This I Believe: Naomi Baer (2001)

This from A Universal Man by C.S. Nelson:  “From time to time, I pause (life pauses) to consider my conduct, and I discover that I cannot be selfish, for I can steal only from myself.”

I pause and look where I am now.  I agreed to stretch when I said yes to Victoria.  I did not know how much of a stretch this would be for me to face my personal beliefs and see them as uncertainties.

How do I come to what I believe?  What is my context?  Where do I come from?  William Blake said, “To generalize is to be an idiot.”  I can only speak form the context of what I know and understand, both of which, I find, are so limited.

Although my ancestors are five generations North American, I actually experienced very little of American culture growing up.  I was primarily raised in a Hutterite colony in North Dakota in what was almost an 18th century European peasant culture in the middle of 20th century America.  I experienced eight different religious and rural communal living conditions in Ontario, Manitoba, North Dakota, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota before I was in 8th grade.  In these various communes, I grew up with people from Germany, Paraguay, Holland, Canada, Hungary, India, and the USA, to name a few countries, speaking German and English as our primary languages, and always holding some form of Christian Anabaptist belief.  This diversity had become my norm by the time I was a teenager and my family left communal living to settle into what we called the “outside” world, that is, rural American life in Lake Park, Minnesota.

Surprisingly enough, I found myself with no formal religious indoctrination, as the Anabaptists wait ‘til the age of reason and free choice in asking for membership.  In the denominations I came from, we lived our religion 24/7, from the morning when we dressed in our prescribed clothes to our designated seats in women’s half of the dining room and the church.  It was not what one professed, but what one lived that counted.  Finding myself removed from that life left me groping for some spiritual anchor.

We landed on a farm.  Ten younger brothers, no indoor plumbing; we took our weekly baths in a tub behind the wood stove in the living room.  This was 1960, some years after Sputnik!

Looking back from my current perspective of relative affluence, we lived a romantic life.  Homemade bread, when we skimmed enough cream from the milk of Genny, our only cow, my mother put it in a gallon jar and we each took turns running around shaking it ‘til we had fresh butter for the bread, hot out of the wood-burning kitchen oven.

My brothers seem to look back on those days with nostalgia.  I know that it was a hard life, for my mother and myself especially.  The isolation from a community of support, the extreme male dominance without the support of other women and girls was, for me, intolerable.  It left a formidable imprint on me, both for good and ill, and was a major influence on who I was and who I came to be.

I longed to have the strong mother god acknowledged in me.  I know all too well that she worked night and day, setting each equation, sweeping and cooking.  I wish I would have felt the warm father god, hugging every child, feeling, caring, and forgiving.  I selected this song to help remind myself of who I can and who I can become.  I actually believe I have all these gods in me.  It is my work to find them and bring them forth.   (Hymn #23 “Bring Many Names” sung after this talk.)

As a Mennonite, my father read the Bible seven times from cover to cover, yet none of these religious experiences left an additional trail of spiritual guidance on our bookshelves.  The Bible was my only resource when I felt so isolated from anyone who had time to talk with me.  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and I must have petered out someplace in the middle of Deuteronomy.  I knew I got very little meaning out of the begats and plagues to serve me in my isolation and teenage turmoil.  Genesis 3:19, “In the sweat of they face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground” captures the tone of God’s wrath, judgement, and the dogma that influenced my life up to then.  I found myself alone without guidance or nurturance from community and family.

In my college days, I went through the Agnostic/Atheist/Agnostic stages.  My eight years in Tanzania felt more like the comfort of my communal background than the cold “outside” world of the USA.  In Dar es Salaam, I sat on keka’s and ate ugali na nyama by hand with the extended family of the father of my children.  The not-always-so-simple task of living life consumed our time and energies.  Looking at beliefs or personal problems were from a foreign world, and foreign culture even I had a hard time recalling.  My father would have approved, as his solution to all psychological problems was manuring out the barns.  To him, meaningful hard work was the solution to most societal ills.

Returning to the States, the “outside” world, alone with two children, brought me once again to that feeling of isolation.  The need to be connected to something bigger than family and work.

After church hopping and a stay at the Quakers for several months, I settled at Unity Unitarian in St. Paul, in part because of the children’s curriculum, but mainly because it was big and I could hide.  I just needed marinating time.  Time to myself.

