Wishing Well

In 1997, I found myself in the middle of a wish-come-true. It was summer, although in Ireland that didn’t mean it was warm. Or sunny. In fact, it was 7 degrees and raining. I bought a lot of woollens on that trip.

My mother and I were there for a three-week holiday in our ancestral land – us and all the hordes of other tourists who flock to Ireland to find a bit of themselves and their family’s past.

I had been studying Celtic Studies in university so I had a rather long list of places and things I was desperate to see. My mother, a perpetual student of art, literature and design and a professional interior designer, had a rather different, more architectural list of things she wanted to see. At least we both agreed on some destinations, including Trinity College, the windswept wilderness, and the sea.

I’m sorry to say that I may have gotten the better end of the deal. We certainly saw a lot of ancient sites: beehive huts, ogham stones, ring forts and seaside duns. My mother was a brave and patient partner-in-crime, though, at times driving back and forth and up and down narrow bohereens with me perched on the open window frame, hands on the roof,  craning my neck to see over the flourishing fuschia that grow so tall along the hedgerows they practically block out the sun.

I was looking for relics of Ireland’s past, now often forgotten, hidden in farmers’ fields and barely accessible (unless you’re willing to pay a small fee, that is).

Earlier this week, in the name of St. Patrick, I dragged out the photo albums from that trip and had a wander down memory lane (memory bohereen? Ok, that’s really a very bad, unfunny joke. Apologies).

There, among the pictures of all the other ancient and archeologically important sites was one of a small well, surrounded by grass so green it was almost fluorescent.

Brigid’s well.

As I looked at the well, the pictures of the pale calves grazing nearby, and my explanatory notes, I remembered how important seeing Brigid’s well had been to me at the time.

Brigid, before she was subsumed into Christianity to become Saint Brigid, was an important Celtic goddess. One of my favourites.

Her name meant “fiery arrow.”

She was the goddess of poetry, smithing, medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock (she was often accompanied by a sacred white cow with red ears), and spring. She was also associated with fire.

And she was the goddess of all things that are “high”, both literally and figuratively. So, high-rising flames, highlands, hill-forts and upland areas, but also wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, craftsmanship, healing, druidic knowledge and skill in warfare.

What’s not to admire?

This was why we (well, I) had included her well in our meandering pilgrimage.

It is said that this well was a sacred site to the goddess in ancient times, and it remains so today.

It was a place people came to make wishes, generally related to health and healing. They would write their wish on a pebble and throw it into the well. They still do this today.

I recalled at the the time that, according to the legends, there was a sacred hazel tree hanging over the well – a wishing tree. Not being very good with trees, unfortunately, I had no idea as I stood there whether or not I was looking at hazel.

But there were trees, and there was the well, and the calves, and the green, and a soft, quiet rain falling.

It was magical.

I wrote a wish on a pebble and dropped it into the water.

I have no idea now what that wish was. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter.

I often make wishes – wishes when the clock reads 11:11 or 22:22 or some other auspicious time, wishes on wishbones every time I cook a chicken, wishes on stars.

Every time I throw a penny into a fountain, though, I think of the ancient wishing wells that dot much of Europe, and all the little pebbles that lie deep inside them, pebbles that once held people’s innermost hopes and desires.

What did they wish for?

Did their wishes come true?

My brain insists that a wish coming true is just a coincidence, or the effect of a person concentrating their energy on ensuring something they want to happen, happens.

But there are inexplicable things. People being cured. The impossible becoming possible.

Beyond what my brain tells me, I’d rather believe that there is a little inexplicable magic in between all the scientific explanations.

That wishes do come true.

Though I may never again stand at Brigid’s well, I will keep making wishes.

Time Travel and the Mysteries of Civilization

If you could travel through time, where would you go?

It was a question I heard on the wind. A question so clear, I turned to see if there was someone walking on the path behind me, whispering, breathing down my neck.

I heard it on the wind, I saw it in print, I felt it in my dreams. It surrounded me for weeks.

The moment I answered, the moment I thought, “I would travel back to the beginning if I could,” I imagined being whisked away as though on fairy wings.

