Slimegrobbels and custard…

“Tell me a story…”

My granddaughters and I were sitting on the floor of their pink-painted cabin at the bottom of the garden. I had evicted yet another invading spider and, while the youngest sat on my knee, her almost-five year old big sister was sprawling in the pink armchair.

The three of us had been playing. I had pushed little Imogen on her swing until she giggled with joy and had chased Hollie around the garden, swinging her up onto my shoulders and teaching her to stand on her head in a fairly unorthodox manner. Somehow, small children make you forget the aches and pains… at least until next morning when you try to move again.

By this point though, we had settled down in the playhouse and eaten a meal of chocolate-dipped worms and green slimegrobbels with custard… a menu chosen by Hollie and lovingly prepared by the smallest of chefs. I could only be thankful that the meal was imaginary… and delight in the serious expression with which Imogen, barely two years old, ‘cooked’ and ‘ate’ the ‘food’ while Hollie supervised. Watching a child’s imagination begin to flower is a beautiful thing.

As we settled down in the pink palace built by a besotted father for his princesses, Hollie asked what we should play next. I asked her to tell me a story.

“I don’t know any stories…” She held up empty hands, but that, I knew, was far from the truth. Not only can Hollie tell a good story from those she has heard, she also creates whole imaginary worlds for us to play in.

“You know lots of stories…” Hollie sighed and rolled her eyes in a manner that will serve her well when she has children of her own.

“Just pretend I don’t know any stories, Grandma… so, you’ll have to tell one.” I had walked into that, so we snuggled up and I began with the traditional words…

“Once upon a time, on the edge of a forest, there lived a little girl. She was as pretty as a princess and loved to wear a red riding cloak with a hood. Her name…” I could see the satisfaction as Hollie recognised the tale, “was Fred…”



Hollie, her interest well and truly caught, sat forward in her armchair as I told how Little Fred Riding Hood had gone to visit Grandmother in the woods, carrying a basket of slimegrobbels, because Grandmother’s best friend, the Wolf, was poorly…and how, when she arrived at the cottage, Fred found that the wicked witch, disguised as a woodcutter, had changed them both into gingerbread men who had been packed in a giant’s lunchbox and had to be rescued by the fairy godmother who turned them into pumpkins by mistake.

Imogen was almost asleep, but Hollie had listened to every word. She sighed again.

That was just a pretend story, Grandma. Now tell me the real one…where Red Riding Hood isn’t called Fred… or anything else…” She went on to give me a synopsis of the whole adventure so that I would not miss any of the important details.

I smiled and told the story, pleased that my little granddaughter could tell the difference between a ‘real’ and a ‘pretend’ fairytale. It wasn’t simply that she knew the original plot well, she recognises that such tales have to be told in a certain way… ‘properly’, she called it. That is a common thing for children. The words and how a story is told matters.

What struck me most, though, was that from the way she was telling me the storyline, she also seems to understand, at some instinctive level, that while fairytales are not true, they are real in their own way. They have their own integrity and, when ‘properly’ told, they are important. Arbitrary changes are not allowed as they alter the essence of the story completely and, at the heart of every old fairytale, there are lessons to be learned whose sense will be lost if the salient details are altered.

In the days before the majority could read or write…and even further back, to a time before the written word was invented, storytelling would have been very much a part of the life of the tribes and families as they gathered around the light of the hearthfire. Stories would have been valued, from the anecdotes the old ones told of their youth, to the tales of the hunters, to those told by the shamans and teachers.

Much wisdom can be concealed within a story… and such tales would have been learned young, perhaps long before they were fully understood. Because they were stories, not obvious lessons, they would have been remembered and both the stories themselves and the hidden wisdom they held would have been passed down through the tribes and clans, just as we still remember the fairytales of childhood and tell them to the children at our knees.

As I sat there with my granddaughters, I felt that we were part of a story that goes back to the earliest human lives… and forward into a future that will one day leave even our memories behind. I remembered my own early years, looking up at great grandma and saying those same words. Images flitting across the screen of memory like gentle ghosts… a child absorbing lessons unawares, their stories attached to the emotions they engendered… and to the love of the storyteller .

