Posted by: scintillatingspeck | April 17, 2014



We’re on a mission from God.
The Blues Brothers

In my most recent post, I mentioned that I wrote to writer and cultural anthropologist Ruth Behar.  I told her that I would like to come get a book from her, Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman.  I wasn’t sure if she would write back.

She wrote back.

Dear Jen Hartley,

Thank you for your lovely message. I am very moved that my essay in Aeon spoke personally to you and that you’ve found other works of mine to be inspiring. This means so much to me.

Your upcoming journey sounds amazing. You would be most welcome to stop by and get the book, “Tales of a Female Nomad,” if Ann Arbor is on your route. But I would also be pleased to mail it to you now, so you can have it sooner. Just let me know where to send it and I promise not to delay. It would feel good to pass it on to you.

All my good wishes,

Ruth Behar

I read her email just before going to bed and my head responded with a highway pile-up of thoughts that demanded some kind of emergency intervention.  I couldn’t sleep.  I extricated them messily with a pen and paper, these thoughts that demanded to be remembered, written about.  They are swollen seeds rolling at great speed across the landscape, seeking places to sink their shallow roots and flower into words.

I responded.

Dear Ruth,

I’m so glad to hear from you.  Thank you for offering to mail me the book.  I did some thinking about it, and it feels important to me to make the physical journey to Ann Arbor.  It is on my route; my itinerary would bring me there around August —.  (This is towards the tail end of the journey; my daughter Lily and I will set off on June 6th from western Massachusetts, then head south to go around the country clockwise.)

I’m reading “Traveling Heavy” and getting so much out of it.  I keep thinking about your words about travelers and immigrants.  My whole life has been shaped by traveling and immigration; my father, an American Jew, met my mother, an Italian Catholic, in Bologna, Italy in the 1960s.  They were both students at the University of Bologna.  My mother converted to Judaism and they married in Bologna.  Then they moved to the U.S.  Although my sister and I were born in this country, my mother’s immigration was a primary way my identity was formed.  We spent considerable amounts of time in my childhood traveling back and forth to Italy and staying with family there.  There is more to the story and I’m planning to find a way to incorporate it into my book.

I was tossing and turning in bed last night, thinking about travel and immigration, and I realized that I’m not just a traveler (wanting to travel) nor simply an immigrant (pushed into motion by a necessity for survival or a mad love or whatever force drives it), but also a pilgrim.  This trip I’m about to take is my pilgrimage.  It’s a sort of religious act to me, although I’m not conventionally “religious.”  This is why it feels important to me to receive the book from your hands rather than through the mail.  My hope is to receive it, and read it, and then offer it, in person, to the next woman traveler/immigrant/pilgrim/nomad who appears, who is driven to write her own story.

In gratitude,

Posted by: scintillatingspeck | April 15, 2014

A long draught of soup.

It’s loud right now at the Loose Goose Cafe in Amherst.  I have a corner of refuge here, though, from the rain, and the proprietors are kind and welcoming, and there’s a table by the window, with free wifi, and coffee and a bit of soup and salad, and I truly don’t take any of these things for granted, the roof, the chair, my dry clothes, some money in my pocket (even if cafes are becoming an extravagance I must increasingly forego), the ability to write, pressing buttons that enable me to put my words before an audience in a matter of seconds.  The clean bathroom with its running water.  The feeling of safety in this space, this town, this region.  All this gratitude flows over me like the steady spring rain, recharging my heart’s aquifer.

The gratitude is acute in the wake of a visit from what Winston Churchill called the “black dog,” although it hardly seems fair to black dogs to characterize it as such.  “Black dog,” at least, animates the condition, gives it tangibility.  I’m not fond of words like depression.  It doesn’t capture anything.  It’s a hollow word, empty, and certainly the condition can carry much emptiness, but there’s more to it, a torment often beyond description, particularly to those who are clutched in its paws.  I only use words like depression because it’s a signpost for others on the trail of mutual understanding.  I’ll return to my words from the other day, soldered-shut clam.