The feeling, akin to falling asleep, was soft and passed quickly. Before I had a chance to blink, I had  touched down softly in the night, on a scrubby, deserted plain. The stars spilled across the sky overhead in the ancient brilliance of a pre-lit world.

My quest had begun.

I would wander Sumer, Ur, Nippur, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Athens, Phoenicia, Rome, the shores of France, and up into the land of the Angles and the Saxons, the land of Picts, and across the Celtic islands.

And at the end of my wanderings, would the mysteries of civilization, of religion, of humanity be any closer to being solved?

I’ll let you know when, one day, I return, with my head full of all I have seen.

If you could travel through time, where would you go?

I would go back in time, not forward. Back to the beginning.

I would choose to see first hand the founding of civilizations. I would go back to when pre-history became history.

I have dreamed of walking though the ancient civilizations I learned about in school. I have cherished my daydreams from fifth grade, tenth grade, from university, daydreams about what it would be like to have been there, to have seen the ancient world, to have breathed the air, to have seen how it all began.

In the absence of any possibility of walking through history, I have instead devoured history books, books about myths, belief systems, religions. I took courses dealing with these subjects while at university, though they were not really related to my major.

I have maintained this interest, too, though the subsequent years. I have continued to read both fiction and non-fiction, myths and legends and academic studies. And we have a few antiquities in our home, items my husband has carefully selected and gifted to me, knowing how much I revere them, their origins, the way they allow me to reach out and touch a small, distant piece of history. I imagine an ancient Egyptian holding the alabaster vase, an ancient Roman drinking from the wine cup, a Mesopotamian transcribing the list of a merchant’s wares onto the clay tablet.

What is it about ancient history that piques my curiosity and fires my imagination?

It is the unknown, the unsolvable, the perfect, never-ending mystery.

I seek to know and understand the mysteries of civilizations which can never fully be known or understood, which are lost in time. To see language and writing develop. To know and understand the how and why, the ageless mysteries behind the mystical beliefs the ancients held, to witness the formation of religions, to watch as belief systems developed, as early people struggled to explain the inexplicable.

To have a heightened anthropological understanding of humanity.

I have written before that this may be my religion. For many atheists, science is what they hold onto. And I do certainly explain the mysteries of the universe through science. But I think for me, more than science, my religion is history.

I continue to search for greater insight into the primeval aspects of humanity’s deepest need to believe. Watching it happen is the only way one could ever fully fathom how humans have survived and evolved, how they think and construct beliefs. We can study and guess and try to piece the mystery together, but without being there, we can never see into the deepest aspect of who we are, though we may try.

I think that many religions seek to answer this very question-who we are and why we are here-though many would rely on faith in place of a concrete answer. But for me, faithless, being there is the only way to know for sure.

I am currently reading Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux, slowly absorbing the story of Mesopotamia, one of my favourite places and eras in history. I specifically enjoy reading about the pantheon of early gods and comparing them to those from other cultures and religions. Belonging to no particular religion makes it easier, possibly, to see the similarities between many religions. It is partially why, once upon a time, I read quite a bit about Madame Blavatsky‘s Theosophy, something that also spoke to the great minds of W.B. Yeats, Emily Carr, and countless others.

Interestingly, Roux explains that to live for as long as possible, happily and comfortably and healthily, was the greatest hope for an ancient Mesopotamian. This is what they appealed to their gods for. The here and now. They strived to live life to its fullest for they recognized that it is not long. They sought to make the most of it.

This is quite different from the many religions with which we are familiar today. Those that promise an afterlife of varying descriptions, depending on how one lives their short time on Earth. The reward, then, was life. The reward now is eternity in Heaven, or some equivalent.

If I could, I would travel back in time to observe. I would listen to the voices of ancient Egypt or prehistoric Ireland. I would watch Abraham and Isaac, or Muhammed, I would wander in the desert, stand in a temple of Athena or Isis, watch how the earlier beliefs metamorphosed into what they have become. I would watch that Sumerian press the tip of a reed into the wet clay and see that first writing being written.

I would watch as everything began, everything modern people work so hard to try to unravel today.

Thoughts on Christmas

I am interrupting the post I was trying to write because there’s just so much Christmas surrounding me, I have to write about it.

I love Christmas. The excitement, the chill in the air, the darkness that comes early allowing all those sparkling lights to shine brightly, the feeling of magic.

We are an atheist family and Christmas for us is really about spending time together and enjoying the traditions we have created over time. But there is still magic in the air.

I’ve read and studied a lot about most of the major religions, and some of the minor ones, both through my own reading and while I was at university. The many similarities between religions are often overlooked but this is perhaps what I find the most fascinating about my studies. Christmas, for example, reflects a number beliefs and traditions that existed prior to Christianity; its lights, tree, wreath and other greenery and berries, for example, recall the older sun festivals which celebrated the beginning of shorter nights and longer days, the return to spring.

To me, part of the magic of the season comes from these bits of older religions which have still survived to this day, and the mysteries surrounding them. The fact that we continue to celebrate some things that the ancients did, that the things they found to be mysterious and magical influence so many of our modern traditions.

Besides world history, family history is also an important part of the holiday. My mother always did Christmas so well. She made it feel like such an event, a special, magical time of year, where the food, the decorations, the music, the wrappings were all perfect. It’s an act I enjoy following.

This year, because I’m off work still and have the time to dedicate to it, I am putting a lot of effort into Christmas. We’ll actually be away in Italy for Christmas itself, but the decorations are up and I’ve been having fun with my son’s advent calendar.

This is the first year he doesn’t believe and because of this, and because we’re going away, we’re doing presents a little differently.

As far as the presents themselves, he’s getting one big one from my husband and I when we return, plus a few books. We’re taking his stocking to Italy but now that it can be stuffed with things from us, it will have useful things like card games, socks, pyjamas and home-made coupons for a week of not doing chores, or of not changing his bed himself, or his favourite dinner. We’ll probably find some Italian treats to add to it, too, once we get there.

And then there’s the advent calendar.

I Googled “minimalist Christmas” and came across all sorts of great ideas. We have a box my son and I decorated a few years ago when I made him a Lego advent calendar. That year, I bought a small Lego set, divided the pieces up into 24 bundles, and put them all into the box.

We kept the box and have re-used it this year, but this time it’s stuffed with clutter-free fun things like a day of skating, a trip to the local comic book store, a Thursday night at a museum (the free night in our city), a cupcake dessert.

The day I put the calendar together, our kitchen surfaces were covered with ribbons, tissue paper, and red cards and, according to my husband, I looked like a Christmas elf. I think I had as much fun making the calendar as my son is having opening it!

I cut red paper up into 24 mini cards and wrote a little message on each one. Some are tied shut with ribbons, others are enclosed in tissue paper with little extras inside them – a tree ornament for the tree-trimming day, kernels of popcorn for movie night, cookie sprinkles for the day we’ll decorate the gingerbread men who have lived in our freezer since last year.

I feel so much better about this kind of advent calendar. It’s such an improvement over giving him one more Lego set, or a whole pile of crummy toys he’ll forget about by the next day. Getting a toy a day for 24 days also seemed to cheapen Christmas a bit. Instead, we are spending more time together doing fun, seasonal things.

And the nice thing is, my son is getting really into it, too. One day last week, he pulled out a tag that said “Christmas-themed lunch.” I had put a tiny Christmas cracker into his lunch bag, cut all his sandwiches and fruit with cookie cutters, sprinkled some red and green cupcake sprinkles here and there and added in toothpicks with little Christmas motifs on their tips.

I wasn’t sure if he would think it was a dumb idea but he actually said he loved the Christmassy lunch the most. He said it was such a nice way to get into the spirit of things.

I couldn’t agree more!

The Power of Hair

Many legends, myths, religions and spiritual traditions consider hair to be the source of power and believe that to cut it is to cut one’s power. Some see it as the vital font of intuition or a sixth sense. According to this article in the Jewish Daily Forward, Rastafarians consider hair to be their connection to God, calling their long dreadlocks “God antennae.” Sikhs allow their hair to grow naturally as a symbol of respect for the perfection of God’s creation. Ancient Middle Eastern tradition includes offering hair for religious rites in place of human sacrifice and the fulfillment of vows. Samson lost his battle when his hair — the secret source of his power — was cut. There are also similar Indigenous North American beliefs about the power of hair.

My own person experience has been the opposite.

