The cool weather here seems to have slowed our Brood X emergence. Since my initial cicada spottings on Monday, I’ve encountered only a few of the newly hatched insects. Yesterday evening, as I took one last walk in the yard before closing up for the night, I heard a rustling nearby on the silver maple. Two brown exoskeletons were attached to the bark. Just above them, a young, pale yellowish cicada was ever so slowly testing its legs. It bore the hallmark of the recently emerged, the two oblong black spots behind the eyes that suggest sunglasses or a carnival mask. The sound I heard, though, was coming from one of the skins. A closer inspection revealed that another insect was in the process of gradually freeing itself from its exoskeleton. It appeared to be a slow and laborious endeavor. No progress was apparent while I watched.
As the other cicada inched its way up the tree, the scratching sound continued, and the brown shell convulsed.
This morning, both shells were empty, and a newly winged, pale insect was beside them. The temperature is rising. This youngster should be in good company soon.
They’ve been underfoot outdoors, all around us here in Northern Virginia, for seventeen years, leisurely sipping the sap from grass and tree roots. Most of that time, they’re in cozy tunnels eight to twelve inches below ground. About a month ago, they moved up closer to the surface, where they wait until the ground temperature feels right. I saw my first representatives of Brood X yesterday morning on my neighbor’s front steps. I spotted several more on our iron fence this afternoon. Today, there will likely be more. I know from past experience that our immediate area will soon be rich, almost beyond imagination, in cicadas.
In the next several weeks, it will become close to impossible to avoid the orange-veined brothers and sisters of Brood X. They’ll be everywhere, looking out onto this bright new world with their bulging red eyes. They’ll be moving slowly, if at all. Their large wings don’t seem to be quite big enough for their lumbering bodies, and their flight is awkward and haphazard. They apparently don’t spend enough time in a winged state to master the art of flying. I’m reminded of a new driver making a first clumsy attempt to drive a car with standard transmission.
Look down in non-grassy areas and you may see the perfectly round, dime-sized holes the cicadas leave when they emerge from their subterranean long-term leases.
You may see some cicada “chimneys,” as well. These are the domed cylindrical mud towers the insects build atop their holes as protection during wet weather.
Near dusk, you may see milky white, ghostly cicadas crawling across the ground. These are the newly emergent nymphs, with as-yet undeveloped wings.
The nymphs find a perch on which to anchor themselves as they gradually shed their exoskeletons. These copper-colored shells will soon be omnipresent on tree trunks and branches. And then they’ll start to pile up around the bases of trees.
For a while, still, we can enjoy our friends from Brood X a few at a time, when they are at their endearing best. Appreciate this early stage. It won’t last long.
As May begins, spring’s high quality production design continues unabated here in Northern Virginia. The season’s talented ensemble cast rarely misses a cue, despite unpredictable working conditions such as drastic shifts in temperature, a sudden hailstorm, and recent wild, gusty winds. The players function together beautifully, keeping the audience amused and all senses invigorated.
The Appalachian redbud by our back porch brought out a striking profusion of bright fuchsia jewel-like buds, just as we’ve come to expect.
Looking a bit like tiny pink chili peppers, the flowers glow with near iridescence in the afternoon sun.
The redbud takes an inventive approach to her adornment, sprouting small bouquets of varying sizes directly from her trunk.
The little sassafras tree in our front yard was damaged last year by a heavy branch that fell from one of the silver maples. Nevertheless, she produced the annual show of frilly pale yellow flowers. Their lemony scent is subtle yet pervasive.
The camellia tucked into a corner at my mother’s house played her part with exuberance. Her limbs were gracefully bowed down by an abundance of ruffled, boldly colored blossoms.
The taller, grander daffodils in our front-yard patch took their time in blooming, letting the miniature Tête-a-têtes set the stage and enjoy their time in the limelight. When the big girls arrived, they were elegantly dressed in their Cinderella ball gowns.