Will Hollie tell her granddaughters about Little Fred Riding Hood one day? Will Imogen teach her grandchildren to make slimegrobbels and custard? How far into the past do we reach with that one simple phrase? How far into the future will one shared fairytale carry us as children uncountable say the magic words…

“Tell me a story.”

There is a lot more to fairytales than the wide eyed child understands, especially in the older versions. The archetypes we meet in these old stories echo many aspects of the human condition and the journey of the soul.

We are born into a magical world, where our childhood is peopled with wonders. We are given gifts and talents yet our soul is held within the body, like the princess in the castle. As we grow to adulthood the magic fades…or more precisely, our awareness of it fades. Like the princess, we fall asleep, lost to the song of the soul as the ‘curse’ takes hold. Alive but slumbering, waiting…

Join us next April to explore the hidden beauty of fairytales… and awaken the beauty that sleeps within.

A fully catered, residential weekend.

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On the horizon…

I always look forward to September. It is one of the most  beautiful times of year in Britain. The days are usually mild and often beautiful, the last of the heather lingers as summer slides into autumn…a perfect moment for a wander in the landscape…and what better way to spend my birthday than with friends in the ancient and sacred places that I love?

The very first September event that we ran was the Harvest of Being in Ilkley, up on the moors that I have loved since childhood. There is nowhere else on earth that I would rather have been at that moment. It was a small informal affair, just as we like to keep these events; no crowds, just a few friends exploring the landscape and sharing our different perspectives on the spiritual journey that is mirrored by that taken by our feet. The following September we returned to Ilkley and our company had grown a little. Last autumn was the Circles Beyond Time event in Derbyshire, where we shared the landscape in which we work with an ever-growing, but still intimate group.

Since that first weekend we have travelled through England and Wales, exploring ancient sites, old churches, modern wonders and wild places… but we have not yet shared an event in Scotland, a land I love.

That is about to change. In September, we head north to the Don Valley in Aberdeenshire with a very old friend. I have known Running Elk for a decade or so and have, on occasion, been able to wander briefly in his company. It is always a revelation to learn his perspective on the ancient sites and a joy to share his enthusiasm. So this year, more than ever, I am looking forward to September.

Join us, if you can, exploring some very special places…

Inverurie, Scotland
15th-17th September 2017

2The gently undulating and fertile landscape between the foothills of the Grampian Mountains and the North Sea proved an attractive place to settle for the early Neolithic peoples colonising the furthest reaches of the British Isles. Nowhere else contains a greater concentration of late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age remains; from the earliest recorded flint mines, through numerous burial mounds and cairns, to the highest density of stone circles in the country.

Yet, there is a mystery. Unique to the area, with the exception of a few examples in the South West of Ireland, the circles of the region are exclusively of the “recumbent” type; a form largely intended for monitoring the “solstices” of the moon, more 3-copycommonly referred to as the lunar standstill, with specific interest in the major lunar standstill which occurs in an 18.5 year cycle.

Join us in the heartland of the Picts, for a weekend of discovery and exploration of the enigmatic astronomical sites created by their Neolithic forefathers, and the equally enigmatic rock art they themselves left behind.

4-copyThe event will consist of three days exploration of local sites in and around the market town of Inverurie, in the beautiful Don valley, Aberdeenshire.

The weekend is informal, no previous knowledge or experience is required. We ask only that you bring your own presence and thoughts to the moment.

Workshop costs £50 per person. Accommodation and meals are not included and bed and breakfast/hotel in Inverurie should be booked separately by all attendees. Lunch and dinner are usually shared meals.

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Journal of the far side: 7 – Tjukurpa


It is, in the end, all about creation time. The meaning of this is not obvious to the Western psyche steeped in its causal logic, locked into this-to-that and the inevitable need, therefore to create this…. and the fear of not doing.


If you believe that we don’t create anything, that our role as a divinely inhabited observer is subtly different, then everything changes, and you can enter what the Aboriginal people called Dreamtime…

Only, they didn’t. What we call Dreamtime, meaning a kind of trance, is only a part of a way of harmonious living with the land and with others. This greater name is Tjukurpa.


Tjukurpa has little to do with dreaming. It does, though, have a lot to do with Ancestors. However, the dark-skinned gentlings of this place would say we don’t understand ancestors, either…


And then time shifts…
She showed me the gentling. On an old wooden floor where the pictures are made.


