Poverty (II) – Free to Give and to Receive

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Living the vow of poverty is an invitation to live in interdependence – mutual giving and receiving. It sounds fairly simple and straightforward but in practice it isn’t all that easy. Growing in interdependence is appealing to me but also makes me apprehensive. Up to this point in my life, I have been growing in independence – going from living at home to studying at university to embarking on a career to becoming financially successful and being totally responsible for myself. It sometimes feels scary to think that I am actively working on giving up security and control over my life.

When I left my job in the federal government last year, I was making a six-figure salary. I had never dreamed that I would earn a salary like that, and yet, there I was, in my mid-thirties as a single woman, earning more than some families do with two incomes. I had a house, a car, and a dog. I thought I was set. But now all of that is getting turned on its head. My life aspirations have changed dramatically over the last few years and now I’m in the process of formation for a lifestyle that will see me hand over any future paychecks to the IBVM and be reliant on the community to have my needs met. This really is a process of growth, not something that happens all at once. I am being stretched to see my life very differently and I’m being challenged to both let go and to embrace.

Letting Go of Stuff

When I first entered the IBVM as a candidate two years ago, I was quite concerned about my stuff. I had put my house up for rent and I had a storage unit full of the furniture and accessories of my former life. In the process of moving, I gave away several things to friends and mailed sentimental items home to my family, and yet I still managed to bring a lot of stuff with me to Toronto (two carloads full!). Stuff I thought was really important (perhaps even essential) to my well-being and happiness (for example, my collection of Wes Anderson films on DVD). Some of the things I brought with me have been useful and have made my new home feel like home, but at the same time, some of the things that I brought with me were about making me feel secure in my new environment.

Living in the Philippines is giving me a broader perspective on stuff. When I arrived in January, I brought the maximum weight allowance possible with me – two suitcases full of clothes, books, various medicines, etc. – just in case I needed something important and couldn’t find it here. I’ve since discovered that while most of things I brought have been useful, some definitely have not and could have been left at home.

And actually, the less stuff I have, the more free I feel inside. Less to keep track of or be distracted by. I’ve discovered how little I truly need to be happy and content. (I think the popularity of current minimalist movements demonstrate a desire people have to be free of too many cumbersome possessions.)

Of course, interdependence is not only about having less stuff, but for me, having less gives me greater interior freedom which I believe leads to greater generosity.

Letting Go of Social Status

Another area in which I am growing towards interdependence is my shifting perception of social status – moving away from thinking of myself (and others) based on occupation, income, societal power, etc. I feel kind of conditioned to think this way but the vow of poverty invites me to let go of valuing my work based on the income it earns, or its associated prestige, and to let go of valuing myself based on what I earn or do.

I admit that working for the government had a certain element of prestige to it and made me feel special. Working to support the government in power and the people of Canada made me feel good about the work I did. I was fortunate to travel internationally a few times to participate in meetings and I met some well-regarded and important government officials. I don’t yet know what the future holds for me in terms of employment or ministry work but it probably won’t involve hobnobbing with government officials or big decision-makers.

So I am being called to embrace any kind of work for the glory of God and to value myself and others for who they are and not what they do.

Letting Go of Financial Control

Another way that I am moving towards interdependence and learning to live the vow of poverty is letting go of control of my personal finances. When I joined the IBVM I had a house, RRSPs, a pension plan with the federal government, insurance policies, bank accounts, etc. I still have these things actually but I’ve entrusted them to my father during my novitiate. Before I make my first vows, I will need to take the next step and sell my house and convert my financial assets into a patrimony.

My patrimony will consist of the assets I acquired before entering religious life. It will be set aside for the duration that I live in religious life. I won’t be able to access any money from it but it will be there if one day I discern that religious life is not where God is calling me to be. Basically, I am letting go of control of my own financial security and learning to trust that I will be taken care of by the community. And I am committing to taking care of others with what I contribute.

Embracing Interdependence

The point of all of this letting go, of course, is to embrace interdependence. By letting go of independence (in mostly financial and material ways at present), I am opening myself up to receive what is offered by the mutual giving and receiving that occurs in community. It really mirrors my relationship with God and the journey I have been on during this year of novitiate: emptying myself to be able to receive what God wants to give me and to be able to give myself freely to God. Growing in generosity as well as in vulnerability.

I think our Constitutions (Vol. II) express this so well:

4.16     We live the vow with liberality and gratitude,
supporting and encouraging one another
to distinguish between needs and wants.
We strive to be free from acquisitiveness
that we may give;
free from self-centredness that we may readily share,
free from self-sufficiency that we may receive.

