I was six the first time I felt so mesmerized by a book, I decided I had to make one of my own. I carefully cut out 20 rectangles, glued them together along an edge. And in a little book, I wrote a story about a bunny that gets lost in a playground.
Decades later, I take the rejections as a sign. If I am not good enough to make books, I will spend my life studying them.
So, I find myself in a cold room beneath the noncirculating stacks at University of Oxford, where I am undergoing exacting training for a master’s degree, surrounded by manuscripts over 500 years old, books laboriously made. It has taken the careful cleaning, scraping, drying, cutting, threading of calf hide to make a blank book object. A darker and rougher page where the calf’s hair used to be, followed by a softer, lighter page where its organs rested: the inside of the calf’s skin, the outside of the calf’s skin, the inside of the calf’s skin, the outside of the calf’s skin.
Each day I walk under a bright, blue day into the library basement only to come up into a dark, cold night. I start the day with a piece of toast and lap swimming and conclude it with peppermint tea and a novel. And all the time between, I spend writing: pages half filled with double-space Garamond of my own thoughts, the other half packed with tiny printed single-spaced footnotes that prove I have a right to my thoughts.
I move from Oxford to Berkeley and continue my studies. In the PhD program, there is another series of rigorous, focused exercises to test my mental fitness. And then comes the dissertation. Year after year after year, I navigate my way through a library labyrinth into a windowless office space I am privileged to have as a dissertating graduate student and sit in a cubicle where I smell my neighbor’s burger juice in the trash bin between us. And there, I write.
I write as I marry my best friend from campus. I carry our first baby while writing in that windowless office. We name her Mahlayli, Moon of My Night, after a rug weaver from a play set in Iran that we’d seen years ago. I assume she’ll enjoy my office, having just emerged from a small, dark space herself. But she cries when I take her there the first time, the second time, the third and fourth, until I accept that she now sets the rules. I push her in a stroller as she cries. We climb the hill up past Memorial Glade and through the wet dirt paths in the Eucalyptus Grove. And once she sleeps, I go into the library’s Main Stacks and return my overdue books and check out new ones I’ve already placed on hold. Then, I go to Caffe Strada and write for as long as she will let me.
In new monotony, I learn to abandon a schedule and squeeze in bursts of outlining or free writing or revising whenever Mahlayli takes a nap or is mesmerized by a dancing shadow on a wall.
No matter. After I write wherever and whenever I write, I subject the writing to the harsh criticism of those who have spent many more decades than I doing the same.
I grow a dissertation word by word, thought by thought, footnote by footnote.
All the while, parallel to the world above, in a dark hole, burrowed beneath the dirt of the North East of America, the cicada is eight years into training for the biggest fight of her life. In a veined shell, she squirms around in tangled tunnels. She clings to tree roots and sucks their sap, gradually building up the strength for exit, for entry.
“A good dissertation is a done dissertation,” they tell me repeatedly in conference halls, one-on-one in offices, over quick, black coffee and fast, sloppily wrapped falafels. “You’ll know when it’s time to hit send and get out. It’s usually when you run out of funding,” they tell me over the multiple risottos and sparkling waters we enjoy in celebration of my achievements: a Critical Race Studies award, the Ford Foundation Fellowship, an Outstanding Graduate Instructor Award.
Mahlayli is two-and-a-half years old the day I send my committee the full dissertation for review. In my acknowledgments, I thank her for guiding me towards new ways of thinking and working. While Mahlalyli is at daycare, I send the dissertation off and go to First Village Coffee and order myself a cortado and a chocolate croissant. I begin to work on a “practitioner’s resume.” I have decided that I will not limit myself to academic jobs that do not exist. That, in fact, I cannot. It seems as if my criteria for the future has narrowed as my world has expanded. I play with endless iterations of translating my decade of academic experience into something legible: “Executive Board Member” of a conference series becomes a line about “program management” and “Townsend Mentor in the Art of Writing” becomes “curriculum developer.” It is time to pick up Mahlayli from daycare.
The trees age every year on land, and living underneath them, she notices when the sap’s taste notes change, when the sap’s texture changes. In this way, she tracks the passing of time. For 17 years, she, part of the largest brood of cicadas, nourishes herself by the roots of the very tree she crawled down from when she hatched. But the year of her ascension has arrived. It is 2020. She will wait, one of thousands, for the dirt to warm up. At 68 degrees, she’ll use the tunnels and the paths she’s dug to begin her climb out. Many in her swarm begin to ascend in March, but she waits until early July.
Thanks so much for submitting your trial project. We enjoyed meeting with you and learning more about your background. Unfortunately, after careful review, we’ve decided not to progress further with your application.
Yet another rejection. This one for a job at the intersection of tech and higher education. The most promising job opportunity, the most confusing and heartbreaking rejection. I retreat to my friend’s home in DC. Carrying a child in one arm, another deep beneath my skin, pulling a stroller and a carry-on. My home is yours, she tells me. I will watch your child, her nanny tells me. I have spent the last four hours enticing Mahlayli with cartoons and chocolate doled out in tiny pieces to stay seated while the train moves, and I feel too defeated to resist and insist, and instead, I surrender to their care. After closing the door on my sleeping toddler, I set my finger into the tight grasp of my friend’s newborn, and then step out onto the balcony, where I hear them.
As if every leaf in my friend’s forested backyard ringing, as if every weed pushing out through the cement screaming, as if every droplet in the thick clouds above fizzling, a resounding drone swallows me. With my palms, I rub my arms and the back of my neck, trying to soften the backlash from the aural reverberations. I scan the sky but cannot see a single cicada flying. I turn my phone’s camera on and tilt my body back and record the edges of the trees against the backdrop of the sky. It seems to me that the sky is the only space vast enough to hold and release a sound so full. Behind those clouds, crowds must be gathered; the clouds, gates I am only allowed to stand before. Past them are worlds inhabitable to some, inaccessible to others.
