The Lamplit Venus

My favourite places all reside in memory. One, in particular, the home of my former classmate, Xiyin, flourishes there, and I visit it often in both mindfulness and reverie. I left China many years ago, and circumstances have caused Xiyin and me to drift apart, but the warmth, harmony, and intimacy that I felt during those times I spent with her and her family still linger with me as poignantly as ever.

Xiyin was a very reserved and unassuming girl. Though tall, thin, and pretty, worthy of at least modest conceit, she possessed none. Content with who she was, and undemanding of praise or even recognition, she simply accepted, without comment or complaint, whatever might befall her. She was as she appeared; she appeared as she was. During the three years that we were classmates, we shared the same desk. Despite our many differences, or maybe because of them, we became very close friends. I was aggressive, domineering, dauntless; incorrigibly, though ofttimes righteously, supercilious. I liked Xiyin, because she was un-obsequiously obedient. I decided what we did, and where we went; she followed my lead without objection, without alternative suggestion. For me, everything was calculated, designed to maintain my high opinion of myself, and others’ equally high opinion of me. In school, anything less than excellent marks meant failure to me. Xiyin cared not what grades she got; they just did not matter to her. I thought that I was more intelligent than she, and my performance in nearly everything we did corroborated that claim. But my over-weening confidence also took its toll. Often, I was frustrated, exasperated, even enraged; my happiness diminished by the struggles suffered to ensure that self-assurance. Meanwhile, all the while, Xiyin simply persevered, flowing with the tides; absorbing the punches, benefiting from, rather than agonising over, the accompanied momentum of their intended injury; acquiescing at any and every turn; keeping step through intuition, submitting to command. I liked her for this as well. She was a docile animal, a limpid pool, a constant evergreen; in short, all that I was not. With, and of, this gentle creature, there was never the faintest glimmer of competition or jealousy; indeed, there was no call for these. But envy, that, there was, all my own, then and still; for she held treasures that I will never know.

I visited Xiyin’s family often. Her mother was a housewife, appearing older than her age should grant. There was nothing outwardly exceptional about her; she was ordinary, like Chinese women everywhere. A wife and a mother, she passed her days without event and without dissatisfaction. Like a well-primed spring emerging from un-stirred depths, she rose and trickled along her course, not turning any stone, oblivious to any change of weather. To me, she was also like a ribbon in that stream, not brightly coloured, maybe blue, fully extended, and unhindered in its enjoyment of the water’s soft or passionate caress. To Xiyin, her mother was all that Xiyin was inside – her heart and soul and mind – and all that she would become. In that reassurance, her consolation was sublime.

Xiyin’s father was an artist – an illustrator, to be exact. There was nothing stereotypically artistic about him, no self-embellishment, no self-indulgence. Not a celebrated man at all was he, but simply one whose life, love, and work were art. He was quiet, yet not withdrawn; friendly, but not effusive; jovial, though not prone frivolity. And he was tall, dark, and handsome. Xiyin’s good looks had come from him.

Xiyin also had a younger brother. Being both male and the youngest, he was pampered by one and all. Even I, generally intolerant of children, found him irresistible. In temperament and in looks, he resembled his mother; rather homely, but an angel underneath. As an indefatigable bearer of an inexhaustible repertoire of stories, it was not surprising, though nonetheless confirming, that he liked me, too.

I do not remember when it happened, or how, but I was eventually accepted as a member of Xiyin’s family. By this, I do not mean that I was merely a frequent and welcome guest; I was far and away above that. In fact, I had all of the rights and the privileges of any other member of their household. But while they kept no secrets from me, none at least that Xiyin was given to overhear, to witness, or to know, they respected my privacy. It was an ideal relationship for me, and one to which they were wholly amenable. I could come and go as I pleased. I took part in their family discussions. But no questions were ever asked of me regarding my family situation. It was not in an effort to save me from telling, were I not asked, but one instead of the bliss of ignorance. Once again, it seemed not to matter to them. That this carefree, even careless, attitude and behaviour could be found in anyone immediately following the Cultural Revolution was amazing to me. Xiyin and her family seemed somehow lost in time; in a time when decency, morality, conscience, goodness, and generosity could still be found in China. Their candour with me, brazen and boundless, was more than astounding; it was almost frightening. Frightening, however, only because I could not understand it, though I doubted not its genuineness even for a moment. All Chinese who survived the Cultural Revolution still bore its wounds, but those of Xiyin’s family had been miraculously reduced to barely discernible scars; nursed back to health through love. I thought that was what it was, what it must have been, for never had I seen a family so intimate, so loving, and so caring as theirs. If I could have chosen my own family, it would have been theirs, not mine. Of course, then, I would not be the same person I am today. But, then, would that really matter?

