It layered itself like a fuzzy film along baseboards I didn’t often clean. It gathered on books I hadn’t opened in years. Dust marked what I liked to forget.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the clergy would recite on Ash Wednesday in the church of my childhood.
I remember a jumble of moments in that building whose stained-glass windows rose above our high school football field. My breath caught in my chest at Easter when the chancel choir sang from Handel’s Messiah. I puzzled over a benediction one pastor gave each week that called us to remember that we are being redeemed. I can’t say I remember much at all about the dust.
Forgetting isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It helps with daily functioning. We ignore some things at some points in our lives (like baseboards and dust) to remember other things (like music and benedictions). We prioritize. It’s just that priorities, like people, can change with time.
My own relationship with dust began to change with the arrival of the pandemic. We spent so much more time at home. Many of us still do as this third Lenten season of pandemic approaches. More time at home means a more consistent view of dust. Baseboards, bookshelves, blinds—no corner of my home is immune to its presence.
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground,” God tells Adam after that incident with the fruit, “for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). A sign of mortality, dust marks our very lives. Something happens, and we see that more clearly. Like the fruit that Eve and Adam ate, the pandemic has also shown us more than we saw before. It’s taken away opportunities to ignore what’s in our midst.
Some days, a mountain bike showed me this. I practiced this new hobby with a vengeance during spare pandemic moments. Falling to the ground was part of that. I’d clip a tree trunk here and approach roots the wrong way there, losing control of my bike and ending up in the dirt. I arrived home marked by the dust of the ground, my vulnerability to tumbles (and injuries and illnesses) a little more visible these days than it used to be.
Most days, I arrived home from those bike rides energized, as well. Dust up and down my legs, mud slung up the length of my back – I’ve grown to love those bike trails for how they wake me up. They alert me to the earth, the days, the changing seasons, and the people and critters around me. It could be that getting dirty makes me feel a little more alive, like I’ve risked some things and found out where my limits (for now) may be.
I’ve become alert to the world on a smaller scale. No more crowds of people and activities to choose from, I treasure little things around me, like a fist-sized Petoskey stone from a biking buddy. It sits near a window where its patterns of fossilized coral glow in the sunlight. Cards from friends and family line my bookshelves and tabletops. Each little touchpoint with another feels luminous. It makes dusting those shelves more complicated, but I want the cards there. The clutter shows me care and blessing every which way I look.
“And your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth,” God promised Jacob in a dream at Bethel, “and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (Gen 28:14). Leave it to God to make dust an image of vast and limitless blessing, but that’s exactly what God does. Forming humanity from the dust of the ground, God breathes into us the breath of life (Gen 2:7). Crafting promise, hope, redemption, and all sorts of new creations, God breathes the breath of life into the dust of our days. With dust every which way we look, we can’t help remembering what God is in the habit of doing with dust.
Lent approaches with another call to remember our mortality. When I hear the Ash Wednesday liturgy this year, I hope I remember the miraculous things that God does with dust.