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MARTHA SEZ: For dust you are, and to dust you will return. Gen: 3-19

September 7, 2011
I have come to believe that housework is fundamentally an attempt at control, not just over the order of our immediate household, but over our life in general. If we can’t even control the cobwebs in the corners and the dust under the sofa, how are we to stave off our own mortality?

Have you noticed how active the spiders have become recently? This is spider season; it comes every year. And even though the little terrorists capture and assassinate many bugs we may like even less, we feel compelled to knock down their webs with a broom, just as people have been doing for centuries. Dust and cobwebs are Halloweenish symbols of neglect and decay.

If the tone of this column seems glum, what with all of this mention of mortality, it is because I have been reading “The Secret life of Dust” by Hannah Holmes. The main point of her book seems to be that we come from dust and will be dust, without fail, again. Nowhere else have I seen science and the Old Testament come together so neatly; and yet I think that the author need not have been so glib about it. In fact she seems downright delighted, in that way scientists have, to be spouting the disturbing news so coldheartedly, or at least offhandedly.

Asthma among children is on the increase, although no one seems to understand why, Holmes tells us. Many kinds of dust trigger asthma attacks, but why are more and more children developing this bronchial sensitivity in the first place?

Some studies show that children who are raised in hermetically sealed neat and clean dustfree environments are more likely to develop asthma than those raised amid dust bunnies. There’s a theory that dust may help us strengthen our auto-immune systems. At least that affords some small comfort and respite from guilt for those of us whose children suffer from asthma. No matter how bad things were, they could have been much worse, had we been too assiduous in our housekeeping.

Vacuuming and sweeping actually cause dust to rise into the air, where humans breathe it in, Holmes writes. This only backs up my lifelong fear of vacuum cleaning, although I myself have practiced the slam method of hostile vacuuming that I happen to know has been practiced by housewives at least since the ’50s. Some may call it passive aggressive. I personally feel that passive aggression has been given a bum rap. What are one’s choices in a situation in which one, normally so sweet, begins to feel — not to put too fine a point on it — well, a little upset?

The choices are passive aggression, active aggression and being nice. Active aggression is worse than passive, and being genuinely nice is not always possible.

My sister recently recalled that our mother, whose moods dominated the entire household, was actually continually striving to hold her passionate emotions in check.

That’s true, and it just goes to show you can’t win. Self control has its limits. Hostile vacuuming, with its loud noise, reckless slamming of walls and furniture, and self-righteous implied attitude “Someone has to do the cleaning around here!” comes in right next to banging the cupboard doors. I find that living alone pretty much precludes hostile housekeeping.

Holmes tells us that the dust on our television screen and beneath the bed is a conglomeration of tiny disparate particles, including star dust from meteorites, desert sand from as far away as Asia and Africa, lint, bacteria, bits of our own sloughed off skin, dust mites and the so-called pseudo-scorpions that stalk them, and many more.

Far from romanticizing a person’s aura — but of course Holmes is a scientist, not a psychic — she writes that we all move through our lives surrounded by our own individual clouds of dead cells, moisture droplets, and so on.

In the last chapter she sanguinely reminds us, “Indeed, the entire Earth will be dust.”

The good part is that all of this dust may float around the universe until it gathers itself into other planets, just as our solar system was created. New life may begin.

The book ends on this note: “And then, like an old newspaper in the attic, the worn-out universe will gradually disappear under the thickening dust.”

Maybe so, but that’s no excuse not to pick up your socks.

Have a good week.


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