The urge to read and write is strong, and I let these tidal surges buoy me into a welcome vantage point at the crest of awareness.  The clam falls open.  The more I read, the more I extend tentative fingers into the sea, the more I can taste the salt and seaweed, the soup of stories, as sense unfurls its briny fronds.  There are travelers, nomads, writers, women who have mapped out their histories, their sore places, their adventures, and they feed me lavishly.

I’m reading two books right now.  In truth, I am always in the middle of at least half-a-dozen books; no, if I really counted accurately all the books I aspire to read, or which are strewn about, waiting, it’s far more.  They all wait for me patiently, but two have insisted on special attention.  One is Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a memoir of the author’s solo hike for 3 months on the Pacific Crest Trail.  The other is Traveling Heavy by Ruth Behar, a memoir of her Cuban-Jewish ancestry and immigration and questions of home.

I wrote to Ruth Behar today.  She’s a cultural anthropologist at the University of Michigan; I have no idea if she’ll reply.  She wrote an article published yesterday in Aeon that captured my attention, particularly because at the end she offered to give away a book in her possession, Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman, to one who might be willing to come to her house to get it.  I told her I was willing to come get it.  (And a bit more about myself, complete with links to my Scattered Sanctum project on Kickstarter and this blog, so she might know that I’m not creepy.)  I also thanked her for offering inspiration.  I first encountered her work in the ’90s when I was studying for my master’s degree in gender/cultural studies.  She impressed me.  She felt like kin.  I’m sure I’m hardly alone in that.

It would be writerly of me to flesh out this blog post some more, but it would be motherly of me to retrieve Lily from her homeschool program at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.  Motherly wins out.

May we give voice to our journeys in the ways available to us, and may we not accept arbitrary limits, but rather push against them to find the limits most true to us.

Posted by: scintillatingspeck | April 14, 2014

Notes for an escape route next time.

I had a difficult weekend.  That sounds so mild, really.  It was difficult.  No, really, in so many ways, it was astonishingly painful, my inner landscape sown with mines that kept exploding every few steps.  I could attribute it all to circumstance, but I don’t want to.  I want to go to the source, which in this case, was my thoughts.

I’m writing this now because I’ve emerged from that particular bout of torment.  I’m not gamboling with glee at the moment, but I’m deeply relieved to be free of the spiritual suffocation that came over me.  It’s not the first time and probably won’t be the last.  Perhaps, Jen, ahem, you could write a few notes to yourself to keep track of what helped to bring you out?  Why, yes, pragmatic voice of nuts-and-bolts wisdom, I will do that.

Where I was: feeling more worthless by the minute.  My thoughts insisted that I had screwed up everything, everything, my life, everyone else’s life, the whole world, without exception—I was incompetent, hideous, unworthy of love, stupid, oh, you name it, the insults rained down, and the problem was, I listened and believed.  It went on and on.  I can’t write it all here; it’s too awful.  It made me turn into a soldered-shut clam.  Why wouldn’t it?  Who would want to receive such treatment?  I felt profoundly isolated and afraid to tell anyone quite how bad I felt.  I was afraid of repelling and terrifying others.  I was afraid of entering a cycle of feeling desperate and crazy, terrified of rejection, somehow revealing this to others, whether purposefully or accidentally, and ensuring the harsh judgment and rejection I was sure was my comeuppance.

It’s still frightening to write this, now, but I do it in service to myself and anyone else who might gain from it.

What helped?  What shifted things?

  • I went outside.  This can be extraordinarily hard to do when one is feeling clammish; I had to push myself.  It was worth it.  It’s always worth it, without fail, for me.  I got on my bike and went to Fitzgerald Lake and walked the trails and observed.  The thoughts didn’t completely let up but at least I was opening parts of myself to the world in a way that felt manageable.  I didn’t have to encounter very many people or interact with them substantially.  The trees and lake and rocks and animals didn’t care if I was odd or distraught.  There was room to breathe.  There was sunshine on my skin.  The breeze would touch me gently whether I thought I deserved it or not.  The cacophony in my head could start to settle, distracted, soothed by the beauty of pine trees, turtles, water, sky.  I could begin to take a little step toward getting some perspective.
  • I confided in a few friends.  I wasn’t able to open up completely, but enough to say, I feel terrible, and a bit more.  They did not reject me.  They did not run away screaming.  They understood.  They were kind and loving.  It’s a powerful medicine, that love from true friends.  They reminded me that I’m not alone.  I had to push myself, again, but in relative safety, with people I was sure would not judge me.
  • I made tiny overtures.  I focused on making the smallest of gestures to unsolder my clam-shell.  I couldn’t breathe in there, much as I thought I needed that compact little fortress.  I needed to peer out warily and perhaps say a word. That’s what I did.  I said, “Hi.”  It’s not such a big risk to say such a little word, a sign of greeting.  From there, a few other words felt manageable.  It was a wavelet of pleasure to be greeted in return, the warm sea of connection reaching for me, washing the shame and terror away, gently, assiduously.
  • I remembered not to believe everything I think.  Gaining more and more breathing room allowed for more perspective.  This is when I realized that I’ve been practicing for so long, it’s starting to take.  I don’t have to believe my own thoughts.  They don’t have to dictate how I feel.  I can question them.  I can dismantle them.  I can reveal them for the illusions they are.  I can let compassion well up for this human form I find myself in.  I’m so human, all the time.

If you notice that I’ve fallen off the map, you might want to point me to this guide so I can find my way again.

trail at Fitzgerald Lake

Posted by: scintillatingspeck | April 11, 2014


I wax and wane erratically like a protean moon.

Lily and I have an ambitious voyage ahead.  There’s a real, live trip in the works, with all of the attendant planning and prepping.  I focus on it intermittently because I must, and because I hope that once Lily and I are on the road, we can mark a new beginning.

Meanwhile, there are other, concurrent changes set in motion that shake the foundations of our daily lives.  It’s hard to find my sea legs with all the shaking.

It’s hard to recall how I felt a while back, when I was writing on this blog on a near-daily basis, desperate to communicate, to give voice to uncontainable stories and emotions.  Now I find myself contracting, words falling out of my head like droplets in a muddy puddle, unsure what to write, unwilling to recount the most private, painful parts.  Assembling a single sentence seems to take an eternity.

I’m reflexively withdrawing and I don’t know if it’s right.  Still, I feel like such a screw-up in so many ways, I want to hide and plead:  please, I can’t bear for you to look at me.  I can’t bear your reactions, your judgments.  I will never be discerning enough, wise enough, good enough, patient enough, lovable enough. 

hiding under a blanket

Posted by: scintillatingspeck | March 31, 2014

Lest ye think I was all gloom as a teenager…

… I present a non-angst-ridden poem that I wrote.  1989.  Oh, the hormones.  Actually, my lack of sexual contact at that time did cause me considerable angst.

Suddenly It’s Dinnertime

She needed a kiss because
Her flesh felt something was missing
And she figured it must be
She wore a minidress
That covered less
Skin than her usual
Long flowing skirts—
She frizzed her hair when
Before it was straight and simple—
She flashed her one dimple
At men who had none—
They liked that.
She looked like a cat
That doesn’t care
And doesn’t wear much
And doesn’t stay awake much.
She curled herself around their arms and
Teased their earlobes and
Licked her lips in a teasing way
(but really she was just ravenous)


Posted by: scintillatingspeck | March 31, 2014

Purging previous poetics.

11 poems of mine that I’m sloughing off, mostly written around 1988-89 (and one in 1993).  Goodnight, sad poet girl.  You don’t have to be so sad and angry anymore.  That river met the sea long ago.  I release you.

you must let them go they
were born
to go
—e.e. cummings



How dare YOU invade me—
YOU do callously realize, do YOU not,
That YOU are privy to my intimate horrors—
Make no mistake—
I am speaking to YOU and not just to some general population—
YOU hide behind everyone and say, “I am one of many, and inconsequential”—
No, no, no, YOU are the one who passes judgment—
YOU are the one who is twirling me around in a distracted manner—
YOU are the one who spills coffee on this sheet—
The stain appears on my face—

YOU will spill coffee even if I don’t
Offer YOU any—


Dark Quiver

Familiar that the night seethes.
I jolt, drowning in fright, frowning at the asp,
the sash there.  The hideous shade breathes
me in, me, the hazardous ash.  To grasp
the last filament of dream!—it sheathes
me, a piteous blade, in its sueded clasp.


