THE CICADAS ARE COMING!
The last major 17 year cicada cycle I can remember happened when I was in high school. It felt like a nightmare that went on for weeks. The ceaseless shrieking of frenzied, mate-seeking insects jangled everyone’s nerves. That year, a truck jackknifed on I-66 when a cicada flew through the open window of the cab and into the truckdriver’s ear. My walk to school and back was also fraught with peril. It was impossible to take a step without crunching shells underfoot. Every tree and telephone pole was covered with empty brown cicada husks. The lightest breeze would dislodge the exoskeletons and they would waft through the air like wraiths. Their legs were like grotesquely large velcro hooks blindly reaching for my hair, forcing me to dodge and weave to avoid them. Eventually, the shells would get heaped at the curbside in such copious quantities that they looked like piles of autumn leaves. The whole experience was horrifying.
Decades have passed. I’ve learned since then that the cicada has positive connotations in many cultures. In Korea, the cicada is a symbol of nobility of spirit. The insect, who only sings when the sun is shining, is a symbol of sun-drenched Provence and appears in provençal fabric and ceramic figurines. Aesop’s fable “The Cicada and the Ant” (not “The Grasshopper and the Ant”!) has given us the image of the improvident insect who sings all summer long while the ants toil away. Because of this fable, the cicada is associated with music, gaiety, and lightheartedness. In Ancient Greece, the cicada was considered sacred to Apollo, because of its ecstatic “music.” In China, a jade cicada amulet would be placed on the tongue of a deceased person in the hope that it would ensure that person’s resurrection. It is this association with rebirth and immortality that is most often seen across cultures.
I finally learned to appreciate the cicada one summer day, five years ago. My family had gathered at my sister’s house to be with my mother, who was being treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering for her primary amyloidosis. There had been many dark days when we were afraid that our mother, the light of our lives, would never get out of bed again. We had each in our own way tried to prepare ourselves for the worst. To our great joy, my mother’s disease went into remission. On that summer day, we were all outside basking in the warmth of the sun and the unexpected blessing of being all together, when my little nephews spotted a lone cicada emerging from its shell. It felt like a rare and sacred privilege to witness this miracle: