Cicada Standard Time

This week marks five months since schools closed in my district. As we prepared to open to students once more, uncertainty is the order of the day. How can schools open safely? Should my child return in person, or online? Given the constraints of personal and professional life, is that even a choice? For parents and children, perhaps the most interminable topic is that of time. If one wants to return to school, how long will in-person instruction last? Conversely, if one feels overwhelmed and unprepared for online learning, when will it end?

Various pundits have hailed 2020 as a year in which expert credibility returns. For the most part, this is a positive trend. Epidemiologists and public officials have valuable input at an organizational level, guiding our societal response to COVID-19. On a personal level, however, their utility is limited.

I am the product of the mid-Atlantic and southeastern US coasts. There’s a bit of California in there as well, but that’s a story for another day. As a child, my family moved every few years, with migrations occurring mostly in the summer. Being new carries all manner of negative connotations for most people. I won’t dispute that there are drawbacks, but I found that my perspective was subtly altered by the experience. More often than not, my attention was drawn by familiar things within a place, rather than focusing upon differences. The humble cicada was a loyal companion when adjusting to a new setting.

There are two types of cicada: periodic and annual. Periodic cicadas emerge from the ground in 17 and 13 year cycles, whereas their annual relatives follow a yearly plan. When periodic swarms emerge they put on a spectacular performance, filling the humid summer air with their enthusiastically loud song. Prior to these moments, they hang out underground, doing cicada things (which includes drinking sap from tree roots). I often wonder what it’s like to be an animal that spends the vast majority of its life within the earth.

Cicadas can be an acquired taste for many people. They’re not fuzzy, and don’t have any particularly endearing behavior. The bright red eyes of some of the periodic variety definitely don’t help their cause. Like many insects, however, their life cycles offer an opportunity to investigate our own. Each species of cicada lives within its own rhythm. They don’t question this, because they have tiny brains. Although human intelligence is often in question, we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking of our imaginary selves. That is to say, the self that exists in a past or future version, but is not living in the present.

In the frenetic pre-COVID world, people have worked to reduce waiting time as much as possible. The ascendancy of Amazon Prime is the current apex of this mission. Wait thirteen years underground? I can’t wait thirteen days for a package to arrive. We should know, of course, that the cicadas aren’t waiting. They’re busy with subterranean activities: burrowing, resting, growing. Perhaps more importantly, the cicada can’t conceive of her underground life as less meaningful than her aerial phase. Her young life isn’t simply time spent becoming an adult.

Most of us struggle with uncertainty. I’m not suggesting that we’re going to find some sort of enlightened state solely by thinking of our dear critters with crazy eyes. We can, however, be present in our lives. Change is inevitable; the cicada can’t will itself to not be an adult, no matter how much she tries. As teachers, parents, and students, what will become of us this fall? I can’t know. But I can do my best to keep singing.

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Chris Armel

Chris Armel

An analog of a middle-aged man living in Northeast Georgia. This man is married, has children, and teaches tiny people. He dances, but poorly.