Homeschool Travels and Handmade Treasures Along the Silk Road

We are very fortunate in the Houston area to have access to a series of homeschool family workshops at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. There are six workshops during the school year, and they fill up quickly, so I’m now in the habit of putting “REGISTER FOR MFAH HOMESCHOOL WORKSHOP 8AM” on my calendar so that I don’t forget when registration opens and lose the opportunity to attend. This Tuesday’s theme was “Travels and Treasures Along the Silk Road.” The workshop consists of a lecture/powerpoint about the topic, a walk through the galleries, and an art project that the Speed Family would never get around to doing at home.

Creating a patterned plate to trade along the Silk Road

Creating a patterned plate to trade along the Silk Road

The woman who leads the workshop is an excellent guide; she works well with groups of homeschooled students who are a wide variety of ages. I’m especially appreciative of the different levels of questions she poses, making sure she asks some that will require the older kids to think a bit more deeply and some that are easy for the younger children to answer. She is very patient but also keeps the class on track. The whole team of museum staff are very helpful and it’s a great experience all around.

I can't remember the name of the instructor, but she is a fabulous guide

I can’t remember the name of the instructor, but she is a fabulous guide and I wish this were a better picture!

So the older kids get to answer questions about Marco Polo and where silk comes from, while the younger ones get to tell us that the items on display are made of gold and that the crown might be worn by a king.

The museum has what I think she said is the second or third largest collection of gold items from Indonesia as part of a larger collection of gold items by Houston philanthropist Alfred Glassell, Jr. (I may be wrong about that.) I wish I’d taken my real camera instead of my cell phone. I particularly liked how the red of the Indonesia gallery set off the gold.

I was taken with the shadow cast by the earring.

I was taken with the shadow cast by the earring.

After our gallery tour, we returned to the classroom to stamp, paint, and bejewel our plates. I now have three to display artistically on my recently-dusted-for-the-first-time-in-ages bookshelves.

Note the gemstones, which were originally going to be arranged as the Triforce, because everything everywhere must relate back to video games, apparently.

Note the gemstones, which were originally going to be arranged as the Triforce, because everything everywhere must relate back to video games, apparently.

After the homeschool workshop, we ate our lunch outside and then returned to explore the same galleries in a little bit more detail. Wait, first there were Two Incidents of Behavior, and then we all got into the car and Mom stated that if we are not going to behave properly, we are LEAVING, and then we drove three blocks, and then we turned around after a lecture from Mom about how the only reason we are turning around is because Mom wants to see the galleries, not because we earned back the privilege, becuase then what are you learning, are you learning that you can just (REDACTED INCIDENTS OF BEHAVIOR) and then apologize and that makes it all okay? (REDACATED INCIDENTS OF BEHAVIOR) are not acceptable! But YOUR MOTHER wants to not miss out on seeing those gold things after we drove all the way down here. So we are going back. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?

That was not the proudest moment of the day. I think the guitar-playing busker guy was confused that we walked back over to the museum in harmony after storming over to the minivan in…disharmony…three minutes earlier.

This is a bad picture of the exhibit, which consists of projected digital images of trees that cycle through the seasons.

This is a bad picture of the exhibit, which consists of projected digital images of trees that cycle through the seasons.

Anyway, so then we spent about ten minutes sitting and watching what the kids originally called the “giant screensaver.” The exhibit, by artist Jennifer Steinkamp,  is called Mike Kelley Projections.

The series, titled Mike Kelley, now comprises 17 projections, each a variant on a single tree that passes through the four seasons: going from bare, to tender green, to autumnal incandescence, and back to the barren boughs of winter. At the same time, the boughs gyrate in a sinuous ballet, implying the larger earth cycles of wind, storm, and change.

The kids and I sat on the floor and watched as each tree danced in the wind, making a game of spotting each change of season.

In the Japanese gallery, there’s a small room with an installation by Shimabuku - “Then, I decided to give a Tour of Tokyo to the Octopus from Akashi.”

