At first I could not understand why everyone was so excited about the cicadas. They’re coming, they’re coming, wait for it, they’re coming — then suddenly the ground was riddled with bullet holes and the air filled with insect sirens. Out crawled the nymphs and stuck themselves to the foliage shoulder to shoulder, much the way the cockroaches used to coat the counters and floors of the otherwise charming little shacks we rented in Austin in the late 70s, only the cicadas do not run when you slam the door and turn on the lights. Instead, they wildly shrill their unceasing raucous chorus, an aural carpet-bomb of car alarms and can openers.
Are they really so much better than any other big, greasy-looking bug?
When I left Baltimore in mid-June to spend three weeks on the Delaware coast, it was finally quieting down, cicada-wise. Carcasses covered my porch and backyard; my dog and cat had ingested and then regurgitated all the red eyeballs and cellophane wings they could ever dream of.
Perhaps the thing people loved so much about the cicadas was that they came at all. After everything we have done to our poor planet and the species we share it with, after a year when every streak was broken, every cycle interrupted, beloved annual observances and holidays cancelled right and left, after a year that took the work out of clockwork and put it on unemployment, after the word pandemic became pandemic and no more dystopian than home appliances that spy on you and tell your secrets to scheming capitalists, after all that and more — the cicadas, bless their hearts, came as scheduled. More stimulating than any stimulus package, they came with a message. You haven’t ruined everything.
Show me corona, I’ll show you cicada and throw in a sunrise.
The comfort the cicadas brought with them, like every other earthly cycle, has its origin in the circling of the sun. Perhaps this is why we love sunrise and sunset so much — not only for their beauty but for their certainty and their centrality. Every other thing we care about depends on this. Every notion of endurance, of optimism, of renewal. The beginning and end with no beginning or end. Next time I have to choose a religion, I think I’ll write in Sun Worshipper. Like the robot in the lovely new Ishiguro novel, Klara and the Sun.
Again this summer I have joined other members of my cult at Dewey Beach, latitude 38.6927, longitude -75.0748, setting up camp in a strip of oceanfront condos built in 1965. When I am here, my eyes pop open at 5:15 a.m. to watch the sky lighten, the clouds pinken, the first line of gold appear on the horizon, the burning ball begin its stately tour of our portion of earth and sea. In the evening, I cross the street to watch it sink over the bay.
Nothing could be more soothing to my tattered spirit than these rituals, all the more since I had my sweet sister here with me for a week. I wish there was a time-lapse movie of the two of us at the beach, summer after summer, six decades and counting. Little girls in baggy one-pieces on the white sand at Elberon. Nancy with a front tooth missing, me with a cookie from the Cookie Man, who brought a tinful to hand out every afternoon. Teenagers cutting school to watch the sunrise on a winter day, passing a joint on the jetty at Phillips Avenue. Now, two short, sturdy gray-haired ladies with their father’s shoulders, their mother’s eyes, and plenty of wear on their tires, slowly cruising the water’s edge.
Good thing about the beach, and the sunrise, and the sister — because lately things have not been so great. I almost didn’t write this month’s column. Despite listening to the most inspirational discussion of literary craft I have ever encountered —George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain — I haven’t felt much like writing at all. Instead, I fretted about losses big and small, obsessed about a work assignment I screwed up, and made lists in my datebook titled “People Who Hate Me,” “Things That Are Lost,” “Also Feel Bad About,” and simply “Ick.” I consulted a psychic to see if it’s always going to be like this. She didn’t really say, but she did tell me I would write a five-book YA fiction series with a young female protagonist who confronts pain, loss, death, and dysmorphia. This was interesting because I have been feeling very in touch with my unhappy younger self, who also made lists like that. But a five-book series? George Saunders! Help me!
Ah well. Now that my sister and her husband have gone home, I am alone at the beach with my nine-month-old dachshund Wally, watching him discover the joys of this magical spot, with its morning and evening hours when every kind of something-doodle and bulldog and beagle and mutt lope along the shore. Today Wally became the proud bearer of a golden lifetime dog license, purchased from the sunburned, heavily cologned senior citizen who patrols the beach each morning in his City of Dewey Beach John Deere gator.
But that brings us to… a lifetime. Someone stopped me yesterday because they remembered that I was here last year with a much older dog. Oh, sweet Beau.
As much as this essay was supposed to be about cycles and renewal, there’s an undertow. Circles and cycles aside, a life is a line, with a beginning and an end. If anyone knows this it’s the cicadas, whose time above ground is so very short. Cicadas don’t get to grow old, like the kindly dog-catcher. And me.
With Wally at the very beginning of the line is my baby grandson, born in the waning days of the pandemic, already smiling and babbling and trying to grab his mobile. He will be seventeen when the cicadas return. If I am here to witness it with him, I will not wonder why everyone is so excited. I will welcome the darling creatures with the enthusiasm they deserve.