I had only been there for the shortest time when the understanding came. There was no single moment when it happened, just a sense, afterwards, of something profoundly present, where it had not been, before.


She knelt, perfectly at ease on the floor, as someone proficient in yoga might, her crossed and folded legs tucked under a thin blanket which acted as her artist’s table.

Before her, white-edged and black-centred, was her canvas, on which the Tjukurpa picture was emerging. It was the touch of her deft fingers on the simple brush that drew my attention, called my eyes to follow the circles…

If I really wanted to….


And time shifts…

The Urulu Ranger may have been related. I’ll never know. He had that tough bluster that marks out those men of the Anangu Aboriginal peoples whose home is the area around the Rock; the sacred rock, meeting of all paths, and as old as life on Earth.

The Rock. Her name is Uluru.

It doesn’t mean anything, it’s her name. The Anangu smile, amused that the minds of the pale folk must always find a reason to find meaning…


Time shifts…

The fingers painted the perfect circles on the black cloth canvas. There was no effort, simply harmony between finger, dark skin and white, softly-loaded brush. I leaned forward. Was she humming, faintly?



The Ranger took us to the teaching cave and pointed out the designs in crushed limestone and animal fat on the curved walls – walls that resemble the size and scale of the body of a whale, though no whales wandered here.

But perhaps they did? The Arkose rock, rich with Feldspar, itself the sedimentary attrition of millions of tons of old granite mountain forms the body of Urulu. It’s a body as old as the fossil record.


But she is not red from this sandstone.

She is red with the blood of iron.


Time shifts…

The brush paused between strokes; just for a second while the brown and gold flecked eyes flickered from their humble focus below to sweep across my watching.

I had joined her on the floor. Not doing as others had and staring down, but being with her as she created. The speckles of golden brown danced again before the white circle resumed its manifestation.

The Ranger had said:

When the boys grew hair on their faces they were deemed ready for the ceremony that would take them into manhood, said the Ranger. This is still used today. Their uncles would wash their faces and take turns in shaving a small area of the face until they were clean. Then, they would be presented to the tribe as young adults, ready to become hunters.

There would be feasting, crowned with the finest meat of the spiny ant-eater,, stuffed with leaves and baked in the burning soil, in a vessel made from wet clay so the spines could be removed with a single pull of the hot lid.

And eggs, half – but only half – of the eggs deposited in the Goanna lizard’s spiral birth tunnel, leaving enough for her and them, next year, to prosper.
The women would forage for succulent grubs, fresh berries and other bush-tucker.
All this would be laid before the freshly-shaved young men, the hope of the tribe as the greater wheels of life turned.


The older man, who may once have been a Ranger, but now teaches, in the community museum, is speaking.

“And then mother England poisoned our lands with their testing of atomic bombs. Land lost to us, forever.”

There is deep sadness that the land they love has been so hurt. I cringe at the arrogance of our history, but it is also the arrogance of the world’s history, and I am here to learn the gentling, not the hating… There is enough hating back home.

And then time shifts…

The way that her fingers paint the circles as she hums, speaks that Tjukurpa has a lot to do with gentleness and being taught by what’s really ‘out-there’. It’s a form of graphical tuition reserved for a special kind of canvas – the human body…

It’s a better way to capture true aliveness – the aliveness of Being.

And then time shifts for a final time and it is the morning.

It’s good to say thank you for gifts of understanding. A sacrifice, even a small one, can be a thank you.

Our day begins at 03:45 without breakfast so we can catch the first bus to greet the dawn at Urulu.

Eventually, we stand on the viewing platform with a growing number of others, but the chatter is not what we want.

We move down the trail to be lower, but nearer to the slowly brightening rock. It’s unusually cloudy and very little of the customary red-gold is coming through.

We find a place of aloneness and wait, hungry and unsure of success. It is not ours to make.

For a period of no more than ten seconds, the sun breaks through the clouds behind us. The body of the great lady of the rock is bathed in red gold… and, to the gasping amazement of those on the platform behind us, there is a rainbow.

My camera is poised. I’m lucky that the iPhone captures the shot, but it does. It’s a very English rainbow. Perhaps the sky knows how to forgive, too…


Circles Beyond Time – Inner circle

snake-adder-barbrook-merin-stone-beeley-derbyshire-ani-115We walked through the cairns, seeing their contours in the rise and fall of the heather, knowing many more were now hidden by the late summer bracken. We were heading for the prosaically named Barbrook II. We know it better by another name, but that is a different story.


