A scholarly friend, who spends most of his time studying Mozart’s “lost musical comedy,” asked me recently if I ever had heard of the winter solstice or any other solstice for that matter. It seems that a well-informed lady friend of his had been dismayed to learn that it was a blank spot in his education.
“Where did you learn it?” he asked. “Well,” I said after a short pause, “I was born, I have a calendar at home and I’ve been reading newspapers all my life.” He replied, “Oh, I guess I’ve been out of touch.” Because it was the holiday season, I didn’t agree with him.
I wanted to tell my friend that he was missing out on one of nature’s great lessons and paradoxes – the Shakespearean relationship of the old and the new: the shortest day gives way to their lengthening; darkness begins to yield more light. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be the planet that we are. In fact, depending on your favorite cosmologist, we might not be a planet with life on it at all.
And this led me to think that I am, as a writer, immensely grateful to electronic and digital technology for the ease with which one can compose, revise, save and send words as attachments anywhere in the world. At some point in my life as a writer-professor at the University at Buffalo, I no longer had to say to myself: “Where there’s a quill, there’s a way.”
At the same time, I remain grateful for all of the old technologies and tools that made, and continue to make, writing possible: blotters, erasers, letter openers, letterhead stationery, manila envelopes, paper, paper clips, pencils, pens, scissors, scotch tape, sealing wax (for those special occasions), stamps – all on a, yes, desk!
Not only did the old and the past make the new and the present possible, but we still need and make use of much of both. I once overheard my daughter say to a friend when she was about 9, “You don’t understand – my father likes old things and wood.” I wasn’t sure if this was a compliment or not, but I was tempted to say, “You’re right about that – like the English language and the house we live in.” Being a progressive and nurturing type, I buttoned my lip.
At this moment in our cultural history – when the possibilities for instant communication seem to be displacing traditional modes of talking to one another face to face and writing to one another at length over time – it’s useful to remember that the quality of these “new” exchanges will depend on an enduring respect for all of the tools and technologies (like the dictionary) that make “tweets” possible.
If “parting” is now a “tweet” sorrow, it has something to do with the Bard of Avon. And just think what William Shakespeare would have been able to do with a personal computer. Juliet never would have gotten off the balcony, and Hamlet might not have been killed. He still would be in the middle of a soliloquy.
So, as the old year gives way to the new, as looking into the rearview mirror of life turns into a glimpse of the future, as friends who never had heard of the solstice now become Druidic scholars, let’s be grateful for some continuity in our lives.
There’s a time for paper cups, and there’s a time for elegant, crystal champagne flutes. Each has its place, if one is fortunate enough to afford both “tools.” As an old friend of mine, Horace Twichell, used to say: “It takes two to tango on New Year’s Eve.” Agreed, he wasn’t a genius, but …