Meeting the Water

This gaunt body moves like a marionette.
Walking, walking, never running, just walking,
Just walking and gazing in a hollow manner
Over the humble beach.

I have crossed the desert in a caravan.
The beaches I saw were not humble but
Roaring and still and swirling and lonely;
The sand was not licked by water,
Not like here,
Like a giant tongue lapping
Defenseless cream—

I am no camel—
I have suffered.

My chapped skin screams quietly
As sea salt kisses it—
The coolness floats around me like silver plasma.

I’ve decided to drink the Mediterranean Sea.


Mother of Daffodils

The crusting daffodils have curling leaves
That smell ungreen.  She mourns her dying flowers.
She sketched them, sniffed them, swayed with them for hours;
She huddles now, her limbs unused, and grieves.
He comes, and tries to comfort her.  He claims
That daffodils can’t last; she’ll find some more
And never think of those she grew before.
She chokes, “I cannot mildly watch the flames
That eat the children I loved solemnly;
The vivid bursts of light within their seed
Gave comfort to my all-consuming need.
I ache to see them die—my family!”
She gazes at her stomach, then her hands.
What would not grow in her grew in the land.



snakes are circling and circling
until they
form a tight circle
a tight circle
tense skin circling
tense and scaly and
until finally
the head catches up with the tail
the skinny frightened tail
the tense circling head
mouth seizes fleeing tail and
snakes are hoops
flipping in agonized effort
snakes strain and bulge and
swallow themselves until
is gone
and body
is gone



as you crept smilingly on your knees
through that cramped and unwelcoming space,
i (the true i) curled up at the end, scowling,
to see what would happen
(because after all i am curious like you)

what could it have been that induced you
to make that torturous journey?  i thought
you were frighteningly determined, and
therefore really quite attractive

if you hadn’t thrown yourself against the door of that
narrow hallway
no stray wind or glance would have opened it

i would maintain my post at the tiny window in it
and watch and wait
and wait while long moon phases criss-crossed by
and there would have been nothing left to wait for

until you forced yourself into my own dark abode
and i gladly accepted your lips
never knowing why the door had been locked
and who exactly had locked it



Through streams of weariness, yes, I shall mull
Upon why I should choose to scream and cry
Because sometimes the way is all too dull.

Why is it sometimes hard work comes to null?
I promise I’ll impale myself to try
Through streams of weariness, yes, I shall mull.

Upon the good ship Scholarly’s bright hull
I’ll break the bottle and exhale a sigh
Because sometimes the way is all too dull.

A steaming buttered bit of tasty crull
I shall forego to climb so ever high
Through streams of weariness, yes, I shall mull.

Above seductive wiles that surely lull
I render useful all my love to fly
Because sometimes the way is all too dull.

There is no question that I’ll pick or cull
Acceptance is the answer to the sly
Through streams of weariness, yes, I shall mull
Because sometimes the way is all too dull.


What Happened?

there is an (o yes) thing called life
i lived it once or twice
eccentric ways and love and strife
did permeate the nice

did you (or them or we or it)
contend before and now?
did we say swearwords <gasp> like shit
and exclamations pow?

a dance of writhe and slinky shape
and musky undertones
is hidden in fermented grape
and quiet still-life bones

a purity a masquerade
perfection of the brain
is drowned in miles of lemonade
that drips a ceiling rain

a why and wherefore spluttered spit
and puzzled broken brow
communicates the dammit shit
and bang and crash and pow

because a sudden difference floats
in limbo with no breath
it nil-ness zero vacuum totes
it’s nothing: it is death


Mummy’s Breathalyzer

as a green haze
lifts I tend

to let it collect
in the back of

my throat
it squelches down and

never do i notice the
alteration in the

landscape i have given
birth to

(b-b-b-baby) it is in
my lap and have
i killed it yet?