“…We reach the house-place. My eyes see only the encircling wall of stones, a few courses high… standing stones in the walls… even here she did not escape the Seeing… Her eyes join mine and I see the angled roof of thatch… the low opening covered with hide.

A fire burns within and I enter.

By the door a rough cot covered with fur… On the far side an alcove, draped in hides to keep out the draught, piled with furs… a necklace of seashells, incongruous on the moor, lies beside the bed. Beneath it, I know, is the stone cyst where she placed their ashes. The last of the embers glow softly on the hearth.

The remains of a meal discarded.

It is warm, homely.

They were here not so long ago…”

                From Doomsday: Dark Sage, Stuart France & Sue Vincent


It is a curious place, unlike any other stone circle I have ever seen. At first glance it seems no more than a hut circle, the remains of a dry stone wall that might once have supported a conical roof, thatched with reeds. That was my first impression, though I have never found any recorded evidence of this. Closer inspection, though, reveals something extraordinary… a small stone circle of nine stones is built into the internal face of the walls. The site is recorded as a ringcairn with a revetment of dry-stone walls and an earthen embankment, but that is only a technical description.


It was, as were so many, excavated in the 19th century by antiquarian Samuel Mitchell who found nothing of significance. It was again excavated, carefully and extensively, in the 1960s. Several cup-marked stones were found, along with the remains of four human cremations. Two of them were simply interred within the circle, one was buried in the stone cyst and the other beneath the small cairn within the circle itself. Radiocarbon analysis of the remains from the small cairn gave a date of between 2192 BC – 1430 BC. Vandalism in the late eighties gave rise to a further investigation and a careful restoration of the circle to how it would have appeared back in the Bronze Age.


For us, it is a place of peace. A homely place, where I feel I should be offering hospitality and making my friends comfortable… which sounds silly, in a pile of stones out there in the middle of the moor… but that is how it feels. As we entered, everyone found a place to sit…and it seemed everyone gravitated to the upright stones of the circle. For a while no voices broke the hush… there was just a strong sense of companionship. Then we spoke of the circle and our thoughts on its usage and some shared the readings they had brought. there was no hurry. The first two were song lyrics, both pertinent, and, with that odd synchronicity that is no coincidence, one of them raised some very personal memories and emotions that led to a third reading that meant a great deal to its author and, through that curious and magical bond of love, to his listeners also.


We fell silent and shared a little quiet time, a comfortable quiet apart from the over-friendly midges and one persistent wasp. When the moment passed, our companions again tried their hand at dowsing… the shift in the reactions of rod and pendulum are quite clear there, especially around the cairn and the small standing stones. It was a gentle sort of an afternoon. The weather was kind, the land beautiful in its own, wild way and went a good way to restoring us after the morning at Gardom’s. We moved off, continuing over the moor towards the modern pathway that would complete our circular route. There was still much to see before we reached the final circle of the afternoon…


Circles Beyond Time – A rock and a hard place

gardoms-9We left the standing stone and walked back through the gate onto the Edge. Normally we would walk back a different way, but the path is a morass at the best of times and it had rained a lot in the area lately. At least the path would be fairly dry this way. The trouble was, we didn’t know what to expect. It is always a delicate decision… how much should you say, indeed, how much can you say without someone calling for the men in white coats to haul you away?


The first time we had walked this way hadn’t been so bad. That is a matter of opinion, I suppose and depends largely on how you view the whole process of death. But it is not the first site where the stones suggested excarnation. The idea of stripping flesh from bone to help your loved ones rejoin the ancestors may seem  less than palatable to our culture, but it is and has been a common practice both in this country and around the world. Oddly enough, it was something I had never really thought about… though had I done so I must have realised that the practice went on even into the Middle Ages here. When important or saintly people died and their remains had to be transported long distances, the bones would be defleshed to protect against decomposition en route…and to provide relics too.


