer, who through her renunciation of Buddhahood and her own suffering on earth is able to pour her compassion on humanity and relieve the pain of others. It is this energy that we as women aspire to emulate at the end of the archetypal journey illustrated in the paintings of The Healing Womb – from Hecate's descent into the underworld of grief and fear; through Lilith's empowering sense of self-worth and independence; to Brigit's healing release of tears and rebirth from the ashes of her fire; transforming ourselves ultimately through Kuan Yin's compassion and forgiveness into the Wounded Healers we are destined to become through our experiences of womb wounding.
After I finished painting the installation, I travelled to Romania and visited the painted monasteries. As I stared at some of the traditional, 'naive' reverse glass paintings inside the monasteries, with their use of strong black lines, I found myself staring at my own style of painting. I gave up art at school aged 13 but always carried within me a strong desire to paint large canvases. After a close friend reassured me that everyone is an artist, it's just a matter of finding your own unique way of expressing yourself, I joined a life-drawing class. Eight years later, I painted The Healing Womb installation. I am not a sophisticated, trained artist but I have a strong, distinct style that seems to spring innately from somewhere deep inside me. In Romania, I felt I had found the source of my 'naive' style in what may have been a past-life as a Transylvanian icon reverse glass painter! No wonder I have always been fascinated by the iconography of the Black Madonna, Sophia and Magdalene.
Our road trip around Romania was also a beginning and an end for our family. When Sophia and Zac were both born, I never dreamt it would be possible to travel abroad with either of them, but there we were, with suction machine and oxygen cylinder in tow, travelling through the remotest parts of the Carpathian Mountains. This heralded the end of a three year journey of intense stress, fear and pain, and birthed our renewed belief and trust in life to transform shadow into light, despair into hope. Sometimes, it can feel that Goddess takes from us at will, that she steals our very breath and those of our loved ones, that she tramples on our dreams and strips us to bare bone. And yet I have come to understand that our souls choose the challenges we face in each life-time, and that it is not Goddess who inflicts these upon us, but She who holds us with infinite love and compassion as we stumble in the dark, saved only by the flickering light of her violet flame guiding us to freedom.
Annabel is also a transpersonal regression therapist and workshop facilitator, with experience of working both in private practice and for a leading mental health charity with sufferers of severe and enduring mental health difficulties. She raises awareness of women's rights, mental health and disability issues through the talks she gives.
As a wounded healer, Annabel is passionate about helping people to discover the light of Goddess shining within the shadowy depths of their souls' experience.
For further information, to book onto a Healing Womb workshop and to buy Annabel's book and prints, please visit her company website www.belashka.com.