I’m driving home from Washington by myself, listening to a book on Audible. I shouldn’t be enjoying the book. Why would I find it entertaining to listen to a book about a child who passed away too early? Why would I want to listen to a story of a father shattered by grief? What could be the lure of a book that features a young man trapped in limbo because he tried to take his own life and then, too late, changed his mind? Why, indeed, would I, of all people enjoy this book?
But I’m hooked. I’m hooked to the point that I’m unbothered by traffic on the Delaware Bridge. I’m transported so fully that I can’t even remember the Baltimore tunnel. I’m hooked by the voices. I’m hooked by the litany of gorgeous images that the young man can’t stop reciting. I’m hooked by the unfathomable idea of a broken president grieving the loss of his son while faced with the task of leading his fractured nation.
I started Lincoln in the Bardo almost a year ago. I remember that I began the book on Lincoln’s birthday. That day, I had a very bad day in school, and as was my habit (weakness), I attributed the day’s difficulties to the book I’d begun on the morning commute. It may not have been that the book was haunted. It may just have been that the book made me think too much about things that don’t really fit with teaching fifth grade. Children dying, ghosts in limbo, grieving parents. Now, however, I’m trying to stop this idea of associating one event with another and imagining a causal connection. I’m trying to emancipate myself from the chains of superstition. So, a year later, I’m trying the book again. Besides, this is vacation. I can take it.
I love so many things about this book. One is the connection between the real and the really weird. I love the quotes from the real people who lived at this time and witnessed the Lincolns’ struggles. I love the way the young man with second thoughts sprouts extra eyes, ears, and limbs as he yearns to see, hear, and touch the beauty of the world he’s left behind. I love struggle between unrest and eternal rest as the not-quite-dead waver between worlds. I love the way they learn to inhabit the living president, sensing what he thinks and feels, and even informing him with their thoughts…and maybe changing history. I love the notion of a real and reflective president who understands the painful tension between family and job, between an abstract (but important) political agenda and the concrete reality of a soldier’s life (someone else’s son).
So, when the book that I’ve avoided for a year finally ends, I replay the closing chapters three times, living and reliving Lincoln’s grief, living and reliving my own. And when, after that third reliving, I find myself still in New Jersey, I drive in silence for another ten miles, the characters quiet and still, but still inhabiting my car and me.
Then, and I only now am realizing the unbelievable irony of this, I switch to Spotify and choose a random playlist from my library. In a mellow haze, I listen to the Grateful Dead for the remainder of my journey home.
Post script: I order a hard copy of the book as soon as I get to my house. I have to see some of these lines for myself.