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The Serenity Prayer

 

For one of my classes this semester I had to sit in on an (open) Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and they ended with the Serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr. We recited it as a group, holding hands in a circle, and it struck me all over again as both brilliant and impossible to live up to: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

But I can’t tell the difference between what I can and can’t change. I feel responsible for everything and everyone. Instead of calming and reassuring me, the Serenity prayer makes me think of all of the things I should be able to fix, if only I could figure out where I left my super powers. I wish that saying it over and over again could make it sink in, along with all of the non-judgmental, one day at a time, generosity that plays such a big role in AA. I wish that I could say that I am starting to really get it, but I’m not sure. I try to tell myself that by self-publishing Yeshiva Girl I have at least taken another step forward, and that each step counts.

I have been so lucky with all of you, and the reviews you wrote for me, and your encouragement and kindness. And when I reached out to people from all different sectors of my life, they gave me such kind responses. I know so many good people now, so many inspiring, generous, warm-hearted people. It’s a whole different world from the one I grew up in, but, part of me still lives back there, in the dark and cold, short of breath and struggling to survive. I want that part of me to understand that things have changed, and that all of you wonderful people are in my life now. Maybe one day, she will.

Here’s to taking many more small steps in the New Year, towards happiness, friendship, health, accomplishment. Miss Ellie is hoping to get me to spend more time taking her to the dog park, and Miss Cricket is praying for heavy snowfall, and daily snowball fights throughout the winter, and long walks as soon as the snow stops. We can all dream, and, in the meantime, there are lots of chicken treats to keep the peace!

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“You should have taken me to the dog park, Mommy.”

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“Zooooooooooooom!!!!!”

 

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl.

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Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

 

The Last Interfaith Bible Seminar, for the year

 

We finally had our last session of the Interfaith Bible Seminar, so of course it started to snow for the first time since our last attempted meeting, but only a little bit, as a token, to let me know that God has a sense of humor. A dark one. For this session we met at the Methodist church, which shares a building with a Korean Presbyterian congregation, and a Hispanic Evangelical congregation, just to keep things interesting. There were drawings of dreidels and menorahs on the walls, next to the Santas and Christmas trees, which made sense, eventually, when the pastor explained that the church’s nursery school is non-sectarian, and filled with Jewish kids, and a lot of Mandarin speaking families as well, because, Long Island.

The final seminar was led by the Methodist pastor and the cantor from my synagogue, both of whom had the mistaken impression that we prepare for these seminars by reading ahead. I didn’t even know that what was billed as the book of Ezra also included the book of Nehemiah, let alone what was included in these books. It turns out that Ezra is set at the end of the Babylonian exile, as the Jews were returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. Ezra is trying to teach the returning Jews how to be Jewish again, because they are clueless after generations of exile, and the non-Jewish ruler of the area is actually encouraging the Jews to rebuild the Temple, so there’s no anti-Semitism to fight against, which makes the Jews feel weird. We are a people who do better with antagonism, it seems. Acceptance makes us nervous.

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“I like acceptance, Mommy.”

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“I don’t particularly care for it myself.”

The fact is, throughout history walls were built around the Jewish community, by others, to keep us from mingling with the regular people, but that isolation served to keep the Jewish community together. Despite the rise in anti-Semitism over the past two years, we still live in a society that is overwhelmingly accepting of Jews and Judaism, which brings on the fear that assimilation and comfort will lead to the dissipation and disappearance of the Jewish people.

Ezra, who is trying to regenerate Jewish peoplehood after the Babylonian exile, thinks that the big danger is intermarriage. He tells the Jewish men that they have to send away their foreign wives, and the children born of them, in order to purify the Jewish community and return to God. This made my skin crawl. Later, the message is somewhat softened to say, just don’t marry outside of the community in the future, but I had to remind myself all over again that the bible is not a how-to manual, but a how-they-did-it story, and we can learn from them about what not to do.

Of course, behind this fear of intermarriage there is, always, the fear of women. Because women are temptresses who lead good men astray. The pastor said that Christians have long believed that Women are the root of all evil too. Ah, harmony.