It was Spring 2003.

Defiantly, I walked the last few steps up to the old, yellow house. Pausing on the porch landing I took in the season’s decorations. Soft white and green blossoms, arching branches of small bright leaves, pastel ribbons tying them all together, gathering them up and spilling with them down the sides of the brick wall, across the planters, entwining them along the railing.

Smiling and thinking to myself that Pierre never misses an opportunity to spruce up the  ornaments, I pushed the door open and walked into the little hair salon. The door slammed shut behind me with finality.

And that was it. When I emerged forty-five minutes later, I was a new person. Easy enough once the decision had been made.

I have always been the type of person to weigh up all the sides of a decision, to agonize over what to do, to take my time. And then after that kind of a commitment, once my mind is made up, I come across as stubborn to outsiders. Unmoveable. Like the Taurus I am.

When I told people I was cutting off all my hair, they balked.

“It’s not feminine,” they warned.

“I wouldn’t have the guts.”

One friend was genuinely concerned and despaired that I would be cutting off my source power.

I couldn’t explain it, but I knew it was the right decision and I wasn’t worried about my power. In fact, I had the sense that I would somehow gain a new power in doing this.

Though never a vain or preening type of person, I had envied other girls their perfect hair when I was growing up. And accordingly, I had tried to grow my hair like theirs. I imagined it could one day be flowing, straight, perfect.

But mine wasn’t that type of hair. My hair was thin, whispy, frizzy and flat at the same time. It turned out in all the wrong places, and it turned in in all the wrong places. The cowlick over my forehead disrupted its cascade (cascade may be too flattering a word) down the left side of my face. It was all wrong.

I had tried blow drying it, straighteners, anti-frizz products, volumizing products, and all manner of shampoos. But it was never right and it always took up far too much of my thoughts and my time.

It simply wasn’t me – not the hair I was trying to grow and not the amount of time I spent on it.

My mother had always cautioned me against trying to be someone I wasn’t. She was speaking generally, not specifically about my hair’s length, but it certainly applied to length, as well as colour, cut, not to mention clothes, makeup – pretty much anything, really.

If you try to be someone else, that person with the perfect hair for example, you will forever be frustrated and your thoughts will be jumbled, focused on the wrong things.

You will not be comfortable with yourself, because you will not be you.

In cutting my hair, I realized that power comes from within. And it comes from embracing your true self. From finally learning not to try to be like anyone else.

You can’t hide behind short hair. You are thrust, face first, out into the world. And that, too, can be empowering.

The day I emerged from the salon with short hair, my head felt lighter, my step surer, my smile brighter.

It took some time to work out how, or whether, I needed to change my style of clothes or my makeup. In the end I found I did not.

Sure, there were days I wondered whether I looked like a boy. Or like my elderly grandmother and great aunt, both of whom had had very short hair for as long as I had known them.

But these insecurities were fleeting.

My mother is stunningly beautiful and she has also had short hair for most of her life, though not as short as mine.

And once I had gone through with the cut, I was told time and time again that my hair really suited me. I’ve been stopped on the street in New York, at the UN in Geneva, and in my own city, and asked where I get my hair cut (of course I pass on the compliments to the man who actually works his magic!).

People have said they wish they could cut their hair short like I did but that it wouldn’t suit them. Still others have actually gone through with it, and thanked me afterwards for the inspiration.

My mother smiled one day over lunch and said, “I always wanted you to cut your hair like this when you were younger, but you never would. You always wanted long hair but this is really you.”

I guess ultimately, if I think about it, I do agree with all the myths and legends. Power does come from the hair.

But in a different way.

Only if it reflects your true self, if you are able to thrust your face forward into the world, honestly and openly, and say “this is who I am.”

Other than that, it doesn’t matter whether it is long or short.

Thank you to Jen Maidenberg for the great writing prompt. I hope this answers your question.

Coincidentally, this post also responds somewhat to today’s daily prompt, which asks bloggers to “describe your style, if you have one, and tell us how appearance impacts how you feel about yourself.”

Stillness

Everything is still. Nothing moves. The wind blows in off the sea but the grass holds still without a rustle, the meadow flowers have stopped their dance, the birds are suspended as if held by invisible strings, coasting on currents of air.

