Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Phyllis Billington (1927-2016)

One paradox of the Christmas season, a kind of social manifestation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, is that we are too busy doing it to do it, so to speak.  Four centuries past in one of the great poems of our English tongue, John Donne wrote thus in “Good Friday, 1613--Riding Westward”:

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this, 
The intelligence that moves, devotion is, 
And as the other Spheares, by being growne 
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne, 
And being by others hurried every day, 
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey: 
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit 
For their first mover, and are whirld by it. 

This is not an easy poem to understand, even if one can grasp with sympathy the situation of the speaker.  The day is Good Friday, the annual memorial of the Crucifixion of Christ in Jerusalem, a place in its geographical relation to southern England distantly eastward.  To this stupendous sacrificial event the speaker’s mind should naturally turn; he is, however, constrained by some unspecified business to be traveling westward.  His larger complaint is that “pleasure or businesse” (the appetite for gratification, the burdens of mundane necessity) generally supplant “devotion” as the animating forces of human life: matter over mind, flesh over spirit.

Phyllis and David Billington

            Three and a half months ago our dear friend Phyllis Billington, the wife of my eminent engineering colleague David Billington, died in Los Angeles.  Four of their children live on the West Coast.  It was a natural place for them to head when they left Princeton some years ago.  Their departure was for us a great personal loss.  What we call “aging” is often so gradual a process as to be imperceptible.  That is what makes its major moments of inflection so brutal and the news of old friends so dramatic.  One learns that someone has fallen and broken a hip, or “gotten a diagnosis;” they downsize from the large family house with which you associate them in mind and memory, they disappear to retirement homes near a daughter in Dubuque.  Too often they simply drop dead.  Still, we were lucky enough to have one good visit with our beloved friends when I gave a talk at Stanford a while ago.  They were living in Palo Alto then.

            On the twenty-eighth of December in the Princeton church where we were fellow parishioners for half a century there will be a memorial service for Phyllis organized with devotion and no small difficulty by the families of her many adult children, who recognized that their mother should be honored here in the community where she spent most of her long life.  All of them will have travelled considerable distances for the service.  But the Flemings will not be there.  We will be riding southward towards Charleston, South Carolina, to participate in the long-scheduled pleasurable business of a “Renaissance Weekend”. 

At least, “pleasurable business” is what I am anticipating.  Over many years we have repeatedly been invited to one of these annual events; over many years we have repeatedly almost gone.  This is the year it was, for us, chiseled in stone.  Since this is actually going to be my first experience, I don’t know exactly what to expect.  One old hand described it to me as “a poor man’s Davos”.  Another agreed in general—“except for the ‘poor man’s’ part.”  The Renaissance Weekend website itself is replete with elliptical enthusiasm: “More than a conference: Intellectual content punctuated by laughter, music, adventures and the power of personal stories. Passionate change-makers, of all ages.  More light than heat: Traditional adversaries disagree without being disagreeable.”

I don’t know how passionate a medievalist’s change-making is likely to prove, but it is clear from the materials with which I have been provided that we owe our invitation to the obscure Spheares of preaching, teaching, and blogging  that have for so long been spinning all about us.  Renaissance is French for “rebirth”—a concept in which I firmly believe in many senses, including (and especially) that old-fashioned one perhaps most immediately relevant to a dear friend recently departed from transitory to eternal life.  Augustine reminds us that all funerary and memorial rituals are of necessity palliatives for the living, not honors for the dead, now beyond such needs.  Thus will I excuse myself for my southward-riding, as I hope also our beautiful friend Phyllis would have done.  And how beautiful she was!  I think she was an actual beauty queen in her undergraduate years at Northwestern, and she was lovely still in advanced age.  But of course what we all knew was the spiritual beauty of her life as musician, wife, mother, neighbor, and for a privileged few of us a friend for decades.  Hers was a life in which the intelligence that moves was ever mindful of its naturall forme.

Portrait of the Artist: Death, be not proud...

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