The azaleas, among the season’s dependable stars, are just past peak bloom. A coral pink variety is luminous in the early morning light.
As heart-shaped leaves replace the blooms on the redbud, the spent flowers fall onto the creeping phlox below.
Creeping phlox is known and admired for its carpet-like effect. Together, the many little flowers, popping out from wiry foliage, can create a lovely cascade over a low wall in a rock garden. But each bloom in itself is a miniature marvel. Each flower has five delicate, double-lobed petals and a center resembling a tiny star or snowflake, with a ring of double markings surrounding bright yellow stamens.
And then there are the lilacs, the signature flower and fragrance of mid-spring. I love lilacs. The petite, perfect, four-petaled blooms remind me of icing flowers my daughter and I used to squeeze out of a pastry bag to decorate cupcakes. I love the way they cluster together to form larger entities. Each lilac bush is composed of communities of small flowers working together. I’ve written before about my sentimental appreciation of lilacs. They carry me back to childhood and my grandparents’ beloved old Kentucky home. They remind me of living outside Princeton when my husband and I were newly married. They’re a token of a dear friend, long gone from this world. To me, they evoke home, happiness, and the warmth of belonging. When I realized that lilac leaves were sprouting from the long gray stems of a previously unidentified shrub in the front yard of our house twenty years ago, it was another sign that we had moved to the right place. That old lilac bush has had its ups and downs, and this is a down year. With luck and a substantial pruning, it may be revitalized, as has happened before. Two years ago, we planted another lilac in the back yard, and it has flowered beautifully. A third near our porch is a later blooming variety. A house surrounded by lilacs is truly home sweet home.
Spring’s final act will soon begin. All around, the roses are budding, preparing for their big scenes. The peonies will follow shortly. And this year, a special insect guest readies itself for an historic entrance. For the past seventeen years, Brood X cicadas have been waiting underground in the wings (and for their wings), rehearsing for the literal role of a lifetime. With each warm day, their emergence draws closer. The season’s dependable cast of unique characters will take it all in stride. The show must go on.
My dog Kiko turns fourteen this summer. His face is now mostly white, but otherwise his appearance has barely changed since he reached adulthood. He’s as lean and trim as always, and because of his small size relative to the Labs and Doodles prevalent in our neighborhood, he’s still occasionally mistaken for a puppy. But recently he’s begun to show his age. When descending the stairs, his back legs move stiffly, as though tied together with an invisible cord. On walks, he’s considerably slower, especially on the way home. Walking with our usual pack means little these days, because we’re quickly out of step and far behind. Kiko has always set his own pace, paying scant attention to the fellow canines he sees regularly. He’s a very social animal in that he wants to greet every new dog he meets (or even glimpses at a far distance) but after that initial encounter, he’s off on his own. For many years he typically led our pack, despite frequent stops for extensive sniffing, but now, more frequently than not, he dawdles and dithers. He rambles, he meanders, he doubles back, then stops absolutely, as though gripped by indecision. And once home, he spends the greater part of the day in a sound sleep.
Kiko’s hearing seems to be less keen. Has his sense of smell become more acute, to make up for the other loss? Sometimes he appears overcome by the sheer volume and variety of aromas he’s attempting to untangle. He has always preferred smells to the actual dogs or humans associated with them, but now the preference is more pronounced. I’ve heard that as long as a dog can smell, a dog enjoys life. According to this measure, Kiko is enjoying life immensely. I find this thought comforting.
Usually now, Kiko and I head out alone. We’re a pack of two, just as we were during his puppyhood, before I had a number of friends with dogs. We tend to walk early, soon after sun up. We go then because the day is at its loveliest, and because it leaves me the option of joining my friends later. If it’s socializing or exercise I want, it’s best to leave Kiko behind. Of course, he doesn’t like this. If he’s home, he wants me there, particularly after all the togetherness we’ve shared during the last pandemic year. After we return from a walk, he eyes me suspiciously, like a jealous boyfriend. I pretend to settle in at the computer, and soon he hops up into his bed. I sneak out quietly if I go.
