It is an agricultural term, meaning to remove the chaff (the lighter husks) from the actual grain you’ll use in your baking or brewing. The stalks are first ‘threshed’ – essentially beaten to begin the separation of husk from kernel. Then the combination of husk, stalk, and kernel are tossed into the air (in modern times poured in front of a fan). As the air current blows through the material, the lighter husks float away, while the heavier grain kernels fall to the ground. Here is a link to a short video of threshing and winnowing.
It is an ancient process, a technique used by farmers going back probably to the time when people first started intentionally growing grain. As the years went by the expression ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’ came to mean getting rid of what is not necessary and focusing on what is most important.
We use that expression as a metaphor for life as well. What is the wheat and chaff of our lives, our day to day? My guess is many of us spend more time than we would like in the chaff, dealing with things that at the end of the day (yes, that end!) are not so important. And here is the problem – the more time we spend with the chaff, the less time we have with the wheat. It is just the way it works.
I find as I cross the bridge from my early to my late 50s I am thinking more and more about what is the wheat of my life. For me, at least, it does not have to do with work. Instead I think of family, my wife and children and parents and siblings, and how much time I spend with them, talk to them, see them. I think of my friends, with whom I have shared so much, who know me better than I know myself. I think of the passions of my life, music and reading and study (even beer and whisky!), and how little time I often have for those things. I think of the time rushing by, of the tenuous nature of our lives, of the limits we all have in terms of energy and hours.
I am reading a wonderful book of short stories written by Ted Chiang, called Exhalation. One of the stories deals with time travel and the question of if we could go back in time should we, and if so, should we attempt to change our present? Chiang suggests that the answer is we might do well to go back in time because in that journey we can find a deeper understanding of our present. But he also suggests that trying to change what has already taken place is a dangerous exercise.
Of course we can never revisit the years that have passed. Not in any physical way. But I do believe that when we reflect on those years we can indeed understand our current selves with more wisdom and depth. I also think that in some odd way our future actions can, if not alter the past, at least contextualize it, so that our present is more of what we hope it to be.
Time is like the wind that can blow the chaff of our lives away. Our job is to search for the kernels, the wheat as it were, the sweetest stuff of life that we hope we find along the way. And then, when we find it, to hold it with all of the strength we have.