Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chasing the Dragon

Here is Caleb following the sound of the drums.

Searching up and down the street.

At last, the dragon! (Dragon dancers weave up and down the streets waiting to be invited into homes and businesses where they dance to bring good luck.)

Even dragons need a break. (Taking a brief rest in the alley.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Great Good

I just finished reading again George Eliot's Middlemarch. There are no libraries of English language books in Vietnam and only a handful of bookstores that carry a shelf or two of western literature. A few secondhand shops in the tourist district carry battered copies of bestsellers, but reading a book based on back copy and cover design is too much like a blind date for my taste, especially when the copy is dog-eared and stinks of cigarettes. I'm not a risk taker. For that reason (and a few others), I've spent the past five and a half years reading mostly Victorian literature.

I've read almost everything by Dickens, Austen, Eliot, and the three Brontes, with a couple of more obscure authors thrown in for good measure. I am not a very disciplined reader. I don't read to examine a book. I read for pleasure and escape and sometimes for companionship. I find a lot of common ground with some of the Victorians. Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch has always been a kindred spirit. Her controlling impulse is to do a great good, but her pursuit of that ambition is impossibly hampered by her own flaws and naivety as well as the foibles and cruelty of others. In the end, Eliot says of Dorothea,
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and [the fact] that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs" (from the Wordsworth Classics edition of Middlemarch, page 688).

I find consolation in this notion that a great good can come out of a hidden life, one lived simply and faithfully with an eye toward loving God and loving others. Achieving a great good in one fell swoop is exciting to anticipate, but virtually impossible to accomplish. We are all too flawed, and the world is too messy, to do a complete renovation. Spot cleaning, starting with ourselves, is more in order.

When I am between novels, I empathize with the early pioneers crossing the Forty-Mile Desert--forced to abandon one river with only the assurance of another. During these stretches, I read non-fiction articles or essays or poetry until I get absorbed again in a story. Last night I read a sermon by Henry Drummond who was a Scottish teacher and evangelist during the late 1800s. The sermon, entitled "The City Without a Church," dovetailed nicely with finishing Middlemarch, though I didn't expect this when I picked it up. At one point, Drummond writes:
"There are thousands ready in their humble measure to offer some personal service for the good of men, but they do not know where to begin. Let me tell you where to begin... Begin where you are. Make that one corner, room, house, office as like heaven as you can. Begin? Begin with the paper on the walls, make that beautiful; with the air, keep it fresh; with the very drains, make them sweet; with the furniture, see that it be honest. Abolish whatsoever worketh abomination--in food, in drink, in luxury, in books, in art; whatsoever maketh a lie--in conversation, in social intercourse, in correspondence, in domestic life. This done, you have arranged for a heaven, but you have not got it. Heaven lies within, in kindness, in humbleness, in unselfishness, in faith, in love, in service. To get these in, get Christ in. Teach all in the house about Christ--what He did, and what He said, and how He lived, and how He died, and how He dwells in them, and how He makes all one. Teach it not as a doctrine, but as a discovery, and your own discovery. Live your own discovery" (Henry Drummond, "The City Without a Church," from the anthology The Greatest Thing in the World, pages 42-43).

The only way I know how to respond to this is to pray,

"Father, help me to begin doing good in the world by first bringing beauty and order to my home. Teach me frugality and generosity. Let everyone who enters our home feel loved and welcomed. Help me to be discerning about what I bring into this place whether it be what I watch on television or what I read on the Internet. Help me to speak truth, to avoid gossip, to reprimand the boys in love, and to choose good words that encourage. Most importantly, help me to know Christ better with each passing day. Make the gospels come alive as I read them again in the coming months. Make it my impulse to share each small discovery and to live these discoveries so that my children, and my husband, and my friends are reminded of Christ. Make me kind and humble and unselfish as Christ is all of these things. Teach me to live simply and faithfully, loving you and loving others. I pray all of these things knowing that you are able even while I am deeply flawed. In Christ's name, Amen."

Hunting Dragons

We heard the beating of drums a few minutes ago. Daniel grabbed the camera and said "Hey Caleb, let's go see the dragon!" Caleb's eyes turned to saucers. He clung white-knuckled to the rocking chair and pleaded, "No dragons! No! No!" It took some convincing (and a lot of explaining), but he and Daniel are out on a dragon hunt. The drums are getting more and more distant, so they may or may not encounter the dragon today. I doubt that our reluctant knight will be disappointed if this one gets away.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Happy New Year!