 

The Vow of Poverty (I) – It’s Not About Deprivation

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Image courtesy of Forbes.com

The vow of poverty is complex. I’ve been trying to think about how best to frame this blog post and I think I will have to split it up into two parts. I’d like to first share what I have been learning about the vow of poverty from our in-house formation sessions and then in the second post share about my personal experiences of letting go of material goods and resources and how I have come to think about the vow for myself.

In our in-house formation, Sr. Christine Burke, ibvm, has been leading us through an understanding of the evangelical vows (vows taken in religious life). She has really helped me (and my fellow novices) to think more deeply about the vows and she has guided us through some meaningful discussions. I think our most complicated discussion has been about poverty.

We first talked about poverty on a global scale – absolute poverty, extreme poverty, extreme deprivation. We can give it many labels. This kind of poverty is identified by a significant lack, usually of the basic needs of life – access to adequate housing, food, education, health care, employment, etc. Extreme poverty is dehumanizing. It takes away the dignity of a person and renders them invisible and voiceless and nearly always powerless. I see this kind of poverty on an almost daily basis in the Philippines and it is crushing. It is crushing to live and experience and it is also crushing to witness. This kind of poverty can seem hopeless and entrenched. This kind of poverty is a result of unjust and broken economic and social systems at the local and international levels.

The Church tells us that extreme poverty is a sin. Extreme deprivation is something that we must fight against – we want people to be lifted out of these conditions, to experience life fully and equitably. Choosing to live according to the vow of poverty therefore is not about choosing a life of extreme deprivation but it is about choosing to live with less in order to give more to others. Some religious congregations live a very austere life (think of Mother Teresa’s congregation, the Missionaries of Charity) but not all are called to live like that.

As an IBVM Sister, I will take a vow of poverty in relation to mission and community. In taking the vow of poverty, I will give up personal ownership of goods and control of finances. Within the community our resources are shared so that everyone has access to what they need, regardless of whether they are making an income. By living simply, we are also able to use our resources for mission, that is, to help those in need in society. Our Constitutions (Vol. II) express the beauty of the vow:

4.13            God is the true wealth of the human heart.
The vow of poverty that we profess
is an identification with Christ,
poor in his self-emptying love
and his total gift of self to all.
Like Mary, who stands out among
the poor and humble of spirit,
we proclaim the greatness of God
and our dependence on God’s provident care.

4.14            By the vow of poverty we choose a life
where material goods are held in common
and generously shared in the spirit of the Gospel.
We renounce the independent acquisition,
use and disposal of anything of significant value.
By this vow we commit ourselves
to sharing our Institute resources across provinces.

4.18            Our vow of poverty calls us
to right relationship with all around us,
to practical solidarity with those who are poor,
to a responsible care and use of earth’s resources.
In the interdependent community of creation,
we humbly join the prophetic voices of our world
who work to preserve its beauty and dignity.

The vow of poverty asks me to become interdependent – to let go of independence (financial) and risk becoming interdependent. Interdependence requires maturity and a willingness to learn how to give to others what they need but also to receive from others what I need.

And how is the process of becoming interdependent going so far? For that answer, you’ll need to wait for Part II!

The C-Word

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Looking out into possibility…

The idea of a life without a romantic relationship was a real stumbling block for me when I thought about entering religious life. I struggled with it throughout the years I was discerning. I thought that the absence of romantic love would lead to unhappiness and loneliness, and I thought that I would be constantly trying to suppress or repress my feelings. That celibacy / consecrated chastity could mean a life of meaningful happiness just didn’t seem possible. And so for many years, even though I didn’t feel particularly drawn to marriage or to having a family of my own, I struggled to see the possibility of religious life.

During this year of novitiate I have had plenty of time to face the demons within, including the false ideas I’ve carried around about sexuality and my sense of self worth. I’ve been able to see that a lot of my struggle with the notion of chastity has been around my ideas about being loved and valued.

For a long time I believed that being loved romantically by a man was the only way that I would find true happiness. (This idea was reinforced by societal emphasis on romantic love, and on a more personal note, it was also reinforced by the model my mom gave to me.) Every other kind of love seemed second best. I wanted to be loved and admired (adored actually) by a man who would make me feel special. I thought that being loved in this way would take away the pain I had felt growing up, feelings of not being loved or being enough (see blog post from March). However, none of my romantic relationships ever really did this. Nonetheless I clung to the belief that eventually I would meet the man who would make everything in my life perfect.

