Because this dust is you.

Maybe you've been burned up, ground up. Maybe you've been rotting, decomposing, but once you go through the worms, you're dirt. That's all there ever was.

I can open my hand and sprinkle you away, cast you to the wind.

Mortality can hurt.

"And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust."


A line from the first section (The Burial of the Dead) of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Later used as an advertising slogan for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
Perhaps my favorite sentence in all of T.S. Eliot's poetry.

I can't read this poem without a glass of water around - I really can't. The images of dryness and sterility are meant to refer to a spiritual and moral wasteland, one where there is no heaven or hell, right or wrong. But sometimes all they do is make me thirsty.

For me, sterility is almost scarier than death. Well, in a way, it is death. Our fear of mortality is more of a fear of nothingness when it comes down to it.

Fear in a handful of dust. That's all it is. But when I read it I almost want to cry.

This is also a reference to the Sybil who is mentioned in the poem's epigram, and who was granted "as many years of life as sands that were in her hand." The poem's reference in this line to the Sybil's wish echoes the original story's inversion of tone; just as her wish mutates into something deeply awful and ugly, so does the poem's offering of "fear in a handful of dust" punctuate the previous passage about the "shadow rising behind" versus the "shadow rising before" the reader.

birdonmyshoulder* makes a good point.

To Eliot, or at least to his narrator, the dust is something other than one's shadow behind one in the morning, or in front of you in the evening.

Jung described the Shadow as the part of the mind that one could not see as part of oneself, except by placing it onto the world. Jung's Shadow could be a creature of great fear, as it contained the unknown aspect of the self. While Eliot probably did not lift this directly from Jung, I cannot help but see a similarity to Eliot's shadow here.

In the morning one's shadow is behind one, and one is not confronted with it, striding forward purposefully -- even lifted by the shadow behind, and as life progresses, one sees more and more of one's shadow for what it is -- a part of one's self that one cannot know, and that can instill fear.

But Eliot's dust seems a deeper thing. Connecting this to his heap of broken images, dust is not even a broken image. It is the matter out of which these images grow, the soil, but it is parched soil here. Instead of seeing the images which cover the ground, instead of seeing what your mind creates from the ground, you see only a handful of dust, the raw matter of the world, unmediated by your mind.

And the universe unmediated by your senses and interpretations is a terrifying thing. Realizing that there is nothing to know is much more horrible than realizing that you do not know yourself.

As I may have elaborated on before, at times growing up in the borgo household was no picnic. My old man was one of those prototypical stubborn Germans who had a head as hard a rock and heart that seemed to be made of ice. If he went on a bender and had a snootful of J&B under his belt he’d be all the more inclined to vent his rage. This usually took the form of bellowing out to anybody within earshot from his perch at the kitchen table about the state of the world. He seemed to have everybody in his crosshairs. Gays, Jews, hippies, Democrats and minorities were his usual targets but his tirades (which could last for hours on end) could include just about anybody. The bus driver who drove him home, the waitress who served him lunch and the paperboy who delivered the news were all fair game for reasons only he understood.

My mom, probably as a result if being intimidated, learned early on that silence and subservience were the best way to deal with the tantrums. She must have lived in constant fear that one day he’d turn his attention to her and her “shortcomings” and she’d become the target of his insults and commentary.

It was like living with a time bomb only you could never hear the ticking of the clock, only the inevitable explosion.

His health started to betray him somewhere in his mid fifties and when he finally croaked from a combination of stomach ulcers, heart problems and degenerative arthritis at the age of sixty two, let’s just say that not too many tears were shed.

A small funeral was held and nobody did a eulogy or gave a testimonial. I think the people that did manage to come did so more out of respect for those of us who were still alive than to say goodbye to the “dearly” departed.

The old man was cremated and his cremains were delivered to us not in some fancy urn or decorative vase that we displayed on a mantle just above the fireplace. Nope, the old man’s next to last resting spot was to be tucked away in an old Maxwell House coffee can that was buried deep inside an armoire in my mom’s room.

I don’t believe in spooks or ghosts or anything of that nature but man, every now and then the door to the armoire would open by itself and me and my mom would exchange one of those looks that said “What the fuck was that?”. We’d laugh about it and claim he was trying to get out, to have one last snort of scotch and relay one last pearl of drunken wisdom before he went on his merry way. I think it both freaked us out a bit though.

I never told my mom this but I always figured the devil himself tried to take him in but grew tired of his shit and put him back. Even the devil has some respect for his minions.

After she died about twenty years later, she too was cremated and they were finally buried underneath a rose bush on one of my nieces property. When summer comes and it’s time for the flowers to bloom, her side always seems to have more than his. The ones of her side last longer into the summer and are vibrant in color while the ones on his side seem to shrivel up and die.

I’m not into signs or omens but maybe that’s an indicator of how they lived.

But those things, the opening of closed doors and the blooming of flowers aren’t what puts the fear in me. No, it’s knowing that one day, I might turn into a version of him. A subdued version to be sure but a version nonetheless. That one day, I’ll turn into this bitter old husk of who I am. The guy who yells at kids to go play in front of their own house, the guys that can’t stand any vestige of youth or looks at anybody different from him with fear and rage rather than understanding and compassion. The guy who hates puppies and kittens and just wants to be left alone or to shake his fist at the world and scream at the top of his lungs “Look at what you’ve done to me!”

Those are the kinds of things that keep me up worrying late into the night.

Those are the kinds of things that put the fear in me.

I don't hear from my son too often. I have an inkling of where he is most of the time or at least where his starting point is (this time around). If I am lucky, while he is on duty, it is once a month that he will call me. He uploads pictures to a photo album weekly. This is how I know he's still OK so far.

It's 140 degrees. That's what his thermometer shows. It is hot and dry. Twice he's taken photos of camel spiders. He does that to startle me. He pokes fun at me for my irrational fear of spiders. These suckers look like the sand and they are freaking HUGE! He shows them to me as if to say, "See? Look how close I am, there's nothing to be scared of." The spiders are not among his worries. He has other concerns. In some photos, there is the after cloud of an explosion rising. In another, a large plane is in the air nestled in a cloud of beige. He writes in his caption, "There's my bird coming in for a landing...in a sandstorm...I got scared."

His last round of photos let me feeling on edge. They are memorials to buddies of his. A rifle is standing upright capped by a helmet, a pair of boots at attention at the base. A formal photo is lighted in the background hanging on a large camo net. The U.S. flag is always somewhere in the picture, either hanging or folded in a tight triangle. R.I.P. is written below these photos my son has taken. The memorials to the fallen are increasing.

You see, this brings it home. He could die. He could. I try not to think about it. But come Sunday morning, he is full on in my thoughts and the worries I've held at bay all week come pressing in. My boy could die.

It has been dangled that he may be coming home for a few months break in 10 days. Home being a relative term, I should say back to the States. I am counting down those days probably as much as he is. The last time I heard from him, he was jumpy. I suppose if mortars and air sirens were constantly going off around me, I would be skittish too. I hope this is not a tease. I hope that plans won't get changed suddenly. But, I know how it has been. Until it actually occurs, this is a maybe and no more. He turns 21 on the 16th this month. Coming home may be the best birthday present Uncle Sam could give him. I hope his Uncle doesn't disappoint. I want my son home because, quite frankly, I am scared. I am merely one of the many sitting at home with breath held and fingers crossed, just waiting. Imagine what he and his remaining buddies are feeling. I want my son home.

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