Have you ever found yourself at the edge of a cliff, or at the front of a balcony high up in a theatre, and been startled to find yourself just for a second wanting to jump? Backing off confused and excited and scared – “do I want to die?”, “how could I be so mad?”. Death frightens us so much we easily confuse all sorts of lonely impulses with it. We are so alone, moving through space and time. So scared by the knowledge deep within that such movement through time and space is all there is, despite both being merely inventions of humanity to occupy the endless chatter in our minds.
The memory of those lonely impulses came to mind yesterday. I was moving through space – such bittersweetness when moving freely is just a memory that was snatched away too soon – through a city. A day like any other. The flowing, stumbling, faltering mass of us weaving through space. Circling, avoiding, swerving around each other we flowed through train stations and offices and city streets. Seeing each other, hearing each other, but unknowable to each other no matter how close, how intimate the space and time we occupied together might be.
We are not such things as can be known. We are unknowable because we are not there. Are not here. We are the seething sum of our past experiences and our future fears. We are dust, swirling through time desperate to coalesce, to make something of ourselves. Destined to be forever frustrated in our hopes. Destined to be forever longing for solidity. Destined to be forever dust. Only ever knowable as a snapshot of ourselves frozen in time. Only ever knowable as dust.
Moving through time, swept along without respite, we build a solid world in our dreams, our fantasies, and we call it Real Life. Our chattering minds endlessly trying to understand, to make sense, when there is no-sense. When all is non-sense. But every now and again it slows just enough for us to stop. A few moments here and there when we quiet the chatter long enough to see it. The great big beautiful mess of it all. The shocking, enormous, enthralling power of it all.
We float here, dust creatures somehow coalescing long enough to make a world – to make bridges, and music, money and love, war and cures for disease. Loving, fighting, hating, collaborating, fearing, embracing, competing, laughing. Is that why we look and feel so uncomfortable in our skins, we dust beings struggling to cling to each other against all reason, all hope? We dress up with costumes, and words, and mannerisms, and titles, and stories, in the doomed hope that we might somehow, finally, coalesce. Somehow, finally, feel real.
We pursue this chimera of solidity even though music and art and dance show us the truth, allow us to be – for those brief moments in the theatre or the gallery or suspended in our personal sound bubbles – dust. If only we could know our true dust selves for more than a moment here and there. Would we choose to fear, hate, distrust, compete, fight? In those moments we see the possibility, shimmering far in the distance, of letting go of the desire to know, of embracing only being. And we feel our lightness, our dust selves. We understand that peace. And what was irritating and worrying and overwhelming suddenly becomes a thing of beauty and wonder. And we recognise it. Just briefly.
The fear of death quickly represses our insight again – ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We see only death in that dust, only the end of that idea. We forget the dust in the beginning, we forget that we can only ever be dust. Atoms moving through space and time. We fear our dust selves so much that we created the idea of death to help us hide from it. Dust cannot die, simply change, evolve, move. In an act of supremely tangled torment we refuse to recognise our dust selves to hide from the scary monster we ourselves created. Which is why when standing at the edge of a high place we can’t see properly that our lonely impulse is not of death, but of (as WB Yeats said) delight. It’s why those moments confuse us so.
I saw the dust yesterday, walking through Edinburgh. The sweet, sad, slightly mad desperation for solidity. The artifice of it all. So I share it with you, fellow dust creatures, in case it rings a bell with you too. If you need some help, then music does it for me. I remember sitting in a balcony last year becoming dust as I listened to Ann Hallenberg (who teaches us a thing or two about dust every time she opens her mouth to sing). And as if by magic, the internet takes me back in time to that very night…