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“Wait. What?”

So, anyway, if our goal is Jewish continuity, do we try to prevent intermarriage at all costs, or do we welcome fellow travelers into the community? And if we can’t prevent intermarriage, because we live in such a welcoming society, where Jews are not treated as pariahs as they were in generations past, how do we deal with that acceptance?

Growing up in the conservative and orthodox movements, intermarriage was seen as an obviously bad thing. A Shandeh. A shame. But the Reconstructionist and Reform movements were quicker to adapt, and tried to accommodate mixed religion families, since the other option was to lose those Jews altogether. At our Synagogue school we have lots of kids who celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas, and the idea is to give them the education, and the sense of community, and let them decide how to shape their religious lives going forward; whether they choose to be Jewish or Christian, or some mix, is up them. As a result, we have a lot of active families and kids who think being Jewish is sort of cool. Who knew?

My dogs still weren’t invited to the Interfaith Bible Seminar, but I keep trying to raise them with Jewish identities, in my own way. I tried to interest them in the lighting of the Chanukah candles this year, but they are really not fans of fire. And prayer isn’t really their thing either. But family, and community, and ritual, those are big things in their lives. Just ask Ellie how she’d feel if I forgot to give her the traditional chicken treat after her morning walk. A Shandeh!

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“A treat? For me?”

I want to wish everyone who celebrates Christmas a Merry Christmas, and for everyone else, a happy Chinese-food-and-empty-movie-theaters day! If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl.

YG with Cricket

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

 

Sing!

I finally decided to go to the every other Tuesday night choir rehearsals at my synagogue. They’ve been calling them Tuneful Tuesdays, as a way of separating them out from the formal summer rehearsals leading up to the high holidays, because they say that the purpose of these alternate Tuesday nights is really just to give people a place to sing together, and maybe to have a spiritual experience, or at least a communal one.

I had been considering going to Tuneful Tuesdays ever since I finished my second internship for social work school, but the clincher came when I went to services one day and the cantor happened to hear me sing and asked me to come for the Tuesday nights. I like praise. I could do with a lot more of that in my life, that’s one of the reasons why I have dogs: they love to show love, and to tell me that I’m special to them. It happens multiple times a day, especially if I leave the apartment for a minute and come back in.

I was hoping that there would be a lot of people at the rehearsals and I could hide in the crowd, but so far there have only been six to eight people on any given night. I was also hoping for low stress singalongs, but instead we’re doing the three and four part harmonies that I dreaded. The discipline of singing my own line, while others sing in opposition, is not fun for me. It’s actually the opposite of what I wanted, because it separates me out, instead of joining me together.

I am one of the only Altos, which means that they are happy to have me and have already decided that I have joined the choir, rather than trying it out, which is what I thought I was doing. I want to sing more, but I am still uneasy performing in front of an audience. I’m much more comfortable singing within the audience, but it’s a limitation that I feel the need to push at. There are so many things I want to do that require being front and center instead of hidden in the back.

The Tuneful Tuesday group is led by the Cantor of our synagogue, and by the band leader, who is now a rabbinical student. They have similar facility and expertise with music, which is intimidating. They can both sit down at the piano and play whatever is in front of them exactly as written, or change keys at a moment’s notice, and they can both sing whichever part of the harmony doesn’t have enough singers. When I listen to them I feel like a dodo for ever thinking I knew anything about music. But then I remember singing for my oldest nephew when he was a baby, and how he would reach out to touch my lips, in awe, to see where the sound was coming from, and then he’d make a big O with his mouth to try to imitate me. He doesn’t remember any of this.

Each Tuneful Tuesday session has been overwhelming, so far: either because a song is in 7/8 time, which seems to mean that the next note comes up much faster than I expect it to; or because a song is so crowded with notes that I can barely breathe until the whole thing is over; or because we only do a couple of sing-throughs before we start adding harmonies, and I can’t keep track of which notes I’m supposed to sing.

I ask for help whenever I’m struggling, which makes me feel like a moron, but the cantor and the rabbinical student are always kind and understanding; they answer my questions and offer explanations when I’m confused. But I wish I could bring Cricket and Ellie with me. They could help me feel less self-conscious, unless Cricket decided to bite someone, which would make me even more self-conscious.

