Jamie Lauren Keiles ponders about the dust in her apartment. Your dust is you, and the life outside your window and the life of every tenant before you. Gross - but who right now can turn down company?
A new intrusive thought to consider: On average, the human body sheds its entire bag of skin — more than a billion cells — every 28 days. Since the beginning of self-quarantine, I have shed my husk more than twice, casting off thousands of skin cells each second.
Every morning, after my waking groan, I sat up half-awake in bed, watching the shards of my disintegrating self turning over in a tone-deaf ray of sun.
Free of the virus, that was how I was dying — incrementally, and mainly from self-pity. Others are not as lucky, I thought, with the grandeur of a person who fights by doing nothing, whose suffering takes up negative space. The neighbors banged pots and pans to alleviate their guilt. I thought about skin as it floated through the air, landed on the bureau, remade itself as dust.
Dust, as a collective noun, means almost nothing. The word is suggestive of dryness and smallness — tiny unknown pieces, combined with other pieces, which remain to be discovered like the bottom of the sea. There is road dust and coal dust and stardust and space dust.
Household dust, a lively field of scientific study, is thought to contain domestic life in microcosm: mainly sloughed-off skin and hair, but also sweater fibers and pet dander, dried-out bugs and tracked-in outdoor dirt.
A zillion motes of dust make up a singular “dust bunny.” Like a fine wine or the neuroses of siblings, each is unique to its own environment. My dust is me, and the friends I can’t have over. Yours is you, and the life outside your window, and the life of every tenant before you. Gross — but who right now can turn down company?
Experts say you should dust from high to low, letting the dust from the higher-up realms settle in the lower-down ones before you clean them. This is a pretty good housekeeping tip, presupposing the duster believes that cleanliness is the most desirable outcome. Right now I don’t know what I believe.
In quarantine, I dust for distraction. I dust the baseboards. I dust the dark side of the fan blades. I dust the tops of the light bulbs in my lamps. I dust for a universe I can control. The thing about dusting is it is endless. Even as you dust, you make dust.
The management of household dust was a petty bourgeois fixation from the start. The chore was first emphasized in the mid-1800s, as dust from the just-industrialized street was beginning to threaten the newly sealed middle-class home. In her 1966 book, “Purity and Danger,” the British anthropologist Mary Douglas described this encroachment as matter “out of place.”
Cleanliness was next to godliness, they said then, as they do now. Dirt symbolized a collapse of social order. The maintenance of this order usually fell on women, whose level of commitment to dust management symbolized moral piety, and later, in the inverse, liberation.
In her 1949 book, “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir suggested that a fixation on housework offered women a flight from themselves and the world. “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework,” she wrote. “The clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” In de Beauvoir’s view, the life of Sisyphus was torture. At least he got to go outside.
Self-quarantine has me thinking and acting in all kinds of backward ways. Victorian metaphors are tantalizing, with cosseted elites at home baking bread as labor outside is ruthlessly exploited. Even as scientific thinking has evolved, a facile sense of germ theory prevails, with particulate life understood in stubbornly moral terms. Inside the house, the dust bunnies are friendly. Outside, there’s the wet malintent of disease.
People used to gossip about social behaviors, but now microbial rumors spread: The virus thrives on your reusable grocery bags; it can leap from the mouth of an oncoming jogger and hang in the air for up to a week. All we get told for sure is wash your hands. Log on to check the death count every day and wonder when it will finally be over. At least with the dusting, there is evidence of progress.
As I sit and write, a new layer of dust accumulates. Later on this evening, I’ll make another round, Swiffering the baseboards, wiping down the ledges, dragging a sock along the porcelain toilet tank. The underside of a dusty cloth has the cozy, filthy horror of a yellow Q-tip. Better out than in! Coping mechanisms are always some combination of perverse and pathetic. Through dusting I’ve found a means of control, a form of endlessness I can contain.
Right now, the world has only two scales — big and small — and both go on forever. I am so, so tired of endlessness: the unrelenting boredom, the cycles of self-pity, the constant systemic breakdown, the eternity of death. I long to think about big, dumb things that have an end: a steak from a restaurant, the nave in a church, a hug from a friend of a friend, the Grand Canyon.
From The New York Times Magazine