It is officially the first day of the lunar new year. Our neighbors are putting their home karaoke machine to good use. Apparently they are also busy toasting the new year. As the day progresses the singing gets less inhibited and more off-pitch.

They say that the way one spends the first day of the new year, determines how the rest of that year will go. Hmmm, this means that for the next 12 months I will cook meals, wash laundry, wipe noses, pick up toys, and take advantage of any lull to steal a few quiet moments at the computer. That sounds quite believable.

First Words

Caleb's first word at around ten months was "Amen." He said it often and with great emphasis, sometimes at appropriate moments (like before a meal) and sometimes at inappropriate ones (like when I was talking with friends and he wanted to put an end to the conversation). In any case, it was a good first word, one we could be proud of.

Nathan's first word is "cool," as in "Whoa, that car is way cool." I'm blaming it on his older brother.

Imagination Gone Wild

I read somewhere that at three years old, children sometimes have trouble finding the line between imagination and reality. I'm not sure if this is true, but Caleb does seem to have a hard time knowing when to let his imagination roam and when to reign it in. I was not paying much attention to him at dinner last night until I heard little splashing noises coming from that side of the table. Caleb had piled pieces of chicken and carrot on his plate and poured water to one side of it creating a muddy pond. When I asked what in the world he was doing he looked at me like it should be completely obvious and answered, "The beaver is just building a dam."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama-Mania in Vietnam

A new tea shop is opening a few doors down from us. Daniel came home chuckling about it, and I had to take Caleb out to see for myself.

Did you catch that? Here is a better view of the sign announcing the grand opening...

Let me translate...

"Obama Bubble Milk-Tea
Grand Opening
Special Promotion: 10% Discount for the First Two Weeks"

From sea to shining sea, to the far reaches of Southeast Asia, to three doors down, President Obama is being hailed with hope. Maybe in the future he will lend his name to a library or a highway or a battleship. I suppose a back-alley tea shop in Ho Chi Minh City is as good a place as any to start.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tet Is in the Air

We woke this morning to a strange hush. There were no motorbike horns beeping, no vendors hawking bread or soup, no clamor from students eating fried eggs and rice on the strip of concrete outside our gate. The alley was strangely empty except for garbage collectors picking up an overflow of trash generated during the pre-Tet cleaning frenzy and a few stray kids kicking a rubber ball around.

Tet, the lunar new year, is definitely upon us. The closure of schools and businesses and the mass exodus of urbanites to their home towns and villages are sure signs. The Mai flowers are also in bloom, and homes are wearing fresh paint on their window shutters. Vietnam is decked in her holiday best.

Tet is certainly in the air...and still a week to go.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Sweaty and grimy from playing outside with torn shorts and all. I love little boys! I say to Caleb countless times a week, "Caleb, did you know you are a blessing from the Lord?" He responds very matter-of-factly, "Yea."

Wouldn't it be nice if we always could accept as a matter of course that we are precious and loved. It makes it so much easier to put aside our petty insecurities and love others. I overheard Caleb say to Nathan yesterday, "Nathan, did you know you are a blessing from the Lord?" Nathan just wriggled to escape from Caleb's hug/strangle hold. Boys!


I was reading through old journal entries this afternoon and stumbled across this. It was written just a few months after our arrival in Vietnam.


September 2003

"...As I was steeping my coffee this morning--Vietnamese style with the stainless steel filter and fine grounds--I noticed a strange marketing slogan across the front of the coffee package. The coffee is from a Vietnamese maker, but for whatever reason, the slogan is in broken English. It reads “Give you Source Inspiration of New Creation.”

I’ve struggled lately to find a source of inspiration of any sort. That’s probably why this caught my attention. The words “Inspiration of New Creation” stood out like blinking neon lights along a dark stretch of highway. It was the promise of the new creation that first motivated Daniel and me to untangle ourselves from the mad rush toward career and a home and prospective wealth. It was what prompted us to come to this humid little corner of the world... The new creation is what we look toward and what gives us hope in a world that is so dark and cracking and filthy. When I forget the promise of Christ’s return and the restoration of everything good, I can’t look past the things here that are dirty and worn. The stench of urine in the alley outside our door, the rats that wake us at night, the damp and polluted air pressing in upon us. Lately I’ve been so lost in the haze around me that I’ve missed the approaching sunset. This world will soon end. It is our privilege to prepare ourselves and others for the next.