Like tourists, they make visits to the Tokyo Tower and the famous Tsukiji fish market before getting back on the train to return the octopus back home in the Akashi Sea. The artist refers to this work as his Apollo project, involving an adventure far from the natural habitat of the octopus. We easily imagine how weird our world must seem to such a creature whilst being reminded of how extraordinary an octopus actually is.

The artist took an octopus on a tour of Tokyo, then returned it to the ocean.

The artist took an octopus on a tour of Tokyo, then returned it to the ocean.

This was very amusing and also tied into the weirdly cephalopod-themed museum-year we are having, since our last trip to the museum district involved squid dissection at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

I'm not 100% sure that's the name of this piece. It is by a modern Korean artist and is part of an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

I’m not 100% sure that’s the name of this piece. It is by a modern Korean artist and is part of an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

And in the Korean gallery, we saw “Solitude Tower” – can’t remember the name of the artist, and that might not be the exact title. I think I was supposed to meditate upon the alienation of the modern world, maybe considering how each of us with our cell phone brains is living in a solitude tower while in the midst of the crowd, but really I thought “if I had one of those, I could elevator myself up to five minutes of quiet, except I’m scared of heights.”

Blessed Are the Meek ~ New Books from Kathleen Basi and Elizabeth Scalia Challenge us to Be Humble

Two new titles from Ligouri Publications and Ave Maria Press explore the many things that get in the way of God, and how humility is the bedrock of the virtues that draw us to Christ.

Often, perhaps most of the time, those whose faith strikes us most forcefully aren’t those who talk about it, but those who simply live it—letting the actions speak to the faith that directs them. We all know people who rarely talk about their faith, and yet everyone around them knows it is central to who they are.

Thus author Kathleen M. Basi outlines her hopes for readers of her newest book for families, This Little Light of Mine: Living the Beatitudes

(As an aside – how I wish I could be one of those people, the serene “radiating grace” types, you know? I think I mostly radiate snark.)

Kathleen Basi - This Little Light of MineThe book is an interesting project in that Basi has structured each chapter to include reflection for both adults and kids, with questions that the whole family can discuss. The book walks us through the Beatitudes, exploring the challenges of living out these ideals in everyday life. I think the challenge here for Basi is to present these teachings in a way that grabs our attention, since many of us have heard them so many times that they can come off as platitudes about “how to be nice.”

Basi cuts to the chase. The Beatitudes call us to a life of infinite small sacrifices, not the occasional grand gesture. She asks pointed questions:

“When contemplating a purchase, ask yourself: “Will having this item bring me closer to God, further away, or make no difference?”

When all of a sudden I am the main priority in my life (a false god), where is there room for the kingdom of heaven that Jesus promises?

Does political activism or religious discussion put you in a position where you feel compelled to “trash talk” others in pursuit of a greater good? How can you change that script without compromising your beliefs?

Her book is in part a quick tour of a well-rounded Christian life, as she weaves meditations on the Sacraments, the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, and the liturgy into her exploration of the eight Beatitudes. I liked that she often went in directions I hadn’t thought about when talking about a particular Beatitude, like when she discusses parents’ approaches to fostering religious vocations during a meditation on “Blessed are the clean of heart.”

I’d recommend this book to both families interested in learning more about the basics of their Catholic faith, and those who have been active in the Church but would like a simple, focused way to come together and study the Beatitudes more closely. From the cover, I’d expected something much more “kid-focused” but it’s really targeted at adults, with special content for kids in each chapter. I’m guessing it would be something you’d read to your kids rather than hand over to them to read, as the kid-content is interwoven with the rest of the book. The book overall isn’t age-inappropriate for kids aged middle school and up, I’d say, but I think it would work better if read by parents to kids as part of family discussions about the principles involved.

Elizabeth Scalia - Strange GodsWhen you are ready for Advanced Humility: Think On Thy Sins, turn to Elizabeth Scalia’s take-no-prisoners book, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life.

My goodness. She does not mess around when it comes to unmasking, for “…the covenant between God and humanity cannot grow and survive if our strange, self-reflective idols are placed between ourselves and him.”

