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15th May

Life’s magical unfolding

Our Vietnamese artist Thao Nguyen Phan wrote telling me that the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc I mentioned in last week’s post took place only meters from the French middle school she went to as a teenager. She passed the memorial every day, and thinking about the monk’s sacrifice evoked strong feelings in her.

When she mentioned the name of her school, Colette, after the French writer, I immediately remembered it from our first visit to Ho Chi Minh City in January 2001. Felipe and I happened upon it during our stroll through the city. It was a building in the forties colonial style so typical of the centre, but this one particularly caught our attention, not only because it was painted red but because my favourite aunt is called Colette. I took some photos of the blue plate above the entrance where the name was spelled out in big letters to send to her.

The spacious open courtyard was shaded by tall trees, the constant noise of motorcycles from the street had faded to the background, and I could hear the birds sing.

Along the courtyard were classrooms where students, dressed in their uniforms of blue pants and skirts, white short sleeved shirts, and a red neckerchief listened attentively to their teachers.

In one of those class rooms a particularly pretty girl with long sleek hair sat deep in concentration over her notebook. I saw her drawing with long, deliberate movements.

Could that have been Thao?

I think of the delicate paintings that accompany her exhibitions, a boy with goggles who embraces a dolphin, children that walk in the sky with insecticide backpacks, fantasy landscapes in an unlikely but very recognizable world.

I’m excited by the thought that the girl I saw drawing twenty years ago in a faraway country became the artist with whom we produced a video that was shown to high praise in art venues around the world. I’m moved by the idea that through life’s magical unfolding, a Vietnamese teenage girl became a dear friend.

But was that girl really Thao? Did I actually see a girl drawing? Or is my fantasy sparked with the thought that this could have happened?

It doesn’t matter. I’m convinced that we are all linked, even though we may not be aware of it.

Stories, imagined or real, can make these invisible connections perceptible.

Life’s magical unfolding
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