Repurposed

“Speak Up” mixed media collage. Jordan Kim, 2019.

A friend who knows of my strange love for the loud, jarring buzz of cicadas presented me with this card for my birthday. Fashioned from repurposed material, these snippets, chosen with artistic precision and care, strike deep…

Sing loud & proud

your soul
is joyful
loving and
wants to sing

positive

The world’s loudest cicada is the Brevisana brevis,
a cicada found in Africa that reaches 106.7 decibels

Earth itself has a sound, an incessant hum
caused by pounding ocean waves
measured at a frequency 10,000 times lower
than what humans can hear

Speak up
out

For now is the time of cicadas; some of them, sleeping underground for seventeen years, are due to rise.

And sing.

Yesterday, when the sun was brightest, I walked and walked the path around the graveyard of a country church, listening for the first strains.

—Silence.

No cicadas.

Seems they are late. I wonder why.

I thought about their wings, how the sectional lines running through the lower portion of these long, diaphanous structures form the letter W or P. It is said that these are omens for War or Peace.

—Folklore.

Unless Nature is a prophet.

Whatever pattern lies in the veins of their wings, or however it’s perceived, the cicada’s song is always one of life. Of survival. It is individual. It is collective. It is precious.

Most people call it cacophony, a harsh, deafening, discordant noise … not hearing the song for what it is. Not recognizing it the way cicadas do. We are not cicadas.

Yet there’s something of us, of all living things, in the sound. A song not heard with ears but with the heart, that ceaseless hum of our own brief journey from the womb to the ground. A song of earth, ocean, dust of the stars, for we are repurposed atoms of these; we carry them all, and each other, within us. Can we even hear our own song, any more than we can know our own heart, for what it really is? How can we even think we know someone else’s?

Until it becomes a collective cry of the heart.

In words

Speak up
out

in musicality

your soul
is joyful
loving and
wants to sing

even in sorrow, loss, grief, despair

even in fear, rage, hurt

especially in overcoming, healing,

rising, at long last

to greet the season of change.

Today, Two Writing Teachers shared words from Toni Morrison: This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore the pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledgeeven wisdom. Like art.

Like that of Jordan Kim, who created this cicada collage. Her mission: To inspire others to honor our connection to the natural world and to each other.

Let it be our repurposed song, fashioned from the fragments of our hearts. Let it be positive. Let the Earth ring with it.

Sing loud & proud.

Earth song of life: cicadas

My love for the sound of cicadas is a recurring motif in my writing.

It stems from childhood summers spent with my grandparents in the country, the most idyllic days of my existence.

In thinking of Earth Day, my first inclination is to write on In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

That verse, Genesis 3:19 in the King James, conjures images from At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Here’s Bill Bryson’s observations of country churchyards in England where churches seem to be sinking into the ground: Think about it. A country parish like this has an average of 250 people in it, which translates into roughly a thousand adults deaths per century, plus a few thousand more poor souls who didn’t make it to maturity. Multiply that by the number of centuries that the church has been here and you can see that what you have here is not eighty or a hundred burials but probably something more on the order of, say, twenty thousand … that’s a lot of mass, needless to say. It’s why the ground has risen three feet.

In other words … we are the earth.

Times being the pandemic they are, death surrounds us. April 22 also marks the anniversary of the sudden passing of my husband’s father at the age of fifty-four. My husband was just twelve.

But I do not wish to turn Earth Day into a death knell.

I write about cicadas today because they lie in the earth and emerge—some after seventeen years—to sing their song of life.

In the thick woods and byways of North Carolina, from May through September, it’s a deafening cacophony; but as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so there is beauty in the ear of the listener.

In honor of Earth Day, a “found poem,” of sorts, from a former blog post I wrote, entitled Cicada Rhythms:

The song of cicadas
calls to me
from long ago
from sultry summers
in the country
where narrow dirt roads
keep an ominous forest
from encroaching
on rustic homeplaces
from tiny cemeteries
where baby after baby
is buried
under white monuments
adorned with lambs
at the old church
just around the bend.
The song is of the ages
of the rising and falling
of generations
all of us coming and going
in our time
a song reverberating
from oaks, pines,
cypresses
across canals
teeming with frogs
and turtles
to white-tailed deer
standing along the fields
at dusk.
It is the bright song
of the sun
of hope
of continuity.
It is the dark song
of the night
oddly comforting—
something out in the blackness
is vibrant, alive
maybe keeping watch
while children
drift off to sleep.
It is the sound
of safety
of stability
of belonging.
Calling, calling
the crescendo mirrors
the rhythm of life
brimming with promise
echoing eternity.
When I hear it
I am a child again
no matter
how many summers
have come and gone.
Every spring as I mark
another year of existence
I listen
for the first rattle.
You’re back! my heart sings.
Ah, but we were here all along
they might say
if cicadas had words.
There’s a lot of living
and loving
yet to do.
You have today.
Carry on.

