My husband and I met in Savannah, Georgia and lived there for six eventful years. Every summer in Savannah — steaming wet with humidity — the cicadas descended en masse, a plague to the Coastal Empire. They hummed like maracas this familiar refrain that still reminds me of impossibly late nights, warm beer, and the lemon-sweet scent of southern magnolias. The first sign of the summer cicadas was not their song, however, but the crisp empty shells left behind from their molting. On limbs, leaves, poles, railings, their shells were everywhere — in the exact likeness of their former selves — a graveyard of brittle armor. Cheery, I know.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the cicada shell lately, specifically as it pertains to a frequent mental, physical, and spiritual state: which is to say emptiness.

I love a good metaphor, especially when it can be used to theatrically exaggerate any particular mental/physical/spiritual state.

Some of my old favorites:

  • For autoimmune woes: “I feel like I’ve been pummeled by a 14th century battering ram.”
  • Also for autoimmune woes: “I feel like an actual dead person.”
  • For insomnia issues: “My brain is like a Dungeons and Dragons dice: before one thought can conclude, another has rolled along, and then another, and another, and another.”
  • For sad days: “I feel like a fat man is sitting on my chest…we’re talking seriously obese.”
  • For when I am spiritually exposed: “I feel like a resting target in an open field.”

If my keen literary analysis is correct, God is also a big fan of metaphor. God describes himself as our rock, our father, our fortress, our deliverer, the light of the world, our great physician, our potter, our shield, our stronghold, our living water, our shepherd. God knew, in inspiring his Holy Word, that our human minds could not comprehend the wonder of his actual attributes without the basest earthly things (like, say, a rock) to compare them to.

This is pretty exactly why I tend to drop a metaphor too (God and I are so similar it’s scary); deep down, I don’t believe the poor soul who has stumbled into a conversation with me could possibly comprehend just how hard things really are. Adjectives are not enough — these burdens are not merely “tough,” but exacted by a fat man, a death, a medieval weapon, a bullseye, or a mystical 20-sided dice. If it sounds like a Game of Thrones episode, you’re tracking.

The past few months have been marked by blessing after blessing, gift after gift, adventure after adventure, a book release! — all, in some way, work. The result of this work is a weariness I haven’t really experienced since my first colicky newborn. As if a flailing nonprofit, I’m operating in an excruciating deficit. Other like analogies: I am all poured out, I am puttering on fumes, I wish I were a puppet so that strings instead of me would be responsible for the lifting of my body parts.

I’m exhausted. I’m done. I’M DONE. THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH DRAMATIC METAPHORS IN THE WORLD.

But for right now, this is the image that sticks: “I feel like a cicada shell” — in the exact likeness of my former self, only vacant, empty, a graveyard of things that used to be. In that emptiness, I retreat to exist in my mind or in my Instagram-world (where it’s all “likes” and selfies and shares and cute comments) instead of my actual-world (where there is not enough sleep, where I screw up, where relationships require too much of me, where I am my worst self).

Incidentally, God doesn’t just use metaphor to describe himself, he also uses metaphor to describe us. He says we are like children, dry bones, old wineskins, clay jars, sheep, prostitutes, lone babies wriggling in a field, corpses — none of these all that dissimilar to a shell (or the type of individual who might be figuratively sat on by a fat guy or who might prefer to solely exist on social media). A shell is empty. A shell is fragile. A shell is a remnant. A shell is not living. And yet a shell, like a pot, begs to be filled. It cannot fill itself. I cannot fill myself. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about cicadas. They live their first 2-17 years underground as young cicadas (nymphs), fully-functioning creatures instead of entombed or cocooned. They don’t sleep or rest, they tunnel and tunnel and tunnel beneath the earth. It sounds awful. When these nymphs finally emerge from the ground, the first thing they do is not party, but painstakingly shed their skin and eventually become something new — something that can sing, fly, reproduce, and live in the actual world.

I see you tiny, toiling nymph.

Look at the molted shell from the way back and it doesn’t represent death in a finite way so much as the delicate evidence of a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come! Much like an empty tomb in Jerusalem, what initially looks like deficit is actually phase one of a resurrection for the cicada. And this deficit, the molting, is starting to look like the best place to be for a poor working nymph. It’s starting to look alright for poor, striving me as well.

The better metaphor for right now might be, “I feel like a molting cicada.” In this molting, all the earthen work has left me horizontal and near death, but the risen Jesus has met me in my all-poured-out-ness. In his death, he gives me his body; in his death, he gives me his life.

The life-cycle of the cicada sounds a lot like 2 Corinthians 4:10, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

In my molting state, Jesus seems to be saying (like Vance Joy sings):

Hold on, darling
This body is yours,
This body is yours and mine

The cicada shell (like me, like a tomb) is empty and vulnerable. Yet viewed from the upper atmosphere, it is a symbol, the chief incident of new life. Like many of grace’s trappings, the deficit is more like a baptism than a death. In this cicada season, wearied, limping, I pray with my hands cupped instead of clasped, anticipating a mighty and certain flood of Living Water. I receive — I receive — I receive. I drink — I am filled up — I am being made new.

Well hold on, my darling
This mess was yours,
Now your mess is mine

Your mess is mine