“All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.” —Leo Tolstoy
On nights when our son drifts asleep easily, I practice yoga in the living room. I flick off the lamps, light a candle, crack the windows and flow while the last hints of pink sky wane to navy. Though this happens twice a week at best, it’s become a favorite habit.
I’d just rolled out my mat across the shadowed carpet one evening when a yellow burst drew my gaze. Flash-flash.
Mother of pearl, was that a lightning bug?
Flash-flash. I approached the window: now there were two pulsing in the night, twisted in a primal tango, tale as old as time. Soon a dozen bursts of light cha-chaed, waltzed and flirted in the warm air.
Watching them, I smiled. Finally, one sign of summer untainted by the coronavirus. I couldn’t wait to tell Jack.
Once, in the early days of COVID-19, a colleague introduced over video call an icebreaker: name something you were looking forward to that got canceled due to coronavirus. Trips, graduations, weddings, family gatherings and work events came up. I was missing a writing conference at which I’d hoped to pitch my book. Although the organizer intended this as a light-hearted activity, the effect seemed quite the opposite. (Yikes!) At least we were suffering together?
Four months later, events keep piling up: celebrations, vacations, trips to the pool and beach in our city. Everything canceled.
Our calendar’s stayed oddly clear of typical summer activities and yet in some states life’s returned to its former rhythms. Whereas during lockdown it felt as though we were “all in this together,” now, as we await a vaccine, there’s such a wide range of behavior I feel unmoored. Should we take a risk and travel or stay home and miss out? Keep our son home or send him to preschool this fall? Neither choice feels great.
Much of this summer — who am I kidding? — this year has felt like stumbling around in the dark after a power outage. I’m flicking light switches hoping they’ll still work. No luck here. Maybe here. Then — shoot, that’s going to leave a bruise! — I’m bumping around the house, searching for a flashlight. When I finally find one it only emits a faint glow. The batteries are out.
The following night, I was on bedtime duty again when I broke the news to Jack.
“Buddy, the lightning bugs are here!” I announced, helping him out of his clothes and into the bathtub.
“Mommy, what’s that?” he said, untangling his legs from his pants.
“Well, they’re bugs that glow and they only come out at night. They should be out around bedtime, I think. Here, hop in the tub and I’ll try to find a picture on my phone.”
He splashed in his bubble bath while I Googled photos and showed them to him one by one. Jack, barely glancing up from his Batman figurines, wasn’t impressed, and I had to admit they were underwhelming. So I kept searching and called up a video from a town in Tennessee known for its lightning bugs.
“Ha! Found it!” I declared, holding up my phone victoriously. Jack peered over from the tub. “Jack-bub, let’s dry you off and I’ll show you this video.”
Snuggled in his Paw Patrol towel he sat on my lap as we watched hundreds of tiny lamps illuminate the forest. Jack’s eyes grew wide and when the video was over he turned to me and said, “They have light in their bodies?”
“Yes, they do!” I said, fluffing his wet hair.
Jack has officially entered the “why?” stage of childhood, which is adorable/exhausting. I didn’t have a good explanation for this. I did *not* want to have the sex talk so soon and found myself a bit flummoxed. I stared at my phone, wishing it would deliver an acceptable answer.
“Is it because that’s the way God made them?” he suggested, tilting his head ever-so-slightly, and I chuckled, thinking of past conversations we’d had about God.
“Yeah, exactly!” I said, standing us both up. “Hey, let’s look out the window and see if they’re outside!”
We rushed to his bedroom window, scanning the neighbor’s yard for signs of light. Nope — it was still too early. Jack pushed out his bottom lip and pouted.
“Sorry buddy, it’s too soon to see them,” I said, sighing and turning to retrieve his pajamas. “We’ll catch them another time, I promise.”
On a recent call, my writing mentor told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to “lighten up a bit.”
I nodded. Yes, yes, I needed to do that. (Cue internal screaming.)
I’m not a funny person. I’ve never been one to crack a joke or step into the limelight; I’d rather laugh on the sidelines. I adore my friends with a knack for humor. Some of my favorite writers infuse their words with levity — Anne Lamott, Ross Gay and Brian Doyle. Have my words ever made someone laugh? It almost seems like a joke, which is… telling.
I knew this was good advice, advice that would make me grow, and days later I found myself turning it over in my head as I scribbled my frustrations in my journal. Look for the light, Erin, I imagined her saying.
For my book project, I’m writing through two particularly dark periods in my life because I want to make meaning out of them. These are stories I return to again and again in my writing because they’ve stayed with me, changed me. I wonder, maybe I’m revisiting them now because I need to be reminded of what’s on the other side of this metaphorical power outage.
So I wrote and wrote and wrote and while I didn’t say anything funny I did see something else show up on the page — hope.
Look for the light.
After my conversation with Jack, I did some more research on lightning bugs, which I learned from Google are the Midwestern words for fireflies.
Elsewhere they say “firefly,” but whatever they’re called, I learned that these bugs belong to the Lampyridae family of beetles, and the name derives from the Greek “lampein,” which means “to shine.”
Lightning bugs shine when they’re looking for a potential mate.
I’d like to offer more light to you, dear reader. So here, take this iced beverage and here, make yourself comfortable and here, let’s peer a little closer at the jewels of a midsummer night.
A couple days later, I was wrestling Jack into his sloth pajamas when he wriggled free and fled to his bedroom window.
“Mommy, I see a light-bug!” he said, pressing his hands and nose on the window pane.
I dashed over to join him. “Oh wow, really, buddy? Where?”
Jack bounced up and down, pointing, “There, there, there!”
Like a string of Christmas lights they blinked on and off, lazily twirling and whirling against the dusky sky. My hand flew to my heart and I released a giant exhale.
“Oh wow, honey! You finally saw some, ” I said, reaching over to squeeze his shoulder.
“They’re bee-ooutiful,” he gasped, standing at attention.
“Yes, they are.”
29 years prior, a barefoot girl in an oversized t-shirt chases lightning bugs on the thick, cool grass of her family’s front yard in suburban Chicago. Giggling, she tries to capture them with her hands but the light is ephemeral, the darkness obscures her vision and each time she lunges forward her hands come up empty. Still, she loves the chase.
Then something miraculous happens. Right before Mom calls her to go inside she finally catches one. Cupping her hands she holds the gleaming creature in a treasure box of her own creation and studies its value.
It appears the glow is hers to play with, capture and release. This was before she learned to fake lightness to please others. Before two painful seasons taught her that the bleakest night can illuminate what matters most. That darkness and light were fleeting and could coexist.
In fact, they enhanced each other.
Opening her hands the girl liberates the lightning bug and it flutters out into the night’s sky to join fellow light-bearers, all the while she admires its contrast against a backdrop of darkness. She will not forget this moment, she will carry it with her years later when she is grasping for something bright to show her the way forward.
The girl no longer needs to please others, but she does need a nudge toward a flash of light when the power’s out. She’s beginning to wonder … maybe light wasn’t something she needed to catch. Maybe it was inside her all along.
And now? She shines.