The cicada isn’t exactly a beetle, but a “true bug.”
They symbolize renewal, rebirth, transformation, change.
They can disappear for many years to return en masse.
Their buzzing call is made by the males, who begin singing soon after emergence.

Sick Ada, part II


About a month ago I shared this idea for a story about a little girl who loves cicadas and who’s having a hard time dealing with her parents’ separation. The girl’s name is Ada and she becomes seriously ill . . . hence the title, “Sick Ada,” cicada . . .

The story’s been gestating for a while as there were so many things to flesh out: How old is Ada? Why are her parents separated? Who left, Mom or Dad? Why? What’s the deal with her cicada fascination? How does she get sick? Most of all: Where should the story begin?

I considered writing this scene first: Near the end of the story, Ada goes into the hospital, sick enough that her recovery hangs in the balance. It is winter, when cicadas don’t sing, but she hears the heater rattling in her hospital room and believes it to be cicadas. She decides she doesn’t mind dying as long she can hear them . . .

But I am not starting there, and Ada will not die because my friend Kathleen interceded, pleading for the little girl’s life.

Amid much encouragement and a few thinly-veiled threats (thanks, Friends!), here’s the first draft opening scene.

*******

The darkness began to change.

Strips of light glimmered between the blinds until a thin finger of sunshine pushed through, reaching across Ada’s rumpled bed to caress her cheek.

At its warm touch, she opened her eyes.

Morning.

Oh!

Ada sat straight up in bed.

It’s my birthday! I am nine.

She felt strangely old.

Sitting there in the grayness, Ada knew two certainties. Today the cicadas would start singing. They always started singing on her birthday; Daddy said it was their song of celebration for her coming into the world. He would sing to her, too, only this time it would be over the phone. He promised to call today. Next week when school was finally out, Mama would drive Ada to the airport, put her on a plane, and Daddy would be there to meet her when the plane landed. It would be her first flight.

Ada wondered if cicadas sang on the other side of the country.

The other certainty was that she wouldn’t get her biggest birthday wish of all, that Daddy would come home to stay.

*******

So, Friends, that’s how Ada’s story begins for now, rough as it is.

For the record: The cicada is an ancient symbol of change or transformation and the name “Ada” just so happens to mean “noble.”

Photo: Girl with cicada bug. Jose HernandezCC BY-SA

Sick Ada

I don’t know where it came from, this idea for a story about a little girl who likes cicadas.

Except that I was a little girl who liked cicadas. I am a grown-up who loves them; I’ve written about this many times.

Anyway . . .

In my idea (that fell into my head when I was actually thinking of other things), a little girl is having a hard time adjusting to her parents’ separation. It’s connected to a change in seasons when she can’t hear cicadas anymore. Perhaps she will find some shed cicada shells and ponder the emptiness where a living thing used to be. Or how one outgrows things. Maybe she’ll even think that her parents have outgrown their love for her. I am not sure yet of all the meanings and connections; I will have to write and let the story grow and breathe on its own.

I do know, however, that the little girl becomes ill. Is it terminal? Not sure yet. She goes to the hospital. It’s winter. As she’s falling asleep, the heater in her room sounds like cicadas rattling high in the summer trees. It’s a happy sound, this buzzing. She will wonder if dying is not so bad, really, if she can just keep hearing cicadas . . . and then she hears voices. Her mother and father are there with her in the room, together if only for a little while, united in their concern for their sick daughter.

Whose name is Ada.

Sick Ada . . . cicada . . .

That’s as far as I’ve gotten, just grasping at these gossamer images, the barest wings of an idea.

But I think it might like to become a real story.

That belongs to children, for they live at the mercy of adults and the world.

And, of course, to cicadas, which are always buzzing somewhere, and which represent many things, mostly good.

Seems I almost owe it to little sick Ada, waiting there in the wings.

Photo: Girl with cicada bug. Jose Hernandez. CC BY-SA

On cicada wings

Cicada wing. Kristine Paulus. CC BY

A hymn, of sorts, on hearing one of my favorite sounds for the last time this year—it echoes from idyllic childhood summers and the country roads of my ancestral homeplace. A strangely sacred sound, it always lifts my spirits and aches in my soul at the same time.

High in the oaks

against the bluest of skies

the rattling swells

as its season dies.

An oxymoron

this buzzing call

from amid the leaves

soon to fall.