Father, please give us the strength to persevere to the end. Keep us faithful and give us courage. Help me to treasure time in your Word and to fiercely protect my time in prayer. I have not done so lately, and I’ve missed it. I need to remind myself of your promises and let my heart be guided by you. Help me to do so faithfully..."


Five years later this is still my daily experience and still my prayer. When my expectation of God's faithfulness fades to shadow, the ugliness and meanness in the world around me become glaring. It is as if I am carrying only a pocket light. As long as I keep the feeble beam forward, I can walk by it. I am always tempted, though, to train the light on the skittering at my feet or a scratching on the ceiling. When I do, I stumble. I get lost and disoriented. Practically speaking, I get tired of the noise and pollution and poverty of the city. I grumble and complain and pity myself. I want to quit, to resign myself to an easier--or at least more comfortable--life.

When I once again remind myself of God's promises and reflect on all the ways he has been faithful to me, I begin to see my way forward. This is why reading the Bible and praying have become more to me than just rituals or obligations. Vietnamese coffee may claim to be a source of inspiration (and caffeine certainly doesn't hurt), but in the end I'm most inspired when I'm reminded of the coming new creation--a world where there is no suffering, no death, no evil or ugliness. The anticipation of all God has promised sets even today right. Reading God's Word and praying are the best ways to keep these promises before me. They give me much needed "Source Inspiration of New Creation."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Watching Motorbikes

We live across the alley from a university, so our house is surrounded by people selling soup, fruit, beverages, funny little meatballs on a stick, and so on. The boys like to watch students coming and going, and I like to watch the boys. Isn't this smile contagious.

To Market, to Market...

Caleb and I walked to the market the other day to buy fruit. On our way home we passed a flower vendor, and I stopped to pick up a bunch of china roses for the table. While I was fumbling in my pocket for small bills (the whole bunch was 15,000 dong or just under a dollar), Caleb started playing with the little white nets protecting the chrysanthemum heads. I pulled him away before he decapitated most of the merchandise and apologized. Vendors are usually very protective of their goods. Once when Caleb fingered a bunch of grapes, the vendor scowled and looked like she was a hairsbreadth away from smacking him. I intervened in time, but I avoid that stall now when I have Caleb with me. His fingers are just too itchy.

I was relieved, then, when the flower vendor laughed and plucked a shabby looking chrysanthemum stem for Caleb to take home. He is very proud of his flower. We put it in a bud vase and he carried it around the house for a day or so. The flower watched tv with Caleb, sat on the table while he ate lunch, waited on the shelf while he napped, and even went into the bath with him before bedtime. For all that wear, the hideous thing is still looking surprisingly healthy. Maybe chrysanthemums were created for three-year-olds.


The boys are doing better at keeping my resolutions than I am. Oh well, maybe if they burn up some excess energy, then I will have enough left over to exercise at the end of the day.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Have I mentioned that I hate haircuts? I especially dread the ordeal in Vietnam where I have to explain what I want and spend an hour or two chit-chatting in a second language. I made the mistake again of using the word for "layers" and ended up with another bad shag. I must strike that word from my vocabulary. Instead I need to learn how to say, "Could you please do that clever snip-snip technique where you cut out a few strands at a time in just the right places and my hair miraculously has volume and texture instead of hanging flat and limp against my face as it was created to do." If anyone can translate that, I'd be forever grateful.

Given my distaste for beauty treatments, you would think that I would choose a hairstyle that doesn't require frequent cuts or a salon that is familiar, but no. My hair looks stringy and unkempt when it is long, and I've yet to find a salon I can visit more than two or three times before I have to cut and run. The staff at one place kept pestering me to teach them English. At another place they pressured me into manicures and massages and even conned me into an expensive hair treatment by starting it before I could refuse. Instead of holding my ground, I generally skulk away in search of a salon where I can get a simple haircut without being bullied into styles and products and services that I don't want or need. Does such a place exist in the world?

This is all complicated by the fact that I am still a redneck at heart. I try to put on a sophisticated face, but beneath it all I will always be fresh from the woods. I would so much rather be sitting under my favorite tree by the beaver pond than prostrate in a salon with a twenty-something Vietnamese girl massaging each arm, another at my feet, and a fourth shampooing my hair. In the woods I am myself. In a salon chair, I am not. All the moisture travels from my mouth to my palms. I stammer and trip over things and find myself completely at the mercy of the stylist.

"Could you please just trim it a little?" I ask timidly.

