Monday, May 11, 2009

The Art of Letting Go

For the last few months my writer’s group and I have been using an insightful little kit entitled, Inner Outings, Adventures in Journal Writing, by Charlene Geiss and Claudia Jessup. This is a boxed package that includes 33 beautifully illustrated cards, each with a single word or phrase such as, “Doorways,” or “Just for Fun" along with a companion book loaded with creative ideas on how to use each card for the maximum journaling benefits.

Because there is no “right” way to use the cards, I decided to shuffle the entire deck and then keep the cards upside down in their box. Every two weeks I draw a fresh card from the top and that becomes my “theme” until the next time. I keep my selected card beside my computer so I can use it to journal, write poetry, or maybe use it in a scene to fit my current WIP. Sometimes I even follow the suggestions in the book!

This week I got the card: “Letting go.” I thought it would be interesting to pair the idea with a famous work of art. My choice was a painting titled, "The Saltonstall Family," and my method was once again freewriting. This is what I shared with my group:

I first came across this painting in 1979, my first visit to the Tate Gallery in London. I was enchanted by it from the start: so much red and white. It never made me think of “death.” Instead, I saw a woman newly delivered of her last child, saying to her husband, “I’ll be fine,” while her mother has private thoughts about this whole upwardly-mobile family.

For years after I told myself the story of these people: the wife was concerned the children weren’t eating right and were getting into mischief while she was in bed recovering from the birth. Her mother was her best friend and lived with the family. The mother thought the husband a little too demanding: All those children! Leave my daughter alone for heaven’s sake! But the wife loved the husband, loved the children, was touchingly grateful for the life they all led.

Now it turns out I had it all wrong. According to new research, this is a portrait of death. New theories insist the woman is dead, and the child and woman to the right of the painting are recent additions to the family. Sir Richard Saltonstall is holding the hand of his deceased wife, while Wife Number Two gloats and displays her rather surprised and perplexed infant.

Saltonstall can’t let go. His children from the dead woman cling to their father and each other. The dead woman looks up at them with longing and what I can only describe as patience. To me she looks exceptionally worn out; perhaps she did die in childbirth, hence the way she will not acknowledge the usurper and her healthy baby.

The records say Saltonstall eventually was one of the early American colonizers along with John Winthrop. There is no mention of the first wife accompanying him, because by that time she was dead. In reality I suppose he had to let go of everything dear to him: his lands, his country, his comfort, his sense of the tried and true. I couldn’t follow the story of where this picture was discovered or even the “truth” of its perceived meaning and history. Something tells me these theories are wrong. I don’t believe the strong woman on the right in her Madonna-like pose is his wife at all. She is too stern, too separate. She would never have allowed such an unflattering or divisive portrait to hang on the manor walls, forever proclaiming her an outsider.

And yet, whoever she is, she is to me in conspiracy with the white-faced woman on the bed. She too, has agreed to wear white and to pass the red vitality of life onto the next generation. The children, the bed hangings, the baby’s bunting are steeped in red. The women wear white for purity, for mourning, for sacrifice; red dye was expensive, it cost a large fortune for all those millions upon millions of cochineal beetles crushed for a single drop of colorant. Only Sir Saltonstall defies the convention of red and white, and like any male bird in full plumage, sports the human equivalent of feathers in his elegant blue stockings and a gilt-embroidered coat. In his pyramid of a black hat, he is the top of the hierarchy; if he opens his hands, he lets go of the whole charade.

What has always fascinated me most about this picture is the modern and honest complexity of the caught expressions: the children are bright but resigned. “Parents,” they seem to say. The wife on the bed is perhaps saying, “Don’t let Johnnie eat too much jam and he has a geography lesson at four.” And Saltonstall simply seems annoyed that his wife isn’t up and about running the household like clockwork. Of all the faces, the one I love best is the baby. “See?” he seems to say. “We’re all crazy here! How’d I get born into this family?” His little face seems wise beyond his few brief days or minutes on earth. “We’re all the same, me and you,” he says to me. “We may be four hundred years apart, but nothing ever changes.”

Which is why I have decided to not let go of my private interpretation of this painting. Whether new research in the future will prove me right or even further from the “truth” of its origins and meaning, I need the mythology I have created from this group. I need to think there were families that had thoughts and emotions and routines and changes of fortune no different from those of today. There is a security in this picture I crave and admire and I do not want to let it go. After nearly thirty years, I cannot change the story because the story found its way into my sense of self and did its alchemical work to change me. One year after I saw it, I decided to become a writer.

All that from a single card! Inner Outings is a great package—highly recommended!

Tip of the Day: Pair a writing prompt with your favorite work of art. Freewrite and see what happens. To learn more about Inner Outings, Charlene Geiss, and Claudia Jessup, visit

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

HI Valerie, I went to every link, reading every word (the Saltenstalls grabbed me as did the new book set in Egypt (I laughed because at age 12 I wrote a little adventure novel about a young girl exploring the tombs in Egypt!

Now back to my Book Four and the Viva La France focus! XO Nita