This song of my childhood

lingering still

in the last of the light

before the chill.

Full force, the cicada sings

—doesn’t it know?—

summer’s gone on the wings

of a song long ago.

***

Six-word memoir

Words pour in

“What do you love best? How can you use the things you love to represent you, to describe who you are, in just six words?”

I pause to let the fifth graders think.

“One thing that I love,” I continue, “is the sound of cicadas. Have you heard that sound?”

Hands shoot up. I nod to a girl who replies: “Those bugs that buzz really loud.”

“Yes. Every spring I look forward to hearing the cicadas again – they will buzz all summer long. They remind me of summers spent with my grandparents. The sound was deafening in the thick woods around their home. Hearing cicadas now makes me feel happy and safe, no matter what else is going on. It’s one of the things I love best. So I might try to write my six-word memoir about the sound of cicadas.”

With pencil on paper, using the document camera, I write:

Nature sings to me. I listen.

I see heads nodding.

“I might keep working these six words to see if I can make them represent me better. I might decide to work on another idea. Today you will make a list of things that you love – maybe things you love to do, or favorite objects, or even dreams you have of things you want to do or be – and think about how each thing represents you. Then we will work on capturing and hammering out those descriptions in just six words.”

Off they go around the room, to brainstorm.

I brainstorm, too. What else can I write? What’s another example I can give them?

Well, as far back as I can remember, I loved reading and writing – it’s who I am. It’s what I do. It’s why I’m in this very room this very minute, teaching it.

I think about it all night, and am ready for the next lesson.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, yesterday we brainstormed ideas for writing our six-word memoirs. We thought of things we love and how they might represent us. I thought of something else to represent me. Let me ask you: What do you think represents me? Think about what I do and what you know about me.”

A boy waves his hand: “I know! Harry Potter!”

The class giggles and a few say, “Yessss!”

I laugh. “Excellent. But think bigger than Harry Potter, if possible! Think about who I am and what I do.”

A quiet girl’s hand sneaks up. “You teach reading and writing.”

“There you go. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. I think this idea might be a great choice for a six-word memoir. It really describes who I am. I have to think now about how to capture this idea in six words.”

With pencil, paper, and the document camera, I write:

I read, I write, I am.

Heads nod – and an image materializes in my mind just then.

A pitcher, a glass, water pouring . . . .

“I just got an idea of how to make this better!”

I write:

Words pour in. Words pour out.

The children study these words.

“What do you think this means, ladies and gentlemen?”

A boy says, “First you wrote I read, I write, I am and you said you could make it better so I think you mean that if words pour in, you’re reading, and if words pour out, you’re writing.”

Across the room, faces light up.

I smile. “Well done. For a few minutes, share your ideas with your partner and talk about possible ways to begin writing your six-word memoir. Then we’ll all write.”

I listen as the ideas flow in and out, with a hum as vibrant as that of cicadas.

(If you’re interested in reading an earlier Slice on the sound of cicadas: Cicada rhythm)

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Cicada rhythm

cicada-on-post

Image: Cicada on a post. Jo Naylor CC BY 

Summer is dying now, taking with it one of the things I love best: The song of cicadas.

If you’ve ever heard cicadas in full throttle, you might not agree with “song” as a fitting description of their cacophonous buzzing. It’s not pretty. The noise can be deafening.

Yet when I hear that first discordant rattle sometime in May, my spirit rises, my own heart sings in response.

The song of cicadas calls to me from long ago, when I was a little city girl spending sultry summers in the country. The song evokes narrow dirt roads keeping an ominous forest from encroaching on rustic homeplaces, tiny cemeteries where baby after baby is buried under white monuments adorned with lambs, and the old church just around the bend. The song is one of ages, the rising and falling of generations, all of us coming and going in our time. It is a song reverberating with tire swings hanging from pecan trees, canals teeming with frogs and turtles, white-tailed deer bounding up from lush ditch banks along fields at dusk. It is the bright song of the sun, of hope, of continuity. It is the dark song of the night, oddly comforting; something out in the blackness is vibrantly alive, maybe keeping watch, while children drift off to sleep. It is the sound of safety, stability, belonging. Calling and calling, the crescendo mirrors the rhythm of life, brimming with promise, echoing eternity. When I hear it, I am a child again, no matter how many summers have come and gone. My home is in the countryside now and it is with a deeper pang each September that I note the song fading out. Every May, as I mark another year of my existence, I listen for the first returning rattle. You’re back! my heart sings. Ah, but we were here all along, they might say, if cicadas had words. There’s a lot of living and loving yet to do. You have today. Carry on.

Reflect: What’s one thing in nature that inspires you? Why?