Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dust Collectors

  Last week, I invited my book club friends over for dinner. (We loosely call ourselves a 'book club," but reading a book is just an excuse to get together and compare notes on life. ) Not having had the chance to entertain much lately, I was excited about hosting a dinner-party in my new house and I set aside the better part of the day to prepare. I love to grocery shop and to cook, so that aspect of having friends over is always appealing. But in readying my house for guests, I found myself facing the one household chore I like least in this world: dusting.
   What is it about taking a clean cloth and wiping it over what appears to be a clean surface only to discover that it's filthy? The process is at once fascinating and disgusting. Fascinating in that dust is a total mystery to me, a world unto itself. (Think "Horton Hears a Who.") I can easily imagine an alternate universe living on my sideboard. And then again, the thought  that my sideboard—and every semi-flat surface of my house—is slowly accumulating an ever-thickening layer of detritus that might contain the particles of God only knows what—Skin flakes? Dirt? Bug shit?—is more than a bit disconcerting. Honestly, I don't want to know the true composition of dust. The fact that it appears unbidden is disturbing enough. Many a mess I conjure and bring upon myself, but dust just exists with the insistence of the tide. I know as soon as I wipe a surface "clean," the specks are reconnoitering. There is no reprieve.
   One way of staying the war on dust is simply to possess less stuff upon which it can settle. Downsizing my collectable collections upon moving into my new house helped. When I separated from my husband, I only took the things that I felt had use or meaning. I did not want a lot of unnecessary clutter in my new life. But I did take care to retrieve my books; and books, of course, require bookshelves—which, of course, require dusting.
   To dust bookshelves properly, one must remove their contents to get down to the bare, dusty surfaces. Plus each item must be dusted as well. It is a time-consuming task. As time ticked down until my guests' arrival, I wondered if I could avoid the chore altogether. With the lights turned low and enough delicious food on the table, perhaps my friends could be distracted from the dust-covered copy of The Riverside Shakespeare and my dust-glazed framed photo of Baby Jack on a (faux) bearskin rug. Maybe they wouldn't look too closely at my collection of manuel typewriters or the vintage Barbie (the model that required wigs.) Dust isn't so discernible as long as the layer of detritus is evenly frosting the surfaces. But a casual finger-swipe reveals the truth. Whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not, a fine layer of dust existed.  I had to clean my bookshelves!
   I donned my trusty dust mitt and got down to work. At first I moved quickly from shelf to shelf, removing photos and brick-a-brac to one side while I dusted the surfaces beneath. I'd wipe each object clean, then replace it and dust the other side of the shelf. My instinct was to work quickly. Get it over! But when I came to the shelf that held the collection of tiny, white porcelain cats that once belonged to my mother, I slowed down and gave the task my full attention.
   These cats have been in my life for as long as I have memory.
   There are six of them, each wearing a bright orange jacket and little black slippers. (Apparently, musical cats are not required to wear pants.)
    Together they create an orchestra with a bass drum, banjo, cello and French horn and saxophone.
   There's even a conductor leading the band, but some time long ago, he took a spill and lost an arm. (I don't recall how it happened, but there's a good chance that I—at a young age—was responsible for his amputation.) When friends questioned his appearance, I tell them he was a war veteran. His remaining hand  stretches up high and there's a hole in the center of his fist where a baton should be. 
   The baton had long-ago been lost and from time to time my sisters and I fashioned a toothpick into his hand, but it never stayed and made him top-heavy, so he ran the risk of falling (again). At some point I gave up trying to find a baton to his scale and just let him lead the band without it. His players don't seem to mind. 
   Suffice to say, the cats were very old and precious to me. I was always a cat-lover. My Mom had given them to me long before she became so ill with dementia.
   With exquisite care, I gingerly held each cat and wiped it clean of dust, noting the details of the shiny gold accents and the subtle expression on each cat's minuscule face. This little band had played together for decades now without missing a gig. Their beady-black eyes steady on their leader, waiting for his emphatic gesture to strike up a new tune. The drummer bore a stamp on the bottom of his drum, "Made in Japan."
   As I examine the cats, I wandered whose hands painted these little cats so long ago. The precise placement of pigment of little pink noses and shading in the ears shows a careful, loving hand. I imagined a young woman, who worked in the china factory creating these little pets, dreaming of becoming a great artist someday. I wondered where she is now? Did she use her talent? Did she follow her bliss? Is she still alive today? I will never know.
These shelves hold a lot of memories.
The sign on top of the shelves was painted by
my Mom for the produce stand she and
my Dad had decades ago.
   I moved the band to one side of the shelf and wiped, clearing the dust patterns left around their little feet. Then I spent not a little time placing them back together as an orchestra. Should the horn section be positioned on the left or the right of the drummer? The banjo-player was always a little off balance due to some error in the factor long ago. He teetered and fell, but fortunately was not injured. I position him so that he could lean against the side of the shelf. After all, he's more than 60 years old and deserves to take it easy.
   As I shifted my focus to clean the next shelf, I was no longer hurrying through the task. I was actually relishing the process and the proximity in which is placed me with things I cherish: the old family photos, the handmade Mother's Day gift from Jack, the wooden animals my Uncle John made for me, and, of course, my books. On the shelves were my worn editions of The Norton Anthology (from Freshman year in college); collections of poetry and essays by Naomi Nye, a wonderful writer whose house I "sat" the summer after I graduated from college; and Tom Wolfe's seminal 1980s work, Bonfire of the Vanities, signed by the Man himself at a luncheon I attended on one of my first forays to New York while working in my first publishing role. There's an entire shelf devoted southern fiction, and another loaded with self-help and spirituality, including works by Thomas Moore,  Joseph Campbell and M. Scott Peck, most of which I amassed after my first divorce. And there are two shelves packed with cookbooks of all shapes and sizes, many given to me as gifts, some spattered and worn with use.
   As I dusted, I recalled Nye's essay entitled Maintenance, which is about housework and I thought,  "I need to read that essay again, maybe I'll even share it with my not-a-book-club-book-club friends." Naomi knew a lot of things then that I am only learning now.*
   I cannot say I will look forward to dusting now that I know how to turn a chore into a meditation. But I do appreciate that "things" can have a spiritual meaning, and that my bookshelves aren't just dust-collectors but rather a time-capsule of my life.

* "I'd like to say a word, just a short one, for the background hum of lesser, unexpected maintenances that can devour a day or days—or a life, if one is not careful. The scrubbing of the little ledge above the doorway belongs in this category, along with the thin lines of dust that quietly gather on bookshelves in front of the books...I am reminded of Buddhism whenever I undertake one of these invisible tasks: one acts without any thought of reward or foolish notion of glory." 
From the essay "Maintenance" in the collection Never in a Hurry by Naomi Shihab Nye (University of South Carolina Press, 1996)

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