But it didn’t happen. And when I was honest with myself, I knew that I wasn’t even all that interested in looking for the man who would make my life perfect. I was comfortable and relatively happy being single, and I was more interested in my relationship with God. Which blossomed into a deep attraction to religious life. And now, having had some experience living religious life, I can see that it does make me feel happy and fulfilled. There is great love and support in community life. For me, living a life that is totally centred on God, and living a life dedicated to bringing God’s light and love into the world (whether through ministry like spiritual accompaniment or combating social injustices or myriad others) is how I can freely live as fully myself, without clinging to false ideas.

Not to say that living a life of chastity is easy. In our formation house we have been studying the religious vows, and we’ve had some great discussions about chastity. My understanding and appreciation of chastity will grow and change over time, I know, as I live religious life. There will be moments when I will fall in love and I will need to discern how to respond. There will be moments of loneliness and unhappiness. It happens in every life. And in those moments I hope that I will still be able to see the gift of the vow of chastity, draw upon the support of community, and find strength in my relationship with God.

The Canvas of Society

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Table of Hope – Joey Velasco

I’ve been absent from my blog for the past couple of weeks because I’ve been recovering from dengue fever. I had a mild case, thankfully, but it has left me feeling tired and low on energy. I am a bit behind in my blogging. I’ve got a couple of posts in development on the subject of the vows (one on poverty and one on celibacy), something we have been discussing a lot during our in-house formation, but they’re not ready yet.

So instead I would like to share a video that we watched in our inter-congregational novices program earlier this week. We were learning about the “Church of the Poor” and the need for immersion and solidarity with the poor in society. We watched the video, below, entitled Canvas of Society, produced by a Filipino artist, Joey Velasco. Joey Velasco created a painting of the Last Supper called “Table of Hope” featuring street children eating alongside Jesus. This video documentary is about his inspiration for the painting and explores the lives of street children in the Philippines. It is a beautiful but heart-breaking glimpse into the world of street children and a call to become mindful of those who can become invisible.

 

Sit and do nothing

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Shema Israel adonai elohenu, adonai ehad…Shema Israel adonai elohenu, adonai ehad…

The first line of the Shema, a foundational prayer of Judaism that I am learning in my Prophets class, repeats in my head, over and over again. Darn it, I say to myself, now is not the time. I breathe deeply and try to push the almost hypnotic phrase away, out of my mind. My eyes are closed. I am sitting on the floor of our chapel, cross-legged. I become aware of a dull ache in my right hip. I feel it slowly travel down my thigh and to my knee. I shift and straighten my legs. Now my lower back begins to ache. I sigh. Back to centre, I remind myself, push away distractions. I gasp and choke. I cough. I realize that in my attempt to push away distractions, I have been holding my breath. Now my breathing is staccato and unnatural. Why can’t I breathe properly? Are my 15 minutes over yet??

***

Welcome to the joys of centering prayer. Or rather, the amateurish antics of one who is trying to practice centering prayer.

In a novices’ module a couple of weeks ago, we were introduced to the ancient practice of centering prayer. The instructions passed on to us were simple: sit and do nothing. Twenty minutes twice a day. Sit and do nothing? Sounds easy, I thought, I do that all the time. Then the instructor made us sit for 10 minutes and I discovered how wrong I was. I realized that even though I tend to sit in silence during my personal prayer, my mind is always active, talking to God (especially when I pray using the Ignantian contemplation method). In centering prayer, however, the point is to sit in silence and to be silent, in mind and body.

The newness of this form of prayer (as in, new to me) and the challenge of it is attractive to me. I admit that I am not practicing it for twenty minutes twice a day, but I am incorporating 15 minutes of centering prayer at the beginning of my personal prayer. It’s really hard. Each day, I struggle with random thoughts and muscle tension/discomfort and, occasionally, with holding my breath during prayer. But even with all of the challenges, I am finding that beginning in silence has added a depth and richness to the prayer that follows. In the silence, God is centering me in his presence.

 

 

Grounded

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I am reading through my retreat notes from my 30 day retreat. I felt drawn to return to these notes in order to ground myself in the graces I received. With so much time spent on study and learning these days, through my course, our novices program, and our in-house formation, I’ve felt a desire to consciously bring the retreat graces into this new phase of formation.

I am currently reviewing notes from the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, re-living my experiences of being immersed in God’s love and starting to see and love myself as I am. I’ve also been reading poetry by the Australian poet, Marlene Marburg, inspired by her experiences of the First Week. Her poem, toe print, touched something in me and I would like to share it with you.

toe print

In my first step,
I put my toe-print
on God’s rejoicing earth,
and all else I am
stirs in hopeful breath.