I’ve come to appreciate walking alone with Kiko in the early mornings, though. There is little to divert my attention from the pervasive beauty around us. I’m attuned to the springtime world, which often glows in a rosy, golden light, especially when filtered through deep pink cherry blossoms and tangerine-hued maple buds. The birds are at their most active and celebratory. Kiko lingers, his nose at the base of a clump of daffodil foliage, takes a few hesitant steps, then pauses again, and again. There is no point in rushing him. I summon patience, and breathe in the sights and sounds of the sparkling new April day. If I surrender to the moment, and release the urge to speed things up, I can sense the natural world regenerating and rejoicing. I can be part of all this daily morning glory, because my odd, old dog brought me to it. Together, we’re fellow creatures basking in “God’s recreation of the new day.” The words and melody of Morning Has Broken* seem to float in the sweet-smelling air:
Morning has broken like the first morning;
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning!
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word!
Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from Heaven, Like the first dewfall on the first grass. Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden, Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.
Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning; Born of the one light Eden saw play! Praise with elation, praise every morning, God’s recreation of the new day!
*While Cat Stevens made this song famous, the words were written by Eleanor Farjeon in 1931, inspired by this verse of scripture from Lamentations 3:22-23: “The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies begin afresh each morning.” The tune is a traditional Scottish Gaelic one called “Bunessan.”
This year, Easter in Northern Virginia coincided with perfect spring weather. That’s a rare gift, one that was even more appreciated after a year of covid anxiety, sadness and death. Easter’s hope of the resurrection was made palpable in the beauty of new life in nature that surrounds us.
Bradford pear and cherry trees were in peak bloom, fluffy with clouds of white and pale pink.
The bright red camellia at my mother’s was bursting into flower.
The weekend’s festive, sunny warmth prompted me to bring our collection of big bunnies out for a top-down ride with Kiko. Our skeleton friend Slim, currently slumbering in the basement, would approve. Such a lovely day, he would say, needs to be seized and enjoyed.
Kiko could hardly contain his happiness. He did what he typically does when overcome with joy. He fell asleep.
Last Easter is a blur. I remember little more than a bare-bones version of online church and an unseasonable meal. We were avoiding the grocery, and we hadn’t yet got the knack of online food shopping. Easter dinner consisted of what we had on hand, which happened to be pot roast, instant mashed potatoes and canned vegetables. Deep in the freezer section of the fridge, under some forgotten Popsicles that had melted and refrozen a couple of times, I’d discovered a cylinder of frozen crescent roll dough. It was a relic from the Witch’s Finger pigs-in-a-blanket my daughter made for a Halloween party during her first year in high school. The use-by date was 2015. Why not bake up this five-year old dough? Let’s give it a try, I thought. Evidently, it wasn’t a health hazard. And while the rolls were rather flat, they were not actively bad. Still, I do not recommend them.
I don’t think I bothered with Easter decorations to accompany last year’s lack-luster meal. But cheered by this spring’s lovely weather and the hope that an end to our covid odyssey may be in sight, I dove into our Easter-themed goodies and colored eggs from years past. We have boxes and boxes of eggs, decorated in various ways. (I wrote about these in several posts from 2012. See here and here.) Unless they’re cracked, eggs boiled for a long time over low heat can last for ages.
For example, some of these reddish brown eggs, dyed by boiling with onion skins, are approaching the twenty-year mark.
