A Father’s Day Prayer by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The Amidah is so named because it is literally the standing prayer. As nineteen blessings unfurl during its recitation, one must stand perfectly still in the hope of connecting to G-d. I fondly remember the Amidah as my first sustained reading of Hebrew. I came to Hebrew later than my peers in Day School and so I read haltingly my first year there. The Amidah’s centrality and its inherent repetition—it’s said morning, noon and night—made it the perfect vehicle to ride towards fluency. The choreography of the Amidah appealed to me too—there are cues for bowing and for pounding the chest in repentance. In one variation or another the Amidah is the core of Jewish liturgy. And it begins by invoking the old guard at the outset:

Blessed are you Lord our G-d; G-d of our ancestors. G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of Jacob, G-d of Sarah, G-d of Rebekah, G-d of Rachel and G-d of Leah.

What a group to take along on a search for G-d. Maybe the rabbis were on to something when they drew up this list (although the ancient mothers were originally omitted). These names form a canopy of memory over me much like the tent of Abraham and Sarah—the same tent that is the model on which the marriage canopy or huppah is based.

Abraham and Sarah’s tent was open on all sides—as exposed to the elements as it was to G-d’s will. On Father’s Day I will step into Abraham and Sarah’s metaphorical tent—buffeted by the winds of fate—fate that sometimes makes no sense to me. Or worse, makes me despair.

The Dads, the grandfathers in our family—the old guard—died in the early 2000s. This makes Father’s Day both sad and joyful as we memorialize them and celebrate their wonderful son and son-law. So here we are, Ken and I, one step closer to becoming the family elders—the old guard ourselves.

Dennis Fasman & granddaughter Anna

Dennis Fasman & granddaughter Anna

The traditional Jewish image that I think of when merging joy and sadness is a wedding. Hasidic folklore says that weddings are haunted because both the dead and the living dance together. The new fangled image for that maxim is the wedding video where there are so many of my dead who are alive on that tape (yes I got married in the era of VHS), dancing around Ken and me. It breaks my heart to watch it and so I haven’t in many years. But here is what I would see again: My father-in-law Dennis spiffy in his tux, his smile illuminating the tape brighter than the lights the videographer lugged around. Dennis, whom I called Dad too, died much too young of a brain tumor. In nine months he was gone and the world felt more precarious to me with his passing.

Our wedding video also features my father who was just beginning to decline from Parkinson’s disease. He and I shuffle down the aisle towards stairs leading to the huppah. It was only after viewing the video that I noticed Ken extended an arm to help my Dad up those steps. But that’s not the father that comes into my mind when I remember him. My dad had several incarnations. One of my favorite pictures of him is from the Second World War. He was a young ensign—twenty-two years-old and recruited into the navy as a Ninety-Day Wonder straight out of college. Ninety-Day Wonders were fast-tracked to become officers in just three months. That was my father—a wonder unto himself. A man who could learn anything quickly and completely.

Harold Bolton circa 1942

Harold Bolton circa 1942

Then there is the father who had all three of us children in his forties. Throughout my childhood I never noticed that my athletic, handsome father was so much older than my friends’ dads. He was the dad who took brisk walks to do errands a couple of miles away. He put his patriotism on display at every holiday that called for a flag by leading us around the house to the beat of a John Philip Sousa march. He mailed me birthday cards as sweet as the cereals he forbade me to eat.

When I had just crossed over into adulthood there was the Dad who wrote me letters. He penned his advice in neat primer-school ink, placing his missives in envelopes in which he used blue ink for his return address, green ink for me the addressee, and red ink for the return address again, this time on the flap of the envelope. And then there was my Dad in his old age, frightened and confused, after he was stopped for driving over the median. The police officer didn’t have the heart to write him a ticket. He called my mother instead to tell her that he had no choice but to revoke Dad’s license.