 

grumpy cricket

“I only bite people when they deserve it.”

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Ellie’s hiding, just in case.

My goal was to force myself to go to the Tuneful Tuesday sessions at least four times before deciding whether or not it’s right for me, but on the fourth session I found out that there’s a performance coming up, with only two more rehearsals, and all new songs, and the only other Alto isn’t sure she’ll be there. Maybe it would have been okay if we’d started rehearsing these songs months ago, or if someone had responded to any of my concerns with actual concern instead of a patronizing pat on the head. But what I kept hearing in my head for the whole hour and a half was: you’re a loser; you just don’t have the talent; you don’t try hard enough; you’re letting everyone down; it’s all your fault.

The first two songs were taught without written music, and there’s no recording available, so we can’t practice on our own even if we wanted to. The third piece of music is a complicated four part harmony, so complicated that when I looked down at the page I had no idea what I was looking at and I wasn’t convinced it was actually music.

This was not fun.

I wanted to be excited about singing again. I wanted to warm up my voice and learn some new things. I didn’t want to scare myself to death. But now I’m afraid to let people down, because they’ve developed expectations of me that I didn’t want them to have, and they are going to be disappointed in me and I hate disappointing people.

I haven’t decided what to do about this yet, but I do know that, no matter what happens, I will get to come home to Cricket and Ellie and their kisses and cries that I’ve been gone too long. I really don’t know how anyone gets through the tough days without having a dog (or two) waiting at home.

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“She’ll be here any second.”

I want to thank everyone who wrote a review of Yeshiva Girl on Amazon, or read the book, or thought about reading the book, or told a friend about it, or encouraged me along the way. If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl, and if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, I’d be honored.

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Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

 

 

Those Pesky Expectations

In the process of self-publishing Yeshiva Girl, I realized that all of those rejections from traditional publishers over the years had taught me to reject myself. I persisted, yes, but it felt like climbing a rocky mountain that grew steeper and more unforgiving every day. As a result, I expected self-publishing to make me feel like a failure, because it would validate all of those voices telling me that my writing was too painful to read. But choosing to publish the book anyway, after all of these years, changed something in me.

For years, the only safe place I could create for myself, as a writer, was this blog. I could play here, I could tell stories, I could investigate, and struggle, and push, and prod, and laugh with joy. I don’t understand how the blog magic works, but it works. But publishing Yeshiva Girl and telling people about it is starting to widen that safe space for me. My hope is that this will make it possible for me to continue writing my novels, maybe even a memoir or two, so that all of the images and words and stories that have been swirling around in my head forever can find a place to rest.

ellie relaxed

Yes, Ellie, just like this.

 

Giving up on that external validation, that nod from the gatekeepers, has been very hard. From the very beginning, I was sure that I could make everyone proud of me: teachers, therapists, parents, friends, editors, everyone. I assumed that their expectations of me were based on what they saw as my real potential, and that they were invested in helping me to reach those expectations. But I found out that many people had expectations of me that had very little to do with me. They expected me to be able to live up to their unspoken hopes and dreams and needs, and they told me that I was too smart to need help. They also made sure to tell me that everything they wanted from me was clear and obvious, and if I did not understand the rules then there was something deeply wrong with me. Except, teachers often left out important parts of their instructions, assuming that I’d know what to do by osmosis. Agents, editors, parents, boyfriends, all expected me to be able to read their minds, and know what they wanted from me. They had something in mind, that they themselves couldn’t articulate, and they judged me by my ability to live up to those inchoate expectations. People seemed to look at me and see a kaleidoscope that was constantly changing.

I had teachers who expected me to get multiple PhD’s, in whichever subjects, despite my obvious distaste for academic writing. And, of course, I would be a published novelist many times over, and a wonderful mother, and maybe a rabbi, and a singer, and on and on. That’s not even including the people whose expectations were intentionally un-meet-able; people who refused to see me as good enough in any way, because of who I am at my core, or, really, because of who they are. My father was like that.

