The Thinking 

More on Dust

May 15, 2009

Kristor writes about the foregoing entry:

With respect to dust, I am with Democritus. If anything made of dust is to be alive to its world, then in some way the dust of which it is made must do likewise. Not in the same way, of course; things are alike, but not wholly alike, or they wouldn’t be discrete.

I spend a fair bit of time trying to get rid of dust – I’m a neatnik – but I’ve always had some affection for it. When I was a little boy and the days lasted for months, long before I went to kindergarten, I would lie on the floor or the bed and watch the dust dancing in the sunbeams, with endless fascination. It is like watching a fire, or the clouds, or the ocean. There is no end to it, no bottom to that depth. So all of these phenomena came to be for me symbolic of the fecund creativity that constantly surrounds us on every side, and of which we are constituted, and to which we contribute. What then are the symbols used in the Bible for the presence in the creaturely matrix of the Divine Life? Animate dust, fire, water, cloud. Earth, air, fire and water.

When I am keeping house or gardening, one of the thoughts to which I inveterately turn, always with a note of some irritation, is the concept that a properly designed built environment would do much of this work for us. The rain should wash the leaf litter off the path entirely (rather than into a corner) and into a compost bin. Inside corners where dust gathers more and more densely, impervious to the vacuum and broom, and waits to be painted over, should have been chamfered from the start. Surfaces not intended as shelves or tables should slope. Kitchen counters should grade away from the edges, and then down a central channel and into the sink. The floors of the bathrooms and kitchen should each gently slope to a central drain, so that the mop water could be hosed away directly (and there should be a thread for the spigot, so it could mate with the hose). There should be a hatch in the trim at the floor of each room, so that dust could be swept directly into a chute (leading to the compost bin, or to a flower bed), rather than into a dustpan. For dustpans are frustrating. Anytime you have to lift dust to clean it, you are creating an opportunity for it to fall and spread all over the place again. And it always manages to do just that. We should arrange our dwellings so that things fall into place. 

One great and wonderful thing about the spring is that the air is still washed clean and the soil is moist and heavy, so that there is relatively little dust in the outside air. Things sparkle. And that is great for housecleaning. One can open all the windows and kick up the dust inside, and thanks to concentration gradients, much of it will just fly out the windows.

Keep up the good work.

Laura replies:

These are wonderful observations. I am encouraged that you too see the elemental significance of dust. You obviously have had that same vague feeling of discontent. You’re not quite sure what’s wrong. Then you dust and you feel as if your surroundings are no longer submerged under water. That delightful clarity is restored.

Probably most children are fascinated by dust the first time they notice it, but then they grow accustomed to it and lose that wonder. I do know of a man who scrapes the dust from his downspouts and examines it under a microscope. He has found interesting extraterrestrial material, bits of stars and meteorites, I believe. I once saw a book in the library that examined the physical composition of household dust, but it seemed numbingly boring so I never read it. I should. People make a big deal these days about dust mites and try to get you scared. I’ve read about dust mites because both my children and my husband have serious allergies. But, I decided I wasn’t scared of them at all.

You’re absolutely right that the key is not to stir things up. That’s why I generally don’t use vacuum cleaners for dusting. They really just move the dust around. The structural innovations you mention are fascinating. I never would have thought of them. I’m sure you’ve discovered the newest microfiber cloths. They’re great. Overall, I prefer hand-to-hand combat. I like to lie on my stomach on the floor next to a bed and reach in as far as I can. Very satisfying. I find dusting almost always evokes memories. I dust a picture of an aunt or brother-in-law who’s died or discover an old marble of my sons’ under the couch. I don’t necessarily stop and think about these things, but they enter my subconscious. Dusting is a process of removal and restoration.

One ongoing concern of mine is how to keep dust from blowing back in my face when I shake out the dust cloth. Am I missing something, or is this harder than it looks?  I try to be sensitive to wind currents, but I often end up with a head full of dust. It’s stupid. I do love to see the particles float away. I sometimes wonder whether the very same fragments will end up back in the house. I guess it could give you a sense of futility, but it never has for me.  

Thank you for your words of encouragement.

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