Ride a Painted Pony

Bugged Babe
“You gotta see this,” says Jim, coming in from mowing.  He is not a nature boy.  His voice is a little shaky.

I follow him out to the front yard.  He mowed the patch beneath the big tree, and, grass cover gone, exposed thousands of cicadas. These are the old brown exo-skeletons–they look like a dense field of peanut shells–shells with legs and heads and antennae.

Mark goes out that night and finds the same tree covered with live insects, crawling upward.

The cicadas inhabit the front yard.  They hang under leaves.  The live ones are shiny, black and purply with gossamer wings.  Very occasionally I see one execute a clumsy, chittering flight.  More often I see them squashed and flattened on the driveway.

Babe the stone pig has a live cicada stuck to her nose and one dry old carcass clinging to her shoulder. Empty husks speckle her gravel.

It’s an infestation, almost; it’s a visitation that seems dramatically overdone, and biblical, and portentous.

I worry that this is some sort of global climate change effect (I worry about that with lots of nature’s phenomena, these days), so I head to the Internet and find http://www.cicadamania.com.  I learn that this is the peak of a long, long cycle–that we are meeting the citizens of Brood V, who emerge, this spring, when the soil reaches 60 degrees Fahrenheit. (Colder, more northern climes in our ‘cicada zone’ still have the emergence to anticipate.)

I learn that the females of the species lay their eggs on tree limbs, in grooves; hatched, the babies eventually fall to the ground and burrow, feeding on roots, actively, in the case of OUR cicadas, for 17 years.

Seventeen years underground! And then, something calls them out. They surface as ‘nymphs’–although they are not at all the picture of mythic nymphs I hold in my mind.  They ditch their exoskeletons, leaving them for Jim to find moldering under the tree…or on the front walk, or in the carport.  Or stuck to Babe’s front quarters.

Then, once their wings and skin have flushed into health, the cicadas go looking noisily for love.

And the whole cycle begins again.

It gets me to thinking.

Because, of course, the cicada cycle, unfolding so loudly and dramatically in Year Seventeen, is not the only cycle in place.  There is the cycle of the seasons, with spring and the cicadas rolling in tandem right now, two big heavy juggernauts lumbering through time, feeding each other.  The warmth of sun-warmed soil wakens the cicadas, the growing trees lure the mamas, on their quest to find a safe spot for their eggs, up the rough and peeling bark.  These two cycles are in tune, aligned; an athlete could jump on top, put a foot on each, dance to their rolling.

At least for a while.

There are other cycles swirling, though, that slant into these, that spin perpendicular, and that jut and jag into others.  There are lifespans and the cycles of friendship and revolutions of job growth and learning. There is leadership chaos in a country and in an organization; there is war and peace and the turmoil of seeking acceptance for disenfranchised groups. In some ways we are all tumbling in a great washer, all thrust and chugged, round and round, by the same cyclical forces of nature and culture and society.

In other ways, we are like the characters in climactic scenes of action movies–trapped in the workings, say, of a great and relentless clock tower.  The wheels and the gears move into and around and in spite of each other. These are specific, unshared turnings. It requires a seasoned stunt actor to hop and dance and stay safe, to avoid being sucked into the powerful workings of one great wheel or another.

I have to be alert, I think. I snooze,–I hibernate–and I wake abruptly to the fact that Greta is now a senior dog, with a white snout and a back leg that trembles, and that she doesn’t need the same kind or amount of food I’ve been used to feeding her.

“When,” I lament, “did the young dog years slip away?”  But I was there for that unfolding.

Perhaps with my blinders on.

Mark will mention something about the prosecutor’s office, and I will smack into the fact that the law school cycle is far, far behind us: the lodestone that was our goal and beacon for such a large and long chunk of years has been reached. We passed on by.  Cycle completed; other goals rise up now on a new horizon.

One son, this year, turns forty; another puts down his thoughts of school and steps into the world of work.  Grandchildren grow and one will graduate, and, oh, the little one now has double digits in her age.  We kick the outgrown plushies down the stairs, load up, instead, on fancy polish and nail decals.  And I say, “How did this happen?  She was just a  baby yesterday!”

And the dog comes and rests her white-rimmed snout on my leg and rolls her eyes at me.  She IS a nature baby; she’s in tune with all these cycles, has seen and read their daily approaches, knows about their advances.  She may not like them, but she accepts them.

I need to do the same.

And this is the season to help me read the signs. We plunge into celebration: shiny-eyed graduations, rueful rites of passage, joyful welcoming of new babies. Nuptials. Explorations into the realities of impending retirement.  Maturing of friendships. Deepening of understanding.  A time, I think, when spirituality sheds its New Age sugar-high and becomes something else entirely.

I am tempted to look at the cicada cycle and draw comparisons, to talk about my burrowed years as if it had been necessary for me to bury my head, ignore the passage, hunker down and take care of just that one essential thing.  But I know that as a cop-out: awareness is always essential. To be mindful is to be as much alive as possible. All I can do now is stay awake and pay attention.