Our daughter, finishing up her final semester at the University of Virginia, couldn’t join us. She would have appreciated my decorating efforts, and she’d have been happy that we had Easter dinner in the dining room rather than the kitchen. In her honor, I set the table for four, using my grandmother’s old Noritake china, painted in delicate Easter egg colors. Our daughter would also have found the meal, which included our typical Easter favorites, baked ham, scalloped potatoes, fresh asparagus and deviled eggs, far more satisfying than last year. When we spoke with her that evening, she was finishing a tricky engineering problem set and running low on food choices. But at least she wasn’t reduced to baking crescent rolls from 2015. And we should be able to see her before long at an actual in-person graduation ceremony in Charlottesville. 2020 has made us grateful for pleasures we once took for granted.
May spring’s annual renewal of life bring you hope and joy!
“It is finished!” And he bowed his head and released his spirit.
The Gospel of John (19: 30) records these final dying words of Jesus, spoken from the cross. A quick reading might prompt one to hear this utterance as the sad lament of defeated man. Not so fast, though. The Gospel writers Matthew (27:50) and Mark (15:37) don’t report Jesus’s last words. They tell us only that he “shouted out again” or “cried out again in a loud voice” before breathing his last. If we use all three accounts as evidence, what the Son of God likely said was a single word evoking not loss, but satisfactory completion. He spoke in Aramaic, but the original Greek of John’s gospel translates it as “tetelestai.”
This word would have been familiar in several contexts to the people of first-century Palestine. Having completed the last task of the day, a worker might tell his boss, “Tetelestai.” An artist, putting the final touch on a painting, might use the same word. A debt paid in full would be stamped “Tetelestai.” For Jews, the word would have been the Greek equivalent of a familiar Hebrew phrase announced by the High Priest each year on the Day of Atonement. After offering the proper sacrificial animals at the altar of the Holy of Holies at the Temple in Jerusalem, the priest emerged to tell the assembled crowd that God had accepted the sacrifice of the people.*
Jesus’s final cry before dying was therefore no whimper of pained surrender. Instead it was an exclamation of triumph.** The various frames of reference for “tetelestai” mentioned above are all helpful in understanding Jesus’s use of the word and what his death means for us. His earthly work is done, the masterpiece completed, the debt paid, the perfect sacrifice offered and accepted. In other words, “Mission Accomplished!”
Three of the Gospels include an often overlooked, but immensely significant detail that stands as proof of the change ushered in by Christ’s death. According to Mark 15: 38: “And the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” This was the curtain in the Temple of Jerusalem which separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. This sacred space housed the Ark of the Covenant, considered by the Jewish people to be the very throne of God. Only priests could enter the Holy place. The High Priest alone entered into that sanctified inner realm, the Holy of Holies, and then, only once a year, on that holiest of all days, The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.
Although sometimes referred to as a veil, the Temple curtain was no delicate, gauzy thing that might have ripped easily in a gusty wind. It was a heavy, brocaded cloth, woven with images of protective angels. Only an intentional act of great force could have caused the Temple curtain to be torn fully asunder. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that it was divided from top to bottom, as though from on high. Human hands had no part in this. This was God’s work.
Having destroyed the barrier to the Holy of Holies, God invites his people to approach him directly. Middlemen are no longer needed. The ultimate gift of atonement invites us to be “at one” with God. Having willingly offered his own life for our sins, Jesus and his father tell us that animal sacrifices are a thing of the past. The perfect Lamb of God has paid our debt in full. We are redeemed. Tetelestai!
This is what Jesus referred to earlier at the Last Supper, when he took the cup and told his disciples, “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. “(Matthew 26:28) We, and all generations before and after us, are among the many. It was on this same night that Jesus reduced the entirety of his message to this one essential commandment: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” (John 13: 34) See yesterday’s Maundy Thursday post.
So, what then is required of us in these days of the New Covenant? It’s simple. Accept the gift that was given to us in love by our brother and savior Jesus. Admit our shortcomings and try to do better. Focus less on ourselves and more on others. Get back to basics: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Think about that. We have a God who truly desires to walk with us. He wants to walk the road with us, to share in our sufferings as well as in our joys. And if we’re willing to walk with God day by day, in good times and in bad, loving him, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, we usher in his kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven.
