May I have your attention, please?
Leaving church with my family the other Sunday, we encountered a group of people on the sidewalk crouched around a car's front tire. They've got a flat, I thought, or they've lost something. One of the group, a little boy, pointed at the tire and said, “It's a bug.” Just above the hubcap, a cicada was emerging from its shell.
For those who don't know, cicadas are the source of that telltale hum of summer emanating from the treetops. Sometimes it's the sound of sawing lumberjacks, other times a wave rising to high-pitched whine. But it's a sure sign of humid southern summer afternoons.
For years I've seen the empty brown husks of cicadas on tree trunks and fences. Like an empty suit of clothes, the husks are perfect replicas of the bugs with a slit in the back where the creatures exit. My brother used to pluck them off, one in each hand, and chase me screaming across the backyard. But until this day, I'd never seen a cicada in the process of leaving the husk behind.
The shell vibrated slightly and soon we could see a green head with bulging eyes. It became clear that this would take some time.
The kids plunked down, legs crossed on the sidewalk. “What should we name it?” one mom asked. “Sally? Sam?”
There was some discussion about what this thing really was. A locust? Katydid?
Another family drove past in their car. “What are you all looking at?” they called from the window. When we told them, they parked and came over.
Now the group clustered around the cicada numbered around 20. There were gray-haired folks and parents. Teenagers snapping photos of the bug on their cell phones. Elementary-aged kids crouching close to watch. And preschoolers stopping to check the progress before hopping around the sidewalk.
This went on for about half an hour. The cicada slowly drew its legs out of the shell and after wiggling them, didn't move for awhile.
More people came. Some left. The wings, neon green and folded at tight 90-degree angles, emerged next.
With the wings out, movement stalled. It was time for us to leave. But the half hour we had stayed was long enough to see the cicada pitch out of its brown shell in a slow-motion backbend elegant as any Olympic gymnast.
This experience was exhilarating, but it wasn't until later that day I realized why. The cicada was a marvel. It was fascinating to witness a metamorphosis probably unchanged in thousands of years. But the best part was the unhurried, focused interaction with other people.
This has become so rare. Last time I was leaving the post office, the woman in front of me slammed the door in my face. She didn't mean to. Hands full of mail and talking on her cell phone, she didn't even see me. People talk on cell phones at the grocery store, at Starbucks, while walking the dog and/or the baby.
But it's not just cell phones. It's the constant, multitasking busy-ness. I am terrible about yelling something over my shoulder to my kids or my husband as I walk down the hallway. Have I gained anything by shaving off the 10 seconds required to stop and give them my undivided attention?
In our culture, multitasking now is a given. We are eating and driving. Emailing and watching TV. Running and listening to our iPods. Jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. Is it time to ask what we lose by constantly dividing our attention?
Quite by coincidence later that day, we found another cicada. This one was crawling on the ground looking for a place to attach itself in order to hatch. We brought it home and put it in our butterfly cage with an assortment of sticks. This time, our family was able to watch the process from start to finish. The unveiling of head, legs, wings. The wings pumped with fluid and then dried. The color change from nearly fluorescent green to something more leaf-like. Finally, it inched to the top of the butterfly cage and whizzed off to the treetops. Watching it go was a simple moment of joy, shared as a family.
As school starts and schedules go crazy, the memory of that summer afternoon is the one I'll keep with me. And with it, attempt to make time for marvel. Time for eureka. Time for our fellow travelers on this earth, both the human and non-human varieties. Time to remember a moment of patience and community brought on by a boy's wonder and a bug.