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A lotus pond in Hoi An.

A lotus pond in Hội An.

Loi Trinh Le.

As I dream of Việt Nam in anticipation of my return, I dream also of the love that turned me towards the East.  As with most love stories, people get involved and shape the narrative.  My compass, my guide, my mentor and inspiration in this love was Loi Trinh Le.

We called her Trinh.  A diminutive but imposing woman, she was a highly gifted acupuncturist with numerous celebrity patients thrown in for good measure. But everyone had to find her modest house in Culver City for treatments. Trinh navigated me through life’s challenges, imposing Buddhist tough love when necessary and then countering with a warmth of abounding compassion.

She would always ask “What don’t you tell me?” at the beginning of a session, establishing honesty before trust. Her needle accuracy was like a laser beam and she would always demand that I call her at 8 AM the day after a treatment.   She wanted to hear my voice to diagnose the success of her treatment and the progress of my response.

After my first trip to Asia, to Japan in 2002 to celebrate our 20th anniversary during cherry blossom time (more on that in my next post), I brought Trinh some photos of Buddhist Temples in Kyoto.  She’d peaked my curiosity. Mixed in with those photos was an old black and white photograph that included my Aunt Phyllis.

My mother Louise and her two sisters, Phyllis and Lorraine, worked hard as waitresses at the 20th Century Fox commissary of Darryl Zanuck (yes, stay tuned to my blog for some great Hollywood moments).  My Aunt Phyllis passed away while we were in Osaka, Japan, and somehow a photo of hers was mixed in with my photos of Kyoto.  The black and white in question was of a 20th Century Fox cast party with Ann Baxter, with my aunt in the background, a cherished memento of Hollywood’s Golden Age in my family.

Trinh sees this photograph and falls to the floor, prostrating herself three times and chanting. I’d never seen behavior like this in my life.  I asked her, in astonishment, what had come over her.  She then calmly replied to me “You have brought the souls in the photograph into my life for a reason – I either knew them or will know them and acknowledged them.  There is reason for every person we encounter, even through a photograph.  You need to realize you are not in Santiago, Chile, for a reason.”

It was nice to learn about reincarnation from her perspective and not a book by a Western expert!

And so our treatments continued with more and more questions, with her wisdom wiping away years of my Western philosophy hands down.  By the summer of 2003 I suspected something was changing (I suspected she was going to move to be a full-time grandmother in Montreal).  One afternoon I presented myself for a session and her rooms were full with patients.  I thought I’d overbooked or she’d made a mistake.  But no, she took me by the hand into her living room, where I’d never been.

I was quite surprised as there was a table in place for our treatment, but with a major, striking difference.  I was before her family altar in her private living room, with incense perfuming the air.  As she took my pulse and began gently placing acupuncture needles in my skin, she talked to me as never before.

“I am putting some needles in your skull so you never forget me.  They will help you think clearly, trust me.”

She mentioned she was so happy at the birth of her grandchild, but she wanted to ask me something.  The Việt Nam War had claimed her husband, and she struggled with its outcome for America, Việt Nam, Cambodia and Laos. Before she left the room to let the needles take effect and to quietly absorb the energy of her family shrine and sweet comfort of the incense, Trinh felt my pulse again.  With her hands on my wrist she softly said words I can never forget.

“I want you to try to find out why the war happened and make something wonderful take its place.  Will you do this for me?”

Loi Trinh Le passed away about a month later, a year before I ever stepped foot in Việt Nam.