Did Shakespeare invent “The Grind?”
“Bring action hither…A stirring dwarf we do allowance give, before a sleeping giant”
– from Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare
I know you come here for the fashion, for the red carpet comedy, even for the indulgent reveries about mountains and deserts, and they are coming, I assure you. I’ve done a lot of living that I need to share. Bear with me today as bore you with these thoughts. One of the reasons I have yet to post all the content I have from trips to Taormina to essentially being dressed up as a red velvet Christmas present (coming soon) is that in this last extremely anfractuous year, I have, at times, had a difficulty with “doing”, with ejecting the words out of my chest and shaping them into some physical shareable form. There are many reasons for this inability, including time spent navigating the choppy seas of transitioning into a new career (one which, ironically, requires me to write words). And while time is a rate limiting reagent in this chemical reaction of changing my life, fear is undoubtedly the inhibitor: the fear of the blank page, the fear that I am more Peter Quince than Peter Pan, and that I will never take flight. But even Peter Quince brutishly depressed his meaty fingers upon the delicate keys of the clavier to make something that resembled music: you’ll forgive me if this post is a little heavy-handed, won’t you?
New to New York (as a resident), a friend and I did the very New York thing of attending a Free Shakespeare In The Park performance two weeks ago. The play running is Troilus and Cressida. Yes, one of the so called “problem plays” is not deemed as such without reason, given its rather dodgy pacing. As we are each fecund to seed we need, between extended blinks during the performance, the theme that struck me was in this play of slow action, ironically, that of the folly of inaction. The Greeks and the Trojans are at war. It’s that damn Helen’s fault. Achilles (his renowned heel and all), the great Greek warrior, refuses to fight and would rather shack up in pederasty or whatever with Patroclus. He’s great, he doesn’t need to do anything. But what is a warrior who is not warring? (Or as Lumiere sang in Beauty and The Beast: “life’s so unnerving for a servant who is not serving”). What is a warrior in waiting? There is no doubt this lightly explored concept struck me because of my own recent literary inaction. Who is a writer who is not writing?
Agamemnon, King of Argos and commander of the United Greek forces (I think: my mythology is a myth at this point, sorry Dr. Bing) knows they need ‘Chilles ol’ shacking up ass to win the war and bids Patroclus warn Achilles:
“ bring action hither…A stirring dwarf we do allowance give/ Before a sleeping giant”
I have it on good— and rather unfortunate—authority that some of you do not speak Shakespeare. Who are ye savages? I shall translate: “The powers that be reward a woke
Taylor Swift mediocrity over a sleeping Lauryn Hill genius. We are rewarded for our action, not for (dormant) talent. And frankly, the dwarfs are usually the ones stirring (“The best lack of all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”). In any case, it occurred to me that I had better start “doing” if I want any allowance from the universe’s coffers.
But what am I going to write, I thought? Well hell, even ol’ Bill (Shakespeare) sometimes Melania Trumped himself, as evidenced by, you guessed it, Troilus and Cressida.
Troilus and Cressida: Act III, Scene III:
Ulysses: “A strange fellow here writes me, That man— how dearly ever parted, however much in having, or without or in,– cannot make boast to have that which he hath, nor feel what he owes, but by reflection, as when his virtues shining upon others, heat them, and they retort that heat again to the first giver”
Achilles: This is not strange, Ulysses. The beauty that is borne here in the face, the bearer knows not but commends itself to others’ eyes: no doth the eye itself—That most pure spirit of sense,— behold itself…
Julius Caesar: Act I, Scene III
Brutus: The eye sees not itself but by reflection, by some other things
Translation: The eye, itself an organ of perception, cannot see itself except by reflection. We need an object through which to see ourselves. (sometimes that object is typing words into a word processor—just saying)
Troilus and Cressida: Act V, Scene III
Troilus: “ Words, words, mere words; no matter from the heart”
Hamlet: Act II, Scene II:
Hamlet: “Words, words, words”
Translation: Come on. I don’t think you need me for this one. It’s the thing I am doing right now…
Right, even the bard borrowed from himself, so not having new words to write is no excuse for me. The most rapturous element of this at times soporific play, for me, was therefore the reminder that we must prove ourselves worthy of what we believe ourselves to be through action (even if that action is repetition). Or, in the words of Jesse Williams quoting Mrs. Trump, “They say me haffi werk, werk, werk, werk, werk, werk!”
But here’s the thing about this work that the kids call “the grind”: mon dieu, does it feel like the gears are clogged with molasses! Did Shakespeare invent the grind? No, I am not asking if he invented the concept of putting in work, but rather wondering if he had any hand in the creation of the idiom“to grind”. (Allow a girl her flights of fancy). It is so easy to grow disillusioned with the work of cultivation when the tree one is planting doesn’t seem to be bearing fruit. But,
Troilus and Cressida: Act I, Scene I:
Panderus: He that will have cake of the wheat must tarry the grinding…you must [also] tarry the bolting…the leavening, the kneading, the making of the cake, the heating of the oven, the baking, nay, you must stay the cooling too, or may chance to burn your lips”
Translation: If you want eat the cake, Anna-Mae, you have got to wait while the wheat is ground, and then ‘Nessa girl, you have to wait some more while the bolting (whatever the hell that is) is happening, and wait some more for the cake to rise and shit, then you have to heat up the oven (but if you are smart, you will pre-heat the oven while you make the cake, don’t be an amateur), then girl, you have to wait for the cake to bake and wait for it to cool too because hot cake can hurt you.