Somewhere between the Amidah’s blessings for understanding and salvation comes an invocation for health to “remove from us all suffering and grief.” I don’t expect that to happen especially when I think of my dads. After all, everyone is vulnerable in Abraham and Sarah’s tent. But I do pray that G-d sustains us in memory and love on Father’s Day and everyday.

 

 

Coffin Shopping for Mom by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I have recently planned my mother’s funeral with the clear-eyed precision of an accountant and the organizational skills of the activities director at the assisted-living facility where she lives. And I have done it within a budget where there are no line items for grand final wishes.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/20/booming/deciding-on-immortal-indulgences-for-mom.html?ref=booming

Should I Stay or Should I Go? by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My husband and I are folding clothes on a Sunday night. Bless him for helping me tackle the mountain of wrinkled shirts and pants. Not to mention that we were running out of underwear. And bless him for not blaming me for letting the laundry get so out of control; I blame myself enough for the two of us. It’s all bound up in my underlying confusion with regard to work and child rearing.

What prompted me to think about whether I’m actually in or out of the workforce is a recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine by Judith Warner on women who opted out of working outside the home in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mostly these women—and it’s a very select group—left lucrative jobs to stay home and raise children.

opt in

 

Reevaluating their decision almost two decades out, these women have decided to go back to work. For some, it was figuring out what to do with too much time on their hands now that their children were older. For others, it was the only option after divorce or other economic difficulties. For example, one woman’s husband had been a higher earner who was adversely affected by the 2008 recession. In any case, Warner asserts that, “the culture of motherhood, post-recession, had altered considerably too. The women of the opt-out revolution left the work force at a time when the prevailing ideas about motherhood idealized full-time round-the-clock, child-centered devotion.”

I mention that the group Warner’s research is based on is select because, for the most part, these women are well off and well educated. The majority of them are white and live in affluent neighborhoods. Her article doesn’t touch on women for whom staying at home was an economic sacrifice—women whose net pay would appreciably shrink when childcare became a line item in the budget. As far as I could tell the women in Warner’s article did not significantly alter their lifestyle when they initially left the workforce. But they had measured their worth by their paychecks and ten or fifteen years out, they were unable to assess that worth without a dollar sign in front of it.

I suspect that my situation is more typical of the women who opted out of the formal workforce. I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew that I would stay home with my kids while they were babies. My first-born was a couple of months old and we had had a difficult, colicky night. I was up every couple of hours with her. After her five A.M. feeding I brought her into bed and we fell asleep until nine in the morning. That’s when I knew that I didn’t have the fortitude or the organizational skills to balance a job outside the home with new motherhood. I’m in awe of women who have done both. I know it’s not easy. I know it’s not magic.

But I also knew I wasn’t a 24/7 type of mother. I wanted to write. And so I began to freelance with an eye toward going back to work when my children were in school all day. When they were, I went back part-time as an Internet magazine editor until I was laid off. That was ten years ago. At the time, my husband and I decided that it didn’t make economic sense for me to pursue full-time employment. He was able to support us and our version of luxury was having me at the ready for our children.

I became a full-time writer seven years ago. My income is not that significant. But working from home or the library, I’m always around even if mountains of unfolded laundry surround me. I’m working on a book that may or may not get published, but my husband understands that I’m driven to do it if only for the accomplishment of telling my family story.

Which brings me to the crux of the problem with women who opt in or out. The husbands portrayed in Warner’s article sounded unreasonably difficult. One woman complained that as her kids grew older, her husband’s role as the wage earner and hers as the de-facto housekeeper became problematic. Warner quotes her as asserting that, “I had the sense of being in an unequal marriage. I think he preferred the house to be ‘kept’ in a different kind of way than I was prepared to do it. If I had any angst about being an overeducated stay-at-home mom, it was not about raising kids, but it was about sweeping.”

Raising children is an art, a soul-giving endeavor. Housework is drudgery. These high-flying husbands didn’t appreciate that cleaning was their responsibility too and if they didn’t like it they should hire a house cleaner.