“I cannot be selfish, for I can steal only from myself.”  I do believe that when I give myself, what I truly long for; love, acceptance, honesty, generosity, compassion…that becomes my context out of which I act.  My sabbatical last year reinforced that belief very much.

Thich Nhat Han’s poem; “I am the child who is raped by the pirate and I am also the pirate who knows no better than to act out of that greed and ignorance…” reminds me again how we are all interconnected.  That we all have good and ill in us.  It reminds me to acknowledge all that is in me, and then to choose.  If I push away what I don’t want to see in myself, I cannot really choose, and I remain un-reminded how very close to evil I really am.  I cannot be too selfish, for I can steal only from myself if I don’t give myself what I truly want.

What do I believe when I am feeling isolated?  Lonely and sad?  What truths do I know when I first hear from my 6-year-old, “I hate you, Mom!”  That moment passed many years ago, but the question remains:  Who do I, or my children, have in such moments of despair or rage?  What anchors them or myself?  I don’t know that that question ever got answered.

What do I believe when I am not in control?  When asked for advice on parenting (Somebody actually asked me once!), I replied with:  “Maintain contact with the parents of the children your children play with.”  Steve and Genie, or Kaydelle and Denny, both sets of parents are still friends and neighbors.  When my children drifted away from these “nice” friends and started hanging out with “kids who got in trouble”, my own advice became harder to follow, but it became all the more important.

Trying to follow my own advice is still the wisdom I am learning from my meditation practice.  To embrace what is, to hang out with the reality before me.  My child hanging out with “trouble makers”.  My child as a star point guard or an all-conference quarterback.  My child not doing schoolwork.  My child as a responsible employee.  To embrace all these joys and sorrows with open eyes when I would really rather judge and practice selective seeing.  To acknowledge the difficulty with clarity and compassion, rather than hidden judgement, however subtle, becomes a formidable daily task.

The serpent in Genesis 3:5 says to Eve of the tree of life, “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”  I believe that that is who we are on earth.  The ones who know and incarnate good and evil.  Every one of us has it all within.  Thich Nhat Han’s poem says the same.

Yesterday a friend of mine suggested I start out my talk with “God bless the world.”  I suppose we could use that blessing, but I see much more sense in turning that around and saying, “World bless god.”  It is up to us, the incarnate, to do the walking and the talking.  It really is up to us to bless god by our actions.  World Bless God.

I would like to close with a poem my sister wrote, a report on the Silent Meditation retreat at the Tau Center in Winona, MN.

It captures my spiritual centering.

Retreat into Silence
By Ruth Baer Lambach

Red winged blackbirds
Rabbits on the run
Turtles swimming in the creek.

Rain falling heavily
Tears flowing freely
Window panes washed
The creek swells
A McDonald’s cup creeps downstream
Settle scum and muck released
Clarity restored.

Sit, walk, sit, Eat, rest, Sit, walk, sit, Eat, rest, Sit, walk, sit.  Sleep.

Barefoot walks on uneven earth
Feel the dew on the grass
The warm wooden planks on the footbridge.
Shade trees cast an umbrella shadow.

Flowers bloom
Roses scent the air
The wind rustles upper branches
Poplars sing
Mulberries ripen.

Soccer team voices beyond the chain link, fenced in yard.
Helicopters, airplanes and cars
Reminders of the world outside.

Sit, walk, sit, Eat, rest, Sit, walk, sit, Eat, rest, Sit, walk, sit.  Sleep.

At dusk
We receive the waning light – gently through lace curtains.
One more light before it ends
The sky, the evening sky streaked out in brilliant reds
The sun descends
The last red rim retreats
Sit in silent darkness.

Retire with a hot cup of camomile tea
Push the single bed toward the open window
And let the moon shine in.

Sit, walk, sit, Eat, rest, Sit, walk, sit, Eat, rest, Sit, walk, sit.  Sleep.

In Silence Freedom expands.
Breathe in, breathe out and feel the growing space.
Breathe in, breathe out and fill the growing space.

Ruth Lambach Report on the Silent Retreat at the Tau Center in Winona, MN   June 2000