Cicadas in the Time of Pandemic

Emergence creates the possibility of song only in community

It has been nearly two weeks since my last newsletter - the biggest gap since I moved The Cottage to Substack. There’s no particular reason for my quiet, except that I’ve been trying to listen to my heart and to the world.

The world is noisy right now. Perhaps it always is, but there are so many stories in the news that I’ve felt some level of pressure to write something “important.” Comment on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the rise of anti-Semitism, the Tulsa race massacre, the move toward limiting voting rights across America, the outbreak of gun violence, issues around the climate crisis, the continuing confusion of living in a society where too many are unable to separate conspiracy theories and outright lies from truth. Every day, I think: “I should write about that.”

The words “should” and “write” are, in a way, a dangerous combination. Yes, writers should write every day. Habit, practice, and craft always call. However, I’ve learned that not every writer - in the same way not every preacher or teacher - should address every issue on a daily basis. There are many things to write about, there are always words to send into the world. But I can’t write about all of them and have developed a kind of trust that, on any given day, the right writer writes (!) something meaningful and important to the moment.

So what is brewing? I’m mostly thinking about the pandemic. About all these months of lockdown. In the last two weeks, I’ve watched the cicadas emerge from their 17-year underground life. And I can’t help but compare their slow crawl up the neighborhood trees and their increasingly plaintive song to the hesitant surfacing of people around me after our nearly 17-months of guarded existence. There’s a cautious wonder about it all, this coming into the light after so much night.

Not all cicadas react to liberation from their previous life in quite the same way. Some fly about almost as if drunk upon their release; others seem far more tentative and deliberate; a few seem remarkably wary of this new world. They don’t know that they have been set free for a single purpose - to mate, sing, and die. Whatever fate awaits, they are above ground now and will make the best of it while they can.

I can’t really say I love comparing myself to a cicada, but I appear to be one of the wary ones. When I got the vaccine, I thought I’d want to run into the streets singing with joy like a giddy giant cicada. But in recent days, I’m struck by how anxious I feel - far more anxious than any time in the pandemic except at the very beginning. I hate the masks, yet I find myself hiding behind it still. I dislike the distance, and I hold myself at length from others. I question those around me. Is this person safe? Have they been vaccinated? What invisible threat might those bodies harbor? If I join the song, will I die?

I’d be afraid to confess my emergence fears but for one reason - I think other people might be feeling something similar. A few days ago, I found myself in an elevator with a woman a bit older than me. I said, “I’m vaccinated. No need to worry about me.” And she replied, “Oh, I am, too. But I’m never taking off this mask.” My husband works at a church that is in the process of re-gathering for worship. Oddly enough, many congregants don’t want to change the practices they’ve embraced. Apparently, mask-wearing and social distancing - as well as Zoom worship and committee meetings - were established by Paul the Apostle in the New Testament and people worry about change.

We humans aren’t like the cicadas whose emergence and actions are instinctual and cyclical. There are certain things we do because we are creaturely beings, but we are also shaped by habit. Habits are actions we repeat, practice over time, that become second nature and comfortable. Experts argue as to whether we create habits over three weeks or three months, but the science agrees that human beings can and do change behavior by embracing new habits and living into them.

The pandemic forced us into new habits. Not running to the store. Not gathering in big groups. Wearing masks. Creative celebration instead of accepted rituals. Ordering online. Sharing space in our homes for multiple workers and students. Think of all the things we did differently in the before-times. Now, think of all we’ve learned. The patterns and structures of daily life have been transformed. Several months into the pandemic, I heard Bill Gates remark in an interview that many Americans had gone through some twelve to fifteen years of technological adaptation in three months. We zoomed our way into the future, taking on a dizzying array of new habits and practices on the journey.

People talk about “return to normal” or wanting our “old lives” back. I think my recent struggle with anxiety relates to that. I’m wondering what I want back. And what habits I’d like to keep from these months. I was going to go on a trip to Arizona, partly because I felt I “should” get back on an airplane. But only days before, I cancelled it. I find myself in no rush to return, savoring instead the comfortable practices of home and garden. In the last year, I’ve learned to view the world in far more intimate ways - instead of my usual view from 35,000 feet in an airplane. I’ve discovered I like being grounded, the learned steps of walking my neighborhood, the familiar rhythms of my mundane suburb.