The advice I would give my daughter is not whether or not she should opt-out and then back in when she has children.  It’s to marry a partner who will fold clothes with her while watching reruns on a Sunday night with nary a complaint.

 

 

 

 

 

The Calendar Year by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I’ve just bought a new calendar that spans from August to August. August is my Rosh Hashana—the head of a new year that holds milestones and obligations. But before I stash my 2012-2013 calendar in the recycling bin, I want to trace the arc of my ordinary extraordinary life over the past year.

calendar

Amidst the panoply of doctors’ appointments and deadlines there is one entry last August that stands out for me—the day we brought Anna to college for her freshman year. I noted it on August 17. Just a quick note to remind me (as if I could forget) that we’d be headed up and out of town. No details of how tightly the car was packed, how my freshman-to-be was so nervous she barely said anything during the six hour ride. There is no mention that on the return trip home, I cried for hours, Ken drove in a funk and Adam was too stunned to talk.

Then in September the world jolts back to life from the summer and there are dates with friends, book readings and more work deadlines. Sandwiched in between spurts of activity is a weekend trip put of town. Other than that brief mention, there is nothing about Anna’s homesickness and our family’s adjustment to Anna away at college. The high holidays are penciled in, but there is no way to infer that Anna would be at school for the holidays—her first time away from us on Rosh Hashana.

Last Rosh Hashana also marked the first time we allowed Adam to go to school albeit for only the second day. That decision was a momentous one for Ken and me. Neither of us had ever attended school on the high holidays under our parents’ roofs. Adam’s well-reasoned request begged the question of whether we had done the right thing to send him to a preparatory school where he bears the workload much like Atlas holds up the world.

October and November blur together except for one bright spot where we go back to college again for an official parents’ weekend. In less than two months our girl has carved out a lovely niche for herself in a big university. She gives us a lengthy tour of the campus and we walk through her busy schedule. Ken and I breathe a sigh of relief. She loves school. She has wonderful friends.

In December we learn to live with Anna all over again. It’s been over four months since she left for school. She has her own way of doing things and we have ours. Life is a series of adjustments and malleable curfews. Adam leapfrogs over the December dilemma in school—Hanukkah blending into Christmas—and all is well in preparation for the New Year. But I have a note in my calendar—Newtown, December 14. Small children gunned down in their classrooms. What my calendar doesn’t reflect is that I’ve carried images of these children in my heart alongside memories of my own children at that age.

By the middle of January Anna is ready to go back to school and we are more than happy to support her return. The past month has been cold and dark and very, very busy. Anna’s high school friends have been ringing the doorbell late in the evening and their powwows go on and on into the night. My girl regularly sleeps until eleven in the morning. And Adam complains about returning back to school from his relatively short vacation.

In my calendar the death of a young family friend will disrupt February forever. In March there is another school vacation for Anna. More late night powwows in our den until Anna finally leaves for school the day before Passover. My Gregorian calendar records an early Passover and my heart is slightly cracked when Anna decides she can’t miss a day of school and stay on for the Seders. Her reasons for finding a Seder at school are sound and sensible. My mind tiptoes around the question that if she were closer geographically, would we have had her for the first night at least.

In May Anna comes home and there is a flurry of activity, which somehow doesn’t include her replacing her expired learner’s permit. The calendar records her appointments and duties to which I must drive her. I secretly love this busyness. I’m a juggler by nature and parenthood has always been the perfect venue for me. By June we have our summer schedule in place. Adam masters the T and my girl finds a dependable ride to work.  The calendar goes quiet for weeks until Anna’s July birthday.

I’ve already filled in the new calendar a bit. Appointments, deadlines and social engagements—yet I very much live the solitary life of a writer. We’re up to year two of college for Anna and that ever-busy junior year of high school for Adam. As I flip through the still blank months, I’m reminded that I am no longer that younger self who can squander time. And no matter how much time fate has in store for me it will never be enough.

