Among my habits that others find irritating: reading a book before I gift it. This isn’t as bad in my mind as just giving a used book, like my great-aunt used to do. I may be wrong. The latest giftee/victim is Max, a grandson who turned eleven. His conscientious mother listed a book sponsored by his favorite author, Rick Riordan. Max loves Greek and Roman myths, so the Percy Jackson novels are a good fit. By sponsor, I mean something more complicated. The publisher is Rick Riordan Presents, part of the large Disney-Hyperion firm. Most offerings reflect a multi-cultural approach to the YA fantasy genre. So, the book I began reading before Max is Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia, a young man who lives in North Carolina and whose parents were scholars at the University of Wisconsin. It’s well written, fast-paced, and sure to engage Max’s interest. The gods in the plot are both African and African-American in origin. The one most familiar (at least to Southerners) is John Henry, represented here in a short video. A classic man-vs-machine tale, it is based on fact; however, those of us who know the song remember Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version (great voice) or Harry Bellafonte’s (great voice + art).
But that’s not what caught my attention. Instead, Mbalia uses a bottle tree to introduce the idea of “haints” that challenge our young hero. Perhaps you’ve seen these garden creations—often a dead tree with its branches holding bottles, usually cobalt blue ones. The story, the explanation, was new to me. In the South, people saved the blue bottles from Milk of Magnesia, for example, turned them upside down on tree branches or whatever was handy. Evil spirits couldn’t resist going inside but once there were trapped and destroyed when the sun came up. So what I was seeing, even in my neighborhood, was more than a decoration. It was full of meaning.
Another rich example came this week when I listened to this podcast, “Rediscovering Mary, mother of God.” Catherine Taylor (no relation) earned her PhD from the University of Manchester and published Late Antique Images of the Virgin Enunciate Spinning: Allotting the Scarlet and the Purple. The title is a bit daunting, but when the author explains it all, I can almost understand. We have the birth of Jesus in Luke 2. An apocryphal book, The Protoevangelium of James, goes much more into detail about Mary’s life and history. When we see pictures from centuries ago, everything is symbolic: colors, animals, artifacts. Dr. Taylor discusses the weaving aspect in the podcast/transcript having to do with the making of Christ’s body. The spindle and distaff produce yarn, manually as the spinning wheel does more mechanically. This picture features a medieval woman holding a set; the background should remind you of the unicorn tapestry, which may further remind you that the unicorn is a symbol for Christ. So, Mary as a craftswoman has a deep history. This picture of the Holy Family shows the parents working and Christ in a walker, which is certainly a first for me. This one has Mary in the traditional blue dress, weaving. Thank you, Dr. Taylor. (Sorry. I just like the sound of it, really.)
Finally, a lovely gift arrived last week. It’s hard to describe: A rattle that is shaped like a heart. A spirit rattle. Actually, you can see it here. Without knowing its meaning, a rattling heart wouldn’t make sense: “Native Americans used rattles to ensure blessings upon their crops. Use your inner spirit rattle to help rattle some rain into your life, some rain out of your life, to rattle your worries away, or (if you insist) just to keep your papers from blowing astray.”
Sometimes on FaceBook I ask “What am I seeing?” Often there is a hidden frog (or snake!), not to mention the color of a dress or a shoe. That’s a literal interpretation, though. Most often, if we aren’t getting more, it’s because we don’t know to ask not just for an explanation of something that seems obvious (the dress dilemma wasn’t one unless someone explained people saw it differently) but for its deeper meaning. It’s a lifelong pursuit, and not everything we don’t get means it’s a symbol. I have, however, taken one of my cobalt blue bottles outside and hung it on a crape myrtle. Just for fun.