Basically, you can’t eat cake without work and patience. “Big trees have deep roots,” a friend once told me. Deep roots don’t develop overnight and those roots are a-carving their way into the rugged earth through “sheer plod”(link), doing the groundwork, in preparation for the flourish we shall see on the surface. Cliché, sure, but just because the notion is a bromide does not bear being brought up. I needed to hear it that night in Central Park: “things won are done, joy’ soul lies in the doing” [emphasis added]- Cressida (Act I, Scene II).
So here it is: a play, a story, reminding us to “do” because doing is rewarded over simply being. Stories have a place in our story in that they show us that it (whatever it is that we are trying to do) has been done before, or in the case of myth, they imbue us with the fire of inspiration and the beauty of imagination. Yet, the Sufi poet, Rumi admonishes, “Do not be satisfied with stories. It’s been a while since I did an exegesis of a poem; indulge me again—I mean, if you have read this far, what is a few more words, words, words. Tomorrow I’ll post a pretty dress or some shit; you will be alright:
Uncover Your Own Myth
Who gets up early to discover the moment light begins?
Who finds us here circling, bewildered, like atoms?
Who, like Jacob blind with grief and age,
smells the shirt of his lost son
and can see again?
Who lets a bucket down and brings up
a flowing prophet? Or like Moses goes for fire
and finds what burns inside the sunrise?
Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies,
and opens a door to the other world.
Solomon cuts open a fish, and there’s a gold ring.
Omar storms in to kill the prophet
and leaves with blessings.
But don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
have gone with others. Unfold
your own myth, so everyone will understand
the passage, We have opened you.
Start walking toward Shams. Your legs will get heavy
and tired. Then comes a moment of feeling
the wings you’ve grown, lifting.
Stories are ecstasy-inducing because they show as its been done; they light a flame in us, they give us something to aspire to, sometimes they even show us how to do. Stories are necessary but insufficient. It is in this delicious duality that this poem really sings to me. Stories are everything; stories are not enough. What is YOUR story? The only glory of “the passage” is “the passage” it opens for you (Jesus, how that double entendre/ reflexive ploce, if you will, opens me up to such delight) to uncover your own myth, to write your own story that will hopefully one day open a passage for someone else. And how does your story unfold? It begins with you starting, walking with leaden legs. Yet know that as your legs wax heavy, it is because you are growing and carrying the implements of flight on your back, every pitfall a feather in your cap. The process is slow, the grind is long. The comma after the word “grown” gives us pause, highlighting the notion that wings that will carry us upward are earned: the heavier your legs, the heavier the currently-invisible-to-you wings at your back. And then there is the breath of air that is the word “lifting”, easily levitating on its own gerund-ness. It is a beautiful thing that happens when we “do”: we find the moment of grace.
I am driven by the stories of women like Luvvie Ajayi, a Nigerian-American woman who speaks truth in hilarious overtones on her blog. She candidly confessed that when she lost her job, she found herself ignoring the voice telling her to honour her talent for writing and kept looking to LinkedIn for the solution until she could ignore the voice no more. Now she sits in the same room as Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, holding her own. I am bolstered by stories of women like Leandra Medine who founded the website The Man Repeller. I once read that, unable to secure a writing job post-college, she decided to create her own space and of all her siblings, the others boys, is the sole entrepreneur. These stories are glorious but they are nothing if they do not open the passage for me and if I do not take the first step. My Mama Maya said “we are created creative” and that “success is doing what you do and loving how you do it” [emphasis added] (Also see Alain de Botton’s Ted Talk on redefining success here). “Create the world you want for yourself; people will want to be a part of that world.” I was told five years ago. It never quite made the sense then that it does today. Here I find myself: I’ve been banging on doors that are actually walls to gain acceptance into an arena in which I want to belong career-wise. No more. I have decided I have to build the room. And I am not telling you this from the security of hindsight, having already bought the house on the French Riviera. I am telling you this from the room I am subletting in Brooklyn with the money from selling my mini cooper to Carmax in Atlanta. “Nothing will work unless you do,” Dr. Angelou famously asserted. So August is here. It is a new month. The month in which I was born. And I am putting it out here, to hold myself accountable and scare myself into submission, that I am going to create this world I want for myself from the ground up. And as I lay the bricks of my multi-limbic desires, I invite you in. If you stay, there will be cake. I’d rather be the stirring dwarf, than the sleeping giant, wouldn’t you?
Don’t worry about your legs growing tired, you won’t need them when you fly.