Monday, August 25, 1997

Blue Willow

WHEN I was a child playing at the seashore, I imagined the Coast Miwoks wrapped in bright silk brocades, supping from celadon bowls, dining from blue and white plates painted with rural scenes of China. When Sir Francis Drake the Pirate landed here in Nova Albion the summer of 1579, claiming Point Reyes for the Crown, he left behind a legacy of coins, glass beads, and his cargo of exotic silks and porcelain from China. Later shipwrecks offered up inlaid rosewood tables, ornate carved chairs waiting for an audience to gather on the beaches. Tabula Rasa. Feathered cloaks for the wind.

Perhaps I became a writer because I ate morning cereal from a story painted inside a Chinese Blue Willow bowl: two birds on the wing. It’s spring: fruit trees bloom beneath a surreal tree near a temple. Though a path of light invites us to the temple, a fence stops us because we are not Chinese. Though I am four, I know this, for my grandmother takes me to Chinatown to buy new pieces for the set. Old men in black robes with thin grey queues down their backs, kow-tow to her, offer me sweets. I stare, round-eyed at the rows of pale celadon melons glowing with a mysterious verdant resilience beneath a grotesque curtain of plucked fowl hanging by the neck. Gateway to another world. Here, we are all immigrants.

When no one’s looking, I climb over the temple fence. (Later I will find a gate, learn the story of the lovebirds—changelings: to escape her father’s wrath, the forbidden lovers find each other on the wing. A story that includes European colonialism and the Far East—a Chinese story from an English design by way of the Dutch, or was it the Portuguese? Evolving into Blue Willow pottery, ideas shipped back and forth across the oceans.)

I am in love with the blue language of the teapot offered up each evening and the insistence of silver spoons against teacups calling us to vespers. My grandmother says the designs on the edges of the bowl are like hieroglyphic Greek keys—a symbol for clouds, or, the Almighty. (She knows that I will search for celestial dragons in the mountains of the world, for I was born a wanderer during the tail end of the Year of the Dragon.) Every morning I’d wait for the two lovebirds to meet mid-air. Messengers from the otherworld .If they emerge through the thin layer of milk, upside-down, did it change the story? They say birds are the kisses of Aengus Óg, the Love God. My grandmother urges me to finish the last two swallows of milk—because babies are starving in China. My eating habits will become inexorably linked with the welfare of those babies.

I gaze deep into the milky scene: A fisherman in a junk casts his line into calm waters. Distant islands. I’m trapped within the white heart-shaped void between island, trees and slender birdwings. No children. I hardly notice three men dressed in robes on the bridge, who, after morning prayers, leave the temple, carrying the tools of my profession: walking stick, scroll and lantern. As they approach the archway, so like a Japanese torii gate, the ancient willow, roots bared by time, weeps and leans into the east wind, small hands of branches claw the air as if to follow them. Every day they’ll begin the journey but never reach the portal, the birds will never quite meet mid-air. Soon my grandfather will die, the dinnerware and our family will scatter when we move north to the Point Reyes Peninsula. Only a platter and a teapot will survive the uprooting. My grandmother and I will drink tea from it for decades. And the platter will bear the holiday bird at family gatherings.

But from my coffee mug made during the height of the Cold War, modern Blue Willow—not from the English copper engravings of the 18th century—tells another story. Memory reemerges with a different historical slant. The two birds meet mid-air, but have grown into fat, complacent pigeons, the fisherman still fishes, but the boat is farther from shore and the fish don’t bite. Our eyes are no longer drawn to what lies beyond the uneasy sea. The islands are gone. Three men still cross the bridge, they’ve lost more than priestly robes: the first one carries on his walking stick a bundle of rags, the second man still carries a scroll—what is written on it we cannot decipher—, the third has lost his lantern. They are centuries from home. The shining path to the temple is dark, the celestial gate is gone—bringing us that much closer to the land. And so I am alone on the edge of the continent, dancing on the brink of I know not what.

© 1997 revised 2000 Maureen Hurley

Unearthing the history of Willow Pattern
The pattern’s popularity was so enduring that by the Victorian period it had even become the subject of its own song:
‘Two pigeons flying high
Chinese vessel sailing by
Weeping willow hanging o’er
Bridge of three men maybe four
Chinese temples stand
Seem to take up all the land
Apple trees with apples on
A pretty fence to end my song’

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