I’ve been a fan of Scalia for years and was so happy to receive a review copy of her book, even as I knew I’d probably find myself indicted in much of what she writes. But it’s okay, because she’s one of us – Idolators Across the Globe.

My experience is grounded in experience, for I am a great idolator and have been all of my life. Like an ex-drunk who is the only one who can understand where you ahve been, where you are now, and how you can escape from a perpetual alcoholic haze, I wish to share what I know in order to assist in clearing out all the cluttering self-created deities that stand before God and before us – between us and the satisfaction of our deepest longing, which is ecstatic union with our Creator.

This idea of idols as whatever stands in between us and God is echoed throughout the book, as Scalia goes beyond the expected “don’t let your desire for a Mercedes get in the way of your vocation” to pointed critiques of how our devotion to a particular cause, or to our own plans, or “coolness” can all become idols. I was particularly sensitive to her thoughts on how the Internet can so easily devour our time, our energy, and our authenticity. “When we lose sight of the great and Almighty because of our passionate engagement with an earthly cause—and even the most worthy fight in the interests of heaven has its earthly measure—we can also, with astonishing swiftness, lose sight of the inherent dignity of the human person. We can begin to think of the person as ‘other.'” So, you know, Facebook political arguments for the win!

I’ve starred and underlined passage after passage in this book – some made me wince in recognition, others made me laugh, and it all made me think. It’s not that she’s focused on taking down our culture’s idols, no stone unturned—easy to point fingers. Instead, she asks what makes these things so appealing and how we can turn ourselves back towards Christ. What could have been a series of trite reminders is instead a deeply personal, challenging book. Highly recommended.

Oh, and the final chapter, in which she describes how the writing process itself became an idol, is hilarious.

Disclaimer: I received review copies of these titles from the publishers, and the links are affiliate links to Amazon, so I get a small “cut” if you decide to purchase the books. But I shall not make of this an idol!

Agnus Dei

Image of a young ram prepared for slaughter, by Spanish painter Zurbarán

Image via Wikimedia Commons

We went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston this morning for the first time—they’ve had a traveling exhibition of Spanish painting on loan from the Prado and we’ve been meaning to get there for weeks. The exhibition will only be on view through Sunday, so I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss it. I’m quite glad we made it.

This painting, in particular, made an impression—not only because we were viewing it on Good Friday. I’ve actually been to the Prado before, back in the mid-90s, but I must confess that I didn’t even remember the artist, Francisco de Zurbarán.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

What’s your version of Authentic?

I read a lot of Internet. You, too?

Well, one genre of which I read a lot is the Internet Marketing stuff – how to write for the largest possible audience, how to write for gaining traffic, how to choose words that the greatest number of readers will respond to  and understand. I read this because for other projects I do need to know how to create copy that’s plain-spoken and enticing.

And there’s always the “what is your call to action?” What is it that people should desire upon encountering your web presence? Diamond-scented widgets? Lifecoaching for ferrets? The one furniture polishing secret you’ll be amazed to discover? (Mine: “DON’T.”) How can you present your offering in the best possible light so that all the people out there will be asking for more?

This strikes me as a fairly terrible way to live your actual life.

It Takes All Sorts

One of the great things about the Catholic New Media Conference – particularly in conjunction with the Catholic Writers Guild – was getting to meet a wide variety of Catholics who are somehow involved with new media. And I don’t just mean “some bloggers, some podcasters, some lifestreamers,” although that was certainly also true. Rather, it was the film crew sharing a documentary about a concert in the Philippines, and the guy with the epistolary zombie-monastery novel, and the person behind the scenes at a diocesan website. I would say, in general, that there was definitely a different vibe among the CNMC people versus the CWG people and that the overall decibel level of “HI! HI HI HI!” was 3x higher in the CNMC. But it was terrific to have all of these worlds colliding.

I think sometimes the message we get is “you should try to fit into this One Standard Jubilant Catholic Personality if you’re going to be an effective evangelist.” I know that when I was in the classroom that was a big thing with many of “the youth” – I don’t want to have that haircut/listen to that music/be that person, so I guess I don’t want to be Catholic.