The Temple curtain has been torn. No barrier remains between us and our loving, faithful God. Tetelestai!
For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 38-39)
Today is Maundy Thursday, the day in the Christian calendar that commemorates Jesus’s Last Supper. The unusual word “maundy” (not Maunday) comes from mandatum, the Latin for command, because we remember the new commandment that Jesus gave his disciples on his final night with them. I wrote this post two years ago, but it’s as relevant today as it was then. Perhaps, more so, during Year II of the covid pandemic. Why not do our part in changing our troubled world for the better by listening to, and following, Jesus’s valuable life instructions?
On the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus gathered with his disciples for one last time to share the Passover meal together. He knew that his life on earth was drawing to a close. He had tried to explain to his dearest friends that he would soon be facing death, and doing so willingly. But the disciples didn’t understand. Probably some of them were expecting to witness a magnificent earthly triumph. Judas, the betrayer, may have been counting on such a victory. None of the disciples, it seems, were expecting their friend, teacher and Messiah to die an ordinary criminal’s death on the cross.
But the group must have been fearful and confused. They were back in crowded, dangerous Jerusalem, where Jesus’s life had been threatened multiple times during clashes with the Jewish religious leaders. And so, on that fateful final night, Jesus had the full and rapt attention of his disciples. He chose his words, and his actions, with care.
According to the Gospel of John (13:1 – 17), after the meal, he did something completely unexpected: he got up from the table and began to wash the feet of his friends. In those days, traveling, for people of ordinary means, meant walking, in sandals, or even barefoot, along dusty, dirty roads, through fields and stretches of sandy wilderness. A servant typically washed the feet of guests as they entered a home. If there were no servants, guests usually washed their own feet from a basin near the door. John the Baptist refers to this practice when asked by Jewish leaders if he is the Messiah. According to John 1:27, he replies, “I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.” The disciples were clearly uncomfortable with their leader and teacher washing their dirty feet. Had foot washing been done upon entering the upper room that night? It’s uncertain. Maybe there had been no basin set up for the purpose until Jesus poured water into one, as mentioned in John 13:5. The Pharisees had criticized Jesus when they noticed that some of his disciples failed to wash their hands before eating (Mark 7: 1-5). Certainly, Jesus’s focus was not on Jewish rituals of purity. External, physical cleanliness was evidently not one of his primary concerns. He may not have been a stickler for foot-washing prior to that last gathering.
The disciple Peter’s reaction supports this (John 13: 6-11). Peter was fiery, passionate and impulsive. Like many of us, he was often a bit dense. He couldn’t stand the idea of Jesus abasing himself to wash his feet. Foot washing was the job of an underling, a slave. Peter jumped up and exclaimed, “You’ll never wash my feet!” When Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me,” Peter was all in. “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!”
Jesus went on to explain his puzzling behavior. “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. . .Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.” (13:12-15, 17).
Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that he had in mind much more than literal foot washing. Following his example is to mean humbling oneself in order to serve and help others. To further drive home his point, he continued: “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (13:34-35).
Jesus had spent three years traveling with this rag-tag group. They’d heard him teach and preach, seen him heal the sick and cast out demons. On three separate occasions, he’d even restored the dead to life. The disciples had been with him as he confronted the Jewish authorities and challenged their interpretation of the Law. Sometimes his words and actions had been difficult to comprehend. But on the night before his death, Jesus summed up the essence of his ministry in the simplest of terms: Serve others. Love others. Just as I have served and loved you, so you should love others.
Let’s take this Maundy Thursday message to heart. Let’s heed the wise counsel of our dear brother Jesus. Do our best to follow his example. Try to model his caring, compassionate behavior. We won’t always succeed. Sometimes we’ll backslide and act in ways that are selfish and petty. But let’s persevere. And change the world, little by little, through service and love.