Into water
Into air
Challenge, struggle
Over there
I can’t breathe
I can’t smell
Dizzy panic
Deep dark well
Spinning swirl
True and fast
Force the clawing
Be the last
If I shatter underwater,
Shall I burble soft, or blast?


Slow Motion

The mountains perch above the oceans
And hang themselves warily, like ancient paintings,
Above the proceedings.
The cyclists whiz (spandex taut and gleaming)—
Revolutions of spokes and metallic flashes entrance
Rock slabs and mounds of earth
Reminding them of precious Volcano days.
Savoring their velocity and flirting with their own youth
The cyclists fail to notice that the mountains are shifting;
The race ends, the winner is garlanded,
And the stony, cold mountains inexorably budge;
New roads are built, old roads fall into disrepair,
The athletes forget about the race and age, and become slow.
The angry mountains seethe
And calm themselves
And lash out again.

All efficient machines have worn themselves out.
The cyclists are dead.
Nobody remembers what a bicycle is.
Strange multi-colored rains fall, shiny as spandex, and the earth is uniformly
Coated with oily, smelly, viscous Stuff—

The mountains
Still move.



Posted by: scintillatingspeck | March 31, 2014

Revisiting 1989.

I wrote this on April 6, 1989.  Apparently I thought a) that whatever small amount of money I had in the bank would be enough to get me to the west coast, b) that having a car was the key to my freedom and safety, and c) that bears might want to be friends with me rather than rip my head off.  Overall, though, I do recognize myself.  I wonder what I would have done if someone had handed me a copy of the Teenage Liberation Handbook at that time (except it was first published in 1991).  My older self looks back on this almost-17-year-old self and thinks, girl, run, run while you can, you have no idea what’s in store for you.

Never too late to be a nomad, though.

Oh good heavens, please be heavenly, I need heaven or hell anyplace but here.  My poetry class is so depressing.  The kids are obviously totally uninterested and I don’t understand them or their thought processes.  Mr. M rambles on and on and he never assigns anything and we never DO ANYTHING!  NOTHING!  We never do a single bitty thing.  It sounds inconceivable but it’s true.  I go to that class four times a week.  I spend 2 hours and 48 minutes in that class every week.  I sit there and receive a blizzard of inanities, absolutely insignificant gossip and ramblings, and poetry is almost entirely ignored, at least by the students.  Mr. M tries to focus but he just CAN’T.  He must be utterly confused.  It is days like this that make me want to give up on everything, just leave school and leave home and stop doing homework and writing and getting ready for college applications.  I could just leave, I really could.  I could take my car.  One Saturday, I’ll wait until my parents go out to do something, and then I’ll pack a few bags and throw them in the car, and a sleeping bag, and some food, and my bank book.  I’ll take a journal along and record absolutely everything that happens to me.  I’ll go to the bank and take out all my money.  I’ll leave my cat at home because I might not be able to take care of her.  Where should I go?  Hmm.  I suppose I could go to California or Washington State or something.  Or even Canada.  Yeah, I could go to the Northwest Territories.  I’d have to bring the canoe.  That would be a pain but I could handle it.  I would go to some small town, get a job, make some money to buy food and maybe rent a place.  Maybe I would write home, but in such a way that they couldn’t find out where I was.  How could I hide the postmark?  I could get the person at the post office to smudge it.  Maybe I would meet different people.  I would have to avoid robbers and rapists and murderers and stuff but I have a car, so I can always drive off.  Unless my car breaks down, in which case I would have to get it fixed.  Or else buy a bicycle.  Or a horse.  But I don’t know how to ride a horse.  I could go out in the woods and make friends with the bears, and live in caves with them.  Or I could save up my money and buy a plane ticket to another country, maybe Luxembourg.  Maybe I could team up with another person and just travel around the world in a nomadic way, avoiding my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.  I really just want to get rid of this awful sadness in my chest—I wish it would go away and leave me alone.  It’s hateful.

Posted by: scintillatingspeck | March 31, 2014

Making do.