How much more effective – and truly Catholic – it is to say “you are uniquely created and whatever your gifts, whatever your personality – that is how you should live your faith.”

Your Consumer Preferences Do Not Sanctify You

One of the problems with the word “authentic” is we’ve started to slap it on every aspect of our lives – thus the mockery of hipsters as obsessed with locally crowdsourced authentic mango-infused hair tonic. The search for a more local, authentic experience can drive right off the cliff into solipsism* – is this skirt really handmade if I used a zipper manufactured in china and thread made in Pakistan?

You can easily be paralyzed in the quest for the completely unfiltered purchasing experience. And none of this schleps grace onto our heads. Yes, it can make you a generally more conscientious shopper and less materialistic, but a reusable hemp grocery bag doesn’t confer holiness upon the user.

Or there’s the question of insta-gramma-photo-shopping every aspect of our lives in order to portray the deepest level of meaning – this sunset at the beach is too incredible to be captured in two dimensions, but maybe if I (insert technical mumbo-jumbo) it to the hilt, that gets more at the essence of the experience. And that isn’t bad! Photography is a fun hobby, I’ve heard, from people who do more than just take hundreds of terrible pictures of themselves with their cell phones to evaluate their at-home hair color. (ahem)

Be Yourself

I’m feeling like this is meandering into “and that’s why our media should have low production values, because it’s more authentic!” territory but of course that’s not what I mean.

This image would be an example of low production values

This image would be an example of low production values

But – if what you’re doing is blogging for the sake of connecting with other people on an individual level – I would suggest that all of the “presentation” aspects of that enterprise should be focused on what makes people feel welcome and what makes it easy for them to connect with you. The trend towards more white space, larger font sizes, uncluttered sidebars, etc., is all about making it easier on the reader. So doing these things, and choosing a color scheme that isn’t  all up in people’s faces – that doesn’t mean you’re putting on airs about your blog. It’s just nice manners.

Making it all about your own perfection, though – and look, we can be disingenuous about that – “this old thing! Why it’s just a recipe handed down from my grandma’s kitchen that I tried 53 versions of before taking photos with my $1500 camera to capture the moment!” – I dunno, that’s just not my thing. It may boost traffic, but does it build relationships between you and your readers? Or – even better, in my opinion – between your readers? That, for me, is my hope from blogging – that everybody gets along and makes some new friends.

This is somewhat a continuation of the thought-provoking conversation had by…other people, heh…in the comments on the So You Don’t Want to Be a Professional Blogger post, which I would very much encourage you to check out. I also put together a list of specific resources for making your readers feel welcome which may interest you.

Today’s discussion question, maybe, is – what’s something you are hesitant to share about yourself because you feel like it doesn’t jibe with people’s expectations of you as a Catholic? OR – more broadly, just answer that in terms of “people characterize me as This Kind of Person but I really like This Other Thing, so I’m tempted to keep that to myself.

*This is an example of a word I should not use because it’s probably pretentious. But I really like the word “solipsism.”

A Transformative Weekend ~ The Maryvale Institute's Diploma on Sacred Art

Before we begin, let us first consider the elements to which the author has applied the descriptor “transformative” in the past seven days:

  • 85% Dark chocolate
  • Evernote
  • Vacuum-seal travel bags
  • Greek yogurt
  • Mint-infused simple syrup as basis for mojito (Y’ALL.)
  • Steam mops
  • Buc-ee’s

Therefore, it could be argued that the description of the diocese of Kansas City’s course on Catholicism and the Arts as “transformative” employs a term deprived of any sense of meaning by its hyperbolic application to any and every new experience enjoyed by the author.

Having accepted this premise…

YOU SHOULD GO. You should go next summer, when they are going to offer the course again, and you should become steeped in the wisdom of the ages.