And as I grow
in gripping steps   I think
my toe-print is my own.
I do not think
where it has come from
or where it is going.
I do not hear,
beneath my feet, the praise
of leaves and stones,
of puddles, ants and snails,
the tones of other toe-prints
longing for our God.

But as I grow
in trusting steps
I sense within
each line, each whorl,
a belonging to God’s infinite
labyrinth           and each step,
a humbling one of many
given
just to me.

– Marlene Marburg, Grace Undone: Love

From her biography:

Marlene’s poetry has been published widely in journals and anthologies. Grace Undone: Love, Marlene’s first collection of poetry, is largely extractly from the early section of her thesis, and focuses on a First Week experience of praying the Spiritual Exercises in which helpful and unhelpful patterns of living are explored in the light of God’s love. Marlene is a senior lecturer and formator of spiritual directors at Sentir Graduate College of Spiritual Direction, University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia. In her spiritual direction and supervision work, Marlene companions people from the perspective that all of life invites authenticity and interior freedom.

******

In follow up to my previous post on prophets and prophecy, I recently listened to two very interesting podcasts about the subject. There is a group in the U.S. called The Liturgists. They host a podcast about contemporary issues from the perspectives of science, art, and faith. I really enjoyed the conversations they had about Prophet or Ass and The Voice of God. If you feel so inclined, check them out!

 

In search of a prophet

Elijah

The Prophet Elijah by Sieger Koder

“To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to world.

Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria. We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited. To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.”

“The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind…Almost every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with censure and castigation. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”

“The prophet does not judge the people by timeless norms, but from the point of view of God. Prophecy proclaims what happened to God as well as what will happen to the people. In judging human affairs, it unfolds a divine situation.”

Therefore, the prophetic speeches are not factual pronouncements. What we hear is not objective criticism or the cold proclamation of doom. The style of legal, objective utterance is alien to the prophet. He dwells upon God’s inner motives, not only upon His historical decisions. He discloses a divine pathos, not just divine judgment. The pages of the prophetic writings are filled with echoes of divine love and disappointment, mercy and indignation. The God of Israel is never impersonal.”

     – Excerpts from The Prophets, Abraham J. Heschel, 1962.

 

I’ve got prophets on the mind. Thinking about prophets, the act of prophecy, and what it means in the world today. I’m taking a course at a local theology school on the prophets, taught by Sr. Helen Graham, a Maryknoll Sister, who delights and challenges me in every lecture.

I have limited knowledge of scripture (i.e. almost none). A few bible study programs at my former parish and that’s about it. I approached this course with a bit of trepidation, wondering if I would even ‘get’ what was being taught. So far, each class has only served to whet my appetite to learn more. After each class I make my way to the library and I stroll through the stacks of books and make lists of which I will borrow and which I will look for upon my return to Canada. I am restricted to borrowing one book at a time, which is a huge disappointment when all I want to do is peruse page after page.

But…back to the prophets. I am drawn to them right now because I am drawn to world events, and to events in the Philippines, that disturb me. I am angered by acts of violence and by the indifference to these acts that I encounter. I guess I am also angered by my own feelings of helplessness in the face of indifference. I am searching for the prophet who will bring society to its senses.

The prophet sees the world around him or her and is so moved by injustice as to feel God’s own response within, compelling them to speak out. In the Old Testament the prophets railed against Israel for being faithless and for falling away from God. Redemption was possible but there was a cost – to turn away from sinfulness and greed.

Where are the prophets today? Can we hear them? Our world is in chaos. Atrocities occur every day and become commonplace. We become used to reading about bombings and terrorist attacks. We see images of poverty and war and environmental degradation. We become mired in our own infighting. Sometimes we respond to global injustice by posting messages of love and solidarity on social media. Sometimes we reprimand our governments and urge them to do things differently. Are we all prophets when we act in this manner? Or does a prophet do something more?

I don’t have a complete answer to this yet. I’m still learning. Sometimes I like to think of myself as a prophet, pointing out injustice. But maybe I’m just a complainer. I’ve been complaining about life since I learned to speak. It’s a craft I have honed over many years. But surely prophecy is more than complaining.

A great part of that more is contained in the prophet’s union with God, in the expression of God’s response to a situation. I look at myself and I know that I am not there (yet?). One of the biggest gifts I have received this year is the freedom to see myself clearly (or at least with growing clarity). And what do I see when I look at myself? I see a hypocrite. I see someone with mixed motives. I see someone who is trying to be more concerned about others around her than she is about herself but she’s not quite there yet. I can see that I am more of a false prophet than a true prophet. My complaining is more about my own desire than about God’s.