The Next Phase by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The young woman sitting across from me at the dinner table talked enthusiastically about her research at the MIT Media Lab. She was involved in designing prosthetics that would enable a person to climb a mountain or run a marathon. She was also graduating the next day from MIT and on her way to a masters program clear across the country to study mechanical engineering. Only 14 percent of engineers in this country are women and my niece is one of them.

My nephew graduated the day after his sister and is off to college to pursue his dream as a video game designer. At the other end of the table, Anna is telling my sister-in-law about her internship shadowing a cardiologist. She’s been scrubbing in to observe procedures like putting in pacemakers and defibrillators. “And you don’t feel like fainting when you see all that blood?” I ask in disbelief. Adam is excited to start a research internship in a lab studying stem cells.

These kids alternately awe me and make me weepy. When did they become young adults with interests and expertise so far from my own area of knowledge? When did I stop becoming my children’s primary confidante? Their first line of defense? I don’t write to their teachers anymore about this or that or send notes that they have to sit out recess because of a cold. They advocate for themselves. I watch Anna explain to a server about her severe dairy allergy. I used to do that stuff.

AnnaAdam

My role as a mother is undergoing a radical realignment and I’m not ready. I’ve known that my kids would only belong to me for a finite period of time. They’d grow and want to stumble into the greater world on their own. What young adult wouldn’t? I did.

So it was with great reluctance and more than a bit of trepidation that I let my children take the train down to Manhattan to stay with their respective friends for the weekend. I know there are kids younger than they are that literally travel the world by themselves. I also know that my kids are more than capable of taking trains and catching subways on their own. They’ve spent extended time away from home at camp and on school trips abroad. But this was a new adventure for them, navigating New York City on their own. Adam told me not to worry—in New York you’re never lost for long. You just count. I wasn’t concerned that he’d get lost, I was hyper about him looking like he was lost.

There are books written about parents like me. The classic on the subject of the overprotective parent is by Lenore Skenazy. She wrote a book called Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry. After her book came out a few years ago, she was on the Today Show with her then nine year-old son whom she allowed to navigate the New York City subway system without a cell phone. It was jaw dropping for me. I thought about Skenazy when I interrogated my almost sixteen year-old about his pending maiden voyage on the Times Square shuttle. He shrugged me off and said he took the T in Boston. And then I remembered he’s the kid who debates at school and speaks Spanish fluently. My niece the engineer backpacked through Europe after her senior year in high school. At her college graduation dinner she told us a story about dusting off her French to ask a hotel concierge where she could do laundry. And my computer science nephew will likely be acquiring skills to control a drone someday.

It’s thrilling to watch this generation put down a stake in their future. But does that future include me as a mother? Friends with grandchildren assure me that there’s a Round Two in the mothering game and it’s even sweeter the second time around. One friend went so far as to tell me that if she had known how wonderful grandchildren were she would have skipped having children and gone straight into grandparenting.

I have no doubt that my niece, my nephew and my own children will have a great impact on the world. Like any experienced chess player, I can see the endgame already. And my part is to let go and wave goodbye after each milestone. The other day I was helping Adam through some disappointing news. I sat on the edge of his bed and he said that he felt like a five year-old. I told him that sometimes we need to feel like a little kid to be nurtured.

For the moment, though, I’m going to pretend that the only changes I have to cope with in the near future are to wave goodbye at the train station and cheer on my niece and nephew for receiving their diplomas.

Review of Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Eve Ensler’s extraordinary new memoir begins with the body — her body — a place from which she was exiled and, “forced to evacuate when my father invaded then violated me.” As a consequence, she has focused her life’s work on reclaiming her body and helping others do the same. Her quest began by asking women about their vaginas. The urgency to “talk incessantly and obsessively” about vaginas stemmed from Ensler’s estrangement from her own body, and the stories Ensler heard lay the groundwork for her much acclaimed play “The Vagina Monologues.”

