August 3, 2020
Five young guys came by the house last week and relieved us of a sofabed that had sat in the living room for at least 20 years. They tied it precariously to the back of a beat-up pickup truck for a trip up I-95 to Alexandria. We let them have it for free, but I worried about it bouncing out on the interstate. When the driver thanked me he impulsively extended his hand to shake mine. I bumped his elbow. He grinned.
Getting rid of the sofabed is a strange relief. We also sold our entire dining room set to some antique dealers, the kitchen table and chairs to somebody else, and gave away two small sofas.
We’re not slowing down. The days, hot as blazes this past month, are flying by. On Wednesday I put a second coat of paint on my former office in the basement. We stacked boxes of books and old photos in the toolshed. We’re waiting for a couple more painting estimates. Then the fun begins, as we try to stage the remaining furniture.
We’ll keep giving things away or taking them to the landfill. You can take anything. Kids find it fun. About a year ago when our daughter and two grandsons were visiting, I proposed we visit a nearby park, with a quick stop at the landfill. I had a vanload of stuff to dump. She wasn’t enthusiastic. But we went.
You wave to the attendant. You back into position to open your trunk just above the bins. The older boy got out with me and helped me pitch the trash. He enjoyed it, we both did.
Looking at the near-empty house has a calming effect. Why is that? It simplifies the logistics of moving, but means also we’ll have to buy more on the destination end, still undetermined. But if it feels so good now, why didn’t we do it years ago?
It’s complicated. Maybe we had other things on our minds, health care, bills, car trips. Maybe we didn’t care. I think we made up things to avoid facing our inertia. Of course the answer is that we were engaged in great and wonderful things: world travel, executive staff meetings, other critical projects of vital importance to humanity!
That’s what I tell Sandy and others. It’s fun to see yourself as important when you’re not. But moving creates the struggle to—to what? To complete the chores, remembering that’s what they are—chores. Then to keep our focus on the world in all its strangeness, chaos, and tragedy, as we watch the virus casualties soar and meanwhile confront the complicated questions of our lives. After many years I encountered again the English novelist Graham Greene, the on-again/off-again “Catholic” novelist, so he’s called in undergraduate English classes. Apart from his rationalizations about faith as he vectored between fidelity and infidelity, he asks the same question as St. Thomas Aquinas about the significance of human action in forming belief in God and the message of Christ. He probes and then probes more deeply the nature of love, sin, repentance.
Greene came to mind through his work, but also because he’s cited in Eric Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, which tells the story of Churchill’s first year as prime minister, 1940-41, the year of the Blitz. Greene, who had just published his bestseller, The Power and the Glory, worked as an air-raid warden in Bloomsbury in London’s West End. In his journal he reported on the devastation of the German attacks, writing, after a night raid on April 16, 1941, that “one had ceased to believe in the possibility of surviving the night.”
Greene’s work, in all its tortured moral ambiguity, wrenches our perspective away from chores. Larson, writing history, takes us to darker places. He quotes extensively from the diary of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels and his wife poisoned their six children as the Soviet army entered Berlin. But we can look still deeper than Goebbels’ evil life and its end.
Goebbels’ wife Magda had a son from a previous marriage, Harald, who served in the German air force, the Luftwaffe. He was captured and sent to a POW camp, then released in 1947. His father, Gunther Quandt, was a captain of industry whose companies used slave labor to produce weapons and other equipment for the German army. After the war he was detained briefly by the allies, but avoided prosecution and rebuilt his businesses. When he died his sons Harald and Herbert inherited his companies. Harald died in a plane crash in 1967. He and his wife had five daughters, who inherited the businesses, including shares of Daimler-Benz and BMW. Their families now are among the wealthiest in Germany.
For years the Quandts refused to discuss the source of the family’s wealth. A German media company produced a documentary, “The Silence of the Quandts” complete with family members’ evasions. You can watch it, with subtitles, on YouTube. After its release the family funded a study of the Quandt businesses that revealed the Nazi connections.
We can back away from that nightmarish story. I wonder how I even got there. From the lessons it teaches, maybe not. I went back to Greene and his unsettling questions as we thought about our reasons for attempting to move during the pandemic, which seems to have no end. We read it’s now spreading north again, abetted by a civil war over masks in southern states and pseudo-mystical medical falsehoods spreading even more quickly.
There’s all that, unfolding before us while we’re packing, donating, and hauling junk to the landfill. Tragedy is playing out before our eyes, but then so is goodness. I get that same vague charge of satisfaction when I dump stuff as when we said goodbye to the sofabed. We are bringing our long-cluttered house to life, doing good things, positive things, in the small world we can control. The place looks almost empty.
Moving has turned us into small thinkers, preoccupied with trivia. I try to recall why I saved some of the things we’re now parting with. Really, it doesn’t matter. We’re walking away, starting a new life someplace quieter, we hope. At this point, quiet is good. We don’t need things. We need the example of those Londoners, who, Graham Greene reports, overcame evil in ‘40-‘41, then the example of those covid-19 victims, right now.