First, some clearing of the throat. (What do I mean by that? It's a term I learned from my husband--what a writer writes on the way to figuring out what she or he is trying to say. Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.)
A week's worth of stuff litters my desk. Books opened, referred to and abandoned. Forms filled out but not yet mailed. Schedules, a dirty glass, a pile of bills, and a frightening number of bright pink stickies, with penciled notes about things I simply must take care of or remember.
I've recently become much busier, which is good in many ways. But I have not had much time for thinking or being quiet or observing myself and the world. My busy-ness is very extroverted. It's like I'm the TV and I'm on. But I am so on that I fear that I am running out of material, like a sitcom limping into its seventh season. But I'm writing now, looking to see what's in my brain.
I'm reading a book about Abraham Lincoln. I've read many books about Lincoln. What got me going on this one was a trip yesterday to Springfield, Illinois, with my son, his teachers, and his junior high classmates. We saw the new Lincoln Museum (first time for me) and Lincoln's home (my fourth visit, if you don't count a memorable Sunday morning walk around the exterior last fall).
We then visited Lincoln's tomb, where the kids, a group of 40, were admonished to walk through silently, reverently, respectfully. Which they did.
In that four or five minutes of silence, entering the tomb, examining the statuary, trying to read the bronze tablets on the walls with the speeches, and finally looking at the tombstone, Lincoln came more alive for me than anywhere else in Springfield. His actual body lies beneath that heavy stone. The actual bodies of Mary and Willie and Tad and Eddie are sealed behind the stone wall opposite. Real people, not just the wax figures in a story told in a museum that struggles to be accessible, accurate and entertaining, all at once. Real people who walked through those rooms in that brown house. Who would look today and say, yes, the wallpaper was exactly like that, but we usually had the sofa over here.
This one man LIncoln stands at the center of the biggest story in American history, and the biggest continuing conflict: slavery, racism, and what it costs to achieve liberty and justice for all. I suppose the legend benefits from the assassination. Martyrdom is less controversial than decisions made while trying to govern. Yet he shouldered an enormous burden, placed on him by God or fate or necessity, kept his balance politically, and led the nation, while articulating what it all meant.
As I've being reading (Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk), I've realized that Lincoln is one of my models for writing. The book quotes heavily from letters and from poems Lincoln wrote. In the writing you see both the puzzling out of his own thoughts and the care for how his words will be interpreted by others. A style that says here's how it looks to me, let me help you understand my truth in your heart, and feel it, too, because of the rhythm and appeal of my words. And it's not just the perorations ("government of the people, by the people, for the people" "with malice toward none, with charity for all . . ."). It's the hard words, the hard ideas in that Second Inaugural: "And the war came" "'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'" That is a fearless speech.