Layout 1Over the years, Ensler has bridged the distance between herself and her body by traveling to over 60 countries to seek out stories of women who have experienced trauma. “These women and girls had also become exiled from their bodies and they, too, were desperate for a way home.”

The way home for Ensler took a devastating turn when she was diagnosed with stage IV uterine cancer in 2010 at the age of 57. But it was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007 where Ensler witnessed “the end of the body, the end of humanity, the end of the world,” and to which she returned to understand that her internal cancer and the world’s external violence were symbiotic.

“In the Body of the World” is not an easy book to read. There are horrific descriptions of the rape, torture, and mutilation of women and girls. But it is a necessary book to read for its fierce, passionate commitment to making the world a safe place for women.

In the Congo and then later in the hospital, Ensler considers the ways in which a life is ruptured by war crimes as well as disease. “Cancer,” she writes, “threw me through the window of my disassociation into the center of my body’s crisis.” And during her crisis she became one with the ravaged women of the Congo. The cancer that had blindsided Ensler leads her to explore the uncomfortable politics of advantage when she returns to the Congo. “My naked head suddenly feels like insane privilege — all the attention and care I have received. I am embarrassed by how much money (insurance), equipment, healers, surgeons, nurses, and medications have gone into saving me.”

Living in cities, amid concrete for most of her adult life, Ensler found that the tree outside her hospital window integrated her into the natural world. Too weak to do anything but stare out the window she writes, “on Tuesday I meditated on the bark; on Friday, the green leaves shimmering in late afternoon light. For hours I lost myself, my body, my being dissolving into a tree.” A tree also took root inside of Ensler in the form of taxol, a chemotherapy drug derived from tree bark.

Cancer initially divided Ensler from her body and the world until it united her with suffering across the globe. The scar that runs down her torso is the earthquake in Haiti. The abscess in her stomach with 16 ounces of pus is the contaminated Gulf of Mexico. In one of the many poignant scenes in the memoir, a friend of Ensler performs a healing ceremony in which she baptizes Ensler with flowers, honey, and water from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the gulf where Ensler swam as a young woman. It’s the gulf where her dying parents gazed at the horizon. It’s the gulf of illness and recklessness and greed. It’s the gulf that drips down Ensler’s bald head.

Ensler’s closest women friends surround her throughout her cancer ordeal. This group is a microcosm of the City of Joy in the Congo, a concept that “grew out of the women of the Congo and was shaped by their desire and hunger. It was literally built with their hands. It is a sanctuary for healing: it is a revolutionary center.”

Ensler begins her intense, riveting memoir with the body, so it’s fitting to end with the body. Today she has “a second life,’’ and no longer needs a colostomy bag. Although cancer brought her to “dangling’’ on the edge of death, it was there, she writes, that “I found my second wind. The second wind arrives when we think we are finished, when we can’t take another step, breathe another breath. And then we do.” In celebration and camaraderie she dances with the women of the Congo in the City of Joy, finally reunited with her body.

This review was originally published in the May 17, 2013 edition of the Boston Globe

Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath Meets Elizabeth Wurtzel by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Last week I was marooned on my couch with a virus and finally watched the first season of Girls, Lena Dunham’s HBO drama about 20-somethings finding their way in New York City. Dunham is very serious about her enterprise, and even the show’s light-hearted moments — which are few and far between — are laden with meaning. At times, watching the series felt more like homework than entertainment.

But I had heard so much about Hannah Horvath, Dunham’s alter ego, that I needed to meet her myself.  Like many women in middle age, I wasn’t resistant to looking back at my youth. I’m not the like the doctor who examines Hannah for an STD, who swears she’d never want to go back to her 20s. If anything, I’m jealous of the limitless sky, the time that drains into more time of your 20s. Maybe that’s glossy hindsight, but it’s also the raw truth.

Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath

Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath

I loved that Hannah, who is an aspiring writer, is no wunderkind. She’s so plodding and so damned inexperienced. She spends more time talking about writing than actually tapping out the personal essays she aspires to write. She has feckless boyfriends and a job in a coffee shop tellingly called Café Grumpy (an actual café in Greenpoint, Brooklyn—think Tom’s Restaurant, the real-life Upper West Side diner featured in Seinfeld) that sort of pays the bills. She’s in the quagmire that a lot of 20-somethings are in, but she doesn’t seem hopelessly stuck.

Elizabeth Wurtzel, another writer famous for exploring the 20-something state of being, is a 180-degree turn away from Dunham. At 45, Wurtzel is less nostalgic and more obsessive about being trapped in her 20s mindset. I can’t tell if Hannah’s young adult cluelessness is an object of derision or envy for the middle-aged Wurtzel, best known as the enfant terrible behind the best-selling memoir “Prozac Nation,” which she published two decades ago at the age of 24. The book launched her into celebrity and enabled her to make a “career out of my emotions.”

If only Hannah Horvath were so lucky. If only I had been that lucky (or savvy enough) to profit from my own anxiety and depression. There was a huge advance for Wurtzel’s second book, the one where she appeared topless on the cover with her middle finger prominently extended. What else could the book be called but “Bitch,” a rant about sexually manipulative women? Who wouldn’t be a little jealous of that kind of success in one’s twenties? But then again, who wouldn’t be terrified of losing her edge after peaking so early?

The bottom line is that Wurtzel is a cautionary tale for Hannah and her pals. In her recent [New York Magazine essay](http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/01/elizabeth-wurtzel-on-self-help.html), Wurtzel made it clear that she’s not only afraid of growing up, she’s also terrified of getting older. And who can blame her? After all, at 45, she’s still living in a crummy apartment with a nutty landlady and she’s “always in love—or else I am getting over the last person or getting started with the next one.” The only justification she comes up with for her Never-Never Land existence is that she still fits into the same clothes she wore at 24. I’ll keep my two kids and the extra thirty pounds, thank you.

Hannah thinks she is the voice of her generation. At least that’s what she tells her parents as she appeals to stay on their bankroll. And Wurtzel still thinks she’s the voice of her generation. In yet another sad essay for [Harper’s Bazaar](http://www.harpersbazaar.com/beauty/health-wellness-articles/looking-better-at-45-than-25#slide-1), Wurtzel writes that she wouldn’t have dreamed of going on parental welfare at Hannah’s age. “Even with my Harvard degree, when I ran out of money while writing my first book, I was happier to serve cocktails in high heels than to get money from my mom. And now I walk miles in Marnie’s five-inch platform T-straps.” It’s a shame that the quest for early independence only leads to an ability to tolerate high heels in middle age.

Which brings me to Wurtzel’s puffed-up assertion that she’s in better physical shape than someone “about half my age.” She’s in the kind of shape that comes easily to a woman who hasn’t worried about someone other than herself. She holds up Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin as women who are in “amazing physical condition, and [that] have a personal style and coruscating charisma.” Oh Elizabeth, only you could find that kind of superficial common ground between these women.

Hannah doesn’t glitter or charm in Wurtzel’s world. She’s the 20-something that Wurtzel has in mind when she decries the “slovenliness” of today’s young women. By her own calculation, Hannah is 13 pounds overweight. As far as I can tell, she never blow-dries her hair and she almost always leaves the house without lipstick.

Watching those episodes of Girls back to back, I realized how far women have come from my second-wave feminism to Hannah’s fourth-wave feminism. Hannah doesn’t feel guilty about sleeping around, she doesn’t think that men foisted the sexual revolution on women so they wouldn’t have to marry them and she doesn’t hear even a faint ticking of her biological clock.

Unlike Wurtzel, I don’t think Hannah will indulge in a string of one-night stands in middle age or be stuck in an overheated apartment in “the dungeon equivalent of a neighborhood.” And she surely won’t cling to the girl she once was, because once upon a time she looked and did exactly as she pleased. That’s the true beauty of her generation.