And then I learned to have just as unreasonable expectations of others as they had of me. Cricket had to work very hard to teach me how to adjust my expectations. She showed me that she could only do what she could do, and my giving her a grumpy face, or, God forbid, yelling at her when she disappointed me, didn’t change what she could and could not do. She taught me that we would both be happier if I could learn to celebrate the things she could do, and to help her reach the goals that she needed my help to reach. If anything, Cricket has shown me that, in certain areas, she is far above any expectations I may have had of her, and if I’d stuck to my own point of view I would have missed her brilliance, and possibly even squashed it, by trying to train it out of her. I’m trying to learn from Cricket, one step at a time, about how to adjust my own expectations of myself, to fit who I really am. She’s trying to be patient.

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“It’s hard work, Mommy.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

YG with Cricket

“Fine, I’ll read it, but there better be chicken treats involved.”

Ellie’s Surprise Birthday

 

This past Thursday we got a call from our groomer (the goddess who mediated Ellie’s adoption) wishing Ellie a Happy Birthday. Wait, what? It turns out that Ellie just turned five years old this week, and we now know her exact birthday, so of course celebration ensued (I still plan to celebrate her Gotcha Day in July, but two birthday parties won’t hurt anyone).

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“A birthday party means food, right Mommy?”

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“Where’s my party?”

 

We were already in celebration mode, what with my own birthday, and Thanksgiving, and Chanukah coming up, and, oh yeah, the publication of my novel Yeshiva Girl (!!!!!!!!!!).

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My first thought for the celebration was cookie decorating, given the season. I found a Chanukah House kit at our local drug store (yes, there are quite a few Jews in my neighborhood), right next to the Gingerbread house kits. My cookie decorating skills lack a certain precision, so, a lot of the house making materials ended up on the floor, where the dogs enjoyed them thoroughly. It turns out you need a lot of royal icing to hold a house made of sugar cookies in place, and then you need to cover the whole thing with much more sugar than you could ever have imagined. Mom had a steadier hand with the roof tiles, but I just played for hours, tossing sprinkles and candy every which way.

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It turned out that that was not enough cookie decorating for us (um, me). So I made a batch of sugar cookie dough and used every cookie cutter I own, from tiny leaves, to giant Butterflies, with teddy bears and hearts and giraffes in between. I colored way outside the lines (as always, I actually failed coloring in kindergarten), and made sure to let the dogs share in the joy whenever possible. And then, to balance out their diet, I used our new treat launcher to spray chicken-flavored treats around the room and set the girls off on a scavenger hunt to make sure not one bite was lost.

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iced cookies

Celebration accomplished!

I’ve been overwhelmed this week with the support for my novel and I want to thank everyone who ordered a copy of Yeshiva Girl from Amazon, and everyone who offered encouragement on the blog as well. I can’t wait to hear what you think of the book!

If you haven’t seen it yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if anyone feels called to write a review of the book on Amazon, I’d be honored.

yeshiva girl with dogs

The girls are trying to read the book too, in their own way.

 

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

The Book is Ready

 

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I’ve spent many years trying to publish my first novel, Yeshiva Girl, through the traditional publishing route: sending it out to agents, and then watching as my agent collected rejections for me, and then sent it out again, and again. I had hoped that the #MeToo movement would be a sign that the world was ready for Izzy, but the rejections kept rolling in. Izzy has a story to tell that I think a lot of people can relate to, in one way or another. And, fundamentally, I didn’t want her to be alone on a shelf anymore, I want her to be out in the world, so I decided to self-publish on Amazon.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

I want to thank my brilliant and talented Mom, Naomi Mankowitz, for the beautiful cover design and page layout for the book, and for every day of love and support throughout my life. And, of course, I need to thank every dog who has passed through my life and taught me about unconditional love and healing. And thank you to all of you, for your support and encouragement for me through the blog, and for inspiring me to take the leap into self-publishing!

me and the girls

We’re sort of ready for the leap.

 

Please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl And if anyone feels called to write a review of the book on Amazon, I’d be honored.

