I believe that we belong to dust. I grew up surrounded by dust, on the plains of western Nebraska, and I hated the stuff. I was allergic to it, it made me miserable, and I wanted desperately to escape it. I took refuge in what little concrete, neon, and plastic there was in my small town, trying hard to deny the dust that was all around me.
My grandfather was part of the dust. He lived on it, farmed and ranched on it, and never left it. As a child, visits to my dusty old grandfather always seemed like a chore. I could never think of anything to say to him, and I just wasn’t interested in things like weather or the price of corn. Every time we went, I just sat there, waiting impatiently for my mother to say it was time to leave, so I could get back to the plastic toys or the video games that were free of dust.
I became a restless and anxious 20-something. I kept trying to run away from the dust, but it wouldn’t let me. I fled to Connecticut, but the dust pulled me back to South Dakota. I fled to Massachusetts, but the dust pulled me back to Kansas.
I’m sure my grandfather didn’t understand all my running. His life and his spirit had always been steady, firmly rooted in the plains dust that made him. Still, his unsentimental love for me didn’t waiver at what he must have thought of as my foolishness. One night, when he thought he would die before the morning, he scribbled a note instructing my mother to give me his watch. That was how he chose to spend what might have been his last thought, to make sure I got his watch. I’ve come to see that as the kind of staid, rooted love that holds our lives together.
So these days, I no longer want to fight the dust. My spirit eases when my hands touch the soil in the garden. I no longer see the ordinary and the mundane as burdensome. Instead, I’ve known the deep joy of watching for the first tomatoes, of walking in a field with the dog beside me, of talking to the neighbors. I believe that true peace comes from belonging to this place, from accepting my connection to the dust. My grandfather knew instinctively how to belong to it; it took me 31 years to start to figure it out.
His wisdom now shapes my work as a Christian priest. I believe my faith calls me to dig deeper into the world, not to hope for an escape from it. My job is to dig with fellow pilgrims into the dust of our lives, exposing the sacred soil that is always there.
One Wednesday each year, I impose ashes on the foreheads of people I love, and I say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” My grandfather, now returned to the dust, taught me without words what those words mean, why we say them, and why they’re holy.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.