I am up high, as if at the top of the world – or on the edge of the world – clinging to a jagged rock that rises out of the sea. This rock I cling to, it seems to come from nothing, with nothing in sight, no horizon, just the continuous blue of sky mixed with sea.

From up here, though the waves crash with dramatic force far below, their heaving whitecapped fury appears frozen, unmoving.

All is still. A moment ago, there were others, scaling the cliff faces, tottering up and down the ancient stone steps, steps worn away through the ages and by the shuffling of feet – first the feet of the few monks who lived here, now the feet of the thousands of tourists who flock to this historic and religious site.

In this moment, though, I am suddenly alone. It is as though the others have melted away, or perhaps they were never actually here.

I am partway up the craggy rockface. The man-made steps from another time, another millennium, are so narrow that I must place my feet on them carefully, almost sideways. I am climbing slowly, with only the puffins now as my audience, their round little white bellies and bright, multicoloured beaks dotting the brown and grey rocks here and there.

I do not look down. My heart beats wildly.

Behind me and to each side is a sheer drop, hundreds of feet below to what I know are churning, briny waves.

But up ahead, just over the next turn in the stairs, I can see the edge of an alpine meadow. It rests in a crook between two jagged peaks.

I continue my climb up to the meadow and am rewarded with a breathtaking view. Short wind-swept grasses are dotted with tiny white field flowers. The two peaks rise on each side and, like protective walls, they block the strongest ocean winds. Between these rock faces, out beyond the edge of the meadow, is the other side of the ocean. From this vantage point, too, it disappears into blue oblivion.

For a moment, I lie down in the meadow, unwilling to tackle the last leg of the climb to the top. Despite my fear of heights, I have made it this far and I know that when I can gather my courage and continue to the top, I will be rewarded. There, I will be able to touch history.

enchantingireland.com

Monks founded a monastery at the top of this island, possibly as early as the 6th century. Searching for peace and a hermit’s religious life, they climbed into their boats one day and rowed out to this imposing rock, somehow climbed to its peak and, using the stone they found here, built six beehive huts, two oratories, a graveyard and small terraces facing out over the sea. And here they remained until the 13th century.

They grew vegetables on the terraces and survived on these, fish and eggs from the island birds. They also built three wells.

While there is no evidence that it was ever used prior to the arrival of the monks, it feels as though it must have been. There is a myth which tells of the 1400 BCE burial of Ir son of Milesius. More than that, this rock is found in the extreme west and therefore consigned to all that the west in Celtic lore represents – the Otherworld, the afterlife, the place of the gods and magic. Standing here, it is easy to understand why. I can almost see the gods of the sea and the sky clashing in epic battles stretching back forever in time.

Eventually, I pull myself up from the comfort of the grass and continue my climb up the steepening stony staircase. At the final approach, the stairs almost flatten and the land to the side falls away. The drop is paralyzing.

I make my way across the final stretch, nothing more than a ledge on the verge of nothingness, and pass through a stone “doorway.”

acepix.blogspot.ca/2010/12/15-amazing-monasteries-sanctuaries-and.html

Inside the settlement, there is evidence of humanity everywhere, yet it is a soundless and abandoned humanity, cloaked in that noticeable stillness.

The site was meticulously constructed and the carefully-placed hand-hewn stones seem to be exactly as they were left a thousand years ago.

There is a prehistoric beauty here. The stillness is a stillness of the ages. As nothing appears to have moved over the centuries, it is as though even the winds and the rains have not touched these stones.

Standing here, looking out across the blue, I feel time flash backward and forward, and then stop completely as though it has been so for centuries. I feel the power of nature, a coiled energy in the stillness.

As I turn to begin my descent, it is not the shadows of monks I see against the stone walls, but that of a powerful priestess, arms raised, head thrown back as she commands the wind and the rain, the sky and the sea.

In that brief flash, the stillness is momentarily broken and I can see how savage and wild it can be out here.

And then, the shadow is gone, the roaring ceases and all is still once more.

Wikipedia

 

Daily Prompt: For a moment today, time stands still — but you can tweak one thing while it’s stopped. What do you do?

Related sites:

https://sacredsites.com/europe/ireland/skellig_michael.html

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