I wonder what I have wondered all year as I’ve anticipated the rising of Brood X. There is a ferocity to their life story. Is there a drive, a thirst, a commitment more earth-shattering than that of making 17 years underground matter in the weeks above and beyond it?
It is time. She is ready.
I have come to the backyard to soothe Mahlayli who is screaming. There was only one water bottle with a dinosaur print on it in the home, and it did not belong to her. She could not accept the scarcity. As I stand watching her slip as she climbs the slide, a cicada nosedives into her and falls to the grass. On its back, all six of its feet peddle in panic. At first, I pull myself away from it, but I am conscious of Mahlayli’s gaze and readjust my reaction. I watch it, and soon realize there is an invitation in its desperation. I lower my index finger down just a hair away from its legs and when one foot catches on, the others do, too. I kneel so that my face is level with Mahlayli’s. Lifting the cicada to meet our faces, I notice immediately that it is larger and more beautiful than I ever expected. Its wings are translucent and colorful, as if covered in a thin film of oil reflecting a rainbow in the glowing sunset sky. There is an elegance to it. Its vibrant red spherical eyes, ornaments like winter barberries, against its dark mustard body. I expected the cicada to be quick and sharp, and yet it lingered there on my finger. I took its stillness as fear and found myself overcome with tenderness towards it, searching for a place to pet, a way to comfort. I wondered briefly whether my body, overflowing with pregnancy hormones, was making me overly empathetic for any creature with newborn features, big eyes and a small head. Mahlayli blows on the cicada as I do to encourage it to fly away. When it doesn’t, I move my hand up and down. I start to fling my arm out as if to throw a frisbee. It does not move. So, I set it on the grass. And as I do, I notice the cicada corpses peppered on the lawn. All this time, I’d been standing among more dead cicadas than I could count.
At night, as the babies sleep, and the sky darkens, I begin to wonder if death came to all cicadas the way it almost came to ours: just one wrong turn during flight bringing them up against someone or something, the force so strong they lose balance and flip over. If so, could all of these cicadas have been saved if someone stopped to extend a single finger, and given each of them something to hold onto? If each cicada was just given some time to reset, perhaps they could commit to a new flight?
All week while I’m here, they hammer into trees and walls and swing sets and spiral down into concrete and grass. My friend and I laugh at how unprepared they are for the real world. The more time I spend among them, the easier it becomes to save them, to lift them up and set them on their way again; the easier it becomes to pass them by as they suffer and squirm; to relax as they struggle and die around us.
Over watermelon and black tea, I tell my friend about the interviewers that asked me to do a presentation and then rejected me because they “expected a discussion and less of a presentation.” I tell her about the company that said I was too qualified for the entry-level position I’d applied for, but not qualified enough for the next position up. I tell her about my Excel sheet where I track the jobs I’ve applied to; how eager I am to secure a job that gives me maternity leave now that I no longer have fellowship money. I’ve filled 50 rows, I tell her. Fifty rejections. There is nothing legible about my decade of experience, I tell her. My friend, an academic, reassures me that I’ll find the right job.
Her eyes are the first to emerge from the earth, and she pauses to scan her surroundings before continuing. When she’s out, she begins to make her way up to the top of the tree. But she is threatened, and, before she knows it, she’s let go and wind rushes up into her wings. She flies for the first time in her life of 17 years. Another morning propels her to search for food and a mate. This time, as she lifts off, she only makes it far enough to realize how vast this world is and how little she recognizes. She cannot tell where she is supposed to go and collides with an object. She is shaking and disoriented. There is nothing she can do. She kicks her hands and feet in search of something to hold onto and finds relief when suddenly she catches onto something. She is lifted up. It is over, she thinks. She has lived long enough to die. She does nothing. Perhaps stillness will do the trick. She remains still.
We name her Soraya, the Seven Sisters constellation in Farsi. She struggles to regulate her blood sugar when she is born. All the insulin shots I took during my pregnancy, the strict protein-heavy low-carb diet I followed, the countless doctor’s appointments, and the number of times I pricked my finger to stabilize my blood sugar was not enough in the end to prepare her to regulate her own. I hold her tiny, bony, naked body against my pillowy stomach still tender from the incision. I push her bony legs in a squat position against myself as I stretch for my phone and respond to the interview request: “I am out of town for the next few days, but I can take an interview any time on the 5th,” I write back.
As I wait for the interviewers in front of a computer alone in the office, I apply a bold, red lip, and feel a strange comfort in being alone, really alone, after nine months. I do well and spend ten hours the next week completing an interview project. But I am rejected: despite my promise, there is someone with experience that is a little more relatable to the job. I update the spreadsheet. This is the last job I was waiting to hear back from. It is time to apply for another batch. But my breasts feel as if they’re being pricked with a thousand needles. And I know that Mahlayli is hungry. I rest in the glider. Soraya nurses in my arms. Mahlayli hangs off the chair. And beside me on the side table, between the breast pump and the pacifier is a stack of books I’ve ordered: Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide; Design Your Life; Finding Your Own North Star. These aren’t books that I intend to open and preside over or dissect. These are books I’m surrendering to.
She cuts into trees and sets her eggs down one-by-one-by-one. There is relief when the final one is released into the warm crevice of the tree branch. Then she rests. There is so much world around her, so much world before her. For 17 years she tasted the passing of time. So, she knows now when it is time. Just as she’d pushed her winged body out of the shell that held two decades of learning, she now pushes herself off of her eggs into a final flight. And as she does, as she embraces the ferocity that comes with complete vulnerability, she etches into her offspring their first life lesson.