At Cades Cove in the Smokies, two decommissioned millstones sit on the ground, side by side, inches apart. Nearby at Cable Mill, two other stones turn with only a layer of granules of pulverized corn to keep them from touching. The first two are apart, but together; the second two are together, but apart.
My wife lives in Portland (Maine), my oldest daughter lives in Doha, my next daughter lives in Nashville, my son lives and goes to school in Birmingham, and I am in Providence. It’s hard to get more apart than that. Yet we are together, pretty much every day, through texts, emails, instagrams, skypes, and even phone calls. On any given day it may be only a WhatsApp saying “Lots of meetings today” or “Dust storm” or “Made a quinoa salad” that passes among us. At other times the feed may be torrential, with day-long exchanges of text, photos, video, and sound. Those exchanges can be about sublime and mysterious points on the planet accessible only by days walking on foot, or about the company and health of a potted plant sitting in the kitchen window. Hardly a day goes by in which someone doesn’t say something to the rest. Apart, these tappings and spurts of data keep us together, almost as if we lived in the same house and were out in different local spots during the day.
Our times together–two at a time with near-weekly frequency, three at a time every month or so, four at some holidays, and five about once a year–are infrequent enough that we wish they were longer. The meals made and shared, talk of friends, outbursts of singing, scatological jokes are the skeleton of good times in the same physical space. Where the material filling among between the bones comes from none of us can fathom, but it is there, and we are conscious of it, and we are grateful for it. At the ends of these conclaves we run into the boundary set by the economic expediency of jobs in two places and the natural desire of children to get out in the world and find their own pathways. Time running out doesn’t extinguish the yearnings to being spouse, parent, and child. Yet what we have to tell in our together-ness, what we share is a consequence of being away from one another. Without living apart we would be blind and deaf to what our eyes and ears know from being at the Tennessee State Fair, or at Mount K in Georgia, or at a school dance in Birmingham. Not that we don’t have our differences. An argument may flare, an old wound might be salted, but the limited time usually reins in the inclination for a long siege.
“Daily grind” conjures the alarm sounding at a too-early hour, getting a body presentable for a workplace, assembling lunches, the routinized gestures and thoughts of the day job dance, and nudging forward the unwieldy sack of meal preparation, housecleaning, bill-paying, and–oh–something you do just because you want to do it. The net, year-after-year effect of it on on person may be similar to the effect of the two millstones on grains of corn–a reduction to a more fluid form. Or perhaps an individual is like one of those rotating grindstones, pressed tightly against another individual and together rendering flour out of wheat. Rough edges on one set of notches inevitably collide with those on the other wheel, and chips of rock come loose. Through decades of use, the two wheels become ineffectual at making flour, and they are set away, like the ones thrown on the ground at Cable Mill.
Through gaps in the overhanging leaves, nearly-massless photons spew down and speckle the millstones with sunlight. Light is indeed light, the opposite of these weighty stones. The opening chords of Orff’s Carmina Burana crash into my head and a choir roars “sors immanis et inanis, rota tu volubilis”–Fate, monstrous and empty, you whirling wheel… If our fate wheels are not turning, then we are dead. A wheel doesn’t turn in isolation. The medieval scholars and clerics who wrote these bawdy and sacrilegious songs spoke of but one wheel, but it seems there are two. And two sets of two, one living and one dead. But even in millstone death, these two stone annuli lie inches apart and still yearning for contact.
What’s the point here? Metaphor runs like meal into a sack. By myself in a new city with new work, I contemplate these attributes of life, and of its transience. The generation in front of me is reaching the abyss and falling in. My generation is beginning to take its place at the head of the line. Time, flatly, is running out and opportunities to be a friend, love and be loved, be grateful, go places, be assertive, and do good are finite in number. It is no longer possible to live as if I were going to live forever. I’m committing for a while to reflect on the twin mill wheels at Cades Cove and turn that into discourse.