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Dust by Joe Mills

Joe Mills / String Figures

As I sit at our piano, I notice the dust on it, and I’m surprised. In a story, if there is a “dusty guitar” or a “dusty bottle,” it signifies that it hasn’t been touched for some time. That’s how the cliché works. Yet my wife and I play the piano every day. The keys are clean, but dust has been accumulating on the top and sides.

I swipe a finger through the layer, then, like a child, write my name and draw a smiley face. Then I realize I’ve created work for myself. These marks will make it obvious that I’ve seen the dust. If I don’t do something about it, when my wife sits down, she’ll notice that I noticed . . .

I should dust the dust which makes me think about how I’ve always liked the word, “dust,” since it’s an autantonym, one of those that can mean its opposite, like “cleave,” “screen,” “strike,” “sanction,” “fast.” This probably makes for a matrix of interpretations for the scripture in Psalms: “my soul cleaves unto the dust.”

There are plenty of scriptural passages about dust, including Ecclesiastes: “All are from the dust and to dust all return,” an idea that I first encountered, not in church, but listening to the band Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind.” When I was young, that song struck me in a powerful way (and I also was wowed by the album cover of Point of No Return, which has a ship going over the edge of the world). Similarly, in college, I was a Woody Allen fan because of the existential angst underpinning the jokes. In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer won’t do his homework because “The universe is expanding,” so, “What’s the point?” The same question is explored in Stardust Memories with its concept of “Ozymandias Melancholia.” If everything we create, the statues and manuscripts and musical scores, will crumble to dust, what’s the point? Why are we bothering if “all we are is dust in the wind…”

Like Alvy Singer, when I was young and my mother complained that I had yet again neglected to take out the trash, I responded, “Mom, that is so trivial in the big scheme of things.” Her middle-aged bourgeois mind was so pedestrian; she didn’t focus on deep thoughts like me. She didn’t think about “death” and the futility of it all; she didn’t listen to Kansas.

When I was young, in addition to taking out the garbage, one of my chores was to vacuum the blue shag carpet we had downstairs. I was supposed to rake it as well with a special wooden tool. There were plastic runners through the house to walk on so that we didn’t mess up the carpet. I was supposed to roll these up and vacuum and rake underneath. This made no sense to me; how could dirt get there? So I would only do the sides, and most weekends I wouldn’t bother to pull out the dining room chairs or move the coffee table. (Sometimes I’m in discussions that involve the question, “When do you know you’re adult?” Maybe it’s when you pull out chairs to vacuum.) At some point, I realized that I didn’t even have to vacuum; I just needed to rake and it would look like I had done my chores. So I would turn the vacuum on for a bit as I watched Gilligan’s Island, that other great existential drama, and then I would rake.

My chores taught me a valuable lesson, not about work, but about the façade of making it look like work had been done. When I heard some maid services simply give surfaces a quick wipe and then spritz “clean-smelling” sprays, I thought, “Well, yeah.” I regard with suspicion unknown mechanics, crafts-people, and trades-people. Good ones are invaluable, but I recently realized that a “handy-man” we hired didn’t replace rotten wood on a job but simply painted over it. As Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” (It’s also good parenting advice, I’ve found.)

Now, my own middle-aged bourgeois mind looks at the dust on top of the piano and wonders, “Where the hell did that come from?” We have an active house – two energetic kids, constant movement. We don’t live in a cobwebbed Miss Havisham mansion. I wouldn’t have been surprised if parts of the piano had been stripped to the bare wood by the boy constantly running past. Dust makes no sense.

I Google “Where does dust come from?” and I learn there have been studies about this very question. In fact, there is a field of “dustology.” The scientists David Layton and Paloma Beamer point out “that household dust consists of a potpourri that includes dead skin shed by people, fibers from carpets and upholstered furniture, and tracked-in soil and airborne particles blown in from outdoors.”

In other words, I’m looking not at dead people – ashes to ashes and dust to dust — but dead parts of living people. Under the family photographs is a layer of family cells. We don’t have to wait until we die to return to dust; we’re becoming dust right now.

I wipe my name and smiley face off the piano, dust the sides, and swipe around the top. I don’t, however, bother to pick up the frames and tchotchkes and do a thorough cleaning. Maybe it’s laziness. Maybe I’m still not an adult. Maybe it’s a desire to leave bits of myself around.

In “Woodstock,” Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang, “We are stardust.” It turns out that we are piano dust as well.


Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

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