While touring a Scotch distillery in Scotland this summer – which included the requisite tasting session – I learned much about the making of Scotch. There are a number of regulations governing the making and marketing of Scotch, such that the product you purchase with this name must have been produced in Scotland, aged for a minimum of three years in an oak cask and be a minimum of 80 proof. Cleverly, this precludes outsourcing production and so secures this important source of income for Scots. Of course, this was not all that I learned in the tour. I learned that grist comes from the mill.
Most of us, of course, are familiar with the phrase “grist for the mill” as a reference to a phrase that speaks to material to be used for profit, intellectually or not. The mill references the means by which the said material is turned into something that can be sold, leveraged, etc. But in a Scotch factory, the word grist references what comes from the mill in order to be made into the mash to be fermented and then distilled. So, which is right? Is grist the product of the mill, or a product for the mill?
Dictionaries give us both definitions as possibilities. But, as we all know, definitions are susceptible to convention, and so are slippery phenomena. My Greek teacher used to tell me that the producers of dictionaries look to texts to find words in context in order to establish a meaning, which the Greek student then applies to some text under consideration. It all sounds a bit circular. All the same, choices have to be made and the choices we make, make a difference.
So, one the one hand we can imagine grist to be what goes into the mill, while we can also imagine it to be what comes from the mill. At one level, this isn’t altogether disconcerting. What goes into the mill, does in fact, come out – albeit with the changes intended. Milled grains have been stripped of their husks, and ground to an appropriate size. But the kernel of the matter, the grain proper, both goes into the mill and comes out from the mill. Product in, product out: but more can and must be said. The mill effects a difference; a fundamental difference.
The mill facilitates a conversion, but not of the sort that destroys what was present. Rather the mill takes what is there, and molds it. This is, I suppose, a kind of metaphor for life. We, rather like bare kernels, are shrouded in a husky coats of various makings that are, most often I suspect, some form of self-deception. But when we are denuded of our shields, and opened to change, a marvelous thing happens. What was reticent, and recalcitrant, and stuck is rendered open, and creative and nimble. Yet the “who,” who is changed remains. Grace does not eradicate creation; and when I drink a wee dram, I can still discern the soil now made the soul of the spirit; I can still smell the peaty smoke; I can still quaff the Highland air that bears that peppery taste.
The mill, in the end, does not eradicate one understanding of grist in favor of the other. Rather, it provides a bridge between two ways to understand grist and mill, and the self. We are both grist for the mill, and grist from the mill.
And the miller? Well, the miller’s a mystery….