I was in conversation about this the other day, and after making that confession, was asked a really thoughtful question in response: “Well, your protagonist is an English teacher, isn’t he? What kind of literary reference would he make about new starts, whether a new year or a new life?” The funny thing is, I didn’t have to think much: a short poem (an epigram) I use in my own classes popped into my head immediately. It’s a good one for students especially, because it’s short, pithy and to the point. Written by American poet Edwin Markham (who was an educator himself, actually), it’s called “Preparedness” and reads as follows:
For all your days prepare,
And meet them ever alike:
When you are the anvil, bear---
When you are the hammer, strike.
I like to think Rhiss, the protagonist of Gryphon’s Heir, would also appreciate this poem (although I never presume to speak for him out of turn, because, you know, fictional people are real people, too). It presents a mindset I think he would heartily approve of. I know I do. And it’s good advice, regardless of what we’re talking about. Here’s how I explain it to my students.
Some days, life seems to conspire against you in everything you do. Or maybe it’s nothing as complex as an organized conspiracy. Perhaps it’s part of what I call (in an as-yet unpublished prayer from Arrinor, the world of Gryphon’s Heir) the “malign indifference” of a bleak and cheerless world that really doesn’t appear to care whether things go well for you or not. Either way, there are days when absolutely nothing goes as it is supposed to. You fight with your nearest and dearest; the car malfunctions on a busy road and no one stops to help; things go terribly at school or work; and all the other myriad possible aggravations of life, major and minor (even minor aggravations don’t seem quite so minor when we’re in the thick of them), pile up in a perfect storm of misery and malefaction. On those days, says Markham, you are the anvil: life pounds the crap out of you as a blacksmith pounds the crap out of an anvil while fashioning horseshoes. And on those days, says Markham, stoically put up with it. Because, really, there’s nothing productive to be gained by having a hissy fit over the injustice... although that is our natural reaction, and I may have thrown one now and then. Also, there’s always the hope a better day will come. Preferably soon.
Other days, it’s a totally different tale: everything goes right. Everything aligns, everything clicks seamlessly into place, and man, you are just having the perfect day. (For a writer, it’s when your words are golden; events witty, original and sublimely clever flow off the keyboard by themselves; characters do all kinds of lovely, surprising things enhancing your narrative immeasurably; and the Muse whispers in your ear a never-ending stream of amazing ideas.) On those days, says Markham, you are the hammer. It’s you pounding that anvil to create something useful or beautiful --- or both. And you will create a work of art, whatever it is. But you have to recognize it’s that kind of day and really carpe the diem (seize the day), knowing these opportunities do not routinely present themselves to us mere mortals.
So... pretty good advice in just four lines, both for entering a new year or a new world: be prepared for the bad stuff life throws at you by gritting your teeth and hunkering down when it happens, and by moving decisively and gratefully to recognize and take advantage when life presents the good stuff.
Oh, and either way, you need to be fast on your feet.