On the day that we’ve come to think of as Palm Sunday, Jesus was hailed as a celebrity, a military and political hero-to-be. As he and his disciples entered the city of Jerusalem, cheering crowds greeted him with cries of “Hosanna,” which means “Save us.” The news was out: at long last, the King of Israel was here. He was the chosen one sent by God to restore power to the Jewish nation. He rode on a donkey to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9: See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.
It was a time of great rejoicing for the people of Israel. A new day of freedom and empowerment was dawning, thanks to the advent of the conquering Messiah. The palm branches they waved were emblems of Israeli nationalism.
In just a few days, though, the tide would turn. The admiring throngs would scatter when it became clear that Jesus was not the kind of king they had desired and expected. Even his dearest friends would desert him. He would be betrayed by one of his own, turned over to the Roman authorities and crucified. On Good Friday, it would appear that this man was no winner.
Good Friday, however, is not the end of the story.
These recent March days here in Northern Virginia have been cold, windy and sunny. It looks like spring but still feels very much like winter. This is the March I remember from Easter trips to visit my grandparents in Kentucky during my childhood. How different it was from March in Atlanta, where it usually had felt like June, humid and overly warm, off and on since February. I loved the Kentucky version. I remember the white and green speckled look of the slowly awakening grass, the clumps of daffodils dancing in the bracing chill, the fast-moving clouds against a brilliant blue sky. It felt exotic, yet it also felt like home.
And that’s why it feels so right to be here in Virginia during these frosty March days. As I sit at my desk, decades later, I look out on a landscape that evokes happy times long ago, of memories glimpsed and sensed, not fully seen. Much as when I look at my daughter and see both the little girl she once was and the young woman she has become, the co-mingling of past and present is especially tangible in the bright briskness of early springtime.
Spring in Virginia is typically slow-moving, a deliberate and measured progression. Each development can be fully appreciated in its own time. The first tiny green shoots among tangled vines stand out against winter’s dominant palette of brown and gray.
The aptly named Lenten roses have been blooming, amidst their lush green foliage, since February, impervious to the cold. With their bowed heads and subtle coloring, they’re the perfect floral expression of humility.
Crocuses, another early herald of the season, have been popping up for a couple of weeks now. Their small size and delicate appearance contrasts with their hardiness and stubborn determination. They push their way up into the light, through layers of dead leaves, and through the snow if necessary.
The first of the daffodils to bloom in our yard are always the tiniest ones. These spunky miniatures test the waters for their taller, grander sisters.
On a recent morning walk with our pack, we noticed a fresh, lemony fragrance in the air. The source was the yellow bell-like flowers of spiky mahonia, a plant I know well from Atlanta. By the time my mother relocated to Virginia, what had begun as a couple of isolated plantings in our back yard near the garage had developed into a veritable and formidable mahonia hedge. This is a shrub that requires no encouragement before seizing new territory.
Kiko enjoys these cold, sun-filled March days because they offer a wide variety of cozy choices for inside napping. This week I found him in a new spot. Until recently, the carpet beneath him had been rolled up in storage in my mother’s basement. For forty years or so, its location was the dining room of our Atlanta home. It was a favorite resting place of Popi, my childhood dog. (See here and here.) During family meals in the adjacent kitchen, Popi would lie on the rug, his head facing away from us, partly because we taught him not to beg at the table, and partly because he had too much pride to do so. Because I’ve noticed that Kiko, as he ages, tends to slip on bare hardwood floors, the carpet is now in our Virginia dining room. Seeing him lying there on that old familiar rug, I see sweet Popi, as well.
The earth turns and tilts on its axis. Spring comes. The past is alive within the present. I can feel it outside in the chill of the breeze and the warmth of the sun. See it in the radiant grass around the old silver maples. Smell it in the fragrance of mahonia. And sense it in the calming presence of my sleeping dog. Is it 1971 or 2021? Somehow, it’s both.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.