As I sort through years of all that has accumulated over the course of my life, I consider the term “winnowing-fan,” a word which comes from the Greek and literally means “consumer of chaff.”
A winnowing-fan looks nothing like what we think of as a fan—but both are used to create currents of air. The farmer puts the unsorted grain and chaff into the basket, and shakes it until the lighter chaff is propelled over the fan’s lip, while the heavier grain remains inside.
As the old saying goes, “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” (or whatever variation of that you might have heard growing up). If you have ever sorted through all your belongings, perhaps you recognize the process of the winnowing-fan: making judgements on what is “chaff,” nonessential, and what is “wheat,” those things that lend deeper meaning to your life.
During one of my residencies in the Shalem Program for Spiritual Guidance, we were on silent retreat for the weekend. We were not to use our phones but I noticed my husband was calling. He knew I was in silent retreat, so I expected it had to be important. When I answered, he told me the woods behind our house were on fire and he had been warned that he should be prepared to evacuate, taking with him whatever we deemed most important. What did I think was most important, he wanted to know. What a startling question!
When I paused, he said, “I was thinking of packing up the quilts.” Strange as that answer may seem, our walls as well as our beds are covered with quilts. We have one that was made for his mother as a friendship quilt in 1933 when she was pregnant with his beloved sister, twelve years his senior. Many of the squares are signed by his relatives. We have a quilt my mother made on the wall and one of hers on one of the beds. We have a quilt made by family friends who once had a quilt displayed in the Smithsonian. My quilter friend Mary has graced our home with many of her creations. So much of our life together is represented by our quilts.
Thankfully, as it turned out, firefighters were able to contain the fire and we didn’t have to make any sudden decisions about what to save. But the question still stands as I seek to divest myself of so much: What is wheat and what is chaff?
May we be bearers of hope, the “wait staff” of Hope’s Café for each other and all those we encounter. Shalom, Kate
Hope’s Café Bonus: The winnowing-fan