Sometimes, I would sit with Xiyin in her little room. There, we would talk and study, her bed, desk, lamp, and chair, filling that room precisely. She laughed freely, and loudly; listening attentively, with intense black eyes fondling every word; and speaking only when my queries demanded it. As may have been guessed, I was the loquacious one, the comic, the actress. With encouragement, Xiyin’s confidences were not withheld, but never a superfluous word was forthcoming. She spoke with big, lustrous eyes, instead.

Our homework done – a quick and easy chore for me – Xiyin and I would venture into the other corners of her three-room flat. Her father’s study – doubling as her parents’s bedroom – always had something promising to offer – photographs, old glossies, art journals, her father’s current project for book or periodical, maybe her father himself, at work but never disturbed. Or we would go into the kitchen to help her mother prepare supper. Xiyin could cook and so could I; so we all contributed to the meals we shared. At other times, I would cut Xiyin’s and her mother’s hair. I was also their fashion consultant – which was challenging considering the limited freedom and choices we had in post-Cultural Revolution China. Probably no one among the common people in China was even moderately wealthy at the time, but Xiyin’s family was better off than most, better off than mine. Still, and perhaps wisely, as conspicuous consumption was bound to arouse censure, they appeared to be devoid of even a wholesome degree of vanity. What I did, mostly for Xiyin and for her mother, was to embolden them. Yes, I was reckless, but I could usually get out of trouble as expeditiously as I had gotten into it.

Evenings were the best for all of us. After supper, we would continue to sit at the table and talk for a while over cups of tea. The length of this while was determined by the time required for each of us to speak about the events of her or his day, each in turn, and not by any intrusive factor or constraint. We were all relaxed and genuinely interested each in the others; so eager anticipation prompted us rather than rush. Though there was something ritualistic about our observation of this special time of sharing, it never once degenerated into banal routine. Xiyin’s father, the natural lieutenant of the household, second, of course, to her mother, did not preside, as might be presumed. No one unduly monopolised the conversation. We all just talked, and listened, and laughed, everyone paying the utmost attention. Our offerings varied, to be sure, but most often we talked about the people with whom we had had dealings during the day. In the inner circles of Chinese families, great entertainment is provided in discussion of ‘the others’, those outside those circles. This strict division between ‘our family’ and ‘them’ helps to strengthen and to unify Chinese families even further. Xiyin’s family, of which I was an adopted member, was the tightest I had ever known. Their sense of commitment to one another, and their unbounded love for one another, was truly remarkable, inspiring, moving. Even today, the memory of their closeness brings me nearly to tears. Back then, our evening conversations left me not only tender at heart, but exhilarated. Our sharing having achieved its leisurely end, we all dispersed. Xiyin and I first helped to clean up the dishes, then went back to her room to study; her mother took the youngest into another room to occupy themselves; and her father returned to his drawing in his most friendly of corners. It was quiet, but not still. Chinese families had no televisions then; so there was only the hum, the taut intensity, the incomparable music and magic of people engaged in creation.

With the influence of Xiyin’s father,  I became both aware of and interested in art. With the instinctual inventiveness and imagination of a teacher and an artist, and the enthusiasm and patience of a father, he ushered Xiyin and me into his artist’s world. And what a wonderful initiation it was. One day, we all went to the park – nothing unusual, but he had a plan. He dug up some clay with a stick, wrapped it in newspaper, and brought it home. We were instructed to mix it with water, a little at a time, until it was pliable, and then to knead it until it was smooth. This man surely knew the way to a young girl’s heart – fingers and thumbs in moist, warm clay; palms pressing it down into pancakes; cupped hands forming it into balls, perfectly round; fists beating it down again… And then the real fun began. He helped us to fashion the clay into the figures of animals – little dogs, pigs, and cats. To aid us in accomplishing some detail, we used knives, spoons, and toothpicks. When we were satisfied that we were done, as well as we could, we put them aside to dry. Anxious to carry on with our undertaking – the painting – Xiyin and I checked on them many times, imagining how we would clothe them. Finally, it was time. Xiyin’s father showed us how to make and use stencils; and how to brush thickened pigment across the teeth of a comb to produce a fine spray which instantly imbued the exposed surfaces of the clay figures with colour. Using this technique, together with stencils and brushes, our creations seemed to burst into life. We were overwhelmed with excitement. Never before had I, or Xiyin, ever been so enthralled. Even Xiyin’s father, a veteran artist, could not disguise his joy. Soiled, intoxicated, enraptured, in tears, we gazed in sheer delight at art – our art. Those days, those hours, those moments, this lifetime I will never forget.

