Joy Houck Bauer

March 2023 (Vol. XXXVI, No. 3)

Dear Friends ~ This morning unfolded early and briskly: A sick child woke before dawn. Our family's lovable rascal of a pet dog got himself stranded in the chicken yard and had to be rescued from the domineering hens. I waded through the texts and emails that accumulated on my phone overnight, gave my mom a call, and packed the not-sick child off to her day's activities. In a brief quiet pause, I intend to write this letter, yet I'm distracted immediately by the laundry pile that seems to raise its expectant eyebrows at me from across the room.

My wise friend, Katie, recently invited me to use a centering writing exercise; this hectic morning I give it a try. "Write a haiku," Katie urged, "that begins with the line 'I am looking at'". So I draw a that laundry's eye...and feel unexpectedly overcome by the marvel of the colorful cotton chaos:

I am looking at
A heap of the clothes we wear
Striped socks and plaid shirts

December 2022 (Vol. XXXV, No. 11)

Dear Friends ~ Darkness gets a bad rap. In our collective imagination, nighttime brings shadows and obscures our vision. Against the vast dark, we feel our smallness, and possibly even our aloneness. So we light candles and gather around flames to keep the night at bay.

But just like the rest of us, Darkness has a complex personality. If you'll allow a metaphor inspired by my own childhood: sometimes Darkness is a Ford Country Squire station wagon conveying a family westward on a December highway well past bedtime. Oncoming headlights—like the infinite eyes of a never-ending caterpillar—shoot piercing gazes through the blackness. Pinprick stars gleam even brighter for the crisp winter night. But inside the wood-paneled vessel, all is warmth and breath: six voices belting out Christmas carols, six noses thawing while the heater kicks in, six spines tingling as cold's discomfort meets the holiday's electric anticipation.

July/August 2022 (Vol. XXXV, No. 7)

Dear Friends ~ I can still remember the sensations—the reverberations—as a young child cradled in my mom's lap listening to one Berenstain Bears book after another. There was the way her breath tickled across my ear, and the vibration of her voice moving from her chest, against my back. The first summer I joined my in-laws on their lake vacation, I observed an aunt, huddled with her 8-year-old beneath a blanket on the couch, where she read a Tolkien novel to him. I wonder if her now-grown son remembers how she did all the voices and stopped to answer each of his questions as the story unfolded.

March 2022 (Vol. XXXV, No. 3)

Dear Friends ~ This story begins sitting around a campfire one spring night, with a friend and her friend whom I only just met. "You know what’s funny?" she laughed when she introduced us. "This guy lives in your old apartment! He gets all your junk mail now." What a great coincidence! we mused.

Our chatter meandered into the night—the way fireside conversations tend to go. When we veered toward childhood memories, our new visitor and I realized that we also grew up in the exact same town as one another! At precisely the same time! Attended the very same school!

He told me he moved when he was in late elementary school, to a house about a block away from the school. I had walked a block to that school every day, too. family had moved away from that neighborhood in late elementary school.

"We lived in the brick house, next to the one with the swimming pool," he went on.

November 2021 (Vol. XXXIV, No. 10)

Dear Friends ~ Some yoga practices incorporate a simple movement sequence called a vinyasa that a person returns to at regular intervals during the yoga flow. Physically speaking, this repetition is a way to return to the breath, come back into balance, and refocus the mind amidst other movements. In daily life, with all its clutter and clatter, it can be helpful to have habits or movements of the soul that — like a vinyasa — cycle our attention back to the gifts that surround us.

In that spirit, each November (when many in the U.S. celebrate Thanksgiving) I keep a daily gratitude journal to remind myself to notice the smallest moments of delight or surprise that I might overlook in my normally distracted state. Once, during the autumn my son was three I wrote,

July/August 2021 (Vol. XXXIV, No. 7)

Dear Friends ~ To create, no matter the artform, is a tender and vulnerable calling. When my partner, Luke, makes a basket, he starts in the woods, at the edge of a field, or by a roadside where he quietly notices. He looks for the specific plants he'll use, observing whether they are abundant or few, and whether they are at the ideal point in their growing cycle. Eventually, after he has respectfully harvested vines or taken a young tree, he carries the plants home, now responsible to whittle them down carefully and prepare them to be woven or joined together. This is the part of the creative process that recalls Michelangelo's famous quote: "Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it". Like a writer staring at a blank page, or a potter holding a lump of clay, there is a necessary courage inherent to opening oneself to a practice that has no guaranteed outcome.

March 2021 (Vol. XXXIV, No. 3)

Dear Friends ~ As a person who carries a lot of anxiety, I often find comfort in the amorphous, gray, quiet moments at dawn. Passing out of sleep's depths and just before rejoining the clamor of everyday life, my senses are clear and heightened. At the threshold of the day, I feel more courage to notice the world around me and more ready to engage in the present moment.

I've come to appreciate how our inner lives tend to mirror the physical cycle of morning into day into night and back into morning; when the soul emerges from periods of rest and dormancy to revel in those threshold moments that usher us into new energy and vibrancy: Awakening.

September 2020 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 8)

Dear Friends ~ I was standing motionless in the kitchen, completely absorbed by the articles and apps open on my phone one recent morning, when my six-year-old entered the room for his breakfast and requisite morning hug. He was chattering and asked me a question that didn't register in my distracted state, and frankly agitated me because at that early hour my mind already was stretched in countless directions and tormented by emotions about people and places far from our kitchen. Perceptive to my anxious state (and undeterred by my obvious mood), he sidled up next to me, craned his neck to see the phone screen and asked, "Mom, what are you looking for?"

Pause. "That's a great question, buddy. I'm not really sure." I put down the phone.

June 2020 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 6)

Dear Friends ~ We started our seeds inside, lining the south-facing windowsills, the same week that a pandemic made itself known to the collective body of the world. Tomatoes, kale, peas, carrots, lettuce, sorrel, beets...each seed tucked into the soil like a sort of prayer for health and a future. In early January, when I made my ritual list of intentions for the new year, I mystified myself writing simply, "tend food". Not "plant" or "grow" or "preserve", as much as tend. My sister-in-law once told me that the actual planting of a garden is the "glamorous" part because it's noticeable and satisfying in the immediate. But growing food also requires long months of patient attention: weeding, watering, waiting, hoping, pruning, tying, waiting, hoping...tending.

March 2020 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 3)

Dear Friends ~ The year after my first child was born could have been called A Crash Course in the Contemplative Life. Overnight my daily landscape shifted from the external and the social, to the internal and the domestic. My driving need for productivity and efficiency made no sense in a newborn's routine. I faced rhythmic but unscheduled days with swaths of quiet time. A part of me panicked without the markers of purpose and meaning I had always used to define myself, but the new pulse of our home and the simple yet powerful needs of my baby created a steady familiarity with silence.

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