I felt this nearly holy homeyness a treasured sort of secret, that the on-the-run-busy-extroverted-writer-Diana found herself being quiet and introverted and liked it. Then, this week, I read an essay by Sally Quinn, who is often referred to as a legendary Washington hostess, with this testimony:

As the pandemic began, I traveled… to our farm in Southern Maryland. I went for the weekend and didn’t come back for six months. Every day I walked my labyrinth, a 50-foot circle on a slope overlooking the water. It was a profound exercise in meditation for me. It was the labyrinth that saved me and changed me - and put everything in my life in perspective.

There was not a single moment when I missed my old life in Washington. Not one. All these years I had thought of myself as an extrovert, a sociable person, someone who loved to be around people and who surrounded herself with friends at gatherings, large and small.

How was it possible that during this entire period I simply reveled in being alone so much? I didn’t want to go anywhere, see anyone, do anything… I didn’t ever want to come back… I didn’t want to be part of the Washington social scene as I had known it. Somehow it all felt superficial and unimportant and a waste of time. What I had once thought was a glamorous and exciting life, filled with power and celebrity, no longer had any appeal to me. The magic was gone.

I was glad to read these words. For no matter how different our lives, Quinn’s words described much of what I have been feeling. The “magic” of the old existence was gone. I’m not sure I can go back. I’m not sure any of us can.

* * * * * * * *

This makes me wonder: how many people sense the same? Business as usual was disrupted, old pursuits of status and success fell away, and new habits were formed.

It has been hard, yes. But, even now, I recall these recent months with gratitude for the many family meals shared, for doing the best we could to celebrate college graduation, birthdays, and Christmas. For being together to protect each other and save the lives of people we didn’t even know. For the odd victory of finding toilet paper, Lysol, vanilla, yeast, and chicken breasts at the grocery store. For the poetry and prayers we read over the dining room table. For the all the time spent with my twenty-something daughter, a rare gift of conversation and presence that is, if nothing else, not typical in contemporary America. For all the things we learned of each other’s lives. For “zoom” to not mean racing through the airport and lugging bags on board a plane, but as an invitation to sit in my cottage and talk to people on the other side of the world, sharing struggles and dreams. On a daily basis, we were surrounded by fear, loss, and death. And yet, in the midst, something was being born. About meaning, purpose, and resolve. About courage, humility, and trust.

Those of us who survived became different people, even if we’ve only barely noticed the change.

That’s what I’ve been listening for, the new voice struggling to speak. Somehow, the words I once knew seem inadequate for these particular days. The timbre of life has been altered, and I long to hear its new cadence surface. I almost feel as if I’m straining to learn a new language, one truer to the strangeness of this unfamiliar and uncertain place, this poetry of survival.

All this brings me back to the cicadas. Have you ever heard a single cicada sing? I haven’t. Since they’ve arrived, I’ve noticed that individual bugs seem completely quiet. They only sing when they can synchronize with others. After living so long in silence, their emergence creates the possibility of song only in community - and then they form a loud chorus, music completely unique to their singular resurrection.

Maybe that’s what I’m waiting for - the song that will arise from our emergence.

In the meanwhile, words seem tender, incomplete. I’m listening for the songs of others that we might synchronize, finding our voices as we are birthed again in the world. Am I alone on this journey from the depths toward the light? Or are we legion? I long for a world abuzz with a noisy chorus of empathy and connection, of courage and wholeness, of joy and hope.

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless God’s name; tell of healing salvation from day to day.


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INSPIRATION


Always in unison, they are
the rapt voice of silence,

so singleminded I cannot tell
if the sound is rich or thin,

cannot tell even if it is sound,
the high, sustained note

which gives to a summer field
involved with the sun at noon

a stillness as palpable
as smoke and mildew,

know only: when they are gone
one scrubbed autumn day

after the clean sweep
of the bright, acrid season,

what remains is a clearing of rest,
of balance and attention

but not the second skin,
hot and close, of silence.
— Lisel Mueller, “Cicadas”


Dawn, then, was a time where things changed element for element…
The cicadas sang louder and yet louder.
The sun did not rise, it overflowed.
― Ray Bradbury


The cicadas were singing and singing and singing, one-noted, one-worded, the double drummers drumming and the green whizzers hissing. The one word sounded like “please.” The whole world was falling down. 
― Karen Foxlee


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