I had first been obliged to consider excarnation after a visit to another site… one we would be visiting later that afternoon. It was only afterwards that I had begun to do some digging and found that air burial and other methods of excarnation had been used by our Neolithic ancestors. It made sense of the stacks of long bones and skulls found in so many of our ancient burial places, but it had never occurred to me before and it is not something that the archaeologists tend to mention in general articles or on prime-time TV.


One theory suggests that the soul was seen as being bound to the flesh and could not be freed to join the realm of the ancestors until the flesh was gone. This would make ensuring rapid excarnation a final act of love and respect. Even in later centuries there is an echo of this, when Silius Italicus (c. 28 – c. 103) wrote of the deaths of Celtic warriors:

‘to these men death in battle is glorious;
And they consider it a crime to bury the body of such a warrior;
For they believe that the soul goes up to the gods in heaven,
If the body is exposed on the field to be devoured by the birds of prey’.


So, the first time we had passed this way, in the company of friends, we had done little more than look at the stones and decided that it must have been an area for the preparation of the dead. My companion had moved me along, quite rightly… not the best subject for  post lunch conversation perhaps.


The second time, there were just the two of us and the place really got to us and with it the sense that, although it had been a sacred place it had been desecrated in some way. It had knocked us for six, being so unexpected… which was why we had hurried our companions through the stones on the way to the standing stone. Somehow it wouldn’t seem quite as bad after visiting the stone…or perhaps we were just expecting it. Or maybe we had just been imagining things. After all, there was nothing visible to support what we were feeling. A sort of folie a deux perhaps…


One of our companions for the weekend was fellow author and blogger, Helen Jones. Helen is sharing her own account of the weekend and graphically describes the feeling she experienced there that ran closely with our own. Nor was she the only one to pick up the images and emotions of the defilement of a once sacred place. Even the photographs already posted of the spot drew a comment about excarnation and sky burial. We will never know the truth of it, but it is a curious and unsettling place.


The feeling does not extend beyond a few yards of the hilltop. After that, there is just the quiet peace of the stones and the horizon. The boulders here would be classed as erratics… stones deposited by the flow of a forgotten glacier… but some of them seem to stand out. Either for their shapes or their positioning, we are not convinced that all of them are erratics.  Even if they were, if we can recognise a face or form in the weathered shapes, our ancestors, ready to see the spirits in all things made by Nature, would have done so too.


We showed our companions some of the stones we felt were significant, including a small stone table supported on two boulders in a way that seems deliberate. On our previous visit, I had placed my hands on that table, looking out across the valley, and the feeling is a strange one. You get the impression that where you stand, others have stood for centuries before you. It was here that, without a word spoken, everyone simply sat down in silence, spaced out across the Edge and lost in their own thoughts.


We left them for a while; there seemed to be a reluctance to move, even though the morning had not been physically strenuous, then gathered everyone together and made our way back across the moor. Lunch was five minutes away…and there is nothing like food for grounding you after a place like Gardom’s Edge. We needed grounding too… the afternoon would be spent in a landscape of stone circles…


Going west – Pentre Ifan

Wales 117

It is a magical place. You are in no doubt of that as you walk along the path to the site. Hoary stones nestle in the hedgerow. Bluebells, those delicate woodland flowers that bloom only in spring, are blooming on the hillside at midsummer, scattered through the grass as if giving warning that here, time holds no sway and to step into the enclosure is to step out of this world’s realm and into another.

Wales 159

Your first sight of Pentre Ifan takes your breath away. I saw it many years ago, on a day that invited no other visitors… we had the place to ourselves for hours and time to get a feel for this sacred space. And, although many things here may be debated and pondered upon by minds scientific or spiritually inclined, there is no doubt about its sanctity.

Wales 118

It is the gigantic head of a bird that greets you, its beak held aloft by stone as insubstantial as a feather, looking out over the valley. Here, it is not just the stones that ‘get’ you. It is the place itself. Little wonder, when there are so many tales of the Fair Folk being sighted here, especially as the moon rises on a summer night.

Wales 135

Some tales tell that they are red-capped and resemble small soldiers. Others, less forthcoming but more believable, speak of insubstantial beings, impossible to capture but who converse with those rare few who can see them.

Wales 146

It was built around six thousand years ago and is the oldest of those we visited on this trip. The site sits within its enclosure still, even though the stones are largely lost within the edges of the oak wood and the hedgerows, the shape of the space can still be traced. There are all the usual debates over the purpose and construction of the site, and it is always referred to as a tomb. Here, I can see that, though not because of the archaeology. Very few finds have been discovered here and nothing to show that it was ever a burial chamber, which, in itself, seems a little odd for a tomb.  I wonder if it was part of the death rites, rather than a final resting place?  Or perhaps the death was more symbolic…a ritual initiation …a re-beginning…for the shamans.

Wales 134

One legend about the place says that it was a druidic college.  Pentre Ifan was not always its name either… it was once known as Arthur’s Quoit, Coetan Arthur, like the first site we had visited. Arthur, as a legend, is a mere babe compared to the age of these stones, and I wonder why the warrior-king who sought the Grail was associated with them. Perhaps folk memory remembered something we have now lost and saw in these stones a portal to a different mode of being.

Wales 121

A recent CGI reconstruction of the site by CADW inadvertently confirms my avian impression. My first thought when I came across it a couple of years ago was that the stone cladding of the mound that enclosed the stones and the sunken chamber that once lay within, looked remarkably like the hooded wings of our red kites  Thus, if the reconstruction is anywhere near correct, the Old Ones were enfolding those within in the protective wings of a great bird that turned its head back to watch the approach from the lowlands.

It seems almost irrelevant to give facts and figures about this place. The capstone is over 16 feet long and weighs around 17 tonnes. It is held on three orthostats, some 8 feet above the ground as it now stands; the sunken chamber would have made the distance even greater. It appears that the earliest structure on the site was an oval cairn flanked by dry stone walls. Later it was extended and became a long barrow around 130 feet long.

Wales 147

The central stone of the portal may have been the blocking stone for the final form of the tomb, or it may have originally been a standing stone on its own. Within the chamber was a felled stone, deliberately left, with traces of burning and older stone-holes. Eventually, a semi circular forecourt was created beyond the wider end of the capstone, which is blocked, but not supported by, the central monolith… a stone that looks remarkably like something I painted several years ago.

Wales 123

The top of the capstone slopes down towards the valley, as does the peak of Carningli that forms the western horizon of this remarkable site. But it is not the size, or the shape that is the overriding impression that seeing these stones makes upon you. It is not even the fact that, as Robin Heath points out in his book Bluestone Magic, Pentre Ifan, with Llech y Drybedd and Bardsey Island, form a precise north-south alignment that goes a long way to establishing the credentials of the long-distance surveying in which our ancestors were engaged.

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No, it is the elegance of the stones themselves.  Their delicacy and poise. The fact that the great capstone is held by nothing more than three needle-points of stone… that have held  it thus for millennia. Seventeen tonnes of stone that appear to hover above the ground, as lightly as a feather on the breeze, carried on slender shards with a precision that is simply stunning.

Wales 129

If the CGI interpretation is anything like accurate, all this would have been buried under tonnes of earth. No one would have seen it. Is this, then, on a par with the sumptuous wall paintings of Egyptian tombs? A last gift to the dead?  Or maybe the stones were never covered at all? Or is it because they believed that those within saw with an otherworldly sight?

Wales 131

The elegant poise of the stones is a confident expression of both skill and beauty. The false fragility of Pentre Ifan makes the earlier sites we had seen look like country cousins… heavier, cruder of construction, though not less powerful for that. It is as if the ancient ones tried their hands at the other sites before attaining perfection here…yet of the ones we had seen, Pentre Ifan is the oldest. Perhaps, then, this is the cathedral, built to show where the seat of power lies and the others are the parish churches where the ordinary folk do the real work of living and dying; simpler, but always full of life. But there is something about the place… something I would like to sit with in the silence and listen to on the wind. Perhaps it is that feeling that has given rise to the tales of the Fair Folk.

Wales 132

For the third and final time, our company gathered beneath the capstone and shared the Gorsedd Prayer. This time, we were granted the gift of hearing it read in Welsh and in that language it took on its true form, as if, like the stones, what we had known on the outside was only a pale reflection of its inner soul… a soul we were privileged to be touched by as it shone for a moment in the midsummer sun. We had not enough time to spend there, but we had enough. As we had arrived, a party was leaving the stones. As we left, another party arrived. It is often the way… as if by finding space for Spirit, It creates a space for us. That too is a gift.

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