 

 

 

 

 

The Interfaith Bible Seminar

 

Leading up to our yearly ecumenical Thanksgiving service, the local clergy decided to try out an interfaith bible seminar, including two liberal synagogues (one being mine) and a Methodist church. It’s a trial run, to see how we all do, and then maybe more churches and synagogues will be willing to join the group for next year.

I had a lot of questions. Are we all reading the same translations? No, but they are surprisingly similar. Do we read the books in the same order? Nope. The Methodists read from the Old Testament, but also from other books, and on a three year cycle that excerpts pieces out of order. Jews, in general, read the first five books of the Bible, chapter by chapter, in order, throughout each year (though we may excerpt different parts of those chapters, for speed, and then there’s the prophets and the writings, but I won’t overwhelm you with that here.). Do we get the same messages from these stories? No, but no one does. We all see the words through our own kaleidoscope of different life experiences, as it should be.

I was excited to see how the whole trial run would go, because my rabbi has an unorthodox style of Bible study to begin with, pulling in references from Ancient Near Eastern mythology, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Reform Bible commentators, and Christian Bible scholars as well. But there’s plenty he doesn’t know about Christian philosophy and how different denominations respond to the Bible (clearly five years of rabbinical school was not enough).

I don’t know if Methodists in general are as laid back as this particular Methodist pastor, but ours was very friendly, and interested in all of our similarities and differences, especially because our congregations are, in terms of American politics in particular, very similar in our beliefs. He liked to connect the bible stories we were reading with current events, though we were all careful to keep the word “Trump” unspoken in our sacred spaces.

The books chosen for study were: Daniel, Esther, Ruth, and Ezra, though I’m not sure why. They do offer a lot of meaty discussion topics, though, including a lot of strangers-in-a-strange-land references, and conversion, and monotheism versus polytheism. In Daniel, there was a lot of My-God-is-Stronger-than-Your-God stuff, but luckily that’s not a bone of contention between Jews and Christians, since we’re talking about the same God, for the most part.

I tend not to read the Bible as a how-to book on life, more like a learn-from-our-mistakes sort of book. But, the books are written in a very understated style, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation, so that what I see as a mistake never to be repeated, someone else may see as a model for how to live a righteous life.

I feel like I could read through these books another hundred times and still find new things, which, as a reader, I love. And I like the feeling of being taken back in time, as if I am living in the desert with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. It’s a form of time travel, and visiting my ancestors, that allows me to take a few deep breaths outside of my daily life.

We didn’t read through each book line by line in this seminar, the way we usually do, because we only had an hour and a half per book, so we just touched down in the text every once in a while, ready to hop away from any topic that seemed too heated, if necessary. I’m sure we would have been getting into a lot more tricky conversations if we’d been trying to read from the New Testament, though a lot of my fellow congregants would have enjoyed that, especially because they could bring up the Jesus-was-a-nice-Jewish-boy line of argument. We did hear a little bit about which readings from the Gospels were paired with the readings from the Old Testament, which was interesting, but not especially controversial.

I’m not sure what I’ve learned from this interfaith adventure so far, except that I want it to continue. Whether we study in Hebrew, or Latin, or English, and read the New Testament or the Koran, or the Bhagavad Gita, we are all searching for the same things – each other, and how to be the best versions of ourselves.

The fourth and final session of the Bible seminar was snowed out this past Thursday, so instead of reading Ezra, I was outside in the snow with Cricket and Ellie. And it was perfect, because I realized that snow is, just like the Bible, one more thing we see differently depending on who we are and how we feel at that moment. Cricket was in heaven, catching snowballs and digging tunnels and racing around, and Ellie was more circumspect, especially when she realized that her paws were cold, and getting colder. She ended up waiting on the porch for us, where it was dry and warm(er). Some people hear the word snow and feel oppressed by the amount of snow they will have to shovel, or the slippery commute home, and the layers of clothing they will have to pile on. Others think of hot cocoa and cozy family time indoors, and snowsuits and sleds. And everyone is right.

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Cricket, wondering where Ellie went.

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Ellie, hiding from the snow.

Except, Cricket is more right, because I agree with her. Snowball fight!

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