I wrote this on May 8, 1989.  It makes me laugh.  If I wrote a poem about “making do” now, it would look nothing like this.  Maybe it would still include ocelots.  And the phrase from Emilia-Romagna, land of my ancestors: “Do as those from Faenza, who, when they have nothing, do without.”

Making Do

Fare come quelli di Faenza
Che quando non c’e l’hanno fanno senza.
- a saying from Emilia-Romagna

If there were no apples
We would eat pears and bananas and watermelons and cherries.
If there were no trees
We would plant bushes and flowers and grass and cacti.
If there were no television
We would read and tell stories and play games and frolic outside.
If there were no people
We would be cats and cockatoos and antelopes and ocelots.
If there was no love
We would run and grow and buy houses and have children anyway.

Posted by: scintillatingspeck | March 30, 2014

Taking a walk, then sitting down.

It has been a long period of molting and transmogrification, loves, and my little human impulses to observe, narrate, and make sense don’t wish to be quelled.  I go through periods of contraction and expansion.  This latest contraction pushed me to seek out a sheaf of old poems I’d written, and along the way, I also discovered a self-portrait I’d made with a pinhole camera, years ago.

pinhole self-portrait, circa 1985

I think I made these images in 1986 or thereabouts, in 8th grade—it must have been shortly before I turned 14.  I had made the pinhole camera in an art class out of a cylindrical oatmeal box.  We were then instructed to go out on campus and create photos; the exposure time was several minutes, if memory serves me.  I had set up my camera on a side windowsill of The Castle, the iconic building of the prep school I attended for six years, Noble and Greenough, a.k.a Nobles.  (Don’t get me started on the implications of “nobles” and “castles” right now.  I know.)  The exposed photo paper when developed showed the negative image that appears on the right; I then used the paper negative to create the image on the left.  Here it is, closer up:

self-portrait outside of the Castle, Noble and Greenough School, Dedham, MA

I don’t know what it’s like for the uninformed viewer to see these images.  For me, looking at this picture brings back the residue of intense loneliness, rage, confusion, and alienation I felt.  Re-reading my writings from that time, I can’t believe that nobody seemed to notice how much suffering I was going through.  I remember exactly how I felt, huddled on that cold stair, holding perfectly still so that the image would come out right.  I spent years like that, holding my breath, trying to portray the image of achievement, while inside I was seething and falling to pieces.

Why do I seek out this stuff?  Why can’t I just leave it in a box?

It was the poems I was after, though.  The poems, my raft, all that floated me far downstream.  I found them.

I’ll be posting some of them here on this blog.  It’s how I let go.  It’s not rumination or clinging, loves— it’s the opposite— I let these parts speak their piece, and I release them.  I’m releasing so much.  They fall off of me like feathers that will never help me fly.

Here’s one, dated March 29, 1989, a few weeks before I turned 17.

Taking a Walk, Then Sitting Down

I fall into the prickly bramble wild
Because, oh haughty one, I am a child
Who steers around your infuriating mild.

The tennis girls stand surefooted and tall,
Carefully swocking the brand-name ball,
Not thinking of anything at all.

Dead dogs with forlorn tombs.
The trees are too close; the mausoleum looms
Over.  Bleary, windy, I patter through that gloom.

The baseball boys dash gruffly in the field,
Throwing balls nonchalantly.  Their route is sealed
Between bases.  Masculinity preened and peeled.

I stand like Jane Eyre on the craggy rocks,
Listening to how the trees swish and knock,
Wishing I were wearing socks.

The library is solemnly modernly dead.
I wish I were asleep instead;
There are a billion volumes in my head.

Posted by: scintillatingspeck | March 29, 2014

Dropped stitches.

because I write to add concatenations
loops of endless yarns on clacking needles
an observer on the fibrous fringes of meaning

when stitches inevitably fall
like a warm, woolen illusion
pulled back to the keen bite of cold
there’s a jolt in the fabric of time

it may yet require forbearance
mute breath
the whispered advice of dead grandmothers
to mend the rend

the only tools at hand
some crooked sticks
and a muddy lexicon



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