Look at all this wisdom of the ages:

Taking notes with Evernote


I had expected an immersion in how to understand Christian art – what do the numbers symbolize, what’s that flower in the corner supposed to mean, how come Mary wears blue, that kind of thing. And the course certainly will include discussion of the traditional language of Christian art through various styles. But this class, in particular, does so within a context of how we can rediscover and reestablish a Christian approach to art in the modern world.

So much of the material we discussed is percolating in the back of my mind right now, and this weekend was only the beginning. The weekend seminar I attended was the launch of a year-long distance learning class offered by the diocese of Birmingham (England’s) Maryvale Institute in conjunction with the diocese of Kansas City. Attendees had the option of just coming to the initial weekend to enjoy the classes and conviviality with fellow artists and, uh, appreciators of art (yours truly).

I’ve elected to take the full course, which should take a year to complete. The class is intended to form catechists in understanding how to draw upon our rich heritage of sacred heart for evangelization and for our own devotion. The Maryvale Institute is a Catholic distance learning college offering programs in catechesis, theology, philosophy, and religious education:

Part-time distance learning means that students can follow stimulating and complex courses of study leading to publicly-recognised awards whilst maintaining their existing vocational, family and work commitments. In this way the Institute gives new possibilities of access to formation and to the immeasurable treasures to be discovered in the Christian Tradition and in contemporary Church teaching and thought.

Oh, there’s so much more to say, but for now I’ll just tell you to MARK YOUR CALENDAR for next July, so that you may attend this – yes- transformative event. And great thanks to everyone involved from the Maryvale Institute and the diocese of Kansas City.

Brave: Courageous Womanhood ~ Pixar's latest is a fun adventure with wisdom and heart

We don’t see many movies in the theater, but we make it a point to always see the latest Pixar movie as a family. This summer was no exception, although I have to say I wasn’t too excited about “Brave.” The trailer promised yet another “plucky kid shows stodgy parents a thing or two about heroism/following your heart.” As a proud member of Stodgy Parents Incorporated, I rolled my eyes.

Brave Theatrical Poster

Theatrical poster copyright Pixar

But I should have trusted Pixar, even after Cars 2.  The movie is a much richer examination of family, the bond between mothers and daughters, and the varied ways in which a person can be called to bravery. It’s a terrific adventure story in places, but courage isn’t just a matter of physical derring-do. In particular, the bravery required to swallow one’s pride and make sacrifices is at the center of the story.

I won’t give anything away about the central conflict of the movie and how the characters overcome it, other than to say that I’m glad I didn’t know what was going to happen going into the theater. And at times there’s misdirection as what you think is going to be a standard fairy-tale trope is turned on its head.

The strongest characters in the movie are Merida and her mother, Elinor. Merida’s confrontation with her mother over an impending arranged marriage (with a trio of unappealing,one-note suitors) sets up the greater story of how Merida’s actions change not only her fate but that of her mother. Both women must demonstrate bravery, and the action sequences are compelling even if we know what the ultimate outcome will be. After all, it’s a Pixar movie. That’s how I knew to tell my daughter “They’re going to be okay! Don’t worry!” when she buried her head in my elbow.

I very much enjoyed the film, as did my children. I wouldn’t take kids much younger than 8 – my youngest stayed at home to watch “Cars” with daddy and I was confirmed in my decision to leave him behind even before we saw the credits. There are some frightening scenes, for sure.

The conflict between Merida and her mother is a nuanced look at womanhood, femininity, and various ways in which a woman can be strong. My one wish was that the male characters had been less “cartoony.”  There was plenty of slapstick humor from the various men and boys in the movie, but I would have liked for there to be a male character as multi-dimensional as Merida and her mother. Her father is courageous, to be sure, but I think the movie would have worked just as well if he’d been less of an oaf – but I did enjoy the interplay between husband and wife, and was reminded of the relationship between Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl.

Minor reservations aside, I would highly recommend “Brave” and was glad that this summer’s Pixar offering didn’t disappoint. But I’d get a sitter for your younger ones – the action sequences are definitely scary.

Slightly spoilery if you click – I loved that the conflict in the movie was reminiscent of one of my favorite of Grimm’s fairy tales.