An email found its way to my inbox this March 28th, my sixty-sixth birthday morning, from Gevene, asking whether I would like to contribute anything to the Unifier, “Not necessarily about your grandson” she says. Since I got this grandson, five years ago, other subjects have become less interesting to me, I confess. It should be, in any case, she fondly hopes, “appropriate for UUs”. This invitation catches Diana and me in the middle of clearing out my house in Boxtel, the pretty little country town in the south of the Netherlands where I live. We are working to remove enough of a decade of accumulated clutter to make the house attractive to sell, now I have retired from lawyering and bought a small apartment nearer her place, 100 miles further north, near Amsterdam. Much of the clutter is in the form of old books, of which I have been in the habit of buying many more than I read. But now the hour has come to part with at least half of the many hundreds. Sheep, to my right, will be admitted to the scarce shelf space in the new abode. Goats, to my left, are condemned to be donated to the local charity “thrift” shop, there to gather dust while hoping forlornly that someday their prince will come, in the form of another bibliophile with more shelf space Of course, just now that Diana is expecting a show of sorting efficiency and discipline from me, is just the moment I am tempted to squat down on my haunches and hungrily read each old long-neglected tome. After all, in each case, this may be the last time I will ever see it.
The one passing through my hands at the moment is called, “A Bookman’s Letters” and tells me it was written by a Mr. W. Robertson Nicoll who had it published in London in 1913. As the radio yells in my ears news of US President Trump denouncing his enemies and demanding their punishment, now the special prosecutor they appointed to investigate him for the past two years has reported that he found too little evidence of collusion with Russia to support a prosecution; of the UK’s titanic struggle with itself over whether to exit the European Union or not; and even about my well-loved Netherlands, where a big election victory has been won by yet another newly founded political party led by a fierce young nationalist who wants no more refugees let into the country. I read and the angry shouting fades as I fall into 1913 where Mr. Nicoll is speaking to me from the yellowed pages much more softly as follows:
“We are constantly hearing of the necessity for dispensing with gloves and taking the buttons from the foils. There is a desire for savagery in our political combats. The reformers and the resisters of reform are being perpetually advised by misguided people to dispense with courtesy and good humor, and to go into the fighting each with the determination to kill his man. I say that humor is the great leveler and that a touch of humor makes the whole world kin and teaches us more in a flash as to the true values and purposes of life than a thousand exhortations. This is no plea for levity, for the issues at stake are great. But I have lived, and with some measure of joy, under Conservative Governments and under Liberal Governments. I look forward to living, not without joy, under a Labor Government. We must not attach too little importance to the action of the State and we must not attach too much. There are those who, like Dr. Johnson, think that legislation has only a very small effect on human happiness. That is not always true. But our happiness is not suspended, or ought not to be suspended, on the issues of political quarrels, and in the height of these quarrels we are never to forget that those opposed to us are our fellow creatures and that they may be as sincere and unselfish in defending their cause as we are in attacking it.”
Mr. Nicoll shall have a place among my sheep. Now that I am in the mood for it, I recall, and cannot let this opportunity of telling you go by, that last week my daughter, Lynn, who is Finnley’s mother, passed along Finnley’s latest words of wisdom to the family. Finnley is my grandson, you know. Anyway, Lynn didn’t say whether Finnley had been listening to the same dire stuff on the radio that I have been hearing or not, but she said something had moved him to suddenly smile and laugh and say, “Momma, you know what? I think happiness is stronger than baddiness!
Let it be so.