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MARTHA SEZ: ‘Hostile vacuuming … comes in right next to banging the cupboard doors’

For Dust you are, and to dust you shall return. Gen. 3-9

I have always believed that housework is fundamentally an attempt at control, not just over the order of our immediate household, but over 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?

And have you noticed how active the spiders have become recently? This is spider season. It comes every year. 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 dust and decay.

I have been rereading “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 the Old Testament and science 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 that scientists have, to be spouting the disturbing news so coldheartedly, or at the least, offhandedly.

For years, asthma among children has been 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 have shown that children who are raised in hermetically sealed neat and clean dust-free environments are more likely to develop asthma than those raised amid dust bunnies. There is a theory that dust may help us strengthen our auto-immune systems. That makes me feel a little better about my housekeeping. Think how much damage I might have done if I had a more efficient housekeeper. That was a close call.

Vacuuming and sweeping actually cause dust to rise into the air, where humans breathe it in, Holmes writes. This only validates my lifelong abhorrance of vacuum cleaning. My mother always seemed to be angry when she was slamming the noisy old Hoover into the corners.

I admit, I myself have practiced the slam method of hostile vacuuming practiced by my mother and countless other housewives since the 1950s. Some may call it passive aggressive. I personally believe that passive aggression has been given a bum rap. What are one’s choices, after all, in a situation in which one, normally so sweet, begins to feel–not to put too fine a point on it–a little upset?

The choices are passive aggression, active aggression, and being nice. Active aggression is clearly worse than passive, and being nice is not always possible. Clearly, then, hostile vacuuming, with its fearsome roaring, reckless slamming of walls and furniture and self-righteous attitude of “SOMEONE has to do the cleaning around here!” comes in right next to banging the cupboard doors.

Holmes tells us that the dust on our television screens and beneath the bed is a conglomeration of 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 so small as to be invisible to the naked eye and the so-called pseudo-scorpions that stalk them and many more.

Ash from volcanic eruptions and wildfires cause terrible destruction but paradoxically create beautiful sunsets in distant skies. According to NASA research, carbon from these fires rises high into the atmosphere, affecting Earth’s temperature. Scientists have hypothesized that the unusually early frost here in the East this year was caused by wildfires raging in the West.

Far from romanticizing a person’s aura–but of course Holmes is a scientist, not a psychic–she writes that we walk around surrounded by our own individual clouds of dead skin 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 new planets, just as our solar system was created, Holmes writes. Life may begin again.

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.

(Martha Allen lives in Keene Valley. She has been writing for the Lake Placid News for more than 20 years.)