Shortly after our fifteenth birthdays, Xiyin and I were ordered to work by the government. School was over for us, maybe for ever, and so was the romance of youth. I became a labourer in a stationery goods factory. Like a machine, I worked long hours for a token wage, operating a clip-binding press. In a state-owned dry goods depot, her responsibility the salt and the petter, Xiyin exchanged the noise of the factory for the grumbling of patrons. It would be difficult to say who was more fortunate; both of us were dreadfully unhappy. Our fate was sealed, or so it seemed. Once assigned to a job, one remained there for life. I felt more turbulent, stifled, and embittered than Xiyin. In her customary way, she quickly resigned herself to her lot – no resentment, no unrest, no contention. From fifteen years of age ’til retirement – how on this cruel earth to endure! Ten years later, I left China, but, then, I had only my well-known cussedness to keep my despair at bay.

Xiyin’s father sympathised with our plight, and to the rescue he came. One evening, to our total surprise, be brought a sculptured bust of Venus into Xiyin’s room, set it on the table before us, and fixed the lamplight favourably upon it. He told us what he knew about Venus. She was the ancient Italian goddess associated with cultivated fields and gardens, and later identified by the Romans with the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and art – Aphrodite. Viewing her under the lamplight, we were captivated, spellbound. Under her bewitchment, peace and awe combined to suffuse us with marvel; in her irradiating presence, all of our troubles were transcended. Xiyin and I looked at each other. Beaming, we looked at her father. The gloom was gone – banished. Then he told us what he had in mind. We should draw her, carefully, unhurriedly. He could help us with technique. Xiyin was to sit at the edge of the bed; I was to sit in the chair. We would render her from differing vantage points, the better to contrast and compare. Xiyin’s father departed, and we began – cautiously, at first.

For over a week, I spent every evening drawing with Xiyin in her room. Except during her father’s frequent inspections, we refrained from interruption. So intent were we at our task, only his much needed advice could break our concentration. Until I was finished, my every waking moment was focused on our Venus. At work, she preoccupied my hours, lending them wings. In her presence again, my bliss was immediately rekindled. Xiyin did not reveal her passion, but infatuation doubtlessly reigned in her as well. During the week, the real world did not exist, not fully. I dwelt, instead, in a land of art, of phantasy, and of dreaming. Afterwards, our drawings completed, I continued to feel somewhat disjointed. I had been altered, not altogether, but here and there, indescribably. My personality persisted, but my motivation and my inspiration had been permanently changed. As if led by Venus herself, I had reached a sacred source of enlightenment. I was given purpose, my centred self-balance, fixed. The labyrinth unravelled, and life once more had meaning.

In Xiyin’s room, I learned about light and shadow, texture and line. Together with colour and perspective, knowledge of these fundamentals of art would enable me to attend the Art Institute. More than this, though, Xiyin and her family showed me how life itself could artfully be lived. Their secret, their strength, their saving grace, were founded on the simple truth that life does not give itself to one who tries to keep all of its advantages at once. They had courage, movement, laughter, and love; they had each other. How could they ask for more? They did not; life was their reward. Every moment of every day, enjoyed, appreciated for whatever it had to offer. And they were happy, truly happy. They could share it with me, because they had so much to share. They gave me flower and honey, but never a sting. And I… I wonder if they knew that they had changed my life; that in a way, small or large, everything that I have today I owe to them; and that these tears of memory and of gratitude are also because of them.

Since I graduated from the Art Institute, my life has not ceased to unfold in unexpected directions. Xiyin, on the other hand, is a wife and a mother, still in the city in which we grew up together in China. I hear she is also selling women’s clothes in a state-owned store. And is she happy? May I forever believe that she is.

For me, there have been only two tragedies in life – not getting what I wanted, and getting it. Off the stage, and away from the drama, I, as Xiyin, have known serenity. But artists paint, write, and perform what and who they are. Their art is a revolt against their fate.