I do not like all the things these revolutions are bringing me.  I do not want the news about the report an oncologist carries to one dear friend, or the fact that another has reached the time of no more treatments. I grieve to learn of a shattered relationship, of two people, sundered, moving away from each other, hurting and confused. I do not want to see the cloudy film softly shading the crazy little dog’s eyes.  I do not want to accept that launching into life is going to mean falling, failing, tender young people getting hurt…and toughening.  I look at those young ones, poised and excited, waiting for just this one moment before they leap, and I want to run out with a giant trampoline, to make sure they bounce, and when the bouncing’s done, to drag them back inside to have some cookies.

To keep them safe.

But that part of the cycle is gone; the wheels have turned. Dancing here on my own, self-chosen set of gears and cogs and turning things, I can see them, those young leapers, but these old feet can’t move fast enough to go and synchronize their revolutions with mine.  I have to leave them alone.  I have to let them figure out their own crazy dance steps.


I do, however, have good company. Mark’s dancing right beside me, new knees making him ever more nimble, on a very similar round. And friends and family members share the passages.  Wheels turn and bring smiling, loving faces close for a time before spinning them out to the proper next phase, and the sharing of those moments is essential.

And there is much yet to be discovered, a whole new phase beginning.  Time, perhaps, for a new dance: I can’t let the fear of learning the steps cause my feet to falter.

Today is the first day of a four-day weekend, Memorial Day, a weekend when we remember, when we rest, when we make plans to move forward. So I gulp down the last dregs of morning coffee, and I trail through the house, de-cluttering. Jim gets up, and we plan for the day.  We’ll be meeting some wonderful life-friends for lunch. I put a load of laundry in.  I lift the last cookie bars from the tray–leftovers from cookies made for a bake sale at one place of work and a farewell luncheon at another–and I swirl hot soapy water to clean the pan.

The sun, despite dire predictions, warms the morning.  I go outside and take the push broom from its car-port nook and I sweep those crunchy brown carcasses away from the back door.  I move them off the driveway.  I clean the dead cicadas from Babe’s cement hide.

I see a prowling cat on the ground and I see a hummingbird high above, and I find fresh traces telling me some deer friends spent the night. A mallard duck couple has been calmly working the neighborhood yards this week; I’m hoping they have a taste for cicada. The purple flowers are blooming; the last creamy-white iris has shriveled and gone.

Life may be built of cycles–like a turn-table, like a merry-go-round; like interlocking gears stuttering and catching–but that means the circle turns and returns.  There’s comfort in the image; there is knowledge and sureness. And there is the next revolution to anticipate.

I wonder briefly what life will be like seventeen years from now, in the spring that the new-laid cicada eggs surface to mate and reproduce.  But who’s got time, really, for long pondering on things we can’t control?  There are things to be done, and there people to talk with; there are passages to celebrate, right here in this arc of this fine revolution.

I put the broom away and go inside to get started.


12 thoughts on “Ride a Painted Pony

  1. Wonderfully written piece, thought provoking, poignant, and at the same time encouraging…the wheel keeps turning. My mother sent me a small glass jar filled with cicada exoskeletons, or empty Exuvia as some call them, I keep it with other bits of nature’s ephemera as a sort of reminder of the changing seasons of life. Thank you for sharing your beautiful words.

    1. Empty Exuvia…I love the way that rolls around on the tongue! I think your mom must be quite a lady…and I like your idea of keeping those natural reminders on hand. I might go gather some Exuvia…

      Have a great week, my friend!


  2. “But I know that as a cop-out: awareness is always essential. To be mindful is to be as much alive as possible. All I can do now is stay awake and pay attention.”

    Exactly so. A writer whose name I cannot recall once said, during her seventy-seventh year, that it was “a time to be in earnest.” Indeed it is, and many of the elderly (and those of us who are aging watchfully) are aware of many things as we move backward in our minds and look forward it in time. May I say here, however, among friends (the only place I can say it, really, not even on my own blog) that it grieves me to see old age rob so many of the elderly of the awareness they need at the very time they need it so desperately. We do what we can for them, always, but it is still a grief to see them struggle to remember where they put a cup that morning, or fend off a shady telemarketer on the phone, or wrestle with a tight button on a shirt. All of these simple things are unbelievably hard to do when your body aches and all you really want to do is rest and dream of the girl you married sixty years ago or retreat in your mind to that time when the world really made sense. You want–very much–to be awake and aware, for the sake of your children and grandchildren, for the sake of your own soul, but you just can’t. In the end, the most profound awareness to which any of us can come is the awareness that the faculty of attention is only ours for a short time. It will slip away from us gradually of its own volition, and we must use it while we can.

    1. So well said, John–keeping that image fresh is maybe a good way to remind myself to cherish the ability to pay attention. Sadly ironic that when we finally have the time, post-career, money worries behind us, we begin, sometimes to lose the ability to embrace it. I love “a time to be in earnest.” I feel that very much now!

      1. Thank you, Pam. It was novelist P.D. James who made the “time to be in earnest” remark. I just couldn’t think of her name when I was writing. You can Google it; she wrote an autobiographical piece. Thanks also for acknowledging the irony in aging. I see it daily in my parents and finding it, too, in myself. Take care.

  3. You are such a beautiful and talented writer! I loved learning about the cicadas’ cycle, but I love even more how you connected it to us. Well done!

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