On dust — how we attend to things

A reflection on care, attention, and expressing experiences that I rediscovered today — written hastily in August 2015, two apartments and many redecorations ago.

I’ve been doing a lot of redecorating lately, and it’s got me thinking. Harry Potter is an extremely popular fantasy book series, but before HP, I loved the His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman — The Amber Spyglass, The Subtle Knife, The Golden Compass. It’s a little less well-known, but it’s beautiful, more beautiful, I think. In the series, the young protagonist Lyra experiences many worlds, which coexist in a universe but are separated physically, and which contain very different types of beings and habitats. Throughout them, and binding them, there is a substance called “dust” — basically a pseudo-physical manifestation of human attention. It flows around the world where sentient beings put their energy, and coats things that matter. It’s a lovely concept. In decorating my apartment lately, paying attention to the feeling of objects in a space, I’ve been thinking a lot about dust — this mystical dust. I think it’s real.

In the actual world, that you and I live in, there was a considerable movement around the time of the Industrial Revolution (in England) to preserve and protect craftsmanship. It was a critical moment of change for how objects come into the world. The poet William Morris, for example, was concerned with the idea of the loss of craftsmanship, because he saw value in the love of the work and the personal care that goes into creating something. He was worried about things in the world coming into existence without dust. At the time, nobody had really experienced a thing that came into creation not from nature, or from man, but indirectly through a human-less system. We’re used to that now.

In His Dark Materials, things that receive a great deal of care are just filthy with dust, gloriously covered. Like young children, or very important objects in one’s life. Lifeless objects are variably very lightly dusted (if they are not given much notice) or at this highest level of dust. Of course conscious beings like people are very dusty, themselves being the magnets directing this dust flow. To me this is intuitive — just think of the most-used object in your life (let us pray it is not your cell phone, but it might be), and the presence it has for you. And then think about a human you know, and the presence that human has. Not comparable dust levels, you can see, even for a very important object. There’s much more dust around the person.

Dust has become an apolitical, areligious way for me to comfortably refer to this kind of energy that exists once a thing receives care, or emanates it. You might call that qi, life force, something to do with the soul, or you might manage it in your home with feng shui. Where does dust hover in a a space, where does your attention naturally go, even if you’ve never been somewhere before? A psychologist or evolutionary biologist might say that as humans, we experience shared attention, and we direct each other’s attention — this is an important part of consciousness. Dust is a nice way to talk about this phenomenon intimately.

I’ve settled on dust as part of a growing vernacular I’ve cobbled together from arguably disparate philosophies to express my own experience. I hope it is not false religion. I’m trying to find the clearest way to discuss my impressions of the world, and find common ground with how others perceive the same phenomena. But it’s hard to talk about concisely and inoffensively enough to get anywhere in conversation.

It’s a challenge, finding a way to talk about the extra-physical parts of life. (Metaphysical? Philosophical? Spiritual? Religious? Already in naming this realm we have a conflict of preferences.) My own background is Christian, but I find I have an easier time talking about the quotidian elements of this more-than-physical part of life using words from fiction or from religion I wasn’t raised with. Perhaps they are less fraught with institutional baggage in my mind. So when I’m reading a book, and a creative author, a world builder, gives me a new term, I often stop reading to expound on the utility of that term, and end up writing an essay, and hopefully getting some other people to know what I mean. And here we are, at the end of this dusty attempt, which I’ve handed over from my attention to yours.