Measured Extravagance

2000-12-17 - 8:33 p.m.

Having spent the past five winters in Detroit - with a daily commute to Ann Arbor (100 miles round-trip) for four of those winters - it just didn't occur to me to call the church this morning before I cleared the snow off of my car. Half an hour later, staring at the lone set of tire tracks - those made by my own vehicle - I fleetingly wished I had worn a proper coat - one that would have permitted me to flop down upon the empty, unplowed lot and cover it with snow angels.

On the other hand, I really enjoy wearing my dressy wool overcoat. It was a gift from a beautiful Eastern European woman back in West Village, and I wear it with the gold pin that I found in my stocking last Christmas. They make me feel grown-up. They make me feel loved. And on a sunny, suddenly-clear Sunday morning, they helped contribute to the glad feeling of having gotten up and dressed-up and being now ready to go places.

So I went to Jackson's Café down the road, and ordered a cup of "Crayon Sun" (vanilla herbal tea) and a lox-and-bagel, and settled down to finish reading Reynolds Price's Feasting the Heart: Fifty-two Commentaries for the Air - little audio-essays he'd written for NPR. Reading Price turns out to be especially apropos for a Sunday morning in solitude - he is a deeply devout Christian who, as he confesses in "Private Worship," cannot bring himself to attend church - partly out of four decades of habit; partly because he "can't help noticing that the mainline white churches of America are still -- speaking generally now -- among the strongest bastions of intolerance and lethal self-righteousness"; and partly because he recoils from "the church as country club" and the social demands therein.

In another essay, "Being Reviewed," Price shares the wisdom of "an older friend who happened to be an internationally praised-and-execrated writer himself. When he'd seen the polar array of reactions my first work got, he said 'Never forget that, if you do your honest work in public, there'll be people who hate you for exactly the same reasons as other people love you; and you'll never resolve that contradiction.'" World without end, amen.

More on faith. More on solitude - an especially fine piece on staying single by choice. Race relations. AIDS. Nevill Coghill (a name from my term paper days that hadn't crossed my mind in years - I was oddly delighted and comforted ). Meeting Eleanor Roosevelt and Edith Wilson. Poetry recitations by real dinner companions and evaluations of imaginary ones (Price would share his supper with Abraham Lincoln). Coping with paraplegia. Relations with relatives. The book collects Price's musings on all these and more, in his characteristic, deceptively chatty style - a slow, lyrical chattiness where every word has been chosen with care, and its speaker still with reserves in spite of the glimpses he allows us of heart on the sleeve: you know that, in spite of his comfortable tone, Price is telling you only what he chooses to tell you. I do not mind this - I consider this part of the craft and I admire it. As Price himself observes in "The Last Great Weeper," it is "a primal hope of our species -- to see our kind at the highest pitch of skill and luck -- a flawless dive from Greg Louganis, a perfect A above middle C from Leontyne Price, a lost child found unharmed by searchers: those moments when somebody gets something right. Exactly right, the rarest event."

Last quote for today, but not least among them: In "On the Stone," Price shares the epitaph he has chosen for himself - from Horace, translated by Housman - and why:

After a near seven decades of life, and the teaching of two generations of college students, I can think of few truths of which I'd rather remind the young -- or the old, for that matter. Unless a heart craves blood and cruelty, its owner should feed it lavishly; and the memory of such indulgences (whether they be of love or the sight of beautiful objects, deep pleasures of the soul or the senses) will warm the colder days to come.

    Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
    The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

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