Dust to Dust

Originally Published: January 23, 2002

Dust is the weirdest thing.

Even the word is weird if you look at it too long. Truncated and dry, like a cough.

I’ve heard it’s largely made up of the dead skin cells we slough off. As if thinking of it as just dirt wasn’t appetizing enough. 

I’m ruminating on dust right now because these last few days I’ve been trying to eradicate it from my house. In preparation for a party we’re having on Saturday. Somewhere it is written than one is supposed to dust before having guests over. And vacuum and wash and oil and scrub and disinfect.

Then we are supposed to pretend that we live like this all the time.

Strange, I think, as I wipe over a lampshade, that having a party can shame me into doing what my son’s asthma cannot.

His wheezing used to get pretty bad, and he’d crawl for his inhaler, pumping it into his lungs to open up the tiny bronchioles the dust had infiltrated. I used to wish I could do something to help him. Something besides dusting, I mean.

I’m supposed to be on top of the whole dust thing because it is one of his strongest triggers. His pediatrician, a gullible but otherwise brilliant woman, believes me to be the kind of reliable asthmatic’s mother with whom she can collaborate in order to effectively treat his chronic disease. She believes I dust and vacuum his room daily and that I wash the mattress and pillow casings weekly in hot water to kill the nasty dust mites whose excreta causes his histamine to go haywire. She believes I long ago threw away all his stuffed animals – the furry ones that are built-in dust magnets. She believes I love my child enough to do these things. It isn’t that I don’t love him enough to take these steps – not exactly. Yes, I dust, vacuum, and wash. It’s just the “daily” and “weekly” pieces I tend to dismiss as “overkill”. Leaving aside the minor inconvenience of his not being able to breathe, I know he will love me despite the dust.

Can the same claim be made of my guests? Would dust preclude their affection? Doubt urges me on, and I stab the duster through the gaps in the stair rails and swipe it over the molding.

I remind myself that my son’s asthma is much improved. I like to think that had I followed doctor’s orders and battled with the dust each day, he never would have “toughened up”. I imagine cloudy little Pig-Pen antibodies coursing through his veins. “Mother does know best,” I mutter, breathing a deep sigh of relief – and coughing delicately in the billowing dust cloud from the sofa I am vacuuming.

Personally, dust doesn’t bother me much. It’s embarrassing how much it fails to bother me, actually. I grew up in a dusty house. This is no criticism of my mother – in fact, I am grateful she demonstrated to me just how easy it was, not just to ignore dust, but to appreciate it. Dust can provide a protective coating on fine china. It can serve as thrifty sound absorption for improved domestic acoustics. It can let a child know if a sibling has disturbed a valued yet long- stationary toy. It can provide loads of atmosphere.

Come to think of it, I may have done my first sketches in the dust around my home. You might say it was my medium. That is very advanced, very conceptual stuff: Dust as history, cloaking random canvasses, into which the artist delves with an idle finger, interpreting the past, present and future in the cast off remnants our flesh. Look out MFA, here I come!

Thinking now in an artistic vein, it occurs to me, as I knock my head on the underside of a table I am running a damp cloth over, that I have been throwing away money needlessly. Why should I fork over more than $20 each time I need a 5lb bag of the gray, powdered papier maché I use for my sculptures? Why should I be supporting the hoity-toity art store fascists - who snatch the very bread from the mouths of artists - when I can use good old household dust? Mix in a little water – or perhaps some other liquid by-product that might otherwise go to waste! – and presto! Perhaps I could even harvest dust! Open the windows, get a menagerie of hairy pets, remove the filters from the furnace and let it blow, let it blow, let it blow! I could display all the thousands of useless little knick-knacks I possess and let them do what they do best – gather dust! Ah for the days of the dust bowl! The poor shortsighted Okies had no idea the riches they left behind when they trundled off to California and to ruin.

Isn’t it strange where one’s thoughts take one while dusting, and with whom one will share them…

Well, what’s the point anyway. The dust in my house never really cooperates when I try to give it the old heave-ho. It just flies into the air like a ghostly swarm of gnats and alights again on some new surface. The futility of it is maddening - or could be - if one didn’t admit from the start that the term “dusting” implies redistribution, rather than removal.

I, for one, am going to put away my rags and call it a day. I think it is time we made peace with dust. Anyone at the party – bosses, co-workers, relatives - will just have to get into the spirit of things. After all, what are a few dead skin cells between friends? 

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