So the true prophet, I think, is someone who has a certain freedom of motive (i.e. not acting based on his or her own interests), and therefore is open to union with God and seeing through God’s eyes. However, the passion aroused in the prophet comes from within the prophet and is a personal response at the same time as being a response from God.

It’s tricky to articulate this clearly and I’m probably not doing a good job. Perhaps I’ll get further along in my course and come away with a different perspective on the prophet – who knows. But what I do know right now is that the world needs prophets. In every age, and in this very moment, we need people who can see the world through the eyes of God and speak the truth to us.

A trip to the Mekong Delta

One of my favourite experiences during our visit to Vietnam earlier this month was a trip to the Mekong Delta. It was a fantastic experience, organized by one of our sisters. Even though we participated in an organized tour, I felt like a true adventurer (my childhood dream was to be Indiana Jones!), especially as we paddled along one of the channels of the Delta.

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The Mekong Delta produces over half of Vietnam’s rice as well as many kinds of tropical fruit, like jackfruit, mangosteen, bananas, and others. The vegetation is lush and exotic, particularly to my Canadian eyes.

On the day of our trip, we left Ho Chi Minh City early in the morning and traveled two hours to a spot along the Mekong River. From there, we took a boat down along the river to explore a few different islands. On our first stop we observed how rice paper is made. We also had a delicious traditional Vietnamese lunch – fish, pork, greens, and yummy fresh spring rolls. At each stop there were tourist souvenirs on display.

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Coconut monkeys!

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Wending our way through the jungle.

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The river is brown but it’s not dirty. It is rich with mud and sediment that keeps the Delta fertile.

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Rice paper drying on racks.

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A paste of rice is bubbling away. Soon it will be rolled out into paper.

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I was so tempted to buy a Vietnamese hat.

 

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Our feast! Notice the remains of the elephant fish. It was delish.

After lunch we were taken to another island to visit a bee farm and to taste delicious honey tea.

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I found the water mesmerizing.

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Honey tea – nectar of the gods!

From the bee farm we were led by donkey to a local restaurant to listen to traditional South Vietnamese music and to enjoy a selection of tropical fruit.

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It was a rather bumpy ride.

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Not a great shot but I was trying to capture the ornamental dogs on top of the gate posts. I noticed a lot of houses with ornamental dogs or dragons.

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A feast of fruit! Watermelon, longan, pineapple, dragon fruit, and rambutan.

Finally, we went to a third island to learn how to make coconut candy and try a sample (or two!).

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Coconut candy being mixed. It had an enticing aroma.

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Samples on offer.

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Coconut candies drying and ready to be cut and packaged.

My favourite part of the trip was our jaunt along one of the Mekong channels. It was beautiful and enchanting.

 

At the end of the day I was exhausted but I felt so blessed to have had a little taste of Vietnamese culture.

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Beautiful Vietnam

The members of our novitiate house had the incredible opportunity to travel to Vietnam last week to visit the IBVM community there. It was a whirlwind week of new sights, sounds, and tastes. I loved exploring Ho Chi Minh City with our sisters (usually on the back of their motorbikes) and learning about their culture. I really fell in love with the city, the culture, and the people. Such an intoxicating mix of East and West.

More to come soon on our visit but first a selection of photos to whet your appetite!

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The Post Office – a beautiful example of the French architecture found in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City.

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A portrait of Ho Chi Minh is prominently displayed in the main hall of the Post Office.

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At Ben Thanh Market.

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Bags, bags, and more bags!

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Bowls made from coconut.

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Amazing embroidery work – gorgeous scenes stitched by hand.

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“The Church of 3 Bells” or the “Dominican Church” – an extraordinary example of the fusion of East and West. The church was built in the style of a traditional pagoda as a way to incorporate the Catholic faith into Asian culture.

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A pair of dragons greet you at the entrance to the church.

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A mountain of fresh spring rolls!

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I visited the museum that commemorates the American War (Vietnam War) – shocking photographs of the atrocities of war and the effects of the war on generations of Vietnamese. A lot of propaganda as well.

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After the museum, I visited Independence Palace – the seat of the Vietnamese government in the 60s and 70s.

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If you visit Ho Chi Minh, look up! Tangles of wires greet you everywhere.

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It’s a work of art.

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A hem (lane) leading into a Japanese neighbourhood.

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Beautiful Vietnam!

Malcolm Guite

Blog for poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite

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