"Trim?" the stylist asks with one raised eyebrow and a heavy undertone of skepticism. "When was the last time you had this cut?"

"This," I think to myself. "Is it really that bad?"

The stylist runs his fingers through my hair, frowning and clucking. I crumble.

"Well," I hear myself saying, "what do you think...?"

I should know by now never to hand over the keys so easily. I always get taken for a ride. I go in for a trim and come out Florence Henderson. Will I never learn?

At least this time the staff let me off gently when it came to services and sales pitches. I only had to smell three or four products and refuse a manicure a handful of times. The arm-massage girl prattled on about the importance of keeping up one's appearance. She insisted that being beautiful makes a woman happy. The stylist chimed in and claimed that he had never met a woman who couldn't be made beautiful with the right effort. I momentarily wondered what he was implying, but decided not to open that door. I made a feeble comment about how inner beauty is what really matters. They didn't seem to hear me, so I rallied my courage and insisted more eloquently that beauty of the soul ("innards" in Vietnamese) is what makes us truly joyful and that outward beauty will only fade. Undaunted, the arm-massage girl smiled and said, "Isn't it best to have both while we can?"

In the end, I managed to walk out with my shag and an extra fee for shampooing and blow drying that was unavoidable. I came home and shed the obligatory post-haircut tears, then made dinner for the guys. Life must go on. After all, inner beauty is what matters, right.

Friday, January 2, 2009


I started counting this morning and realized that I am currently keeping four journals: two for writing projects (prose and poetry), one for reflections on what I am reading in the Bible, and now this online journal of daily happenings. It's definitely not the most streamlined approach and the blog tends to get short shrift. To remedy that I've decided to borrow bits and pieces from the other journals that will give you a behind the scenes look at our life. If poetry is not your thing or random thoughts on Leviticus don't get your tractor going, then you have my permission to skip these posts. I should also add a disclaimer: most of this stuff is a work in progress. Please forgive the rough edges.

Here is a poem that I've been tinkering with for the past couple years. The final verses fell into place after Nathan was sick on New Year's Eve. (He's fully recovered, by the way.) I had several loads of vomit-stained laundry on my hands and lots of time to think while hanging it out to dry. The poem is not in its final form (are they ever?), but the ideas are mostly in place.

Clean Linen

I worked at a desk
In an office with a door.
I wore black and a scent
From a bottle called "Clean Linen."

I read Living
And thought about laying
Cloth napkins at dinner
Or place settings for four.

Now I live and work and read
At home.
Mike Mulligan mostly,
Or that curious George.

I stand at a counter
In a kitchen with cool tile,
Barefoot and scented
Of soap and soured milk.

Weary, I wash
And think about drying
This day's linens
From a string in the sun.

"On summer days,"
My mom once said,
"There's nothing nicer
Than a sheet in the breeze."

A skeptic, I shrug.
I bundle my burden
And trudge toward the line.

I question sometimes
The quality
Of a battle ever-fought,
Seemingly never won.

But I groan with the rest
Of grubby creation
And raise my cases
Against the wind.

I hear the snap
Of a breeze-snagged sheet
Drawn taut
Before the sun.

I watch it glow
The glory of God its radiance,
A fine linen
Bright and pure.

I marvel
At this quiet overthrow,
Old made new,
Redemption in a microcosm.

I stand still and straight,
Amazed, admiring
A motley, flag-waving tribute
To virtue--unbought, unbottled.

January 2009
Copyright Heather Owens

Explanation: I wrestle sometimes with the value of time spent on so many mundane tasks: dishes, laundry, diapers, etc., etc. Occasionally I miss operating in a world of words and thoughts and theory. I've come to realize, though, that caring for a family is actually thoughts and theory in the trenches. I am forced to live what I believe, and in return, I am privileged to experience the hand of God in the minutia of the everyday. As I was hanging damp bed sheets the other day, I couldn't help but enjoy their coolness and the clean scent of laundry soap clearing the house of less pleasant odors. I was reminded of the pure, white robes that we will someday be given and the verses in Revelation about the bride of Christ wearing "a fine linen, pure and bright"--the cloth's beauty comprised of the righteousness of God's people. Washing laundry, caring for a sick child, cleaning up messes--these are small acts, but important. I have the honor of redeeming things on a small scale (the laundry and dishes day in and day out) and am reminded of God's constant work of redemption in the world. Someday all creation will be made new and never soiled again--what a thing to look forward to. The battle will be at an end. Until then, I have work to do.