Is it Covid or is it dust? Since I moved into this apartment, I frequently wake up with a runny nose, an inflamed throat and watery eyes.
I’ve never lived in a place that’s so dusty. The amount of dust I must deal with each day is confounding. I am constantly dusting, only for it to return an hour later. Where does it come from? Why is it here? Can we cohabitate or will I inhale so much of it that I’ll eventually choke?
Each morning I wake up and start sneezing. It’s as if in my sleep I’ve been inhaling dirt and, to protect me, my body makes a tonne of mucus to repel it. It’s horrible … both the dust and my body’s defence mechanisms.
I go to make a coffee and there on the ground – it lies – it wasn’t there yesterday this mixture dust and hair. The hair provides a structure for the dust to cling to. It’s disgusting, these disgusting grey masses that drift across the floor. The large ones resemble the ghost of a rat. I watch them move, they could almost be alive.
And so – I chase my dust with a pan and brush tending my empire of dirt. It’s Sisyphean.
“It’s because we’re home more – that’s why we notice the dust,” my friend Bonnie says. Since dust is partly composed of skin cells and we’re not visiting other places where our skin is shed, more of our shed skin is ending up in our houses. I tweet about the dust. It seems to be a worldwide issue. “It’s absolutely doing my head in,” Chaz Hutton writes of his dusty Berlin home.
The lockdown picnics don’t help. Sitting on the ground to eat means I’ll just bring more of the ground home.
I think about dust a lot now – probably too much. Its meaning is now outsized compared with the smallness of its particles.
Mainly I think about how the dust that I so loathe is actually made up of an unholy composite. It is me + actual dirt (and other soil matter including animal faeces) + decomposing food scraps + decomposing insects + plastics.
Australians have been sending their dust to Macquarie University’s DustSafe program, which has analysed samples from around the world. The analysis, published in the Conversation, showed that Australian dust comes from natural sources including soils – but it also includes antibiotic resistant genes, trace metals and microplastics.
Nearly one in five Australians suffer similar allergic reactions to me, reacting to dust mites, pollen, pet dander and skin particles.
Mostly we go through life thinking we’re completely separate from the matter that surrounds us. Humans walk around with a kind of superiority complex, thinking that of course we are better than a rock or a cliff face or a carpark. (What else could explain our wanton destruction of the environment other than an “othering” of dirt?)
Believing in the interconnectedness of all things, ancient thinkers were not so repulsed and frightened by dust – they incorporated it right into the heart of their theology. Dust didn’t just represent us – it was us. We were dust, literally and allegorically. We were dust before we assume a human form, and we are returned to dust when we die.
In the book of Genesis, God formed man from a pile of dust. And in Christian burials our body is committed to the ground with the words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.
“I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” wrote TS Eliot in The Waste Land. Joseph Conrad wrote of “the heat of life in the handful of dust”. In Lolita there are those elegiac last lines: “I shall be dumped where the weed decays, And the rest is rust and stardust.”,
These lines are haunting because they tell us the horrific, unfathomable but inescapable truth – all this toil, this heat of life, all the drama of our lives that feels all-consuming and important, well, nothing will remain from it but dust.
Could it be that my horror of dust, my obsession with it and my drive to expel it are really just misplaced anxiety about death?
I think I’m done with these vaguely gloomy thoughts each day, when I have carefully cleaned the house of mind, removing the negativity. But in the morning, the thoughts are there again – like dust, shapeshifting and moving about the place. And, like dust, these feelings about life, mortality – everything, really – must be attended to everyday. To neglect them would be to risk being overwhelmed by despair.
All the signs of mortality were always there but they are seen more clearly with age. In the long days at home, this intimation of mortality shimmers into my peripheral vision, like the very spheres of dust and hair that roll across my floorboards – just out of, then into, sight.
• This article was amended on 8 October 2021 to correct the title of “The Wasteland” to The Waste Land.
Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist