You’re familiar with the notion of a business framing their first earned dollar bill, right? In dry cleaners, pizzerias, restaurants, bars, and countless other enterprises, wide recognition is given to the idea of an establishment enshrining their first greenback. Putting that pioneering note on the wall says the medium of exchange is on the move, a visible token of a venture’s intended success. That first dollar of profit also commemorates the prep work, the hard times, of getting up and running. And for anyone whose built up an entrepreneurial endeavor, you know it’s nothing short of a 24-7 commitment, not quitting until you’ve moved Heaven and Earth.
Traveling through Vietnam a few years back, I noticed almost every business had a version of the framed first dollar, or dòng, Vietnam’s currency (currently equaling .000044 US dollars). There, the custom took the form of small, ornate altars. Coins, bills, food offerings, incense and family photos as well as burning paper effigies and plaques honoring holy spirits crowded the daises. Vietnamese culture celebrates the Kitchen God or Stove God from Chinese folk religion, the most important of a colorful team of domestic gods that protect hearth and family. On the twenty third day of the twelfth lunar month, just before Chinese New Year and Tet Holiday, the Kitchen God returns skyward to deliver an annual report on each households’ doings. The Jade Emperor of the heavens then doles out punishment or reward. Back in the day, families were often classified accordingly to the stove they possessed, indicating the “soul” and signifying a family’s fate. An old story says, “When a Shaman informed one family that ants of other things were in their stove, they destroyed the stove and threw the bricks in the river.” A neighbor explained, “There was nothing else they could do. A family will never have peace if they don’t have a good stove.” The association is thus one of God and family, the relationship being essentially bureaucratic; the family is the smallest societal corporate unit, and the Stove God the lowest ranking member of a supernatural bureaucracy.
We have a good wood-burning stove here, sans ants and other things. And I like to think of the Ceremonial fireplace as The Higher Haven’s hearth. As to an official rigidly devoted to the details of God’s administrative procedures, I’m not so sure our guys are all that letter of the law. We uphold and practice certain ancient traditions and rituals here, unconventional conventions and customs is how I think of them. And we get low and when we do we pray hard, believers in the power of prayer. Still, the primal nature of what we do offers an authenticity, an unbound healing energy that many of the more corporate, institutional, and organized approaches - with group-think at times stifling individual growth - can’t. The self-expression of one’s individuality (namely my own hi hi) is what drove me to this road, the one that eventually left the pavement with a gravel crunch, taillights disappearing into the Michigan woods. Taking root in the Fall of 2014, The Higher Haven didn’t really commence until May 2016, after a year and a half of what felt like administrative and management tasks tedium ad infinitum. Given these tasks weren’t anything more than standard procedures required to establish any solid business foundation. But dealing with government agencies, subdivisions of county departments, permits, payments, codes and other knotty procedures often took me to the edge. At one point Allegan county wanted to change my address and couldn’t quite keep the 494 or 496 straight, leading to unspooled reels of red tape, confusing emails, frustrating phone tag and conversations that demanded severe tests of spiritual strength.
Now it may be business as usual, starting a limited liability company and depositing checks to made out to The Higher Haven. At the same time, it’s all feeling so much more… certified? Sanctioned? Maybe Sanctified works better for us. But definitely Legit. And all authorized and approved of by none other than yours truly, our organization’s Chief Creative Officer (CCO), who, on a good day, couldn’t be prouder of what's being creating here. That’s the same poor bastard, me, who, a mere year ago, was forced to take on and transcend the once utterly frustrating worlds of Pay Pal, Stripe, and The Square. It’s no coincidence Square is slang for being rigidly conventional and out of touch with current trends (more me, not the electronic device). And although these were all necessary business connections needed to drive the deal, I couldn’t help thinking: I just wanted to be a teacher and a writer and an artist. Not an accountant.
Back to that framed piece of dough on the wall, the upshot here is that there was an awful, awful lot (the pivotal word being awful) required in the form of mind-numbing tasks to get this place rolling, chores I didn’t exactly enjoy doing. And while I’ve earned a few dollars over the last few years at this endeavor, it’s certainly nothing to break the bank. But now, if I step back and take a good look around, after endless baby steps and sticking with it, things are appearing better than OK around here, if I do say so myself, as I just did. So instead of mounting up the common US dollar bill, I’ve decided the Higher Haven’s official open-for-business emblem would instead appropriately be a bit more exotic and esoteric.
The 100-dong note, a cool little piece acquired in a Hanoi art gallery, was created by the State of Vietnam in 1949 at the start of the first Indo China war. Bearing the likeness of Ho Chi Minh and even crude but official watermarks, the currency displaced the French Union's Indochinese piastre, Vietnam's nod to The Benjamins. the people on the money being the people with the power. Five years later the Viets beat the French and booted them out at Dien Bien Phu, which has me wondering where we'll be in five years. To this day Uncle Ho is on the dong, the biggest player in Vietnam’s liberation and a hero country-wide. His gaze from my office walls reminds me of the spirit of this place, the spirit of the underdog, the spirit of upholding the warrior’s promise, even in the face of death, and the wisdom that only comes to those who refuse to quite until they've overcome all obstacles.