For a long time, friends, husbands, and family insisted that I should write. Lately, that suggestion has more often included the word “blog,” as times have changed. Now, those very changing times have prompted me to mull the suggestion more seriously. But when I sit down to do so, I realize that they did not suggest what I should write about! Left on my own, I am here just “mulling time.”
“Mulling” is an old word that recognizes all the ramifications, good and bad, of pondering or thinking or ruminating. Since at least the 1300s, we English speakers have needed a word that connoted pounding an idea to a powder, seasoning it with spices or sugar or condiments or all three, forming it for iteration, and then serving it for possible return to its earlier or another pulverized mess. Not all mulling turns out well, but nothing turns out well without mulling.
Therefore, the main recipe instruction for formulating ideas is to provide “Mulling Time.” For me, mulling time means time spent thinking steadily without expectation of success, the only way that success becomes possible. My mulling consists mostly of remembering and relating a lifetime of experience to a new observation so that an idea grounded in having seen and learned from God’s world results.
I learned the technique from my paternal grandfather, Benjamin Arthur Jackson. Born in the late nineteenth century, he did not have the benefit of a college education. In fact, he went to school only through the eighth grade. He could read and write, quite a step beyond his own parents’ abilities, but I never saw him sit down with a book or write a paragraph, much less a blog. Writing to him meant signing his name, though he rarely had to do that as his handshake guaranteed his word. As limited as we might think Granddaddy now, he had every tool he needed for success, the ability to mull chief among them.
He was born into the oldest profession in the world—farming. For generations, his people had studied the habits and ways of their fathers and grandfathers and applied them with the changes time had wrought. Mulling time was abundant for them. Beginning before dawn and working until dark every day of the year, they toiled mostly alone without much expectation of success. While on the job, they observed, remembered experiences, mulled possibilities, made decisions, applied them to the current job and, finally, passed it all to the next generation, insuring future time saved and mistakes avoided.
Granddaddy’s mulling time meant, for example, that he did not need a weather channel to tell him when to ready the fields, plant the crops, harvest the produce. Seasons determined such decisions. More to the point, he could look at the sky and know “Ezell is getting rain—should be here in about an hour.” Or “Storms are gathering before morning. We have to take in the crop.” Without consultation with veterinarians, he knew when to feed or worm the animals, stay up through the night with a foaling mare, take the hogs to market, or quietly put down a lost animal.
Without geneticists, he just knew which seed to plant to produce the best feed corn different from table corn different from market corn different from popping corn—my favorite—on his own land. He knew which animals to allow into the pen together to produce offspring best for market or milk or meat. He did not need psychologists to predict people’s actions. He would observe sadly, “I know his dad and granddad and expected something like this.” Or sagely, “That family can always be trusted to . . . .” He recognized limitations of genetics and physical and mental health by observing, remembering, and mulling long before Crick and Watson discovered and introduced the world to the double helix structure of DNA.
My 91-year-old Aunt Ebby calls such knowledge common sense and then notes that it is quite uncommon! She is right. But I contend that common sense and understanding of the world require mulling time, and it’s the mulling time that is in short supply now. Our time is spent avoiding thinking, especially deep, long-term thinking that requires us to pound our long-held beliefs, prejudices, certainties to mush so that we can reform them based on experiences we have tried to deny, squelch, hide. We fail just as Adam and Eve failed to hide their experience of disobedience from God. Deep down, we know. Frustration results from that failure and that knowledge. More avoidance is the modern answer to frustration.
Mulling does not always produce a perfect product, an answer, a solution. In fact, in the nineteenth century, mulling was frowned upon as working steadily but not accomplishing much. When hard work was needed to build a country, pondering without also laboring was dreaming or self-centered contemplation that looked like laziness. But a muller’s mess may be only a step on the path to triumph. If all mulling does is raise questions, invite discussion, change ingrained assumptions to reasoned realizations, that is triumph.
So with this blog, I hope to mull some ideas by seasoning them with time and experience. The product will be messy, imperfect, but ponderable. That, you may take up with me, but you will have to take up the problem of the friends, husbands, and family who have insisted that I write with them!